Read CHAPTER I - A FLUTTER IN THE DOVE-COT of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on

Is there any sensation equal to that produced by the first lover and the first proposal coming to a girl in a large family of girls? It is delightfully sentimental, comical, complimentary, affronting, rousing, tiresome all in one. It is a herald of lovers, proposals, and wonderful changes all round. It is the first thrill of real life in its strong passions, grave vicissitudes, and big joys and sorrows as they come in contact with idle fancies, hearts that have been light, simple experiences which have hitherto been carefully guarded from rude shocks.

It does not signify much whether the family of girls happen to be rich or poor, unless indeed that early and sharp poverty causes a precocity which deepens girls’ characters betimes, and by making them sooner women, robs them of a certain amount of the thoughtlessness, fearlessness, and impracticability of girlhood. But girlhood, like many another natural condition, dies hard; and its sweet, bright illusions, its wisdom and its folly, survive tolerably severe pinches of adversity.

The younger members of such a sisterhood are politely supposed to be kept in safe ignorance of the great event which is befalling one of the seniors. It is thought at once a delicate and prudent precaution to prevent the veil which hides the future, with its casualties, from being lifted prematurely and abruptly, where juvenile minds are concerned, lest they become unhinged and unfit for the salutary discipline of schoolroom lessons, and the mild pleasure of schoolroom treats. The flower in the bud ought to be kept with its petals folded, in its innocent absence of self-consciousness, to the last moment.

But there is an electric sympathy in the air which defeats precautions. There is a freemasonry of dawning womanhood which starts into life everywhere. How do the young people pick up with such surprising quickness and acuteness the looks and whispers meant to pass over their heads, the merry glances, nervous shrugs, quick blushes, and indignant pouts, which have suddenly grown strangely prevalent in the blooming circle? The bystanders are understood to be engrossed with their music-lessons, their drawing-classes, their rudimentary Latin and Greek if anybody is going in for the higher education of women their pets, their games of lawn-tennis, their girl companions with whom these other girls are for ever making appointments to walk, to practise part-singing, to work or read together, to get up drawing-room tableaux or plays.

The general consciousness is not, in certain lights, favourable to a lover’s pretensions. For human nature is perverse, and there is such a thing as esprit-de-corps running to excess. There may be a due amount of girlish pride in knowing that one of the sisters has inspired a grand passion. There may be a tremulous respect for the fact that she has passed the Rubicon, that, in place of girlish trifling, she has an affair which has to do with the happiness or misery of a fellow creature, not to say with her own happiness or misery, on her burdened mind. Why, if she does not take care, she may be plunged at once, first into the whirl of choosing her trousseau and the fascinating trial of being the principal figure at a wedding, and then involved in the tremendous responsibilities of housekeeping, butchers’ bills, grocers’ bills, cooks’ delinquencies, with the heavy obligations not only of ordering dinners for two, but of occasionally entertaining a room full of company, single-handed!

And this is only one side of the shield; there is a reverse side, at least equally prominent and alarming. The second side upholds maidenly claims, finds nothing good enough to match with them, and is tempted to scout and flout, laugh and mock at the rival claims of the lover upon trial. This is true even in the most innocent of dove-cots, where satire is still as playful and harmless as summer lightning.

“The idea of Tom Robinson’s thinking of one of us!” cried Annie Millar. “What could possess him to imagine that we should ever get over the shop granted that it is a Brobdingnagian shop, an imposing mart of linen-drapery, haberdashery, silk-mercery enough to serve the whole county?”

“To be sure it is only Dora, not you, Annie,” burst in eighteen years’ old Rose, who had just left school, and was fain to drop the pretence of being too young to notice the most interesting event in the world to a family of girls.

“Why do you say that, Rose? Dora may not be so pretty as Annie I don’t know, and I don’t care it is all a matter of taste; but she is as much one of us, father’s daughter, brought up like the rest of us in the Old Doctor’s House.”

The speaker was May, between sixteen and seventeen. She was the tallest of the four sisters let them call her “Little May” as long as they liked. She had so far forgotten herself as to follow Rose’s lead.

“Hold your tongues, you two monkeys; what should you know about it?” Annie, who had a tendency to sit upon her younger sisters, tried to silence them. She had reached the advanced age of twenty-two, and by virtue of being the eldest, had been considered grown up for the last four years, when Rose and May were chits of fourteen and a little over twelve. Of course this gave Annie a vast advantage in womanly dignity and knowledge of the world. But at the present moment she was herself so interested in the discussion that she could not make up her mind to drop it till Rose and May were out of the way.

“I must say” Annie started the subject again “that I think it great presumption in Tom Robinson, though he is not so ugly as that comes to, and he’s really well enough bred in spite of ‘Robinson’s.’”

