Lord of the Far Island
The London Scene
A Proposal of Marriage
The dream disturbed my sleep on the eve of Esmeralda's coming-out ball. It was not the first time I had had that dream. It had come to me periodically over my nineteen years. There is something vaguely alarming about these recurring dreams because it seems certain that they have a significance which one has to discover.
When I awoke from it I would be trembling with terror and I could never be entirely sure why. It was not exactly the dream itself, but the impression it brought of impending doom.
I would be in a room. I knew that room very well by now, for it was always the same each time I dreamed. It was an ordinary kind of room. There was a brick fireplace, on either side of which were chimney seats, a red carpet and heavy red curtains. Over the fireplace was a picture of a storm at sea. There were a few chairs and a gate-legged table. Voices came and went in the dream. I would have a feeling that something was being hidden from me; and suddenly there would come this overpowering sense of doom from which I would awake in horror.
That was all. Sometimes the dream would not come for a year and I would forget about it; then it would return. As time passed I would notice a little more in the room, for instance the thick cords which held back the red curtains, the rocking chair in one corner; and with these fresh details it seemed to me that the feeling of fear crept nearer.
After I had awakened and was lying in my bed I would ask myself what it could mean. Why should that room have become part of my sleeping life? Why should it be the same room every time? Why should I experience that creeping fear? My imagination had conjured up the room, but why should I have dreamed of it over the years? I had talked to no one of this. The whole matter seemed so foolish in the daytime, for dreams which are so vivid to the dreamer are almost always boring when retold. But somewhere deep in my thoughts was the conviction that this dream meant something, that a strange and as yet incomprehensible force was warning me of impending danger, and that perhaps someday I should discover what.
I was not given to wild fancies. Life had been too grim and earnest for that. Ever since I had been cast on the mercy of Cousin Agatha I had been encouraged to remember my place. That I sat at table with her daughter Esmeralda, that I shared the latter's governess, that I was allowed to walk in the park under the guidance of her nanny, were matters for which it appeared I should be eternally grateful. I must constantly remember that I was that most despised of creatures, a Poor Relation, whose only claim to have my existence abovestairs was that I belonged to the Family. Even my claim on that was a frail one, for Cousin Agatha was in fact my mother's second cousin, so the bond was very slender indeed.
Cousin Agatha was one of those women of immense proportions—everything about her was outsize—her body, her voice, her personality. She dominated her family, which consisted of her small husband—perhaps he was not so small but only seemed so compared with his wife—and her daughter Esmeralda. Cousin William, as I called him, was a man with wide business interests and wealthy; a power outside his home, I believed, though inside it he was completely subservient to his forceful wife. He was quiet, and always gave me an absentminded smile when he saw me, as though he couldn't quite remember who I was and what I was doing in his house; I think he would have been a kind man if he had the strength of will to oppose his wife. She was noted for her good works. There were days of the week which were devoted to her committees. Then ladies, not unlike herself, would be seated in the drawing room and often I had to help dispense tea and cakes. She liked me to be around at such times. "My second cousin's daughter, Ellen," she would explain. "Such a tragedy. There was nothing to be done but give the child a home." Sometimes Esmeralda helped me with the cakes. Poor Esmeralda! No one would have thought she was the daughter of the house. She would spill the tea in the saucers and once emptied a whole cupful into the lap of one of the charitable ladies.
Cousin Agatha would be very annoyed when people mistook Esmeralda for the Poor Relation and me for the Daughter of the House. I suppose Esmeralda's lot wasn't much better than mine. It would be: "Hold your shoulders back, Esmeralda. Don't slouch so." Or "Speak up, for heaven's sake. Don't mumble." Poor Esmeralda, with the splendid name which didn't fit her one little bit! She had pale blue eyes which watered frequently, as she was often on the verge of tears, and fine fair hair which always looked wispy. I did her sums for her and helped her with her essays. She was quite fond of me.
It was one of Cousin Agatha's regrets that she had only one daughter. She had wanted sons and daughters whom she could have commanded and moved about like pieces on a chessboard. The fact that she had only one rather fragile daughter she blamed entirely on her husband. The rule of the household was that good flowed from Cousin Agatha's actions and anything that was not desirable from other people's.
She had been received by the Queen and congratulated on the good work she did for the poor. She organized clubs where such people could be initiated into their duty towards their betters. She arranged the sewing of shirts and the making of calico garments. She was indefatigable; and she surrounded herself with a perpetual haze of virtue.
It was small wonder that both her husband and daughter felt at a disadvantage. Oddly enough, I did not. I had long made up my mind that Cousin Agatha's good works brought as much satisfaction to herself as to anyone else and I believed that when they failed to do that they would cease. She sensed this lack of appreciation in me and deplored it. She did not like me; not that she was greatly enamored of anyone but herself; yet somewhere at the back of her mind she must have appreciated the fact that her husband provided the money which made it possible for her to live as she did, and as for Esmeralda, she was her only child and therefore must be given a little consideration.
I, however, was the outsider, and not a humble one. She must have noticed the smile which I could not keep from my lips when she was talking of her newest schemes for the good of someone. There was no doubt that she sensed in me a reluctance to conform. She would convince herself, of course, that it was due to the bad blood which I had inherited from my father's side, though she protested that she knew nothing else of that connection.
