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Chapter 1-6

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« on: September 18, 2023, 12:35:40 pm »



The next entry in Joanna Smyrthwaite’s diary dates several days later. The handwriting, though quite clear, is less neat and studied than usual.

“I HAVE a sense of crowding and confusion, of incapacity to realize and deal with that which is happening around me and in my own thought. Hence I have delayed writing. I hoped to attain composure and lucidity; but, since these seem as far off as ever, it is useless to wait any longer. Possibly the act of writing may help me.

“Mr. Savage arrived on Thursday, immediately after luncheon. We had not expected him until the evening, and I felt unprepared. I am afraid my reception of him was awkward and ungracious, but his quick speech and brilliant manner made me nervous. He spoke at once of his respect for papa, and expressed sympathy for us in our bereavement, adding that he ‘placed himself entirely at our disposition.’ I found it difficult to make a suitable reply. I do not know whether he noticed this---probably he put it down to my grief---and I am not grieved. I am hard and cold, and, I am afraid, resentful. All of which is wrong. I do not attempt to justify my state of mind, but it would be dishonest to pretend, even to myself, about it.

“To return to Mr. Savage. He speaks English fluently, but employs words and frames his sentences in a peculiar manner. This helps to give vivacity and point to all which he says, but it might also give rise to misunderstandings. I trust it will not do so when he and Mr. Challoner and Andrew Merriman discuss business. Smallbridge valets him, not Edwin. I was uncertain whether Smallbridge would like to do so, but he said he preferred it. I think Mr. Savage has made a good impression upon the servants. I am glad of this. He is certainly very courteous to them. After Margaret and I came up-stairs, the first evening he was here, she remarked that he was very handsome. She has repeated this frequently since. I suppose it is true. Margaret is always very much occupied about personal appearance. Mr. Savage is, undoubtedly, very kind, and seems most anxious to save us trouble and take care of us. Margaret evidently likes this. I am unaccustomed to being taken care of. I find it embarrassing. It adds to my nervousness.

“I feel dissatisfied with myself, and anxious lest I should not behave with the dignity which my position, as head of the household, demands; but I am tired and so many new duties and new ideas crowd in on me. I seem to have lost my identity. Ever since I can remember, papa has occupied the central place in my thoughts and plans. His will and wishes supplied the pivot on which all our lives turned, and I cannot accustom myself to the absence of his authority. I am pursued by a fear that I am forgetting some order of his, or neglecting some duty toward him, for which omission I shall presently be called to account. He represented Fate, Nemesis to me. As I see now, I had never questioned but that his power, or right to use that power, was absolute. Even through all the trouble about poor Bibby, though I protested against his action, I never doubted his right to act as he saw fit. Now I cannot help reasoning about our relation to him, and asking myself whether---in the general scheme of things---it can be intended that one human being should exercise such complete and arbitrary control over the minds and consciences of others. I know that I was greatly his inferior in ability and knowledge, let alone that I am a woman and that, as his daughter, I owed him obedience. Still I cannot help feeling that I may have been rendered unnecessarily stupid and diffident through subjection to him. Something which Mr. Savage said to-day at luncheon about Individualism---though I do not think he meant it to apply to papa---suggested to me that there are other forms of cannibalism besides that practised by the degraded savages who cook and eat the dead bodies of their captives. In civilized communities a more subtle, but more cruel, kind of cannibalism is neither impossible nor infrequent---a feeding upon the intelligence, the energies and personality of those about you, which, though it does not actually kill, leaves its victims sterile and helpless. I suppose this idea would be called morbid, and should not be encouraged. But my will is weak just now, and I cannot put it away from me. I am haunted by remembrance of the classic legend of Saturn devouring his own children. It is monstrous and shocking, yet it does haunt me. If papa had been less stern and exacting with Bibby, the latter might not have fallen into bad habits, or, at all events, might have had strength to recover from them. But papa’s dominating personality made him hopeless and helpless, depriving him of self-respect and initiative. With me it has been the same, though in a lesser degree; and I am aware of this, especially when talking to Mr. Savage. Then I feel how dull I am, like some blighted, half-dead thing incapable of self-expression and spontaneity. And I cannot help knowing that he perceives this and pities me---not merely on account of our present trouble, but for something inalienably wanting in myself. This fills me with resentment toward the past, as though, by my education and home circumstances, I had been wronged and deprived of a power of happiness which was my natural right. Our lives were devoured---mamma’s, Bibby’s, mine---by papa’s love of power and pursuit of self-exaltation. Only Margaret, in virtue of her slighter nature, escaped. It was so. I see it clearly. But I must not dwell on this. I have said it once now. I must let that suffice. To enlarge upon it is useless and would further embitter me.

“To go back to every-day matters. I asked Mr. Challoner to dine the night before last, so that he and Mr. Savage might make further acquaintance. I am afraid Mr. Savage found it a tedious dinner, after the brilliant society he has been accustomed to in Paris. I know I have little conversation, and Margaret, though she looked unusually animated, never really has very much to say. Mr. Challoner did not show to advantage. He is not at his ease with Mr. Savage. He is heavy and crude in speech and in appearance beside him. I thought he showed bad taste in his remarks about foreigners and his insistence on the superiority of everything English. I do not think Margaret remarked this, but it made me hot and nervous. Mr. Savage behaved with great courtesy, for which I was grateful to him. I am afraid I was a poor hostess, but we have entertained so little since we left Highdene, and then papa always led the conversation. We were merely listeners. The cooking was satisfactory with the exception of the cheese soufflé, the top of which was slightly burnt. I spoke to Rossiter about it this morning and begged her to be more careful in future.

“A young woman came from Grays’ yesterday, bringing a profusion of dresses and millinery. Margaret seemed amused and interested, trying everything on, asking the young woman’s advice and talking freely with her. I tried to be interested, too, but I did not find it easy. The styles seemed to me exaggerated and showy, and the prices exorbitant. I should prefer what is simpler for such deep mourning, but Margaret did not agree with me. It would not do for us to be differently dressed, and when I suggested modifications the young woman, supported by Margaret, overruled me. Margaret is fond of elaborate styles, and the young woman said that a good deal of fullness and trimming was necessary for me as I have so little figure. It was foolish to attach importance to the remarks of a person in her position, yet what she said hurt me. She admired Margaret’s figure, or affected to do so, and paid her a number of compliments. I looked at myself in the long glass in my room last night, after Margaret left me, and I see that I am very thin. My cheeks have fallen in and there are lines across my forehead and at the corners of my mouth. My face can give no pleasure to those who see it---the features are not good, and the expression is anxious. I look several years older than Margaret. I do not know why I should mind this. Long ago I accepted the fact that I was not pretty. But last night I was depressed by the realization of it. For the first time since papa’s death I felt inclined to cry. When Isherwood came to undress me I made an excuse and sent her away. I did not want her to see me cry. I feared she might ask questions; and I had no reason for crying---at least no fresh reason, none certainly that I could explain to Isherwood. I am ashamed, remembering my state of mind last night. I could not write, neither could I sleep. I sat for a long while in front of the glass, looking at myself and crying. I seemed rarely to have seen a less pleasing woman. I have always valued intellect and talent more highly than beauty, but last night I doubted. My strongest convictions seemed to be slipping away from me. I suppose this is partly the result of physical strain. I must try not to give way thus to useless emotion.

“Mrs. Paull and the Woodfords called yesterday to inquire. So did Mrs. Spencer and Marion Chase. I was surprised at Mrs. Spencer calling. We have met her at garden-parties and at-homes, but we have never exchanged visits. No doubt her intention in calling was kind, but I should not care to be intimate with her. Neither she nor her sister appear to me very ladylike. I hope Margaret will not want to make friends with her now. She strikes me as a frivolous person, whose influence might be the reverse of desirable. Margaret saw Marion, saying she wished to consult her about some details of our mourning. I did not see her. She and Margaret spent more than an hour together in the blue sitting-room. The Pottingers and Mrs. Norbiton sent around cards of inquiry by a servant to-day. I think every one wishes to be kind. Papa was very much respected, though perhaps he was not liked. He was more highly educated and more intellectual than any one here, and that helped to make him unpopular. His conversation and manner tended to make others aware of their mental inferiority, which they resented. This was only natural, yet it increased our isolation.

“Colonel Rentoul Haig called on the day of papa’s death. He has written since, very civilly, asking if he can be of any help to us. He appears anxious to make Mr. Savage’s acquaintance, but I do not want to ask any one here until after the funeral. Colonel Haig assumes the tone of a near relation. This pleased Margaret, and she is annoyed at my unwillingness to invite him until after the funeral. I think she is flattered by his expression of interest in our affairs.

“I am worried about Margaret. Mr. Challoner is here constantly, and I cannot help observing how much attention he pays her. He refers to her on every occasion and insists upon asking her opinion. It is almost as though he placed her and himself in opposition to Mr. Savage and me; this causes delays in business, and unnecessary discussions which are very tiresome. His tone in speaking of or to Margaret is protective, as though he thought she was not being well treated. Perhaps I am unjust toward him, but he and Margaret are so frequently together. He asks for her and goes up to the blue sitting-room to see her. I am sure Mr. Savage observes this. I feel very anxious lest any wrong impression should gain ground among the servants or others. I dread anything approaching gossip just now. Since we left Highdene we have always kept ourselves free of that. Ever since we came here people have known little or nothing of our doings and affairs, and it would humiliate me that they should be canvassed now. I wish Margaret would be more careful of appearances. Then, too, although I do not like her, it is our duty to consider Mrs. Spencer. Her name has been so freely associated with that of Mr. Challoner. Every one has taken it for granted they will eventually marry. I ought to remind Margaret of this, since she seems to ignore it, and I have not the moral courage to do so. I am afraid of her tears and reproaches. When the funeral is over, Mr. Challoner will have less excuse for coming so often. I think I will wait. Things may arrange themselves, and I may be spared the unpleasantness of speaking.

“Something happened this evening which threw me into a strange excitement. I hardly know whether to set it down or not. I thought the impression would pass away, but I have been writing for more than an hour and it is still strongly upon me. My state of mind is exaggerated. Perhaps if I set it down I shall become more composed. When I bade Mr. Savage good-night in the hall---Margaret had gone on and was half-way up-stairs, she was not in a good temper---he spoke kindly about the responsibilities which have fallen upon me, and the amount I have had to do lately. He said he admired my business capacity and my high sense of duty. He addressed me as ‘my dear cousin,’ and kissed my right hand. This surprised and affected me. No one ever kissed my hand before. The tones of his voice are very varied. They caused me unexpected emotion. All was said and done very lightly and gracefully, almost playfully, but I cannot forget it. When I came up-stairs I locked the door of my room, and walked up and down in the firelight, looking at my hand, for a long while before I recovered sufficient self-control to light the candles and sit down and write. I have a strange feeling toward my own hand. It seems to have gained an intrinsic beauty and value, as of something quite apart from myself. I look at it with a sense of admiration. I enjoy touching it with my other hand. And yet I am doubtful whether to write this down. Only these sensations are so new to me that, when they are past, I shall be glad, I think, to have some record of them. I wrote about other things first, to-night, to test whether the impression was fugitive or not. It is still with me, though I am quite composed now. I am composed, but I still look at my hand with emotion. I will not write any more. I think I shall sleep to-night.”

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