Penny Plain/Chapter 19

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"O, I wad like to ken—to the beggar-wife says I—
 Why chops are guid to brander and nane sae guid to fry,
 An' siller, that's sae braw to get, is brawer still to gie.
 —It's gey an' easy spierin', says the beggar-wife to me."


IT is always easier for poor human nature to weep with those who weep than to rejoice with those who rejoice. Into our congratulations to our more fortunate neighbour we often manage to squeeze something of the "hateful rind of resentment," forgetting that the cup of life is none too sweet for any of us, and needs nothing of our bitterness added.

Jean had not an enemy in the world, almost everyone wished her well, but in very few cases was there any marked enthusiasm about her inheritance. "Ridiculous," was the most frequent comment: or "Fancy that little thing!" It seemed absurd that such an unimportant person should have had such a large thing happen to her.

Pamela was frankly disgusted with the turn things had taken. She had intended giving Jean such a good time; she had meant to dress her and amuse her and settle her in life. Peter Reid had destroyed all her plans, and Jean would never now be dependent on her for the pleasures of life.

She wrote to her brother:

"Jean seems to be one of the people that all sorts of odd things happen to, and now fortune has played one of her impish tricks and Jean has become a very considerable heiress. And I was there, oddly enough, when the god in the car alighted, so to speak, at The Rigs.

"One afternoon, just after I came to Priorsford, I went in after tea and found the Jardines entertaining a shabby-looking elderly man. They were all so very nice to him that I thought he must be some old family friend, but it turned out that none of them had seen him before that afternoon. He had asked to look over the house, and told Jean that he had lived in it as a boy, and Jean, remarking his rather shabby clothes and frail appearance, jumped to the conclusion that he had failed in life and—you know Jean—was at once full of tenderness and compassion. At his request she sang to him a song he had heard his mother sing, and finished by presenting him with the song-book containing it—a somewhat rare collection which she valued.

"This shabby old man, it seems, was one Peter Reid, a wealthy London business man, and owner of The Rigs, born and bred in Priorsford, who had just heard from his doctor that he had not long to live, and had come back to his childhood's home meaning to die there. He had no relations and few friends, and had made up his mind to leave his money to the first person who did anything for him without thought of payment. (He seems to have been a hard, suspicious type of man who had not attracted kindness.) So Fate guided his steps to Jean, and this is the result. Yes, rather far-fetched, I agree, but Fate is often like a novelette.

"Mr. Peter Reid had meant to ask the Jardines to leave The Rigs and let him settle there, but—there must have been a soft part somewhere in the hard little man—he hadn't the heart to do it when he found how attached they were to the place.

"I was at The Rigs when the lawyer's letter came. Jean as an heiress is very funny and, at the same time, horribly touching. At first she could think of nothing but that the lonely old man she had tried to be kind to was dead, and wept bitterly. Then as she began to realise the fact of the money she was aghast, suffocated with the thought of her own wealth. She told us piteously that it wouldn't change her at all. I think the poor child already felt the golden barrier that wealth builds round its owners. I don't think Mr. Peter Reid was kind, though perhaps he meant to be. Jean is such a conscientious, anxious pilgrim at any time, and I'm afraid the wealth will hang round her neck like the Ancient Mariner's albatross.

" … I have been wondering, Biddy, how this will affect your chances. I know you felt as I did how nice it would be to give Jean all the things that she has never had and which money can buy. I admit I am horribly disappointed about it, but I'm not at all sure that this odd trick of fortune's won't help you. Her attitude was that marriage with you was unthinkable; you had so much and she had so little. Well, this evens things up. Don't come. Don't write. Leave her alone to try her wings. She will want to try all sorts of schemes for helping people, and I'm afraid the poor child will get many bad falls. So long as she remains in Priorsford with people like Mrs. Hope and the Macdonalds to watch over her she can't come to any harm. Don't be anxious. Honestly, Biddy, I think she cares for you. I'm glad you asked her when she was poor."

When the news of Jean's fortune broke over Priorsford, tea-parties had no lack of material for conversation.

Miss Watson and Miss Teenie, much more excited than Jean herself, ranged gaily round the circle of their acquaintances, drank innumerable cups of tea, and discussed the matter in all its bearings.

