THEY were coming up everywhere in their sheltered corner on the wall-border, between the laurustinus and the yew hedge. She had always loved to watch their manner of emerging from the wintry ground: neck first, arched and stubborn; heads bent down as if with held breath and thrusting effort; the pale, bowed, folded flower, when finally it rose, still earthy, still part, as it were, of the cold and dark from which it came; so that to find them, as on this morning, clear, white, triumphant, all open to the wind and snow, was to renew the sense of the miraculous that, more than any other flower, they always gave her. More than any other flower, they seemed to mean to come, to will and compass it by the force of their own mysterious life. More than any other flower, winter piled upon their heads, unallured by spring and the promise of sunlight, they seemed to come from the pressure of a gift to bring rather than a life to seek. She thought always, when she saw them, of Christmas bells over snowy fields, in bygone centuries; of the Star in the East, and of the manger at Bethlehem. They were as ancient as that tradition, austere and immaculate witnesses in an unresponsive world; yet they were young and new, always; always a surprise, and even to her, old as she was, bereft and sorrowful, a reminder that life was forever a thing of births, of gifts, of miracles.
They did not fail her this morning when she came out to them, and she thought, as she stopped to look at them, that one was not really old when, in the shock of sheer happiness, one knew childhood again and its wonder. Yet, as she worked among them, cutting away dead leaves and adjusting sprays of evergreen so that the rains should not splash them with mud, it was a new analogy they brought; and, for the first time, measuring her resource after the appeal Tim’s letter had made upon it, she reflected that the Christmas roses were rather like herself. She, too, in this wintry season of her life, was still determined and indomitable. Widowed and childless, with many mournings in her heart, griefs and devastations in her memory, she, too, was a force, silent and patient; and it was this that people still found in her. For the appeal always brought the answer. She had felt herself, so often, benumbed into lethargy, and, yielding to the mere mute instinct of self-preservation, had so often folded herself up and lapsed into the blank darkness of her grief (her husband’s death, so many years ago; and Miles’s, and little Hugh’s, and her dear, dear Peggy’s). But it had always been to hear herself, as if in a dream, called to from the outside world, and to feel herself, in answer, coming up again, rising, if only to snows and tempests, in a renewal of life which brought with it, always, a renewal of joy in life.
For months now, since August, she had been sunken in the last grief—it must be—that could come to her; for Miles was the last, of her own, who had remained—Peggy’s youngest boy. The oldest, already a soldier, had been killed in the first months of the war, and, after all his years of peril, it had seemed as if Miles was to escape. But, cruelly, just at the turning of the tide, when victory had become assured, he had been shot down, and in his crashing fall through the air she had felt the end of everything, Peggy dying again with him; for Peggy, too, had died like that, crashing and falling and dragged, in a horrible hunting accident. There seemed, now, nothing more left to suffer, and nothing more to live for, either, unless it were her poor Tim; and it had, exactly, been Tim’s letter that had driven her out to wrestle with the elements, after her wont in any disturbance or perplexity, so that she could think over what he told her while she wielded her trowel and fork on the convenient wall-border.
She had, on rising from the breakfast-table, sent Tim a wire: “I shall expect her. Writing later,” and had then called to Parton to bring her old warm coat, her hood with its satin lining, and her buckled galoshes.
Parton was accustomed to her mistress’s vagaries in regard to gardening, and made no comment on the enterprise except to express the hope that it would not snow again. Parton, in spite of her youth a most efficient combination of parlourmaid and lady’s-maid, was devoted to her mistress; the little pat and tweak she gave to the bow of the hood, and the gentleness with which she adjusted the galoshes, expressed a close yet almost reverential relationship.
It was not freezing, and under the light fall of snow the ground was soft. Mrs. Delafield found herself enjoying the morning freshness as she tidied and weeded, and had her usual affectionate eye for the bullfinches nipping away at her plum-buds and the tits and robins at the little table spread with scraps for them near the house; while all the time Tim’s letter weighed on her, and the problem it presented; and as she pondered on it, and on Rhoda, her niece, Tim’s only child, her firm, square, handsome, old, white face was not devoid of a certain grimness.
Mrs. Delafield was very handsome, perhaps more handsome now than she had been in youth. Her brow, with the peak of thick white hair descending upon it, her thick black eyebrows and her rather thick, projecting nose, were commanding—almost alarmingly so to those who in her presence had cause for alarm. The merely shy were swiftly reassured by something merry in her gaze and by the benevolent grace still lingering on her firm, small lips. She had square eyes clearly drawn, and with an oddity in their mountain-brook colouring, for one was brown and one was freaked with grey. Her form was ample and upright, and in all her gestures there was swiftness and decision.
It was of Tim she thought at first, rather than of Rhoda, the cause of all their distresses. But she was not seeing Tim as he now existed, bleached, after his years of India, invalided, fretted by family cares, plaintive and pitiful. She saw him as a very little boy in their distant Northern nursery of sixty years ago, with bright curls, ruddy cheeks, and the blue eyes, candid and trusting, that he still kept; standing there, bare-armed and bare-legged, in his stiff, funny little dress of plaid, before the fire-guard, while nurse, irate, benevolent figure, cut bread and butter for breakfast. Dear little Tim! still her younger brother; still turning to her, as he had always done, for counsel or succour in any stress or anxiety. It was nothing new that the anxiety should be about Rhoda; there was nothing, even, that had surprised her in Tim’s letter; yet she knew from the sense of urgency and even breathlessness within her that the blow which had been dealt him could not leave her unaffected. She could, after all, still suffer in Tim’s suffering. And even before she had let her thoughts dwell decisively on Rhoda, she had found herself thinking, while the grimness settled on her face, “I shall know how to talk to her.”
