THE world takes people very willingly at the estimate in which they hold themselves. With a fashionable bias for expression in a foreign tongue it calls modesty mauvaise honte; and the impudent are thought merely to have a proper opinion of their merit. But Ponsonby was really an imposing personage. His movements were measured and noiseless; and he wore the sombre garb of a gentleman’s butler with impressive dignity. He was a large man, flabby and corpulent, with a loose, smooth skin. His face, undisturbed by the rapid play of expression, which he would have thought indecorous, had a look of placid respectability; his eyes, with their puffy lower lids, rested on surrounding objects heavily; and his earnest, obsequious voice gave an impression of such overwhelming piety that your glance, involuntarily, fell to his rotund calves for the gaiters episcopal.
He looked gravely at the table set out for luncheon, while Alfred, the footman, walked round it, placing bread in each napkin.
“Is Tommy Tiddler coming to-day, Mr. Ponsonby?” he asked.
“His lordship is expected,” returned the butler, with a frigid stare.
He emphasised the aspirate to mark his disapproval of the flippancy wherewith his colleague referred to a person who was not only the brother of his master, but a member of the aristocracy.
“Here he is!” said Alfred, unabashed, looking out of the window. “He’s just drove up in a cab.”
Lord Spratte walked up the steps and rang the bell. Though Ponsonby had seen him two or three times a week for ten years, he gave no sign of recognition.
“Am I expected to luncheon to-day, Ponsonby?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Lord Spratte was middle-aged, of fresh complexion notwithstanding his grey hair; and his manner was quick and breezy. He carried his years and the increasing girth which accompanied them, with a graceful light-heartedness; and was apt to flatter himself that with the light behind he might still pass for five-and-thirty. He had neither the wish nor the intention to grow old. But the man of fifty, seeking to make the most of himself, must use many careful adjustments. Not for him are the loose, ill-fitting clothes that become a stripling of eighteen; his tailor needs a world of skill to counteract the slackening of muscle and to minimize the excess of avoirdupois. On his toilet-table are numerous pots and jars and bottles, and each is a device to persuade himself that the troublesome years are not marching on. He takes more care of his hands than a professional beauty. Above all, his hair is a source of anxiety. Lord Spratte by many experiments had learnt exactly how to dress it so that no unbecoming baldness was displayed; but he never seized a brush and comb without thinking, like Achilles stalking melancholy through the fields of death, that he would much sooner be a crossing-sweeper of fifteen than a peer of the realm at fifty.
“Do you insist on leading me upstairs like a ewe-lamb, Ponsonby?” he asked.
The butler’s face outlined the merest shadow of a smile as, silently, he preceded Lord Spratte to the drawing-room. For nothing in the world would he have omitted the customary ceremonies of polite society.
“Lord Spratte,” he announced.
The guest advanced and saw his sister Sophia, his brother Theodore, his nephew and his niece. Lady Sophia, a handsome and self-assured woman of five-and-fifty, the eldest of the family, put aside her book and rose to kiss him. Canon Spratte extended two fingers.
“Good heavens, have you invited me to a family party!”
“Than which, I venture to think, there can be nothing more charming, nothing more beautiful, and nothing more entertaining,” replied the Canon, gaily.
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All her life Miss Elizabeth Dwarris had been a sore trial to her relations. A woman of means, she ruled tyrannously over a large number of impecunious cousins, using her bank-balance like the scorpions of Rehoboam to chastise them, and, like many another pious creature, for their soul’s good making all and sundry excessively miserable. Nurtured in the evangelical ways current in her youth, she insisted that her connections should seek salvation according to her own lights; and, with harsh tongue and with bitter gibe, made it her constant business to persuade them of their extreme unworthiness. She arranged lives as she thought fit, and ventured not only to order the costume and habits, but even the inner thought of those about her: the Last Judgment could have no terrors for any that had faced her searching examination. She invited to stay with her in succession various poor ladies who presumed on a distant tie to call her Aunt Eliza, and they accepted her summons, more imperious than a royal command, with gratitude by no means unmixed with fear, bearing the servitude meekly as a cross which in the future would meet due testamentary reward.
Miss Dwarris loved to feel her power. During these long visits—for, in a way, the old lady was very hospitable—she made it her especial object to break the spirit of her guests; and it entertained her hugely to see the mildness with which were borne her extravagant demands, the humility with which every inclination was crushed. She took a malicious pleasure in publicly affronting persons, ostensibly to bend a sinful pride, or in obliging them to do things which they particularly disliked. With a singular quickness for discovering the points on which they were most sensitive, she attacked every weakness with blind invective till the sufferer writhed before her, raw and bleeding: no defect, physical or mental, was protected from her raillery, and she could pardon as little an excess of avoirdupois as a want of memory. Yet, with all her heart, she despised her victims, she flung in their face insolently their mercenary spirit, vowing that she would never leave a penny to such a pack of weak fools; it delighted her to ask for advice in the distribution of her property among charitable societies, and she heard, with unconcealed hilarity, their unwilling and confused suggestions.
With one of her relations only, Miss Dwarris found it needful to observe a certain restraint, for Miss Ley, perhaps the most distant of her cousins, was as plain-spoken as herself, and had, besides, a far keener wit whereby she could turn rash statements to the utter ridicule of the speaker. Nor did Miss Dwarris precisely dislike this independent spirit; she looked upon her in fact with a certain degree of affection and not a little fear. Miss Ley, seldom lacking a repartee, appeared really to enjoy the verbal contests, from which, by her greater urbanity, readiness, and knowledge, she usually emerged victorious: it confounded, but at the same time almost amused, the elder lady that a woman so much poorer than herself, with no smaller claims than others to the coveted inheritance, should venture not only to be facetious at her expense, but even to carry war into her very camp. Miss Ley, really not grieved to find some one to whom without prickings of conscience she could speak her whole mind, took a grim pleasure in pointing out to her cousin the poor logic of her observations or the foolish unreason of her acts. No cherished opinion of Miss Dwarris was safe from satire—even her evangelicism was laughed at, and the rich old woman, unused to argument, was easily driven into self-contradiction; and then—for the victor took no pains to conceal her triumph—she grew pale and speechless with rage.
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