Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XXIII

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NEXT morning, Ottilie Steyn de Weert arrived at the Hook of Holland. She was accompanied by a young fellow of nearly thirty, a good-looking, well-set-up young Englishman, clean-shaven, pink and white under his travelling-cap, broad-shouldered in his check jacket and knickerbockers. They took the train to the Hague.

Ottilie Steyn was under the influence of emotion. She could be silent when she wished and so she had never spoken about it; but she suspected, she knew almost for certain that Takma was her father and she had loved him as a father.

"He was always so good to me," she said, in English, to Hugh Trevelley, her son. "I shall miss him badly."

"He was your father," said Hugh, coolly.

"Not at all," Ottilie protested. "You know nothing about it, Hugh. People are always talking."

"He gave you the money to come to England."

Mamma Ottilie did not know why, but she was sometimes more sincere with Hugh than she was with Lot at home. She loved both these two sons, but she loved Lot because he was kind to her and she was really fonder of Hugh because he was so good-looking and broad-shouldered and because he reminded her of Trevelley, whom she had really loved the best. She had never told Lot that the old gentleman was very generous to her, but she had sometimes said so to Hugh. She was glad to be travelling with Hugh, to be sitting next to him; and yet she was not pleased that Hugh had come with her. He never came to the Hague; and it only meant complications with Steyn, she thought, especially now.

"Hugh," she said, caressingly, taking his hand and holding it between hers, "Hugh, Mummy is so glad to be with you, my boy. I see you so seldom. I'm very glad.... But perhaps you would have done better not to come."

"I daresay," said Hugh, coolly, withdrawing his hand.

"Because of Steyn, you know."

"I won't see the fellow. I sha'n't set foot in your house. I'll go to an hotel. Do you think I want to see that scoundrel? That cad ... for whom you left my father? Not I! But I've come to look after my interests. I sha'n't make any trouble. But I want to know. You're coming into money from that old man. He's your father, I know he is. You're sure to come into money. All I want is to know how things stand: whether he leaves you any money and how much. As soon as I know that, I shall go back. For the rest, I sha'n't trouble any one, not even you."

Ottilie sat looking in front of her, like a child that has been rebuked. They were alone in the compartment; and she said, coaxingly:

"Boy, dear boy, don't talk like that to your mother. I'm so glad to have you with me. I'm so very, very fond of you. You're so like your father and I loved your father, oh, more than Steyn, ever so much more than Steyn! Steyn has wrecked my life. I ought to have stayed with your father and all of you, with you and John and Mary. Don't speak so harshly, my boy. It hurts me so. Do be nice again to your mother. She has nothing, nothing left in her life: Lot is married; the old man is dead. She has nothing left. No one will ever be nice to her again, if you aren't. And in the old days ... in the old days everybody used to be so very nice to her; yes, in the old days ..."

She began to cry. It came from her regret for the old man, from her anger about Lot, who was married, from her jealousy of Elly and her pity for herself. Her fingers, like a little child's, felt for Hugh's strong hand. He smiled with his handsome, clean-shaven mouth, thought her funny for such an old woman, but realized that she might have been very charming once. A certain kindness showed itself in him and, with bluff tenderness, putting his arm round her waist, he said:

"Come, don't start crying; come here."

And he drew her to him. She crept up against him like a child, nestled against his tweed jacket; he patted her hand; and, when he kissed her on the forehead, she was blissfully happy and lay like that, with a deep sigh, while he, smiling and shaking his head, looked down on his mother.

"Which hotel are you going to?" she asked.

"The Deux-Villes," he said. "Have you any more money for me?"

"No, Hugh," she replied, "I gave it you all, for the tickets and ... "

"All you had on you?"

"Yes, boy, really, I haven't a cent in my purse. But I don't want it. You can keep what's left."

He felt in his pocket:

"It's not much," he said, rummaging among his change. "You can give me some more at the Hague. One of these days, when I'm well off, you can come and live with me and enjoy a happy old age."

She laughed, pleased at his words, and stroked his cheeks and gave him a kiss, as she never did to Lot. She really doted on him; he was her favourite son. For one word of rough kindness from Hugh she would have walked miles; one kiss from him made her happy, positively happy, for an hour. To win him, her voice and her caress unconsciously regained something of their former youthful seductiveness. Hugh never saw her as a little fury, as Lot often did, Lot whom in the past she had sometimes struck, against whom she even now sometimes felt an impulse to raise her quick little hand. She never felt that impulse towards Hugh. His manliness, a son's manliness, mastered her; and she did whatever he wished. Where she loved manliness, she surrendered herself; she had always done so and she now did so to her son.

On arriving at the Hague, she took leave of Hugh and promised to keep him informed, imploring him to be nice and not to do anything disagreeable. He promised and went his way. At home, she found her husband waiting for her.

"How did the old man die?" she asked.

He gave her a few brief details and said:

"I'm the executor."

"You?" she asked. "Why not Lot, as Elly's husband?"

He shrugged his shoulders, thought it disingenuous in her to ask:

"I don't know," he said, coldly. "The old man arranged it so. Besides, I shall do everything with Lot. He may be here in two days. The undertakers are coming to-night; the funeral will be to-morrow."

"Can't it wait for Lot?"

