Aunt Laura Intervenes
For an old lady who did not enjoy the best of health, who had lived all her life in an atmosphere of congenial companionship and now lived alone, who had no place of importance to fill in the world, and small occupation except what she made for herself, Aunt Laura passed her days in unusual contentment.
The life of an old maid blessed with a sufficiency of this world's goods is a cheerful if rather pathetic object of contemplation. You would think they missed so much, and they seem to miss so little. There is nothing that seems much worth their doing, unless they are particularly gifted, and yet they are always busy. If you had paid a visit to Aunt Laura at any time of the day you would never have found her sitting with her hands in her lap, idle, unless it happened to be at those times, after a meal or, as she would say, between lights, when a short period of contemplation was as ordered a part of the day's duties as any more active occupation. After breakfast she would be busy with household duties, "ordering," or passing in review some or other of her possessions, one of her three servants in attendance, giving her whole mind to it, although the weakness of her ageing body made it incumbent on her now chiefly to superintend from her habitation in front of the parlour fire. Sometimes she was induced to stay in bed until the morning was well advanced, but it was a great trial to her. "If the mistress is not about," she would say, "all the house goes to pieces. And although I have good and trustworthy servants, who have been with me a long time, things go wrong if they are left too much to themselves." So even when in bed, she would sit propped up by pillows with a dressing-jacket round her shrunken old shoulders, giving her orders for the meals of the day to the stout, friendly cook, who stood by her bedside with her head on one side and made suggestions, which were sometimes accepted and sometimes overruled, and after that important duty was over, go through the linen with Hannah, the parlour-maid, or arrange with Jane, the housemaid, what room should be "turned out," and when, or other matters of like moment.
Then she had her letters to write, quite a number of them, considering that she had always lived at Kencote and knew very few people outside it. When she was quite well, and the weather was quite fine, she would dress carefully and potter about her garden, giving minute directions to the gardener, who followed her about slowly, and took all she said in good part, although he went his own way afterwards. Or she would walk out into the village, leaning on Hannah's arm, sometimes go up to the great house, or to the Rectory, sometimes into the cottages of her friends amongst the villagers, who were always pleased to see her, for she was of a charitable disposition, gave what rare financial aid was required of her in a community where no one was poor, and, what was valued more, ready sympathy and interest in trials or pleasures.
After luncheon she had her nap and her needlework, or a book from the library at Bathgate--one a week sent over to her by post--to occupy her. Sometimes she played thin little pieces of music on the thin old piano. Tea was an event, requiring much manipulation of old silver teapots, one for the leaves and one for the brew, and when she had company much pressing of dainty, unsubstantial viands. After tea there were needlework and reading again until it was time for her supper-tray. She had given up dining; her luncheon was her dinner, and a fairly substantial one. She talked a good deal, in quite a ladylike way, about her food. Her state of health was gauged by whether she could "fancy" it or not. She always changed her gown in the afternoon, and wore a silken shawl instead of the Shetland one without which she was never seen in the morning. In the evening she spent some time over her devotions, and with Hannah's help made a long disrobing, beginning at a quarter to ten and ending about half-past. Then at last she lay buried in the down of her great cumbrous bed, her night-light in the basin, her glass of milk and her biscuits on the table by her side, all ready for those long dead hours during which she might, if she were in perfect health, sleep quietly, but of which she was more likely to spend some patiently waiting for the blissful state of unconsciousness which was so soon to close down on her for all eternity.
She had much to think of during those hours--scenes in the long-past years of her life when she had been young and active and had lived in her father's house with her sisters, or during the later but still far-off years when they had all lived together at the dower-house; of the quick passage of time which had brought age to them and robbed her of one after the other; of those she loved at the great house; of her nephew's early career, which seemed to her a most distinguished one; of his marriage; and of the coming of the dear babies, and of their growth and the things that had happened to them. Here was abundance of incident to provide food for a mind pasturing on memories--as much as if she had known the great world and taken part in its many activities, instead of passing her blameless days in a small, secluded sameness.
