Etext prepared by Richard Hathaway, SUNY New Paltz
Proofreading by Sarah Koch (SKoch28879@aol.com)
Excerpt from the Preface to Volume 16:
(x) "Europe," which is of 1899, when it appeared in _Scribner's Magazine_, conspicuously fails, on the other hand, to disown its parentage; so distinct has its "genesis" remained to me. I had preserved for long years an impression of an early time, a visit, in a sedate American city--for there WERE such cities then--to an ancient lady whose talk, whose allusions and relics and spoils and mementoes and credentials, so to call them, bore upon a triumphant sojourn in Europe, long years before, in the hey-day of the high scholarly reputation of her husband, a dim displaced superseded celebrity at the time of my own observation. They (xi) had been "much made of," he and she, at various foreign centres of polite learning, and above all in the England of early Victorian days; and my hostess had lived ever since on the name and fame of it; a treasure of legend and anecdote laid up against the comparatively lean half-century, or whatever, that was to follow. For myself even, after this, a good slice of such a period had elapsed; yet with my continuing to believe that fond memory would still somehow be justified of this scrap too, along with so many others: the unextinguished sense of the temperature of the January morning on which the little Sunday breakfast-party, at half-past nine across the snow, had met to the music of a chilly ghostly kindly tinkle; that of the roomful of cherished echoes and of framed and glazed, presented and autographed and thumb-marked mementoes--the wealth of which was somehow explained (this was part of the legend) by the ancient, the at last almost prehistoric, glory of like matutinal hours, type and model of the emulous shrunken actual.
The justification I awaited, however, only came much later, on my catching some tender mention of certain admirable ladies, sisters and spinsters under the maternal roof, for whom the century was ebbing without remedy brought to their eminent misfortune (such a ground of sympathy always in the "good old" American days when the touching case was still possible) of not having "been to Europe." Exceptionally prepared by culture for going, they yet couldn't leave their immemorial mother, the headspring, precisely, of that grace in them, who on the occasion of each proposed start announced her approaching end--only to postpone it again after the plan was dished and the flight relinquished. So the century ebbed, and so Europe altered--for the worse--and so perhaps even a little did the sisters who sat in bondage; only so didn't at all the immemorial, the inextinguishable, the eternal mother. Striking to the last degree, I thought, that obscure, or at least that muffled, tragedy, which had the further interest of giving me on the spot a setting for my own so long uninserted gem and of enabling me to bring out with maximum confidence my inveterate (xii) "Dramatise!" "Make this ONE with such projection as you are free to permit yourself of the brooding parent in the other case," I duly remarked, "and the whole thing falls together; the paradise the good sisters are apparently never to attain becoming by this conversion just the social cake on which they have always been fed and that has so notoriously opened their appetite." Or something of that sort. I recognise that I so but express here the "plot" of my tale as it stands; except for so far as my formula, "something of that sort," was to make the case bristle with as many vivid values, with as thick and yet as clear a little complexity of interest, as possible. The merit of the thing is in the feat, once more, of the transfusion; the receptacle (of form) being so exiguous, the brevity imposed so great. I undertook the brevity, so often undertaken on a like scale before, and again arrived at it by the innumerable repeated chemical reductions and condensations that tend to make of the very short story, as I risk again noting, one of the costliest, even if, like the hard, shining sonnet, one of the most indestructible, forms of composition in general use. I accepted the rigour of its having, all sternly, in this case, to treat so many of its most appealing values as waste; and I now seek my comfort perforce in the mere exhibited result, the union of whatever fulness with whatever clearness.
"Our feeling is, you know, that Becky SHOULD go." That earnest little remark comes back to me, even after long years, as the first note of something that began, for my observation, the day I went with my sister-in-law to take leave of her good friends. It's a memory of the American time, which revives so at present--under some touch that doesn't signify--that it rounds itself off as an anecdote. That walk to say good-bye was the beginning; and the end, so far as I enjoyed a view of it, was not till long after; yet even the end also appears to me now as of the old days. I went, in those days, on occasion, to see my sister-in-law, in whose affairs, on my brother's death, I had had to take a helpful hand. I continued to go indeed after these little matters were straightened out, for the pleasure, periodically, of the impression--the change to the almost pastoral sweetness of the good Boston suburb from the loud longitudinal New York. It was another world, with other manners, a different tone, a different taste; a savour nowhere so mild, yet so distinct, as in the square white house--with the pair of elms, like gigantic wheat-sheaves, in front, the rustic orchard not far behind, the old-fashioned door-lights, the big blue-and-white jars in the porch, the straight bricked walk from the (342) high gate--that enshrined the extraordinary merit of Mrs. Rimmle and her three daughters.
