Spinster of This Parish - W.B. Maxwell - ebook

Spinster of This Parish ebook

W.B. Maxwell



The romance story of a hearty well-known explorer, who finally, at the age of 62 crosses the Antarctic and the spinster who accompanies him on his journey to the Andes in 1895. Here we have a young Victorian woman’s unconventional romance with a man, who was already married, had various adventures, was disowned by her family, etc. So, what happened in between? Did their romance end when he left for his next expedition? Will his crazy wife ever die so that they can get married? Find all answers in „Spinster of This Parish” (1922) novel from a British novelist William Babington Maxwel. Born on June 4, 1866, he was the third surviving child and second eldest son of novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

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IT had been an odd impulse that made little Mildred Parker seek counsel and advice, or at least sympathy, from Miss Verinder in the first great crisis of her young life. The imperious necessity of opening her heart to somebody had of course lain behind the impulse, and Miss Verinder, although really only an acquaintance of Mildred’s parents, had been unusually kind and friendly to Mildred herself; but now, sitting in the drawing-room of Miss Verinder’s flat, listening to Miss Verinder’s pleasant emotionless voice, watching Miss Verinder with methodic care put away small odds and ends in an antique bureau, she felt the huge incongruity that there would be in speaking of love to an old maid of fifty.

“I won’t be a minute,” said Miss Verinder.

“I am not in the least hurry,” said Mildred quite untruthfully.

Waiting and watching, she thought that fifty years of age is nothing nowadays–if you are not an old maid, and if you decorate yourself properly. Some women of fifty are still dangerously attractive–they act leading parts on the stage, they appear in divorce cases, they marry their third husbands. But when once you have allowed old maidishness to take possession of you!

“A place for everything and everything in its place,” said Miss Verinder, closing a drawer and speaking as if to herself rather than to a visitor. “That is a good motto, isn’t it?” And she began to flick a silk handkerchief. “These are souvenirs–with only a sentimental value.”

Mildred glanced round the room. At the far end there were windows, through which one saw the shredded stem and drooping branches of a large plane tree, all transparent green and fiery orange now in the sunlight of a September afternoon; near the window at the other end there was a cage with a somnolent grey parrot; a singularly clean white cat lay stretching itself lazily on the seat of a chintz-covered chair; and everywhere there showed the neatness and order as well as the prettiness and taste that are only possible in rooms altogether free from the disturbing presence of clumsy man. Mildred, feeling more and more enervated, spoke admiringly but abruptly.

“I do like your flat, Miss Verinder.”

“It is convenient, isn’t it?” said Miss Verinder. “So close to the Brompton Road, so near everything. Strictly speaking,” she added with gentle precision, “it is not a flat at all, but what they call a maisonette. That straight staircase–almost like a ladder, isn’t it?–has been as it were stolen from the auctioneer’s offices on the ground floor; and it forms quite a private entrance. I prefer that. It gives a feeling,”–and she made a graceful vague gesture. “I think Oratory Gardens is the only place where you find flats constructed on this principle. I considered myself lucky in securing the lease–many years ago, you know. I wanted to be just here, because I have so many associations with this neighbourhood–the whole neighbourhood–as far as Kensington Gore and Knightsbridge, but not south or west, you know. I like the sight of the tree too.”

For a few moments she ceased dusting the small objects on the flap of the bureau and stood at the window, looking out; a tall thin dark figure with the sunlight behind her.

“It sometimes makes me feel as if I were miles away from Kensington”; and she gently nodded her head and half closed her eyes. “Far in the country. On the other side of the world, even.”

She was really a very charming, well-bred, elegant woman; and once upon a time, a long while ago, when those eyes of hers were full of brightness and lustre, when her sensitive lips were redder, when her pale unwrinkled cheeks had permanent colour instead of the fitful pinkness that now came and went so delicately, she must have been quite good-looking. Possibly she might then have been fascinating also. Her hair was really good, dark and strong, rolled in bulky waves about her forehead and in a lump at the back of her neck.

