hroughout all that vast and vague region commonly known as "abroad," the two Miss Severnes are as well known as Milan Cathedral or the Germania at Rudesheim.
Their parentage, to be sure, is English; but their tastes, habits, accomplishments and sympathies are cosmopolitan; indeed, they speak French, German and Italian better than they do English, and can make their wants known, it is hinted, in Spanish and Russian. They have a stronger personality than most of the nomad single ladies who spend their lives in floating from one Continental place to another; and they have left their kindly mark on many a German Bad-Ort or Riviera health resort or Swiss mountain hotel.
Who but the Miss Severnes built the tiny English church at Col du Midi? They could only give a few francs towards the collection themselves, it is true; but how they took the matter to heart, and worked and talked and thought for nothing else till the deed was done, and a passing bishop caught to consecrate the fait accompli! Just after this, the disastrous fire in the Grisons destroyed Pettars and all its industries; luckily the Miss Severnes were summering at Grindelwald, and the bazaar which they hastily inaugurated at their hotel put the curé of the place in possession of a hundred pounds with which to start his wood-carvers afresh. The following winter they took a sick young governess into their apartment at Florence, and nursed her through the severe attack of malarial fever, which resulted - not in the death of the patient, which all the English community had breathlessly looked for during three weeks of anxiety - but in her happy marriage with the Italian doctor, almost before her cropped hair had grown again.
But it is needless to go on quoting instances of their energy and kindness: everyone who knows anything of the Continent must have experienced them, directly or indirectly. Fortunate those whose paths have crossed the Miss Severnes', and who have heard their hearty "Au revoir," "Auf Wiedersehn," "A Rivederci," at parting, as the case might be.
Du Maurier's "Duchess"This is a reference to a character in the novel Peter Ibbetson (1892) written by the Punch illustrator George Du Maurier, better known nowadays as the author of Trilby and grandfather of Daphne.
The character, the Duchess of Towers is described thus:
She was so tall that her eyes seemed almost on a level with mine, but she moved with the alert lightness and grace of a small person. Her thick, heavy hair was of a dark coppery brown, her complexion clear and pale, her eyebrows and eyelashes black, her eyes a light bluish gray. Her nose was short and sharp, and rather tilted at the tip, and her red mouth large and very mobile; and here, deviating from my preconceived ideal, she showed me how tame a preconceived ideal can be. Her perfect head was small, and round her long, thick throat two slight creases went parallel, to make what French sculptors call "le collier de Venus;" the skin of her neck was like a white camellia, and slender and square-shouldered as she was, she did not show a bone. She was that beautiful type the French define as "la fausse maigre," which does not mean a "false, thin woman."
She seemed both thoughtful and mirthful at once, and genial as I had never seen any one genial before - a person to confide in, to tell all one's troubles to, without even an introduction! When she laughed she showed both top and bottom teeth, which were perfect, and her eyes nearly closed, so that they could no longer be seen for the thick lashes that fringed both upper and under eyelids; at which time the expression of her face was so keenly, cruelly sweet that it went through one like a knife. And then the laugh would suddenly cease, her full lips would meet, and her eyes beam out again like two mild gray suns, benevolently humorous and kindly inquisitive, and full of interest in everything and everybody around her. But there - I cannot describe her any more than one can describe a beautiful tune.
Obstacles are of no account to Miss Severne: she has been seen to possess herself of the Allgemeine Zeitung, wresting it out of the very hands of an astonished Prussian lieutenant, and pushing an old copy of Kladderadatch into its place, with such an air that the defrauded officer could only salute, with his heels brought together and his hand to his ear, as if a great honour had been done him.
Miss Anne, her sister, is made of softer stuff, and is eight or ten years younger, having still a slight, youthful figure and a charmingly pink complexion. At a distance she looks like Miss Severne's daughter or niece; but when you see her closer you observe the first network of delicate wrinkles, the pensive droop of the mouth, the rather languid blue eyes, which tell of more than forty years of what is known as "indifferent health."
It was for Miss Anne's health, or rather want of it, that the sisters first took up their roving life twenty years ago.
The plan has so far answered that Miss Anne, at forty-two, is far stronger, livelier and more usefully happy than she was as a girl of twenty in the secluded country village of which her father was rector, and where with her father's death ever tie of relationship was severed. They were positively without kith and kin in the world: there was nobody to say that the Severne girls were turning their backs on home duties when they elected to exchange the green solitudes of Loamshire for the varied scenes of the Continent; no one to hint at neglected responsibilities when they slipped into the foreign fashion of passing from place to place with the change of seasons, and did not return to Dumbridge at all.
"The greatest conceivable blessing," Miss Severne was fond of saying, in her deep, cultivated voice, "is to occupy a position in which you need not refer your conduct to anybody's criticism:" not that any of Miss Severne's friends could imagine her submitting the pros and cons of her doings to any less august tribunal than her own opinion.
