Story type: Literature
“Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is HE sure to bless?”
Hymn of the Eastern Church.
A FAMILY FAILING.
We are a very ill-tempered family.
I want to say it, and not to unsay it by any explanations, because I think it is good for us to face the fact in the unadorned form in which it probably presents itself to the minds of our friends.
Amongst ourselves we have always admitted it by pieces, as it were, or in negative propositions. We allow that we are firm of disposition; we know that we are straightforward; we show what we feel. We have opinions and principles of our own; we are not so thick-skinned as some good people, nor as cold-blooded as others.
When two of us quarrelled (and Nurse used to say that no two of us ever agreed), the provocation always seemed, to each of us, great enough amply to excuse the passion. But I have reason to think that people seldom exclaimed, “What grievances those poor children are exasperated with!” but that they often said, “What terrible tempers they all have!”
There are five of us: Philip and I are the eldest; we are twins. My name is Isobel, and I never allow it to be shortened into the ugly word Bella nor into the still more hideous word Izzy, by either the servants or the children. My aunt Isobel never would, and neither will I.
“The children” are the other three. They are a good deal younger than Philip and I, so we have always kept them in order. I do not mean that we taught them to behave wonderfully well, but I mean that we made them give way to us elder ones. Among themselves they squabbled dreadfully.
We are a very ill-tempered family.
ILL-TEMPERED PEOPLE AND THEIR FRIENDS–NARROW ESCAPES–THE HATCHET-QUARREL.
I do not wish for a moment to defend ill-temper, but I do think that people who suffer from ill-tempered people often talk as if they were the only ones who do suffer in the matter; and as if the ill-tempered people themselves quite enjoyed being in a rage.
And yet how much misery is endured by those who have never got the victory over their own ill-temper! To feel wretched and exasperated by little annoyances which good-humoured people get over with a shrug or a smile; to have things rankle in my mind like a splinter in the flesh, which glide lightly off yours, and leave no mark; to be unable to bear a joke, knowing that one is doubly laughed at because one can’t; to have this deadly sore at heart–“I cannot forgive; I cannot forget,” there is no pleasure in these things. The tears of sorrow are not more bitter than the tears of anger, of hurt pride or thwarted will. As to the fit of passion in which one is giddy, blind, and deaf, if there is a relief to the overcharged mind in saying the sharpest things and hitting the heaviest blows one can at the moment, the pleasantness is less than momentary, for almost as we strike we foresee the pains of regret and of humbling ourselves to beg pardon which must ensue. Our friends do not always pity as well as blame us, though they are sorry for those who were possessed by devils long ago.
Good-tempered people, too, who I fancy would find it quite easy not to be provoking, and to be a little patient and forbearing, really seem sometimes to irritate hot-tempered ones on purpose, as if they thought it was good for them to get used to it.
I do not mean that I think ill-tempered people should be constantly yielded to, as Nurse says Mrs. Rampant and the servants have given way to Mr. Rampant till he has got to be quite as unreasonable and nearly as dangerous as most maniacs, and his friends never cross him, for the same reason that they would hot stir up a mad bull.
Perhaps I do not quite know how I would have our friends treat us who are cursed with bad tempers. I think to avoid unnecessary provocation, and to be patient with us in the height of our passion, is wise as well as kind. But no principle should be conceded to us, and rights that we have unjustly attacked should be faithfully defended when we are calm enough to listen. I fancy that where gentle Mrs. Rampant is wrong is that she allows Mr. Rampant to think that what really are concessions to his weakness are concessions to his wisdom. And what is not founded on truth cannot do lasting good. And if, years ago, before he became a sort of gunpowder cask at large, he had been asked if he wished Mrs. Rampant to persuade herself, and Mrs. Rampant, the little Rampants, and the servants to combine to persuade him, that he was right when he was wrong, and wise when he was foolish, and reasonable when he was unjust, I think he would have said No. I do not believe one could deliberately desire to be befooled by one’s family for all the best years of one’s life. And yet how many people are!
I do not think I am ever likely to be so loved and feared by those I live with as to have my ill-humours made into laws. I hope not. But I am sometimes thankful, on the other hand, that GOD is more forbearing with us than we commonly are with each other, and does not lead us into temptation when we are at our worst and weakest.
Any one who has a bad temper must sometimes look back at the years before he learned self-control, and feel thankful that he is not a murderer, or burdened for life by the weight on his conscience of some calamity of which he was the cause. If the knife which furious Fred threw at his sister before he was out of petticoats had hit the child’s eye instead of her forehead, could he ever have looked into the blinded face without a pang? If the blow with which impatient Annie flattered herself she was correcting her younger brother had thrown the naughty little lad out of the boat instead of into the sailor’s arms, and he had been drowned–at ten years old a murderess, how could she endure for life the weight of her unavailing remorse?
I very nearly killed Philip once. It makes me shudder to think of it, and I often wonder I ever could lose my temper again.
We were eight years old, and out in the garden together. We had settled to build a moss-house for my dolls, and had borrowed the hatchet out of the wood-house, without leave, to chop the stakes with. It was entirely my idea, and I had collected all the moss and most of the sticks. It was I, too, who had taken the hatchet. Philip had been very tiresome about not helping me in the hard part; but when I had driven in the sticks by leaning on them with all my weight, and had put in bits of brushwood where the moss fell out and Philip laughed at me, and, in short, when the moss-house was beginning to look quite real, Philip was very anxious to work at it, and wanted the hatchet.
“You wouldn’t help me over the hard work,” said I, “so I shan’t give it you now; I’ll make my moss-house myself.”
“No, you won’t,” said Philip.
“Yes, I shall,” said I.
“No, you won’t,” he reiterated; “for I shall pull it down as fast as you build it.”
“You’d better not,” I threatened.
Just then we were called in to dinner. I hid the hatchet, and Philip said no more; but he got out before me, and when I returned to work I found that the moss-house walls, which had cost me so much labour, were pulled to pieces and scattered about the shrubbery. Philip was not to be seen.
My heart had been so set upon my project that at first I could only feel the overwhelming disappointment. I was not a child who often cried, but I burst into tears.
I was sobbing my hardest when Philip sprang upon me in triumph, and laughing at my distress.
“I kept my promise,” said he, tossing his head, “and I’ll go on doing it.”
I am sure those shocks of fury which seize one like a fit must be a devil possessing one. In an instant my eyes were as dry as the desert in a hot wind, and my head reeling with passion. I ran to the hatchet, and came back brandishing it.
“If you touch one stake or bit of moss of mine again,” said I, “I’ll throw my hatchet at your head. I can keep promises too.”
My intention was only to frighten him. I relied on his not daring to brave such a threat; unhappily he relied on my not daring to carry it out. He took up some of my moss and threw it at me by way of reply.
I flung the hatchet!–
My Aunt Isobel has a splendid figure, with such grace and power as one might expect from her strong health and ready mind. I had not seen her at the moment, for I was blind with passion, nor had Philip, for his back was turned towards her. I did not see distinctly how she watched, as one watches for a ball, and caught the hatchet within a yard of Philip’s head.
My Aunt Isobel has a temper much like the temper of the rest of the family. When she had caught it in her left hand she turned round and boxed my ears with her right hand till I could see less than ever. (I believe she suffered for that outburst for months afterwards. She was afraid she had damaged my hearing, as that sense is too often damaged or destroyed by the blows of ill-tempered parents, teachers, and nurses.)
Then she turned back and shook Philip as vigorously as she had boxed me. “I saw you, you spiteful, malicious boy!” said my Aunt Isobel.
All the time she was shaking him, Philip was looking at her feet. Something that he saw absorbed his attention so fully that he forgot to cry.
“You’re bleeding, Aunt Isobel,” said he, when she gave him breath enough to speak.
The truth was this: the nervous force which Aunt Isobel had summoned up to catch the hatchet seemed to cease when it was caught; her arm fell powerless, and the hatchet cut her ankle. That left arm was useless for many months afterwards, to my abiding reproach.
Philip was not hurt, but he might have been killed. Everybody told me so often that it was a warning to me to correct my terrible temper, that I might have revolted against the reiteration if the facts had been less grave. But I never can feel lightly about that hatchet-quarrel. It opened a gulf of possible wickedness and life-long misery, over the brink of which my temper would have dragged me, but for Aunt Isobel’s strong arm and keen eye, and over which it might succeed in dragging me any day, unless I could cure myself of my besetting sin.
I never denied it. It was a warning.
WARNINGS–MY AUNT ISOBEL–MR. RAMPANT’S TEMPER, AND HIS CONSCIENCE.
I was not the only scarecrow held up before my own mind.
Nurse had a gallery of historical characters, whom she kept as beacons to warn our stormy passions of their fate. The hot-tempered boy who killed his brother when they were at school; the hot-tempered farmer who took his gun to frighten a trespasser, and ended by shooting him; the young lady who destroyed the priceless porcelain in a pet; the hasty young gentleman who kicked his favourite dog and broke its ribs;–they were all warnings: so was old Mr. Rampant, so was my Aunt Isobel.
Aunt Isobel’s story was a whispered tradition of the nursery for many years before she and I were so intimate, in consequence of her goodness and kindness to me, that one day I was bold enough to say to her, “Aunt Isobel, is it true that the reason why you never married is because you and he quarrelled, and you were very angry, and he went away, and he was drowned at sea?”
Child as I was, I do not think I should have been so indelicate as to have asked this question if I had not come to fancy that Nurse made out the story worse than it really was, for my behoof. Aunt Isobel was so cheerful and bright with us!–and I was not at that time able to believe that any one could mend a broken heart with other people’s interests so that the marks should show so little!
My aunt had a very clear skin, but in an instant her face was thick with a heavy blush, and she was silent. I marvelled that these were the only signs of displeasure she allowed herself to betray, for the question was no sooner out of my mouth than I wished it unsaid, and felt how furious she must naturally feel to hear that her sad and sacred story was bandied between servants and children as a nursery-tale with a moral to it.
But oh, Aunt Isobel! Aunt Isobel! you had at this time progressed far along that hard but glorious road of self-conquest which I had hardly found my way to.
“I beg your pardon,” I began, before she spoke.
“You ought to,” said my aunt–she never spoke less than decisively–“I thought you had more tact, Isobel, than to tell any one what servants have said of one’s sins or sorrows behind one’s back.”
