A MAIDEN LADY

“Severe, sedate, and highly bred,
Sad-tinted gown and cap on head.
In high-backed chair she grimly sits,
And frowns, and fumes, and talks, and knits,
Her nephews, nieces, tremble still,
Whene’er she talks about her will,
And wonder oft in glad surmise
What they will get at her demise.
No King upon his throne in State
Was ever such a potentate.
Let others face her eye–I can’t,
I quail before my maiden aunt.”

Few people are acquainted with Delphson Square, no doubt from the fact
that it lies on the extreme edge of the great vortex of London life,
isolated in a great measure by its position and character. Those
concerned with business or pleasure know not this severely respectable
neighbourhood, but occasionally men and women, weary of the restless
excitability of the metropolis, glance off from the huge central
whirl, and drift helplessly into this haven of rest in order to spend
the rest of their days in peace.

Not a tempting place certainly, with its four sides of
forbidding-looking houses painted a dull brown, with grim iron
balconies attached to each window like prison gratings. No bright
flowers in oblong boxes to lighten the austerity of these conventual
retreats, flowers being regarded as frivolous by the utilitarian
inhabitants of the square. Spotless white blinds, heavy dark-red
curtains, occasionally a cage in some glaring window, containing a
depressed-looking canary, irreproachable white steps, exasperatingly
bright brass knockers on massive doors; these were the principal
adornment of the four rows of dwellings.

In the centre of the small quadrangle grew a quincunx of
heavy-foliaged elms, encircled by a spiky iron fence of defiant
appearance, and under one of the trees a weather-stained statue of
some dead and gone warrior, with a suitable inscription in choice
Latin, which no one could read. Over all this prim locality an air of
Sabbath quiet.

The doors of the houses always seemed to be closed. Rarely were any
signs of life seen behind the half screens of the windows, the
well-swept streets were empty both of traffic and pedestrians, and
viewed under a dull, leaden-coloured London sky, with a humid feeling
in the air, Delphson Square looked like some deserted city waiting to
be re-peopled.

As to the inhabitants, they mostly resembled their dwellings, being
elderly, grim, and forbidding, dressed in the plainest puritanical
fashion, yet one and all stamped with the impress of wealth.

Sad tints but rich stuffs, serious faces with port-wine complexions,
little jewellery, but what there was, massive in the extreme–no
ostentation, but a quietly-prosperous air, telling of snug banking
accounts. Respectable-looking carriages, with fat horses and still
fatter coachmen, at the grim doors every morning to take them drives
in the Park. A general air of subdued religion about the place–they
were all Broad Church, and held strong opinions about the ritual. No
newspaper admitted into the square except the _Times_, which was heavy
and respectable, hansoms unknown, even the sweeper who swept the
crossings was serious-minded and given to dreary hymns in wet weather.
Everybody went to bed at nine o’clock and rose at the same time in the
morning; the tradesmen were always punctual and deferential, and the
clocks were never out of order.

Miss Angelica Corbin lived in this delightful locality, and, as her
residence there dated from the early part of the Victorian age, she
was regarded as one of the oldest inhabitants.

A maiden lady of uncertain age and certain income, her life was
conducted in a methodical fashion, which enabled her in a great
measure to defy Time. As Miss Corbin was ten years ago she was at
present, and would in all human probability be at the end of another
decade. Quite at variance with the new-fangled ways of the present
generation, this old gentlewoman looked like some disdainful spectre
of a sedate past, solitary amid a frivolous present.

Her room, old-fashioned and changeless as herself, had about it the
aroma of a former generation, when D’Orsay led the fashions, and
people were still talking about Lord Byron, Waterloo, and the Reform
Bill.

Situated on the ground floor above the basement, it had three windows
of small-paned glass looking out on to the dreary square, and was
large and airy, having an oval roof painted with designs of flowers,
fruit, birds, and butterflies.

Under this cheerful ceiling a remarkably comfortable room, furnished
in an antique style. Warm-coloured Turkish carpet, rather threadbare
in places, woolly mats of different tints, heavy mahogany chairs and
sofa, with slippery horsehair coverings; a solid-looking table of the
same wood, draped with dark-green cloth; out-of-date piano, rigid
against the wall, with faded drawn blue silk and tassels above its
yellow ivory keys. An ancient fireplace with elaborate brass dogs’
between which generally blazed a fire of logs (no coal for Miss
Corbin, as she thought it detestable), and a massively-carved
mantelpiece with quaint ornaments of Dresden china, in front of a
gold-framed mirror swathed in green gauze.