"Isn't it strange to think of Miss Jean as an heiress? Such a plain little thing—in her clothes, I mean, for she has a bit sweet wee face. I don't know how she'll ever do in a great big house with butlers and things. I expect she'll leave The Rigs now. It's no place for an heiress. Perhaps she'll build a house like The Towers. No; you're right: she'll look for an old house; she always had such queer ideas about liking old things and plain things…. Well, when she had a wee house it had a wide door. I hope when she gets a big house it won't have a narrow door. Money sometimes changes people's very natures…. It's a funny business; you never really know what'll happen to you in this world. Anyway, I don't grudge it to Miss Jean, though, mind you, I don't think myself that she'll carry off money well. She hasn't presence enough, if you know what I mean. She'll never look the thing in a big motor, and you can't imagine her being haughty to people poorer than herself. She has such a way of putting herself beside folk—even a tinker-body on the road!"

Miss Bathgate heard the news with sardonic laughter.

"So that's the latest! Miss Jean's gaun to be upsides wi' the best o' them! Puir lamb, puir lamb! I hope the siller 'll bring her happiness, but I doot it … I yince kent some folk that got a fortune left them. He was a beadle in the U.F. Kirk at Kirkcaple, a dacent man wi' a wife and dochter, an' by some queer chance they came into a heap o' siller, an' a hoose—a mansion hoose, ye ken. They never did mair guid, puir bodies. The hoose was that big that the only kinda cosy place they could see to sit in was the butler's pantry, an' they took to drink, fair for want o' anything else to dae. I've heard tell that they took whisky to their porridges, but that's mebbe a lee. Onyway, the faither and mither sune died off, and the dochter went to board wi' the minister an' his wife, to see if they could dae onything wi' her. I mind seein' her yince. She was sittin' horn-idle, an' I said to her, 'D'ye niver tak' up a stockin'?' and she says, 'I dinna need to dae naething.' 'But,' I says, 'a stockin' keeps your hands busy, an' keeps ye frae wearyin',' but she juist said, 'I tell ye I dinna need to dae naething. I whiles taks a ride in a carriage.' … It was a sorry sicht, I can tell ye, to see a dacent lass ruined wi' siller…. Weel, Miss Jean 'll get a man noo. Nae fear o' that," and Miss Bathgate repeated her cynical lines about the lass "on Tintock tap."

Mrs. Hope was much excited when she heard, more especially when she found who Jean's benefactor was.

"Reids who lived in The Rigs thirty years ago? But I knew them. I know all about them. It was I who suggested to Alison Jardine that the cottage would suit her. She had lost a lot of money and wanted a small place…. Why, bless me, Augusta, Mrs. Reid, this man's mother, came from Corlaw; her people were tenants of my father's. What was the name? I used to be taken to their house by my nurse and get an oatcake with sugar sprinkled on it—a great luxury, I thought. Yes, of course, Laidlaw. She was Jeannie Laidlaw. When I married and came to Hopetoun I often went to see Mrs. Reid. She reminded me of Corlaw, and could talk of my father, and I liked that…. Her husband was James Reid. He must have had some money, and I think he was retired. He had a beard and came from Fife. I remember the east-country tone in his voice. They went to the Free Kirk, and I overheard, one day, a man say to him as we came out of church (where a retiring collection for the next Sunday had been announced), 'There's an awfu' heap o' collections in oor kirk,' and James Reid replied, 'Ou ay, but ma way is to pay no attention.' When I told your father he was delighted and said that he must take that for his motto through life—'Ma way is to pay no attention.'"

Mrs. Hope took off her glasses and smiled to herself over her recollections…. "Mrs. Reid was a nice creature, 'fair bigoted,' as they say here, on her son Peter. He was her chief topic of conversation. Peter's cleverness, Peter's kindness to his mother, Peter's good looks, Peter's fine voice: when I saw him—well, I thought we should all thank God for our mothers, for no one else will ever see us with such kind eyes…. And it's this Peter Reid—Jeannie Laidlaw's son—who has enriched Jean. Well, Augusta, I must say I consider it rather a liberty."

Augusta looked at her mother with an amused smile.

"Yes, Augusta, it was a pushing, interfering sort of thing to do. What is the child to do with a great fortune? I'm not afraid of her being spoiled. Money won't vulgarise Jean as it does so many people, but it may turn her into a very burdened, anxious pilgrim. She is happier poor. The pinch of too little money is a small thing compared to the burden of too much. The doing without is good for both body and soul, but the great possessions are apt to harden our hearts and make our souls small and meagre. Who would have thought that little Jean would have had the hard hap to become heir to them. But she has a high heart. She may make a success of being a rich woman! She has certainly made a success of being a poor one."