These ladies were so much of the place and the place so much of themselves that from the first of their being revealed to me I felt that nothing else at Brookbridge much mattered. They were what, for me, at any rate, Brookbridge had most to give: I mean in the way of what it was naturally strongest in, the thing we called in New York the New England expression, the air of Puritanism reclaimed and refined. The Rimmles had brought this down to a wonderful delicacy. They struck me even then--all four almost equally--as very ancient and very earnest, and I think theirs must have been the house in all the world in which "culture" first came to the aid of morning calls. The head of the family was the widow of a great public character--as public characters were understood at Brookbridge--whose speeches on anniversaries formed a part of the body of national eloquence spouted in the New England schools by little boys covetous of the most marked, though perhaps the easiest, distinction. He was reported to have been celebrated, and in such fine declamatory connexions that he seemed to gesticulate even from the tomb. He was understood to have made, in his wife's company, the tour of Europe at a date not immensely removed from that of the battle of Waterloo. What was the age then of the bland firm antique Mrs. Rimmle at the period of her being first revealed to me? That's a point I'm not in a position to determine--I remember mainly that I was young enough to regard her as having reached the (343) limit. And yet the limit for Mrs. Rimmle must have been prodigiously extended; the scale of its extension is in fact the very moral of this reminiscence. She was old, and her daughters were old, but I was destined to know them all as older. It was only by comparison and habit that--however much I recede--Rebecca, Maria and Jane were the "young ladies."
I think it was felt that, though their mother's life, after thirty years of widowhood, had had a grand backward stretch, her blandness and firmness--and this in spite of her extreme physical frailty--would be proof against any surrender not overwhelmingly justified by time. It had appeared, years before, at a crisis of which the waves had not even yet quite subsided, a surrender not justified by anything nameable that she should go to Europe with her daughters and for her health. Her health was supposed to require constant support; but when it had at that period tried conclusions with the idea of Europe it was not the idea of Europe that had been insidious enough to prevail. She hadn't gone, and Becky, Maria and Jane hadn't gone, and this was long ago. They still merely floated in the air of the visit achieved, with such introductions and such acclamations, in the early part of the century; they still, with fond glances at the sunny parlour-walls, only referred, in conversation, to divers pictorial and other reminders of it. The Miss Rimmles had quite been brought up on it, but Becky, as the most literary, had most mastered the subject. There were framed letters--tributes to their eminent father--suspended among the mementoes, and of two or three of these, the most foreign (344) and complimentary, Becky had executed translations that figured beside the text. She knew already, through this and other illumination, so much about Europe that it was hard to believe for her in that limit of adventure which consisted only of her having been twice to Philadelphia. The others hadn't been to Philadelphia, but there was a legend that Jane had been to Saratoga. Becky was a short stout fair person with round serious eyes, a high forehead, the sweetest neatest enunciation, and a miniature of her father--"done in Rome"--worn as a breastpin. She had written the life, she had edited the speeches, of the original of this ornament, and now at last, beyond the seas, she was really to tread in his footsteps.
Fine old Mrs. Rimmle, in the sunny parlour and with a certain austerity of cap and chair--though with a gay new "front" that looked like rusty brown plush--had had so unusually good a winter that the question of her sparing two members of her family for an absence had been threshed as fine, I could feel, as even under that Puritan roof any case of conscience had ever been threshed. They were to make their dash while the coast, as it were, was clear, and each of the daughters had tried--heroically, angelically and for the sake of each of her sisters--not to be one of the two. What I encountered that first time was an opportunity to concur with enthusiasm in the general idea that Becky's wonderful preparation would be wasted if she were the one to stay with their mother. Their talk of Becky's preparation (they had a sly old-maidish humour that was as mild as milk) might have been of some mixture, for application somewhere, (345) that she kept in a precious bottle. It had been settled at all events that, armed with this concoction and borne aloft by their introductions, she and Jane were to start. They were wonderful on their introductions, which proceeded naturally from their mother and were addressed to the charming families that in vague generations had so admired vague Mr. Rimmle. Jane, I found at Brookbridge, had to be described, for want of other description, as the pretty one, but it wouldn't have served to identify her unless you had seen the others. HER preparation was only this figment of her prettiness--only, that is, unless one took into account something that, on the spot, I silently divined: the lifelong secret passionate ache of her little rebellious desire. They were all growing old in the yearning to go, but Jane's yearning was the sharpest. She struggled with it as people at Brookbridge mostly struggled with what they liked, but fate, by threatening to prevent what she DISliked and what was therefore duty--which was to stay at home instead of Maria--had bewildered her, I judged, not a little. It was she who, in the words I have quoted, mentioned to me Becky's case and Becky's affinity as the clearest of all. Her mother moreover had on the general subject still more to say.
