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   Chapter 4 AUNT WILLIAM

The Twelfth Hour By Ada Leverson Characters: 16300

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Mrs. William Crofton, the widow of Sir James's brother, was, in her own way, quite a personage in London; at least, in the London that she knew. We have already seen her in the photograph in Savile's possession taken some forty years ago (by Mayall and Son, at Brighton). She was now an elderly lady, and still occupied the large ugly house in South Audley Street, where the children remembered their Uncle Mary. Felicity, Sylvia, and Savile had chosen to reverse the order in which they were told to speak of their uncle and aunt. Felicity had pointed out that not only was Aunt William more like an uncle, but that by this ingenious device they dodged a kind of history lesson. The great object always was to counteract carefully any information conveyed to them during the time of their education. All historians and teachers alike were regarded as natural enemies from Pinnock to Plato. On the same principle, Savile would never eat Reading biscuits, because he feared that some form of condensed study was being insidiously introduced into the system. Boys had to be on their guard against any treachery of that kind.

If there were a certain charm in the exterior of this old house-solid and aggressively respectable-its interior gave most visitors at first a nervous shock. Aunt William still firmly believed ?stheticism to be fashionable, and a fad that should be discouraged. Through every varying whim of the mode she had stuck, with a praiseworthy persistence, to the wax flowers under glass, Indian chessmen, circular tables in the centre of the room, surrounded by large books, and the rep curtains (crimson, with green borders) of pre-artistic days. Often she held forth to wondering young people, for whom the 1880 fashions were but an echo of ancient history, on the sad sinfulness of sunflowers and the fearful folly of Japanese fans. Had the poor lady been but a decade or two more old-fashioned she would have been considered quaint and up-to-date. (A narrow escape, had she only known it!)

She was a small, pointed person, with a depressing effect of having (perhaps) been a beauty once, and she regarded Sylvia and Felicity with that mingled affection, pride, and annoyance compounded of a wish to serve them, a desire to boast of them, and a longing to bully them that is often characteristic of elderly relatives. The only special fault she found was that they were too young, especially Sylvia. Mrs. Crofton did not explain for what the girls were too young, but did her best to make Sylvia at least older by boring her to death about etiquette, religion, politics, cooking recipes, and kindred subjects. Aunt William was one of those rare women of theory rather than practice who prefer a menu to a dinner, and a recipe to either. Indeed, recipes were a hobby of hers, and one of her pleasures was to send to a young housekeeper some such manuscript as the following:-

"To Make Elderberry Wine Required-

Half a peck of ripe elderberries.

One and a half gallons of boiling water.

To Each Gallon of Juice

Three pounds of loaf sugar,

Four cloves,

Six allspice.

Stalk the berries, put them into a large vessel with the boiling water, cover it closely, and leave for twenty-four hours," and so on.

To one person she was quite devoted-her nephew Savile.

One morning Aunt William woke up at half-past seven, and complained to her maid that she had had insomnia for twenty minutes. Having glanced at the enlarged and coloured photograph of the late William that decorated every room, she ordered a luncheon of roast mutton and rice pudding, rhubarb tart and cream, almonds and raisins, and oranges, thinking that this menu would be at once suitable and attractive to a boy of sixteen. In a more indulgent moment she then sent out for a large packet of milk-chocolate, and prepared to receive Savile at lunch.

When Savile arrived in his father's motor, Mrs. Crofton, who had been looking out for him at the window, ran up to her room (she could run when alone) and allowed him to be shown into the drawing-room by himself. Aunt William resented automobiles as much as she disliked picture postcards, week-ends, musical comedies, and bridge.

Savile walked up and down the enormous room, lost in thought, and scarcely observing his surroundings. He smiled slightly as he contemplated the portrait of Uncle Mary, who was represented as leaning rather weakly for support against a pedestal that looked by no means secure, with a heavy curtain and a lowering sky in the background.

"Jove! what short frock-coats those chaps wore!" thought Savile. "What rotters they must have been!"

* * *

"And so Lord Chetwode is out of town again?" Aunt William said, as they sat over dessert.

"Gone to Newmarket."

"I see in the Morning Post that your sister Sylvia was at Lady Gaskaine's last night. I suppose she was the belle of the ball." She offered him some preserved ginger.

"No, she wasn't. There's no such thing as a belle of the ball now, Aunt William. She danced with Heath and Broughton, of course, and Caldrey, and those chaps. Broughton took her to supper."

Aunt William seemed gratified.

"Curious! I recollect Lord Broughton in kilts when he was a little toddling pet of seven! His father was considered one of the most fascinating men of his day, my dear. What a beautiful place Broughton Hall is!" She pressed another orange on him.

"Oh, Sylvia's all right," said Savile, impartially declining the fruit and producing an aluminium cigarette-case. Aunt William, pretending not to see it, passed him the matches as if in a fit of absence of mind. As a matter of fact, Savile was really more at home with Aunt William than with any one, even his sisters.