As for Miss Anne, she accepted her elder sister's dictum as to the desirability of being sans famille as unhesitatingly as she accepted everything else that Sydney proposed for her good. Sydney knew so very much best about everything! and if her heart sometimes unconsciously yearned towards the young people she met in her travels, who, in point of age might have been her own children, or nephews and nieces, had she and Sydney not stood so persistently alone in the world - she hid the passing weakness from her sister, almost even from herself, with the feeling that it was akin to treachery.
Miss Anne had gone so far as to kiss an Italian peasant woman's baby, when she was out one day by herself, but she would have died with shame to think that such a proceeding could come to Miss Sydney's ears: Miss Sydney had never been known to notice a child, unless to point out to its mother or attendant that it was becoming bandy from being set to walk too soon, or that its eyes were growing weak from exposure to the light, or that it suffered from some other of the hundred and one small ailments which never afflict old maids' children.
But, in spite of some little peculiarities, you might search the length and breadth of "abroad" without finding two kinder, warmer or more generous hearts than those that beat under the black silk bodices of the Miss Severnes: black silk had been the proper wear for a rector's daughters when the Severnes left Loamshire, and it had remained their favourite wear ever since, never looking over smart and seldom more shabby than real gentility admits of. Their sedate attire was varied by very cheerful, even brilliant, bonnets, whose adoption was regulated by the feasts of the Church, Easter producing a crop of primroses and Parma violets, Whitsuntide a wealth of white ribbons, the later Sundays in Trinity coronals of autumn foliage in various shades of velvet, which were, in themselves, a noticeable form of Church decoration.
Easter Sunday at Badwiesen, that little Rhine town that is always gay and warm and beloved of its visitors at all seasons of the year, had filled the new English Church to overflowing; it was a late Easter, and the spring tourists were treading fast on the heels of the winter visitors; though, as a rule, the two sets kept distinct from each other.
The Miss Severnes, in all the seasonable glory of white and coloured lilac bunches surmounting their last year's bonnets, which had been deftly rejuvenated by Miss Anne's quick fingers, occupied their usual place, the second pew from the harsh little harmonium which led the musical devotions of the Badwiesen English. It was the sort of harmonium which is so often to be found in new churches and schoolrooms, an instrument against which all right-thinking people possessed of ear and voice do their best to uplift a protesting tune, and which generally succeeds in droning down the cheerfulest melody. Where the hymn-tunes in Badwiesen Church would have been but for the Severnes it is hard to say, but Miss Anne had a clear sweet treble which no masterful Gregorian chant could betray either into sharpness or flatness, while Miss Severne's very excellent imitation of a bass always seemed to reprove and keep in order the unruly tones of the creaking harmonium.
"Our triumphant Holy-day!" sang Miss Anne Severne, in the introductory Easter Hymn, as the chaplain took his place, and the handful of English boys who were his pupils filed in to the chancel seats behind him, clad for the first time in the snowy surplices at which all the ladies of the congregation, headed by Miss Sydney, had been working so assiduously during Lent.
"Young Hazell has fastened his hind side before!" whispered Miss Sydney to her sister in a tone of suppressed fury; "that boy must be half-witted, and the others encourage him" - but Miss Anne made no reply, for the hymn had come to an end, and in the moment's pause that followed, the German waiter, who was picking up English rapidly by a voluntary attendance at all the English services as verger, hurried a party of late comers to the very top of the church and installed them in the front pew. By which action he showed that he was picking up English customs, at least, as fast as he could!
Then the chaplain began the sentences, and the late comers settled themselves as well as they were able in their seats, which being immediately in front of the reading-desk were as exposed, as inconvenient and uncomfortable as possible, and the congregation were at liberty to regard their backs or their profiles during the remainder of the service with that interest which a small, self-satisfied community always accords to a new element, and which in Badwiesen is the special attitude of the winter residents towards the spring visitors.
The party who occupied the front pew were three in number, and the male sex predominated, in itself an unusual occurrence. There was a tall, grizzled man of the Anglo-Indian "Colonel" type, a fresh-faced slip of a schoolboy with just enough likeness and unlikeness to the elder man to suggest that his wife might have been a plump, pink-and-white lady, with fair hair and blue eyes like the boy's; and a tiny girl of six or thereabouts, with an anxious little face, long drooping curls, and the cumbersome, old-fashioned dress by which widowers' children are so often to be distinguished.
The Colonel (there was no mistaking his military bearing) had a hatband round his tall hat, which, like every true Englishman, he had brought abroad for Sunday observance; the schoolboy, who was dressed with all the precision of Harrow or Eton at fourteen, had a band likewise and a black silk necktie; but if further confirmation had been needed of the decease of the pink-and-white, flaxen-haired mother it was surely to be found in the heavy felt hat and ostrich feather, the cumbrous black cloth pelisse and the kid gloves, a size too large, which enveloped the little girl beside them. A pair of thin white thread socks, ending in rather clumsy laced boots, which stuck out at right angles to her little bundle of a body when her father lifted her on to the seat, made Miss Anne shiver.
