Aunt Agatha had been a governess all her life. Certainly the Fenton family had not much to boast of in the way of wealth. Pedigree and poverty are not altogether pleasant yoke fellows. It may be comfortable to one's feelings to know that a certain progenitor of ours made boots at the time of the Conquest, though I am never quite sure in my mind that they had bootmakers then; but my historical knowledge was always defective. But a little money is also pleasant; indeed, if the pedigree and the money came wooing to me, and I had to choose between them—well, perhaps I had better hold my tongue on that subject; for what is the good of shocking people unless one has a very good reason for doing so?
My father's pedigree did not help him into good practice, and he died young—a grave mistake, people tell me, for a professional man to commit. My mother was very pretty and very helpless, but then she had a pedigree, too, and, probably, that forbade her to soil her white hands. She was a fine lady, with more heart than head, which she had lost most unwisely to the handsome young doctor. After his death, she made futile efforts for her child's sake, but the grinding wheel of poverty caught the poor butterfly and crushed her to death.
My poor, tender-hearted, unhappy mother! Well, the world is a cruel place to these soft, unprotected natures.
I should have fared badly but for Aunt Agatha; her hardly-earned savings were all spent on my education. She was a clever, highly-educated woman, and commanded good salaries, and out of this she contrived to board and maintain me at a school until she married, and Uncle Keith promised that I should share their home.
I never could understand why Aunt Agatha married him. Perhaps she was tired of the drudgery of teaching; at forty-five one may grow a little weary of one's work. Perhaps she wanted a home for her old age, and was tired of warming herself at other people's fires, and preferred a chimney corner of her own; but, strange to say, she always scouted these two notions with the utmost indignation.
"I married your uncle, Merle," she would say, with great dignity, "because he convinced me that he was the right person for me to marry. I have no more idea than you how he contrived to instil this notion into my head, for though I am a plain body and never had any beauty, I must own I liked tall, good-looking men. But there, my dear, I lived forty-five years in the world without three things very common in women's lives—without beauty, without love, and without discontent." And in this last clause she was certainly right. Aunt Agatha was the most contented creature in the world.
If Uncle Keith—for never, never would I call him Uncle Ezra, even had he asked me as a personal favour to do so—if Uncle Keith had been rich I could have understood the marriage better, being rather a mercenary and far-sighted young person, but he had only a very small income. He was managing clerk in some mercantile house, and, being a thrifty soul, invested all his spare cash instead of spending it.
Aunt Agatha had lived in grand houses all her life, but she was quite content with the little cottage at Putney to which her husband took her. They only kept one servant; but Aunt Agatha proved herself to be a notable housekeeper. She arranged and rearranged the old-fashioned furniture that had belonged to Uncle Keith's mother until she had made quite a charming drawing-room; but that was just her way; she had clever brains, and clever fingers, and to manipulate old materials into new fashions was just play work to her.
But for me, I am perfectly convinced that Aunt Agatha would have called herself the happiest woman in the world, but my discontent leavened the household. If three people elect to live together, the success of the scheme demands that one of the three should not smile sourly on all occasions.
For two whole years I tried to be amiable when Uncle Keith was in the room, and at last gave up the attempt in despair, baffled by my own evil tempers, and yet I will say I was not a bad-tempered girl. I must have had good in me or Aunt Agatha would not have been so fond of me. I call that a real crucial test—other people's fondness for us.
Why is it so difficult to get on with some folk, very worthy people in their way?
Why do some people invariably rub up one's fur until it bristles with discomfort? Why do these same thoroughly estimable creatures bring a sort of moral east wind with them, scarifying one's nerves? Surely it is beneath the dignity of a human being to be rasped by a harsh, drawling voice, or offended by trifling mannerisms. Uncle Keith was just like one of my sums—you might add him up, subtract from him, divide or multiply him, but he would never come right in the end; one always reckoned that he was more or less than he was. He was a little, pale, washed-out looking man, with sandy hair and prominent brown eyes. Being an old bachelor when he married Aunt Agatha, he had very precise, formal ways, and was methodical and punctual to a fault. Next to Uncle Keith, I hated that white-faced watch of his. I hated the slow, ponderous way in which he drew it from his pocket, and produced it for my special benefit.
I have said that my detestation of Uncle Keith was somewhat unreasonable. I must own I had no grave reasons for my dislike. Uncle Keith had a good moral character; he was a steady church-goer, was painstaking and abstemious; never put himself in a passion, or, indeed, lost his temper for a minute; but how was a girl to tolerate a man who spent five minutes scraping his boots before he entered his own door, whatever the weather might be; who said, "Hir-rumph" (humph was what he meant) before every sentence, booming at one like a great bee; who always prefaced a lecture with a "my dear;" who would not read a paper until it was warmed; who would burn every cinder before fresh coals were allowed on the fire; who looked reproachfully at my crumbs (I crumbled my bread purposely at last), and scooped them carefully in his hand for the benefit of the birds, with the invariable remark, "Waste not, want not," a saying I learnt to detest?
I suppose if we are ever admitted into heaven we shall find very odd people there; but perhaps they will have dropped their trying ways and peculiarities, as the chrysalis drops its case, and may develop all sorts of new prismatic glories. I once heard a lady say that she was afraid the society there would be rather mixed; she was a very exclusive person; but Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, so I suppose we shall never be without our modern Pharisees and Sadducees. The grand idea to me is that there will be room for all. I do not know when the idea first came to me that it was a mean thing to live under a man's roof, eating his bread and warming oneself at his fire, and all the time despising him in one's heart. I only know that one day the idea took possession of me, and, like an Eastern mustard seed, grew and flourished. Soon after that Uncle Keith had rather a serious loss—some mercantile venture in which he was interested had come to grief. I began to notice small retrenchments in the household; certain little luxuries were given up. Now and then Aunt Agatha grew a little grave as she balanced her weekly accounts. One night I took myself to task.
"What business have you, a strong, healthy, young woman," I observed to myself, severely, "to be a burthen on these good folk? What is enough for two may be a tight fit for three; it was that new mantle of yours, Miss Merle, that has put out the drawing-room fire for three weeks, and has shut up the sherry in the sideboard. Is it fair or right that Aunt Agatha and Uncle Keith should forego their little comforts just because an idle girl is on their hands?"
I pondered this question heavily before I summoned courage to speak to Aunt Agatha. To my surprise she listened to me very quietly, though her soft brown eyes grew a little