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MISS WHICHELLO'S LUNCHEON-PARTY
The little lady trotted briskly across the square, and guided her guests to a quaint old house squeezed into one corner of it. Here she had been born some sixty odd years before; here she had lived her life of spinsterhood, save for an occasional visit to London; and here she hoped to die, although at present she kept Death at a safe distance by hygienic means and dietary treatment. The house was a queer survival of three centuries, with a pattern of black oak beams let into a white-washed front. Its roof shot up into a high gable at an acute angle, and was tiled with red clay squares, mellowed by Time to the hue of rusty iron. A long lattice with diamond panes, and geraniums in flower-pots behind them, extended across the lower storey; two little jutting windows, also of the criss-cross pattern, looked like two eyes in the second storey; and high up in the third, the casement of the attic peered out coyly from under the eaves. At the top of a flight of immaculately white steps there was a squat little door painted green and adorned with a brass knocker burnished to the colour of fine gold. The railings of iron round the area were also coloured green, and the appearance of the whole exterior was as spotless and neat as Miss Whichello herself. It was an ideal house for a dainty old spinster such as she was, and rested in the very shadow of the Bishop Gandolf's cathedral like the nest of a bright-eyed wren.
'Mab, my dear!' cried the wren herself, as she led the gentlemen into the drawing-room, 'I have brought Captain Pendle and Mr Cargrim to luncheon.'
Mab arose out of a deep chair and laid aside the book she was reading. 'I saw you crossing the square, Captain Pendle,' she said, shaking his hand. 'Mr Cargrim, I am glad to see you.'
'Are you not glad to see me?' whispered George, in low tones.
'Do you need me to tell you so?' was Mab's reply, with a smile, and that smile answered his question.
'Oh, my dear, such a heavenly sermon!' cried Miss Whichello, fluttering about the room; 'it went to my very heart.'
'It could not have gone to a better place,' replied the chaplain, in the gentle voice which George particularly detested. 'I am sorry to hear you have suffered from your alarm last night, Miss Arden.'
'My nerves received rather a shock, Mr Cargrim, and I had such a bad headache that I decided to remain at home. I must receive your sermon second-hand from my aunt.'
'Why not first-hand from me?' said Cargrim, insinuatingly, whereupon Captain George pulled his moustache and looked savage.
'Oh, I won't tax your good nature so far,' rejoined Mab, laughing. 'What is it, aunty?' for the wren was still fluttering and restless.
'My dear, you must content yourself with Captain Pendle till luncheon, for I want Mr Cargrim to come into the garden and see my fig tree; real figs grow on it, Mr Cargrim,' said Miss Whichello, solemnly, 'the very first figs that have ever ripened in Beorminster.'
'I am glad it is not a barren fig tree,' said Cargrim, introducing a scriptural allusion in his most clerical manner.
'Barren indeed! it has five figs on it. Really, sitting under its shade one would fancy one was in Palestine. Do come, Mr Cargrim,' and Miss Whichello fluttered through the door like an escaping bird.
'With pleasure; the more so, as I know we shall not be missed.'
'Damn!' muttered Captain Pendle, when the door closed on Cargrim's smile and insinuating looks.
'Captain Pendle!' exclaimed Miss Arden, becomingly shocked.
'Captain Pendle indeed!' said the young man, slipping his arm round Mab; 'and why not George?'
'I thought Mr Cargrim might hear.'
'He ought to; like the ass, his ears are long enough.'
'Still, he is anything but an ass--George.'
'If he isn't an ass he's a beast,' rejoined Pendle, promptly, 'and it comes to much the same thing.'
'Well, you need not swear at him.'
'If I didn't swear I'd kick him, Mab; and think of the scandal to the Church. Cargrim's a sneaking, time-serving sycophant. I wonder my father can endure him; I can't!'
'I don't like him myself,' confessed Mab, as they seated themselves in the window-seat.
'I should--think--not!' cried Captain George, in so deliberate and disgusted a tone that Mab laughed. Whereat he kissed her and was reproved, so that both betook themselves to argument as to the righteousness or unrighteousness of kissing on a Sunday.
George Pendle was a tall, slim, and very good-looking young man in every sense of the word. He was as fair as Mab was dark, with bright blue eyes and a bronzed skin, against which his smartly-pointed moustache appeared by contrast almost white. With his upright figure, his alert military air, and merry smile, he looked an extremely handsome and desirable lover; and so Mab thought, although she reproved him with orthodox modesty for snatching a kiss unasked. But if men had to request favours of this sort, there would not be much kissing in the world. Moreover, stolen kisses, like stolen fruit, have a piquant flavour of their own.
