Read CHAPTER NINE - BREAKERS AHEAD! of She and I‚ Volume 1 , free online book, by John Conroy Hutcheson, on

Oh, I see thee, old and formal, fitted to thy petty part, With a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter’s heart.  “They were dangerous guides the feelings-she herself was not exempt- Truly she herself had suffer’d”-perish in thy self-contempt!

Mrs Clyde’s appearance coming so suddenly upon the scene, acted as an application of the cold douche to all the loving ardour with which I was addressing Min.  It completely spoiled the tableau; checking my eager impetuosity in a moment, and causing me to remain, tongue-tied, in a state of almost hopeless embarrassment.

Picture the unexpected presentment of the statue of “The Commander” before Don Giovanni, and his horror at hearing words proceed from marble lips!  You will, then, be able to form some faint idea of my feelings, when my pleasant position was thus interrupted by Min’s mother.  I was altogether “nonplussed,” to use a vulgar but expressive word.

Had she not come in so opportunely-or inopportunely, as you may think-I don’t know what I might not have said.

You see, I was close to my darling, bending down over her and looking into her beautiful face.  I was fathoming the depths of her soul-lighted, lustrous grey eyes; and, contiguity is sometimes apt in such circumstances, I am told, to hurry one into the rashness of desperation, bringing matters to a crisis.  However, Mrs Clyde’s entrance stopped all this.  I was brought up all at once, “with a round turn,” like a horse in full gallop pulled back on his haunches; or, “all standing,” as a boat with her head to the wind-whichever simile you may best prefer.

A shower-bath is a very excellent thing in its way, when taken at the proper time and under certain conditions; but those two requirements must be carefully considered beforehand, for the human frame is a fabric of very delicate organisation.  Any violent change, or hasty interference with the regular and legitimate working of its functions, may throw the whole machine out of gear, just as the sudden quickening of an engine’s motions will, probably, cause it to break down or turn it off the line; while, on the other hand, a wholesome tonic, or fillip, judiciously administered when occasion seems to demand it, like our shower-bath, may often better enable it to discharge its duties and go all the more smoothly and easily-as a tiny touch of the oil-can will affect the movements of man’s mammoth mechanical contrivances, that are so typical of himself.

There are some people, I am aware, who object to the institution in toto, arguing that it hurts the system with its unexpected shock, doing more harm than good.  There are others who believe in nothing but shocks, and similar methods of treatment out of the common run; and these “go in” for shower-baths, “a discretion”-though, without discretion, would, perhaps, be a truer description.  You may not be informed, also, that the “institution” is frequently used in lunatic asylums and penal establishments as an instrument of torture and correction, being known to operate most efficaciously on obstreperous and hardened criminals, when all other means of coercion have failed.

As it is with the shower-bath physically considered, so it is in regard to the moral douche, to bring my apparent digression to a pointed application.  Properly taken, it nerves up the cerebral tissues; experienced unawares, at right angles to previous paths of thought and preparation, it reduces the patient to a temporary state of mental coma and bewilderment-as exemplified in my case on the present unhappy occasion.

I never felt so completely “flabbergasted,” as sailors say, in my life, as when Min’s mother came into the room that afternoon, just at the moment when I was meditating a master-stroke against the fortress of my darling’s heart.

I trembled in my boots.

I wished the earth to open and swallow me up!

Mrs Clyde was a thorough woman of the world.  Judging her out of her own circle of limited diameter, you would imagine her to be cool, unimpassioned, cold-blooded, narrow-minded; but, she could be, at the same time, bigoted enough in regard to all that concerned herself, her social surroundings and her belongings-an advocate, as warm as Demosthenes, as logical as Cicero:-a partisan amongst partisans.  Warm and impulsive, where fervour and a display of seemingly-generous enthusiasm would effect the object she had in view, that of compassing her ends, she could also be as frigid as an icicle, when it likewise so suited her purpose.  “Respectability” and “position” were her gods:-the “world”-her world!-her microcosm.

Where persons and things agreed with these, being sympathetic to their rules and regulations, they naturally belonged to “the house beautiful” of her creed, for they must be good:-where they ran counter to such standards of merit, which were upheld by laws as unvarying and unchangeable as those of the Mèdes and Persians, and administered by a judge as stern as Draco-they were, they must be evil; and were, therefore, cast out into the outer darkness that existed beyond her sacred Lares and Penates.