"I think," said Augusta, in her gentle voice, "that Peter Reid was a wise man to leave his money to Jean. Only the people who have been poor know how to give, and Jean has imagination and an understanding heart. Haven't you noticed what a wonderful way she has with the poor people? She is always welcome in the cottages…. And think what a delight she will have in spending money on the boys! But I hope Pamela Reston will do as she had planned and carry Jean off for a real holiday. I should like to see her for a little while spend money like water, buy all manner of useless lovely things, and dine and dance and go to plays."

Mrs. Hope put up her glasses to regard her daughter.

"Dear me, Augusta, am I hearing right? Who is more severe than you on the mad women who dance, and sup, and frivol their money away? But there's something in what you say. The bairn needs a playtime…. To think that Jeannie Laidlaw's son should change the whole of Jean's life. Preposterous!"

Mrs. Duff-Whalley was having tea with Mrs. Jowett when the news was broken to her. It was a party, but only, as Mrs. Duff-Whalley herself would have put it, "a purely local affair," meaning some people on the Hill.

Mrs. Jowett sat in her soft-toned room, pouring out tea into fragile cups with hands that seemed to demand lace ruffles, so white were they and transparent. The room was like herself, exquisitely fresh and dainty; white walls hung with pale water-colours in gilt frames, Indian rugs of soft pinks and blues and greys, plump cushions in worked muslin covers that looked as if they were put on fresh every morning. Photographs stood about of women looking sweetly into vacancy over the heads of pretty children, and books of verses, bound daintily in white and gold, lay on carved tables.

Mrs. Duff-Whalley did not care for Mrs. Jowett's tea-parties, and she always felt irritated by her drawing-room. The gentle voice of her hostess made her want to speak louder than usual, and she thought the conversation insipid to a degree. How could it be anything but insipid with Mrs. Jowett saying only "How nice," or "What a pity" at intervals? She did not even seem to care to hear Mrs. Duff-Whalley's news of "the County," and "dear Lady Tweedie," merely murmuring, "Oh, really," when told the most interesting and even startling facts.

"Uninterested idiot," thought Mrs. Duff-Whalley to herself as she turned from her hostess to Miss Mary Duncan, who at least had some sense, though both she and her sisters had a lamentable lack of style.

Miss Duncan's kind face beamed pleasantly. She was quite willing to listen to Mrs. Duff-Whalley as long as that lady pleased. She thought she needed soothing, so she agreed with everything she said, and made sensible little remarks at intervals. Mrs. Jowett was pouring out a second cup of tea for Mrs. Duff-Whalley when she said, "And have you heard about dear little Jean Jardine?"

"Has anything happened to her? I saw her the other day and she was all right."

"She's quite well, but haven't you heard? She has inherited a large fortune."

Mrs. Duff-Whalley said nothing for a minute. She could not trust herself to speak. Despised Jean, whom she had not troubled to ask to her parties, whom she had always felt she could treat anyhow, so poor was she and of no account. It had been bad enough to know that she was on terms of intimacy with Pamela Reston and her brother: to hear Miss Reston say that she meant to take her to London and entertain for her and to hear her suggest that Muriel might go to Jean's parties had been galling, but she had thrust the recollection from her, reflecting that fine ladies said much that they did not mean, and that probably the promised visit to London would never materialise. And now to be told this! A fortune: Jean—it was too absurd!

When she spoke, her voice was shrill with anger in spite of her efforts to control it.

"It can't be true. The Jardines have no relations that could leave them money."

"This isn't a relation," Mrs. Jowett explained. "It's someone Jean was kind to quite by chance. I think it is so sweet. It quite makes one want to cry. Dear Jean!"

Mrs. Duff-Whalley looked at the sentimental woman before her with bitter scorn.

"It would take more than that to make me cry," she snorted. "I wonder what fool wanted to leave Jean money. Such an unpractical creature! She'll simply make ducks and drakes of it, give it away to all and sundry, pauperise the whole neighbourhood."

"Oh, I don't think so," Miss Duncan broke in. "She has had a hard training, poor child. Such a pathetic mite she was when her great-aunt died and left her with David and Jock and the little Gervase Taunton! No one thought she could manage, but she did, and she has been so plucky, she deserves all the good fortune that life can bring her. I'm longing to hear what Jock says about this. I do like that boy."

"They are, all three, dear boys," said Mrs. Jowett. "Tim and I quite feel as if they were our own. Tim, dear," to that gentleman, who had bounced suddenly and violently into the room, "we are talking about the great news—Jean's fortune—"

"Ah yes, yes," said Mr. Jowett, distributing brusque nods to the women present. "What I want is a bit of thick string." (His wife's delicate drawing-room hardly seemed the place to look for such a thing.) "No, no tea, my dear. I told you I wanted a bit of thick string…. Yes, let's hope it won't spoil Jean, but I think it's almost sure to. Fortune hunters, too. Bad thing for a girl to have money…. Yes, yes, I asked the servants and Chart brought me the string basket, but it was all thin stuff. I'll lose the post, but it's always the way. Every day more rushed than another. Remind me, Janetta, to get some thick string to-morrow. I've no time to go down to the town to-day. Why, bless me, my morning letters are hardly looked at yet," and he fussed himself out of the room.