“I am very sorry,” I repeated with shame; “but the thing is, I didn’t believe it was true, you always seem so happy. I am very sorry.”
“It is true,” said Aunt Isobel. “Child, whilst we are speaking of it–for the first and the last time–let it be a warning for you to illustrate a very homely proverb: ‘Don’t cut off your nose to spite your own face.’ Ill-tempered people are always doing it, and I did it to my life-long loss. I was angry with him, and like Jonah I said to myself, ‘I do well to be angry.’ And though I would die twenty deaths harder than the death he died to see his face for five minutes and be forgiven, I am not weak enough to warp my judgment with my misery. I was in the right, and he was in the wrong. But I forgot how much harder a position it is to be in the wrong than in the right in a quarrel. I did not think of how, instead of making the return path difficult to those who err, we ought to make it easy, as GOD does for us. I gave him no chance of unsaying with grace or credit what he could not fail to regret that he had said. Isobel, you have a clear head and a sharp tongue, as I have. You will understand when I say that I had the satisfaction of proving that I was in the right and he was in the wrong, and that I was firmly, conscientiously determined to make no concessions, no half-way advances, though our Father goes to meet His prodigals. Merciful Heaven! I had the satisfaction of parting myself for all these slow years from the most honest–the tenderest-hearted–“
My Aunt Isobel had overrated her strength. After a short and vain struggle in silence she got up and went slowly out of the room, resting her hand for an instant on my little knick-knack table by the door as she went out–the only time I ever saw her lean upon anything.
* * * * *
Old Mr. Rampant was another of my “warnings.” He–to whose face no one dared hint that he could ever be in the wrong–would have been more astonished than Aunt Isobel to learn how plainly–nay, how contemptuously–the servants spoke behind his back of his unbridled temper and its results. They knew that the only son was somewhere on the other side of the world, and that little Mrs. Rampant wept tears for him and sent money to him in secret, and they had no difficulty in deciding why: “He’d got his father’s temper, and it stood to reason that he and the old gentleman couldn’t put up their horses together.” The moral was not obscure. From no lack of affection, but for want of self-control, the son was condemned to homelessness and hardships in his youth, and the father was sonless in his old age.
But that was not the point of Nurse’s tales about Mr. Rampant which impressed me most, nor even the endless anecdotes of his unreasonable passions which leaked out at his back-door and came up our back-stairs to the nursery. They rather amused us. That assault on the butcher’s boy, who brought ribs of beef instead of sirloin, for which he was summoned and fined; his throwing the dinner out of the window, and going to dine at the village inn–by which the dogs ate the dinner and he had to pay for two dinners, and to buy new plates and dishes.
We laughed at these things, but in my serious moments, especially on the first Sunday of the month, I was haunted by something else which Nurse had told me about old Mr. Rampant.
In our small parish–a dull village on the edge of a marsh–the Holy Communion was only celebrated once a month. It was not because he was irreligious that old Mr. Rampant was one of the too numerous non-communicants. “It’s his temper, poor gentleman,” said Nurse. “He can’t answer for himself, and he has that religious feeling he wouldn’t like to come unless he was fit. The housekeeper overheard Mrs. Rampant a-begging of him last Christmas. It was no listening either, for he bellowed at her like a bull, and swore dreadful that whatever else he was he wouldn’t be profane.”
“Couldn’t he keep his temper for a week, don’t you think?” said I sadly, thinking of my mother’s old copy of the Weeks Preparation for the Lord’s Supper.
“It would be as bad if he got into one of his tantrums directly afterwards,” said Nurse: “and with people pestering for Christmas-boxes, and the pudding and turkey, and so many things that might go wrong, it would be as likely as not he would. It’s a sad thing too,” she added, “for his neck’s terribly short, and they say all his family have gone suddenly with the apoplexy. It’s an awful thing, Miss Isobel, to be taken sudden–and unprepared.”
The awe of it came back on me every month when the fair white linen covered the rustiness of the old velvet altar-cloth which the marsh damps were rotting, and the silver vessels shone, and the village organist played out the non-communicants with a somewhat inappropriate triumphal march, and little Mrs. Rampant knelt on with buried face as we went out, and Mr. Rampant came out with us, looking more glum than usual, and with such a short neck!
Now I think poor Mr. Rampant was wrong, and that he ought to have gone with Mrs. Rampant to the Lord’s Supper that Christmas. He might have found grace to have got through all the little ups and downs and domestic disturbances of a holiday season without being very ferocious; and if he had tried and failed I think GOD would have forgiven him. And he might–it is possible that he might–during that calm and solemn Communion, have forgiven his son as he felt that Our Father forgave him. So Aunt Isobel says; and I have good reason to think that she is likely to be right.
I think so too now, but then I was simply impressed by the thought that an ill-tempered person was, as Nurse expressed it, “unfit” to join in the highest religious worship. It is true that I was also impressed by her other saying, “It’s an awful thing, Miss Isobel, to be taken sudden and unprepared;” but there was a temporary compromise in my own case. I could not be a communicant till I was confirmed.
CASES OF CONSCIENCE–ETHICS OF ILL-TEMPER.
Confirmations were not very frequent in our little village at this time. About once in three years the Bishop came to us. He came when I was twelve years old. Opinions were divided as to whether I was old enough, but I decided the matter by saying I would rather wait till the next opportunity.
“I may be more fit by that time,” was my thought, and it was probably not unlike some of Mr. Rampant’s self-communings.
The time came, and the Bishop also; I was fifteen.
I do not know why, but nobody had proposed that Philip should be confirmed at twelve years old. Fifteen was thought to be quite early enough for him, and so it came about that we were confirmed together.
I am very thankful that, as it happened, I had Aunt Isobel to talk to.
“You’re relieved from one perplexity at any rate,” said she, when I had been speaking of that family failing which was also mine. “You know your weak point. I remember a long talk I had, years ago, with Mrs. Rampant, whom I used to know very well when we were young. She said one of her great difficulties was not being able to find out her besetting sin. She said it always made her so miserable when clergymen preached on that subject, and said that every enlightened Christian must have discovered one master passion amongst the others of his soul. She had tried so hard, and could only find a lot, none much bigger or much less than the others. Some vanity, some selfishness, some distrust and weariness, some peevishness, some indolence, and a lapful of omissions. Since she married,” continued my aunt, slowly pulling her thick black eyelashes, after a fashion she had, “I believe she has found the long-lost failing. It is impatience with Mr. Rampant, she thinks.”
I could not help laughing.
“However, Isobel, we may be sure of this, people of soft, gentle temperaments have their own difficulties with their own souls which we escape. Perhaps in the absence of such marked vices as bring one to open shame one might be slower to undertake vigorous self-improvement. You and I have no difficulty in seeing the sin lying at our door.”
“N–no,” said I.
“Well, have you?” said Aunt Isobel, facing round. “Bless me,” she added impetuously, “don’t say you haven’t if you have. Never let any one else think for you, child!”
“If you’ll only have patience and let me explain–“
“I’m patience its very self!” interrupted my aunt, “but I do hate a No that means Yes.”
My patience began to evaporate.
“There are some things, Aunt Isobel, you know, which can’t be exactly squeezed into No and Yes. But if you don’t want to be bothered I won’t say anything, or I’ll say yes or no, which ever you like.”
And I kicked the shovel. (My aunt had shoved the poker with her slipper.) She drew her foot back and spoke very gently:
“I beg your pardon, my dear. Please say what you were going to say, and in your own way.”
There is no doubt that good-humour–like bad–is infectious. I drew nearer to Aunt Isobel, and fingered the sleeve of her dress caressingly.
“You know, dear Aunt Isobel, that I should never think of saying to the Rector what I want to say to you. And I don’t mean that I don’t agree to whatever he tells us about right and wrong, but still I think if one can be quite convinced in the depths of one’s own head, too, it’s a good thing, as well as knowing that he must be right.”
“Certainly,” said Aunt Isobel.
“To begin with, I don’t want you to think me any better than I am. When we were very very little, Philip and I used to spit at each other, and pull each other’s hair out. I do not do nasty or unladylike things now when I am angry, but, Aunt Isobel, my ‘besetting sin’ is not conquered, it’s only civilized.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Aunt Isobel; which rather annoyed me. I gulped this down, however, and went on:
“The sin of ill-temper, if it is a sin,” I began. I paused, expecting an outburst, but Aunt Isobel sat quite composedly, and fingered her eyelashes.
“Of course the Rector would be horrified if I said such a thing at the confirmation-class,” I continued, in a dissatisfied tone.
“Don’t invent grievances, Isobel, for I see you have a real stumbling-block, when we can come to it. You are not at the confirmation-class, and I am not easily horrified.”
“Well, there are two difficulties–I explain very stupidly,” said I with some sadness.
“We’ll take them one at a time,” replied Aunt Isobel with an exasperating blandness, which fortunately stimulated me to plain-speaking.
“Everybody says one ought to ‘restrain’ one’s temper, but I’m not sure if I think one ought. Isn’t it better to have things out? Look at Philip. He’s going to be confirmed, and then he’ll go back to school, and when he and another boy quarrel, they’ll fight it out, and feel comfortable afterwards. Aunt Isobel, I can quite understand feeling friendly after you’ve had it out, even if you’re the one who is beaten, if it has been a fair fight. Now restraining your temper means forcing yourself to be good outside, and feeling all the worse inside, and feeling it longer. There is that utterly stupid little schoolroom-maid, who is under my orders, that I may teach her. Aunt Isobel, you would not credit how often I tell her the same thing, and how politely she says ‘Yes, miss!’ and how invariably she doesn’t do it after all. I say, ‘You know I told you only yesterday. What is the use of my trying to teach you?’ and all kinds of mild things like that; but really I quite hate her for giving me so much trouble and taking so little herself, and I wish I might discharge her. Now, if only it wasn’t wrong to throw–what are those things hot-tempered gentlemen always throw at their servants?”
“Don’t ask me, my dear; ask Mr. Rampant.”
“Oh, he throws everything. Bootjacks–that’s it. Now, if only I might throw a bootjack at her, it would waken her up, and be such a relief to my feelings, that I shouldn’t feel half so unforgiving towards her all along. Then as to swearing, Aunt Isobel–“
“Swearing!” ejaculated my aunt.
“Of course swearing is very wrong, and all profane-speaking but I do think it would be a help if there was some innocent kind of strong language to use when one feels strongly.”