Sometimes, if sleep was very long in coming, she would say over to herself some of the poetry she had learnt by heart, or some of her favourite passages in the Bible. And sometimes she would pray. Her faith was simple enough. God was her Father, who knew best what was good for her, and had a sublime tenderness for her, and for all whom she loved. Soon she would be with Him, praising Him with voice and harp in Elysian fields and in endless happiness, joined to those who had gone before, who were waiting for her, and probably knew all that she was doing or thinking. Life, for as long as she was spared, was a precious gift, and she did not want to die; but she looked forward with no dread to dying when her time should come. She was quite convinced that death was only a passing over, and her experience of death-beds had taught her that nothing very terrible took place when the spirit parted from the body. She would cease to be, and she would join her sisters in heaven; and whatever pain or weakness should come to her before her departure she would have strength given to her to bear, as her sisters had borne it.
Since she had come to live alone in the little old house in the village Aunt Laura's wealth had considerably increased. It did, now, amount to wealth, for she lived on less than half her income, which at the time of her sister's death had amounted to something like two thousand pounds a year.
Her father had left her and her sisters six thousand pounds apiece, and there had been six of them when they had first moved down to the dower-house. He had committed this rather extraordinary piece of generosity because shortly before his death he had inherited intact the considerable fortune of his brother, who had been a merchant in the City of London, as his father had been before him. Merchant Jack, of whom Aunt Laura had spoken to Susan Clinton, had inherited Kencote as a younger son, had passed on the estates and his own acquired store of money to his eldest son, Colonel Thomas, and his business to his younger son, John Clinton, who had lived and died a bachelor, having little use for the wealth he amassed, beyond that part of it which enabled him to live in solid comfort in his old house in Bloomsbury and lay down a cellar of fine wine, the remainder of which still shed a golden glow over the cobwebby bins at Kencote. The thirty-six thousand pounds with which Colonel Thomas portioned his daughters had still left the great bulk of this windfall to go with the estate, to go rather to the next heir, who was Edward, our Squire.
The Squire had succeeded at the age of nineteen to a large fortune, as well as to many thousands of acres of land, and was a much richer man than even his sons suspected. He cared little about money, or if he cared for it, it was not for the aggrandisement it might have brought him. He had an income far in excess of what was required to keep up his establishment and his property in the way he wanted to keep it up, and what was left over he had no further use for. He had simply allowed it to accumulate, investing the overplus of year after year in gilt-edged securities on the advice of his old-established firm of stockbrokers, whose forebears had also advised his, and not giving it a thought when it was once so disposed of. The bulk of his funded property came from the money which his great-uncle had bequeathed to his grandfather, and some of it was still invested in the securities which the shrewd old merchant had himself selected. It was this money out of which, after his widow and younger children had been handsomely provided for, Dick would inherit the sum necessary to enable him to live at Kencote as he himself had done--if Dick behaved as he should behave. Otherwise it would go--well, he had not yet made up his mind where it would go.
Now, if the jointure of the six maiden aunts had been chargeable on the estate, as it would have been but for the old merchant's bequest, only on a much lower scale, the Squire would no doubt have busied himself about it, would have known exactly what proportion of it was being spent and what saved, and might have had some suggestion to make as to the disposal of what should remain after the death of the last sister had caused it to revert to the estate. As it was, he hardly ever gave it a thought. He knew that his aunts were well off, but he did not know what sum had been left to them, although he could easily have informed himself of it if he had cared to. Nor did he know how Aunt Laura, in whose frail hands the whole of it had now come to lie, proposed to leave it. It would not be quite true to say that he had never given the matter a thought, but it would not be far from the truth. He had so much more than sufficed for his own needs that although he would be gratified if after Aunt Laura's death he found himself richer by several thousand pounds, the legacy would not actually do for him more than slightly increase his lightly borne business cares. It would go eventually to the children, and the amount of speculation he had ever expended on the subject was as to whether it would come first to him, or, by Aunt Laura's direct bequest, to them, as to which he did not care either the one way or the other. The possibility of its being left outside the family altogether never so much as crossed his mind, because he knew Aunt Laura quite well enough to know that, as to the bulk of it, there was no such possibility.
Happy Aunt Laura, to have been permitted to escape the siege which is not seldom laid against rich maiden aunts! And happy Clintons, to have escaped, both in youth and age, those complications which the lack of plentiful coin brings into the lives of so many of their fellow-creatures!