Mrs. Duff-Whalley rose to go.

"Then, Mrs. Jowett, I can depend on you to look after that collecting? And please be firm. I find that collectors are apt to be very lazy and unconscientious. Indeed, one told me frankly that in her district she only went to the people she knew. That isn't the way to collect. The only way is to get into each house—to stand on the doorstep is no use, they can so easily send a maid to refuse—and sit there till they give a subscription. Every year since I took it on there has been an increase, and I'll be frightfully disappointed if you let it go back."

Mrs. Jowett looked depressed. She knew herself to be one of the worst collectors on record. She was guiltily aware that she often advised people not to give; that is, if she thought their circumstances straitened!

"I don't know," she began, "I'm afraid I could never sit in a stranger's house and insist on being given money. It's so—so high-handed, like a highwayman or something."

"Think of the cause," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, "not of your own feelings."

"Yes, of course, but … well, if there is a deficit, I can always raise my own subscription to cover it." She smiled happily at this solution of the problem.

Mrs. Duff-Whalley sniffed.

"'The conies are a feeble folk,'" she quoted rudely. "Well, good-bye. I shall send over all the papers and collecting books to-morrow. Muriel and I go off to London on Friday en route for the south. It will be pleasant to have a change and meet some interesting people. Muriel was just saying it's a cabbage's life we live in Priorsford. I often wonder we stay here…."

Mrs. Duff-Whalley went home a very angry woman. After dinner, sitting with Muriel before the fire in the glittering drawing-room, she discussed the matter.

"I know what'll be the end of it," she said. "You saw what a fuss Miss Reston made of Jean the other day when we called? Depend upon it, she knew the money was coming. I dare say she and her brother are as poor as church mice—those aristocrats usually are—and Jean's money will come in useful. Oh, we'll see her Lady Bidborough yet…. I tell you what it is, Muriel, the way this world's managed is past speaking about."

Mrs. Duff-Whalley was knitting a stocking for her son Gordon (her hands were seldom idle), and she waved it in her exasperation as she talked.

"Here are you, meant, as anyone can see, for the highest position, and instead that absurd little Jean is to be cocked up, a girl with no more dignity than a sparrow, who couldn't keep her place with a washerwoman. I've heard her talking to these cottage women as if they were her sisters."

Muriel leant back in her chair and seemed absorbed in balancing her slipper on her toe.

"My dear mother," she said, "why excite yourself? It isn't clever of you to be so openly annoyed. People will laugh. I don't say I like it any better than you do, but I hope I have the sense to purr congratulations. We can't help it anyway. You and I aren't attracted to Jean, but there's no use denying most people are. And what's more, they keep on liking her. She isn't a person people get easily tired of. I wish I knew her secret. I suppose it is charm—a thing that can't be acquired."

"What nonsense, Muriel! I wonder to hear you. I'd like to know who has charm if you haven't. It is a silly word anyway."

Muriel shook her head. "It's no good posing when we are by ourselves. As a family we totally lack charm. Minnie tries to make up for it by a great deal of manner and a loud voice. Gordon—well, it doesn't matter so much for a man, but you can see his friends don't really care about him much. They take his hospitality and say he isn't a bad sort. They know he is a snob, and when he tries to be funny he is often offensive, poor Gordon! I've got a pretty face, and I play games well, so I am tolerated, but I have hardly one real friend. The worst of it is I know all the time where I am falling short, and I can't help it. I feel myself jar on people. I once heard old Mrs. Hope say that it doesn't matter how vulgar we are, so long as we know we are being vulgar. But that isn't true. It's not much fun to know you are being vulgar and not be able to help it."

Mrs. Duff-Whalley gave a convulsed ejaculation, but her daughter went on.

"Sometimes I've gone in of an afternoon to see Jean, and found her darning stockings in her shabby frock, with a look on her face as if she knew some happy secret; a sort of contented, brooding look—and I've envied her. And so I talked of all the gaieties I was going to, of the new clothes I was getting, of the smart people we know, and all the time I was despising myself for a fool, for what did Jean care! She sat there with her mind full of books and poetry and those boys she is so absurdly devoted to; it was nothing to her how much I bucked; and this fortune won't change her. Money is nothing——"

Mrs. Duff-Whalley gasped despairingly to hear her cherished daughter talking, as she thought, rank treason.

