by Wilkie Collins
[Introduced by an Innocent Old Man.]
MY young bachelor friends, suspend your ordinary avocations for a few minutes and listen to me. I am a benevolent old gentleman, residing in a small country town, possessing a comfortable property, a devoted housekeeper, and some charming domestic animals. I have no wife, no children, no poor relations, no cares, and nothing to do. I am a nice, harmless, idle old man; and I want to have a word with you in confidence, my worthy young bachelor friends.
I have a mania. Is it saving money? No. Good living? No. Music? Smoking? Angling? Pottery? Pictures? No, no, no--nothing of the selfish sort. My mania is as amiable as myself: it contemplates nothing less than the future happiness of all the single ladies of my acquaintance. I call them My Spinsters; and the one industrious object of my idle existence is to help them to a matrimonial settlement in life. In my own youth I missed the chance of getting a wife, as I have always firmly believed, for want of meeting with a tender-hearted old gentleman like myself to help me to the necessary spinster.
It is possibly this reflection which originally led to the formation of the benevolent mania that now possesses me. Perhaps sheer idleness, a gallant turn of mind, and living in a small country town, have had something to do with it also. You see I shirk nothing. I do not attempt any deception as to the motive which induces me to call you together. I appear before you in the character of an amateur matrimonial agent having a few choice spinsters to dispose of; and I can wait patiently, my brisk young bachelor friends, until I find that you are ready to make me a bid.
Shall we proceed at once to business? Shall we try some soft and sentimental spinsters to begin with? I am anxious to avoid mistakes at the outset, and I think softness and sentiment are perhaps the safest attractions to start upon. Let us begin with the six unmarried sisters of my friend Mr. Bettifer.
I became acquainted, gentlemen, with Mr. Bettifer in our local reading-rooms, immediately after he came to settle in my neighborhood. He was then a very young man, in delicate health, with a tendency to melancholy and a turn for metaphysics. I profited by his invitation as soon as he was kind enough to ask me to call on him; and I found that he lived with his six sisters, under the following agreeable circumstances.
On the morning of my visit I was shown into a very long room, with a piano at one end of it and an easel at another. Mr. Bettifer was alone at his writing-desk when I came in. I apologized for interrupting him, but he very politely assured me that my presence acted as an inestimable relief to his mind, which had been stretched--to use his own strong language--on the metaphysical rack all the morning. He gave his forehead a violent rub as he mentioned this circumstance, and we sat down and looked seriously at one another in silence. Though not at all a bashful old man, I began, nevertheless, to feel a little confused at this period of the interview.
"I know no question so embarrassing," began Mr. Bettifer, by way of starting the talk pleasantly, "as the question on which I have been engaged this morning--I refer to the subject of our own Personality. Here am I, and there are you--let us say two Personalities. Are we a permanent, or are we a transient thing? There is the problem, my dear sir, which I have been vainly trying to solve since breakfast-time. Can you (metaphysically speaking) be one and the same person, for example, for two moments together, any more than two successive moments can be one and the same moment?--My sister Kitty."
The door opened as my host propounded this alarming dilemma, and a tall young lady glided serenely into the room. I rose and bowed. The tall young lady sank softly into a chair opposite me. Mr. Bettifer went on:
"You may tell me that our substance is constantly changing. I grant you that; but do you get me out of the difficulty? Not the least in the world. For it is not substance, but--My sister Maria."
The door opened again. A second tall young lady glided in, and sank into a chair by her sister's side. Mr. Bettifer went on:
"As I was about to remark, it is not substance, but consciousness, which constitutes Personality. Now, what is the nature of consciousness?--My sisters Emily and Jane."
The door opened for the third time, and two tall young ladies glided in, and sank into two chairs by the sides of their two sisters. Mr. Bettifer went on:
"The nature of consciousness I take to be that it cannot be the same in any two moments, nor, consequently, the personality constituted by it. Do you grant me that?"
Lost in metaphysical bewilderment, I granted it directly. Just as I said yes, the door opened again; a fifth tall young lady glided in, and assisted in lengthening the charming row formed by her sisters. Mr. Bettifer murmured indicatively, "My sister Elizabeth," and made a note of what I had granted him on the manuscript by his side.
"What lovely weather," I remarked, to change the conversation.
