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Chapter 1-5

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« on: September 18, 2023, 12:26:43 pm »

CHAPTER FIVE

PASSAGES FROM JOANNA SMYRTHWAITE’S LOCKED BOOK

“YOU WON’T go sitting up writing to-night, Miss Joanna? You should get right into bed, for you are properly worn out.”

“It would be useless for me to attempt to sleep yet, Isherwood, but I shall not sit up late.”

This, between two women standing on the gallery of the spacious, heavily carpeted stair-head. Save for the feeble light of their glass-shaded candles the place was in darkness. The atmosphere, oppressive from the heat given off by radiators in the hall below and upon the landing itself, was permeated by the clinging odour of some disinfectant. They spoke in subdued voices, covered and whispering as those of reverent-minded persons unwillingly compelled to hold conversation in church. The northeasterly wind---which, at this same hour, cried homeless along the steep house-roofs of the Quai Malaquais to the disturbance of Gabrielle St. Leger’s meditations upon the deceptions of modern marriage---raked the thick-set fir and pine trees bordering the carriage-drive outside, and shattered against the elaborately leaded panes of the high staircase windows, making the thick velvet curtains which covered them sway and quiver in the draught.

“You had better let me wait and brush your hair as usual, Miss Joanna. It might soothe your nerves,” the elder of the two women said. She was a comely, vigilant-eyed person, a touch of moustache on her long upper lip and a ruddiness upon her high cheek-bones as of sun-ripened fruit. Though well on in the sixties, her carriage was upright, and her hair, looped window-curtain fashion over her ears and plaited in a round at the back of her head, still showed as black as her close-fitted black silk dress. First nurse in the Smyrthwaite family, now for many years lady’s maid and housekeeper, capable, prejudiced, caustic of speech, untiring in faithful devotion to those---the very few---whom she loved, Mrs. Isherwood, virgin and spinster, represented a domestic type becoming all too rapidly extinct.

The younger woman made no immediate answer. Her bearing and attitude bespoke a great lassitude as she stood resting her right hand on the ball of the newel-post. The light of the candle she carried was thrown upward, showing a face making but small claim to beauty. A thick, pasty complexion, straight, heavy, yellowish auburn hair turned back over a pad from the high, square forehead. No sufficient softening of the pale, anxious, blue-gray eyes by eyelash or eyebrow. An acquiline nose with upcut winged nostrils, and a mouth, which, but for the compression of the lips, might have argued a certain coarseness of nature. A face, in fine, almost painful in its effect of studied self-repression, patient as it was unsatisfied, an arrested, consciously resisted violence of feeling perceptible in every line of it.

“I could hardly bear having my hair brushed to-night, I am afraid, Isherwood,” she said, presently. “I am really only fit to be alone. You say Margaret is quite composed now? You think she will sleep?”

“Oh! dear me, yes, Miss Joanna, Miss Margaret will sleep. She drank a full tumbler of hot milk and fairly settled off before I left her. I wish I was half as easy about your night’s rest as I am about hers.”

“My good Isherwood,” Miss Smyrthwaite said, softly, as she moved away across the landing. Suddenly she paused and came hurriedly back.

“Isherwood, Isherwood,” she called under her breath, “the smell of that disinfectant seems so very strong. You’re sure the door of---of papa’s room is shut and locked?”

“Dear me, yes, Miss Joanna. I have the key here in my pocket. Mr. Smallbridge and I went in the last thing before I came up, and I locked the door myself. You’ve got the smell of that nasty stuff in your nose. Anybody would, the amount those nurses used of it! Now you promise you’ll ring, Miss Joanna, if you should feel nervous or poorly in the night? You know it never troubles me the least to get up.”

“My good Isherwood!” the younger woman said again.

From the age of fourteen Joanna Smyrthwaite had been encouraged to keep a diary. For the diary was an acknowledged part of the system of feminine education---“forming the character,” it used euphemistically to be called---that obtained so largely among serious-minded persons of leisure during the earlier half of the Victorian Era. Thoughtfulness, reserve, methodical habits, the saving of time, hands never unemployed, the conforming of one’s own conduct to and testing of the conduct of others by certain wholly arbitrary and conventional standards---these nominal rather than real virtues were perpetually pressed home upon the minds and consciences of the “well-brought-up” female child. Inevitable reaction carried the majority of fin-de-siècle female children notably far in the quite opposite direction. But in some instances the older system survived its appointed span---that of the Smyrthwaite family may be cited as a case in point. The consequences were of doubtful benefit; since conditions have changed, and adaptability to environment is a necessity of mental as well as of physical health.