“If we didn’t use up all our innocent strong language by calling things awful and horrible that have not an element of awe or horror in them, we should have some left for our great occasions,” said Aunt Isobel.
“Perhaps,” said I, “but that’s not exactly what I mean. Now do you think it would be wrong to invent expletives that mean nothing bad? As if Mr. Rampant were to say, ‘Cockatoos and kingfishers! where are my shooting-boots?’ For you know I do think it would make him more comfortable to put it in that way, especially if he had been kept waiting for them.”
I paused, and Aunt Isobel turned round.
“Let us carry your idea well forward, Isobel. Bootjacks and expletives would no doubt be a relief to the thrower when hurled at servants or some one who could not (or from principle would not) retaliate, and the angry feelings that propelled them might be shortened by ‘letting off the steam,’ so to speak. But imagine yourself to have thrown a bootjack at Philip to relieve your feelings, and Philip (to relieve his) flinging it back at you. This would only give fresh impetus to your indignation, and whatever you threw next would not be likely to soothe his.”
“Please don’t!” said I. “Aunt Isobel, I could never throw a hatchet again.”
“You are bold to promise to stop short anywhere when relieving passionate feelings by indulgence has begun on two sides. And, my dear, matters are no better where the indulgence is in words instead of blows. In the very mean and undignified position of abusing those who cannot return your abuse it might answer; but ‘innocent strong language’ would cease to be of any good when it was returned. If to ‘Cockatoos and kingfishers! where are my shooting-boots?’ an equally violent voice from below replied, ‘Bats and blackbeetles! look for them yourself!’ some stronger vent for the steam of hot temper would have to be found, and words of any kind would soon cease to relieve the feelings. Isobel, I have had long and hard experience, and your ideas are not new ones to me. Believe me, child, the only real relief is in absolute conquest, and the earlier the battle begins, the easier and the shorter it will be. If one can keep irritability under, one may escape a struggle to the death with passion. I am not cramming principles down your throat–I say as a matter of personal practice, that I do not know, and never hope to find a smoother or a shorter way. But I can say also–after Victory comes Peace.”
I gave a heavy sigh.
“Thank you, Aunt Isobel, I will try; but it makes my second difficulty all the worse. I can fancy that I might possibly learn self-control; I can fancy by main force holding my tongue, or compelling it to speak very slowly and civilly: but one can’t force one’s feelings. Aunt Isobel, if I had been very much insulted or provoked, I might keep on being civil for years on the outside, but how I should hate! You can’t prevent yourself hating. People talk about ‘forgive and forget.’ If forgiving means doing no harm, and forgetting means behaving quite civilly, as if nothing had happened, one could. But of course it’s nonsense to talk of making yourself really forget anything. And I think it’s just as absurd to talk of making yourself forgive, if forgiveness means feeling really kindly and comfortable as you did before. The very case in which I am most sure you are right about self-control is one of the worst the other way. I ought to be ashamed to speak of it–but I mean the hatchet-quarrel. If I had been very good instead of very wicked, and had restrained myself when Philip pulled all my work to pieces, and jeered at me for being miserable, I couldn’t have loved him again as I did before. Forgive and forget! One would often be very glad to. I have often awoke in the morning and known that I had forgotten something disagreeable, and when it did come back I was sorry; but one’s memory isn’t made of slate, or one’s heart either, that one can take a wet sponge and make it clean. Oh dear! I wonder why ill-tempered people are allowed to live! They ought to be smothered in their cradles.”
Aunt Isobel was about to reply, but I interrupted her.
“Don’t think me humble-minded, Aunt Isobel, for I’m not. Sometimes I feel inclined to think that ill-tempered people have more sense of justice and of the strict rights and wrongs of things–at least if they are not very bad,” I interpolated, thinking of Mr. Rampant–“than people who can smile and look pleasant at everything and everybody like Lucy Lambent, who goes on calling me darling when I know I’m scowling like a horned-owl. Nurse says she’s the ‘sweetest tempered young lady she ever did know!’ Aunt Isobel, what a muddle life is!”
“After some years of it,” said my aunt, pulling her lashes hard, “I generally say, What a muddle my head is! Life is too much for it.”
“I am quite willing to put it that way,” sighed I, laying my muddle-head on the table, for I was tired. “It comes to much the same thing. Now–there is my great difficulty! I give in about the other one, but you can’t cure this, and the truth is, I am not fit to go to a confirmation-class, much less to the Holy Communion.”
“Isobel,” said my aunt, folding her hands on her lap, and bending her very thick brows on the fire, “I want you to clearly understand that I speak with great hesitation, and without any authority. I can do nothing for you but tell you what I have found myself in my struggles.”
“Thank you a thousand times,” said I, “that’s what I want. You know I hear two sermons every Sunday, and I have a lot of good books. Mrs. Welment sends me a little book about ill-temper every Christmas. The last one was about saying a little hymn before you let yourself speak whenever you feel angry. Philip got hold of it, and made fun of it. He said it was like the recipe for catching a sparrow by putting salt on its tail, because if you were cool enough to say a hymn, there would then be no need for saying it. What do you think, Aunt Isobel?”
“My dear, I have long ago given up the idea that everybody’s weak points can all be strengthened by one plaster. The hymn might be very useful in some cases, though I confess that it would not be in mine. But prayer is; and I find a form of prayer necessary. At the same time I have such an irritable taste, that there are very few forms of devotion that give me much help but the Prayer-Book collects and Jeremy Taylor. I do not know if you may find it useful to hear that in this struggle I sometimes find prayers more useful, if they are not too much to the sore point. A prayer about ill-temper might tend to make me cross, when the effort to join my spirit with the temptation-tried souls of all ages in a solemn prayer for the Church Universal would lift me out of the petty sphere of personal vexations, better than going into my grievances even piously. I speak merely of myself, mind.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But about what I said about hating. Aunt Isobel, did you ever change your feelings by force? Do you suppose anybody ever did?”
“I believe it is a great mistake to trouble one’s self with the spiritual experiences of other people when one cannot fully know their circumstances, so I won’t suppose at all. As to what I am sure of, Isobel, you know I speak the truth.”
“Yes,” said I; it would have been impertinence to say more.
“I have found that if one fights for good behaviour, GOD makes one a present of the good feelings. I believe you will find it so. Even when you were a child, if you had tried to be good, and had managed to control yourself, and had not thrown the hatchet, I am quite sure you would not have hated Philip for long. Perhaps you would have thought how much better Philip used to behave before your father and mother died, and a little elder-sisterly, motherly feeling would have mixed with your wrath at seeing him with his fat legs planted apart, and his shoulders up, the very picture of wilful naughtiness. Perhaps you might have thought you had repulsed him a little harshly when he wanted to help, as you were his chief playmate and twin sister.”
“Please don’t,” said I. “How I wish I had! Indeed I don’t know how I can ever speak of hating one of the others when there are so few of us, and we are orphans. But everybody isn’t one’s brother. And–oh, Aunt Isobel, at the time one does get so wild, and hard, and twisted in one’s heart!”
“I don’t think it is possible to overrate the hardness of the first close struggle with any natural passion,” said my aunt earnestly; “but indeed the easiness of after-steps is often quite beyond one’s expectations. The free gift of grace with which GOD perfects our efforts may come in many ways, but I am convinced that it is the common experience of Christians that it does come.”
“To every one, do you think?” said I. “I’ve no doubt it comes to you, Aunt Isobel, but then you are so good.”
“For pity’s sake don’t say I am good,” said my aunt, and she kicked down all the fire-irons; and then begged my pardon, and picked them up again.
We were silent for awhile. Aunt Isobel sat upright with her hands folded in her lap, and that look which her large eyes wear when she is trying to see all the sides of a question. They were dilated with a sorrowful earnestness when she spoke again.
“There may be some souls,” she said, “whose brave and bitter lot it is to conquer comfortless. Perhaps some terrible inheritance of strong sin from the father is visited upon the son, and, only able to keep his purpose pure, he falls as fast as he struggles up, and still struggling falls again. Soft moments of peace with GOD and man may never come to him. He may feel himself viler than a thousand trumpery souls who could not have borne his trials for a day. Child, for you and for me is reserved no such cross and no such crown as theirs who falling still fight, and fighting fall, with their faces Zionwards, into the arms of the Everlasting Father. ‘As one whom his mother comforteth’ shall be the healing of their wounds.”
There was a brisk knock at the door, and Philip burst in.
“Look here, Isobel, if you mean to be late for confirmation-class I’m not going to wait for you. I hate sneaking in with the benches all full, and old Bartram blinking and keeping your place in the catechism for you with his fat forefinger.”
“I am very sorry, Philip dear,” said I; “please go without me, and I’ll come on as quickly as I can. Thank you very much for coming to remind me.”
“There’s no such awful hurry,” said Philip in a mollified tone; “I’ll wait for you down-stairs.”
Which he did, whistling.
Aunt Isobel and I are not demonstrative, it does not suit us. She took hold of my arms, and I laid my head on her shoulder.
“Aunt Isobel, GOD help me, I will fight on to the very end.”
“HE will help you,” said Aunt Isobel.
I could not look at her face and doubt it. Oh, my weak soul, never doubt it more!
CELESTIAL FIRE–I CHOOSE A TEXT.
We were confirmed.
As Aunt Isobel had said, I was spared perplexity by the unmistakable nature of my weakest point. There was no doubt as to what I should pray against and strive against. But on that day it seemed not only as if I could never give way to ill-temper again, but as if the trumpery causes of former outbreaks could never even tempt me to do so. As the lines of that ancient hymn to the Holy Ghost–“Veni Creator”–rolled on, I prayed humbly enough that my unworthy efforts might yet be crowned by the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit; but that a soul which sincerely longed to be “lightened with celestial fire” could be tempted to a common fit of sulks or scolding by the rub of nursery misdeeds and mischances, felt then so little likely as hardly to be worth deprecating on my knees.
And yet, when the service was over, the fatigue of the mental strain and of long kneeling and standing began to tell in a feeling that came sadly near to peevishness. I spent the rest of the day resolutely in my room and on my knees, hoping to keep up those high thoughts and emotions which had made me feel happy as well as good. And yet I all but utterly broke down into the most commonplace crossness because Philip did not do as I did, but romped noisily with the others, and teased me for looking grave at tea.
