Miss Crespigny

by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Chapter XVIII - You Think I Have a Secret

A week or so after Anstruthers’ departure Georgie decided that her visit must come to an end. Mamma was not so very well, and poor papa had a touch of his old enemy, the gout; and, really she had been away from home a long time. Did not Lisbeth think that they had better return to London, even though Pen’yllan was still as delightful as ever?

Then they had a surprise indeed.

Lisbeth, who had been listening, in a rather absent manner, aroused herself to astonish them.

“I think,” she said, “that if you do not mind making the journey alone, Georgie, I should like to stay in Pen’yllan this winter.”

“In Pen’yllan?” cried Georgie. “All winter, Lisbeth?”

“At Pen’yllan? Here? With us?” cried Miss Millicent, and Miss Hetty, and Miss Clarissa, in chorus.

“Yes,” answered Lisbeth, in her most non-committal fashion. “At Pen’yllan, Aunt 172 Hetty. Here, Aunt Millicent. With you, Aunt Clarissa.”

The Misses Tregarthyn became quite pale. They glanced at each other, and shook their heads, ominously. This portended something dreadful, indeed.

“My love,” faltered Miss Clarissa.

“What?” interposed Lisbeth. “Won’t you let me stay? Are you tired of me? I told you that you would be, you know, before I came.”

“Oh, my dear!” protested Miss Clarissa. “How can you? Tired of you? Sister Hetty, sister Millicent! Tired of her?”

“We only thought, my love, that it would be so dull to one used to—to the brilliant vortex of London society,” ended Miss Millicent, rather grandly.

“But if I think that it will not,” said Lisbeth. “I am tired of the ‘brilliant vortex of London society.’”

She got up from her chair, and went and stood by Georgie, at the window, looking out.

“Yes,” she said, almost as if speaking to herself, “I think I should like to stay.”

The end of it was, that she did stay. She wrote to Mrs. Despard, that very day, announcing her intention of remaining. Georgie, in 173 packing her trunks, actually shed a few silent tears among her ruffs and ribbons. To her mind, this was a sad termination to her happy visit. She knew that it must mean something serious, that there must be some powerful motive at the bottom of such a resolution. If Lisbeth would only not be so reserved. If it was only a little easier to understand her.

“We shall miss you very much, Lisbeth,” she ventured, mournfully.

“Not more than I shall miss you,” answered Lisbeth, who at the time stood near, watching her as she knelt before the box she was packing.

Georgie paused in her task, to look up doubtfully.

“Then why will you do it?” she said. “You—you must have a reason.”

“Yes,” said Lisbeth, “I have a reason.”

The girl’s eyes still appealed to her; so she went on, with a rather melancholy smile:

“I have two reasons—perhaps more. Pen’yllan agrees with me, and I do not want to go back to town yet. I am going to take a rest. I must need one, or Aunt Clarissa would not find so much fault with my appearance. I don’t want to ‘go off on my looks,’ before my time, and you know they are always telling 174 me I am pale and thin. Am I pale and thin, Georgie?”

“Yes,” confessed Georgie, “you are,” and she gave her a troubled look.

“Then,” returned Lisbeth, “there is all the more reason that I should rusticate. Perhaps, by the spring, I shall be red and fat, like Miss Rosamond Puddifoot,” with a little laugh. “And I shall have taken to tracts, and soup-kitchens, and given up the world, and wear a yellow bonnet, and call London a ‘vortex of sinful pleasure,’ as she does. Why, my dear Georgie, what is the matter?”

The fact was, that a certain incongruity in her beloved Lisbeth’s looks and tone, had so frightened Georgie, and touched her susceptible heart, that the tears had rushed to her eyes, and she was filled with a dolorous pity.

“You are not—you are not happy,” she cried all at once. “You are not, or you would not speak in that queer, satirical way. I wish you would be a little—a little more—kind, Lisbeth.”

Lisbeth’s look was a positively guilty one.

“Kind!” she exclaimed. “Kind, Georgie!”

Having gone so far, Georgie could not easily draw back, and was fain to go on, though she became conscious that she had placed herself in a very trying position. 175

“It is not kind to keep everything to yourself so closely,” she said, tremulously. “As if we did not care for you, or could not comprehend——”

She stopped, because Lisbeth frightened her again. She became so pale, that it was impossible to say anything more. Her great, dark eyes dilated, as if with a kind of horror, at something.

“You—you think I have a secret,” she interrupted her, with a hollow-sounding laugh. “And you are determined to make a heroine out of me, instead of allowing me to enjoy my ‘nerves’ in peace. You don’t comprehend ‘nerves,’ that is clear. You are running at a red rag, Georgie, my dear. It is astonishing how prone you good, tender-hearted people are to run at red rags, and toss, and worry them.”