Joanna Smyrthwaite was now in her twenty-ninth year. She still kept a diary. Written in a very small, neat, scholarly hand, it filled many octavo volumes, bound in dark-purple leather, each with a clasp and lock to it, her initials and the date stamped in gold lettering on the back. She was a diarist absolutely innocent of any thought or wish of eventual print. A fierce modesty, indeed, overlay the whole matter of her diary. That it should be secret, unseen by any eyes save her own, gave it its value. She regarded it with a singular jealousy of possession. As nothing else belonging to her, her diaries were exclusively, inviolably her own. It may almost be asserted that she took refuge in them, as weaker women, under stress of unsatisfied passion, will take refuge in a drug.

And so to-night, without waiting to make any change in her dress, feverishly, as one at last set free from unwelcome observation, she pushed back the cylinder of the handsome satinwood bureau in her bedroom, set lighted candles upon the flat desk of it, took the current volume of the diary out of one of the pigeon-holes, and sat down, her thin hands trembling with mingled fatigue and excitement, to write.

“Wednesday, Jan. 12, 190--

“It has been impossible to put down anything for some days. The strain of nursing and the demands upon my time have been incessant and too great. I do not know that I am justified in writing to-night. Isherwood begged me not to do so, but it is a relief. It will quiet me, and bring me into a more normal relation to myself and to my own thought. For days I have been a mere beast of burden, bearing the anxieties of the sick-room and of the household upon my back. My intellectual life has been at a standstill. I have read nothing, not even the newspapers---the Times or last week’s Spectator. There has been perpetual friction between the servants and the nurses which I have had to adjust. Margaret could not be looked to for help in this. She is too easily influenced, being disposed always to take sides with the person who last spoke to her. Mr. Savage cannot arrive before to-morrow afternoon. I am glad of this breathing space, for the thought of his coming is oppressive to me. He appeared so lively and so much a man of society, when we met him in Paris, that I felt shy and awkward in talking to him. But it is useless to dwell upon this. He is coming. I must accept the fact. My head aches. I keep on fancying there are strange sounds in the house. But, as Isherwood says, I am overtired. I meant to state quite simply what has occurred since I last wrote; but I find it difficult to concentrate my attention.

“Papa died just before five o’clock this morning. It was snowing and the wind was high. Isherwood and I were in the room, with the night-nurse. Margaret had gone to lie down and I did not call her. She has reproached me for this since and will probably continue to do so. Perhaps I acted wrongly in not calling her, but I was dazed. Everything appeared unreal, and I did not grasp what was occurring until they told me. We had watched so long that I had grown dull and unresponsive. I was sitting upon the ottoman---in which mamma’s evening gowns used to be kept---at the foot of the bed, when Isherwood came close to me and said, ‘Miss Joanna, Mr. Smyrthwaite’s going.’ I said, ‘Where?’ not understanding what she meant. ‘You had better be quick,’ the night-nurse said. Her manner has never been respectful. I got up and went to the side of the bed. Papa’s eyes were open. They seemed to stare at something which made him angry. He used to look thus at poor Bibby. I felt a spirit of opposition arise in me. This I now regret, for it was not a proper state of mind. Presently the night-nurse felt his pulse and held a hand-mirror to his mouth. I saw that the surface of it remained unblurred. She looked across at Isherwood and nodded familiarly. ‘I thought so,’ she said. Then I understood that papa was dead; and I felt sorry for him, both because I knew how much he disliked the idea of dying, and also because I should never be afraid of him any more.

“The night-nurse said, quite out loud---her offhand way of speaking has struck me, all along, as objectionable---‘There is no reason Miss Smyrthwaite should stop any longer. I always prefer to do the laying-out by myself. I get through with it so much quicker.’

“ ‘Isherwood will remain,’ I said. I felt it right to assert my authority, and I so dread the upper servants being annoyed. It makes everything so difficult to manage.

“ ‘That is quite unnecessary,’ she answered. ‘If I require assistance for lifting I can call Nurse Bagot. She will be coming on duty anyhow in another hour, and as the case is over I should not mind disturbing her. She can finish her rest later.’

“But I wish Mrs. Isherwood to remain,’ I repeated.

“ ‘Of course I shall stay, Miss Joanna,’ Isherwood said. ‘It is my place to do so. It is not suitable or likely I should leave the laying-out to strangers. Besides, I do not take orders from anybody in this house but you or Miss Margaret.’

