The Old Ladies - Hugh Walpole - ebook

The Old Ladies ebook

Hugh Walpole



The book opens shortly before Christmas, many years ago. The city of Polchester was an old rickety building on a cliff above old grass. The house was a windy, creaky, bitten rain place where three elderly women lived as tenants, including Miss Beringer, who had moved the day before. These old women are only 70 years old, but in the history of Walpole, written in 1924, they are seriously ancient, poor, oppressed, miserable creatures. If you have any doubts about the progress made by women over the past 100 years, this will convince you that in our Western societies we are much better in every way.

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Quite a number of years ago there was an old rickety building on the rock above Seatown in Polchester, and it was one of a number in an old grass-grown square known as Pontippy Square.

In this house at one time or another lived three old ladies, Mrs. Amorest, Miss May Beringer, and Mrs. Agatha Payne. They were really old ladies, because at the time of these events Mrs. Amorest was seventy-one, Miss Beringer seventy-three, and Mrs. Payne seventy. Mrs. Amorest and Mrs. Payne were wonderfully strong women for their age, but Miss Beringer felt her back a good deal.

It was a windy, creaky, rain-bitten dwelling-place for three old ladies. Mrs. Payne lived in it always; although she had fine health her legs were weak and would suddenly desert her. What she hated above anything else in life was that she should be ludicrous to people, and the thought that one day she might tumble down in Polchester High Street, there in front of everybody, determined her seclusion. She was a proud and severe woman was Mrs. Payne.

Mrs. Amorest and Mrs. Payne had lived in these rooms for some time. Miss Beringer was quite a newcomer–so new a comer in fact that the other two ladies had not as yet seen her. The lodgers on that top floor of the house had the same charwoman, Mrs. Bloxam, and she came in at eight in the morning, cooked the three breakfasts, stayed until ten and tidied the rooms. After ten o’clock the three old ladies were alone on their floor of the house, very nearly alone indeed in the whole building, because the second floor had been a store for furniture but was now deserted, and the ground floor was the offices of a strange religious sect known as the “Fortified Christians.” The only “Fortified Christian” ever seen was a pale dirty young man with a blue chin who sometimes unlocked a grimy door, sat down at a grimier table, and wrote letters. Mrs. Amorest had once met him in the ground-floor passage, and it had been like meeting a ghost.

Mrs. Amorest herself stayed indoors a good deal, because three pair of stairs were a great number for an old lady, however strong she might be.

She looked an old lady of course with her snow-white hair, her charming wrinkled face, and her neat compact little body. She had also eyes as bright as the sea with the sun on it, and a smile both radiant and confiding. But she was like many other English old ladies, I suppose. I suppose so, because she never attracted the least attention in Polchester when she walked about. Nobody said, “Why, there goes a charming old lady!”

She had never known a day’s illness in her life. When she had borne her son, Brand, she had been up and about within a week of his birth. And yet she had none of that aggressive good health that is so customary with physically triumphant people. She never thought about it as indeed she very seldom thought about herself at all.

Another thing that one must tell about Mrs. Amorest is that she was very poor. Very poor indeed, and of course she would not have lived in that draughty uncomfortable room at the top of the old house had it not been so.

She liked comfort and pretty things, and she had been well acquainted with both when her husband had been alive. Her husband, Ambrose Amorest, had been a poet, a poet-dramatist (“Tintagel,” A Drama in Five Acts, Elden Foster, 1880; and “The Slandered Queen,” A Drama in Five Acts, Elden Foster, 1883, were his two best-known plays). For a while things had gone well with them. Amorest had inherited from his father. Then quite suddenly he had died from double pneumonia, and it had been found that he had left nothing at all behind him save manuscripts and debts. A common affair. Every novel dealing with poets tells the same story. Brand, the only child, had at the age of eighteen gone off to seek his fortune in America. For a while things had gone well with him, then silence. It was now three years since Mrs. Amorest had heard from him.

Indeed, the old lady was now very thoroughly alone in the world. Her only relation living was her cousin Francis Bulling, who also lived in Polchester. It was because of him, in the first place, that she had come to Polchester; she thought that it would be like home to be near a relation, the only one she had. But it had not been very much like home. Mrs. Bulling had not liked her; and even after Mrs. Bulling’s death, when Cousin Francis had been a grim old man, sixty-eight years of age, tortured with gout and all alone in his grim old house, he had not wanted to see her.

He was rich, but he had never given her a penny; and then, one day, when she came to see him (she never thought of the money but felt it her duty occasionally to do so), he had laughed and asked her what she would do with twenty thousand pounds a year.

She had said that she did not know what she would do, and he had said that he might as well leave it to her as to any one else. She had tried not to think of this, but money was the one power that forced her sometimes to think of herself. She had so very little, and it was dwindling and dwindling because, kind Mr. Agnew her solicitor explained to her, her investments weren’t paying as well as they did. She knew very little about investments. Her view of money in general was that one must never get into debt. She paid for everything as she got it, and if she couldn’t afford something there and then, she didn’t get it. From quarter to quarter the sum had to stretch itself out, and kind Mr. Neilson at the Bank wanted it to stretch, she was sure, as far as it could, but, powerful man though he was, he couldn’t work miracles.