It was the demureness, the air of patience, endurance, and submissiveness proper to her age and condition, that spoilt her general effect and made her just a little dowdy, although always beautifully dressed. Even in the moment of recognising a certain natural feminine charm one sought for and found the stigmata of spinsterhood. She had no mannerisms, affectations, or silly tricks; and nevertheless.–But there is the bother of it. How and why do we judge people or form any opinion concerning them? As soon as you think you know what a woman is you begin to think she looks like what you have decided her to be. Perhaps one merely imagined and did not really see that outward suggestion of untilled fields, autumn leaves, and faded flowers, which has come to symbolise a particular combination of loneliness and neglect.

Essentially, she appeared to be spinsterhood personified. She stood so very much alone. Although, as was known, she had relatives, she did not appear to preserve any close intercourse with them. One never met robust full-blooded nieces putting up at the flat with “darling Aunt Emmeline” for a night or two; she showed you no portraits of middle-aged brothers and sisters, or snap-shots of children in embroidered aprons and sailor hats, the representatives of a budding generation; there was not even a ne’er-do-well nephew in the background, emerging into the foreground from time to time and extracting financial assistance as he passed through London on the way from Harrow to Sandhurst and from Sandhurst to his regiment.

Thus it seemed that the attitude of uninvolved spectator or disinterested critic of all that matters in life had been irrevocably forced upon her, and that, as in all such typical cases, she had taken up feeble little secondary interests to fill the vast blank spaces that should have been occupied by prime ones. She attended concerts, lectures, classes; played bridge for mild points; drank weak tea and nibbled dry biscuits at afternoon parties. Sometimes, abruptly going away by herself, she was absent for long periods; and one imagined her, charmingly and suitably dressed as usual, say in the solitude of Dartmoor, translating its purple heather and golden skies into the wishy-washy tints of her sketch-book; or gathering a sprig of fern near the Castle of Chillon in order to place it later between the pages of Byron’s poem–in a word, one imagined her travelling as old maids with ample means have always done, changing the outward scene but never the mental atmosphere. Occasionally, too, she shut herself in the flat, for weeks at a time, refusing to see anybody; and then one surmised that she was passing through those phases of nervous distress or semi-hysteria from the experience of which old maids can scarcely hope to escape altogether.

Naturally she offered a strong contrast to the very modern young lady of twenty sitting on one of the sofas, playing with her gauntlet gloves, and brimming over with youthfulness and ardent irrepressible life.

Mildred looked very pretty in her scant frock, low bodice, and short sleeves; after the manner of modern girls seeming, perhaps, a little commonplace or ordinary because so like so many others of her class and years, at once doll-like and self-possessed, shrewd and yet innocent. She was, or at least believed herself to be, entirely modern; although at the moment occupied with elemental things.

“Now,” said Miss Verinder, “I am all attention,” and she came from the bureau and drew a chair to the sofa.

“I’m so glad I’ve caught you alone,” said Mildred feebly.

“Well, my dear Mildred,” said Miss Verinder, “I am purposely alone, because, when I received your little note saying you wished to see me–I don’t know why–but somehow I had the suspicion that there was something you wanted to tell me, or to talk about.”

“Oh, Miss Verinder! How kind–how very kind!” said Mildred in a gush of gratitude.

Indeed this divination seemed to her a most striking proof of Miss Verinder’s power of sympathy; her own instinct had been correct; she was glad she had come here. She went on impulsively and confidently; telling Miss Verinder how she had half mooted the subject of her troubles to two comfortable matrons, but in each case she had felt rebuffed and had immediately “curled up,” feeling certain that neither would give her any help, but rather take the side of her family against her. Then she had made up her mind to tell Miss Verinder all about it.

“I knew you’d help me if you could, dear Miss Verinder. You have been so nice to me ever since we first met–and, I know it sounds conceited, but I felt you did really like me.”

“I do like you very much,” said Miss Verinder simply and affectionately; and she stretched out her hand and gave a little squeeze to one of Mildred’s soft warm paws. Then she folded her hands on her lap again.

“Thank you so much. I think you’re just an angel, Miss Verinder.”

“Why always Miss Verinder? Why don’t you call me Emmeline?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Mildred, flattered but overwhelmed by this surprising invitation. “It would seem such awful cheek.”

“Am I so venerable and forbidding?” asked Miss Verinder, with mild reproach.