But perhaps they had not altogether escaped them. It was doubtful, as yet, whether the Squire, who was now thinking of using his riches as a weapon in a way in which he had never had to think of using them before, was the happier for having that weapon ready to his hand. Money was for the first time playing its part in Dick's life in a way the outcome of which was still to be seen. Humphrey, at least, had never had enough of it to do what he wished to do, and was becoming increasingly hungry for more. And Aunt Laura, lying sometimes for hours on a sleepless bed, was beginning to be a little worried about her responsibilities as the steward of a considerable fortune, concerning whose disposition she had to come to a decision before she could peaceably leave this world for a better one, in which money and the anxiety attendant on it would play no part.
She was surprisingly innocent about money, although amongst the six sisters she had been considered the financial genius, and from the first had kept all the accounts. "Dear Laura," Aunt Ellen had been used to say, "has a wonderful head for pounds, shillings, and pence. Her accounts are never out by so much as a farthing, and she would be an ideal wife for a poor man, such as a clergyman, with a fixed but limited income."
She remembered this as she lay, now, in the night, turning over in her mind this question of money, and remembered it with pride. She remembered how upon their father's death old Mr. Pauncey, the Bathgate solicitor, who was so old-established, and had had such a long connection with Kencote that he might be regarded almost as an equal, and only treated with the merest shade more of consideration than one of the county neighbours, had explained to them all in conclave exactly what their financial position was, and how the sum that had been left to each of them was invested. He had had a sheet of paper with him, from which, after taking snuff, he had read out a long list of securities, and figures, and percentages, and left them at the end of it mentally gasping for breath, and no wiser at all than they had been before.
Then it was she, the youngest of them all, who had summoned up courage to say, "I think, Mr. Pauncey, if you would tell us exactly what sum of money is brought in by all those--those things, we could make our arrangements accordingly."
She could see now, in the darkness, the admiring looks of her sisters bent upon her, and hear the ready acquiescence of Mr. Pauncey, as, with gold pencil-case in his hand, he made some rapid calculations, and gave her the figures required.
After that it was she who, with pencil in hand, secretary and treasurer to a most serious committee, had set down on paper exactly how the comfortable income they had had secured to them should be spent--so much for the housekeeping, so much for wages, so much for stables, garden, dress, charity, and so on--a delightfully interesting occupation, as she well remembered, although readjustments had had to be made later, and it required a good many hours a week with account-books and paper ruled in money columns to keep unflinchingly to the course laid down. "Laura is busy with accounts; she must not be disturbed. The amount of trouble she gives herself to keep all our affairs in perfect order you would hardly credit." She remembered as if it were yesterday sitting in the oak parlour on a warm September morning with the casement open and a scent of mignonette coming through it, and overhearing her eldest sister talking to the old Rector, so many years since in his grave, and the thrill of happiness that the words had brought to her, struggling with her task and with rows of recalcitrant figures which would not add up twice alike.
And it had been she who had been the medium of all arrangements with old Mr. Pauncey, who had been most attentive in coming over himself at frequent intervals to explain any little matter that wanted explanation, and had never changed an investment for them without explaining exactly why he thought it ought to be changed, and, what was perhaps more important still, giving her the exact alteration that would be made in the figures, so that she should have no further trouble with her accounts than was necessary.
After a bit it was young Mr. Pauncey who had attended to their affairs, and she remembered very well that on the occasion of his first visit her sister Ellen had considered it advisable to sit in the room while he disclosed the business upon which he had come over.
"He is a very well-behaved young man, my dear," Miss Clinton had said, "although perhaps not the equal of his father, who is one of nature's gentlemen. But in case he should presume----"
Young Mr. Pauncey never had presumed, and he looked after Aunt Laura's property to this day, and would continue to "attend on her" until her death, if he survived her, although he had long since devised all his other professional cases to his son and grandson. She relied greatly on young Mr. Pauncey's advice, and had long since forgiven him for the slight disturbance he had once made in objecting to carry out certain of their decisions. It had been necessary for Aunt Anne, upon whom it had always devolved to say the word that would put people in their places when that word had to be said, to end the discussion with a speech that shook a little in the middle: "Mr. Pauncey, we have asked you to come here to take our instructions. It will save time if you will kindly write them down at once."