"Beautiful!" answered five melodious voices.
The door opened again.
"Beautiful, indeed!" said a sixth melodious voice.
"My sister Harriet," said Mr. Bettifer, finishing his note of my metaphysical admission.
They all sat in one fascinating row. It was like being at a party. I felt uncomfortable in my colored trousers--more uncomfortable still, when Mr. Bettifer's sixth sister begged that she might not interrupt our previous conversation.
"We are so fond of metaphysical subjects," said Miss Elizabeth.
"Except that we think them rather exhausting for dear Alfred," said Miss Jane.
"Dear Alfred!" repeated the Misses Emily, Maria and Kitty, in mellifluous chorus.
Not having a heart of stone, I was so profoundly touched that I would have tried to resume the subject. But Mr. Bettifer waved his hand impatiently, and declared that my admission had increased the difficulties of the original question until they had become quite insuperable. I had, it appeared, innocently driven him to the conclusion that our present self was not our yesterday's self, but another self mistaken for it, which, in its turn, had no connection with the self of to-morrow. As this certainly sounded rather unsatisfactory, I agreed with Mr. Bettifer that we had exhausted that particular view of the subject, and that we had better defer starting another until a future opportunity. An embarrassing pause followed our renunciation of metaphysics for the day. Miss Elizabeth broke the silence by asking me if I was fond of pictures; and before I could say Yes, Miss Harriet followed her by asking me if I was fond of music. "Will you show your picture, dear?" said Miss Elizabeth to Miss Harriet.
"Will you sing, dear?" said Miss Harriet to Miss Elizabeth.
"Do, dear!" said the Misses Jane and Emily to Miss Elizabeth.
"Do, dear!" said the Misses Maria and Kitty to Miss Harriet.
There was an artless symmetry and balance of affection in all that these six sensitive creatures said and did. The fair Elizabeth was followed to the end of the room where the piano was, by Jane and Emily. The lovely Harriet was attended in the direction of the easel by Maria and Kitty. I went to see the picture first.
The scene was the bottom of the sea; and the subject, "A Forsaken Mermaid." The unsentimental, or fishy lower half of the sea-nymph was dexterously hidden in a coral grove before which she was sitting, in an atmosphere of limpid blue water. She had beautiful long green hair, and was shedding those solid tears which we always see in pictures and never in real life. Groups of pet fishes circled around her with their eyes fixed mournfully on their forlorn mistress. A line at the top of the picture, and a strip of blue above it, represented the surface of the ocean and the sky; the monotony of this part of the composition being artfully broken by a receding golden galley with a purple sail, containing the fickle fisher-youth who had forsaken the mermaid. I had hardly had time to say what a beautiful picture it was, before Miss Maria put her handkerchief to her eyes, and, overcome by the pathetic nature of the scene portrayed, hurriedly left the room. Miss Kitty followed, to attend on and console her; and Miss Harriet, after covering up her picture with a sigh, followed to assist Miss Kitty. I began to doubt whether I ought not to have gone out next, to support all three; but Mr. Bettifer, who had hitherto remained in the background, lost in metaphysical speculation, came forward to remind me that the music was waiting to claim my admiration next.
"Excuse their excessive sensibility," he said. "I have done my best to harden them and make them worldly; but it is not of the slightest use. Will you come to the piano?"
Miss Elizabeth began to sing immediately, with the attendant sylphs, Jane and Emily, on either side of her, to turn over the music.
The song was a ballad composition--music and words by the lovely singer herself. A lady was dreaming in an ancient castle; a dog was howling in a ruined courtyard; an owl was hooting in a neighboring forest; a tyrant was striding in an echoing hall; and a page was singing among moonlit flowers. First five verses. Pause-- and mournful symphony on the piano, in the minor key. Ballad resumed: The lady wakes with a scream. The tyrant loads his arquebus. The faithful page, hearing the scream among the moonlit flowers, advances to the castle. The dog gives a warning bark. The tyrant fires a chance shot in the darkness. The page welters in his blood. The lady dies of a broken heart. Miss Jane is so affected by the catastrophe that Miss Emily is obliged to lead her from the room; and Miss Elizabeth is so anxious about them both as to be forced to shut up the piano, and hasten after them, with a smelling bottle in her hand. Conclusion of the performance, and final exit of the six Miss Bettifers.