"I positively desire, I really quite insist that they shall go," the old lady explained to us from her stiff chair. "We've talked about it so often, and they've had from me so clear an account--I've amused them again and again with it--of what's to be seen and enjoyed. If they've had hitherto too many duties to leave, the time seems to have come to recognise (346) that there are also many duties to SEEK. Wherever we go we find them--I always remind the girls of that. There's a duty that calls them to those wonderful countries, just as it called, at the right time, their father and myself--if it be only that of laying-up for the years to come the same store of remarkable impressions, the same wealth of knowledge and food for conversation as, since my return, I've found myself so happy to possess." Mrs. Rimmle spoke of her return as of something of the year before last, but the future of her daughters was somehow, by a different law, to be on the scale of great vistas, of endless aftertastes. I think that, without my being quite ready to say it, even this first impression of her was somewhat upsetting; there was a large placid perversity, a grim secrecy of intention, in her estimate of the ages.
"Well, I'm so glad you don't delay it longer," I said to Miss Becky before we withdrew. "And whoever should go," I continued in the spirit of the sympathy with which the good sisters had already inspired me, "I quite feel, with your family, you know, that YOU should. But of course I hold that every one should." I suppose I wished to attenuate my solemnity; there was, however, something in it I couldn't help. It must have been a faint foreknowledge.
"Have you been a great deal yourself?" Miss Jane, I remembered, enquired.
"Not so much but that I hope to go a good deal more. So perhaps we shall meet," I encouragingly suggested.
I recall something--something in the nature of (347) susceptibility to encouragement--that this brought into the more expressive brown eyes to which Miss Jane mainly owed it that she was the pretty one. "Where, do you think?"
I tried to think. "Well, on the Italian lakes--Como, Bellaggio, Lugano." I liked to say the names to them.
" 'Sublime, but neither bleak nor bare--nor misty are the mountains there!' " Miss Jane softly breathed, while her sister looked at her as if her acquaintance with the poetry of the subject made her the most interesting feature of the scene she evoked.
But Miss Becky presently turned to me. "Do you know everything--?"
"Oh yes," I laughed, "and one or two things even in America."
The sisters seemed to me furtively to look at each other. "Well, you'll have to be quick--to meet US," Miss Jane resumed.
"But surely when you're once there you'll stay on."
"Stay on?"--they murmured it simultaneously and with the oddest vibration of dread as well as of desire. It was as if they had been in presence of a danger and yet wished me, who "knew everything," to torment them with still more of it.
Well, I did my best. "I mean it will never do to cut it short."
"No, that's just what I keep saying," said brilliant Jane. "It would be better in that case not to go."
"Oh don't talk about not going--at this time!" (348) It was none of my business, but I felt shocked and impatient.
"No, not at THIS time!" broke in Miss Maria, who, very red in the face, had joined us. Poor Miss Maria was known as the flushed one; but she was not flushed--she only had an unfortunate surface. The third day after this was to see them embark.
Miss Becky, however, desired as little as any one to be in any way extravagant. "It's only the thought of our mother," she explained.
I looked a moment at the old lady, with whom my sister-in-law was engaged. "Well--your mother's magnificent."
"ISN'T she magnificent?"--they eagerly took it up.
She WAS--I could reiterate it with sincerity, though I perhaps mentally drew the line when Miss Maria again risked, as a fresh ejaculation: "I think she's better than Europe!"
"Maria!" they both, at this, exclaimed with a strange emphasis: it was as if they feared she had suddenly turned cynical over the deep domestic drama of their casting of lots. The innocent laugh with which she answered them gave the measure of her cynicism.
We separated at last, and my eyes met Mrs. Rimmle's as I held for an instant her aged hand. It was doubtless only my fancy that her calm cold look quietly accused me of something. Of what COULD it accuse me? Only, I thought, of thinking.
I left Brookbridge the next day, and for some time after that had no occasion to hear from my kinswoman; but when she finally wrote there was a passage in her letter that affected me more than all the rest. "Do you know the poor Rimmles never, after all, 'went'? The old lady, at the eleventh hour, broke down; everything broke down, and all of THEM on top of it, so that the dear things are with us still. Mrs. Rimmle, the night after our call, had, in the most unexpected manner, a turn for the worse--something in the nature (though they're rather mysterious about it) of a seizure; Becky and Jane felt it--dear devoted stupid angels that they are--heartless to leave her at such a moment, and Europe's indefinitely postponed. However, they think they're still going--or THINK they think it--when she's better. They also think--or think they think--that she WILL be better. I certainly pray she may." So did I--quite fervently. I was conscious of a real pang--I didn't know how much they had made me care.