How splendid dear Anne had been on that occasion--quite polite, but quite firm! And young Mr. Pauncey, it had afterwards been agreed, had behaved admirably too. With a courteous smile he had said, "Very well, ladies, I will say no more," and had then helped them most lucidly to put their decision into proper form, and had since admitted handsomely that their carefully considered plan had worked well, adding that he had felt himself obliged to criticise it, entirely in their own interest.
A trust had been formed with young Mr. Pauncey, in whom, as they assured him, they had complete confidence, as sole trustee. The six separate estates were pooled and the income from the whole capital could be drawn on by the cheque of any of the six beneficiaries. The disadvantage of this scheme, as young Mr. Pauncey had ventured to point out at the time, was that if any one of them quarrelled with the other five, or got married, it was in her power to cause them considerable inconvenience by appropriating more than her share of the income, or, if she wrote her cheques at the right moment, the whole of it. It was at this point that Aunt Anne had interposed with her famous speech, and young Mr. Pauncey had ceased to make objections, probably consoling himself with the reflection that, as trustee, he could put an end to the inconvenience at any time that it should arise.
But the sisters had never quarrelled and none of them had married, and young Mr. Pauncey at the age of seventy-five was obliged to admit to himself that the most highly irregular arrangement he had ever legalised had also turned out to have worked with the least possible amount of friction. No further adjustments had had to be made as one sister after the other had died; none of them had made a will or had needed to; and Aunt Laura, the last survivor, was now in automatic possession of the whole, as all the sisters had wished that the last survivor should be. "We are agreed," Aunt Ellen had said in conclave, "that the bulk of the money shall go back to dear Edward, or to his children if he marries and has any; let the last of us who is left alive carry out our joint wishes without being tied up by promises or papers. That to my mind is the ideal arrangement. Circumstances may arise which we cannot now foresee. Let the one of us who is spared longest have power to deal with them, under the kind advice of young Mr. Pauncey, if he also is spared so long, and not be hampered by what is called red tape."
And so the passing away of one sister after another had not been harassed by questions of property, and it was not until Aunt Ellen the eldest and Aunt Laura the youngest had been left alone together that any discussion at all had arisen as to the disposal of the money which they shared. They had talked of it together, and had called young Mr. Pauncey into advice.
Young Mr. Pauncey, now a little deaf and a little feeble in body, though not in brain, and as courteous and helpful as ever, had advised that the money should be equally divided amongst the Squire's younger children. "There are six of them," he had said very happily, "just as there were six of you ladies. Mr. Clinton would probably dispose of it in that way if you were to leave it to him, and I shall not be betraying confidence if I say that Captain Clinton is already very handsomely provided for."
So it had been agreed upon provisionally, but the question of making a will had been left in abeyance, and later on it had been thought that Cicely might possibly have rather more than the others, because Jim was not too well off, owing to those wicked death duties, and later still that Dick, perhaps, ought to have some, because they were not supposed to know what would be done for him, and they would not like him to feel himself left out in the cold; and by and by that it might be better, after all, to ask Edward to decide the matter himself. But nothing had been done. Aunt Ellen had died, and Aunt Laura had postponed coming to a decision at all for two years past, thinking over the matter occasionally, but never finding herself, as she expressed it, "guided."
Now she had begun to feel that she must come to a decision, and the guidance, in a dim sort of way, seemed to be making itself felt. She had never had any particular favourite amongst her nephew's children. Cicely would have been the favourite if she had not been a girl, for she had been much with her aunts before her marriage, and there had been more community of interest with her than with the rest. But it was impossible to put a girl Clinton before a boy Clinton, and her claim bulked no larger than those of Dick, Humphrey, Walter, or Frank. And hitherto, except in the case of Dick, there had seemed to be no reason for preferring one of the boys before the other.