Although she thought every one kind and most people nice she was not a fool. She was not blind to people’s faults, but she selected their virtues instead. She felt that she was an old woman with nothing interesting, amusing, or unusual about her, and therefore did feel it very obliging of any one to take an interest in her. It could not truthfully be said that many people did. She had her pride, and she did not like her friends to see her poverty, and so she did not ask them to her room. On the other hand, she did not wish to accept hospitality without returning it.

Then, even though you are very strong, if you are over seventy and a woman, you have only a limited store of energy. Mrs. Amorest was often weary, and sometimes felt that she could not face those stairs!

In her dreams at night the stairs figured, long-toothed, dragon-scaled, fiery to the foot–her demons!

But when she had reached her room, then all was well. In these years she had grown fond of that room. Once, when investments had behaved more nobly and she could ask her friends to visit her, it had been a very gay room indeed. She had always liked pretty things, and had inherited from her earlier, more prosperous married life certain fine pieces of furniture. In the right-hand corner of the room was her bed, and in front of the bed a screen of old rose-coloured silk. There were three old chairs also fashioned in rose colour, a rug of a rich red-brown, a little gate-legged table, and on her wash-hand stand her jug and basin were of glass, and the little water jug had around it a wreath of briar-rose. She had, too, a bookcase with twelve volumes of Macmillan’s Magazine, some stories by Grace Aguilar and Mrs. Craik, and Tennyson’s complete works in eight volumes; also the four books published by her husband, one of poems and three of plays.

Her chiefest treasures were on her mantelpiece, a faded photograph of Brand aged twelve in football clothes–“such a sturdy little chap” was the phrase she had used in the old days when there had been visitors–and a drawing of her husband, a thin figure with hair flowing, a cape flung over his right shoulder and a book held prominently in the hand. “A rather weak face” that same visitor might have thought, but to Mrs. Amorest, rich in intimate memories, perfection; perfect in physical beauty, in spiritual significance, in human sympathy.

The room was a large one, and might seem to the superficial observer chill and spare. The chest of drawers and the cupboard where Mrs. Amorest kept her clothes could not cover sufficiently the farther wall space. The windows were not large. Mrs. Payne had the view right over the Pol and the country beyond. Mrs. Amorest had chimney-pots and not a glimpse of the Cathedral. Miss Beringer had the Cathedral, but her room was a pound a year more than Mrs. Amorest’s.

Mrs. Amorest would not have a fire until the winter had really quite closed in, and the difficult days were such as these in November when it could be so cold and so wet and so wild and yet it was not truly winter. To-day was not a bad day; a pale ghostly light was over the world, the sky was scattered with tatters of white cloud as though for a celestial paper-chase, and the smoke from all the chimneys blew wildly in the wind.

Mrs. Amorest noticed these things as she prepared to go out. The Cathedral had struck (very faintly heard from here) two o’clock, the sun suddenly made a struggle and threw a faint primrose glow upon the remains of Mrs. Amorest’s little luncheon–a coffee cup, a tumbler, a plate with crumbled biscuit, and a half-empty sardine tin. Three water biscuits, one sardine, and a cup of coffee, and Mrs. Amorest felt fortified for the rather difficult visit to her Cousin Francis that she was about to pay.

As she arranged her bonnet over her beautiful white hair in front of the misted looking-glass she was suddenly aware that she was going to like this visit to her cousin less than any that she had ever paid him. She would like it less for two reasons; one that he was very ill, and that she would therefore be in the hands of his housekeeper, Miss Greenacre, who both disliked and despised her; the other that kind Mr. Neilson had written to her to tell her that there were only Ten Pounds Four Shillings and Fivepence to her credit in the bank, and Quarter Day was yet far distant, and that therefore the thought of Cousin Francis’s money was more dominant in her brain than it had ever been before.

She didn’t wish it to be so. As she stood there, twisting the purple strings of her bonnet in her thin beautiful fingers, she thought how wicked she must be to have this in her mind!

But as you grew older you seemed to have less and less power to keep things out of your mind. You were being punished perhaps for looseness of thought in your earlier days. You had been too happy and careless then and must pay now. It was the one remnant of Mrs. Amorest’s strict puritan upbringing that she felt that God did not intend His servants to be too consciously happy. And yet with her, all her life, happiness would keep breaking in. Probably she must pay for that now.

She gave a little sigh as she turned away from the window. She was still wickedly hungry. That was the punishment for being physically so blooming, that you had always so healthy an appetite. She looked for a moment covetously at the sardine tin. One more sardine, one more biscuit? Then resolutely shook her head, and as was her way often when she was alone her face broke into smiles. How ridiculous to have such an appetite with her small body! Now if she had been Mrs. Payne...!

And perhaps if she were in a kindly mood Miss Greenacre would offer her some tea with some of those nice sponge fingers that Cousin Francis had. She was not really greedy, but she liked sponge fingers.