The quaint old drawing-room, with its low ceiling and twilight atmosphere, was certainly an ideal place for love-making. It was furnished with chairs, and tables, and couches, which had done duty in the days of Miss Whichello's grandparents; and if the carpet was old, so much the better, for its once brilliant tints had faded into soft hues more restful to the eye. In one corner stood the grandfather of all pianos, with a front of drawn green silk fluted to a central button; beside it a prim canterbury, filled with primly-bound books of yellow-paged music, containing, 'The Battle of the Prague,' 'The Maiden's Prayer,' 'Cherry Ripe,' and 'The Canary Bird's Quadrilles.' Such tinkling melodies had been the delight of Miss Whichello's youth, and--as she had a fine finger for the piano (her own observation)--she sometimes tinkled them now on the jingling old piano when old friends came to see her. Also there were Chippendale cupboards with glass doors, filled with a most wonderful collection of old china--older even than their owner; Chinese jars heaped up with dried rose leaves spreading around a perfume of dead summers; bright silken screens from far Japan; foot-stools and fender-stools worked in worsted which tripped up the unwary; and a number of oil-paintings valuable rather for age than beauty. None of your modern flimsy drawing-rooms was Miss Whichello's, but a dear, delightful, cosy room full of faded splendours and relics of the dead and gone so dearly beloved. From the yellow silk fire-screen swinging on a rosewood pole, to the drowsy old canary chirping feebly in his brass cage at the window, all was old-world and marvellously proper and genteel. Withal, a quiet, perfumed room, delightful to make love in, to the most beautiful woman in the world, as Captain George Pendle knew very well.
'Though it really isn't proper for you to kiss me,' observed Mab, folding her slender hands on her white gown. 'You know we are not engaged.'
'I know nothing of the sort, my dearest prude. You are the only woman I ever intend to marry. Have you any objections? If so, I should like to hear them.'
'I am two years older than you, George.'
'A man is as old as he looks, a woman as she feels. I am quite convinced, Miss Arden, that you feel nineteen years of age, so the disparity rests rather on my shoulders than on yours.'
'You don't look old,' laughed Mab, letting her hand lie in that of her lover's.
'But I feel old--old enough to marry you, my dear. What is your next objection?'
'Your father does not know that you love me.'
'My mother does; Lucy does; and with two women to persuade him, my dear, kind old father will gladly consent to the match.'
'I have no money.'
'My dearest, neither have I. Two negatives make an affirmative, and that affirmative is to be uttered by you when I ask if I may tell the bishop that you are willing to become a soldier's wife.'
'Oh, George!' cried Mab, anxiously, 'it is a very serious matter. You know how particular your father is about birth and family. My parents are dead; I never knew them; for my father died before I was born, and my mother followed him to the grave when I was a year old. If my dear mother's sister had not taken charge of me and brought me up, I should very likely have gone on the parish; for--as aunty says--my parents were paupers.'
'My lovely pauper, what is all this to me? Here is your answer to all the nonsense you have been talking,' and George, with the proverbial boldness of a soldier, laid a fond kiss on the charming face so near to his own.
'Oh, George!' began the scandalised Mab, for the fifth time at least, and was about to reprove her audacious lover again, when Miss Whichello bustled into the room, followed by the black shadow of the parson. George and Mab sprang apart with alacrity, and each wondered, while admiring the cathedral opposite, if Miss Whichello or Cargrim had heard the sound of that stolen kiss. Apparently the dear, unsuspecting old Jenny Wren had not, for she hopped up to the pair in her bird-like fashion, and took George's arm.
'Come, good people,' she said briskly, 'luncheon is ready; and so are your appetites, I've no doubt. Mr Cargrim, take in my niece.'
In five minutes the quartette were seated round a small table in Miss Whichello's small dining-room. The apartment was filled with oak furniture black with age and wondrously carved; the curtains and carpet and cushions were of faded crimson rep, and as the gaily-striped sun-blinds were down, the whole was enwrapped in a sober brown atmosphere restful to the eye and cool to the skin. The oval table was covered with a snow-white cloth, on which sparkled silver and crystal round a Nankin porcelain bowl of blue and white filled with deep red roses. The dinner-plates were of thin china, painted with sprawling dragons in yellow and green; the food, in spite of Mrs Pansey's report, was plentiful and dainty, and the wines came from the stock laid down by the father of the hostess in the days when dignitaries of the Church knew what good wine was. It is true that a neat pair of brass scales was placed beside Miss Whichello, but she used them to weigh out such portions of food as she judged to be needful for herself, and did not mar her hospitality by interfering with the appetites of her guests. The repast was tempting, the company congenial, and the two young men enjoyed themselves greatly. Miss Whichello was an entertainer worth knowing, if only for her cook.