But lately Aunt Laura had become considerably attached to Humphrey, whom, in the past, she had perhaps liked least of all the boys, although she would not have admitted as much to herself. He had been much away from Kencote, and had seemed so "grand" in his ways and ideas that she had been a little nervous of him on the rare occasions on which he had visited her. But lately, she thought, he had "softened." He must have felt, she told herself with a tremulous gratification, that she was the last of all his great-aunts left, that she would not be much longer with them, and that attention to her, although it could not bring him anything, would be deeply appreciated, as indeed it had been. He had been so very kind, cheering up her rather lonely days with constant visits, whenever he had been at home, making her those little presents which, because they showed real appreciation of what would give her pleasure, had meant so much to her, and latterly taking her into his confidence and telling her things about himself of a sort which no man, young or old, amongst her relatives, or indeed outside of them, had ever confided to her before.
It was this which had caused her such intense gratification. Throughout the whole of their lives she and her sisters had had to fight against the feeling that, although they were kindly treated, and even deferred to, by the members of their little world, they were of no real account. Slights, which had not been intended for slights, had sometimes distressed them, and they had had on occasions to assure each other that nothing could have been further from the intention of those who had wounded them than to do so. To ask their advice, to prove that they were not unimportant members of a family to which they had given a life-long allegiance--this was the straight way to their hearts, and it had seldom been taken. All the kindnesses that could be heaped on them would have been outweighed by one cry for succour or sympathy.
That cry had never come--perhaps there had been nothing in the even lives of their relations to bring it; but of all the talks she had ever had with any of her great-nieces and nephews Aunt Laura had most enjoyed those which she had lately had with Humphrey, for they had come nearest to it.
He had, indeed, shared a secret with her. He was in love, and nobody in the family knew it but she. And he was in love with that dear nice girl who had come once or twice to see her, had shown her more than friendliness, almost affection, and made for herself a warm little corner in a warm heart. Susan Clinton also had confided in her a little. At any rate she had permitted her to see that Humphrey's feelings for her were returned. And when she had bid her farewell she had kissed her and said, "I have loved these talks with you, Aunt Laura"--yes, she had called her that, although, of course, the relationship was a very distant one--"it is so nice to feel that one has a friend at Kencote."
But falling in love is one thing and getting married--the natural result of falling in love--is another; and Humphrey had confided to her that there were obstacles in the way of his getting married.
Of course, although Susan Clinton did not belong to the elder branch of the family, facts must be looked squarely in the face, and the daughter of an earl, even of an earl of no great wealth, had a right to expect something more elaborate in the setting up of married life than a girl of lesser lineage. Humphrey very sensibly saw that. "I can't very well ask for her, you see, Aunt Laura," he had said, "unless I know that I can give her the sort of thing, more or less, that she has been accustomed to."
Aunt Laura had quite seen it, and he had put it still more clinchingly when he had said on another occasion, "You see, it wouldn't do for them to think she was taking a step downward in marrying me."
Good gracious, no! A Clinton of Kencote was good enough to marry anybody, short of royalty. Rich enough too--or ought to be--even a younger son, if the marriage was a desirable one, as this undoubtedly seemed to be. "I think your dear father would be pleased," she had said. "He would wish that all of you should marry in your own rank in life, and he would be well aware that that cannot be done, in these days when married life seems so much more expensive than it used to be, without an adequate income. I think, dear Humphrey, that I should tell him if I were you, and throw yourself on his generosity, which I have no reason whatever for thinking would fail you."
Yes, Humphrey had supposed that he would do that sooner or later; in fact, he would have to, because his profession was not one out of which a satisfactory income could be made, at any rate in its early stages. Of course, if the worst came to the worst he could give up his profession, and take to something else out of which money could be made.
Aunt Laura had resolutely combated this idea. His profession was a dignified and honourable one. She was sure that he would make his name at it and rise very high. It seemed unfair that the country should pay so badly for such important work, but it was an undoubted advantage in these radical days to have men of family serving their country, and she supposed that if diplomacy was a career out of which money could be made it would be thrown open to everybody. It was better as it was, and at any rate if his father had not been willing to provide for him he would not have put him where he was. She saw nothing for it but a frank opening up to him. He could not possibly intend that Humphrey should never marry. He was of the age to marry, and the marriage he proposed was satisfactory in every way.
Humphrey had again acquiesced, but lukewarmly, and had said no more at the time.
Later on the reason of his lukewarmness and air of depression had come out, not without pressure on Aunt Laura's part. "Well, I'll tell you how it is, Aunt Laura," he had said, "as you are so kind and have listened to everything I've told you. One likes unburdening one's self occasionally, as long as one knows it doesn't go any further."
