Read CHAPTER III - THE HEADS OF THE HOUSE LOOK GRAVE of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on ReadCentral.com.

“It is a thousand pities,” said Dr. Millar, holding a consultation with his wife, while he sipped his glass of sherry and ate his biscuit, before retiring for the night, after his last round among the patients in greatest need of his visits.

In spite of his daughter Dora’s preference for tall men, the Doctor was short and rather stout. He ought to have looked comfortable, he had the physique and air of a comfortable man, but a certain harassed, careworn expression was beginning to settle down on the spectacled face which had once been round, rosy, and very comely. He was at least twenty years older than his wife. The old-fashioned practice had prevailed in the old-fashioned town, of elderly men, whether bachelors or widowers, ending by marrying for the first or the second time women a score or more years their juniors. Indeed, Dr. Millar was hard upon seventy, though he had till recent bad times carried his years so well that he had looked ten years younger than his actual age.

Mrs. Millar also began to look worried as a rule, though she had more of the woman’s faculty of putting the best face on things, both in public and in private. She was a tall woman, who had enjoyed the advantages of what was called “an elegant figure” in her youth. Now she was large and heavy, with a mixture of unconscious stateliness and wistful motherliness in her gait and gestures. Like Dr. Millar, she ought to have seemed at least easy-minded, but circumstances were becoming more and more against the happy condition, of which a pervading atmosphere of content and cheerfulness should have been the outward expression.

The man and woman were not cut out, so to speak, for adversity. They had not been seasoned to it in their younger days. On the contrary, they had been cradled for many years in the lap if not of luxury, of fair middle-class prosperity. It was a few tolerably rough jolts which had shaken them from their cradle. Still the trouble was more in apprehension than in reality. As yet it had not caused the sufferers to change any one of the domestic habits which had grown second nature to them. It had not induced them to darken the sunny sky over their young daughters’ heads with a shadow of the clouds which were already looming black on the parents’ horizon. It may be said at once, that Dr. and Mrs. Millar, though they were reckoned clever, sensible people enough by their contemporaries, had softer hearts than they had hard heads. They had not been used to painful self-denial and stern discipline, either where they themselves or their children were concerned.

The couple were sitting now together in the dining-room with its solidly handsome furniture, Russian leather and walnut wood, bits of family plate on the sideboard, bronze chimney-piece ornaments, and good engravings on the walls. Husband and wife had spent the last part of the evening there, for four-and-twenty years, every night they were in Redcross, when the Doctor was not kept out late, or when the couple were not abroad in company, or seeing company at home. Dr. Millar, in his slightly old-fashioned professional black coat and white tie, was leaning back in his easy-chair sipping his sherry, and occasionally drumming lightly on the table near him with these fine long sensitive fingers which were a born doctor’s fingers.

Mrs. Millar wore a demi-toilet in the shape of an expensive cashmere and silk gown not an evening dress, but an approach to it, as became the wife of one of the leading professional men in Redcross, connected with the county to boot. Her lace cap was a costly trifle of its kind, but it had an awkward habit the odder in a woman who was neat to formality in the other details of her dress of slipping to one side, or tilting forwards or backwards on the brown hair, still abundant and just streaked with gray; so that one or other of her daughters was constantly calling Mrs. Millar’s cap to order and setting it right. She was sitting in an arm-chair, opposite her husband. Mechanically she put one daintily slippered, very neat foot, considering the weight it helped to carry, beyond her skirts, and stretched it towards the fire. There was still a good fire blazing in the steel grate, though the spring was well advanced, the weather was not more than chilly, and the hour was late. It was as if coals were not a marketable commodity and a serious item in the expenses of an embarrassed household. She held up a Japanese fan between her face and the fire, from mere custom, for she had ceased to pay much heed to the exigencies of a florid complexion.

“It’s a thousand pities,” repeated the little Doctor, looking quite portentously regretful and oppressed. “It is not only that Tom Robinson is an excellent fellow and would have made Dora the best of husbands given her a safe and happy home, and all that sort of thing; but in case of anything happening, I am convinced he would have been as good as a brother to the other girls, and a son to you. A man like him is a stay and support to a household of helpless women.”