Good Heavens! how can pigmy people, atoms in the vast eternity of time, thus narrow the great universe in which they are permitted to exist; dwarfing it down, to the limit of their jaundiced vision, by the application of their miserable measuring tape of “fashionable” feet and “class” inches!  How can they abase grand humanity to the level of their social organon, affecting to control it with their arbitrary absolutisms, their mammon deification, their mimic infallibility!  What creeping, crawling, wretched insects we all are, taken collectively; and, of all of us, the blindest, the most insignificant, and most grub-like, are, so-called men and women “of the world!”

Cold, heartless, in a general sense, and worldly as Mrs Clyde was, I could easily have excused it in her and tried to like her, for, was she not the mother of my darling, whom with all her faults she loved very dearly-her affection being judiciously tempered by those considerations paramount in the clique to which she belonged?  But, Mrs Clyde did not like me.  She spurned every effort I essayed to make her my friend.

I saw this the first evening I passed in her house; and the impression I then received never wore off.

Just as you can tell at sight whether certain persons attract or repel you, through some unknown, nameless influence that you are unable to fathom; so, in like degree, can you decide-that is, if you possess a naturally sensitive mind-whether they are drawn towards yourself or remain antipathetical.  I know that I can tell without asking them, if people whom I see for the first time are likely to fancy me or not; and, at all events, I had some inward monition which warned me that Mrs Clyde, contrary to my earnest wish that she should regard me in a friendly light, was not one of those amiable beings who would “cotton to me,” as the inhabitants of New England express the sentiment in their pointed vernacular.

Perhaps you think me a very egotistical person, thus to dwell upon my own ideas and feelings?

You must recollect, however, that I’m telling you this story myself, a story in which I am both actively and intimately interested; and how, unless I speak of my own self, are you going to learn anything about me?  I have nobody to describe me, so I must be what you call “egotistical.”

Yes, Mrs Clyde did not like me.

I do not mean to say, remember, that she was impolite, or grim, or wanting in courtesy.

The reverse was the case, as she was one of the smoothest, suavest persons you ever met.

But, there is an exquisitely refined way in which a woman of the world can make you understand that your presence is “de trop” and your society distasteful, without saying a single word that might be construed into an offence against good breeding.

Mrs Clyde was a thorough mistress of this art.

Her searching eye could appraise at a glance a man’s mental calibre or a lady’s toilette.  It seemed to pierce you through and through, exploring your inmost thoughts, and enlightening her as to what her course of procedure should be in regard to you, before she had spoken a word, or you either.

So I believed at any rate; for, to tell the honest truth, I was horribly afraid of Min’s mother.  I always felt on tenter hooks in her presence, from the very first date of our acquaintanceship.

On coming into the room where Min and I were regarding Dicky Chip’s performances with loving eyes, and I completely “translated” by various combinating influences, Mrs Clyde appeared to take in the situation in an instant-“an eyewink,” as a minute portion of time is happily rendered in the Teutonic tongue.  Certainly, she grasped everything at a glance-even the contingency that might have possibly occurred, for, my embarrassment was not lost upon her.  I saw an anxious expression hover across her face for a second, to be quickly replaced by her ordinary society look of calm, studied suavity.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, in well-feigned astonishment at my presence-“Mr Lorton, how d’ye do!”

“How do you do, Mrs Clyde?” said I, straightening myself up, and then bending in feeble attempt at a bow.

She said nothing further for the moment, thinking it best to leave the burden of the conversation on me, so as to better promote my ease of manner and general welfare, in a “company” light.  She was dexterous in fence, was Mrs Clyde.

“Ah!” said I at length after an uncomfortable pause, “that was a delightful evening we had last night!” It was a polite falsehood; but then, one must say something when in “society” be it never so senseless and silly!

“I am glad you enjoyed yourself,” she answered, although she knew well enough that I had done no such thing.

“Oh, mamma!” said Min, coming to the rescue, “see what a dear little bird Mr Lorton has brought me!  It is really so clever that it can almost do anything.  Dicky, dicky, cheep!” she chirped to my young representative, who sat in the centre of the table, perched on a photographic album and with his head cocked on one side.  He was staring very inquisitively at Mrs Clyde.  He evidently regarded her as an enemy; for, the feathers on his crest got ruffled.

“Indeed!” said her mother, in freezing accents-down to the temperature of the best Wenham Lake ice!-“I’m sure Mr Lorton is very good!  Still, you know, Minnie,” she continued, “that I do not like you receiving presents in this way.”

“But it is only a little bird, Mrs Clyde!” I said, at last nerved up to the speaking-point.  I thought she would have told me then and there to take it back; and I awaited, in fear and trembling, what she would say next.