“Of course not,” said Mildred eagerly. “No, I shall be delighted, if you’ll really let me. I think it’s absolutely sweet of you–Emmeline. Well now, Emmeline,”–and Mildred repeated the name firmly, as if feeling great satisfaction in using this unceremonious form of address;–“The fact is, Emmeline–”

And with a voluble flood she narrated how she had fallen deeply and perhaps even foolishly in love with a young man; how Mr. and Mrs. Parker had made a monstrous absurd fuss about it; and how, because of it, the once comfortable home in Ennismore Gardens was swept with tempest, wrath, and pain.

“You understand, Emmeline? I mean to say, they really are behaving like people who have been bitten by a mad dog. In one way, I mean to say–you know–it’s all too ridiculous for words. The things they say! The things, don’t you know, they threaten to do. Well, I mean to say–”

Mildred’s eyes were flashing, she pulled her gloves from hand to hand, and, prattling on, became so involved with mean-to-says and don’t-you-knows that she floundered suddenly to silence.

“Emmeline,” and she changed her position on the sofa, “I think I’d better start at the very beginning.”

“That is always a good place to start at,” said Miss Verinder, smiling sympathetically.

“Then what I want you to understand is that I’m very much in earnest. It’s no silliness–or infatuation, as mother says–or any rot of that sort. It’s the real thing.” As she said this Mildred’s pretty commonplace little face became all soft and tender, her lips quivered, and in spite of her modernity she had the aspect of a quite small child who will burst into tears if you speak harshly to it. “You must understand,” and she suddenly turned her head away, “I wasn’t even thinking of love–much less hunting for it. It came upon me like a thunderclap.”

“Like a thunderclap!” Miss Verinder echoed the words, and drew in her breath, making the sound of a faint sigh. “Go on, Mildred dear.”

“Well then,” and Mildred looked round again, with a child-like air of triumph. “I would have you to know also that the man I’ve fallen in love with is very famous.”

Miss Verinder started and looked at her intently.

“But it’s nothing to do with his fame that has made me love him.”

Again Miss Verinder started, slightly.

“Of course I don’t mean to say that I wasn’t influenced by all that. You know what I mean? Seeing his photographs in the papers! Hearing what other girls said about him. And I own that I admired him before I knew him, but it was for himself and nothing else that I fell in love with him directly I did get to know him. The fact that he was celebrated and a favourite of the public was nothing then.”

And, now fairly started, Mildred opened her heart as she had never done before. She told Miss Verinder all she felt of the torturing bliss and exquisite pain that honest straightforward young girls suffer when this most potent of fevers catches them without warning, like a thunderclap. The tale of Mildred’s frenzied longings and cravings and hopes and fears brought faint old-maidish blushes to the smooth ivory of Miss Verinder’s cheeks. It was as though Mildred, like a small house on fire, had lit up a faint reflection in the far distance of a tranquil evening sky.

“There,” said Mildred, ceasing to flash and becoming quite calm. “Oh, Emmeline, that has done me good–even if you can’t help me. You know what I mean? Just to get it off one’s chest for once.” And then she laughed in a deprecating manner. “But I’m afraid I’m shocking you most frightfully.”

“No, my dear,” said Miss Verinder, “you are not shocking me in the least.”

“You are so kind. Well then, now you do see I’m in earnest, and how ridiculous it is for one’s people–”

“Yes. But who is he, Mildred? You haven’t told me yet.”

“Alwyn Beckett,” said Mildred looking confident and triumphant.

But great as was Miss Verinder’s sympathy, she could not make her face show any signs of intelligent recognition. She reminded Mildred that she lived very much out of the world. It would naturally appear ignorant and stupid, but she felt forced again to ask the question: Who is he?

“The actor,” said Mildred.

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Verinder. “You must not be surprised if I don’t know him by reputation, because I never go to the play, and am quite out of touch with theatrical people”; and she paused, smiling as if involuntarily amused by some secret thought. “The utmost I do in that direction is occasionally to go to one of these cinema theatres.”

“Oh, but he is on the films too,” said Mildred proudly.

“In what piece is he acting at the present time?”

“He is understudying the two big parts in Five Old Men and a Dog.”

