Read CHAPTER XI of The Third Miss Symons , free online book, by Flora Macdonald Mayor, on ReadCentral.com.

Henrietta had been fourteen years abroad, when she came to pay her biennial visit to Evelyn.

“Who do you think has come to live here, Henrietta?” said Evelyn, as they sat talking the first evening. “Ellen.”

“Ellen?”

“Yes, our dear old Ellen Mrs. Plumtree. She’s a widow now. Her eldest son is working here, and she is living with him and his wife. I went to see her last week, and she was so delighted to talk over old times, and when she heard you were coming, she was so excited. You were always her favourite.”

A few days afterwards they went, to find Ellen a very hale old lady. In spite of having brought up a large family of her own, she had the clearest remembrance of apparently every incident of the childhood of “you two young ladies” (so she still called them) as though she had never had any other interest in life.

“Oh, and, Miss Etta,” she said, “what a sight you did think of Miss Evie! I never knew a child take so to anyone before. ’She’s quite a little mother,’ I often used to say to Sarah. Do you remember Sarah? She died only last year; she suffered dreadful with her heart. Do you remember how you always would go to put your hand into the water before I gave Miss Evie her bath, because you wanted to be sure it wasn’t too hot? Every evening you did it; and one day you were out late, and Miss Evie was in bed before you came in, and you cried because you hadn’t been able to do it.”

Neither sister found it easy to speak, but Ellen wanted very little encouragement.

“Sometimes as a great treat, when you was a little older, Miss Evie, I let you sleep in Miss Etty’s bed, and she used to lay and cuddle you so pretty. And the canary, Miss Etta do you remember that? When Miss Evie’s dickie died, you went all the way to Willstead by yourself and bought a new canary, so that she might never know her dickie died. Your mamma was very angry with you, I remember; but there was nothing you wouldn’t do for Miss Evie.”

The sisters walked back in silence; their hearts were too full for speech. There was no time for private conversation till night, when Evelyn came into Henrietta’s room, and flung her arms round her.

“Darling, darling Etta,” she said, “I could hardly bear it, when Ellen was talking. To think of all that you were to me, all that you did for me, and that I should have forgotten it. Oh, how is it that we’ve got apart?”

“I don’t know,” said Henrietta; “I don’t think there is anything much to like in me. No one does care for me. I think if no one likes one, one doesn’t deserve to be liked.”

“Oh, nothing in this life goes by deserts.”

“People love you, and they’re quite right; you ought to be loved. You did care for me once, though. Herbert wrote you know, when we lost ’A good cry with you will be more comfort to Evelyn than anything else.’ Even then, in the middle of it all, it made me happy.”

“Oh, Etta, what you were to me then!”

Henrietta took Evelyn’s hand and squeezed it convulsively. When she could speak, she said: “Evelyn, do you ever think of our children?”

“Think of them of course I do. Do you, Etta?”

“I used to, but I tried not to it was too bitter. The children were what I lived for, and I don’t think of them often now. It’s past and gone.”

“Oh, I couldn’t live if I didn’t. I don’t think it is bitter now. These dear boys, they’re not quite the same to me as the ones that were taken.”

“I thought you’d forgotten them.”

“I thought you had, Etta, and I couldn’t help feeling it.”

“Herbert asked me never to speak about them to you.”

“Dear Herbert, he is so good I can’t tell you how good he is to me but he never will mention them. First of all I was so ill, I couldn’t stand talking of them, but now I can, and I do long for it. He doesn’t forget them, I know, but I think men live more in the present than we do; and he has his work, which absorbs him very much, and it isn’t quite the same for a man. And then they were so delicate, particularly Madeline, that I was wrapped up in them all their lives; and they were so small, he couldn’t see much of them.”

“Do you feel that you could tell me about them?”

“Yes, I should like to.”

They talked far into the night. Herbert was away, so that there was no one to stop them, and when at last the dawn drove them to bed, Evelyn said: “I can’t tell you how much good you’ve done me. I seem to have been living for this for fifteen years.”