Late that winter my sister-in-law spent a week in New York; when almost my first enquiry on meeting her was about the health of Mrs. Rimmle.
"Oh she's rather bad--she really is, you know. It's not surprising that at her age she should be infirm."
"Then what the deuce IS her age?"
(350) "I can't tell you to a year--but she's immensely old."
"That of course I saw," I replied--"unless you literally mean so old that the records have been lost."
My sister-in-law thought. "Well, I believe she wasn't positively young when she married. She lost three or four children before these women were born."
We surveyed together a little, on this, the "dark backward." "And they were born, I gather, AFTER the famous tour? Well then, as the famous tour was in a manner to celebrate--wasn't it?--the restoration of the Bourbons--" I considered, I gasped. "My dear child, what on earth do you make her out?"
My relative, with her Brookbridge habit, transferred her share of the question to the moral plane--turned it forth to wander, by implication at least, in the sandy desert of responsibility. "Well, you know, we all immensely admire her."
"You can't admire her more than I do. She's awful."
My converser looked at me with a certain fear. "She's REALLY ill."
"Too ill to get better?"
"Oh no--we hope not. Because then they'll be able to go."
"And WILL they go if she should?"
"Oh the moment they should be quite satisfied. I mean REALLY," she added.
I'm afraid I laughed at her--the Brookbridge "really" was a thing so by itself. "But if she shouldn't get better?" I went on.
"Oh don't speak of it! They want so to go."
(351) "It's a pity they're so infernally good," I mused.
"No--don't say that. It's what keeps them up."
"Yes, but isn't it what keeps HER up too?"
My visitor looked grave. "Would you like them to kill her?"
I don't know that I was then prepared to say I should--though I believe I came very near it. But later on I burst all bounds, for the subject grew and grew. I went again before the good sisters ever did--I mean I went to Europe. I think I went twice, with a brief interval, before my fate again brought round for me a couple of days at Brookbridge. I had been there repeatedly, in the previous time, without making the acquaintance of the Rimmles; but now that I had had the revelation I couldn't have it too much, and the first request I preferred was to be taken again to see them. I remember well indeed the scruple I felt--the real delicacy--about betraying that i had, in the pride of my power, since our other meeting, stood, as their phrase went, among romantic scenes; but they were themselves the first to speak of it, and what moreover came home to me was that the coming and going of their friends in general--Brookbridge itself having even at that period one foot in Europe--was such as to place constantly before them the pleasure that was only postponed. They were thrown back after all on what the situation, under a final analysis, had most to give--the sense that, as every one kindly said to them and they kindly said to every one, Europe would keep. Every one felt for them so deeply that their own kindness in alleviating every one's feeling was really what came out (352) most. Mrs. Rimmle was still in her stiff chair and in the sunny parlour, but if SHE made no scruple of introducing the Italian lakes my heart sank to observe that she dealt with them, as a topic, not in the least in the leave-taking manner in which Falstaff babbled of green fields.
I'm not sure that after this my pretexts for a day or two with my sister-in-law weren't apt to be a mere cover for another glimpse of these particulars: I at any rate never went to Brookbridge without an irrepressible eagerness for our customary call. A long time seems to me thus to have passed, with glimpses and lapses, considerable impatience and still more pity. Our visits indeed grew shorter, for, as my companion said, they were more and more of a strain. It finally struck me that the good sisters even shrank from me a little as from one who penetrated their consciousness in spite of himself. It was as if they knew where I thought they ought to be, and were moved to deprecate at last, by a systematic silence on the subject of that hemisphere, the criminality I fain would fix on them. They were full instead--as with the instinct of throwing dust in my eyes--of little pathetic hypocrisies about Brookbridge interests and delights. I dare say that as time went on my deeper sense of their situation came practically to rest on my companion's report of it. I certainly think I recollect every word we ever exchanged about them, even if I've lost the thread of the special occasions. The impression they made on me after each interval always broke out with extravagance as I walked away with her.
(353) "SHE may be as old as she likes--I don't care. It's the fearful age the 'girls' are reaching that constitutes the scandal. One shouldn't pry into such matters, I know; but the years and the chances are really going. They're all growing old together--it will presently be too late; and their mother meanwhile perches over them like a vulture--what shall I call it?--calculating. Is she waiting for them successively to drop off? She'll survive them each and all. There's something too remorseless in it."
"Yes, but what do you want her to do? If the poor thing CAN'T die she can't. Do you want her to take poison or to open a blood-vessel? I dare say she'd prefer to go."