“Ah, yes?”

Then Mildred burst forth about her family. “Of course I know they can’t keep us apart. Of course they’ve no right to interfere with me. But it isn’t exactly that. Good gracious, no, this is 1920, not 1820. Of course they can do what they’re doing now–I mean to say, just making hell for me at home. It’s irritating, but I must put up with it. Only I simply can’t stand their attitude to Alwyn”; and Mildred grew warm. “What are they, I’d like to know–to look down upon the stage!”

Miss Verinder said that the notion of treating the stage with contempt did certainly sound rather old-fashioned nowadays.

“Old-fashioned! I should think so. Even if they were anybody–which they aren’t. Do you know what my grandfather was? No. Well, I don’t myself. Father’s been jolly careful to prevent us knowing; but I know this–he wasn’t a gentleman. I mean, he hadn’t the smallest pretensions to being one. It was up in the north, and I believe he was just a person in a shop; you know, not owning the shop, but serving behind the counter–and he married grannie for her money. She wasn’t anything either. The elderly ugly daughter of some manufacturing people. But by a fluke of luck her share in the business somehow turned up trumps, so that while father was still a boy they were rich, and able to send him to Rugby and Cambridge. Then, when grandfather died, he and mother came to London, and bought the house in Ennismore Gardens.” Saying this, Mildred laughed scornfully. “Yes, and amused themselves by pretending that they’ve lived in it for ten generations.”

“They could hardly have done that,” said Miss Verinder, smiling; “because Ennismore Gardens have not been built long enough.”

“No, exactly. But you know what I mean”; and Mildred spoke with almost tragic force. “Father’s just a snob, and mother’s every bit as bad.”

Miss Verinder reproved her for speaking disrespectfully of her parents.

“I know, I know, Emmeline;” and Mildred hastened to assure her that till now she had always been fond of her parents–“poor dears.” She had been loyal too, entering into their little foolishnesses, never giving the show away; and she could feel fond of them again, if only they would behave decently.

Miss Verinder asked, “Do they really base their objections to–Forgive me, dear. What is his name again? Mr. Beckett. Yes, of course. Well, do they only base their objection on the fact that he is an actor?”

A crimson wave of indignation flowed upward from Mildred’s neck to her forehead, while she explained how they had the effrontery to say their real objection was–not so much that he was an actor, as that he was a bad actor.

“Who are they to judge?” said Mildred hotly; and for a space she held forth concerning the young man’s brilliant talent.

Miss Verinder asking how matters stood at the moment, Mildred told her that the outrageous Mr. Parker had simply forbidden them to meet. “But we do meet of course.” And with a few words she conjured up a picture of their clandestine meetings late at night in Ennismore Gardens itself–he driving as fast as taxi-cab would bring him from the theatre, she slipping out of the house to wait for him, and the two of them pacing slowly through that columned entrance by the mews and along the passage by the churchyard, in the warm darkness beneath the trees; peered at curiously by soft-footed policemen; encountering, as it seemed, all the servant-maids of the neighbourhood similarly engaged with their sweethearts. “Isn’t it degrading, Emmeline, to be forced to do such a thing?”

And again she spoke of love and its invincible claims. She knew, she said, that her destiny was all in her own hands. If she lost Alwyn, she would have herself to thank, and it would be no use to put the blame on anybody else. It was this thought that sometimes made her feel desperate–and Alwyn too. Her parents could not of course really come between them. But then there is the money question. What they can do is just to cut her off without a penny; and really, seeing them behave like such pigs, one could believe them capable of doing it. Well, that is not fair. That is tommy rot. Suppose, after all, darling Alwyn should prove, not a bad actor, but hardly quite the tremendous one that she hopes he is; then, in that case, if they had a proper settlement–“the usual thing,” with parents as well-off as hers–she could take him off the stage. There were heaps of things she could do with him. Or if–as is far more probable–he makes a colossal success, money will be useful to set him up in management. You must look ahead; although, when you are madly in love, it is difficult to do so.

Miss Verinder, watching her thoughtfully, inquired if all these ideas had been prompted by Alwyn himself; and Mildred said no, he was a thousand miles above such considerations. He cared for nothing but her.

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