“To have a wrangle just then was painful; but I think both Isherwood and I spoke under great provocation.

“Afterward I went to Margaret. It was still dark, and I heard the wind and snow driving against the passage windows. I found Margaret difficult to awaken. When I told her, she became hysterical and said I ought to have spoken less suddenly. But Margaret cries readily. I believe it is a relief to her and enables her to get over trouble more easily. I have had no disposition to cry so far, yet I have been much more of a companion to papa than Margaret ever has. Latterly, in particular, she avoided being with him on the plea that was too exhausting for her. Sometimes I have thought her selfish. When I asked her to sit with him she was so ready with excuses. Still he cared for her more than for me. She is pretty and I am not---less than ever now, my eyes look so tired and have red rims to them—and then Margaret never opposed him. She has a way of slipping out of things without expressing a direct opinion. I did oppose him during the terrible troubles about poor Bibby, and when he spoke harshly or sarcastically before mamma. And I kept him at Carlsbad, away from mamma, during the last days of her illness, by telegraphing false reports to him. That is nearly eight years ago. He never actually knew that I had deceived him, unless Margaret has hinted at it, and I hardly think she would dare do so---she is not very courageous---but he suspected something, and he never forgave me, although he gradually grew more and more dependent upon me. I have examined my conscience strictly, and it is clear in relation to him. Yet he looked angry this morning when he was dead. I suppose I shall always think of him as looking angry. But I think I do not care. How extraordinary it is to feel that---to feel that I have ceased to mind, to be afraid.

“I sent round quite early to Heatherleigh for Mr. Challoner. He came at once. He strongly expressed the wish to do all he can to help me, and inquired more than once for Margaret. He said that, directly he heard of papa’s death, he thought of Margaret, as he feared she would be prostrated by the shock. He said she impressed him as so fragile and so sensitive. The words struck me because it had never occurred to me that Margaret was fragile. She has better health than I have. She is more excitable than I am, and easily gets into a fuss, but I do not think her particularly sensitive. Probably it was just Mr. Challoner’s way of expressing himself, but I cannot think the terms are particularly applicable. I am afraid Mr. Challoner is vexed at papa having appointed Mr. Savage my coexecutor. He intimated that Margaret had been slighted by the arrangement. I may do him an injustice, but I fancy he is disappointed at not being executor himself. In this I am not to blame. As I told him, I should have preferred to act with him rather than with Mr. Savage, as he knows so much about the property. I told him I urged papa, in as far as I could, to give up the idea of appointing Mr. Savage. I think this pleased him. He kindly sent off the telegram to Mr. Savage for me and the obituary notices for the newspapers himself. He said he would call later in the day to inquire for Margaret, and to see if there was anything further he could do for us. I told Margaret this. She became more composed when she knew he was coming, and ceased reproaching me for not having called her when papa was dying. She said she should be glad to see Mr. Challoner. She has always liked him better than I have. He is clever, but uncultivated. But Margaret has never really cared about culture. I know mamma feared she might become frivolous and worldly if she was not under intellectual influences. If mamma had only lived till now!---I dare not develop all I mean in saying that. I foresee difficulties with Margaret. I earnestly hope she will not take up the idea she has been slighted. I do not want to put myself forward, yet it is my duty not only to carry out papa’s instructions, but, in as far as I know them, mamma’s wishes also.

“I tried to word the obituary notices as papa would have liked. Perhaps I should have inserted the words Liberal and Unitarian, so as to define his political and religious position. Yet he differed from the main body of Unitarians on so many points and condemned so many modern Liberal tendencies and measures that I did not feel justified in employing those terms. They are generic, and, as it appeared to me, committed him to views he had long ceased actually to hold. I should have consulted Margaret, but she was very fretful just then; and it was useless to ask Mr. Challoner, as he would not appreciate fine distinctions, I fancy. So I simply put ‘At his residence, the Tower House, Baughurst Park Estate, Stourmouth, Hants, Montagu Priestly Smyrthwaite, formerly of the Priestly Mills and of Highdene, Leeds, aged seventy-six. No flowers, by special request.’ I suppose Andrew Merriman and others from the mills will attend the funeral. I dread seeing Andrew Merriman again. It will bring back all the terrible trouble about poor Bibby. And I cannot think how Mr. Savage will get on with the people from the mills. It would have been simpler to have Mr. Challoner act officially in the capacity of host. I dare not think much about the funeral.