"I beg your pardon," I must have replied; "you daren't say anything of the sort. If she'd prefer to go she WOULD go. She'd feel the propriety, the decency, the necessity of going. She just prefers NOT to go. She prefers to stay and keep up the tension, and her calling them 'girls' and talking of the good time they'll still have is the mere conscious mischief of a subtle old witch. They won't have ANY time--there isn't any time to have! I mean there's, on her own part, no real loss of measure or of perspective in it. She KNOWS she's a hundred and ten, and she takes a cruel pride in it."
My sister-in-law differed with me about this; she held that the old woman's attitude was an honest one and that her magnificent vitality, so great in spite of her infirmities, made it inevitable she should attribute youth to persons who had come into the world so much later. "Then suppose she should die?" (354)--so my fellow student of the case always put it to me.
"Do you mean while her daughters are away? There's not the least fear of that--not even if at the very moment of their departure she should be _in extremis_. They'd find her all right on their return."
"But think how they'd feel not to have been with her!"
"That's only, I repeat, on the unsound assumption. If they'd only go to-morrow--literally make a good rush for it--they'll be with her when they come back. That will give them plenty of time." I'm afraid I even heartlessly added that if she SHOULD, against every probability, pass away in their absence they wouldn't have to come back at all--which would be just the compensation proper to their long privation. And then Maria would come out to join the two others, and they would be--though but for the too scanty remnant of their career--as merry as the day is long.
I remained ready, somehow, pending the fulfilment of that vision, to sacrifice Maria; it was only over the urgency of the case for the others respectively that I found myself balancing. Sometimes it was for Becky I thought the tragedy deepest--sometimes, and in quite a different manner, I thought it most dire for Jane. It was Jane after all who had most sense of life. I seemed in fact dimly to descry in Jane a sense--as yet undescried by herself or by any one--of all sorts of queer things. Why didn't SHE go? I used desperately to ask; why didn't she make a bold personal dash for it, strike up a partnership (355) with some one or other of the travelling spinsters in whom Brookbridge more and more abounded? Well, there came a flash for me at a particular point of the grey middle desert: my correspondent was able to let me know that poor Jane at last HAD sailed. She had gone of a sudden--I liked my sister-in-law's view of suddenness--with the kind Hathaways, who had made an irresistible grab at her and lifted her off her feet. They were going for the summer and for Mr. Hathaway's health, so that the opportunity was perfect and it was impossible not to be glad that something very like physical force had finally prevailed. This was the general feeling at Brookbridge, and I might imagine what Brookbridge had been brought to from the fact that, at the very moment she was hustled off, the doctor, called to her mother at the peep of dawn, had considered that HE at least must stay. There had been real alarm--greater than ever before; it actually did seem as if this time the end had come. But it was Becky, strange to say, who, though fully recognising the nature of the crisis, had kept the situation in hand and insisted upon action. This, I remember, brought back to me a discomfort with which I had been familiar from the first. One of the two had sailed, and I was sorry it wasn't the other. But if it had been the other I should have been equally sorry.
I saw with my eyes that very autumn what a fool Jane would have been if she had again backed out. Her mother had of course survived the peril of which I had heard, profiting by it indeed as she had profited by every other; she was sufficiently better again to (356) have come downstairs. It was there that, as usual, I found her, but with a difference of effect produced somehow by the absence of one of the girls. It was as if, for the others, though they hadn't gone to Europe, Europe had come to them: Jane's letters had been so frequent and so beyond even what could have been hoped. It was the first time, however, that I perceived on the old woman's part a certain failure of lucidity. Jane's flight was clearly the great fact with her, but she spoke of it as if the fruit had now been plucked and the parenthesis closed. I don't know what sinking sense of still further physical duration I gathered, as a menace, from this first hint of her confusion of mind.
"My daughter has been; my daughter has been--" She kept saying it, but didn't say where; that seemed unnecessary, and she only repeated the words to her visitors with a face that was all puckers and yet now, save in so far as it expressed an ineffaceable complacency, all blankness. I think she rather wanted us to know how little she had stood in the way. It added to something--I scarce knew what--that I found myself desiring to extract privately from Becky. As our visit was to be of the shortest my opportunity--for one of the young ladies always came to the door with us--was at hand. Mrs. Rimmle, as we took leave, again sounded her phrase, but she added this time: "I'm so glad she's going to have always--"
I knew so well what she meant that, as she again dropped, looking at me queerly and becoming momentarily dim, I could help her out. "Going to have what YOU have?"
(357) "Yes, yes--my privilege. Wonderful experience," she mumbled. She bowed to me a little as if I would understand. "She has things to tell."