"A nice comfortable pair of black stockings and a black sash on a white serge dress and jacket would have been mourning enough for that mite," she had hastily decided before she was half way through the "Te Deum;" though, to be sure, it was no business of hers.
Presently, as the long church service wore on, the little girl in the front pew began to weary of following the places which her father so painstakingly pointed out to her in her prayer-book; she listened with evident interest to the story of the first lesson, and at its close appealed to the Colonel with some question about the Egyptians, which had to be suppressed or postponed; after that her attention wandered, and by dint of wriggling during the Litany she managed to command a view of the pew behind her, and thus to put herself as it were en rapport with Miss Anne Severne's pleasant face.
"For all sick persons - and young children," intoned the Chaplain: was there any harm in it, that Miss Anne's eyes smiled back at the little girl who had no mother, while her lips repeated for once mechanically, "We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord?"
Miss Sydney would have been very much annoyed had she noticed it, for, as the late Rector's daughter, she strongly advocated correct behaviour in church, only reserving to herself the right of whispering comments of disapproval in cases of levity.
By the time the service was over, Miss Anne Severne and the little girl in black were firm friends: they had mentally come to several conclusions about each other, little Molly Broke approving Miss Severne's lilac bonnet and delicate light gloves as heartily as the latter commiserated the other's heavy mourning; their friendship was established on a thoroughly feminine basis, but dress is often an index of something deeper.
"I want to look at my pretty lady all over," whispered Molly excitedly to her father, tugging at his hand as the congregation streamed out into the sunshine after church. Perhaps it was the dazzle of the sudden brightness, or the little crush at the door that confused the child, for how it happened the Colonel could never say, but in an instant she had twisted herself out of his grasp, and, turning to look behind her, stumbled and fell the whole length of six steep steps on to the stone pavement below.
A dozen hands were outstretched to help, but it was Miss Anne Severne who was kneeling in a moment beside the stunned child and held her softly in her lap regardless of the blood which dropped in heavy round patches upon the black silk dress and lilac bonnet strings.
"I don't think it is very serious," she said, bravely smiling up in Colonel Broke's agonised face; "she is frightened and confused a little, and it has made her nose bleed; but if you will let me take her into our house opposite I think a little sal volatile will put her all right, and we will make her tidy for you again."
And without waiting for permission, Miss Anne marched across the road with the dishevelled little girl held tight in her arms, straight in at the porte cochère of the white villa where the ladies had their modest flat.
Of the little crowd at the church door everybody was astonished to see such independent action on the part of the younger Miss Severne. Miss Syndey, who had lingered an instant behind to reprove the unwary Hazell, came hurrying out and learnt what had happened just in time to extend a properly majestic recognition to the Anglo-Indian Colonel, who, with his boy, was hesitating at the doorway of the villa, up whose wide staircase Miss Anne had disappeared with his child.
"We are fortunate in being so close at hand, and thus enabled to render your daughter some slight assistance," perorated Miss Severne in the voice she had inherited from the Rector.
The Colonel lifted his hat and stepped a pace or two back from the staircase up which he longed to rush three steps at a time, and whence the rustic of Miss Anne's silk skirts had ceased with the shutting of a door above.
"My name is Broke - Colonel Broke," he said; "my children and I only arrived last evening and put up at the Hotel de l'Europe; it is such a long way to the other side of the town, otherwise you should not have been troubled with my poor little Molly's catastrophe. I'm afraid your - er - er - friend has been put to a great deal of trouble;" and again he looked longingly at the staircase.
"My sister," Miss Severne said a little stiffly - she was not accustomed to meeting people who did not know who the Miss Severnes were - "has had a good deal of delicate health, and will consequently know exactly what is right to recover your little daughter," and with that she began slowly to ascend the stairs, signing imperially to the Brokes, father and son, to follow.
All this had taken time, and Miss Severne was not a person to hurry either her words or actions, so that by the time the party had reached the glass door on the second landing which gave entrance to her apartment, Miss Anne, with the quick, clever touches which she kept for the assistance of other people, had staunched the trickling blood from Molly's nostrils, washed her pale face, and pulling off the objectionable hat and pelisse, had disclosed a deep white lace frill on a sombre little black gown, which gave her the air of a small Puritan.
They were friends in a minute, these two. Molly tossed off the wine-glassful of hot, sweet stuff that Miss Anne prepared from one of her little bottles without a word of demur, and by the time the footsteps of the others were heard outside the glass door, she had a little pink in her cheeks again, and asked appealingly:
"May I open the door for papa, please?"
"How do you do, little girl? I trust you are recovered?" said Miss Severne, sailing in, but Molly, who did not know that her interlocutor was almost a public character, dashed into her father's arms with:
"Oh, papa! I'm so glad to see you. I'm all right again, and Miss Anne has put me straight, and she says I am to stop to dinner, if you'll let me, only I'm afraid I have spoilt her new bonnet strings!"