"And now, my dear boy, tell me about yourself."

Savile took out of his pocket the envelope containing her photograph.

"I say, I took this out of the album last time I came," he said apologetically.

Aunt William almost blushed. She was genuinely flattered.

"But what's that-that green book I see in your pocket? I suppose it's Euclid, or Greek, or something you're learning."

"No, it's not; it's poetry. A ripping poem I've just found out. I know you like that sort of rot, so I brought it for you."

Her face softened. Savile was the only person who knew her romantic side.

"A poem!" she said in a lowered voice. "Oh, what is it about?"

"Oh, about irises, and how 'In the Spring a Young Man's Fancy,' that sort of thing-Tennyson, you know."

"Tennyson!" exclaimed Aunt William. "Do you know Eliza Cook? I think 'The Old Armchair' one of the loveliest poems in the language."

"Never heard of it."

"Savile," said Aunt William, when they were sitting by the fire in the drawing-room, "I'm glad you're fond of poetry. Have you ever written any at all? You needn't be ashamed of it, my dear boy, if you have. I admire sentiment, but only up to a certain point, of course."

"Well, it's odd you should say that. I wrote something yesterday. I say, you won't go and give it away, Aunt William?"

"Most certainly not!"

She grew animated.

"Show it to me, if you have it with you. A taste for literature is in the family. Once a second cousin of ours-you never knew him-wrote me a sonnet!"

"Did he, though? Well, I dare say it was all right. Here's my stuff. I rather thought I'd consult you. I want to send it to some one."

Concealing his nervousness under a stern, even harsh demeanour, Savile took out a folded sheet of paper from a brown pigskin letter-case.

Aunt William clasped her hands and leaned forward.

Savile read aloud in an aggressive, matter-of-fact manner the following words:--

"My singing bird, my singing bird,

Oh sing, oh sing, oh sing, oh sing to me,

Nothing like it has ever been heard,"

(Here he dropped the letter-case, and picked it up, blushing at the contents that had fallen out.)

"And I do love to hear thee sing."

His aunt looked a little faint. She leant back and fanned herself, taking out her smelling-salts.

"That's not all," said Savile. Warming to his work, he went on more gruffly:-

"What should I do if you sh

ould stop?

Oh wilt thou sing for me alone?

For I will fly to hear your notes:

Your tune would melt a heart of stone."

"My gracious, my dear, it's a poem!" said Aunt William.

"Who said it wasn't? But you can't judge till you've heard the whole thing."

She turned away her head and struggled with a smile, while he read the last verse defiantly and quickly, growing rather red:-

"I haven't got a stony heart

Or whatever it is, it belongs to you:

I vow myself thy slave,

And always I shall e'er be true!"

There was an embarrassed pause.

"Well, I really think that last line is rather pretty," said Aunt William, who had regained her self-control. "But do you think it is quite-"

"Is it all right to send to Her?" he said. "That's the point!"

"Well, I can hardly say. Would your father--"

"I say! You're not going to tell the Governor?"

"No, never, Savile dear. It shall be our secret," said Aunt William, reassuringly.

"Of course, I know this sort of thing is great rot," he said apologetically, "but women like it."

"Oh, do they really?" said Aunt William. "Well! what I always say is, if you're born with a gift, you should cultivate it!"

Savile (thinking this encouragement rather meagre) replaced the poem and said: "I shall have to be going now, Aunt William. Got an appointment."

"With whom, my dear?"

"Yes," said Savile dryly. He did not approve of this direct method of ascertaining what one wants to know. He would confide, but never answered questions. She accepted the hint, but would not acknowledge it.

"Ah, I see!" she said knowingly (wishing she did). "Well, if you must go, you must!"

"Yes, Aunt William."

"But before you go, about that party ... I'm coming, of course. In fact, I'm having my peach brocade done up. Tell dear Sylvia that if there's anything I can do-I mean in the way of helping her with regard to the supper--"

"We've telephoned to Benoist's. It's all fixed up. Thanks very much."

"Oh! But still I think I'll send my recipe for salmon mayonnaise. Don't you think I might?"

"It can't do any harm, when you come to think of it," he answered, getting up.

Before he left, Aunt William pressed a sovereign into his hand guiltily, as if it were conscience money. He, on his side, took it as though it were a doctor's fee, and both ignored the transaction.

"Tell your father I'm sure I shall enjoy his entertainment, though why on earth he still lives in Onslow Square, when he ought to be in London, I can't and never shall, understand. However, I believe there's quite a sort of society in Kensington, and no doubt some of the right people will be there. Are any of the Primrose League coming, do you know, Savile?"

"Sure to be. There's Jasmyn Vere for one."

"Oh, Lord Dorking's son. He's a Knight Harbinger."