Her attitude was apparent in my first few years in her household. I was about ten years old when she sent for me.
"I think it is time, Ellen," she said, "for you and me to have a talk."
There was I, a sturdy ten-year-old—with a mass of almost black hair, dark blue eyes, a short nose and a rather long stubborn chin.
I was made to stand before her on the great Persian rug in the room she called her study, where her social secretary wrote her letters and did most of the committee work for which she took the credit.
"Now, Ellen," she said to me, "we must come to an understanding. We want to make clear your position in the household, do we not?" She did not wait for an answer but went on. "I am sure you cannot fail to be grateful to me... and to Cousin William Loring [he was her husband] for keeping you in our household. We could, of course, on the death of your mother have put you into an orphanage, but because you are of the family... though the relationship could scarcely be said to be a close one... we have decided that you must be given our protection. Your mother, as you know, married a Charles Kellaway. You are a result of this marriage." Her large nose twitched a little, which showed the contempt in which she held both my parents and their ensuing offspring. "A rather unfortunate marriage. He was not the man who was chosen for her."
"It must have been a love match," I said, for I had heard about it from Nanny Grange, whose aunt had been Cousin Agatha's nanny and was therefore quite knowledgeable about past family affairs.
"Pray," went on Cousin Agatha, "do not interrupt. This is a very serious matter. Your mother, against her family's wishes, went off and married this man from some outlandish place of which we had never heard." She looked at me very severely. "In something less than a year you were born. Soon after, your mother left her new home irresponsibly and came back to her family, bringing you." "I was three years old," I said, quoting Nanny Grange.
She raised her eyebrows. "I did beg you not to interrupt. She had nothing... simply nothing. You and she became a burden to your grandmother. Your mother died two years later."
I had been five years old at the time. I remembered her vaguely: the suffocating embraces which I loved and the feeling of security which I did not recognize until she was gone. There was a hazy picture in my mind of sitting on cool grass, with her beside me, a sketchbook in her hand. She had always been sketching, and she used to hide the book from my grandmother. I sensed, of course, that she was in some sort of disgrace and it used to make me happy to think of myself as a kind of protector. "You love me, don't you, Ellen?" she would say. "No matter what I've done." Those words rang in my ears when I thought of her and I was always so impatient with myself for my five-year-old incompetence in not understanding what was going on.
"Your grandmother was scarcely of an age to bring up a child," went on Cousin Agatha.
No, I thought grimly. She had seemed incredibly old to me with her tight lips, her cold eyes and the little white cap without which I never saw her—a formidable old lady who struck terror into me when I realized that I was now alone and had lost that loving conspirator and companion and that in future I must extricate myself from the continual trouble which seemed to dog me. Fortunately I was naturally resilient and managed to cultivate a stoical indifference to reproaches and appeals to God as to what would become of me. I could not feel grief when my grandmother died and I made no attempt to pretend I did.
"When your grandmother died," added Cousin Agatha, "she asked me to care for you and so I gave her my solemn promise on her deathbed. I am determined to carry it out. You must realize that it is only because I have taken you into my house that you are not in an orphanage, training to give service in some household as a maid or, perhaps if you showed an aptitude for learning, a governess. However, I have brought you here and you share Esmeralda's lessons; you live as a member of my family. Pray remember it. I do not ask for gratitude but I expect it. Do not think that you will have advantages like those of my own daughter. That would not be good for your character. When you are of age it may well be that you will have to earn a living. I therefore advise you to take advantage now of the immense blessings which have come your way. You will have a governess to teach you so that by the time you reach your eighteenth birthday you will be an educated young woman. You will also learn the manners and customs of well-bred households. It is for you, Ellen, to profit from this. Learn all you can and always remember that it is due to my bounty that you are able to take advantage of these opportunities. That is all."
I was meant to go away and brood on these things, to marvel at my good fortune and to cultivate humility, that most desirable virtue of all for those in my position, and in which alas I seemed sadly lacking. I had at one time even thought briefly that Cousin Agatha regarded me with affection, for she would glow with satisfaction when her eyes rested on me, but I quickly realized that the satisfaction was in her own good deed in taking me into her household and had nothing to do with my progress. In fact she seemed to revel in the unsatisfactory defects in which I seemed to abound, and I came to understand that this was because the more of a burden I was, the greater her virtue in keeping me.
It will be seen that I had little love for Cousin Agatha. In character we were diametrically opposed, and I came to the conclusion that I was the only member of the household who ever contradicted her. When I was younger the threat of the orphanage hung over me; but I quickly learned that I should never be sent there because Cousin Agatha could never allow her friends to know that she had disposed of me in such a way. In fact my unsatisfactory character was a source of pleasure to her. I think she talked of me more often to her friends than she did of Esmeralda. Her own daughter was a nonentity. I was scarcely that. I often caught the comment after I was leaving a room: "Of course her mother ..." And "It is hard to believe that poor Frances was an Emdon." Poor Frances being my mother and Emdon the name of the noble family from which both she and Cousin Agatha had sprung.