I just did not break down. So much remained alive of the “celestial fire,” that I kept my temper behind my teeth. Long afterwards, when I learnt by accident that Philip’s “good resolve” on the occasion had been that he would be kinder to “the little ones,” I was very glad that I had not indulged my uncharitable impulse to lecture him on indifference to spiritual progress.
That evening Aunt Isobel gave me a new picture for my room. It was a fine print of the Crucifixion, for which I had often longed, a German woodcut in the powerful manner of Albert Duerer, after a design by Michael Angelo. It was neither too realistic nor too mediaeval, and the face was very noble. Aunt Isobel had had it framed, and below on an illuminated scroll was written–“What are these wounds in Thine Hands? Those with which I was wounded in the house of My friends.”
“I often think,” she said, when we had hung it up and were looking at it, “that it is not in our Lord’s Cross and Passion that His patience comes most home to us. To be patient before an unjust judge or brutal soldiers might be almost a part of self-respect; but patience with the daily disappointments of a life ‘too good for this world,’ as people say, patience with the follies, the unworthiness, the ingratitude of those one loves–these things are our daily example. For wounds in the house of our enemies pride may be prepared; wounds in the house of our friends take human nature by surprise, and GOD only can teach us to bear them. And with all reverence I think that we may say that ours have an element of difficulty in which His were wanting. They are mixed with blame on our own parts.”
“That is why you have put that text for me?” said I. My aunt nodded.
I was learning to illuminate, and I took much pride in my room. I determined to make a text for myself, and to choose a very plain passage about ill-temper. Mrs. Welment’s books supplied me with plenty. I chose “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” but I resolved to have the complete text as it stands in the Bible. It seemed fair to allow myself to remember that anger is not always a sin, and I thought it useful to remind myself that if by obstinate ill-temper I got the victory in a quarrel, it was only because the devil had got the victory over me. So the text ran full length:–“Be ye angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil.” It made a very long scroll, and I put it up over my window, and fastened it with drawing-pins.
THEATRICAL PROPERTIES–I PREPARE A PLAY–PHILIP BEGINS TO PREPARE THE SCENERY–A NEW FRIEND.
Philip was at school during the remainder of the year, but I tried to put my good resolves in practice with the children, and it made us a more peaceful household than usual. When Philip came home for the Christmas holidays we were certainly in very pleasant moods–for an ill-tempered family.
Our friends allow that some quickness of wits accompanies the quickness of our tempers. From the days when we were very young our private theatricals have been famous in our own little neighbourhood. I was paramount in nursery mummeries, and in the children’s charade parties of the district, for Philip was not very reliable when steady help was needed; but at school he became stage-manager of the theatricals there.
I do not know that he learned to act very much better than I, and I think Alice (who was only twelve) had twice the gift of either of us, but every half he came back more ingenious than before in matters for which we had neither the talent nor the tools. He glued together yards of canvas or calico, and produced scenes and drop-curtains which were ambitious and effective, though I thought him a little reckless both about good drawing and good clothes. His glue-kettles and size-pots were always steaming, his paint was on many and more inappropriate objects than the canvas. A shilling’s-worth of gilding powder went such a long way that we had not only golden crowns and golden sceptres, and golden chains for our dungeon, and golden wings for our fairies, but the nursery furniture became irregularly and unintentionally gilded, as well as nurse’s stuff dress, when she sat on a warrior’s shield, which was drying in the rocking-chair.
But these were small matters. Philip gave us a wonderful account of the “properties” he had made for school theatricals. A dragon painted to the life, and with matches so fixed into the tip of him that the boy who acted as the life and soul of this ungainly carcase could wag a fiery tail before the amazed audience, by striking it on that particular scale of his dragon’s skin which was made of sand-paper. Rabbit-skin masks, cotton-wool wigs and wigs of tow, seven-league boots, and witches’ hats, thunder with a tea-tray, and all the phases of the moon with a moderator lamp–with all these things Philip enriched the school theatre, though for some time he would not take so much trouble for our own.
But during this last half he had written me three letters–and three very kind ones. In the latest he said that–partly because he had been making some things for us, and partly because of changes in the school-theatrical affairs–he should bring home with him a box of very valuable “properties” for our use at Christmas. He charged me at once to prepare a piece which should include a prince disguised as a woolly beast on two legs with large fore-paws (easily shaken off), a fairy godmother with a tow wig and the highest hat I could ever hope to see, a princess turned into a willow-tree (painted from memory of the old one at home), and with fine gnarls and knots, through which the princess could see everything, and prompt (if needful), a disconsolate parent, and a faithful attendant, to be acted by one person, with as many belated travellers as the same actor could personate into the bargain. These would all be eaten up by the dragon at the right wing, and re-enter more belated than ever at the left, without stopping longer than was required to roll a peal of thunder at the back. The fifth and last character was to be the dragon himself. The forest scene would be wanted, and I was to try and get an old cask for a cave.
I must explain that I was not expected to write a play. We never took the trouble to “learn parts.” We generally took some story which pleased us out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the Arabian Nights, and arranged for the various scenes. We each had a copy of the arrangement, and our proper characters were assigned to us. After this we did the dialogue as if it had been a charade. We were well accustomed to act together, and could trust each other and ourselves. Only Alice’s brilliancy ever took us by surprise.
By the time that Philip came home I had got in the rough outline of the plot. He arrived with a box of properties, the mere size of which raised a cheer of welcome from the little ones, and red-hot for our theatricals.
Philip was a little apt to be red-hot over projects, and to cool before they were accomplished; but on this occasion we had no forebodings of such evil. Besides, he was to play the dragon! When he did fairly devote himself to anything, he grudged no trouble and hesitated at no undertakings. He was so much pleased with my plot and with the cave, that he announced that he should paint a new forest scene for the occasion. I tried to dissuade him. There were so many other things to be done, and the old scene was very good. But he had learnt several new tricks of the scene-painter’s trade, and was bent upon putting them into practice. So he began his new scene, and I resolved to work all the harder at the odds and ends of our preparations. To be driven into a corner and pressed for time always stimulated instead of confusing me. I think the excitement of it is pleasant. Alice had the same dogged way of working at a crisis, and we felt quite confident of being able to finish up “at a push,” whatever Philip might leave undone. The theatricals were to be on Twelfth Night.
Christmas passed very happily on the whole. I found my temper much oftener tried since Philip’s return, but this was not only because he was very wilful and very fond of teasing, but because with the younger ones I was always deferred to.
One morning we were very busy in the nursery, which was our workshop. Philip’s glue-pots and size-pots were steaming, there were coloured powders on every chair, Alice and I were laying a coat of invisible green over the cave-cask, and Philip, in radiant good-humour, was giving distance to his woodland glades in the most artful manner with powder-blue, and calling on us for approbation–when the housemaid came in.
“It’s not lunch-time?” cried Alice. “It can’t be!”
“Get away, Mary,” said Philip, “and tell cook if she puts on any more meals I’ll paint her best cap pea-green. She’s sending up luncheons and dinners all day long now: just because she knows we’re busy.”
Mary only laughed, and said, “It’s a gentleman wants to see you, Master Philip,” and she gave him a card. Philip read it, and we waited with some curiosity.
“It’s a man I met in the train,” said he, “a capital fellow. He lives in the town. His father’s a doctor there. Granny must invite him to the theatricals. Ask him to come here, Mary, and show him the way.”
“Oughtn’t you to go and fetch him yourself?” said I.
“I can’t leave this,” said Philip. “He’ll be all right. He’s as friendly as possible.”
I must say here that “Granny” was our maternal grandmother, with whom we lived. My mother and father were cousins, and Granny’s husband was of that impetuous race to which we belonged. If he had been alive he would have kept us all in good order, no doubt. But he was dead, and Granny was the gentlest of old ladies: I fear she led a terrible life with us all!
Philip’s friend came up-stairs. He was very friendly; in fact Alice and I thought him forward, but he was several years older than Philip, who seemed proud of the acquaintance. Perhaps Alice and I were biased by the fact that he spoilt our pleasant morning. He was one of those people who look at everything one has been working at with such unintelligent eyes that their indifference ought not to dishearten one; and yet it does.
“It’s for our private theatricals,” said Philip, as Mr. Clinton’s amazed stare passed from our paint-covered selves to the new scene.
“My cousins in Dublin have private theatricals,” said Mr. Clinton. “My uncle has built on a room for the theatre. All the fittings and scenes come from London, and the first costumiers in Dublin send in all the dresses and everything that is required on the afternoon before the performance.”
“Oh, we’re in a much smaller way,” said Philip; “but I’ve some properties here that don’t look bad by candlelight.” But Mr. Clinton had come up to the cask, and was staring at it and us. I knew by the way Alice got quietly up, and shook some chips with a decided air out of her apron, that she did not like being stared at. But her movement only drew Mr. Clinton’s especial attention.
“You’ll catch it from your grandmamma for making such a mess of your clothes, won’t you?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?” said Alice, with so perfect an air of not having heard him that he was about to repeat the question, when she left the nursery with the exact exit which she had made as a Discreet Princess repelling unwelcome advances in last year’s play.
I was afraid of an outburst from Philip, and said in hasty civility, “This is a cave we are making.”
“They’d a splendid cave at Covent Garden last Christmas,” said Mr. Clinton. “It covered half the stage. An enormously tall man dressed in cloth of silver stood in the entrance, and waved a spear ten or twelve feet long over his head. A fairy was let down above that, so you may be sure the cave was pretty big.”
“Oh, here’s the dragon,” said Philip, who had been rummaging in the property box. “He’s got a fiery tail.”
“They were quite the go in pantomimes a few years ago,” said Mr. Clinton, yawning. “My uncle had two or three–bigger than that, of course.”
Philip saw that his friend was not interested in amateur property-making, and changed the subject.
“What have you been doing this morning?” said he.
“I drove here with my father, who had got to pass your gates. I say, there’s splendid shooting on the marsh now. I want you to come out with me, and we’ll pot a wild duck or two.”
“I’ve no gun,” said Philip, and to soften the statement added, “there’s no one here to go out with.”
“I’ll go out with you. And I say, we could just catch the train back to the town, and if you’ll come and lunch with us, we’ll go out a bit this afternoon and look round. But you must get a gun.”
“I should like some fresh air,” said Philip, “and as you’ve come over for me–“
I knew the appealing tone in his voice was for my ears, for my face had fallen.
