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- Spring Days - 3/56 -
"You are the best, Maggie, but you encourage your sister Sally. I hear that you, too, were seen walking with young Meason."
"It is not true, I assure you, father. I met him as I was going to the post-office. I said, 'How do you do?' and I passed on."
"Where is Sally?"
"She went out a few minutes ago."
"Didn't she know the time? She ought to be dressing for dinner. Do you know where she's gone?"
"I think she went down the slonk."
His children had inherited his straight, sharp features and his small, black, vivid eyes. Their hair was of various hues of black. Maggie's was raven black and glossy; Sally's was coarse and of a hue like black-lead; Grace's was abundant and relieved with sooty shades; Willy's hair was brown. He was the fair one of the family, and his hair was always closely cut in military fashion, and he wore a long flowing military moustache with a tinge of red in it. His father and he were built on the same lines--long, spare bodies, short necks and legs, and short, spare arms, and if the father's white hair were dyed the years that separated him from his son would disappear, for although the son had only just turned thirty, he was middle-aged in face and feeling.
Sally and Grace were both thickly built, the latter a little inclined to fat. Maggie was thin and elegantly angular, and often stood in picturesque attitudes; she stood in one now, with her hands linked behind her back, and she watched her father, and her look was subtle and insinuating.
"When I came here," he said, speaking rapidly, and as if he were speaking to himself, "the place was well enough; there was nothing but those wretched cottages facing the sea, the green, and a few cottages about it; but since those villas have been put up, Southwick has become unbearable. All my troubles," he murmured, "originated in the Southdown Road."
Maggie turned aside, smiled, and bit her lip; she did not speak, however, for she knew her father did not care to be interrupted in his musings.
"A hateful place--glass porticoes, and oleographs on the walls." Here Mr. Brookes stopped in his walk to admire one of his favourite Friths. "Those ridiculous haberdashers, with a bas-relief of the founder of their house over the doorway. The proprietors of the baths, the Measons, poor as church mice, the son a mate of a merchant vessel-- these are not proper associates for my daughters. I will not know them; I will not have them in my house."
"The Measons are quite as good as we are, father. They may be poor, but as far as family goes--"
"You are just the same as the others, Maggie; once there is a young man to flirt with, you don't care what he is or where he comes from. When there are no young men, you will snub the old ladies fast enough; and as for Sally, she is downright rude. I didn't want to see the haberdashers, but while they were in my house I was polite to them."
"It was the Horlocks who told them to call."
"I know it was. If Mrs. Horlock likes to know these people, let her know them; but what does she want to force them upon us for? That's what I want to know. We might never have known any one in the Southdown Road; I mean we never should, we never could have known any one in the Southdown Road if Mrs. Horlock hadn't come to live there. We had to call upon her."
"Every Viceroy in India called upon her. She was the only woman whom every Viceroy did call upon."
"I know she was. Of course we had to call upon her. Most interesting woman; the General is very nice, too. I like them exceedingly. I often go to see them, although the smell of that mastiff is more than I can bear in the hot weather, especially if lilies or strong smelling flowers are in the room."
"She feeds the mice, she won't let them be destroyed, she lets the traps down at night."
"Don't let us go into the animal question. The constant smell of dogs is unpleasant, but I could put up with it--what I can't stand are her acquaintances in the Southdown Road, and when I think that we should not have known any of them if it hadn't been for her! Indirectly--I do not say directly--she is the cause of all my difficulties. It was at her house Sally met young Meason; it was at her house Grace met that young officer for whom she is crying her eyes out; and it was at her house--yes, I hadn't thought of it before--it was at her house that Willy met that swindler who induced him to put two thousand pounds into the Bond Street shop. The Southdown Road might have remained here for the next five hundred years, and we should have known nothing of it had it not been for Mrs. Horlock; if she likes to know these people let her know them, but why force them upon us? It was only the other day she was talking to me about calling on some new friends of hers who have come to live there. I dare say it is the custom to call on every one at Calcutta, but I say that Calcutta etiquette is not Southwick etiquette, and I don't care how many Viceroys called upon her, I will not know the Southdown Road."