'Mab, my dear,' cried the lively old lady, 'I am ashamed of your appetite. Don't you feel better for your morning's rest?'
'Much better, thank you, aunty, but it is too hot to eat.'
'Try some salad, my love; it is cool and green, and excellent for the blood. If I had my way, people should eat more green stuff than they do.'
'Like so many Nebuchadnezzars,' suggested Cargrim, always scriptural.
'Well, some kinds of grass are edible, you know, Mr Cargrim; although we need not go on all fours to eat them as he did.'
'So many people would need to revert to their natural characters of animals if that custom came in,' said George, smiling.
'A certain great poet remarked that everyone had a portion of the nature of some animal,' observed Cargrim, 'especially women.'
'Then Mrs Pansey is a magpie,' cried Mab, with an arch look at her aunt.
'She is a magpie, and a fox, and a laughing hyŠna, my dear.'
'Oh, aunty, what a trinity!'
'I suppose, Cargrim, all you black-coated parsons are rooks,' said George.
'No doubt, captain; and you soldiers are lions.'
'Aunty is a Jenny Wren!'
'And Mab is a white peacock,' said Miss Whichello, with a nod.
'Captain Pendle, protect me,' laughed Miss Arden. 'I decline to be called a peacock.'
'You are a golden bird of paradise, Miss Arden.'
'Ah, that is a pretty compliment, Captain Pendle. Thank you!'
While George laughed, Cargrim, rather tired of these zoological comparisons, strove to change the subject by an allusion to the adventure of the previous night. 'The man who attacked you was certainly a wolf,' he said decisively.
'Who was the man?' asked Miss Whichello, carefully weighing herself some cheese.
'Some tramp who had been in the wars,' replied George, carelessly; 'a discharged soldier, I daresay. At least, he had a long red scar on his villainous-looking face. I saw it in the moonlight, marking him as with the brand of Cain.'
'A scar!' repeated Miss Whichello, in so altered a tone that Cargrim stared at her, and hastened to explain further, so as to learn, if possible, the meaning of her strange look.
'A scar on the right cheek,' he said slowly, 'from the ear to the mouth.'
'What kind of a looking man is he?' asked the old lady, pushing away her plate with a nervous gesture.
'Something like a gipsy--lean, tall and swarthy, with jet-black eyes and an evil expression. He talks like an educated person.'
'You seem to know all about him, Cargrim,' said Captain Pendle, in some surprise, while Miss Whichello, her rosy face pale and scared, sat silently staring at the tablecloth.
'I have several times been to an hotel called The Derby Winner,' explained the chaplain, 'to see a sick woman; and there I came across this scamp several times. He stays there, I believe!'
'What is his name?' asked Miss Whichello, hoarsely.
'Jentham, I have been informed.'
'Jentham! I don't know the name.'
'I don't suppose you know the man either, aunty?'
'No, my love,' replied Miss Whichello, in a low voice. 'I don't suppose I know the man either. Is he still at The Derby Winner, Mr Cargrim?'
'I believe so; he portions his time between that hotel and a gipsy camp on Southberry Common.'
'What is he doing here?'
'Really, my dear lady, I do not know.'
'Aunty, one would think you knew the man,' said Mab, amazed at her aunt's emotion.
'No, Mab, I do not,' said Miss Whichello, vehemently; more so than the remark warranted. 'But if he attacks people on the high road he should certainly be shut up. Well, good people,' she added, with an attempt at her former lively manner, 'if you are finished we will return to the drawing-room.'
All attempts to restore the earlier harmony of the visit failed, for the conversation languished and Miss Whichello was silent and distraught. The young men shortly took their leave, and the old lady seemed glad to be rid of them. Outside, George and Cargrim separated, as neither was anxious for the other's company. As the chaplain walked to the palace he reflected on the strange conduct of Miss Whichello.
'She knows something about Jentham,' he thought. 'I wonder if she has a secret also.'
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