They neither of them slept at all that night. Both were full of remorse, but Henrietta’s was the bitterest. The life which had seemed to do quite well enough all these years, suddenly appeared to her as it was. She contrasted her present self with the little girl Ellen had known. Like Jane Eyre, she “drew her own picture faithfully without softening one defect. She omitted no hard line, smoothed away no displeasing irregularity.” She had squabbled, that very afternoon, if it is possible to squabble when only one party does the squabbling, all the way down to Ellen’s about various quite unimportant dates in William’s life. The incident was almost as much a part of her day’s routine as eating her breakfast. Now it seemed to her a manifestation of the degradation into which she had fallen.

The power and vividness of her memory, magnified ten times by the mysterious agency of midnight, brought back the words of advice of Emily Mence, of Minna, and of her aunt, just as if they had been spoken last week. She had entirely forgotten them for years. Now they kept rushing through her head hour after hour.

Before breakfast Evelyn came into her room, her eyes shining with agitation, and looking so flushed that Henrietta saw what need there had been for Herbert’s caution.

“Etty,” she said, “I’ve been thinking all night; I can’t bear your living in this horrible way: no home, away by yourself, so that we see nothing of you. Come and live here, live with us. We shan’t interfere with you; you shall come and go as you like. Or live in the village, there is a dear little house just made for you. Only come and be near us.”

Henrietta was sorely tempted, it was a great sacrifice to say no. But she knew that Herbert only tolerated her for Evelyn’s sake, and that the boys, rather spoilt and self-important, found her a nuisance. She knew also that she could not trust herself to be pleasant and good-tempered. If she came, it would not be for Evelyn’s happiness. So she refused, and even in her fervour of love for Henrietta, Evelyn could not help realizing it was best that she should.

At the same time that talk was a turning-point in Henrietta’s life. She never felt after it that she was completely unwanted. Although she would not live with Evelyn, she thought she might justifiably come and be much nearer her, and she gave up the roving life and returned to England. It had in fact satisfied her, only because she had felt so uncared-for that she became insignificant even to herself.

Where should she live? She knew that every place where she had relations would not do, but this only ruled out four of the towns of the United Kingdom. It must be a town; on that point she was clear. As she cared for none of the special advantages of a town, its more lively society, its greater opportunities for entertainment and intellectual interests, she was particularly insistent that she could not do without them. What she wanted was a house with room for herself, two maids, and a couple of visitors. Such a house is to be found in tens and hundreds everywhere. She went round and round England in a fruitless search.

As a pension habituée the whole arrangement of her life had been taken out of her hands; even her clothes had been settled for her by one of those octopus London firms which like to reduce their customers to dummies; and her transit from hotel to hotel, and from English visits back to hotels, had become a mere automatic process. She had not made a decision for so many years that though her nieces and nephews were witty over her vacillation, and declared that she enjoyed being a nuisance, it was a fact that she was trying her best to be sensible and competent. She, with no go-between, no protector, must determine which was most important gravel soil or southern aspect. She felt as she had felt years ago, when she wrote her paper for Professor Amery, only ten times more bewildered, almost delirious.

Of course, her nieces constantly talked her over, shaking their heads and saying: “If only Aunt Etta would let us.” But however weak she was, she was firm in this: she would not be helped. The outward sign of her bewilderment was extreme crossness, particularly to Evelyn, who was allowed to accompany her in her search, and to hear her remarks without making any suggestions. “I will thank you to let me decide about my own house by myself.” They had examined nine houses that day, and were both almost weeping with exhaustion.

Evelyn could not help feeling exasperated, but when Etta stumbled the moment after from sheer nervousness, and Evelyn caught hold of her hand, she realized from its hot trembling grasp how hard it is to come back to life again.

Henrietta would probably never have found the right spot, if a timely attack of rheumatism had not persuaded her to fix on Bath. When she had settled into her house at last, she hated it. She dismissed five servants in two months. She was so dull, no one called; Bath was so cold. If only she could let her house and go abroad for the winter. Happily no suitable tenant appeared, and gradually Bath grew into a habit and she became resigned. But it was long, very long, before she would own that she liked it.