“He is a college-bred man.” Dora ventured shyly to put in a word for the dignity of her suitor, and for her own dignity as so far involved in his. “And so were his father and grandfather before him, father says.”

“But the Robinsons had the silk-mill and the woollen-factory then as well as the big shop,” corrected Annie. “And Tom might have gone into the Church or into some other profession if he had chosen, when things might have been a little different. Still, if you are pleased, Dora,” with a peal of derisive laughter, “if you do not object to the shop.”

“Of course I object,” cried Dora, tingling with mortification and shame. “That is, I should object to his having a shop, if I had ever thought of him for a single moment in that light. I cannot imagine what put me into his head in that sense. Indeed I cannot believe it yet. I am sure it is just some nonsense on the part of the rest of you to tease me.”

“No, no,” Annie hastened to contradict her. “It is sober reality. He has said something to father; you know he has, mother owned it.”

“He has been meeting us and throwing himself in our way everywhere,” broke in the irrepressible Rose and May.

“He has been coming and coming here,” resumed Annie, “where, as we don’t happen to have a brother, there is not even another young man to form an excuse for his coming. We cannot so much as pretend, when people remark on his visits, that he has come ever since we remember, and is as familiar with us as we are with ourselves. No doubt, in a little town like this, everybody who has the least claim to be a gentleman or a lady, knows every other gentleman or lady after a fashion. But naturally father and mother were not intimate with the late Mr. and Mrs. Robinson; and we that is, Tom and we girls are not so near each other in age as to have been brought together by our respective nurses. We did not pick daisies in company, or else pull each other’s hair, and slap each other’s faces, according to our varying moods. Tom Robinson is four or five years older than I, not to speak of Dora.”

“He stopped us this very morning,” Rose again joined in the chorus, “when May and I were going with the Hewetts to gather primroses in Parson’s Meadow. He asked if our sisters that was you, Dora, with Annie thrown into the bargain thought of going on the river this afternoon.”

“He might be an inch or two taller, I don’t suppose he is above five feet six or seven,” suggested Annie, maliciously recalling a detail in the description of Dora’s future husband, that be he who or what he might, he should certainly not be under six feet in height. Dora, who was herself considerably below the middle size, would never yield her freedom to a man who had to admit a lower scale of inches.

“And his hair might be a little less chestnut, shall we say, Dora?” put in Rose with exasperating sprightliness, referring to a former well-known prejudice of Dora’s against “Judas-tinted hair.”

“Would you call his nose Roman or Grecian?” asked May naively, of a very nondescript feature.

“And he has so little to say for himself,” recommenced Annie, “though when he does speak there is no great fault to be found with what he says; still it would be dreadfully dull and tiresome to have to do all the speaking for a silent partner.”

“Oh, hold your tongues, you wretched girls,” cried Dora, standing at bay, stamping one small foot in a slipper with a preposterously large rosette. “What does it signify? The man, like his words, is well enough better than any of us, I dare say,” speaking indignantly; “but what does it matter, when I could never look at him, never dream of him, as anything more than a mere acquaintance? I don’t wish for a lover or a husband at least not yet,” with a gasp; “I don’t wish to leave home, and go away from all of you, though you are so unkind and teasing not for a long, long time, till I am quite a middle-aged woman. I don’t see why I should be plagued about it when Annie here, who is two years older than I am, and ever so much prettier, as everybody knows, has escaped such persecution.”

“My dear,” said Annie demurely, “it is because you have the opportunity of presenting me with a pair of green garters. If it should occur again, and you choose to avail yourself of it, I mean to accept the garters with the best grace in the world. Isn’t that good of me when you have been coolly telling me that I have been overlooked as the eldest, and the belle of the family flattering my conceit with one breath and taking it down with another? But it is not a case of Leah and Rachel. We are not in the East, and in the West the elder sister does not necessarily take precedence in marriage. You are quite welcome to marry first, Dora; you are all welcome to marry before me, girls,” with a sweeping curtsey to her audience all round. “I am perfectly resigned to your leaving your poor worthy elder sister to end her days as a solitary spinster, a meek and useful maiden-aunt.”

The Millars were the daughters of Dr. Millar of Redcross, an old-fashioned country town in the Midlands. They were happy in having a good father and mother still spared to them. The girls were what is called “a fine family,” in a stronger sense than that in which Jane Austen has used the term. Their ages ranged from twenty-two to midway between sixteen and seventeen. They were all good-looking girls, with a family likeness. Annie, the eldest, was very pretty, with delicate, regular features, a soft warm brunette colour, dark eyes, and a small brown head and graceful throat, like the head and throat of a greyhound.