I turned, slightly at a loss, to Becky. "She has then already arrived?"
Becky was at that moment looking a little strangely at her mother, who answered my question. "She reached New York this morning--she comes on to-day."
"Oh then--!" But I let the matter pass as I met Becky's eye--I saw there was a hitch somewhere. It was not she but Maria who came out with us; on which I cleared up the question of their sister's reappearance.
"Oh no, not to-night," Maria smiled; "that's only the way mother puts it. We shall see her about the end of November--the Hathaways are so indulgent. They kindly extend their tour."
"For HER sake? How sweet of them!" my sister-in-law exclaimed.
I can see our friend's plain mild old face take on a deeper mildness, even though a higher colour, in the light of the open door. "Yes, it's for Jane they prolong it. And do you know what they write?" She gave us time, but it was too great a responsibility to guess. "Why that it has brought her out."
"Oh, I knew it WOULD!" my companion sympathetically sighed.
Maria put it more strongly still. "They say we wouldn't know her."
This sounded a little awful, but it was after all what I had expected.
My correspondent in Brookbridge came to me that Christmas, with my niece, to spend a week; and the arrangement had of course been prefaced by an exchange of letters, the first of which from my sister-in-law scarce took space for acceptance of my invitation before going on to say: "The Hathaways are back--but without Miss Jane!" She presented in a few words the situation thus created at Brookbridge, but was not yet, I gathered, fully in possession of the other one--the situation created in "Europe" by the presence there of that lady. The two together, however that might be, demanded, I quickly felt, all my attention, and perhaps my impatience to receive my relative was a little sharpened by my desire for the whole story. I had it at last, by the Christmas fire, and I may say without reserve that it gave me all I could have hoped for. I listened eagerly, after which I produced the comment: "Then she simply refused--"
"To budge from Florence? Simply. She had it out there with the poor Hathaways, who felt responsible for her safety, pledged to restore her to her mother's, to her sisters' hands, and showed herself in a light, they mention under their breath, that made their dear old hair stand on end. Do you know what, when they first got back, they said of her--at least it was HIS phrase--to two or three people?"
(359) I thought a moment. "That she had 'tasted blood'?"
My visitor fairly admired me. "How clever of you to guess! It's exactly what he did say. She appeared--she continues to appear, it seems--in a new character."
I wondered a little. "But that's exactly--don't you remember?--what Miss Maria reported to us from them; that we 'wouldn't know her.' "
My sister-in-law perfectly remembered. "Oh yes--she broke out from the first. But when they left her she was worse."
"Well, different--different from anything she ever HAD been or--for that matter--had had a chance to be." My reporter hung fire a moment, but presently faced me. "Rather strange and free and obstreperous."
"Obstreperous?" I wondered again.
"Peculiarly so, I inferred, on the question of not coming away. She wouldn't hear of it and, when they spoke of her mother, said she had given her mother up. She had thought she should like Europe, but didn't know she should like it so much. They had been fools to bring her if they expected to take her away. She was going to see what she could--she hadn't yet seen half. The end of it at any rate was that they had to leave her alone."
I seemed to see it all--to see even the scared Hathaways. "So she IS alone?"
"She told them, poor thing, it appears, and in a tone they'll never forget, that she was in any case (360) quite old enough to be. She cried--she quite went on--over not having come sooner. That's why the only way for her," my companion mused, "IS, I suppose, to stay. They wanted to put her with some people or other--to find some American family. But she says she's on her own feet."
"And she's still in Florence?"
"No--I believe she was to travel. She's bent on the East."
I burst out laughing. "Magnificent Jane! It's most interesting. Only I feel that I distinctly SHOULD 'know' her. To my sense, always, I must tell you, she had it in her."
My relative was silent a little. "So it now appears Becky always felt."
"And yet pushed her off? Magnificent Becky!"
My companion met my eyes a moment. "You don't know the queerest part. I mean the way it has MOST brought her out."
I turned it over; I felt I should like to know--to that degree indeed that, oddly enough, I jocosely disguised my eagerness. "You don't mean she has taken to drink?"
My visitor had a dignity--and yet had to have a freedom. "She has taken to flirting."
I expressed disappointment. "Oh she took to THAT long ago. Yes," I declared at my kinswoman's stare, "she positively flirted--with ME!"
The stare perhaps sharpened. "Then you flirted with HER?"
"How else could I have been as sure as I wanted to be? But has she means?"
(361) "Means to flirt?"--my friend looked an instant as if she spoke literally. "I don't understand about the means--though of course they have something. But I have my impression," she went on. "I think that Becky--" It seemed almost too grave to say.