“After luncheon I filled in their papers and dismissed the nurses. I think they expected some present, but I did not feel it necessary to give them any. They had only done what they were well paid to do; and I liked neither of them, though Nurse Bagot was the least patronizing and interfering. Their refusing to take their meals in the housekeeper’s room and the upper servants’ objection to waiting upon them made arrangements very trying. I sympathized with the servants, but I had to consider the nurses, lest they should be quarrelsome and make everybody even more uncomfortable. I am thankful we had no professional nurses when mamma was ill, and that Isherwood and I nursed her. But this case was different. We could not have done without professional help even had we wished to do so.

“I went to papa’s room this afternoon, when the undertakers had finished taking measurements for the coffin. I thought it my duty to go. I supposed Margaret would have accompanied me, but she refused, saying it would only upset her again just as she was expecting Mr. Challoner. I told her I feared the servants might think it unnatural and unfeeling if she did not go into the room at all. She said if she felt better to-morrow she would make an effort to go then. I hope she will. I should not like her to expose herself to criticism, even though unspoken, on the part of the servants. One of our first duties, now we are alone, is to set an example to the household. I think she is wrong in putting off going. It will not be any less painful to-morrow than to-day. And if I can bear it, she should be able to bear it. We are different, but I do not pretend to be Margaret’s superior in any way.

“The room was very cold. I suppose I remarked this particularly because of the high temperature which has been kept up in it for so many weeks. The upper sashes of all the windows were open behind the drawn blinds, which the air alternately inflated and sucked outward. This made an unpleasant dragging sound. I was foolish to mind it, but I am tired. There was a sheet over the bed, which was quite proper; but there were sheets over the toilet-glass, the cheval-glass, and the mirror above the chimneypiece also. This must have been Isherwood’s doing. It placed me in a difficulty. I did not want to hurt her feelings, but I know papa would have disapproved. He was so intolerant of all superstition, that the ignorant notion any one might see the dead person’s face reflected in a looking-glass in the death-chamber, and that it would bring misfortune, would have made him extremely angry. He was contemptuous of uneducated people and of their ideas. I had begun taking the sheet off the cheval-glass when I saw that Margaret’s gray Persian cat was in the room. I suppose it must have slipped in beside me without my noticing it. The light was very dim and I was thinking only of my own feelings. I called it, in a whisper, but it ran away from me mewing. It went twice right round the bed, squeezing in between the head of it and the wall. It stood upon its hind-legs, and then crouched, preparing to spring up over the footboard. I drove it away, but it kept on mewing. It hid under the bed and I could not dislodge it. I was afraid to go across and ring the bell lest it should attempt to spring up again. The room grew dark. It was weak of me, but I felt helpless and nervous. I seemed to see a movement upon the bed, as though some one was trying to crawl from underneath the sheet and had not sufficient strength to do so. No doubt this was the result of my brain being so exhausted by sleeplessness and anxiety, but I could not reason with myself just then. It seemed quite real and it terrified me. I was afraid I should scream. At last Isherwood came. She had missed me and came to look for me. I could not explain at first, but when she understood, she called Sarah, the second housemaid, of whom the cat is fond. Sarah was frightened at entering the room, and Isherwood had to speak sharply to her. It was all very dreadful. At last Sarah coaxed the cat from under the bed. Isherwood knelt down and pushed it behind with a broom. When Sarah had taken it away, I lost my self-control and was quite overcome. I felt and spoke bitterly about the maids’ and Margaret’s carelessness. During the whole of papa’s illness the cat has been kept out of the south wing, and it would have been so easy to exercise care a little longer. I said it appeared things were intentionally neglected now that papa’s authority is withdrawn, and that those who formerly cringed to him now took pleasure in defying his orders and wishes. This was an exaggerated statement; but the incident brought home to me how little any person, even the most important and autocratic, matters as soon as he or she is dead. Death does more than level, it obliterates.

“Moreover, I could not rid my mind of the thought of those feeble, ineffectual movements beneath the sheet. This added to my distress and nervousness. I asked Isherwood to uncover the bed so that I might assure myself the body remained in the same position. I looked closely at it, though it was extremely painful to me to do so. The eyes were now closed, but the face was still severe, expressive of disapproval. Why, and for what? Obviously it is useless to disapprove of whatever may follow death---if, indeed, anything does, sensibly, follow it. Papa’s belief in the survival of consciousness and individuality was of the slightest. So is mine. The so-called ‘future life’ is, I fear, but a ‘fond thing vainly imagined.’ The extinction of myriads of intelligent, highly organized and highly gifted beings after a few years---few, as against the vast stretch of astral or geologic periods---of earthly struggle, suffering, and attainment appears incredibly wasteful. But that constitutes no valid argument against extinction---at least, in my opinion, it would be weakly optimistic to accept it as a valid one. A very superficial study of biology convinces one of the supreme indifference of Nature to waste. As far as sentient living creatures, other than man, are concerned, Nature is certainly no economist. She destroys as lavishly as she creates. Therefore it is safer to eliminate all hope of restitution or reward from one’s outlook, and accustom oneself to the thought of extinction. I have long tried to school myself to this, but I find it difficult. I must try harder.