Miss Anne, who, now the excitement was over, had time to realise that she had acted independently for the first time in her life, had retreated to her own room at the end of the little passage to remove her bonnet and mantle, and perhaps to allow the new elements to settle down in the drawing-room. By the time she had smoothed her already ultra smooth hair, folded her outdoor things away and washed her hands, she felt sure that Sydney's master mind would have put everything in the way of introduction or explanation on a proper footing.
"My sister, Miss Anne Severne - Colonel Broke," introduced Miss Severne from her arm-chair, as the gentleman rose to greet the soft-faced, middle-aged lady, whom he now saw to be less young than he had thought her when she passed him hurriedly with Molly in her arms. He bowed in an old-fashioned manner before he took Anne's out-stretched hand, but Molly marred the solemnity of the ceremony by clutching at her new friend's skirts with a reassuring:
"You may call her 'Miss Anne,' papa, if you like; at least she says I may, and I'm to stop and have soup with A's and B's floating in it!"
"If you lie quietly down on the sofa for a quarter of an hour till Kätchen lays the dinner, I said," and Miss Anne lifted up the child and put her down upon a distant sofa, seating herself at its foot, a little out of reach of Colonel Broke's thanks and excuses.
"Colonel Henry Broke, Bengal Staff Corps," read Miss Severne from the narrow black-edged visiting card which their new acquaintance left behind him in the little lobby when a few hours after he came to fetch away his child.
"A gentleman-like person, apparently; but, Anne, we can't have the little girl here very often if you persist in playing with her till you become quite flushed. Lie down at once, and don't speak again till coffee comes up."
Ilbert BillIn 1883, the then viceroy of India, Lord Ripon, sought to put through the Ilbert Bill which was supposed to be a minor administrative reform permitting senior Indian judges to try criminal cases in which Englishmen were involved. There was furious opposition to it from the unofficial English element in Bengal and Bihar and the bill was considerably modified as a result. The whole controversy led to an intensification of racial antagonism.
Information taken from The Encyclopaedia Britannica
One day Molly came bustling in with a long, narrow parcel, which she pressed into Miss Anne's hands: "It's from me, because I spoilt your pretty new ones that Sunday. At least" - here absolute truthfulness asserted itself - "papa ordered them to come from Paris, only he said I was to say they was my present;" and she was in a fever of impatience until the papers had been unfastened and the pretty delicate box disclosed, full of long and many-buttoned French gloves of the softest shades.
Miss Anne was quite in a flutter at this present, and doubtful whether she ought to accept it from a comparative stranger, but fortunately the offering tallied with Miss Severne's notions of what was suitable to the occasion, and she told her sister that a lady might always accept flowers, books or gloves from an acquaintance, even a male acquaintance - especially when the little gift was presented in so tasteful a manner through the little girl; and there was nothing more for Miss Anne to do but to hug Molly, and murmur some shy thanks to Colonel Broke at their next meeting, which made that gallant officer blush almost as pinkly as she did herself over their utterance.
"Pooh! pooh! Miss Anne," he disclaimed, "I couldn't allow you to spoil your things on that tiresome child's account and not endeavour to replace them; if I had dared I should like to have replaced the injured bonnet, though I doubt if Paris would have produced anything so becoming."
"The bonnet was of no consequence, it was not a new one - I have easily put it to rights again."
"New or not, it is the prettiest bonnet I have ever seen," affirmed the Colonel, with decision, and just then Miss Severne came bustling up with the latest news of the Bulgarian Question culled from the reading-room, and Miss Anne and the Colonel started apart as if they had been talking treason.
Was it treason, Anne Severne wondered, when she began to realise how much she was engaging these new elements of interest in her life?
The little salon, which was voted the prettiest in all Badwiesen, with its stands of ferns and mignonette, its ribbon-tied antimacassars and numberless knick-knacks, seemed so dull and empty if Molly and Gavin were not in it. Miss Severne sometimes grumbled for the quiet times that preceded their acquaintance with the Brokes, and then her younger sister felt constrained to dismiss the children at the porte cochère, or cut short their visits with a kindly "Now, Gavin, I think you must be going home;" but for her all the light of those spring days was reflected from the two young faces so continually lifted up to hers. Gavin found her the most sympathetic confidant of all his hopes and expectations for the future; he almost forgot the protest which he felt bound to make, as an English public schoolboy against spending his holidays abroad when he was talking to Miss Anne, who listened with delight to his experiences of life as seen from the "shell," while Molly, less voluble, was even more convincing with her whispered "I love you, I love you," and her soft stroking of Miss Anne's cheek.
The sweetness of stolen waters was in these caresses, for Miss Sydney had said one day that she objected to seeing Anne allow herself to be "fingered over" by that child, and after that Anne repressed little Molly's attentions if her sister were present. But she took the children long walks in the woods, when they might all do exactly what they pleased, having slipped away from a coffee drinking on the terrace of the Kurhaus, where the band played of an afternoon, and where it was the custom of the Brokes to look for the two ladies after the early Badwiesen dinner.