“And he’s such a little darling, mamma!” interposed Min impulsively.

Mrs Clyde could not help smiling.

“That may be quite true, my dear,” she said; “but, as you know, and as Mr Lorton is probably also aware-although he is very young to have as yet mixed much in the world”-cut number two!-“it is not quite correct for young ladies to receive presents, however trifling, from gentlemen who are, comparatively, strangers to them, and to whom they have been but barely introduced!”-cut three!

“Oh, mamma!” said Min, in an agony of maidenly shame.  She coloured up to the eyes-at the dread of having done something she ought not to have done.

Her exclamation armed me to the teeth.  I would have stood up in defence of my darling against a hundred mammas, all cased in society’s best satire-proof steel.  I determined to “carry the war into Egypt,” and opened fire accordingly.

“Pardon me, Mrs Clyde,” said I, quite as frigidly as herself-“but the fault, if error there be on either side, lies on my shoulders.  I am sure I meant no harm.  I only brought the little bird as a remembrance of your daughter’s birthday, having forgotten to present it yesterday, when her other friends made their offerings.”

My speech, however, produced no impression; she quickly parried my weak thrust, returning me tierce en carte.

“But they were all old friends, Mr Lorton:-that made it quite a different thing,” she said, very coldly, although with the sweetest expression.  I daresay Jael smiled very pleasantly when she drove that nail into Sisera’s temple!

I thought I perceived a slight loophole for attack.  “I believe,” said I, “that both Mr Horner and Mr Mawley were only introduced to Miss Clyde a short time previously to myself.”

Bless you, I was a child in her practised hands!  Fancy my making such a blunder as to show her where the shoe pinched me!

“I think, Mr Lorton,” she replied, “that I am the best judge as to whom I consider my daughter’s friends.  Mr Mawley is a clergyman of the parish, and Mr Horner the nephew of a gentleman whom I have known for years!”-Ah! she did know about Horner’s expectations, then; I thought she did!-“But,” she continued, in a slightly less frigid tone, probably on account of seeing Min’s agitation, and from the belief that she had put me down sufficiently-“But, Mr Lorton, I do not wish to appear unkind; and, as you never thought of all this, most likely, my daughter may keep the bird you kindly brought her, if she likes.”

“Oh, thank you, mamma,” said Min, caressing Dicky Chips, who thereupon burst into a pæan of melody, in which the opening bars of the “Silver Trumpets” march and “Green grow the Rushes, O” were mixed up harmoniously, in splendid confusion.  Knowing little bullfinch that he was!  He succeeded, as peradventure he intended, in at once turning the conversation into a fresh channel, where Min’s constraint and my embarrassment were soon dispelled.

Mrs Clyde had not been a bit put out during the entire interview.

She was now, as she had been all along, as cool and collected, as suave and serene, as possible.  In this respect she somewhat resembled Horner, her promising young friend-nothing could put her out-although her mental equilibrium resulted from habit and training; while Horner’s, in my opinion, was entirely owing to his natural apathy and inherent dulness of disposition.

Shortly after hostilities had terminated between us, and a truce declared, Mrs Clyde said that she hoped that I would kindly excuse herself and Min, as they had to prepare to go out to make several calls.

Thus politely dismissed, I accordingly took my leave.  But, not before the astute lady of the world had contrived to impress me with the consideration that Mrs Clyde moved in a very different circle to that of Mr Lorton; and, that, if I had the assurance and audacity to aspire to the hand of “her daughter,” I need not nurse the sweet belief that she would lend a favourable ear to my suit.  I must, in that case, be prepared to wage a war a outrance, in which there would be no quarter allowed, on one side at least.

You must not think that I make these remarks with any bitter feelings now in my heart towards Min’s mother.  I only desire to tell my story truthfully; and, I may say at once that she failed in our after struggle together.  I really believe that she meant honestly to do the best she could for her daughter, as “the best” was held by the articles of her social creed; and that she manoeuvred so that her “lines” should “fall in pleasant places.”  Yet, those good thoughts, and best wishes, and wise plans of worldly people, effect incalculable mischief and misery and unhappiness in life.

Many a sorely-tried heart has been broken by their influence-many a man and woman ruined for life and for eternity, through their means!  And, although I mean no harm towards Mrs Clyde now, as I have already stated, however much I may have been opposed to her once-for the battle has been fought lang syne, and the game played out to its end-still, I can never forget that she was my enemy!