But i had no doubts. "That Becky's backing her?"
She brought it out. "Financing her."
"Stupendous Becky! So that morally then--"
"Becky's quite in sympathy. But isn't it too odd?" my sister-in-law asked.
"Not in the least. Didn't we know, as regards Jane, that Europe was to bring her out? Well, it has also brought out Rebecca."
"It has indeed!" my companion indulgently sighed. "So what would it do if she were there?"
"I should like immensely to see. And we SHALL see."
"Do you believe then she'll still go?"
"Certainly. She MUST."
But my friend shook it off. "She won't."
"She shall!" I retorted with a laugh. But the next moment I said: "And what does the old woman say?"
"To Jane's behaviour? Not a word--never speaks of it. She talks now much less than she used--only seems to wait. But it's my belief she thinks."
"And--do you mean--knows?"
"Yes, knows she's abandoned. In her silence there she takes it in."
"It's her way of making Jane pay?" At this, (362) somehow, I felt more serious. "Oh dear, dear--she'll disinherit her!"
When in the following June I went on to return my sister-in-law's visit the first object that met my eyes in her little white parlour was a figure that, to my stupefaction, presented itself for the moment as that of Mrs. Rimmle. I had gone to my room after arriving and had come down when dressed; the apparition I speak of had arisen in the interval. Its ambiguous character lasted, however, but a second or two--I had taken Becky for her mother because I knew no one but her mother of that extreme age. Becky's age was quite startling; it had made a great stride, though, strangely enough, irrecoverably seated as she now was in it, she had a wizened brightness that I had scarcely yet seen in her. I remember indulging on this occasion in two silent observations: one on the article of my not having hitherto been conscious of her full resemblance to the old lady, and the other to the effect that, as I had said to my sister-in-law at Christmas, "Europe," even as reaching her only through Jane's sensibilities, had really at last brought her out. She was in fact "out" in a manner of which this encounter offered to my eyes a unique example: it was the single hour, often as I had been at Brookbridge, of my meeting her elsewhere than in her mother's drawing-room. I surmise that, besides being adjusted to her more marked time of life, the garments she wore abroad, and in particular her little plain bonnet, presented points of resemblance to the close sable sheath and the quaint old headgear that, in the white house behind the elms, I had from far (363) back associated with the eternal image in the stiff chair. Of course I immediately spoke of Jane, showing an interest and asking for news; on which she answered me with a smile, but not at all as I had expected.
"THOSE are not really the things you want to know--where she is, whom she's with, how she manages and where she's going next--oh no!" And the admirable woman gave a laugh that was somehow both light and sad--sad, in particular, with a strange long weariness. "What you do want to know is when she's coming back."
I shook my head very kindly, but out of a wealth of experience that, I flattered myself, was equal to Miss Becky's. "I do know it. Never."
Miss Becky exchanged with me at this a long deep look. "Never."
We had, in silence, a little luminous talk about it, at the end of which she seemed to have told me the most interesting things. "And how's your mother?" I then enquired.
She hesitated, but finally spoke with the same serenity. "My mother's all right. You see she's not alive."
"Oh Becky!" my sister-in-law pleadingly interjected.
But Becky only addressed herself to me. "Come and see if she is. i think she isn't--but Maria perhaps isn't so clear. Come at all events and judge and tell me."
It was a new note, and I was a little bewildered. "Ah but I'm not a doctor!"
(364) "No, thank God--you're not. That's why I ask you." And now she said good-bye.
I kept her hand a moment. "YOU'RE more alive than ever!"
"I'm very tired." She took it with the same smile, but for Becky it was much to say.
"Not alive," the next day, was certainly what Mrs. Rimmle looked when, arriving in pursuit of my promise, I found her, with Miss Maria, in her usual place. Though wasted and shrunken she still occupied her high-backed chair with a visible theory of erectness, and her intensely aged face--combined with something dauntless that belonged to her very presence and that was effective even in this extremity--might have been that of some immemorial sovereign, of indistinguishable sex, brought forth to be shown to the people in disproof of the rumour of extinction. Mummified and open-eyed she looked at me, but I had no impression that she made me out. I had come this time without my sister-in-law, who had frankly pleaded to me--which also, for a daughter of Brookbridge, was saying much--that the house had grown too painful. Poor Miss Maria excused Miss Becky on the score of her not being well--and that, it struck me, was saying most of all. The absence of the others gave the occasion a different note; but I talked with Miss Maria for five minutes and recognised that--save for her saying, of her own movement, anything about Jane--she now spoke as if her mother had lost hearing or sense, in fact both, alluding freely and distinctly, though indeed favourably, to her condition. "She has expected your visit and much enjoys it," my entertainer said, while the (366) old woman, soundless and motionless, simply fixed me without expression. Of course there was little to keep me; but I became aware as I rose to go that there was more than I had supposed.