"So your holidays haven't been so bad after all?" said Colonel Broke to his boy, whom he had accompanied on the first stage of his journey towards England, when the Harrow vacation came to an end. There were still a few minutes before the express started, and father and son were walking up and down the platform of the big central station, two hours out of Badwiesen, arm-in-arm.
"No, not half bad," Gavin was obliged to admit; "but that was thanks to Miss Anne, not to Germany! I say, father, couldn't you get her anyhow to come over to Broke when I'm home in the summer, and keep house for us? A fellow ought to have a home where he can ask other fellows, and if there isn't any lady - Oh, I know - I didn't mean - nothing could be jollier than you always are, father," squeezing the Colonel's arm affectionately, and dimly conscious that he might have wounded him, or have sounded unmindful of his dead mother, "but if you could persuade Miss Anne to come over to England during the 'long,' I know she'd like it, for I was telling her about Broke the other day, and she said she'd like to see it awfully!"
"There's Miss Severne," said the Colonel smiling, but treating the question quite seriously.
"Whew! so there is! I suppose they wouldn't separate? Well," heroically, "we must have her too; there's plenty of room at Broke, and you can order a lot of newspapers!" and with this, Gavin took his seat in the train, and was presently borne away westward, leaning out of the window, and shouting his last commands to his father, "Get her if you can!"
"I will," muttered the Colonel, marching across the station, to find the Badwiesen train.
A couple of hours later Colonel Broke, hastening through the Kurgarten on his way to the Severnes' house, where he expected to find his little girl, came upon a sight which strangely fitted in with the musings, which had occupied him since his parting with Gavin.
His thoughts had run upon the past, and the future - the past, a short married life with his cousin Clara, who had proved unable to stand the Indian climate, and had brought home her children and died herself before her husband could rejoin her in England - a sad little episode in his toilsome Indian life, over which, however, he did not pretend to grieve very passionately, for cousin Clara had not proved herself more of a helpmeet than the average semi-invalidish Indian lady.
The future - one big difficulty, beginning with, going on with, and ending with the children. Gavin was already beginning to feel the want of a lady at Broke. What little Molly might feel the want of, as time went on, and perhaps be unable to express, the Colonel could not bear to think. And for himself - a vision of someone of his own generation to be his companion after this interminable eighteen months spent alone with the children - to give him counsel and support, and to sympathise and make plain where he blundered or hesitated.
"Yes, I will get her if I can," said Henry Broke, striding up to the seat where Miss Anne was working at her embroidery, and little Molly leaned with both arms on her lap, listening to a fairy tale.
"But why didn't the Princess fly away with the Prince in the carriage drawn by white doves?" Molly demanded.
"Because she had her work to do; and people can't always go away and do what they like. Molly, here's your father; run and ask him what news of Gavin." And Miss Anne rose up hastily, for she was shy of telling her stories before any grown-up person.
Colonel Broke caught his little girl and set her on his shoulder. "It is time for this young woman to have her tea, and I am going to take her back to Elizabeth. Will you wait for me here five minutes, Miss Severne? I will not be longer, and there is something I want to consult you about."
Miss Anne returned placidly enough to her embroidery on the seat under the magnolia tree. She wondered in what way her advice could be of any value to the gentleman, and concluded that he must be thinking of changing his hotel, or perhaps of giving up the water-cure which, in a desultory fashion, he was trying for a rheumatic arm. When he came back she made room for him on the seat beside her, and politely folding up her work, waited for him to speak.
But apparently this was the difficulty. Colonel Broke leant forward and kicked the gravel with the toe of his boot; leant back and stared at Miss Anne's ear and the wave of light brown hair which was plaited smoothly behind it; and presently, by turning impatiently round in his corner of the seat, met her eyes fixed full upon him with the unspoken "Well, what is it?" looking out of their innocent depths.
"Anne, I want you to marry me," said he, leaning towards her. "I know I am asking you very suddenly; but I don't think we need beat about the bush, like a boy and girl of eighteen. You know what men are; so I daresay you have formed a very just estimate of what I am like. And you know the children. You are the only woman I have ever seen that I would ask to come and be a mother to Gavin and Molly; but I know it will not only be to their advantage, but the greatest delight that I could give them. As for myself, I can't tell you what you will be to me! I would rather try and tell you how happy I will make you - how happy you will make us all, if you will come back with us to Broke. Will you think of it, dear Anne?"
All this time the Colonel kept his eyes on her face; and gradually, as the meaning of his words came to her, Anne's blue eyes filled with tears, then dropped, and two large tears splashed on to her lap.
It was then that Colonel Broke ventured to take the slender white hand that lay ungloved upon her work, and Anne did not withdraw it, though she felt very foolish and shy, and longed for Sydney to come and tell her what to do. But Sydney was, presumably, in the reading-room, as her wont was at five o'clock in the afternoon; and when Anne murmured something about her sister, Colonel Broke said gravely that it was a matter for them alone to settle: if Anne would give him her answer, he would go at once to Miss Severne and beg for her approval; or if she had been taken too much by surprise, he would ask for her decision to-morrow; but in either case he wished her to follow the dictates of her own heart.
Perhaps Colonel Broke scented Miss Severne's contempt of matrimony, and feared its effect upon his plan; or perhaps, with the fastidiousness of a lover - though he disclaimed all sentimentalities as unsuitable to a widower of fifty - he wanted Anne to give herself to him without even discussing the pros and cons of the affair with her only sister. Be that as it may, his determination and resolute bearing had the same effect on his companion as her sister's masterfulness. Miss Anne agreed to consider the matter until next day, and almost promised to do so without taking Sydney into counsel; and the look which she gave the Colonel at parting, when he held her hand and forced her eyes to meet his, sent him away with a smile and a pleasant feeling of security as to what that decision would be.
Some feeling of disingenuousness towards her sister drove Miss Anne into the little salon of their apartment directly she had taken off her bonnet, though she would have far preferred to sit awhile in her own room, facing the wonderful proposition which Colonel Broke had just made her. She had just enough fear of her elder sister to make her anxious to avoid any action that might provoke criticism on this particular occasion; and ordinarily it was not her custom to retire to her room after a stroll in the gardens.
Had either sister been in her normal frame of mind, she must have noticed something unusual in the behaviour of the other. Miss Severne had not been out to the reading-room, but was sitting in the full glare of the April sunshine which filled the little salon; and though the warm rays fell upon her, and the room seemed close and oppressively airless to Miss Anne, the elder lady turned with a shiver to greet her, dropping some papers as she did so into the old-fashioned rosewood desk which she had been ransacking.
"You are late," she said querulously; "coffee has been ready for half-an-hour, and is undrinkably cold now. And how hot your cheeks look," she went on in a fault-finding tone which was unusual, and almost made Miss Anne fancy that her secret had somehow preceded her.
She put up her hands to her cheeks in a deprecating way: "This room is very warm after the outside air."
"Warm!" caught up Miss Severne; "you must be feverish if you find it warm. I shouldn't wonder if you have caught something, Anne, rushing about in the way you do with those children, when you know very well you are not able for it. I shall be thankful when they are all gone, and you settle down again. What is the good of my having given up my whole life for you, if you are going to sacrifice yours for the first strangers you fall in with? I begin to think that I have had all my work for nothing."
Miss Anne was thunderstruck. This was a fatal beginning to the explanation which she had hoped by slow degrees to make to her sister; she could not even guess at the feelings which were working in Miss Sydney's mind, or refer to its real cause this unprovoked attack; so she silently set herself to pour out the lukewarm coffee, and carried her sister's cup round to her in as good an imitation of her usual manner as she could muster, but her hand shook and she put the cup down awkwardly, dropping the little sugar biscuit that went with it on to Miss Severne's lap.
"I know you are going to be ill!" and Miss Severne snatched her warm fingers in a clutch that was singularly sharp and cold. Then to Anne's utter amazement the elder lady caught her breath in a strange way and suddenly burst into a fit of sobbing, leaning her grey head and trim muslin cap against her sister's breast.
If Anne was thunderstruck before, the whole world went round with her now. She had never, in all their many years of close companionship, seen Miss Sydney's tears, and she was as ignorant of their cause as of any means of allaying them. She could only kneel beside her sister, with a piteous white face from whence all the roses had fled, and put her arms round her, calling her all sorts of pet names as if they were children together again, and as if she were the elder, the consoler, the comforter, as Sydney had ever been.
Presently Miss Severne's tears stopped as suddenly as they had begun; she sat upright, pushing Anne gently back, though she still knelt beside her chair with one arm about her, and said with a tremulous laugh: "I'm better now, Anne; I am sorry I frightened you so; I did not know I was going to be so foolish. The truth is, it is I, not you, who am a little out of sorts; but that fit of crying has done me a world of good, though it has made you as white as a ghost! There, drink up your coffee - I don't believe you have ever seen me cry before, Anne, which is a good deal to say of more than forty years together. But as I said, it has done me good - and done you good, too, indirectly, for I was very cross to you just now, and somehow the tears have washed all that away. We haven't often been cross to each other in our forty years, have we?"
"Never," said Miss Anne, fervently, leaning closer to her sister, and wondering dimly if this strange day had any further surprises in store. "Never, Sydney, and I don't think we shall begin now. But what makes you feel upset? Have you - has anything...?" She stopped short, hardly knowing what to ask.
"I've been an old fool," Miss Severne declared stoutly, in something of her ordinary manner. "To tell you the truth, I've been exhuming a ghost" - and her hand felt for the old desk which stood close by. "I thought I shouldn't mind looking it in the face after a quarter of a century, but I'm not as brave as I fancied I was, and this has been the result, I'm ashamed to say."
"A ghost of what?" faltered Miss Anne.
"A ghost of a lover," Miss Sydney answered. "Are you surprised, Anne? I don't suppose you ever imagined that I knew what a lover was, but I had one once - and a handsome one too - only..." and here she laughed constrainedly, and as if to give the conversation a less serious turn - "you see it came to nothing."
"Why did it come to nothing?" Anne asked. She felt a queer distaste of this story, which had come to light so inopportunely like a shadow to that happy scene that she had taken part in an hour before; yet she was impelled to question her sister, if only out of that sympathy against which Miss Sydney had steeled herself so long.
"Oh, for various reasons." Miss Severne's reply was evasive and halting. "It was before we left Dumbridge, of course. He was a doctor who had the practice for a few months; the last year you were at school. Then he went away to Edinburgh, and he wrote and asked if I would - if I would go there too. I turned up two or three letters written just at that time, when I was hunting through my old desk for our Paraguay Coupons to send to Mr Taper to-morrow. He is anxious about those Paraguays, I know; he doesn't think much of their soundness."
"But why didn't you go to Edinburgh, Sydney?" persisted Miss Anne, putting her head down on her sister's shoulder, out of sight, and softly stroking her hand.
"Because, as I told you, I had other duties. Our father died that year, and I had your health to think of; you could not have stood a home in the North, and - and - we could do better together on the Continent than anywhere separate in England. I'm sure I've never regretted it for a moment," said Miss Severne bravely, giving Anne's hand a tight squeeze; "and I don't think you have either. We've been more to each other than most husbands and wives, and I trust we shall have many a year together still: the chain that holds us is not likely to break now." And she turned and kissed her sister's cheek.
"The chain that binds us!"
The words dropped like lead upon Anne's heart. In a flash she saw the future stretching out before her - wide, empty, silent, as a long foreign road, down which she and Sydney were to pass together, two single, solitary women: a road that would never lead to an English home, to the honour and pride of a good man's love, to the kisses of little children. There was another future that she dared not look upon - Sydney had had a glimpse of it, too, five-and-twenty years back, and had turned resolutely from it for her sake. Miss Anne was silent a moment, then she took up her end of the chain without a backward glance.
"You ought to go and lie down for an hour," she said, decisive towards her sister for the first time in her life. "See, here is Kätchen with the evening letters - one for you - from Mr Taper, I believe; you can take it with you and read it in your room, and I will come and tuck you up, and call you when supper is ready."
But Miss Severne, with a quick resumption of her usual dignity and business habits, was cutting open the lawyer's letter with her little Swiss paper-knife. She was standing beside the table whence Kätchen was removing the untasted coffee. "The Paraguays, Anne!" she said in a high, unnatural voice. Then she swung forward and fell - stricken by paralysis.
When Colonel Broke called next morning to ask for Miss Anne, he encountered Kätchen on the outer landing, ready to answer all inquiries and to prevent either visitors or noise penetrating further.
"Miss Severne was very ill; Miss Anne could see nobody; there was a hospital nurse expected every moment, and if the gracious gentleman would leave a card...
Plainly Kätchen did not want him to remain parleying there, and he went away very sorrowful, all the pleasant hopes of yesterday dashed and shaken. And by-and-by came a little note from Miss Anne, who, in the midst of her trouble, had remembered that he was waiting for his answer, begging kindly but firmly to decline his offer. "She and her sister," she said, "were too old to part now, and she believed she was doing her best for everyone in deciding to remain his very sincere friend, ANNE SEVERNE."
Colone Broke did not realise how much his heart was set upon having Anne Severne for his wife till he returned to Badwiesen a few weeks later and found that the ladies had departed. A sudden feverish attack, which had left Molly fractious and pale, had driven him back to England to establish the child at the seaside, but that done he had found himself more lonely and at a loss than ever. The Badwiesen villa seemed the only spot on earth that at all represented home to him, and in spite of his oft-repeated assertion that "once he got to England again he should know where he was well off, and stop there," he retraced his journey as quickly as possible, to climb the well-known stone stairs in vain, and learn from a communicative Putz-frau on the landing that the English ladies were gone.
"Die Kranke? Ach, du lieber! There was no recovery for her; her wits were completely gone, but the other, Das Schwesterchen, she was a heaven's angel, if ever there were one; she nursed her night and day, for they could not long afford to keep the hospital sister; and now she had taken her away in a chair to the mountains, and the furniture and the good English beds, and the pictures and everything had been sold to Herr Vogler, the house-agent, to pay the ladies' debts before they went away."
"To pay their debts?" the Colonel repeated, as if he did not understand.
"Lieber! yes," Frau Muller went on, delighted to gossip; "illness is so great an expense, and Fraulein Anna spared nothing for her sister, not even the great doctor from Cassel, that cost, Frau Muller had heard, a hundred mark an hour; as for herself, she thought that when once the sick one was stricken it was useless to take bread out of the mouths of the living."
"But the ladies were comfortably off," interrupted Colonel Broke. He did not like discussing such a subject with the charwoman, but he had no choice; the information he must have, and she could not be a common woman who spoke of Anne Severne as a "heaven's angel."
