English Literature

A Woman’s Burden by Fergus Hume

A Woman's Burden by Fergus Hume.jpg

CHAPTER I.

MRS. DACRE DARROW.

Mrs. Dacre Darrow was a much misunderstood woman—at least she said so frequently. Her husband, dead now some five years, had never been able to comprehend her sentimental nature; her uncle, Richard Barton, hard old cynic that he was, did not appreciate her tender heart; and the world at large could not, or would not, understand her. And so Mrs. Darrow posed as a martyr in her day and generation. The late Mr. Dacre Darrow had been a barrister and a failure. He had left her with no income and one child to rear. In this dilemma she had sought the Manor House at Lesser Thorpe, and had proposed to keep house for her Uncle Barton in return for her maintenance. Uncle Barton considered her proposition, and ended by installing both mother and son with three hundred a year in a small and quaint cottage on the outskirts of the park. This was too much altogether for Mrs. Darrow. Could a woman bear such brutal treatment silently? She thought not; nor, in fact, did she. On the contrary she abused Uncle Barton daily and hourly. When not thus occupied, she was as a rule busy in endeavouring to get money out of him, though this latter was, as she expressed it, heartbreaking work. It was rarely possible to extract from him anything beyond her stated income. Small wonder, then, that Mrs. Darrow regarded Uncle Barton as a brute and herself as a martyr.

“Just think, dear,” she wailed to her friend, Hilda Marsh, “he has five thousand a year and that large empty house, yet he lets me live in this pokey cottage. Three hundred a year! It is hardly enough to buy one’s clothes.”

Hilda, occupying her favourite position before a mirror, made no reply. As the daughter of a poor doctor, and one of a large family, she considered Mrs. Darrow very well off. She could not sympathise with her in her constant grumbling. But she was wise in her generation, was Hilda, and did not argue with the widow, firstly because Mrs. Darrow never argued fairly, but dogmatised and invariably lost her temper; and secondly, because Hilda had more to lose than to gain from quarrelling with her. She was a pretty, vain, selfish girl, and calculating to boot. Mrs. Darrow’s social influence in the parish was useful to her, so she trimmed her sails accordingly. At the present moment she was in the little drawing-room for afternoon tea. She patted a rebellious little curl into shape as in some sort of excuse for not replying to Mrs. Darrow’s latest complaint against Uncle Barton. The widow continued to protest against the way in which she was being treated; and Hilda continued, so far as was possible, to avoid contention, to admire her own pretty face in the glass, until tea was brought in. Then, and then only, did Mrs. Darrow, ever fond of her comforts and blest with the best of good appetites, brisk up. But true to her indolent disposition, she asked Hilda to make the tea.

“You do it so well, dear,” she said coaxingly; “I taught you, didn’t I?”

“Yes, Julia, of course you taught me, that is why I can make it to your satisfaction,” said Hilda, sitting down to the bamboo table.

She called Mrs. Darrow Julia at the widow’s express request, for—in Mrs. Darrow’s opinion—such familiarity tended to diminish the difference in their ages. How she arrived at this conclusion was known only to Mrs. Darrow, who never condescended to explain her reasons for either speech or action. It was so, because it was so, and there was an end of it. And invariably the adoption of so uncompromising an attitude was successful. By its means she managed to emerge triumphant from her fiercest altercations. By alternately shifting her ground and refusing to give any reasons, she always reduced her opponent to a moral pulp. In effect, her tactics were undeniable.

Hilda’s attractions were of that order which suited her present occupation. She looked well at a tea-table. She wore white, touched here and there with the palest of blue, and her hands moved ever so deftly among the egg-shell china cups and saucers, with their sprawling dragons of green and red. She was essentially the Dresden china type herself. A dainty figure, a transparent complexion, dark blue eyes, and hair the colour of ripe corn: such were the outward and visible attributes of Hilda Marsh. She looked like an angel, and was frequently taken for one—more especially by men. Her beauty was that of a peach, and, like a peach, she possessed a very hard kernel. Not even Mr. Barton had a more obdurate heart. However, she succeeded in hiding this from all save her own family, and they, being anxious for Hilda to make a good match, were so kind as to remain silent on the subject. Moreover, Hilda—her angelic qualities being reserved wholly for the public, and not at all discernible by the domestic hearth—was, in the eyes of her family, a personage to be got rid of. That seemed clear, since she was a great grief at home. Hers was a case in which the face is most certainly not a correct index to the mind.

“Ah!” sighed Mrs. Darrow, soothed somewhat now with a strong cup of tea and a particularly indigestible muffin, “if I wasn’t the best-tempered woman in the world how I should complain of my hard lot!”

“What is the matter now, Julia?”

“Matter! oh, nothing worse than usual. Only that Uncle Barton has engaged a governess for Dicky, and I have had no choice in the matter. Oh, it’s nothing.” Mrs. Darrow stirred her tea violently. “Of course, I’m a mere cipher in my own house.”

“Mr. Barton pays for the governess,” suggested Hilda.

“And why shouldn’t he? It’s his duty to educate Dicky, and give the poor boy a chance in the world. My life is over, Hilda, and I live only for my boy.”