On my approaching her to take leave Mrs. Rimmle gave signs of consciousness. "Have you heard about Jane?"
I hesitated, feeling a responsibility, and appealed for direction to Maria's face. But Maria's face was troubled, was turned altogether to her mother's. "About her life in Europe?" I then rather helplessly asked.
The old lady fronted me on this in a manner that made me feel silly. "Her life?"--and her voice, with this second effort, came out stronger. "Her death, if you please."
"Her death?" I echoed, before I could stop myself, with the accent of deprecation.
Miss Maria uttered a vague sound of pain, and I felt her turn away, but the marvel of her mother's little unquenched spark still held me. "Jane's dead. We've heard," said Mrs. Rimmle. "We've heard from--where is it we've heard from?" She had quite revived--she appealed to her daughter.
The poor old girl, crimson, rallied to her duty. "From Europe."
Mrs. Rimmle made at us both a little grim inclination of the head. "From Europe." I responded, in silence, by a deflexion from every rigour, and, still holding me, she went on: "And now Rebecca's going."
She had gathered by this time such emphasis to (367) say it that again, before I could help myself, I vibrated in reply. "To Europe--now?" It was as if for an instant she had made me believe it.
She only stared at me, however, from her wizened mask; then her eyes followed my companion. "Has she gone?"
"Not yet, mother." Maria tried to treat it as a joke, but her smile was embarrassed and dim.
"Then where is she?"
"She's lying down."
The old woman kept up her hard queer gaze, but directing it after a minute to me. "She's going."
"Oh some day!" I foolishly laughed; and on this I got to the door, where I separated from my younger hostess, who came no further.
Only, as I held the door open, she said to me under cover of it and very quietly: "It's poor mother's idea."
I saw--it was her idea. Mine was--for some time after this, even after I had returned to New York and to my usual occupations--that I should never again see Becky. I had seen her for the last time, I believed, under my sister-in-law's roof, and in the autumn it was given to me to hear from that fellow admirer that she had succumbed at last to the situation. The day of the call I have just described had been a date in the process of her slow shrinkage--it was literally the first time she had, as they said at Brookbridge, given up. She had been ill for years, but the other state of health in the contemplation of which she had spent so much of her life had left her till too late no margin for heeding it. The power of attention (368) came at last simply in the form of the discovery that it WAS too late; on which, naturally, she had given up more and more. I had heard indeed, for weeks before, by letter, how Brookbridge had watched her do so; in consequence of which the end found me in a manner prepared. Yet in spite of my preparation there remained with me a soreness, and when I was next--it was some six months later--on the scene of her martyrdom I fear I replied with an almost rabid negative to the question put to me in due course by my kinswoman. "Call on them? Never again!"
I went none the less the very next day. Everything was the same in the sunny parlour--everything that most mattered, I mean: the centenarian mummy in the high chair and the tributes, in the little frames on the walls, to the celebrity of its late husband. Only Maria Rimmle was different: if Becky, on my last seeing her, had looked as old as her mother, Maria--save that she moved about--looked older. I remember she moved about, but I scarce remember what she said; and indeed what was there to say? When I risked a question, however, she found a reply.
"But NOW at least--?" I tried to put it to her suggestively.
At first she was vague. " 'Now'?"
"Won't Miss Jane come back?"
Oh the headshake she gave me! "Never." It positively pictured to me, for the instant, a well-preserved woman, a rich ripe _seconde jeunesse_ by the Arno.
(369) "Then that's only to make more sure of your finally joining her."
Maria Rimmle repeated her headshake. "Never."
We stood so a moment bleakly face to face; I could think of no attenuation that would be particularly happy. But while I tried I heard a hoarse gasp that fortunately relieved me--a signal strange and at first formless from the occupant of the high-backed chair. "Mother wants to speak to you," Maria then said.
So it appeared from the drop of the old woman's jaw, the expression of her mouth opened as if for the emission of sound. It was somehow difficult to me to seem to sympathise without hypocrisy, but, so far as a step nearer could do that, I invited communication. "Have you heard where Becky's gone?" the wonderful witch's white lips then extraordinarily asked.
It drew from Maria, as on my previous visit, an uncontrollable groan, and this in turn made me take time to consider. As I considered, however, I had an inspiration. "To Europe?"
I must have adorned it with a strange grimace, but my inspiration had been right. "To Europe," said Mrs. Rimmle.