On the left-hand side of the fireplace a tall book-case, with glass
doors, fitting into a shallow recess and surmounted by a plaster of
Parts bust of Shakespeare, imprisoned first editions of books popular
in their owner’s youth, editions priceless to bibliomaniacs. These,
though now worth their weight in gold, never saw the light of day.

On the red-papered walls, smoky-looking oil pictures in tarnished
frames, one or two yellow samplers, worked by dead and gone
school-girls on the table wax flowers, Berlin wool mats, and
velvet-bound Books of Beauty, from whose faded pages simpered
large-eyed beauties of the Dudu type; on the floor treacherous
footstools, always in the way, and a long bead-worked cushion,
elevated on six square mahogany legs, in front of the brass fender.
Here and there gaudy porcelain jars filled with withered rose-leaves
and dried lavender, which gave forth a faint, dreamy odour, redolent
of bygone days and vanished summers.

Surrounded by all this faded splendour, in a straight-backed chair
placed by the fire-side, her feet resting on a foot-stool, and
constantly knitting, sat Miss Angelica Corbin, better known to her
friends and relations as Aunt Jelly.

Tall, stiff and commanding, with rigid features, cold grey eyes,
iron-grey hair, always dressed in the same kind of silken
slate-coloured gown, with a dainty lace apron, lace cap, China crape
shawl on her shoulders, lisle thread mittens, and old-fashioned rings
on her withered hands, she never changed in the smallest degree.

Her father had been a very wealthy man, connected with the H.E.I.C.S.,
and on his death left his property equally divided between his three
daughters, Jane, Angelica, and Marian, the first and the last of whom
married respectively Sir Frederick Errington and Mr. Martin Gartney.
Both sisters and their husbands had long since departed this life,
leaving Guy Errington and Eustace Gartney, who thus stood in the
relation of nephews to Miss Corbin.

That lady had never married, which did not seem strange to those who
knew her at present, but without doubt she must have been a handsome
woman in her youth, and presumably had had her romance, like the rest
of her sex. As a matter of fact, she had been engaged to marry Harry
Sheldon, the father of her ward, but owing to some misunderstanding,
an explanation of which was forbidden by the pride of both, they
separated, and Sheldon went out to seek his fortune in Australia,
where in due course he married Miss Macjean, and Miss Corbin, devoting
herself to perpetual maidenhood, had removed to Delphson Square, where
she had remained ever since.

Having a handsome income well invested in the Funds, Miss Corbin lived
in excellent albeit old-fashioned style, and, in spite of her apparent
hardness and brusque manner, was not an ungenerous woman. When her old
lover, dying in Australia, sent home his orphan child to her
guardianship, she had promptly accepted the charge, and loved the girl
for the sake of that dead and buried romance which was still fresh in
her heart. To Victoria she was strict but kind, and the presence of
this bright young girl made a pleasant variety in her dull, methodical
life, although she never, by word or deed, betrayed such a weakness.

Hard she undoubtedly was, and but little given to sentimental
feelings, which was a great grief to her companion, Miss Minnie Pelch,
who was tender-hearted in the extreme, and had oceans of tears on
every possible occasion, from a wedding to a funeral.

Miss Pelch was a weak, soulful creature, the daughter of a clergyman
who had been curate at Denfield, a village near Errington Hall. The
Rev. Pelch was a widower, and his sole offspring was the fair Minnie,
but having only a small income, he saved nothing: so when he died she
was left destitute, with a doubtful future before her. She had not
enough brains for a governess, no talents except a pretty taste in
poetry, which was not a marketable commodity, and no beauty to attract
marriageable young men, so Minnie wept over the mistake of having been
born, and Heaven only knows what would have become of her had not Miss
Corbin, like a kind-hearted vulture, swooped down on the poor creature
and taken her up to London as her companion.

So Minnie was provided for by brusque Aunt Jelly, although no one ever
knew what a trial she was to that sensible old lady, for Miss Pelch
was one of those exasperatingly limp creatures who always pose as
martyrs, and shed tears at the least thing.