This was one of Mrs. Darrow’s stock pieces of sentiment, and she produced it with surprisingly dramatic effect on every occasion. It sounded well, and cost nothing, for she never troubled about Dicky, save when he was necessary to a tableau on public days, and her reputation of being a devoted mother was to be enhanced thereby. Although her husband had been dead five years, she still mourned him in black silk, amply trimmed with crape, and was careful to use nothing but the most aggressively black-edged paper. Even her handkerchiefs mourned in a deep border, and her cap of delicate white cambric called loudly on the world to witness what a model widow she was. In addition to these mute evidences of eternal sorrow, Mrs. Darrow gave tongue to her woes vigorously. She really did not know, she said, how she bore it. Indeed, if it were not for her dear child she would wish to die. No woman had ever suffered what she had suffered—and much more to the same effect, all of which was very genteel and laudable, and meant to be correctly indicative of her noble state of mind.

“Uncle Barton is coming to tell me about the new governess, Hilda; I expect him every minute.”

Hilda rose quickly.

“In that case, dear, I had better go. Mr. Barton has no love for me.”

“He has no love for anyone. I never knew so selfish and stingy a creature. Don’t go. I want you to stay and talk to me. Perhaps Gerald may come too.”

“Mr. Arkel’s coming is nothing to me,” replied Hilda, tossing her pretty head.

“Really! I thought you liked him!”

“So I do; but then you see I like many people—Major Dundas for instance.”

“John!” Mrs. Darrow became reflective. “Oh, yes; John is very nice, but not nearly so good looking as Gerald. Besides, Gerald is Uncle Barton’s heir!”

“That may or may not be; we don’t know. But this I do know,” said Hilda pettishly, “that should either of Uncle Barton’s nephews become engaged to me, that one will not be the heir.”

“I don’t see why not?”

“Mr. Barton doesn’t like me, that’s why. Perhaps he’ll even go the length of marrying the new governess to Major Dundas or Mr. Arkel to spite me.” Then, after a pause, “What kind of woman is she?”

Mrs. Darrow threw out her hands with a wail.

“My dear, how should I know? I am quite in the dark. I have been told absolutely nothing about the woman. But if she is not a thoroughly satisfactory person, I’ll have her out of this very soon, I can tell you. I’m not going to be imposed upon in my own house by any spy.”

“What is her name?”

“Miriam Crane. It sounds Jewish. I hate Jews.”

“Is she pretty?”

“He doesn’t say. But knowing how Uncle Barton hates our sex, I quite expect he has chosen some raw-boned, prim, board-school monster, just to spite me. I am sure she’s horrid. Her name sounds horrid.”

“Then she shan’t teach me!”

The interruption came from behind the window curtain, and Hilda laughed gaily.

“Hiding in there, Dicky? Come and have a piece of cake.”

“You horrid child,” cried his mother, as the pale-faced Dicky emerged from his retreat. “What a turn you gave me! Why can’t you sit on a chair like a Christian instead of poking in window corners? What have you been doing?”

“Reading ‘Robinson Crusoe.'”

“You should be at your lessons; really, I never knew so idle a child. You’re breaking my heart with your horrid ways, you know you are! I’m sure I’m the most afflicted woman in the world. If I didn’t bear up I don’t know what would become of you!”

Dicky, well used to his mother’s wailing, took no notice whatever, but under the wing of Hilda devoted himself to the demolition of cake to a most alarming extent. He was a delicate, nervous child, wan and peevish; far too tall and old-fashioned for his age. Under judicious management as to diet, work, play, and exercise, he would have developed into a charming little fellow; but Mrs. Darrow, with her ill-disciplined mind, was the worst possible parent to be charged with the up-bringing of such a child. She overwhelmed him with caresses one moment, declaring that he was her all, boxed his ears the next, and lamented that she was burdened with him; so that Dicky came as near hating his mother as a child of ten well could, and Mrs. Darrow, instinctively feeling this, bewailed his lack of affection and sought to scold him into loving her. If ever Uncle Barton did a wise thing in his life, it was when he engaged a governess for the neglected boy, though of course everything depended upon the personality of the governess. So far Mrs. Darrow was in the dark, and out of sheer contradiction to Uncle Barton was prepared to make herself highly unpleasant to the new-comer, and nobody could be more disagreeable than Mrs. Dacre Darrow, as the parish of Lesser Thorpe knew to its cost. She was a past-mistress in the arts of scandal-mongering, nagging, and back-biting. The strength for a right-down hatred was not in her.

“If my new governess isn’t pretty, like Hilda, I don’t want her,” said Dicky, when his mother had wailed herself into a state of momentary passiveness. “I don’t like ugly people.”

“Would you like me to teach you, Dicky?” laughed Hilda.

“Oh, yes; we could read ‘Robinson Crusoe’ together!”

“I’m afraid that’s not a lesson book, Dicky.”

But Dicky insisted that Defoe was better than any lesson book.

“Lesson books make my head ache,” he said; “and I learn a lot of hard words in ‘Robinson Crusoe’ without thinking. Why can’t lesson books be nice like that?”