The enunciation of this last sentence was deliberate and impassioned. Mr. Brookes walked twice across the room; then he stood, his hands crossed behind his back, looking at his admired Goodall. His anger melted, and he mused on the price he had paid, and the price he thought it was now worth. Fearing he would return to the Southdown Road trouble, Maggie said: "I am afraid we shall be obliged to get rid of the new cook. She is Irish. Just before you came in I found her in the stable-yard threatening to break Holt's head with a pair of dreadful old boots."
"I don't want to hear about the cook. The money you spend in housekeeping is enormous. Since your poor mother died I haven't had a day's peace. If it isn't one thing it is another. You are fit for nothing but pleasure and flirtation; there isn't a young man in the place or within ten miles you haven't flirted with. I am often ashamed to look them in the face at the station. It is past seven; why isn't dinner ready?"
"Sally told the cook to put the dinner back half an hour."
"Sally told the cook to put my dinner back half an hour!"
Mr. Brookes's face grew livid. The end of all things was at hand; his dinner had been put back half an hour! This was a climax in the affairs of his life, which for the moment he failed to grasp or estimate. Was a father ever cursed with such daughters as his? He had been in the City all day working for them; he did not marry because he wished to leave them his money, and this was the return they made to him. His dinner had been put back half an hour! Passion sustained him for a while; but he gave way, and, pulling out a silk handkerchief, he sank into a chair.
"Don't cry, father, don't cry. Sally is thoughtless; she didn't mean it."
Mr. Brookes wept for a few minutes; Maggie strove to soothe him; he waved her away, he wiped his eyes and in a voice broken with anguish, "Ah, well," he said, "I suppose it will be all the same a hundred years hence." In moments of extreme trouble he sought refuge in such philosophy, but now it seemed inadequate and superficial, and Maggie had begun to fear the violence of the storm she had brewed. She did not mind stimulating ill-feeling, but she did not wish Sally to provoke her father recklessly.
The possibility of his marrying again and having a second family was the one restraining influence Mr. Brookes still retained over his daughters, so Maggie, who was always keenly alive to the remotest consequences of her actions, took care that his home never became quite unbearable to him; and when Sally entered the room, dark and brilliant in red velvet, and in no way disposed to admit she had been guilty of heinous wrong in countermanding the dinner, Maggie attempted a gentle pouring of oil on the waters. But waving aside her sister's gentle interposition, she said: "You mustn't think of yourself only, father. I admit I told the cook to put back the dinner a few minutes. What then?"
"You did it that you might finish your conversation with young Meason," said Mr. Brookes, but his words were weak, it being doubtful if even Meason could add to the original offence, so culminating and final did it seem to him.
"Maggie didn't tell you that last week she met him on the sea road, and walked with him into Portslade."
"Father, father, I beg of you, now, don't cry; think of the servants."
And it was in such unity of mind and feeling that this family sat down to dinner in the great dining-room, rich with all comforts and adorned with pictures by Frith and Goodall. Sally, who unfortunately knew no fear, talked defiantly; she addressed herself principally to her brother, and she questioned him persistently, although the replies she received were generally monosyllabic. As he chewed his meat with reflection and precaution, broke his bread with deliberate and well- defined movements, and filled his mouth with carefully chosen pieces, he gradually ventured to decide that he would not speak to his father that evening of the scheme he had been hatching for some months. It was one of his strictest rules not to think while eating, so it may be said that it was against his will that he arrived at this conclusion. Willy suffered from indigestion, and he knew that any exercise of the brain was most prejudicial at meal times.
After dinner Mr. Brookes and his son retired to the billiard-room to smoke.
"Your sisters are a great trouble to me--a very great anxiety. Since your poor mother died I've had no peace, none whatever. Poor Julia, she's gone; I shall never see her again."
Willy made no answer. He was debating; he was still uncertain whether the present time could be considered a favourable one to introduce his scheme to his father's notice, and he had made up his mind that it was, when he was interrupted by Mr. Brookes, who had again lapsed into one of his semi-soliloquies.
"Your sisters give me a great deal of trouble, a very great deal of anxiety. I am all alone. I have no one to help me since the death of your poor mother."
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