Aunt Jelly was not unkind by nature, but sometimes the tearful Minnie
was too much for her endurance, and if she could have got rid of her
she certainly would have had small hesitation in doing so. But there
was no chance of this coming to pass, as Minnie was one of those meek
creatures who rest where they are thrown, so Miss Corbin, regarding
her as a necessary cross, did the best she could to put up with her
tears, her milk-and-water conversation and her longings after fame.

Fame! yes! this invertebrate creature, whose intellect was of the
smallest, had actually written a book of poems after the style of
L.E.L., in which she compared herself to “a withered leaf on the tree
of life.” She had several times inflicted these weak rhymes, in which
mountain rhymed to fountain, and dove to love, on Miss Jelly, but that
stout old dame snorted disdainfully at her companion’s poetical
fancies, whereupon Minnie retired with her manuscript, sat in the
twilight, and wished herself dead.

When Eustace visited his aunt, Minnie always attacked him about the
publication of her poems, and Eustace, the cynical, the bitter, the
scornful, actually read her poor little rhymes and promised to see
what he could do with them, which proved that a good deal of his
cynicism was only skin deep. Perhaps he was forced into this promise
by Aunt Jelly, who thought if Minnie could only get her drivel
published she would perhaps hold her tongue for the rest of her life,
but this hope seemed too good to be realised.

Miss Pelch had a thin drooping figure, a pensive face with pale skin,
pale eyebrows, pale eyes, pale lips, in fact she was all pallid, and
wore her thin brown hair in girlish curls, with two drooping over her
ears after the style of those called “kiss-me-quicks.” She generally
wore an ancient black silk dress, with lace cuffs and lace collar
fastened by a large brooch containing the portrait (done in oil by a
village artist) of her late father.

Seated at the window, in the dull light of an October day, Miss Fetch,
having been worsted in an encounter with Aunt Jelly over the question
of reading one of her effusions, was drooping like a withered flower
over the manuscript, and could hardly read her own scratchy writing
for tears.

Aunt Jelly was is her usual place, sitting bolt upright, with her
woolly-haired poodle, Coriolanus, at her feet, and no sound disturbed
the quiet save an occasional patter of Minnie’s tears, or the vicious
clicking of Aunt Jelly’s needles. On the table in the centre of the
room were decanters of port and sherry and a plate of cake, for Miss
Corbin was expecting her nephew, Guy, and his wife, to call on her
that afternoon, the young couple having just arrived from the
Continent, and always gave her visitors wine in preference to tea,
which she characterised tersely as “wash.”

Miss Corbin opened her mouth once or twice to make a remark, but,
casting an angry glance at the tearful Minnie, shut it again without
uttering a sound, and knitted with redoubled fury. At last her
stoicism could hold out no longer, and she called out in her strong,
clear voice:

“For Heaven’s sake, Minnie, stop crying. There’s plenty of rain
outside, without you bringing it into the house.”

“Very well, Miss Jelly,” said Minnie meekly, and drying her eyes, she
slipped her poem into her pocket and sat with folded hands, looking as
if she carried the weight of the world on her round shoulders.

Aunt Jelly looked at her keenly for a moment, and then issued another
command.

“Come here, child.”

Minnie rose to her feet and drifted across the room, for her mode of
getting about could hardly be called walking.

“You mustn’t cry because I don’t listen to your poetry,” said Aunt
Jelly grimly. “I hate poetry–it’s all rubbish, and I can’t and won’t
stand it. But I daresay your poetry’s all right–it sounds sing-songy
enough. Wait till Mr. Gartney comes home, and then you can read it to
him. I’ve no doubt it’s as good as his own. Now take a glass of port,
and stop your whimpering.”

“Oh, no, Miss Jelly,” said Minnie’ in a frightened tone. “Oh, yes,
Miss Minnie,” mimicked the old lady fiercely. “Do what I tell you–it
will put some blood into you.”

“Tea!” began Miss Pelch nervously.

“Tea! wash!” snorted Aunt Jelly disdainfully, “there’s no strength in
tea, girl. You might as well drink vinegar. Your blood’s like water;
I’m sure I don’t know how your father reared you.”

“Father was a vegetarian,” volunteered Minnie, in mild triumph.

“And a pretty example you are of the system,” retorted Miss Corbin.
“If I didn’t keep my eye on you I don’t believe you’d eat meat.”

“It’s so strong.”

“That’s more than you are!”

“Dr. Pargowker—-” began Miss Pelch once more. “Prescribes iron, I
know all about that,” said Aunt Jelly wrathfully. “I don’t hold with
drugs, I never did. Meat and port wine is what you want and what
you’ve got to take. Hold your tongue and do what I tell you.”

Thus adjured Minnie did not dare to disobey, and although she hated
wine, dutifully swallowed a glass of old port, which was so strong
that it made her cough. The revivifying effect was soon seen in the
colour which came into her pale cheeks, proving that Aunt Jelly was
right in her prescription, as a long girlhood of vegetarianism had
weakened the Pelch system.

Minnie now feeling better sat down and took up her work, which
consisted in crocheting antimacassars, a mode of employing time of
which Aunt Jelly approved. Indeed, the industrious Miss Pelch had
manufactured enough antimacassars to stock a bazaar, and she was
constantly at work on them except when she took a turn at talking, for
Miss Corbin would not allow her to knit, that being her own special
weakness. The two sat working in silence for a few minutes, Miss Jelly
grim and repellent as the Sphinx and Minnie weakly gay, as the wine
had slightly affected her brain.

“Minnie,” said Aunt Jelly suddenly, pointing to the table with one
lean finger, “wipe your glass.”

“Very well, Miss Jelly,” responded Miss Pelch with her invariable
formula, and thereupon arose from her seat and having wiped the glass
with a duster which she took from a drawer, replaced the glass on the
tray, folded up and put away the duster, then returned to her chair
and antimacassar in meek silence.

Silence, however, did not suit Aunt Jelly, who liked to be amused, so
she gave Minnie the last letter she had received from Victoria and
made her read it, keeping up a running comment on the contents
meanwhile.

“Liked Rome did she!–humph! nothing but pictures and priests no
doubt. Cooking wasn’t good. Of course not, all oil and garlic. Mr.
Trubbles ill! pity that fool doesn’t die–not much loss about him I
should think. Wait a bit, Minnie, till I count the heel of this
stocking. One, two, three, four–go on, I can listen–ten, eleven,
twelve. My nephew gone to Cyprus–twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two–he’s
always going to some out-of-the-way place–forty-five, forty-six.
He’ll end up by being eaten by cannibals–fifty-three! Humph! I hope
his new book will be more respectable than the last one. Eh! The
Master of Otterburn. Who is he? Never heard of him. Coming back by
Naples!–how can they come back by Naples. Oh! the steamer, yes! I
hope Victoria won’t flirt with all the young men on board. Perhaps
she’ll be sea-sick. That’ll take all the nonsense out of her. Is that
all?–dear me, these girls can’t write a letter now-a-days. Here, give
it to me back. You read so quietly, I can’t hear half you say.”

This terrible old woman seized the letter and put it away, frowning on
Minnie meanwhile, that damsel having meekly resumed her antimacassar.

“Four o’clock,” said Miss Corbin, as the clock struck the hour, “they
should be here by now, but none of you young people are punctual
now-a-days.”

“Perhaps they’ve been detained,” expostulated Minnie timidly.

“Nonsense,” snapped Miss Jelly wrathfully. “Why should they be
detained? They’ve been two days in town already. Gadding about I
daresay. I don’t think much of his wife, but whatever she is he’s
worse. I don’t know however I came to have such a nephew. He hasn’t
got his mother’s brains. That comes of having an idiot for a father.”

At this moment Aunt Jelly’s courteous conversation was interrupted by
a ring at the door, and Miss Pelch being sent to the window to
reconnoitre returned with the information that it was Sir Guy and Lady
Errington.

Miss Corbin drew her shawl carefully round her angular shoulder, laid
her knitting on her lap, and having dismissed Minnie to a distant
corner of the room, where she sat in the shadow like an unhappy ghost,
was prepared to receive company.

Bickles, the fat, pompous butler of the establishment, threw open the
door of the room and announced in a deep voice:

“Sir Guy and Lady Errington.”

And the young couple entered into the presence of the old dragon.