Tabitha's Aunt by S. Elizabeth Hall

F

rom the very hour that Tabitha set foot in my house, I conceived a dislike for her Aunt. In the first place I did not see why she should have an Aunt. Tabitha was going to belong to me: and why an old, invalid lady, whose sons were scattered over the face of the earth, and who had never had a daughter of her own: who had been clever enough to discover a distant relationship to Tabitha, and had promptly matured a plan by which Tabitha was to remain always with her; to take the vacant chair opposite and pour out tea, and be coddled and kissed and looked after—why she might not have Tabitha herself for her whole and sole property, I could not understand. But this Aunt was always turning up: not visibly, I mean, but in conversation. I could never say which way I liked Tabitha's veil to be fastened but I was told Aunt Rennie's opinion on the matter—(Tabitha always absurdly shortened her Aunt's surname, which was Rensworth). I never could mention a book I liked but Aunt Rennie had either read it or not read it. It did not matter which to me, the least. But the climax came when Aunt Rennie sent Tabitha a bicycle. Now I know that young women bicycle nowadays; but that is no reason why Tabitha should. I always turn away my eyes when I see a young girl pass the window on one of those ugly, muddy, dangerous machines, with her knees working like pumps, her skirt I don't know where, and an expression of self-satisfied determination on her face. I don't think I am old-fashioned, but I am sure my own dear little girl, if she had ever come to me, would not have bicycled; and though I had no wish to put any unfair restraint on Tabitha, still I did not want her to have a bicycle. And that this Aunt Rennie, as Tabitha would call her, without a word of warning, should send her one of those hideous things, as if it was her business to arrange for Tabitha's exercise—I do think it was rather uncalled for.

When Tabitha came into the room to tell me about it, with that bright, affectionate smile she has, and her dear, plain, pale face—only that nobody would think her plain who knew her, for everybody loves her—she saw quickly enough that I did not like it: and then she was so sweet, looking so disappointed, and yet ready to give up the horrid thing if I wished, that I hardly knew what to do. Tabitha works on one in a way that I believe nobody else can. She has such a generous, warm heart, and is so responsive, and so quick to understand, and then she is so easily pleased, and so free from self-consciousness, you seem to know her all at once, and you feel as if it would be wicked to hurt her. So I don't know how it was exactly, but I began to give in about the bicycle; though I could not help mentioning that it was rather unnecessary for Aunt Rennie to have taken the trouble: for Tabitha might have told me if she wanted a bicycle so much. And Tabitha said that Aunt Rennie thought bicycling was good for her, and, when she lived with her, a year ago, her Aunt used to take her on her tours round the villages, distributing, what she called "political literature." This did make me shudder, I confess. Fancy Tabitha turning into one of those canvassing women, with their uncivilised energy, their irritating superiority, and their entire want of decent respect for you and your own opinions! I knew that Aunt Rennie belonged to a Woman Suffrage Committee, but I did think she had left the child uncontaminated. It made me more thankful than ever that I had rescued her from the hands of such a person. However, as you see, I could not refuse to let Tabitha ride that bicycle; but I always knew that harm would come of it.

And it came just in the way of which my inner consciousness had warned me. Now, of course, I never really expected to have Tabitha with me all her life: but I did want just for a little while to make-believe, as it were, that I had a daughter, and to feel as if she were happy and content with me. So it was rather hard that such a thing should happen, only the second time that she went out on that hideous machine. I can see her telling me about it now, kneeling down in her affectionate way by my sofa, all flushed and dishevelled after her ride, and with quite a new expression on her face. It seemed that she had punctured her bicycle (whatever that means) and could not get on: and then an "awfully nice man" (she will use the modern slang; in my days we should merely have said "a gentleman") came up with his tools and things, and put it right for her: and ended by claiming acquaintance and proposing to call, "Because, Mammy dear," said Tabitha, "isn't it funny, but he knows Aunt Rennie!"

Now, kind reader, I must confess that this was a little too much for me. To have Aunt Rennie (in spirit) perpetually between me and Tabitha was bad enough: to have her demoralising Tabitha by sending her bicycles was still worse: but to have her introducing, (I had nearly said intruding) young men into the privacy of my home, and into dangerous proximity with Tabitha was, for a moment, more than I could stand.

"Well, my child," said I, "No doubt Miss Rensworth and her friends were more amusing than your poor sick Mammy. I suppose it was selfish of me to want to have you all to myself. If you would like to go back to your Aunt Rennie again, dear child." I added, "you have only to say so."

What Tabitha said in reply I shall never forget; but neither, friendly reader, shall I tell it to you. So you must be content with knowing that we were friends again; and that the end of it was that I gave in about John Chambers—as his name turned out to be—just as I had given in about the bicycle.

He came in just as we were having tea the next day, and the worst of it was, I had to admit at once that he was nice. Of course this proved nothing in regard to Aunt Rennie and her friends: and it was just as unreasonable that I should be expected to receive whoever happened to know her, as if he had turned out to be vulgar or odious. But, as it was, he introduced himself in a sensible, straightforward way, looked one straight in the face when he spoke, had a deep, hearty laugh that sounded manly and true, and evidently entertained the friendliest sentiments for Tabitha.