"Is he, though? He looks like a night porter," said Savile. "Good-bye." He then turned back to murmur. "I say, Aunt William. Thanks most awfully." She went back smiling.

* * *

A few minutes later Savile was looking over the railings into Berkeley Square.

In a kind of summer-house among the trees sat a little girl of fourteen dressed in grey. She wore a large straw hat on her head and a blue bow in her hair, and had evidently provided herself with materials of amusement for the afternoon, for she had a "picture-postcard album" by her side, and seemed absorbed in a thick volume of history.

Dolly Clive resembled in expression and the shape of her face one of Sir Joshua's angel's heads (if one could imagine them brunettes). She had large brown eyes and a long black plait, and was a graceful example of what was formerly called "the awkward age." It needed no connoisseur to see that she was going to be a very pretty woman. When she saw Savile, she rushed to the gate and let him in with a key.

"Hallo, Dolly!"

"I say, Savile, wasn't King Charles the Second an angel? I've just been reading all about him, and you can't think what fun they used to have!"

He seemed surprised at this greeting, walked slowly with her to the arbour, and said rather suspiciously--

"Who had fun?"

"Why Lady Castlemaine, and Nell Gwynne, and the Duchess of Portsmouth,-and all those people. It says so here, if you don't believe it! I wish I'd lived at that time."

"I don't. There's fun now, too."

"Ah, but you don't know anything about it, Savile. I bet you anything you like you can't tell me those clever lines about the poor darling King's death!"

"Of course I can. Everybody knows them." Savile made an effort and then said, "You mean Fain would I climb but that ..."

"Oh no, no, no! Oh, good gracious, no! One more try, now."

"Had I but served my God as faithfully as I have served my king ..."

"Wrong again. That's Sir Philip Sidney," she said, shutting up the book with a bang. "It's

Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King

Whose word no man relies on ..."

"I say, old girl, I didn't come here to talk history, if you don't mind."

"Well, what do you want to talk about? Shall I show you my new one of Zena Dare?" said Dolly, opening the postcard album.

"Certainly not. I can't worry about Zena Dare. No, I've got something to tell you-something rather serious. Zena Dare, indeed! What next?"

"Oh dear, are you in a bad temper?"

"How like a woman! No, I'm not in a bad temper. Talking sense doesn't show that one's in a bad temper. But it's a beastly thing to have to do."

Dorothy sat on both the books, came nearer to Savile, and looked rather pale, tactfully waiting, in silence.

Then suddenly he said in a different tone, quite cheerily--

"That's rather jolly, the way that blue bow is stuck in your hair, Dolly."

"I thought you wanted to talk sense, Savile. What is it? Have you found out-anything?"

"What do you mean? Yes, I've jolly well found out that I can't be engaged to you any more. I've no right to be."

She did not seem overwhelmed by the news.

"Fancy! Just fancy! Oh-I see. Is there some one else? Who is it, Savile?"

He smiled in his most superior way.

"My dear child, people don't go about mentioning women's names. Now look here, Dolly, I meant to be straight, so I told you right out."

She smiled.

"I wonder what sort of girl she is! Well, it can't be Gladys: she's much too hideous. That's one comfort!"

"You're right, it can't. Besides, it's not."

"Well, Savile, you're a dear good boy to come and tell me about it. And, the fact is, I was just wanting to tell you myself that perhaps we had better not be engaged any more. Just be pals instead, you know."

"Who's the man?" He spoke sternly.

She began to talk very volubly.

"You know those people whom we met at Dinard last summer, the de Saules? They're French, you know. Well, Madame de Saules,-you can't think how pretty she is,-and dear little Thérèse, and Robert have just come over here for the season. Thérèse is such a darling. You would love her. Only a kid, of course, you know, but...."

"And what price this beastly French boy? Now, listen to me. Foreigners are all rotters. I can tell you that if you're engaged to him you'll live to regret it. I speak as a friend, Dolly."

"Oh dear no! We're not engaged! You don't understand! Private engagements are not the proper thing in France. It isn't done. Oh no! Why, his mother would write to my mother and then he would send a bouquet, or something, and then--"

"A bouquet! By Jove! Why, you're more prehistoric than Aunt William! Well, look here, if this little blighter keeps his place I shan't interfere. But, mind you, if I see the smallest sign of--"

He rose to his feet.

"Of what?" said Dolly, rising and looking angry. "He's a nice, handsome, polite, dear boy. So there!"

"I should only wring his neck, that's all. Good-bye, old girl."

They walked to the gate together.

"It's only for your good, you know, Dolly. I don't mean to be a brute."

"Oh, it's all right, Savile."

"Dolly, dear."

"Yes, Savile."

"I'm awfully fond of you, really."

"Of course, I know, dear boy. Come again when you can, won't you?"

"Won't I?" said Savile.

* * *

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