Of course it would go no further, Aunt Laura had told him, and then came his story. He had been extravagant. He was in debt, rather heavily, and not for the first time. He blamed himself very much, especially now he wanted to make an alteration in his life altogether, and saw how important it was to keep strictly within one's income. His father had been good about it--over the other two crises--but she would see that when a thing like this had happened twice, with promises of amendment each time, which he must confess had not been kept, the third time there was likely to be a considerable disturbance. She knew what his father was. He would be much upset--naturally--he shouldn't blame him. He would most likely pay his debts and start him again, but he would not be likely to pass immediately from such an undertaking to the discussion of a large increase in Humphrey's allowance, such as would enable him comfortably to contemplate married life with a wife who had a right to expect as much as Susan. He thought his father would not be displeased with the marriage and not averse, eventually, to make it possible for him. If only these wretched debts had not been hanging round his neck like a millstone--if he were a free man--he would go to him at once. As it was--well, he was in a mess, and, frankly, he funked it.
Aunt Laura, listening to this rigmarole, and gathering from it only that the poor boy was in trouble, not of a disgraceful sort, but in the way that young men of good birth and necessarily expensive habits did get into trouble, felt a warm pleasure rise, increase, and spread itself in a glow all over her. She had been deemed worthy of this affectionate confidence, which in itself would have caused her joy. How much more so when she felt herself capable of putting an end to it! With a flush on her withered cheeks and a light in her old eyes she had said, "I am so sorry for you, dear Humphrey. Could you tell me--do you mind--how much money your debts amount to?"
"Oh!" Humphrey had said in an offhand manner, "I suppose about seven hundred pounds--no, more--nearer eight hundred. It's a lot, I know, considering that I was whitewashed a couple of years ago; but--oh, well, I won't make excuses. I've been very extravagant, and now I've got to pay for it."
Then Aunt Laura had offered to pay his debts for him, and he had at first refused, laughing at her, but expressing his surprise and deep gratitude at the same time, then, taking the offer a little more seriously, said that it was out of the question, because his father would be annoyed, and finally when she had told him that his father need not know, that it would be a little secret between them two, had accepted with the most heartfelt expressions of gratitude, which touched her, now, whenever she thought of them.
She had written him a cheque there and then--for eight hundred pounds--and he had joked with her in his amusing way about her having such a large sum at her immediate disposal, asking if she was quite sure that the cheque would be honoured, because it would never do for a Clinton to run any risks of that sort. He had seemed, she remembered, really surprised that she should be able to draw a cheque for so large a sum, without ever, as he had expressed it, turning a hair, and she had explained that for the past two years she had not spent half her income, and that a large balance was lying in the bank to her credit, which young Mr. Pauncey had lately written to her about investing. "I have not been quite well enough to want to talk business with him for some time," she had said, "kind and considerate as he is, and I think it must have been ordained that I should not do so, for when I did say that I should be able to see him on such a morning--oh, I suppose now a fortnight ago, or perhaps three weeks--he was not well himself and went away afterwards, and so it got put off. I shall tell him now there will not be so much to invest as he had thought, knowing as he does about what my expenditure is, and I need not say, dear Humphrey, how glad I am that it is so, for I do not want a larger income, and I do want to help those who are dear to me."
So that little episode was over and had been most agreeable to all parties concerned. Humphrey had not yet told his father about his matrimonial projects, because, as he had explained to her, his debts would take a week or two to settle up, and he did not want to make a move until he was quite clear. But he had come down to Kencote again in the meantime, and had amused and pleased her by his accounts of his debt-paying experiences, and of how he had told Susan of what she had done, and of how grateful Susan was to her--for they had fixed it up between them now. "Whatever the governor does for us," Humphrey had said, "we shall be able to get along somehow. You have made that possible, Aunt Laura. We may have to be very economical, but with a clear run ahead of us we don't mind that. She is just as keen now to keep out of debt as I am."
And the end of their talks so far had been on a note of still further possibility. "I should like to know," Aunt Laura had said, "exactly what your dear father is prepared to do for you, Humphrey, when you tell him. When I know, I should like a little talk with him. For I may be able to help matters."