Tell yourselves off, my fortunate young bachelor friends, to the corresponding number of half a dozen, with your offers ready on your tongues, and your hearts thrown open to tender investigation, while favorable circumstances yet give you a chance. My boys, my eager boys, do you want pale cheeks, limpid eyes, swan-like necks, low waists, tall forms, and no money? You do--I know you do. Go, then, enviable youths--go tenderly--go immediately--go by sixes at a time, and try your luck with the Misses Bettifer!
Let me now appeal to other, and possibly to fewer tastes, by trying a sample of a new kind. It shall be something neither soft, yielding, nor hysterical this time. You who agree with the poet that
"Discourse may want an animated No,
To brush the surface and to make it flow--"
you who like girls to have opinions of their own, and to play their parts spiritedly in the give and take of conversation, do me the favor to approach, and permit me to introduce you to the three Misses Cruttwell. At the same time, gentlemen, I must inform you, with my usual candor, that these spinsters are short, sharp, and on occasion, shrill. You must have a talent for arguing, and a knack at instantaneous definition, or you will find the Misses Cruttwell too much for you, and had better wait for my next sample. And yet for a certain peculiar class of customer these are really very choice spinsters. For instance, any unmarried legal gentleman, who would like to have his wits kept sharp for his profession by constant disputation, could not do better than address himself (as logically as possible) to one of the Misses Cruttwell. Perhaps my legal bachelor will be so obliging as to accompany me on a morning call?
It is a fine spring day, with a light air and plenty of round white clouds flying over the blue sky, when we pay our visit. We find the three young ladies in the morning-room. Miss Martha Cruttwell is fond of statistical subjects, and is annotating a pamphlet. Miss Barbara Cruttwell likes geology, and is filling a cabinet with ticketed bits of stone. Miss Charlotte Cruttwell has a manly taste for dogs, and is nursing two fat puppies on her lap. All three have florid complexions; all three have a habit of winking both eyes incessantly, and a way of wearing their hair very tight, and very far off their faces. All three acknowledge my young legal friend's bow in--what may seem to him--a very short, sharp manner; and modestly refrain from helping him by saying a word to begin the conversation. He is, perhaps, unreasonably disconcerted by this, and therefore starts the talk weakly by saying that it is a fine day.
"Fine!" exclaims Miss Martha, with a look of amazement at her sister. "Fine!" with a stare of perplexity at my young legal friend. "Dear me! what do you mean, now, by a fine day?"
"We were just saying how cold it was," says Miss Barbara.
"And how very like rain," says Miss Charlotte, with a look at the white clouds outside, which happen to be obscuring the sun for a few minutes.
"But what do you mean, now, by a fine day?" persists Miss Martha.
My young legal friend is put on his mettle by this time, and answers with professional readiness:
"At this uncertain spring season, my definition of a fine day is a day on which you do not feel the want of your great-coat, your galoches, or your umbrella."
"Oh, no," says Miss Martha, "surely not! At least, that does not appear to me to be at all a definition of a fine day. Barbara? Charlotte?"
"We think it quite impossible to call a day-- when the sun is not shining--a fine day," says Miss Barbara.
"We think that when clouds are in the sky there is always a chance of rain; and, when there is a chance of rain, we think it is very extraordinary to say that it is a fine day," adds Miss Charlotte.
My legal bachelor starts another topic, and finds his faculty for impromptu definition exercised by the three Misses Cruttwell, always in the same briskly disputatious manner. He goes away--as I hope and trust--thinking what an excellent lawyer's wife any one of the three young ladies would make. If he could only be present in the spirit, after leaving the abode of the Misses Cruttwell in the body, his admiration of my three disputatious spinsters would, I think, be greatly increased. He would find that, though they could all agree to a miracle in differing with him while he was present, they would begin to vary in opinion the moment their visitor's subjects of conversation were referred to in his absence. He would, probably, for example, hear them take up the topic of the weather again, the instant the house door had closed after him, in these terms:
"Do you know," he might hear Miss Martha say, "I am not so sure after all, Charlotte, that you were right in saying that it could not be a fine day, because there were clouds in the sky?"
