The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Two - Aunt George

AUNT GEORGIE’S CHRISTIAN NAME as bestowed by godparents with silver mugs at baptism was not Georgiana but simply George. He was in fact an infant of the male sex according to physical equipment, but it became perfectly obvious even when he was quite a little boy that he was quite a little girl. He played with dolls rather than lead soldiers, and cried when he was promoted to knickerbockers. These peculiarities, sad in one so young, caused his parents to send him to a boys’ school at the early age of nine, where they hoped he might learn to take a truer view of himself. But this wider experience of life seemed but to confirm him in his delusions, for when he quarrelled with other young gentlemen, he did not hit them in the face with his fist, but slapped them with the open hand and pulled their hair. It was observed also that when he ran (which he did not like doing) he ran from the knees instead of striding from the hips. He did little, however, either in the way of running or of quarrelling, for he was of a sedentary and sentimental disposition, and formed a violent attachment to another young lady, on whom Nature had bestowed the frame{32} of a male, and they gave each other pieces of their hair, which were duly returned to their real owners when they had tiffs, with inexorable notes similar to those by which people break off engagements. These estrangements were followed by rather oily reconciliations, in which they vowed eternal friendship again, treated each other to chocolates and more hair, and would probably have kissed each other if they had dared. Their unnatural sentiments were complicated by a streak of odious piety, and they were happiest when, encased in short surplices, they sang treble together in the school choir out of one hymn-book.

Public-school life checked the outward manifestation of girlhood, but Georgie’s essential nature continued to develop in secret. Publicly he became more or less a male boy, but this was not because he was really growing into a male boy, but because through ridicule, contempt, and example he found it more convenient to behave like one. He did not like boys’ games, but being tall and strong and well-made, and being forced to take part in them, he played them with considerable success. But he hated roughness and cold weather and mud, and his infant piety developed into a sort of sentimental rapture with{33} stained-glass windows and ecclesiastical rites and church music. His public school was one where Confession to the Chaplain was, though not insisted on, encouraged, and Georgie conceived a sort of passion for this athletic young priest, and poured out to him week by week a farrago of pale and bloodless peccadilloes, and thought how wonderful he was. Eventually the embarrassed clergyman, who was of an ingenious turn of mind, but despaired of ever teaching Georgie manliness, invented a perfectly new penance for him, and forbade him to come to confession, unless he had really something desperate to say, more frequently than once every three weeks. Otherwise, apart from those religious flirtations, Georgie appeared to be growing up in an ordinary human manner. But, if anyone had been skilful enough to dissect him down to the marrow of his soul, he would have found that Georgie was not passing from boyhood into manhood, but from girlhood into womanhood.

He went up to Oxford, and there, under the sentimental influence of the city of spires, the last trace of his manhood left him. His father, who, by one of Nature’s inimitable conjuring tricks, was a bluff old squire, rather too fond of port now, just as he had been rather too fond of{34} the first line of the Gaiety Chorus in his youth, longed for Georgie to sow some wild oats, to get drunk or gated, to get entangled with a girl, to do anything to show that virility, though sadly latent, existed in him. But Georgie continued to disappoint those unedifying wishes: he preferred barley-water to port, and was always working in his room by ten in the evening, so that he would not have known whether he was gated or not, and he took no interest in any choruses apart from chapel choirs, and never got entangled with anybody. Instead he became a Roman Catholic, and a mixture of port, passion, and apoplexy carried off his father before he had time to alter his will.

Georgie stepped into his father’s shoes, and continued his own blameless career. He had an income of some three thousand a year, and a small place in Sussex, and at the conclusion of his Oxford days, turned over the place in Sussex to his step-mother and his three plain sisters, reserving there a couple of rooms for himself, and took a small neat house in Curzon Street. He was both generous and careful about money, made his sisters ample allowances, and proceeded to spend the rest of his income thoughtfully and methodically. He had an excellent{35} taste in furniture and decorations, though an essentially feminine one, and the house in Curzon Street became a comfortable and charming little nest, with Chippendale furniture in the drawing-room and bottles of pink bath-salts with glass spoons in the bath-room. He had a private den of his own (though anything less like a den was never seen), with a looking-glass over the fire-place into which he stuck invitation-cards, a Chesterfield sofa, on the arm of which there often reposed a piece of embroidery, a writing-table with all sorts of dainty contrivances, such as a smelling-bottle, and a little piece of soft sponge in a dish, over the damp surface of which he drew postage-stamps instead of licking them with his tongue, and by degrees he got together a collection of carved jade, which was displayed in a vitrine (vulgarly, a glass case) lined with velvet and lit inside by electric light. He had a brougham motor-car, driven by a handsome young chauffeur, whom, if he took the wrong turning, he called a ‘naughty boy’ through the tube, and was personally attended by a very smart young parlour-maid, for though he did not care for girls in any proper manly way, he liked, when he was sleepy in the morning, to hear the rustle of skirts. His cook, whom he saw every{36} day after breakfast in his den, was an artiste, and he had a good cellar of light wines. After lunch and dinner he always made coffee himself, in Turkish fashion, for his guests, and passed round with it odd, syrupy liqueurs. His bedroom was merely a woman’s bedroom, with a blue quilt on the bed, a long cheval-glass on the floor, silver-backed brushes on the toilet-table and no razors, for a neighbouring barber came to shave him every morning. In cold weather, when his mauve silk pyjamas were hung out to warm in front of the fire, the parlour-maid inserted into his bed a hot-water bottle, jacketed in the same tone of blue as his quilt. On that Georgie put his soft pink feet, and always went to sleep immediately.