She had always known how to talk to the moody young beauty; that was why Tim had sent off this letter of desperate appeal. She never quite saw why Rhoda had not, from the first, felt in her merely an echo of her father’s commonplace conventionality and discounted her as that. Rhoda had never, she felt sure, guessed how far from conventional she was; how much at heart, in spite of a life that had never left appointed paths, she knew herself to be a rebel and a sceptic; no one had ever guessed it. But there had always been between her and Rhoda an intuitive understanding; and that Rhoda from the first had listened and, from the first, had sometimes yielded, proved that she was intelligent.
Mrs. Delafield saw herself so accurately as Rhoda must see her. The terse, old-fashioned aunt in the country residence—yes, dear Fernleigh, square and mid-Victorian, with its name, and its creepers, its conservatory, and its shrubberies, was so eminently a residence; and she had never wanted to alter it into anything else, for it was so that she had found it when, on her mother-in-law’s death, she and the young husband of so many years ago had first gone there to live. Rhoda must see her, her hair so smooth under its cap of snowy net, her black gowns—stuff for morning wear, silk for evening—so invariable, with the frills at neck and wrists, thick gold chains and the dim old brooches that went with them, as belonging almost to an epoch of albums on centre-tables, of Mendelssohn’s sacred songs, and archery tournaments; an epoch of morning family-prayers and moral categories, where some people still believed in hell and everybody believed in sin. She didn’t think that Rhoda had ever seen through all these alienating appearances to the reality she herself knew to be so different; but it had always been evident that she felt it through them; that she was at ease with her aunt, candid, even if angry, and willing, even when most silent and recalcitrant, to come down to Fernleigh, when her distracted parents could deal with her no longer, and to “think things over,” as they put it to her, imploringly.
Mrs. Delafield could see Rhoda thinking things over from a very early age, from the earliest age at which recalcitrancy could count as practically alarming. She could see her walking slowly past this very border at the time that she had determined to go on the stage,—she had only just left the hands of her devastated governesses,—pausing now and then to examine unseeingly a plant, her hands clasped behind her, her dark, gloomy, lovely, young head brooding on the sense of wrong, and, even more, no doubt, on plots and stratagems. Her aunt had always watched her, while seeming, in the most comfortable manner possible, to give her no attention; noting everything about her,—and everything counted against poor Tim’s and Frances’s peace of mind,—from the slender, silken ankles to the tall column of the proud young throat; all of it, every bit of Rhoda, so determined by an insatiable vanity, which was the worst of her, and by a sardonic pride, which was the best.
Rhoda, to do her further justice, was even more wonderful in the eyes of her admirers than in her own. Her consciousness was not occupied so much with her own significance as with all the things due to it; and it was upon these things, and the methods of obtaining them, that she brooded as she walked. “Naughty girl,” had been her aunt’s unexpressed comment; and perhaps one reason why Rhoda had found it comfortable, or, at least, composing, to be with her, was that it was a relief to be seen as a naughty girl rather than as a terrifying portent.
Mrs. Delafield had determined at once that Rhoda should not go on the stage, though not, really, because Tim and Frances had begged her to dissuade the child. She could perfectly imagine having wished to go on the stage herself in her young days; and it was this consciousness, perhaps, that made her so fair to Rhoda’s desire. She had taken her stand on no conventional objection; she had not even argued with Rhoda; she had simply been able to make her feel, bit by bit, that she hadn’t one little atom of talent.
It had been the same thing, really, when Rhoda had announced her intention of marrying a dreadful young man, a bad young man,—Mrs. Delafield knew where to apply her categories,—who had a large studio where he gave teas and painted small, disagreeable pictures. They were clever pictures; Mrs. Delafield was aware of this, though Tim and Frances saw them only as disagreeable; and the young man, if bad, was clever. Mrs. Delafield had travelled up to town several times in this emergency, and had even accompanied Rhoda to the studio, where a young lady with bare legs and feet was dancing, with more concentration than spontaneity, before a cigaretted audience. Oddly enough, after this visit, it had been much easier to make Rhoda give up Mr. Austin Dell than it had been to make her give up the stage. Mrs. Delafield had merely talked him over, very mildly, him and his friends, asking here and there a kindly question about one or a slightly perplexed question about another. It had been Rhoda herself who had expressed awareness of the second-rate flavour that had brooded so heavily over dancer and audience, not leaving Mr. Dell himself untouched. On the point of Mr. Dell’s income Mrs. Delafield soon felt that Rhoda knew misgivings—misgivings as to her own fitness to be a needy artist’s wife. She made no overt recantation, but over her tea, presently, agreed with her aunt that it was a pity to dance with bare feet unless the feet were flawlessly well-shaped. “She is such a little fool, that Miss Matthews!” Rhoda had remarked. And after this there was no more talk of Mr. Dell.
Categories: English Literature