“Could I be going on with it?” I asked, nodding towards the forest scene.
“Oh dear no! I’ll go at it again to-night. It ought all to be painted by candlelight by rights. I’m not going to desert my post,” he added.
“I hope not,” said I as good-humouredly as I could; but dismay was in my heart.
A QUARREL–BOBBY IS WILLING–EXIT PHILIP.
Philip came back by an evening train, and when he had had something to eat he came up to the nursery to go on with the scene. We had got everything ready for him, and he worked for about half-an-hour. But he was so sleepy, with cold air and exercise, that he did not paint well, and then he got impatient, and threw it up–“till the morning.”
In the morning he set to work, talking all the time about wild duck and teal, and the price of guns; but by the time he had put last night’s blunders straight, the front door bell rang, and Mary announced “Mr. Clinton.”
Philip was closeted in his room with his new friend till twelve o’clock. Then they went out into the yard, and finally Mr. Clinton stayed to luncheon. But I held my peace, and made Alice hold hers. Mr. Clinton went away in the afternoon, but Philip got the plate-powder and wash-leather, and occupied himself in polishing the silver fittings of his dressing-case.
“I think you might do that another time, Philip,” said I; “you’ve not been half-an-hour at the properties to-day, and you could clean your bottles and things quite as well after the theatricals.”
“As it happens I just couldn’t,” said Philip; “I’ve made a bargain, and bargains won’t wait.”
Alice and I screamed in one breath, “You’re not going to give away the dressing-case!”–for it had been my father’s.
“I said a bargain” replied Philip, rubbing harder than ever; “you can’t get hold of a gun every day Without paying down hard cash.”
“I hate Mr. Clinton!” said Alice.
It was a very unfortunate speech, for it declared open war; and when this is done it cannot be undone. There is no taking back those sharp sayings which the family curse hangs on the tips of our tongues.
Philip and Alice exchanged them pretty freely. Philip called us selfish, inhospitable, and jealous. He said we grudged his enjoying himself in the holidays, when he had been working like a slave for us during the half. That we disliked his friend because he was his friend, and (not to omit the taunt of sex) that Clinton was too manly a fellow to please girls, etc., etc. In self-defence Alice was much more out-spoken about both Philip and Mr. Clinton than she had probably intended to be. That Philip began things hotly, and that his zeal cooled before they were accomplished–that his imperiousness laid him open to flattery, and the necessity of playing first-fiddle betrayed him into second-rate friendships, which were thrown after the discarded hobbies–that Mr. Clinton was ill-bred, and with that vulgarity of mind which would make him rather proud than ashamed of getting the best of a bargain with his friend–these things were not the less taunts because they were true.
If the violent scenes which occur in ill-tempered families felt half as undignified and miserable as they look, surely they would be less common! I believe Philip and Alice would have come to blows if I had not joined with him to expel her from the room. I was not happy about it, for my sympathy was on her side of the quarrel, but she had been the one to declare war, and I could not control Philip. In short, it is often not easy to keep the peace and be just too, as I should like to have said to Aunt Isobel, if she had been at home. But she was to be away until the 6th.
Alice defeated, I took Philip seriously to task. Not about his friend–the subject was too sore, and Alice had told him all that we thought, and rather more than we thought on that score–but about the theatricals. I said if he really was tired of the business we would throw it up, and let our friends know that the proposed entertainment had fallen through, but that if he wanted it to go forward he must decide what help he would give, and then abide by his promise.
We came to terms. If I would let him have a day or two’s fun with his gun, Philip promised to “spurt,” as he called it, at the end. I told him we would be content if he would join in a “thorough rehearsal,” the afternoon before, and devote himself to the business on the day of the performance.
“Real business, you know,” I added, “with nobody but ourselves. Nobody coming in to interrupt.”
“Of course,” said Philip; “but I’ll do more than that, Isobel. There’s the scene–“
“We’ll finish the scene,” said I, “if you don’t aggravate Alice so that I lose her help as well as yours.”
Alice was very sulky, which I could hardly wonder at, and I worked alone, except for Bobby, the only one with anything like a good temper among us, who roasted himself very patiently with my size-pot, and hammered bits of ivy, and of his fingers, rather neatly over the cave. But Alice was impulsive and kind-hearted. When I got a bad headache, from working too long, she came round, and helped me. Philip was always going to do so, but as a matter of fact he went out every day with the old fowling-piece for which he had given his dressing case.
When the ice bore Charles also deserted us, but Alice and I worked steadily on at dresses and scenery. And Bobby worked with us.
The 5th of January arrived, the day before the theatricals. Philip spent the morning in cleaning his gun, and after luncheon he brought it into the nursery to “finish” with a peculiarly aggravating air.
“When shall you be ready to rehearse?” I asked.
“Oh, presently,” said Philip, “there’s plenty of time yet. It’s a great nuisance,” he added, “I’ll never have anything to do with theatricals again. They make a perfect slave of one.”
“You’ve not slaved much, at any rate,” said Charles.
“You’d better not give me any of your cheek,” said Philip threateningly.
“We’ve done without him for a week, I don’t know why we shouldn’t do without him to-morrow,” muttered Alice from the corner where she was sewing gold paper stars on to the Enchanted Prince’s tunic.
“I wish you could,” growled Philip, who took the suggestion more quietly than I expected; “anybody could do the Dragon, there’s no acting in it!”
“I won’t,” said Charles, “Isobel gave me the Enchanted Prince or the Woolly Beast, and I shall stick to my part.”
“Could I do the Dragon?” asked Bobby, releasing his hot face from the folds of an old blue cloak lined with red, in which he was rehearsing his walk as a belated wayfarer.
“Certainly not,” said I, “you’re the Bereaved Father and the Faithful Attendant to begin with, and I hope you won’t muddle them. And you’re Twelve Travellers as well, and the thunder, remember!”
“I don’t care how many I do, if only I can,” said Bobby, drawing his willing arm across his steaming forehead. “I should like to have a fiery tail.”
“You can’t devour yourself once–let alone twelve times,” said I sternly. “Don’t be silly, Bob.”
It was not Bob I was impatient with in reality, it was Philip.
“If you really mean to desert the theatricals after all you promised, I would much rather try to do without you,” said I indignantly.
“Then you may!” retorted Philip. “I wash my hands of it and of the whole lot of you, and of every nursery entertainment henceforward!” and he got the fragments of his gun together with much clatter. But Charles had posted himself by the door to say his say, and to be ready to escape when he had said it.
“You’re ashamed of it, that’s it,” said he; “you want to sit among the grown-ups with a spy-glass, now you’ve got Apothecary Clinton’s son for a friend,”–and after this brief and insulting summary of the facts, Charles vanished. But Philip, white with anger, was too quick for him, and at the top of the back-stairs he dealt him such a heavy blow that Charles fell head-long down the first flight.
Alice and I flew to the rescue. I lived in dread of Philip really injuring Charles some day, for his blows were becoming serious ones as he grew taller and stronger, and his self-control did not seem to wax in proportion. And Charles’s temper was becoming very aggressive. On this occasion, as soon as he had regained breath, and we found that no bones were broken, it was only by main force that we held him back from pursuing Philip.
“I’ll hit him–I’ll stick to him,” he sobbed in his fury, shaking his head like a terrier, and doubling his fists. But he was rather sick with the fall, and we made him lie down to recover himself, whilst Alice, Bobby, and I laid our heads together to plan a substitute for Philip in the Dragon.
When bed-time came, and Philip was still absent, we became uneasy, and as I lay sleepless that night I asked myself if I had been to blame for the sulks in which he had gone off. In fits of passion Philip had often threatened to go away and never let us hear of him again. I knew that such things did happen, and it made me unhappy when he went off like this, although his threats had hitherto been no more than a common and rather unfair device of ill-temper.
I HEAR FROM PHILIP–A NEW PART WANTED–I LOSE MY TEMPER–WE ALL LOSE OUR TEMPERS.
Next morning’s post brought the following letter from Philip:–
“MY DEAR ISOBEL,
“You need not bother about the Dragon–I’ll do it. But I wish you would put another character into the piece. It is for Clinton. He says he will act with us. He says he can do anything if it is a leading part. He has got black velvet knickerbockers and scarlet stockings, and he can have the tunic and cloak I wore last year, and the flap hat; and you must lend him your white ostrich feather. Make him some kind of a grandee. If you can’t, he must be the Prince, and Charles can do some of the Travellers. We are going out on the marsh this morning, but I shall be with you after luncheon, and Clinton in the evening. He does not want any rehearsing, only a copy of the plan. Let Alice make it, her writing is the clearest, and I wish she would make me a new one; I’ve torn mine, and it is so dirty, I shall never be able to read it inside the Dragon. Don’t forget.
“Your affectionate brother,
There are limits to one’s patience, and with some of us they are not very wide. Philip had passed the bounds of mine, and my natural indignation was heightened by a sort of revulsion from last night’s anxiety on his account. His lordly indifference to other people’s feelings was more irritating than the trouble he gave us by changing his mind.
“You won’t let him take the Woolly Beast from me, Isobel?” cried Charles. “And you know you promised to lend me your ostrich plume.”
“Certainly not,” said I. “And you shall have the feather. I promised.”
“If Mr. Clinton acts–I shan’t,” said Alice.
“Mr. Clinton won’t act,” said I, “I can’t alter the piece now. But I wish, Alice, you were not always so very ready to drive things into a quarrel.”
“If we hadn’t given way to Philip so much he wouldn’t think we can bear anything,” said Alice.
I could not but feel that there was some truth in this, and that it was a dilemma not provided against in Aunt Isobel’s teaching, that one may be so obliging to those one lives with as to encourage, if not to teach them to be selfish.
Perhaps it would have been well if on the first day when Philip deserted us Alice and I, had spent the afternoon with Lucy Lambent, and if we had continued to amuse ourselves with our friends when Philip amused himself with his. We should then have been forced into a common decision as to whether the play should be given up, and, without reproaches or counter-reproaches, Philip would have learned that he could not leave all the work to us, and then arrange and disarrange the plot at his own pleasure, or rather, he would never have thought that he could. But a plan of this kind requires to be carried out with perfect coolness to be either justifiable or effective. And we have not a cool head amongst us.