Here he lived a kind and blameless life, but the life of a sprightly widow of forty, who is rich and childless, and does not intend to marry again. In the morning, after seeing his cook, he wrote a few letters (he did not use the telephone much because it tickled his ear, and he disliked talking into a little box where other people had talked and breathed) and these he generally sealed with a signet belonging to his step-mother’s grandmother, which had a coronet on it. He was a little snobbish in this regard, in a Victorian old-fashioned way, for though his step-mother was no sort of relation to him he took over her relations as cousins, and hunted up the most remote connections of hers, for adoption, in the Peerage. His letters being finished he took his soft hat and sat at his club for half an hour reading the papers. Generally he walked out to lunch, and was called for by his car about a quarter to three. Sometimes he had a little shopping to do, and if not, went for a drive, sitting very upright, much on the look-out for acquaintances, and returned home for tea. After tea he sat on his sofa working at his embroidery, had a hot bath, and except when, about twice a week, he had a few people to dine with him, went out to dinner. He did not play bridge but patience and the piano, both of which he manipulated with a good deal of skill. When he entertained at his own house, his guests were chiefly young men with rather waggly walks and little jerky movements of their hands, and old ladies with whom he was always a great success, for he understood them so well. He called them all, young men and old ladies alike, ‘my dear,’ and they had great gossips together, and they often said Georgie was very wicked, which was a lie.

He had considerable musical taste, as well as{38} proficiency on the piano, and very soon his life became a busy one in the sense, at any rate, that he had very little time for his embroidery. He built out a big room at the back of his house, and gave tinkling little modern musical parties, at which he introduced masses of young geniuses to the notice of his friends. Also he took to practising his piano with some seriousness, and would often forgo his walk to the club and his perusal of the morning papers in order to work at his music, and sat at his instrument for two hours together, with his rings and his handkerchief on the candle-brackets. His taste was modern, and he liked the kind of piece about which you are not sure if it is over or not, or what has happened. He paid quantities of country-house visits to the homes of his old-lady friends and his step-mother’s cousins, where he would sit in the library reading and writing his letters till half-past twelve, and take a little stroll with a brown cape on his arm till lunchtime. He sketched too, and produced rather messy water-colours of churches and beech-trees, and made crayon-portraits of his hostess or her boys, which he always sent her with his letter of thanks for a most pleasant visit, neatly framed. His portraits of elderly ladies had a certain re{39}semblance to each other, being based on a formula of a lace cap, a row of pearls, and a thoughtful expression. He had a similar formula for young men, of which the chief ingredients were a cricket-shirt and no coat or Adam’s apple, long eyelashes, and a girlish mouth. He was not good at eyes, so his sitters were always looking down. After lunch at these most pleasant visits he went out for a drive in a motor to see some neighbouring point of interest or to call on some adopted cousin whom he had discovered to live somewhere about. He rested in his own room after these fatigues and excitements for an hour before dinner, with his feet up and a dressing-gown on, and afterwards would work on a crayon-sketch, play the piano, or make himself agreeable to anybody who was in need of gentle conversation. Often he would settle down thus in a friend’s house for a fortnight at a time, in which case he brought his embroidery and his car with him, and was most useful in taking other guests out for drives, or bringing home members of a shooting-party. Occasionally, for no reason, he roused violent antagonism in the breasts of rude brainless men, and after he had left the smoking-room in the evening, one would sometimes say to another, ‘Good God! What is it?{40}’

Georgie lived in this whirl of pleasant pursuits for some ten years. The only disagreeable incident that occurred during this time was that his attractive chauffeur married his attractive parlour-maid, and for a little, surrounded by hateful substitutes, he was quite miserable. But he wooed the selfish pair back again by taking a garage with a flat above it, where they could keep house, raising Bowles’s wages, and getting in another parlour-maid when the curse of Eve was on Mrs. Bowles, and when he was now about thirty-five, Georgie definitely developed auntishness. As seen above, there were already many symptoms of it, but now the disease laid firm and incurable hold on him.

