From Noughts and Crosses: Stories, Studies and Sketches.
High and low, rich and poor, in Troy Town there are seventy-three maiden ladies. Under this term, of course, I include only those who may reasonably be supposed to have forsworn matrimony. And of the seventy-three, the two Misses Lefanu stand first, as well from their age and extraction (their father was an Admiral of the Blue) as because of their house, which stands in Fore Street and is faced with polished Luxulyan granite--the same that was used for the famous Duke of Wellington's coffin in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Miss Susan Lefanu is eighty-five; Miss Charlotte has just passed seventy-six. They are extremely small, and Miss Bunce looks after them. That is to say, she dresses them of a morning, arranges their chestnut "fronts," sets their caps straight, and takes them down to breakfast. After dinner (which happens in the middle of the day) she dresses them again and conducts them for a short walk along the Rope-walk, which they call "the Esplanade." In the evening she brings out the Bible and sets it the right way up for Miss Susan, who begins to meditate on her decease; then sits down to a game of ecarte with Miss Charlotte, who as yet has not turned her thoughts upon mortality. At ten she puts them to bed. Afterwards, "the good Bunce "--who is fifty, looks like a grenadier, and wears a large mole on her chin--takes up a French novel, fastened by a piece of elastic between the covers of Baxter's "Saint's Rest," and reads for an hour before retiring. Her pay is fifty-two pounds a year, and her attachment to the Misses Lefanu a matter of inference rather than perception.
* * * * * * *
One morning in last May, at nine o'clock, when Miss Bunce had just arranged the pair in front of their breakfast-plates, and was sitting down to pour out the tea, two singers came down the street, and their voices--a man's and a woman's--though not young, accorded very prettily:--
"Citizens, toss your pens away! For all the world is mad to-day-- Cuckoo--cuckoo! The world is mad to-day."
"What unusual words for a pair of street singers!" Miss Bunce murmured, setting down the tea-pot. But as Miss Charlotte was busy cracking an egg, and Miss Susan in a sort of coma, dwelling perhaps on death and its terrors, the remark went unheeded.
"Citizens, doff your coats of black, And dress to suit the almanack-- Cuckoo--"
The voices broke off, and a rat-tat sounded on the front door.
"Say that we never give to beggars, under any circumstances," murmured Miss Susan, waking out of her lethargy.
The servant entered with a scrap of crumpled paper in her hand. "There was a woman at the door who wished to see Miss Lefanu."
"Say that we never give--" Miss Susan began again, fumbling with the note. "Bunce, I have on my gold-rimmed spectacles, and cannot read with them, as you know. The black-rimmed pair must be up-stairs, on the--"
"How d'ye do, my dears?" interrupted a brisk voice. In the doorway stood a plump middle-aged woman, nodding her head rapidly. She wore a faded alpaca gown, patched here and there, a shawl of shepherd's plaid stained with the weather, and a nondescript bonnet. Her face was red and roughened, as if she lived much out of doors.
"How d'ye do?" she repeated "I'm Joanna."
Miss Bunce rose, and going discreetly to the window, pretended to gaze into the street. Joanna, as she knew, was the name of the old ladies' only step-sister, who had eloped from home twenty years before, and (it was whispered) had disgraced the family. As for the Misses Lefanu, being unused to rise without help, they spread out their hands as if stretching octaves on the edge of the table, and feebly stared.
"Joanna," began the elder, tremulously, "if you have come to ask charity--"
"Bless your heart, no! What put that into your head?" She advanced and took the chair which Miss Bunce had left, and resting her elbows on the table, regarded her sisters steadily. "What a preposterous age you both must be, to be sure! My husband's waiting for me outside."
"Your husband?" Miss Charlotte quavered.
"Why, of course. Did you suppose, because I ran away to act, that I wasn't an honest woman?" She stretched out her left hand; and there was a thin gold ring on her third finger. "He isn't much of an actor, poor dear. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he has been hissed off two-and-thirty stages in Great Britain alone. Indeed, he's the very worst actor I ever saw, although I don't tell him. But as a husband he's sublime."
"Are there--" Miss Charlotte began, and broke down. "Are there," she tried again, "are there--any--children?"
"Ah, my dear, if there were, I might be tempted to repent."
"Don't you?" jerked out Miss Bunce, turning abruptly from the window. There was a certain sharp emotion in the question, but her face was in the shadow. Joanna regarded her for a moment or two and broke into a laugh.
"My dears, I have been an actress and a mother. I retain the pride of both,--though my little one died at three months, and no manager will engage me now, because I refuse to act unless my husband has a part. Theoretically, he is the first of artists; in practice-- You were asking, however, if I repent. Well, having touched the two chief prizes within a woman's grasp, I hardly see how it is likely. I perceive that the object of my visit has been misinterpreted. To be frank, I came to gloat over you."
"Your step-sisters are at least respectable," Miss Bunce answered.
"Let us grant that to be a merit," retorted Joanna: "Do I understand you to claim the credit of it?"
"They are very clean, though," she went on, looking from one to the other, "and well preserved. Susan, I notice, shows signs of failing; she has dropped her spectacles into the teacup. But to what end, Miss--"
"To what end, Miss Bunce, are you preserving them?"
"Madam, when you entered the room I was of your way of thinking. Book after book that I read"--Miss Bunce blushed at this point-- "has displayed before me the delights of that quick artistic life that you glory in following. I have eaten out my heart in longing. But now that I see how it coarsens a women--for it is coarse to sneer at age, in spite of all you may say about uselessness being no better for being protracted over much time--"
"You are partly right," Joanna interrupted, "although you mistake the accident for the essence. I am only coarse when confronted by respectability. Nevertheless, I am glad if I reconcile you to your lot."
"But the point is," insisted Miss Bunce, "that a lady never forgets herself."
"And you would argue that the being liable to forget myself is only another development of that very character by virtue of which I follow Art. Ah, well"--she nodded towards her stepsisters--"I ask you why they and I should be daughters of one father?"
She rose and stepped to the piano in the corner. It was a tall Collard, shaped, above the key-board, like a cupboard. After touching the notes softly, to be sure they were in tune, she drew over a chair, and fell to playing Schumann's "Warum?" very tenderly. It was a tinkling instrument, but perhaps her playing gained pathos thereby, before such an audience. At the end she turned round: there were tears in her eyes.
"You used to play the 'Osborne Quadrilles' very nicely," observed Miss Susan, suddenly. "Your playing has become very--very--"
"Disreputable," suggested Joanna.
"Well, not exactly. I was going to say 'unintelligible.'"
"It's the same thing." She rose, kissed her step-sisters, and walked out of the room without a look at Miss Bunce.
"Poor Joanna!" observed Miss Susan, after a minute's silence. "She has aged very much. I really must begin to think of my end."
Outside, in the street, Joanna's husband was waiting for her--a dark, ragged man, with a five-act expression of face.
"Don't talk to me for a while," she begged. "I have been among ghosts."
"They were much too dull to be real: and yet--Oh, Jack, I feel glad for the first time that our child was taken! I might have left him there."
"What shall we sing?" asked the man, turning his face away.
"Something pious," Joanna answered with an ugly little laugh, "since we want our dinner. The public has still enough honesty left to pity piety." She stepped out into the middle of the street, facing her sisters' windows, and began, the man's voice chiming in at the third bar--
"In the sweet by-and-bye
We shall meet on that be-yeautiful shore." . . .