One thing was clear. I ought to keep faith with the others who had worked when Philip would not. Charles should not be turned out of his part I rather hustled over the question of a new part for Mr. Clinton in my mind. I disliked him, and did not want to introduce him. I said to myself that it was quite unreasonable–out of the question in fact–and I prepared to say so to Philip.
Of course he was furious–that I knew he would be; but I was firm.
“Charles can be the Old Father, and the Family Servant too,” said he. “They’re both good parts.”
“Then give them to Mr. Clinton,” said I, well knowing that he would not. “Charles has taken a great deal of pains with his part, and these are his holidays as well as yours, and the Prince shall not be taken from him.”
“Well, I say it shall. And Charles may be uncommonly glad if I let him act at all after the way he behaved yesterday.”
“The way you behaved, you, mean,” said I–for my temper was slipping from my grasp;–“you might have broken his neck.”
“All the more danger in his provoking me, and in your encouraging him.”
I began to feel giddy, which is always a bad sign with us. It rang in my mind’s ear that this was what came of being forbearing with a bully like Philip. But I still tried to speak quietly.
“If you think,” said I through my teeth, “that I am going to let you knock the others about, and rough-ride it over our theatricals, you are mistaken.”
“Your theatricals!” cried Philip, mimicking me. “I like that! Whom do the properties belong to, pray?”
“If it goes by buying,” was my reply to this rather difficult question, “most of them belong to Granny, for the canvas and the paints and the stuff for the dresses, have gone down in the bills; and if it goes by work, I think we have done quite as much as you. And if some of the properties are yours, the play is mine. And as to the scene–you did the distance in the middle of the wood, but Alice and I painted all the foreground.”
“Then you may keep your foreground, and I’ll take my distance,” roared Philip, and in a moment his pocket-knife was open, and he had cut a hole a foot-and-a-half square in the centre of the Enchanted Forest, and Bobby’s amazed face (he was running a tuck in his cloak behind the scenes) appeared through the aperture.
If a kind word would have saved the fruits of our week’s hard labour, hot one of us would have spoken it. We sacrifice anything we possess in our ill-tempered family–except our wills.
“And you may take your play, and I’ll take my properties,” continued Philip, gathering up hats, wigs, and what not from the costumes which Alice and I had arranged in neat groups ready for the green-room. “I’ll give everything to Clinton this evening for his new theatre, and we’ll see how you get on without the Fiery Dragon.”
“Clinton can’t want a fiery dragon when he’s got you,” said Charles, in a voice of mock compliment.
The Fairy Godmother’s crabstick was in Philip’s hand. He raised it, and flew at Charles, but I threw myself between them and caught Philip’s arm.
“You shall not hit him,” I cried.
Aunt Isobel is right about one thing. If one does mean to stop short in a quarrel one must begin at a very early stage. It is easier to smother one’s feelings than to check one’s words. By the time it comes to blows it is like trying to pull up a runaway horse. The first pinch Philip gave to my arm set my brain on fire. When he threw me heavily against the cave with a mocking laugh, and sprang after Charles, I could not have yielded an inch to him to save my life–not to earn Fortunatus’ purse, or three fairy wishes–not to save whatever I most valued.
What would have induced me? I do not know, but I know that I am very glad it is not quite so easy to sell one’s soul at one bargain as fairy-tales make out!
My struggle with Philip had given Charles time to escape. Philip could not find him, and rough as were the words with which he returned to me, I fancy they cost him some effort of self-control, and they betrayed to Alice’s instinct and mine that he would have been glad to get out of the extremity to which our tempers had driven matters.
“Look here!” said he in a tone which would have been perfect if we had been acting a costermonger and his wife. “Are you going to make Clinton the Prince or not?”
“I am not,” said I, nursing my elbow, which was cut by a nail on the cask. “I am not going to do anything whatever for Mr. Clinton, and I ought to be cured of working for you.”
“You have lost an opening to make peace,” said an inner voice. “You’ve given the yielding plan a fair trial, and it has failed,” said self-justification–the swiftest pleader I know. “There are some people, with self-satisfied, arbitrary tempers, upon whom gentleness is worse than wasted, because it misleads them. They have that remnant of savage notions which drives them to mistake generosity for weakness. The only way to convince them is to hit them harder than they hit you. And it is the kindest plan for everybody concerned.”
I am bound to say–though it rather confuses some of my ideas–that experience has convinced me that this last statement is not without truth. But I am also bound to say that it was not really applicable to Philip. He is not as generous as Alice, but I had no good reason to believe that kindly concession would be wasted on him.
When I had flung my last defiance, Philip replied in violent words of a kind which girls in our class of life do not (happily!) use, even in a rage. They were partly drowned by the clatter with which he dragged his big box across the floor, and filled it with properties of all kinds, from the Dragon to the foot-light reflectors.
“I am going by the 4.15 to the town,” said he, as he pulled the box out towards his own room. “You need not wait for either Clinton or me. Pray ‘ring up’ punctually!”
At this moment–having fully realized the downfall of the theatricals–Bobby burst into a howl of weeping. Alice scolded him for crying, and Charles reproached her for scolding him, on the score that her antipathy to Mr. Clinton had driven Philip to this extreme point of insult and ill-temper.
Charles’s own conduct had been so far from soothing, that Alice had abundant material for retorts, and she was not likely to be a loser in the war of words. What she did say I did not hear, for by that time I had locked myself up in my own room.
SELF-REPROACH–FAMILY DISCOMFORT–OUT ON THE MARSH–VICTORY.
If I could have locked myself up anywhere else I should have preferred it. I would have justified my own part in the present family quarrel to Aunt Isobel herself, and yet I would rather not have been alone just now with the text I had made and pinned up, and with my new picture. However, there was nowhere else to go to.
A restless way I have of pacing up and down when I am in a rage, has often reminded me of the habits of the more ferocious of the wild beasts in the Zoological Gardens, and has not lessened my convictions on the subject of the family temper. For a few prowls up and down my den I managed to occupy my thoughts with fuming against Philip’s behaviour, but as the first flush of anger began to cool, there was no keeping out of my head the painful reflections which the sight of my text, my picture, and my books suggested–the miserable contrast between my good resolves and the result.
“It only shows,” I muttered to myself, in a voice about as amiable as the growlings of a panther, “it only shows that it is quite hopeless. We’re an ill-tempered family–a hopelessly ill-tempered family; and to try to cure us is like patching the lungs of a consumptive family, I don’t even wish that I could forgive Philip. He doesn’t deserve it.”
And then as I nursed the cut on my elbow, and recalled the long hours of work at the properties, the damaged scene, the rifling of the green-room, and Philip’s desertion with the Dragon, his probable industry for Mr. Clinton’s theatricals, and the way he had left us to face our own disappointed audience, fierce indignation got the upper hand once more.
“I don’t care,” I growled afresh; “if I have lost my temper, I believe I was right to lose it–at least, that no one could have been expected not to lose it, I will never beg his pardon for it, let Aunt Isobel say what she will. I should hate him ever after if I did, for the injustice of the thing. Pardon, indeed!”
I turned at the top of the room and paced back towards the window, towards the long illuminated text, and that
“—- Noble face,
So sweet and full of grace,”
which bent unchangeable from the emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.
I have a trick of talking to myself and to inanimate objects. I addressed myself now to the text and the picture.
“But if I don’t,” I continued, “if after being confirmed with Philip in the autumn, we come to just one of our old catastrophes in the very next holidays, as bad as ever, and spiting each other to the last–I shall take you all down to-morrow! I don’t pretend to be able to persuade myself that black is white–like Mrs. Rampant; but I am not a hypocrite, I won’t ornament my room with texts, and crosses, and pictures, and symbols of Eternal Patience, when I do not even mean to try to sacrifice myself, or to be patient.”
It is curious how one’s faith and practice hang together. I felt very doubtful whether it was even desirable that I should. Whether we did not misunderstand GOD’S will, in thinking that it is well that people in the right should ever sacrifice themselves for those who are in the wrong. I did not however hide from myself, that to say this was to unsay all my resolves about my besetting sin. I decided to take down my texts, pictures, and books, and grimly thought that I would frame a fine photograph Charles had given me of a lioness, and would make a new inscription, the motto of the old Highland Clan Chattan–with which our family is remotely connected–“Touch not the cat but a glove.”
[Footnote 1: Anglice “without a glove.”]
“Put on your gloves next time, Master Philip!” I thought. “I shall make no more of these feeble attempts to keep in my claws, which only tempt you to irritate me beyond endurance. We’re an ill-tempered family, and you’re not the most amiable member of it. For my own part, I can control my temper when it is not running away with me, and be fairly kind to the little ones, so long as they do what I tell them. But, at a crisis like this, I can no more yield to your unreasonable wishes, stifle my just anger, apologize for a little wrong to you who owe apologies for a big one, and pave the way to peace with my own broken will, than the leopard can change his spots.”
“And yet–if I could!”
It broke from me almost like a cry, “If my besetting sin is a sin, if I have given way to it under provocation–if this moment is the very hardest of the battle, and the day is almost lost–and if now, even now, I could turn round and tread down this Satan under my feet. If this were to-morrow morning, and I had done it–O my soul, what triumph, what satisfaction in past prayers, what hope for the future!
“Then thou shouldest believe the old legends of sinners numbered with the saints, of tyrants taught to be gentle, of the unholy learning to be pure–for one believes with heartiness what he has experienced–then text and picture and cross should hang on, in spite of frailty, and in this sign shalt thou conquer.”
One ought to be very thankful for the blessings of good health and strong nerves, but I sometimes wish I could cry more easily. I should not like to be like poor Mrs. Rampant, whose head or back is always aching, and whose nerves make me think of the strings of an AEolian harp, on which Mr. Rampant, like rude Boreas, is perpetually playing with the tones of his voice, the creak of his boots, and the bang of his doors. But her tears do relieve, if they exhaust her, and back-ache cannot be as bad as heart-ache–hot, dry heart-ache, or cold, hard heart-ache. I think if I could have cried I could have felt softer. As it was I began to wish that I could do what I felt sure that I could not.
If I dragged myself to Philip, and got out a few conciliatory words, I should break down in a worse fury than before if he sneered or rode the high horse, “as he probably would,” thought I.