"You only say that," Miss Charlotte would be sure to reply, "because the sun happens to be peeping out, just now, for a minute or two. If it rains in half an hour, which is more than likely, who would be right then?"
"On reflection," Miss Barbara might remark next, "I don't agree with either of you, and I also dispute the opinion of the gentleman who has just left us. It is neither a fine day nor a bad day."
"But it must be one or the other."
"No, it needn't. It may be an indifferent day."
"What do you mean by an indifferent day?"
So they go on, these clever girls of mine, these mistresses in the art of fencing applied to the tongue. I have not presented this sample from my collection, as one which is likely to suit any great number. But there are peculiarly constituted bachelors in this world; and I like to be able to show that my assortment of spinsters is various enough to warrant me in addressing even the most alarming eccentricities of taste. "Will nobody offer for this disputatious sample--not even for the dog-fancying Miss Charlotte, with the two fat puppies thrown in? No? Take away the Misses Cruttwell, and let us try what we can do, thirdly and lastly, with the Misses Ducksey produced in their place.
I confidently anticipate a brisk competition and a ready market for the spinsters now about to be submitted to inspection. You have already had a sentimental sample, gentlemen, and a disputatious sample. In now offering a domestic sample, I have but one regret, which is, that my spinsters on the present occasion are unhappily limited to two in number. I wish I had a dozen to produce of the same interesting texture and the same unimpeachable quality.
The whole world, gentlemen, at the present writing, means, in the estimation of the two Misses Ducksey, papa, mamma, and brother George. This loving sample can be warranted never yet to have looked beyond the sacred precincts of the family circle. All their innocent powers of admiration and appreciation have been hitherto limited within the boundaries of home. If Miss Violet Ducksey wants to see a lovely girl, she looks at Miss Rose Ducksey, and vice versa; if both want to behold manly dignity, matronly sweetness, and youthful beauty, both look immediately at papa, mamma, and brother George. I have been admitted into the unparalleled family circle of which I now speak. I have seen--to say nothing, for the present, of papa and mamma--I have seen brother George come in from business, and sit down by the fireside, and be welcomed by Miss Violet and Miss Rose, as if he had just returned, after having been reported dead, from the other end of the world. I have seen those two devoted sisters race across the room, in fond contention which should sit first on brother George's knee. I have even seen both sit upon him together, each taking a knee, when he has been half an hour later than usual at the office. I have never beheld their lovely arms tired of clasping brother George's neck, never heard their rosy lips cease kissing brother George's cheeks, except when they were otherwise occupied for the moment in calling him "Dear!" On the word of honor of a harmless spinster-fancying old man, I declare that I have seen brother George fondled to such an extent by his sisters that, although a lusty and long-suffering youth, he has fallen asleep under it from sheer exhaustion. Even then, I have observed Miss Rose and Miss Violet contending (in each other's arms) which should have the privilege of casting her handkerchief over his face. And that touching contest concluded, I have quitted the house at a late hour, leaving Violet on papa's bosom, and Rose entwined, round mamma's waist. Beautiful! beautiful!
Am I exaggerating? Go and judge for yourselves, my bachelor friends. Go, if you like, and meet my domestic sample at a ball.
My bachelor is introduced to Miss Violet, and takes his place with her in a quadrille. He begins a lively conversation, and finds her attention wandering. She has not heard a word that he has been saying, and she interrupts him in the middle of a sentence with a question which has not the slightest relation to anything that he has hitherto offered by way of a remark.
"Have you ever met my sister Rose before?"
"No, I have not had the honor--"
"She is standing there, at the other end, in a blue dress. Now, do tell me, does she not look charming?"
My bachelor makes the necessary answer, and goes on to another subject. Miss Violet's attention wanders again, and she asks another abrupt question:
"What did you think of mamma when you were introduced to her?"
My bachelor friend makes another necessary answer. Miss Violet, without appearing to be at all impressed by it, looks into the distance in search of her maternal parent, and then addresses her partner again:
"It is not a pleasant thing for young people to confess," she says, with the most artless candor, "but I really do think that mamma is the handsomest woman in the room. There she is, taking an ice, next to the old lady with the diamonds. Is she not beautiful? Do you know, when we were dressing to-night, Rose and I begged and prayed her not to wear a cap. We said, 'Don't, mamma; please don't. Put it off for another year.' And mamma said, in her sweet way, 'Nonsense, my loves! I am an old woman. You must accustom yourselves to that idea, and you must let me wear a cap; you must, darlings, indeed.' And we said--what do you think we said?"