Dora, the first wooed, was, at a hasty glance, a mere shadow of Annie. She was pale, though it was a healthy paleness. Her hair was lighter in tint, her eyes, too, were considerably lighter granted that they were clear as crystal. It was difficult to think of Dora as preferred before Annie, if one did not take into account that there are people who will turn away from June roses to gather a cluster of honeysuckle, or pick a sweet pea people to whom there is an ineffable charm in simple maidenliness and sweetness. Dora’s modest unhesitating acceptance of the second part in the family and social circle, and her perfect content to play it, would be a crowning attraction in such people’s eyes. So would her gentle girlish diffidence, which moved her rather to meet and reflect the tastes and opinions of others than to exercise her own, though she was by no means without individual capacity and character.

Rose was the least handsome of the family at this stage of her existence. The family features in her had taken a slightly bizarre cast, and she had a bad habit of wrinkling her smooth low forehead and crumpling up her sharpish nose, in a manner which accentuated the peculiarity. But Annie, who was an authority on the subject of looks, maintained, behind Rose’s back, that there was something piquante and recherchee about Rose’s face and figure. Not one of the Millars was tall not even May, though she came nearest to it; but Rose’s slight pliant figure had a natural grace and elegance which its quick, careless movements did not dispel. When she held herself up, uncreased her forehead and nose, showed to advantage her very fine, true chestnut hair, and was full of animation as to do Rose justice she generally was giving fair play to her dimples and little white teeth, Annie said Rose had a style of her own which did no discredit to the family reputation for more than a fair share of beauty. In addition to Annie’s high spirit and ready tongue, Rose had a decided turn for art, which her father had taken pride in cultivating.

“Little May” was like Annie, and promised to be as pretty; but she was a rose in the bud still, with the unfilled out outlines and crude angularities of a girl not done growing. She was very much of a child in many things, and she had Dora’s soft clinging nature, yet under it all she was the born scholar of the family, with a simple aptitude and taste for learning which surprised and delighted her father still more than Rose’s achievements in pastilles and water-colours pleased him. It was seeing May at her books, when she was a very different May from the girl who ran about with Rose, and was kept in her proper place by Annie, which revived in Doctor Millar the old regret that Providence had not blessed him with a son. He could not exactly make a son of May, since from her early childhood she was a little sensitive woman all over, but he did what he could. He had her taught Latin, Greek, and mathematics just to afford her the chance of being a scholar. He never told himself, and nobody else did, in the meantime, what she was to do with her scholarship when she was a little older. Whether it was merely to grace her womanhood, or whether the youngest of the family, her father and mother’s last pet, was to summon up courage, tear herself away from familiar and dear surroundings, and carry her gifts and acquirements out into the world, in order to win for them the best distinction of usefulness.

Dora’s lightly held suitor was the head of “Robinson’s.” “Robinson’s” was a great and time-honoured institution in Redcross, while it and its masters were somewhat of anomalies. The first Robinson whom the town troubled to remember was as good as anybody in it, the proprietor of a silk-mill, and latterly of a wool-factory in the neighbourhood. As a mere convenient adjunct to the mill and the factory he had started a shop in the town, and kept it going by means of a manager. Even in that light it was a handsome old shop. The walls were lined with polished oak, so was the low ceiling, and there was an oak staircase leading from one storey to another which a connoisseur in staircases might have coveted. “Robinson’s” was a positive feature in Redcross, and if it had been anything else than a good shop of its kind would have been greatly admired. The son of the founder of the shop was also reckoned, to begin with, as good as his professional neighbours. He was college-bred, like his father, as Dora in her jealousy for the dignity of her first lover had stated. This was “all to begin with.” Whether because it was advisable, or from mere grovelling instincts, he dropped in turn both the mill and the factory, neither of which did more than pay its way, and retained the shop, which was understood to be a lucrative concern. He did worse; though Redcross continued to acknowledge him somewhat dubiously to be sure as a gentleman, because of the fine presence which Tom had not inherited, and the perfect good breeding which had descended to the son. In spite of the magnanimity which forgave frostily the second Robinson for so far forgetting himself as to take the management of his great shop into his own hands, walk up and down and receive customers, and be seen working at his books in the glass office if he did not go behind the counter, he went and married for his second wife a farmer’s daughter. She was an honest, sensible, comely young woman, but she had no pretensions to be a lady, and no more inclination to enter the society of the Redcross upper class than the upper class had a mind to receive her as an equal. Charles Robinson’s first wife had been all very well, though she was penniless. She had been a curate’s daughter, educated to fill the post of governess in high families. She had died young, without children, and he had filled her place with the farmer’s daughter, who was the mother of Tom. Thenceforth the Robinson’s house, a good, old-fashioned house, though not so handsome as the shop in an adjacent street, was effaced, nominally, from the visiting-lists of those who had visiting-lists in Redcross. The family were ostracised, and left to their own devices, receiving their sentence, in the case of the farmer’s daughter and her husband, with apparent equanimity.