Before she went out she listened for a moment, her head cocked on one side like an enquiring bird. How silent the house was! Like a dead-house. The wind was playing through it like a musician plucking a note from a board there, a stair here, an ill-fitting window somewhere else. But the house itself gave no sound.

Mrs. Payne too–how silent she was! There in her room day after day, thinking, thinking–of what? Of her past, one must suppose. After seventy the past was of so much more importance than the present. And the new tenant, Miss Beringer, how quiet she was! She had been there for three days now and Mrs. Amorest had not yet seen her. “A nice-spoken lady,” Mrs. Bloxam had said, “and fond of talking.” Tall and thin and dressed in pale green, a strange costume for one of her years. And having decided this with a thought of cheerful approbation for her own grey silk, Mrs. Amorest started down the stairs.

Cousin Francis lived in a large stone house on the other side of the river. It was shortest if you dropped down into Seatown, crossed the wooden bridge by the mill and walked through the fields, but Mrs. Amorest avoided Seatown when she could. She hated to see the distress and poverty that she could do nothing to improve; and although a stout optimistic lady had once told her confidently that “the poor were always happy. They had none of the troubles that weighed on the rich” she couldn’t altogether believe it. They had none of the same troubles certainly, but she herself had known for too long what it was to worry about every penny, and deny yourself everything comfortable and easy, to believe eagerly in poverty.

So to avoid Seatown she crossed the Market-place and the bottom of the High Street and turned to the left over Tontine Bridge, skirted the river for a little way and then climbed the wooded path to Cousin Francis’s large white gates.

She was tired and weary and anxious to-day. Do what she would she could not beat down her anxiety. Passing through the streets as unobtrusively as possible, she would nevertheless have rejoiced had there been only somebody to raise a hat or smile a smile. There was nobody at all; she mattered to nobody. In that whole town there was not a soul who cared whether she lived or died, and realising that in the sharp November wind she gave a little shiver. Her legs ached to-day and her brain ached. That particular ache in the brain came directly from her effort to keep her thoughts in order and to bring them into some sort of consecutive discipline. Her thoughts to-day were like mice behind the wainscoting–tap tap, scratch scratch–there for a moment and then gone. Some stockings that must be mended; a discoloration of Mrs. Bloxam’s eye that, said Mrs. Bloxam, had been caused by tripping over a coal-scuttle, but was derived, Mrs. Amorest feared, straight from Mr. Bloxam’s fist; strange Mrs. Payne with her old discoloured purple velvet and her bushy eyebrows; and there go Mrs. Combermere and Miss Ellen Stiles! How strong and self-confident they look! Mrs. Amorest had not been always a shy woman. In those days in Cheltenham when Mr. Harland and Mr. Crackanthorpe had come to stay over Sunday, she had acted hostess bravely, although she could never like the things that they liked, thought the books that they read and wrote quite horrible if the truth be known. Her husband had never been able to change her artistic tastes. But she had not shrunk from Mr. Harland, had indeed chaffed him a little, but now were Mrs. Combermere to stay and speak to her she would tremble all over and stammer most-like, and have no words of her own! And yet how happy she would have been! What an event in her day! Once, at a party at the Dean’s, she had been introduced to Mrs. Combermere. But that seemed long ago. The time for parties at the Dean’s was past and gone; for one thing she had no clothes, for another some one might one day call on her and spy out the nakedness of the land, for another....

She shivered again as she crossed the Tontine Bridge.

Then she beat up her spirits. What was happening to her? How unlike her to lose her courage! It must be that tiresome Ten Pounds Four Shillings and Fivepence that was worrying her. Never mind that. She had been in worse troubles than that ere now and God the Father had always come to her aid. He would come to her aid again. As she looked up to the cloud-streaked sky, a sky into which a faint orange glow was slowly stealing, she felt, as on so many thousands of occasions she had felt before, the presence of a large protecting friend Who put His arm out towards her and drew her up, and smiling said, “How could you ever have doubted...?”

Nevertheless she doubted once again as she walked up Cousin Francis’s grim and desolate drive. Cousin Francis had that property, peculiar to certain natures, of bestowing the colour of his personality on everything and everybody close to him. His garden, the rooms of his house, his housekeeper, his secretary, his Irish terrier, his two gardeners, all of them were wind-bitten and desolate. With all his money he did not know what comfort was, nor colour, nor gentleness, nor the “laughter and the love of friends.” His own gaunt and rocky body with its high cold forehead, its naked eyes and projecting teeth, its long legs and iron-grey hands held no comfort for any human soul. Even his dog did not care for him.

The house was like a gaol with its barricaded windows and cold ugly walls. Mrs. Amorest pealed the iron bell and then waited, her heart beating beneath her thin grey silk. There was a fine view of Polchester from here, the Cathedral riding triumphantly on high, the houses and fields piled up at its feet, and now suddenly the sun burst its bonds and great swaths of golden glory enwrapped the scene. Mrs. Amorest stood entranced and did not hear the door open and the voice of the maid.

She turned and, blushing, said, “Oh, I beg your pardon. How is Mr. Bulling to-day?”

“A little better, mum.”

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