(Another necessary answer.)
"We said, 'You are studying papa's feelings, dear--you are afraid of being taken for our youngest sister if you go in your hair--and it is on papa's account that you wear a cap. Sly mamma!'-- Have you been introduced to papa?"
Later in the evening my bachelor friend is presented to Miss Rose. He asks for the honor of dancing with her. She inquires if it is for the waltz, and hearing that it is, draws back and courtesies apologetically.
"Thank you, I must keep the waltz for my brother George. My sister and I always keep waltzes for our brother George."
My bachelor draws back. The dance proceeds. He hears a soft voice behind him. It is Miss Violet who is speaking.
"You are a judge of waltzing?" she says, in tones of the gentlest insinuation. "Do pray look at George and Rose. No, thank you; I never dance when George and Rose are waltzing. It is a much greater treat to me to look on. I always look on. I do, indeed." Perhaps my bachelor does not frequent balls. It is of no consequence. Let him be a diner-out; let him meet my domestic sample at the social board; and he will only witness fresh instances of that all-absorbing interest in each other which is the remarkable peculiarity of the whole Ducksey family, and of the young ladies in particular. He will find them admiring one another with the same touching and demonstrative affection over the dishes on the dinner-table as amid the mazes of the dance. He will hear from the venerable Mr. Ducksey that George never gave him a moment's uneasiness from the hour of his birth. He will hear from Mrs. Ducksey that her one regret in this life is, that she can never be thankful enough for her daughters. And (to return to the young ladies, who are the main objects of these remarks) he will find, by some such fragments of dialogue as the following, that no general subjects of conversation whatever have the power of alluring the minds of the two Miss Duckseys from the contemplation of their own domestic interests, and the faithful remembrance of their own particular friends.
It is the interval, let us say, between the removal of the fish and the appearance of the meat. The most brilliant man in the company has been talking with great sprightliness and effect; has paused for a moment to collect his ideas before telling one of the good stories for which he is famous; and is just ready to begin--when Miss Rose stops him and silences all her neighbors by anxiously addressing her sister, who sits opposite to her at the table.
(Profound silence follows. The next course fails to make its appearance. Nobody wanting to take any wine. The brilliant guest sits back in his chair, dogged and speechless. The host and hostess look at each other nervously. Miss Rose goes on with the happy artlessness of a child, as if nobody but her sister was present.) "Do you know I have made up my mind what I shall give mamma's Susan when she is married?"
"Not a silk dress? That's my present."
"What do you think, dear, of a locket with our hair in it?"
(The silence of the tomb falls on the dinner-table. The host and hostess begin to get angry. The guests look at each other. The second course persists in not coming in. The brilliant guest suffers from a dry cough. Miss Violet, in her turn, addresses Miss Rose across the table.)
"Rose, I met Ellen Davis to-day."
"Has she heard from Clara?"
"Yes; Clara's uncle and aunt won't let her come."
"Tiresome people! Did you go on to Brompton? Did you see Jane? Is Jane to be depended on?"
"If Jane's cold gets better, she and that odious cousin of hers are sure to come. Uncle Frank, of course, makes his usual excuse."
So the simple-hearted sisters prattle on in public; so do they carry their own innocent affections and interests about with them into the society they adorn; so do they cast the extinguishing sunshine of their young hearts over the temporary flashes of worldly merriment, and the short-lived blaze of dinner eloquence. Without another word of preliminary recommendation, I confidently submit the Misses Ducksey to brisk public competition. I can promise the two fortunate youths who may woo and win them plenty of difficulties in weaning their affections from the family hearth, with showers of tears and poignant bursts of anguish on the wedding-day. All properly-constituted bridegrooms feel, as I have been given to understand, inexpressibly comforted and encouraged by a display of violent grief on the part of the bride when she is starting on her wedding tour. And, besides, in the particular case of the Misses Ducksey, there would always be the special resource of taking brother George into the carriage, as a sure palliative, during the first few stages of the honey-moon trip.