“You little imp,” burst out his mother furiously; “the idea of talking about what you like. You’ll be taught by a black woman if I choose; and I’ll burn all those rubbishy story-books.”

Thus did Mrs. Darrow, who had read nothing but society journals and fashion magazines, blend discipline with criticism.

“I never saw such a child,” she wailed; “he’s not a bit like me. Oh, Dicky, Dicky, why haven’t you your mother’s sweet disposition and sweet temper?”

Before Dicky could reply to this truly overwhelming question, to which but one answer was expected, a dried-up little man appeared at the French window opening on to the lawn, and stepped into the room. Hilda half rose to fly from her arch enemy, but being caught, decided it would be undignified to retreat. So she resumed her seat and talked in low tones to Dicky. Mrs. Darrow still lay on her sofa, and welcomed the stranger in the faintest of low tones, meant to be expressive of great weakness.

“How are you, Uncle Barton,” she said. “I can hardly speak, I am so ill.”

“I know, I know,” rasped out the cynic grimly. “I heard you talking to Dicky, no wonder you can’t chatter now.”

“I must do my duty to my child,” cried Mrs. Darrow with more energy, “even though my health suffers.”

Mr. Barton surveyed the plump recumbent figure with grim humour.

“You feel your parental duties too much, Julia, they will wear you out. How do you do, Miss Marsh? I see you and Julia have been spoiling your digestions with strong tea. Muffins too! Oh, Lord, think of your complexions!”

Hilda laughed, and glanced into a near mirror. Her complexion was her strong point, and she had no fear of its being criticised even by disagreeable Mr. Barton.

“I’m afraid my appetite is stronger than my vanity,” she said.

“Then you must have the appetite of an ostrich,” growled Barton, sitting down near his niece; “but Julia, poor dear, eats nothing.”

“That I don’t,” murmured Mrs. Darrow. “I peck like a bird.”

“What kind of a bird—a canary, or an albatross?”

“Uncle Barton!” cried the outraged Julia in capital letters.

“There, there, it’s all right. Anyone can see you eat nothing. You are all skin and bone. Dicky, come here, sir. Your new governess will be here in ten minutes.”

“In ten minutes!” screeched Mrs. Darrow, bounding from the sofa with more energy than might have been expected. “She can’t—she mustn’t. I’m not ready to receive her. Oh, Uncle Barton!”—the irrepressible feminine curiosity would out—”what is she like?”

“Very ugly, small, dark-haired, dark-skinned.”

“I knew it. I knew you would choose an ugly woman!”

Barton chuckled.

“Only as a foil to yourself, my dear. Now then, Dicky, what is the matter?”

“I don’t like an ugly governess,” whimpered Dicky. “Can’t Hilda teach me?”

“I don’t know about that, Dick. If beauty is the essential factor in your teacher, then certainly Miss Marsh is more than qualified. What do you say, Miss Marsh? Will you undertake this young gentleman’s education?”

Hilda shook her head, and laughed herself into a pretty state of confusion. It certainly became her.

“I’m not clever enough,” said she, wincing under Barton’s regard.

“H’m. That’s a pity, otherwise you might have had this fifty pounds a year.”

“What?” screamed Mrs. Darrow, “do you intend to give this creature fifty pounds?”

“Why not? She’s worth it.”

“Who is she?”

“Dicky’s governess—Miss Crane.”

“But who is she?—where does she come from?”

“London. You had better make further inquiries of her in person, for there’s the fly driving up to the gate.”

Dignity, or rather her exhibition of it, prevented Mrs. Darrow rushing to the window. She seated herself like a queen on the sofa, and spread out her sable skirts, so as to receive the ugly governess with the true keep-your-distance hospitality of the British matron. At the same time she remonstrated with Uncle Barton for his rash and unnecessary generosity.

“If you gave her twenty pounds a year it would be more than enough,” she said snappishly. “I could do well with the other thirty.”

“No doubt. But you don’t teach Dicky, you see.”

“I’m his mother.”

“So I believe. But you don’t want me to pay you for that, I suppose? Well, here is my Gorgon.”

Hilda remained to see the new governess. Like Mrs. Darrow, she was devoured by curiosity; centred on this occasion solely upon the new-comer’s physical attractions—or lack of them. It was quite possible of course that this creature might be better looking than Mr. Barton’s eyes could judge. With Mrs. Darrow she continually glanced towards the door, and Barton chuckled. As his chuckle was invariably a prelude to something disagreeable, even Mrs. Darrow felt uneasy at the sound.

Outside, in the narrow passage, could be heard voices, and the bumping of heavy luggage being got in. Then the door opened, and the little maid-servant announced, “Miss Crane.” Immediately afterwards the new governess entered the room.

“Why, she’s pretty!” cried Dicky in surprise.

Barton led Miriam to the throne whereon, bitterly disappointed, Mrs. Darrow sat in state.

“Julia, this is Miss Miriam Crane. Miss Crane, my niece, Mrs. Dacre Darrow.”

The widow gave her hand and murmured some commonplace; but from that moment she hated Miriam with all the fervour her petty nature was capable of. Barton looked at the three women taking stock of each other, and chuckled again.

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