It was plain that she would never betray herself. She would hold at arm’s-length even the creature who loved her best, and was most worthy of her confidence. It was useless to try to win her to any revelation of her feelings.

Georgie fell to at her packing again, with a very melancholy consciousness of the fact, that she had done no good by losing control over her innocent emotions, and might have 176 done harm. It had pained her inexpressibly to see that quick dread of self-betrayal, which had announced itself in the sudden loss of color, and the odd expression in her friend’s eyes.

“She does not love me as I love her,” was her pathetic, mental conclusion. “If she did, she would not be so afraid of me.”

When Lisbeth bade her good-by, at the little railway station, the girl’s heart quite failed her.

“What shall I say to mamma and papa?” she asked.

“Tell them that Pen’yllan agrees with me so well that I don’t like to leave it for the present,” was Lisbeth’s answer. “And tell Mrs. Esmond that I will write to her myself.”

“And—” in timid desperation—“and Hector, Lisbeth?”

“Hector?” rather sharply. “Why Hector? What has he to do with the matter? But stay!” shrugging her shoulders. “I suppose it would be only civil. Tell him—tell him—that Aunt Clarissa sends her love, and hopes he will take care of his lungs.”

And yet, though this irreverent speech was her last, and she made it in her most malicious manner, the delicate, dark face, and light, small 177 figure, had a strangely desolate look to Georgie, as, when the train bore her away, she caught her last farewell glimpse of them on the platform of the small station.

Lisbeth stood before her mirror, that night, slowly brushing up her hair, and feeling the silence of the small chamber acutely.

“It would never have done,” she said to herself. “It would never have done at all. This is the better way—better, by far.”

But it was hard enough to face, and it was fantastic enough to think that she had really determined to face it. In a minute or so she sat down, with her brush in her hand, and her hair loose upon her shoulders, to confront the facts once more. She was going to spend her winter at Pen’yllan. She had given up the flesh-pots of Egypt. She was going to breakfast at eight, dine at two when there was no company, take five o’clock tea, and spend the evening with the Misses Tregarthyn. She would stroll in the garden, walk on the beach, and take Miss Clarissa’s medicines meekly. At this point a new view of the case presented itself to her, and she began to laugh. Mustard baths, and Dr. Puddifoot’s prescriptions, in incongruous connection with her own personal knowledge of things, appeared all at once so 178 ludicrous, that they got the better of her, and she laughed until she found herself crying; and then, angry as she was at her own weakness, the tears got the better of her, too, for a short time. If she had never been emotional before, she was emotional enough in these days. She could not pride herself upon her immovability now. She felt, constantly, either passionate anger against herself, or passionate contempt, or a passionate eagerness to retrieve her lost self-respect. What could she do? How could she rescue herself? This would not do! This would not do! She must make some new struggle! This sort of thing she was saying feverishly from morning until night.

Secretly she had almost learned to detest Pen’yllan. Pen’yllan, she told herself, had been the cause of all her follies; but it was safer at present than London. If she stayed at Pen’yllan long enough, surely she could wear herself out, or rather wear out her fancies. A less resolute young woman would, in all likelihood, have trifled weakly with her danger; but it was not so with Lisbeth. She had not trifled with it from the first: she had held herself stubbornly aloof from any little self-indulgence; and now she was harder upon herself than ever. She would have died cheerfully, 179 rather than have betrayed herself, and if she could die, surely she could endure a dull winter.

Her moral condition was so far improved, however, that she did not visit her small miseries upon her aunts, as she would have done in the olden days. Her behavior was really creditable, under the circumstances. She played chess with Miss Clarissa in the evening, or read aloud, or sung for them, and began to take a whimsical pleasure in their delight at her condescension. They were so easily delighted, that she felt many a sting of shame at her former delinquencies. She had an almost morbid longing “to be good,” like Georgie, and she practiced this being “good” upon the three spinsters, with a persistence at which she herself both laughed and cried when she was alone. Her first letter to Georgie puzzled the girl indescribably, and yet touched her somehow. She, who believed her beloved Lisbeth to be perfect among women, could not quite understand the psychological crisis through which she was passing, and yet could not fail to feel that something unusual was happening.

“I take Aunt Clarissa’s medicine with a mild regularity which alarms her,” the letter announced. “She thinks I must be going into a 180 consumption, and tearfully consults Dr. Puddifoot in private. The cook is ordered to prepare particularly nourishing soups for dinner, and if my appetite is not something startling, everybody turns pale. And yet all this does not seem to me as good a joke as it would have done years ago. I see another side to it. I wonder how it is that they can be so fond of me. For my part, I am sure I could never have been fond of Lisbeth Crespigny.”


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