His auntishness was of the proverbial maiden-aunt variety, and was touched with a certain acid and cattish quality that now began to tinge his hitherto good-natured gossipy ways. As usually happens, he tended to detect in his friends and acquaintances the defects which he laboured under himself, and found that Cousin Betty was getting so ill-natured, and Cousin John had spoken most sarcastically and unkindly to him. His habits became engrained, and when he went out to dinner, as he continued to do, he took with him a pair of goloshes in a brown paper{41} parcel, if he meant to walk home, in case the crossings might be muddy. He was faithful enough to his old friends, the waggly-walking young men of his youth, and such of his old ladies who survived, and still went out with them on sketching-parties when they stayed together in the country, but otherwise he sought new friends among young men and young women, to whom he behaved in a rather disconcerting manner, sometimes, especially on sunny mornings, treating them like contemporaries, and wishing to enter into their ‘fun,’ sometimes petting them, as if they were children, and sometimes, as if they were naughty children, getting cross with them. He wanted in fact to be a girl still, and yet receive the deference due to a middle-aged woman, which is the clou to maiden-auntishness. He had little fits of belated and senile naughtiness, and would take a young man to the Gaiety, and encourage him to point out which of the girls seemed to him most attractive, and then scold him for his selfishness if he did not appear eager to come back home with him, and sit for an hour over the fire until Georgie felt inclined to go to bed. Or, having become a sort of recognised chaperone in London, he would take a girl-cousin (step-mothe{42}r’s side) to a ball, and be vexed with her because she had not had enough dancing by one o’clock. It must not be supposed that it was his habit to appear in so odious a light, but it sometimes happened. To do him justice, he was repentant for his ill-humour next day, and would arrange a little treat for a boy and a girl together, driving them down in his car to the Mid-Surrey golf-club, where they had a game, while he sat and sketched the blue-bells in Kew Gardens.

By this time his step-mother was dead (Georgie did a lovely crayon of her after death), and two out of his three plain sisters had married. The other used often to stay with him in London, and often he would bring quite a large party of young people down to the house in Sussex, where they had great romps. Georgie was quite at his best when entertaining in his own house, and he liked nothing better every now and then than a pillow-fight in the passage, when, emitting shrill screams of dismay and rapture, and clad in a discreet dressing-gown over his mauve silk pyjamas, he laughed himself speechless at the ‘fun,’ and bore the breakage of the glass of his water-colour pictures with the utmost good-humour. But when he had had enough himself, he expected that everybody else{43} should have had enough too, therein disclosing the fell features of Aunt Georgie.

Georgie did not, as the greyer seas of the forties and fifties began to engulf him, fall into the errors of grizzly kittens, but took quite kindly to spectacles when he wanted to read the paper or write his letters, and made no secret of his annual visit to Harrogate, to purge himself of the gouty tendencies which he had inherited from his father. He did not, of course, announce the fact that he had had a fresh supply of teeth, or that he had instructed his dentist to give a studied irregularity to them, and it is possible that he used a little hair-dye on his moustache which he clipped in the new fashion, leaving only two small tufts of hair like tails below his nostrils, but he quite dropped pillow-fights, though keeping up his music and his embroidery, and more than keeping up the increasing ill-nature of his tittle-tattle. He made great pets of his chauffeur’s children, who in their artless way sometimes called him ‘Daddy’ or ‘Grandpa.’ He did not quite like either of these appellations, and their mother was instructed to impress on their infant minds that he was ‘Mister Uncle Georgie.’ But ‘Miss Auntie Georgie’ would have been far more appropriate{44}.

It is perhaps needless to add that he has never married and never will. Soon the second set of girl-friends whom he chose when he first developed auntishness will be middle-aged women, and as, since then, he has made quantities of new young friends, his table will never be destitute of slightly effeminate young men and old ladies. Those are the sections of humanity with whom he feels most at home, because he has most in common with them. He makes a fresh will about once every five years, leaving a good deal of his property to the reigning favourites, who are probably cousins (of his step-mother’s). But most of them are cut out at the next revision, because they have shown themselves ‘tarsome,’ or in some way inconsiderate. But probably it will be a long time before anybody reaps the benefit of these provisions, for apart from his gout, which is kept in check by his visits to Harrogate, Georgie is a very healthy old lady. He lives a most wholesome life with his little walks and drives, and never, never has he committed any excesses of any sort. These very ageing things, the passions, have never vexed him, and he will no doubt outlive most of those who from time to time have been beneficiaries under his will.

After all he has done less harm than most{45} people in the world, for no one ever heeded his gossip, and even if he has not done much good or made other people much happier, he has always been quite good and happy himself, for such malice as he impotently indulged in he much enjoyed, and he hurt nobody by it.

It would be a very cruel thing to think of sending poor Georgie to Hell; but it must be confessed that, if he went to Heaven, he would make a very odd sort of angel.

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