On my little carved Prayer-book shelf lay with other volumes a copy of A Kempis, which had belonged to my mother. Honesty had already whispered that if I deliberately gave up the fight with evil this must be banished with my texts and pictures. At the present moment a familiar passage came into my head:
“When one that was in great anxiety of mind, often wavering between fear and hope, did once humbly prostrate himself in prayer, and said, ‘O if I knew that I should persevere!’ he presently heard within him an answer from GOD, which said, ‘If thou didst know it, what would’st thou do? Do what thou would’st do then, and thou shalt be safe.’”
Supposing I began to do right, and trusted the rest? I could try to speak to Philip, and it would be something even if I stopped short and ran away. Or if I could not drag my feet to him, I could take Aunt Isobel’s advice, and pray. I might not be able to speak civilly to Philip, or even to pray about him in my present state of mental confusion, but I could repeat some prayer reverently. Would it not be better to start on the right road, even if I fell by the way?
I crossed the room in three strides to the place where I usually say my prayers. I knelt, and folded my hands, and shut my eyes, and began to recite the Te Deum in my head, trying to attend to it. I did attend pretty well, but it was mere attention, till I felt slightly softened at the verse–“Make them to be numbered with Thy saints in glory everlasting.” For my young mother was very good, and I always think of her when the choir comes to that verse on Sundays.
“Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.” “It’s too late to ask that,” thought I, with that half of my brain which was not attending to the words of the Te Deum, “and yet there is a little bit of the day left which will be dedicated either to good or evil.”
I prayed the rest, “O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let Thy mercy lighten upon us, as our trust is in Thee. O Lord, in Thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded!” and with the last verse there came from my heart a very passion of desire for strength to do the will of GOD at the sacrifice of my own. I flung myself on the floor with inarticulate prayers that were very fully to the point now, and they summed themselves up again in the old words, “In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted, let me never be confounded!”
When I raised my head I caught sight of the picture, and for an instant felt a superstitious thrill. The finely drawn face shone with a crimson glow. But in a moment more I saw the cause, and exclaimed–“The sun is setting! I must speak to Philip before it goes down.”
What should I say? Somehow, now, my judgment felt very clear and decisive. I would not pretend that he had been in the right, but I would acknowledge where I had been in the wrong. I had been disobliging about Mr. Clinton, and I would say so, and offer to repair that matter. I would regret having lost my temper, and say nothing about his. I would not offer to deprive Charles of his part, or break my promise of the white feather; but I would make a new part for Mr. Clinton, and he should be quite welcome to any finery in my possession except Charles’s plume. This concession was no difficulty to me. Bad as our tempers are, I am thankful to say they are not mean ones. If I dressed out Mr. Clinton at all, it would come natural to do it liberally. I would do all this–if I could. I might break down into passion at the mere sight of Philip and the properties, but at least I would begin “as if I knew I should persevere.”
At this moment the front door was shut with a bang which shook the house.
It was Philip going to catch the 4.15. I bit my lips, and began to pull on my boots, watching the red sun as it sank over the waste of marshland which I could see from my window. I must try to overtake him, but I could run well, and I suspected that he would not walk fast. I did not believe that he was really pleased at the break-up of our plans and the prospect of a public exposure of our squabbles, though as a family we are always willing to make fools of ourselves rather than conciliate each other.
My things were soon on, and I hurried from my room. In the window-seat of the corridor was Alice. The sight of her reproached me. She slept in my room, but I jealously retained full power over it, and when I locked myself in she dared not disturb me.
“I’m afraid you’ve been wanting to come in,” said I. “Do go in now.”
“Thank you,” said Alice, “I’ve nowhere to go to.” Then tightening her lips, she added, “Philip’s gone.”
“I know,” said I. “I’m going to try and get him back.” Alice stared in amazement.
“You always do spoil Philip, because he’s your twin,” she said, at last; “you wouldn’t do it for me.”
“Oh, Alice, you don’t know. I’d much rather do it for you, girls are so much less aggravating than boys. But don’t try and make it harder for me to make peace.”
“I beg your pardon, Isobel. If you do, you’re an angel. I couldn’t, to save my life.”
At the head of the stairs I met Charles.
“He’s gone,” said he significantly, and bestriding the balustrades, he shot to the foot. When I reached him he was pinching the biceps muscle of his arm.
“Feel, Isobel,” said he, “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
“Very, Charles, but I’m in a hurry.”
“Look here,” he continued, with an ugly expression on his face, “I’m going into training. I’m going to eat bits of raw mutton, and dumb-bell. Wait a year, wait half a year, and I shall be able to thrash him. I’ll make him remember these theatricals. I don’t forget. I haven’t forgot his bursting my football out of spite.”
It is not pleasant to see one’s own sins reflected on other faces. I could not speak.
By the front door was Bobby. He was by way of looking out of the portico window, but his swollen eyes could not possibly have seen anything.
“Oh, Isobel, Isobel!” he sobbed, “Philip’s gone, and taken the D–d–d–dragon with him, and we’re all m–m–m–miserable.”
“Don’t cry, Bobby,” said I, kissing him. “Finish your cloak, and be doing anything you can. I’m going to try and bring Philip back.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Isobel! If only he’ll come back I don’t care what I do. Or I’ll give up my parts if he wants them, and be a scene-shifter, if you’ll lend me your carpet-slippers, and make me a paper cap.”
“GOD has given you a very sweet temper, Bobby,” said I, solemnly. “I wish I had one like it.”
“You’re as good as gold,” said Bobby. His loving hug added strength to my resolutions, and I ran across the garden and jumped the ha-ha, and followed Philip over the marsh. I do not know whether he heard my steps when I came nearly up with him, but I fancy his pace slackened. Not that he looked round. He was much too sulky.
Philip is a very good-looking boy, much handsomer than I am, though we are alike. But the family curse disfigures his face when he is cross more than any one’s, and the back view of him is almost worse than the front. His shoulders get so humped up, and his whole figure is stiff with cross-grained obstinacy.
“I shall never hold out if he speaks as ungraciously as he looks,” thought I in despair. “But I’ll not give in till I can hold out no longer.”
“Philip!” I said. He turned round, and his face was no prettier to look at than his shoulders.
“What do you want?” (in the costermonger tone.)
“I want you to come back, Philip”–(here I choked).
“I dare say,” he sneered, “and you want the properties! But you’ve got your play, and your amiable Charles, and your talented Alice, and your ubiquitous Bobby. And the audience will be entertained with an unexpected after-piece entitled–‘The disobliging disobliged.’”
Oh it was hard! I think if I had looked at Philip’s face I must have broken down, but I kept my eyes steadily on the crimson sun, which loomed large through the marsh mists that lay upon the horizon, as I answered with justifiable vehemence:
“I have a very bad temper, Philip” (I checked the disposition to add–“and so have you”), “but I never tell a lie. I have not come after the properties. The only reason for which I have come is to try and make peace.” At this point I gathered up all my strength and hurried on, staring at the sun till the bushes near us and the level waste of marsh beyond seemed to vanish in the glow. “I came to say that I am sorry for my share of the quarrel. I lost my temper, and I beg your pardon for that. I was not very obliging about Mr. Clinton, but you had tried me very much. However, what you did wrong, does not excuse me, I know, and if you like to come back, I’ll make a new part as you wanted. I can’t give him Charles’s part, or the feather, but anything I can do, or give up of my own, I will. It’s not because of to-night, for you know as well as I do that I do not care twopence what happens when I’m angry, and, after all, we can only say that you’ve taken the things. But I wanted us to get through these holidays without quarrelling, and I wanted you to enjoy them, and I want to try and be good to you, for you are my twin brother, and for my share of the quarrel I beg your pardon–I can do no more.”
Some of this speech had been about as pleasant to say as eating cinders, and when it was done I felt a sudden sensation (very rare with me) of unendurable fatigue. As the last words left my lips the sun set, but my eyes were so bedazzled that I am not sure that I should not have fallen, but for an unexpected support. What Philip had been thinking of during my speech I do not know, for I had avoided looking at him, but when it was done he threw the properties out of his arms, and flung them around me with the hug of a Polar bear.
“You ill-tempered!” he roared. “You’ve the temper of an angel, or you would never have come after me like this. Isobel, I am a brute, I have behaved like a brute all the week, and I beg your pardon.”
I retract my wishes about crying, for when I do begin, I cry in such a very disagreeable way–no spring shower, but a perfect tempest of tears. Philip’s unexpected generosity upset me, and I sobbed till I frightened him, and he said I was hysterical. The absurdity of this idea set me off into fits of laughing, which, oddly enough, seemed to distress him so much that I stopped at last, and found breath to say, “Then you’ll come home?”
“If you’ll have me. And never mind about Clinton, I’ll get out of it. The truth is, Isobel, you and Alice did snub him from the first, and that vexed me; but I am disappointed in him. He does brag so, and I’ve had to take that fowling-piece to the gunsmith’s already, so I know what it’s worth. I did give Clinton a hint about it, and–would you believe it?–he laughed, and said he thought he had got the best of that bargain. I said, ‘I hope you have, if it isn’t an even one, for I should be very sorry to think I had cheated a friend!’ But he either did not or wouldn’t see it. He’s a second-rate sort of fellow, I’m sure, and I’m sorry I promised to let him act. But I’ll get out of it, you shan’t be bothered by him.”
“No, no,” said I, “if you promised I’d much rather. It won’t bother me at all.”
(It is certainly a much pleasanter kind of dispute when the struggle is to give, and not to take!)
“You can’t fit him in now?” said Philip doubtfully.
“Oh yes, I can.” I felt sure that I could. I have often been short of temper for our amusements, but never of ideas. Philip tucked the properties under one arm, and me under the other, and as we ran homewards over the marsh, I threaded Mr. Clinton into the plot with perfect ease.
“We’ll have a second Prince, and he shall have an enchanted shield, which shall protect him from you–though he can’t kill you–for Charles must do that. He shall be in love with the Princess too, but just when he and Charles are going to fight for her, the Fairy Godmother shall sprinkle him with the Waters of Memory, and break a spell which had made him forget his own Princess in a distant land. You know, Philip, if he does act well, he may make a capital part of it. It will be a splendid scene. We have two real metal swords, and as they are flashing in the air–enter the Fairy with the carved claret jug. When he is sprinkled he must drop his sword, and put his hands to his head. He will recall the picture of his own Princess, and draw it out and kiss it (I can lend him my locket miniature of great-grandpapa). Charles and he must swear eternal friendship, and then he will pick up his sword, and exit right centre, waving the golden shield, to find his Princess. It will look very well, and as he goes out the Princess can enter left in distraction about the combat, and she and Charles can fall in each other’s arms, and be blessed by the Fairy.”