But there was an exception made in favour of Tom. He went to the Grammar School along with the other better-class boys in the town and neighbourhood, and was accepted as their companion and playfellow. He was sent to college according to the traditions of his family, just as Cyril Carey, of Carey’s Bank, and Ned Hewett, of the Rectory, were sent according to the traditions of theirs. Presumably the three young men were on one footing at Cambridge, unless, indeed, Tom had the advantage. He was slightly the elder of the three, and he took his degree with a fair amount of honour; while, sad to say, for the credit of Redcross, neither Cyril nor Ned made their last pass. It was confidently believed that Tom Robinson would cut the shop, so far as any active management of it was concerned, and enter either a gallant or a learned profession. If he had ever entertained the intention, it was put a stop to in the first place by the death of his father, followed within three months by that of his mother, shortly after Tom had completed his course at the university. He stayed at home for a time, to put his house in order it was supposed. Then all at once, in the most cold-blooded fashion, he told those who asked him that “Robinson’s” was a good business, which he did not see himself justified in throwing up in these hard times. He was not such a conceited ass as to believe he must necessarily succeed in the crowded ranks of the professions, for none of which had he any particular bent, while he had, he added, with a certain manliness and doggedness for a pacific fellow like Robinson, a considerable interest in the great old shop. It had been in the family for three generations; he had known it from childhood; many of his father’s old trusted servants still served in it. In short, he meant to keep it in his own hands, and not to let it go to sticks and staves, possibly, in the hands of others. He did not, for his part, see any mark of gentle breeding and fine feeling in devolving his responsibilities on others, and only reserving that tie to the shop which had to do with pecuniary profits. As for his university training and academic degree, if they did not benefit him in all circumstances they were not much worth. The town of Redcross was caught in a trap. The gentle-folks of the place had already received him as a man and a brother, and they could not refuse to know him any longer because he stuck to the paternal shop, though they might exercise their discretion in looking coldly on him in future. For that matter, there was another opinion among the older professional men the Rector, whose tithes were only quarter paid; Dr. Millar, whose paying patients were no longer able to call him in on all occasions; Carey, the banker, whose private bank, it was whispered darkly, was struggling in deep waters; Colonel Russell, who had come home from India on half-pay and his savings, which every year he found more inadequate for the expenses of an increasing family. All these gray-headed men, growing haggard and careworn, agreed that in the present depressed state of the commercial world, young Robinson was showing himself a sensible fellow and ought to be commended for his decision. They declared that they were the more inclined to take him up because of it. It was their wives, where they had wives, and especially their daughters, with the young men who had not known the brunt of the battle, and felt inclined to clutch their professional dignities and privileges, that were of a different mind. Girls like the Millars turned up their saucy little noses at the shop. They thought it was mean-spirited and vulgar-minded, “low” of Tom Robinson to sit down with such a calling. They held it audacious of him to lift his eyes to Dora, and to follow his eyes with his voice, silent fellow though he was generally, in asking her from her father.

Certainly it did not help to redeem Tom Robinson’s drawbacks in the judgment of a rash young world that he lacked his late father’s fine presence. Though gentleman-like enough, he was insignificant in person, and he had little to say for himself. Probably it would have struck his critics as little short of profane to make the comparison, otherwise there is a great example that might have stood him and all men not giants and glib of tongue in good stead. It is written of an apostle, and he not the least of the apostles, that he might have been termed in bodily presence mean, and in speech contemptible. But boys and girls are not wont to take up such examples and ponder their meaning in foolish young hearts.

The Millars, as one of the girls had said, were brought up in the Old Doctor’s House at Redcross. It would seem that professions and trades were hereditary in the old-fashioned, stationary town. Dr. Millar’s father had not only been a doctor before him, he had been the doctor in Redcross, with a practice extending from an aristocratic county to a parish-poor class of patients. His pretty sister Penny, whom Annie was not unlike, had married into the county, General Beauchamp of Wayland’s younger son. The marriage, with all its consequences, was a thing of the long past, leaving little trace in the present. For young Beauchamp, though he was a squire’s son, had not been able to get on at the bar, and had emigrated with his wife while emigration was still comparatively untried in Australia, where it was to be hoped his county extraction had served him in the Bush at least as well as Tom Robinson’s university education would avail him in the shop. It had all happened an age before the young Millars could remember, still the tradition of a marriage of a member of a former generation of the Millars into the squirearchy had its effect on her collateral descendants. It did not signify that the reigning Beauchamps of Waylands had almost ceased to remember the ancient alliance in their dealings with their doctor. That dim and distant distinction established the superior position of the Millars in their native town, to the girls’ entire satisfaction. Dora to marry Robinson, of “Robinson’s,” a farthing candle of a man, when her Grand-aunt Penny had married a Beauchamp of Waylands, by all accounts the handsomest, most dashing member of the Hunt in his day, was a descent not to be thought of for a moment.