"Dr. Thielens thought it inadvisable."

She did not tell him that Hugh had come with her and, after lunch, she went to the Mauritskade and embraced Adèle Takma, who was bearing up though the red letters still whirled before her stupefied eyes, like faded characters written in blood. Ottilie Steyn asked to see the old gentleman for the last time. She saw him, white in the pale, dim light, his old white face on the white pillow, with its scanty little wreath of hair, his eyelids closed, the lines on either side of his nose and mouth fallen away in slack wrinkles of discoloured parchment. She wrung her hands softly and wept. She had been very fond of the old man and he had always been exceedingly kind to her. Like a father ... like a father ... she always remembered him like that. Papa Dercksz she had never known. He, he had been her father. He had petted her even as a child; and afterwards he had always helped her, when in any sort of money trouble. If ever he reproached her, it had always been gently ... because she played with her life so: that was his expression at the time of her first divorce, from Pauws; of her second divorce, from Trevelley. She remembered it all: in India and at the Hague. He had liked Pauws very much; Trevelley he disliked; Steyn he had ended by pronouncing to be a good fellow after all. Yes, he had never reproached her except gently, because she was unable to manage herself and her love-affairs; and he had always been so exceedingly kind to her.... She would miss him, in the morning-room at Mamma's, or on the days when she used to look him up in his study and he would give her a couple of banknotes, with a kiss, saying:

"But don't talk about it."

He had never said that he was her father; she had always called him Mr. Takma. But she had suspected; and she now felt it, knew it for certain. This affection, perhaps the last, was passing from her, had passed from her....

She went again in the evening, with Steyn, and Dr. Thielens came too, to be present when the body was put in the coffin. Aunt Adèle said, no, she was not afraid of being in the house with the corpse, nor the maids either: they had slept quite well the night before. Next day also, the day of the funeral, Aunt Adèle was composed. She received Dr. Roelofsz very quietly; the doctor panted and groaned and pressed his hands to his stomach, which hung crooked: he had intended to go to the cemetery with the rest, but did not feel equal to it; and so he stayed behind with Adèle. The Derckszes came: Anton and Harold and Daan; Steyn came; D'Herbourg came, with his son-in-law Frits van Wely; and the women came too: Ottilie Steyn, Aunt Stefanie, Aunt Floor, Ina and the fair-haired little bride, Lily; they all remained with Dr. Roelofsz and Aunt Adèle, who was quite composed. When the funeral procession was gone, the women said how sad it was for Grandmamma; and the old doctor began to cry. It was a pitiful sight, to see that old man, shapeless as a crumbling mass, huddled in a chair; to hear him exclaim, "Well-well ... yes-yes ... oh, yes!" to see him cry; but Adèle remained composed. Ottilie Steyn was not so; she wept bitterly; and they all saw that she was mourning the death of a father, though not any of them had uttered the word, not even quietly among themselves.

Next morning, Steyn had an interview with the solicitor; and, when he came home, he said to his wife:

"Adèle has a legacy of thirty thousand guilders; Elly and you get something over a hundred thousand each."

Mamma Ottilie sobbed:

"The dear good man!" she stammered through her sobs. "The dear good man!"

"Only we thought, Ottilie, the solicitor and I thought, that it would be best, for Mamma's sake to speak of the inheritance as little as possible."

"Does the old gentleman acknowledge me as his daughter?"

"There is no question of acknowledging. He leaves you the half of his property; you and Elly share and share alike, after deducting Adèle's legacy. Only we thought, the solicitor and I, that, for Mamma's sake, it would be better not to talk about it to any one who needn't know."

"Yes," said Ottilie, "very well."

"You can be silent when you choose, you know."

She looked at him:

"I shall not talk about it. But why do you say that?"

"Because I see from the old gentleman's books that he often used to give you money. At least there are entries: 'To O. S.'"

She flushed up:

"I wasn't obliged to tell you."

"No, but you always used to say that you had found some money in your cupboard and make yourself out more careless than you were."

"The old man himself asked me not to talk about that money...."

"And you were quite right not to. I only say, you can be silent when you choose. So be silent now."

"I don't want your advice, thank you!" she blazed out; but he had left the room.

She clenched her fist: oh, she hated him, she hated him, especially for his voice! She could not stand his cold, bass voice, his deep, measured words. She hated him: she could have smacked his face, just to see if he would then still speak in cool, deliberate tones. She hated him more and more every day. She hated him so much that she longed for his death. She had wept beside the old man's body; she could have danced beside Steyn's! Oh, she didn't yet realize how she hated him! She pictured him dead, run over, or wounded to the death, with a knife in his heart or a bullet through his temple ... and she knew that she would then rejoice within herself. It was all because he spoke so coolly and deliberately and never said a kind word to her now and never caressed her!

"A hundred thousand guilders!" she thought. "It's a lot of money. Ah, I'd rather the dear good man were still alive! And that now and then, in that kind way of his, he gave me a couple of hundred guilders. That's what I shall miss so terribly. It's true, I have some money now; but I have nothing else left!"

And she wrung her hands and sobbed again, for she felt very lonely: the old man was dead; Hugh at the Hague, but in his hotel; fortunately, Lot was coming home that evening....