“Capital!” said Philip. “What a head you have! But you’re out of breath? We’re running too fast.”
“Not a bit,” said I, “it refreshes me. Do you remember when you and I used to run hand in hand from the top to the bottom of Breakneck Hill? Oh, Philip, I do wish we could never quarrel any more! I think we might keep our tempers if we tried.”
“You might,” said Philip, “because you are good. But I shall always be a brute.”
(Just what I said to Aunt Isobel! Must every one learn his own lessons for himself? I had a sort of unreasonable feeling that my experience ought to serve for the rest of our ill-tempered family into the bargain.)
Philip’s spirits rose higher and higher. Of course he was delighted to be out of the scrape. I am sure he was glad to be friendly again, and he was hotter than ever for the theatricals.
So was I. I felt certain that they would be successful now. But far above and beyond the comfort of things “coming right,” and the pleasure of anticipated fun, my heart was rocked to a higher peace. In my small religious experiences I had never known this triumph, this thankfulness before. Circumstances, not self-control, had helped me out of previous quarrels; I had never really done battle, and gained a conquest over my besetting sin. Now, however imperfectly and awkwardly, I yet had fought. If Philip had been less generous I might have failed, but the effort had been real–and it had been successful. Henceforth my soul should fight with the prestige of victory, with the courage that comes of having striven and won, trusted and not been confounded.
The first person we met after we got in was Aunt Isobel. She had arrived in our absence. No doubt she had heard the whole affair, but she is very good, and never gauche and she only said–
“Here come the stage-managers! Now what can I do to help? I have had some tea, and am ready to obey orders till the curtain rings up.”
Boys do not carry things off well. Philip got very red, but I said–“Oh, please come to the nursery, Aunt Isobel. There are lots of things to do.” She came, and was invaluable. I never said anything about the row to her, and she never said anything to me. That is what I call a friend!
The first thing Philip did was to unlock the property-box in his room and bring the Dragon and things back. The second thing he did was to mend the new scene by replacing the bit he had cut out, glueing canvas on behind it, and touching up with paint where it joined.
We soon put straight what had been disarranged. Blinds were drawn, candles lighted, seats fixed, and the theatre began to look like itself. Aunt Isobel and I were bringing in the footlights, when we saw Bobby at the extreme right of the stage wrapped in his cloak, and contemplating, with apparent satisfaction, twelve old hats and six pasteboard bandboxes which were spread before him.
“My dear Bobby, what are these?” said Aunt Isobel. Bobby hastily–almost stammeringly–explained,
“I am Twelve Travellers, you know, Aunt Isobel.”
“Dear me!” said Aunt Isobel.
“I’ll show you how I am going to do it,” said Bobby.
“Here are twelve old hats–I have had such work to collect them!–and six bandboxes.”
“Only six?” said Aunt Isobel with commendable gravity.
“But there are the lids,” said Bobby; “six of them, and six boxes, make twelve, you know. I’ve only one cloak, but it’s red on one side and blue on the other, and two kinds of buttons. Well; I come on left for the First Traveller, with my cloak the red side out, and this white chimney-pot hat.”
“Ah!” said Aunt Isobel.
“And one of the bandboxes under my cloak. The Dragon attacks me in the centre, and drives me off the right, where I smash up the bandbox, which sounds like him crunching my bones. Then I roll the thunder, turn my cloak to the blue side, put on this wideawake, and come on again with a bandbox lid and crunch that, and roll more thunder, and so on. I’m the Faithful Attendant and the Bereaved Father as well,” added Bobby, with justifiable pride, “and I would have done the Dragon if they would have let me.”
But even Bobby did not outdo the rest of us in willingness. Alice’s efforts were obvious tokens of remorse; she waited on Philip, was attentive to Mr. Clinton (who, I think, to this day believes that he made himself especially acceptable to “the young ladies”), and surpassed herself on the stage. Charles does not “come round” so quickly, but at the last moment he came and offered to yield the white plume. I confess I was rather vexed with Mr. Clinton for accepting it, but Alice and I despoiled our best hats of their black ostrich feathers to make it up to Charles, and he said, with some dignity, that he should never have offered the white one if he had not meant it to be accepted.
One thing took us by surprise. We had had more trouble over the dressing of the new Prince than the costumes and make-up of all the rest of the characters together cost–he was only just torn from the big looking-glass by his “call” to the stage, and, to our amazement, he seemed decidedly unwilling to go on.
“It’s a very odd thing, Miss Alice,” said he in accents so pitiable that I did not wonder that Alice did her best to encourage him,–“it’s a most extraordinary thing, but I feel quite nervous.”
“You’ll be all right when you’re once on,” said Alice; “mind you don’t forget that it depends on you to explain that it’s an invincible shield.”
“Which arm had I better wear it on?” said Mr. Clinton, shifting it nervously from side to side.
“The left, the left!” cried Alice. “Now you ought to be on.”
“Oh what shall I say?” cried our new hero.
“Say–‘Devastating Monster! my arm is mortal, and my sword was forged by human fingers, but this shield is invincible as —-‘”
“Second Prince,” called Charles impatiently, and Mr. Clinton was hustled on.
He was greeted with loud applause. He said afterwards that this put his part out of his head, that Alice had told him wrong, and that the shield was too small for him.
As a matter of fact he hammered and stammered and got himself and the piece into such confusion, that Philip lost patience as he lay awaiting his cue. With a fierce bellow he emerged from his cask, and roaring, “Avaunt, knight of the invincible shield and craven heart!” he crossed the stage with the full clatter of his canvas joints, and chased Mr. Clinton off at the left centre.
Once behind the scenes, he refused to go on again. He said that he had never played without a proper part at his uncle’s in Dublin, and thought our plan quite a mistake. Besides which, he had got toothache, and preferred to join the audience, which he did, and the play went on without him.
I was acting as stage-manager in the intervals of my part, when I noticed Mr. Clinton (not the ex-Prince, but his father, the surgeon) get up, and hastily leave his place among the spectators. But just as I was wondering at this, I was recalled to business by delay on the part of Bobby, who ought to have been on (with the lights down) as the Twelfth Traveller.
I found him at the left wing, with all the twelve hats fitted one over another, the whole pile resting on a chair.
“Bob, what are you after? You ought to be on.”
“All right,” said Bob, “Philip knows. He’s lashing his tail and doing some business till I’m ready. Help me to put this cushion under my cloak for a hump-back, will you? I didn’t like the twelfth hat, it’s too like the third one, so I’m going on as a Jew Pedlar. Give me that box. Now!” And before I could speak a roar of applause had greeted Bobby as he limped on in his twelve hats, crying, “Oh tear, oh tear! dish ish the tarkest night I ever shaw.”
But either we acted unusually well, or our audience was exceptionally kind, for it applauded everything and everybody till the curtain fell.
* * * * *
“Behind the scenes” is always a place of confusion after amateur theatricals; at least it used to be with us. We ran hither and thither, lost our every-day shoes, washed the paint from our faces, and mislaid any number of towels, and combs, and brushes, ate supper by snatches, congratulated ourselves on a successful evening, and were kissed all around by Granny, who came behind the scenes for the purpose.
All was over, and the guests were gone, when I gave an invitation to the others to come and make lemon-brew over my bedroom fire as an appropriate concluding festivity. (It had been suggested by Bobby.) I had not seen Philip for some time, but we were all astonished to hear that he had gone out. We kept his “brew” hot for him, and Charles and Bobby were both nodding–though they stoutly refused to go to bed,–when his step sounded in the corridor, and he knocked and came hastily in.
Everybody roused up.
“Oh, Philip, we’ve been wondering where you were! Here’s your brew, and we’ve each kept a little drop, to drink your good health.”
(“Mine is all pips,” observed Bobby as a parenthesis.) But Philip was evidently thinking of something else.
“Isobel,” he said, standing by the table, as if he were making a speech, “I shall never forget your coming after me to-day. I told you you had the temper of an angel.”
“So did I,” said Alice.
“Hear! hear!” said Bobby, who was sucking his pips one by one and laying them by–“to plant in a pot,” as he afterwards explained.
“You not only saved the theatricals,” continued Philip, “you saved my life I believe.”
No “situation” in the play had been half so startling as this. We remained open-mouthed and silent, whilst Philip sat down as if he were tired, and rested his head on his hands, which were dirty, and stained with something red.
“Haven’t you heard about the accident?” he asked.
We all said “No.”
“The 4.15 ran into the express where the lines cross, you know. Isobel, there were only two first-class carriages, and everybody in them was killed but one man. They have taken both his legs off, and he’s not expected to live. Oh, poor fellow, he did groan so!”
Bobby burst into passionate tears, and Philip buried his head on his arms.
Neither Alice nor I could speak, but Charles got up and went round and stood by Philip.
“You’ve been helping,” he said emphatically, “I know you have. You’re a good fellow, Philip, and I beg your pardon for saucing you. I am going to forget about the football too. I was going to have eaten raw meat, and dumb-belled, to make myself strong enough to thrash you,” added Charles remorsefully.
“Eat a butcher’s shop full, if you like,” replied Philip with contempt. And I think it showed that Charles was beginning to practise forbearance, that he made no reply.
* * * * *
Some years have passed since those Twelfth Night theatricals. The Dragon has long been dissolved into his component scales, and we never have impromptu performances now. The passing fame which a terrible railway accident gave to our insignificant station has also faded. But it set a seal on our good resolutions which I may honestly say has not been lightly broken.
There, on the very spot where I had almost resolved never to forgive Philip, never to try to heal the miserable wounds of the family peace, I learned the news of the accident in which he might have been killed. Philip says that if anything could make him behave better to me it is the thought that I saved his life, as he calls it. But if anything could help me to be good to him, surely it must be the remembrance of how nearly I did not save him.
I put Alice on an equality in our bedroom that night, and gave her part-ownership of the text and the picture. We are very happy together.
We have all tried to improve, and I think I may say we have been fairly successful.
More than once I have heard (one does hear many things people say behind one’s back) that new acquaintances–people who have only known us lately–have expressed astonishment, not unmixed with a generous indignation, on hearing that we were ever described by our friends as–A VERY ILL-TEMPERED FAMILY.