“Recalling the scene of this afternoon, I feel grateful to Isherwood. I was childishly unreasonable and passionate, and she was very patient with me. She is always kind to me; but I must not permit myself to lean too much upon her. She is an uneducated woman, and has the prejudices and superstitions of her class. To lean upon her might prove enfeebling to my character and judgment.

“I have not yet spoken to Margaret about the cat; for, when I was sufficiently composed to go down-stairs, Mr. Challoner had just left and she began talking about his visit, which seemed to have pleased and excited her. She praised his thoughtfulness and sympathy. No doubt he has valuable qualities, but I own something in his manner and way of expressing himself jars upon me. He is not quite gentleman-like in mind or appearance. Margaret called me proud and fastidious, and added that I took pleasure in depreciating those who showed her attention. That is neither true nor just, but I will be more careful what I say about people before her. It is unwise to be betrayed into discussions since she so often misunderstands me and so easily takes offence. Later on she spoke about our mourning. I had not given the subject a thought, I admit, since there has been so very much else to occupy me. I took for granted Madame Pell would make it for us, in Stourmouth, as she has done all our dressmaking lately. But Margaret said Madame Pell’s things were always rather old-fashioned and that she wished to have our mourning from Grays’. I pointed out that it would be inconvenient and unsuitable for either of us to go up to London, for a day, just now. She replied that Grays’ would send some one down with a selection for us to choose from. I mentioned expense. Margaret said that need not be considered, adding: “ ‘Mr. Challoner tells me we shall both be rich. For years papa Has lived very much below his income and has saved a great deal of money. All the property is left to you and me. We shall each have a large fortune.’

“I was annoyed by her tone, which struck me as both exultant and unfeeling. I cannot forget that the greater proportion of papa’s property would have been Bibby’s, and it is dreadful to me that Margaret and I should profit by our brother’s disgrace and death.---If he is dead! To the last mamma believed he was still alive, in hiding somewhere. I still believe it, and hope he may come back---poor, darling Bibby! Margaret, I am convinced, neither wishes nor hopes this. She has said more than once, lately, that if people do wrong it is better to put them out of one’s life altogether, and I know she was thinking of Bibby. I could never put him out of my life, even if I wished to do so. I had the greatest difficulty to-day in not speaking of him when she talked about our large fortunes, but I controlled myself. I was still shaken by the scene with her cat, and feared I might exhibit temper. I did reason with her about having our mourning from Grays’, as it seems to me ostentatious. But she became fretful and inclined to cry again, accusing me of always wanting my own way and of trying to deny her every little interest and amusement, so I thought it best to give in to her.

“I promised Isherwood I would not sit up, so I must stop writing. The smell of the disinfectant pursues and disgusts me, and I go on fancying that I hear strange noises in the house. I wish I could feel sorrow for papa’s death. It would be more natural. But I feel none. I only feel resentment against mamma’s suffering and Bibby’s disgrace. How cruel and purposeless the past seems! And I feel alarm in thinking of the future. I cannot picture Margaret’s and my life alone together. Will it be cruel and purposeless, too? I shall not sleep, but I must not break my word to Isherwood. I will stop writing and go to bed.”

Two o’clock had struck before Joanna Smyrthwaite closed and locked her diary and replaced it in the pigeon-hole of the satin wood bureau. At the same hour, away in Paris, Gabrielle St. Leger, answering little Bette’s cry, gathered the child’s soft, warm body in her arms and found the solution of many perplexities in the God-ordered discipline of mother-love. The less fortunate Englishwoman also received comfort---of a kind. Her hands were stiff with cold. The small, neat writing on the last page of the diary showed cramped and almost illegible. She was faint from the long vigil. Yet the fever of her spirit was somewhat appeased. For, in thus visualizing and recording her emotions, in thus setting the picture of her life outside her, she had, in a measure, lightened the strain of it. The drug from which she had sought relief acted, so to speak, allaying the ache of her loveless, unsatisfied heart.
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