Well, as you will imagine, kind reader, that tea was not the last he had with us. He fell into our ways with delightful readiness; indeed, he was rather "old-fashioned," as I call it. He would pour out my second cup of tea, if Tabitha happened to be out of the room, as nicely as she herself could have done, carefully washing the tea-leaves out of the cup first; and he would tell Tabitha if a piece of braid were hanging down from her skirt, when they were going bicycling together. We got quite used to being kept in order by him in all kinds of little ways, and he grew to be so associated with the idea of Tabitha in my mind, that my affection for her became in a sort of way an affection for them both. The only thing was that, as the months went on, I began to wonder why more did not come of it. Sometimes I fancied I noted a reflection of my own perplexed doubts crossing Tabitha's sweet, expressive face, and I questioned within myself whether I ought (like the fathers in books) to ask the young man about his "intentions," and imply that he could not expect an unlimited supply of my cups of tea, unless they were made clear: but I think that my own delicacy as well as common sense prevented my taking such a course, and things were still in statu quo, when one morning, as I was peacefully mending Tabitha's gloves (she will go out with holes in them) a ring at the front door bell was followed by the advance of someone in rustling silk garments up the stairs: the drawing-room door was opened, and there appeared a young-looking, fair lady, who advanced brightly to greet me, with a finished society manner, and an expression in her kind, blue eyes of unmixed pleasure at the meeting. The name murmured at the door had not reached my ears, and I was still wondering which of my child-friends had developed into this charming and fashionable young lady, when Tabitha burst into the room, flung her arms round the new-comer's neck, and exclaimed, "You darling, who would have expected you to turn up so charmingly, just when we didn't expect you!"

The light slowly dawned on my amazed intelligence. Could thisthis be the formidable, grey-haired woman, with whom I had been expecting, and somewhat dreading, sooner or later, an encounter? Could this be the spectacled Committee-woman—the rampant bicyclist—the corrupter of the youth of Tabitha? I looked at her immaculate dress, and pretty, neat hair; I noted the winning expression of her eyes, and her sweetness of manner; and instead of entrenching myself in the firm, though unspoken hostility, which I had secretly cherished towards the idea of Aunt Rennie, I felt myself yielding to the charm of a personality, whose richness and sweetness were to me like a new experience of life.

I thought I had grasped the outlines of that personality in the first interview, as we often do on forming a new acquaintance; but surprises were yet in store for me. Aunt Rennie needed but little pressing to stay the night, and then to add a second and a third day to her visit: she was staying with some friends in the neighbourhood, and, it appeared, could easily transfer herself to us. And as the time went on, I began to feel that she had some secondary object in coming and in staying: I thought I perceived a kind of diplomatic worldliness in Aunt Rennie, which jarred with my first impression of her. I felt sure that her purpose was in some way connected with Tabitha and John. She had, of course, heard of Tabitha's friendship for him from her own letters, and John she had known before we did. Well, it was on the fourth day that Aunt Rennie, sitting cosily beside me, startled me by suddenly and lightly remarking, that if I would consent, she wished to take Tabitha back with her, at any rate for a time, to her home in the South of England; she was almost necessary to her in her work at the present juncture: no one could act as her Secretary so efficiently as Tabitha could.

"Besides, to tell you a little secret," she added, with a charming air of confidence and humour, "there is someone besides me that wants Tabitha back: there is an excellent prospect for her, if she could only turn her thoughts in that direction. You have heard of Horace Wetherell, my second cousin—a rising barrister? Ah, well, a little bird has whispered things to me. His prospects are now very different from what they were when she was with me before, or I don't think she would ever have come to you, to say the truth! We must not let her get involved in anything doubtful. As you know, I have been acquainted with this John Chambers and his family all my life. He is a good fellow enough, but will never set the Thames on fire. She is exactly suited to my cousin, who is a man of the highest and noblest character, and could not fail to make her happy. It is only to take her away for a time, and I feel sure all will be well. I knew, my dear friend, that a word to you was enough, for Tabitha's sake: and so we will settle it between us."

I said little in reply, for I was suffering keenly. I felt as if this fair, clever woman had struck a deliberate blow at my happiness, and in a way to leave me resistless. I could not deny that it might be for Tabitha's good to go away. Certainly John was poor, and in fact I had thought lately that that might be the reason the engagement was delayed. Tabitha was only twenty-two, and she might change her mind. I murmured that I would leave it to Tabitha to decide; and as Aunt Rennie turned away, I remember thinking that she was rather young to decide another woman's destiny in such a matter. She was only six years older than Tabitha.

Tabitha often says that she owes her present happiness to Aunt Rennie, for if it had not been for the misery of the approaching separation, John, oppressed by the sense of his poverty and humble prospects, would never have had courage to tell her of his love. And I have sometimes amused myself by reflecting how Aunt Rennie's shrewdness, intelligence and determination, instead of working out her own ends, were all the time furthering the thing that was most opposed to her wishes.

When, after those few days that followed—days for me of heart-breaking conflict of feeling, and for my two children of tears, silent misery and struggling passion, culminating at last, when the storm burst, in complete mutual understanding, and a joint determination that carried all before it—when, I say, Aunt Rennie, defeated, prepared to take her leave, she said a word to me which I often thought of afterwards. "She is choosing blindfold, tinsel for gold." I thought of it, not on account of the expression, but of Aunt Rennie herself. There was something in the pallor of her face, and in her tone, that made me ask myself whether there could be anything in this matter that concerned Aunt Rennie herself more closely than we thought—and, for the moment, a new and motherly feeling rose up in my heart towards her.

Well, she has left me my two children, and though John is only "in business," and they live on three hundred a year, they are very happy, and I am happy in their happiness.

It was a year after their marriage, that the news came that Aunt Rennie was engaged to be married to her cousin. Horace Wetherell. And, as I pondered on it. I doubted whether I had, after all, quite understood the nobility of Aunt Rennie's character.

Horace Wetherell has become an M.P., and he and his wife write books together on social problems.

Poor John will never be an M.P., but I am glad that Tabitha loved him.