"Oh, Muriel, how you can! And your poor father working so hard to make a pile so that we could all be nice and comfortable. And you were his favourite, and I've often thought how proud he would have been to see his little girl so smart and pretty and able to hold her own with the best of them. And I've worked too. Goodness knows I've worked hard. It isn't as easy as it looks to keep your end up in Priorsford and keep the villa-people in their places, and force the County to notice you. If I had been like Mrs. Jowett you would just have had to be content with the people on the Hill. Do you suppose I haven't known they didn't want to come here and visit us? Oh, I knew, but I made them. And it was all for you. What did I care for them and their daft-like ways and their uninteresting talk about dogs and books and things! It would have been far nicer for me to have made friends with the people in the little villas. My! I've often thought how I would relish a tea-party at the Watsons'! Your father used to have a saying about it being better to be at the head of the commonalty than at the tail of the gentry, and I know it's true. Mrs. Duff-Whalley of The Towers would be a big body at the Miss Watsons' tea-parties, and I know fine I'm only tolerated at the Tweedies' and the Olivers' and all the others."

"Poor Mother! You've been splendid!"

"If you aren't happy, what does anything matter? I'm fair disheartened, I tell you. I believe you're right. Money isn't much of a blessing. I've never said it to you because you seemed so much a part of all the new life, with your accent and your manners and your little dogs, but over and over when people snubbed me, and I had to talk loud and brazen because I felt so ill at ease, I've thought of the old days when I helped your father in the shop. Those were my happiest days—before the money came. I had a girl to look after the house and you children, and I went between the house and the shop, and I never had a dull minute. Then we came into some money, and that helped your father to extend and extend. First we had a house in Murrayfield—and, my word, we thought we were fine. But I aimed at Drumsheugh Gardens, and we got there. Your father always gave in to me. Eh, he was a hearty man, your father. If it's true what you say that none of you have charm, though I'm sure I don't know what you mean by it, it's my blame, for your father was popular with everyone. He used to laugh at me and my ambition, for, mind you, I was always ambitious, but his was kindly laughter. Often and often when I've been sitting all dressed up at some dinner-party, like to yawn my head off with the dull talk, I've thought of the happy days when I helped in the shop and did my own washing—eh, I little thought I would ever live in a house where we never even know when it's washing day—and went to bed tired and happy, and fell asleep behind your father's broad back…."

"Oh, Mother, don't cry. It's beastly of me to discourage you when you've been the best of mothers to me. I wish I had known my father better, and I do wish I could remember when we were all happy in the little house. You've never been so very happy in The Towers, have you, Mother?"

"No, but I wouldn't leave it for the world. Your father was so proud of it. 'It's as like a hydro as a private house can be,' he often said, in such a contented voice. He just liked to walk round and look at all the contrivances he had planned, all the hot-rails and things in the bathrooms and cloakrooms, and radiators in every room, and the wonderful pantries—'tippy,' he called them. He couldn't understand people making a fuss about old houses, and old furniture, grey walls half tumbling down and mouldy rooms. He liked the new look of The Towers, and he said to me, 'Mind, Aggie, I'm not going to let you grow any nonsense like ivy or creepers up this fine new house. They're all very well for holding together tumbledown old places, but The Towers doesn't need them. And I'm sure he would be pleased to-day if he saw it. The times people have advised me to grow ivy—even Lady Tweedie, the last time she came to tea—but I never would. It's as new-looking as the day he left it…. You don't want to leave The Towers, Muriel?"

"No—o, but—don't you think, Mother, we needn't work quite so hard for our social existence? I mean, let's be more friendly with the people round us, and not strive so hard to keep in with the County set. If Miss Reston can do it, surely we can."

"But don't you see," her mother said, "Miss Reston can do it just because she is Miss Reston. If you're a Lord's daughter you can be as eccentric as you like, and make friends with anyone you choose. If we did it, they would just say, 'Oh, so they've come off their perch!' and once we let ourselves down we would never raise ourselves again. I couldn't do it, Muriel. Don't ask me."

"No. But we've got to be happier somehow. Climbing is exhausting work." She stooped and picked up the two small dogs that lay on a cushion beside her. "Isn't it, Bing? Isn't it, Toutou? You're happy, aren't you? A warm fire and a cushion and some mutton-chop bones are good enough for you. Well, we've got all these and we want more…. Mother, perhaps Jean would tell us the secret of happiness."

"As if I'd ask her," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley.