I found myself, without having met any one of my family, in my own room, in the semi-darkness, seated on a chair by my bedside, unnerved, faint, miserable with a misery such as I had never felt before. The window was open, and there came up a faint scent of sweetbrier and wall-flowers in soft, balmy gusts, driven into the room by the April night wind. There rose a moon and flooded the earth with radiance. Then came a sound of footsteps; the door of the next room, that belonging to Adelaide, was opened. I heard her come in, strike a match, and light her candle; the click of the catch as the blind rolled down. There was a door between her room and mine, and presently she passed it, and bearing a candle in her hand, stood in my presence. My sister was very beautiful, very proud. She was cleverer, stronger, more decided than I, or rather, while she had those qualities very strongly developed, I was almost without them. She always held her head up, and had one of those majestic figures which require no back-boards to teach them uprightness, no master of deportment to instill grace into their movements. Her toilet and mine were not, as may be supposed, of very rich materials or varied character; but while my things always looked as bad of their kind as they could—fitted badly, sat badly, were creased and crumpled—hers always had a look of freshness; she wore the merest old black merino as if it were velvet, and a muslin frill like a point-lace collar. There are such people in the world. I have always admired them, envied them, wondered at them from afar; it has never been my fate in the smallest degree to approach or emulate them.
Her pale face, with its perfect outlines, was just illumined by the candle she held, and the light also caught the crown of massive plaits which she wore around her head. She set the candle down. I sat still and looked at her.
“You are there, May,” she remarked.
“Yes,” was my subdued response.
“Where have you been all evening?”
“It does not matter to any one.”
“Indeed it does. You were talking to Sir Peter Le Marchant. I saw you meet him from my bedroom window.”
“Did he propose to you?” she inquired, with a composure which seemed to me frightful. “Worldly,” I thought, was a weak word to apply to her, and I was suffering acutely.
“Well, I suppose it would be a little difficult to accept him.”
“I did not accept him.”
“What?” she inquired, as if she had not quite caught what I said.
“I refused him,” said I, slightly raising my voice.
“What are you telling me?”
“Sir Peter has fif—”
“Don’t mention Sir Peter to me again,” said I, nervously, and feeling as if my heart would break. I had never quarreled with Adelaide before. No reconciliation afterward could ever make up for the anguish which I was going through now.
“Just listen to me,” she said, bending over me, her lips drawn together. “I ought to have spoken to you before. I don’t know whether you have ever given any thought to our position and circumstances. If not, it would be as well that you should do so now. Papa is fifty-five years old, and has three hundred a year. In the course of time he will die, and as his life is not insured, and he has regularly spent every penny of his income—naturally it would have been strange if he hadn’t—what is to become of us when he is dead?”
“We can work.”
“Work!” said she, with inexpressible scorn. “Work! Pray what can we do in the way of work? What kind of education have we had? The village school-mistress could make us look very small in the matter of geography and history. We have not been trained to work, and, let me tell you, May, unskilled labor does not pay in these days.”
“I am sure you can do anything, Adelaide, and I will teach singing. I can sing.”
“Pooh! Do you suppose that because you can take C in alt. you are competent to teach singing? You don’t know how to sing yourself yet. Your face is your fortune. So is mine my fortune. So is Stella’s her fortune. You have enjoyed yourself all your life; you have had seventeen years of play and amusement, and now you behave like a baby. You refuse to endure a little discomfort, as the price of placing yourself and your family forever out of the reach of trouble and trial. Why, if you were Sir Peter’s wife, you could do what you liked with him. I don’t say anything about myself; but oh! May, I am ashamed of you, I am ashamed of you! I thought you had more in you. Is it possible that you are nothing but a romp—nothing but a vulgar tomboy? Good Heaven! If the chance had been mine!”
“What would you have done?” I whispered, subdued for the moment, but obstinate in my heart as ever.
“I am nobody now; no one knows me. But if I had had the chance that you have had to-night, in another year I would have been known and envied by half the women in England. Bah! Circumstances are too disgusting, too unkind!”
“Oh! Adelaide, nothing could have made up for being tied to that man,” said I, in a small voice; “and I am not ambitious.”
“Ambitious! You are selfish—downright, grossly, inordinately selfish. Do you suppose no one else ever had to do what they did not like? Why did you not stop to think instead of rushing away from the thing like some unreasoning animal?”
“Adelaide! Sir Peter! To marry him?” I implored in tears. “How could I? I should die of shame at the very thought. Who could help seeing that I had sold myself to him?”
“And who would think any the worse of you? And what if they did? With fifteen thousand a year you may defy public opinion.”
“Oh, don’t! don’t!” I cried, covering my face with my hands. “Adelaide, you will break my heart!”
Burying my face in the bed-quilt, I sobbed irrepressibly. Adelaide’s apparent unconsciousness of, or callousness to, the stabs she was giving me, and the anguish they caused me, almost distracted me.
She loosed my arm, remarking, with bitter vexation:
“I feel as if I could shake you!”
She left the room. I was left to my meditations. My head—my heart too—ached distractingly; my arm was sore where Adelaide had grasped it; I felt as if she had taken my mind by the shoulders and shaken it roughly. I fastened both doors of my room, resolving that neither she nor any one else should penetrate to my presence again that night.
What was I to do? Where to turn? I began now to realize that the Res dom, which had always seemed to me so abundant for all occasions, were really Res Angusta, and that circumstances might occur in which they would be miserably inadequate.