"Ah, then the gracious gentleman had not heard what it was that caused poor Fraulein Severne's Schlag? It was no less a thing than the loss of more than half their income. Frau Muller had had it from Kätchen, the maid, that Fraulein Anna had cried and kissed her, when she paid her wages (such wages too! Kätchen said she would always live with English people in future!), and had told her that she could not keep a servant any longer, because the money that came from America had all disappeared. That was the meaning of the stroke, and of selling the furniture, and leaving the town, natürlich!"
Colonel Broke stemmed this torrent of talk at last with a two mark piece, and came away with the Severnes' address in his pocket-book, and with a firmer determination than ever to follow Miss Anne to the world's end in his heart.
There is a sunshiny, white country road just outside Geneva, which leads to a little suburban Etablissement de Bains. One afternoon Colonel Broke made his way along this unfrequented Chemin Châtillon, glancing with his eyeglasses sharply from side to side at the garden gateposts, whose numbers were half-hidden by dusty wisteria and drooping laburnum seed-pods.
Thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, and then, no nineteen, as might have been expected, but a hiatus altogether, a bit of oak-paling and a fresh start of tiny, retiring country houses buried in creepers, calling themselves "Mon Repos," "Mon Désir," "Colabri," with no numbers at all.
The Englishman turned round with an impatient exclamation - was he never to get to his journey's end? And there, not twenty yards from him, on the opposite path, was his journey's end coming to him.
Anne Severne, with her arms full of some heavy books, her eyes cast down, and her face, that was sweeter even than he remembered it, unconscious of his scrutiny. He had a moment's time to notice that she was older, sadder, slower in her movements, as she toiled along the shingly path with her burden of books; then his shadow fell across her, and as she looked up he took a great parcel out of her hands without a word, and turned to walk beside her.
"You see I have come after you," he said gently, and without looking at her; "both of us had our hands so full that last week at Badwiesen that we could not attend to our own affairs. Now I have taken Molly to England, and have come back to speak to you. - How is your sister?" abruptly changing the subject.
"No better," faltered Miss Anne; "worse, I fear. I hoped a great deal from the waters here, and the air is said to be specially beneficial for - for cases like hers - but she does not know me, Colonel Broke, and she cannot speak or..." there was no need to finish the sentence.
"And how are you yourself?" the Colonel asked.
"Oh, I'm very well," Miss Anne answered hurriedly; "there is so much to be done that I have no time to be other than well," but her slow, tired step, and the sudden rush of tears to her eyes at his kind voice belied her words.
"And what are all these books?"
"Some for study, and some for a little venture in translating that I am making."
"Do you find time for study and translating when you are nursing your sister? Are you not overdoing it, Miss Anne?"
"I think - you don't understand, perhaps," she began falteringly, "You know that we are worse off than we used to be, owing to the Paraguay failure in the spring, and I have some pupils here in Geneva, as well as some translating to do for a French publishing firm - indeed, it is not only for the help it brings in, but now that I have lost my dear Sydney's companionship, it gives me a kind of interest; it is better than..."
"For better, for worse," quoted Colonel Broke irrelevantly, stopping short, and wheeling round so as to face his companion. "Look here, Miss Anne, don't you think that Molly and Gavin and I would make better companions for you than wretched little Swiss children or musty old books? As long as your sister and you were all in all to each other, I felt that Miss Severne was a formidable rival, whose prior claim I hardly ventured to dispute; but now that her mind has gone - forgive me, Anne, but I must speak plainly for all our sakes. She is your care still, but not your companion, and you must not be allowed to sacrifice yourself to an imaginary duty. If you care for me a little, and for my children, as I think you did in the gardens at Badwiesen that day, let us be married here, dear Anne, without loss of time, and then we will take your sister back to Broke and make her as happy as we can."
"She gave up everything once for me," said Miss Anne feebly.
"And now you have to give up a great many things for her," the Colonel answered cheerfully: "your independence, your pride (eh? Anne), your life on the Continent, your translating!" and with that all the heavy German books tumbled down in the dust, and as there was not a soul visible along all the wide road, Colonel Broke took both Anne Severne's hands and kissed her.
Anne Broke always feels that in force of character she has fallen lamentably short of her sister Sydney's standard in marrying the Colonel. She wonders sometimes if Sydney understands this new combination as she sits smiling, well cared for, impassive, in her invalid chair, under the elms on the lawn at Broke, or by the library window in winter time. Anne's life is so full of interests, of the affairs of her husband and step-children, her household and the parish, she thanks God daily for her happy, busy lot, with an undiminished astonishment that she was chosen, and Sydney, so manifestly her superior, left. But everything is an astonishment nowadays. Molly sits on the step of Aunt Sydney's chair by the hour together, talking to her in a grave, patronising strain about rabbits and kittens, and such like small deer, and Miss Severne looks up at her with pleased, eager eyes, and is quite happy.
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