“But nothing is going to happen, Jonathan,” said Mrs. Millar, with an involuntary nervous quiver which sent her cap hovering over one eyebrow. “At least nothing worse than we know. Your practice is not so lucrative as it used to be; how can it, in these bad times, with so many poor young fellows of doctors settling here and there and everywhere in Redcross and the villages around, starving themselves out, while they impoverish their seniors? Nothing more than that, except the little trouble at Carey’s Bank.”

“Quite enough too, Maria, quite enough,” commented the Doctor deep down in his throat, prolonging the words a little as if he were chanting the refrain of a dismal song; “and when a man is my age and has plenty of the young rivals you refer to, it is high time he should be looking out for something happening. A family of girls, too. God help me! If they had been four boys, who might have made their own way in the world, and provided for you among them, I could have faced it better.” He struck the table again, with spasmodic force this time.

“Now, Jonathan, you will wake up the house. This is not like you,” remonstrated his wife all the more energetically that her heart sank while she spoke. “I should not have expected you to give way in this manner.” She gave a quick push back to her unruly cap. “I am sure there is no occasion for it. We are in no worse position than we were last year, even the year before that.”

“Save that I am growing older every year,” he said grimly, “and the affairs of the bank are not mending, as I hoped they might.”

“Can’t you sell out?” she suggested breathlessly, as she clasped her hands on her knees.

“I have put it off too long, supposing I had the conscience to transfer my liabilities to some simpleton who might not draw half a dozen of the dividends of which I have drawn scores. Besides, the thing is impossible, as I am telling you. Between you and me, the shares are far below par.”

“What is par, Jonathan?” interrupted Mrs. Millar in a praiseworthy attempt to understand her husband.

“Oh, bother,” he cried, running his hand in mild exasperation through his white hair; “the standard value, or the original value, whichever you like best. I should not dare to propose to sell out at such a loss; it would not only be to impoverish myself at once in order to avoid the risk of greater ruin, it would draw attention. It would have a most suspicious look, and might bring the rotten affair down about our ears instantly, while I should get the blame of the downfall.”

“But some of the large foreign investments might be realized any day you told me the last time you spoke of business with the first good turn of trade,” she reminded him anxiously.

“I trust so still, and I believe old Carey is an honest man and a perfect gentleman that is one comfort; but I cannot help thinking he has got into bad hands. I tell you, Maria, I don’t like that brother-in-law of his who comes down from London to attend the Redcross meetings, and tries to blarney us all round. And I cannot approve of the bolstering up of Carey’s cousins, the Carters, in their chemical works at Stokeleigh, which it strikes me will never do much good. It the bolstering up has been going on for a long time now, to what extent I am not prepared to show. Unfortunately I have a bad head for figures,” he shrugged his shoulders as if anticipating a reproach, “the less reason why I should have laid out my savings on bank shares, you will say? No doubt, no doubt, but there had been fewer troubles with banks in my day. When I made the first investment everything appeared right, and the dividends announced were tempting.”

“I am not finding fault with what you did, Jonathan; I never thought of such a thing,” the perturbed woman found voice to reassure her husband. “I know you did it for the best; and for that matter, I am convinced it will all come right in the end,” she ended with a little sigh.

“It is very good and pretty of you to say so, Maria,” he said with a certain old-fashioned, stiff gallantry which, while it complimented her, treated her as a much younger and more irresponsible being than he was. As he spoke he took up the hand which lay in her lap and held it for a moment clasped in his. “And I can say you have been all that I could have wished as a wife and mother, you have never once failed me during the whole of our married life.”

“Oh! thank you, thank you, Jonathan.” She acknowledged his praise with a momentary choke in her voice, and a bend of her head which was not without a docile dignity.

“We are all in the same boat,” resumed the Doctor in the deep tones which somehow sounded like bass recitative; “the Rector, Colonel Russell, and I not to say Carey himself. We all wished to increase our incomes with as little trouble and risk as possible so it seemed then, but if the bank comes to smash, all the old Redcross gentle-folks, as we were pleased to call ourselves, will go with it.”

“Don’t mention such a thing, don’t think of it,” cried Mrs. Millar in her dismay.

He went on without noticing her. “The Bishop won’t let the Rector come down, and Russell is twenty years younger than I. He is no older than you are, though a foreign climate has told a good deal on him; still, he is patched up, and with care ought to have lasted as long as the rest of us. He may exert his interest, and get a post in India again, though I should be afraid it would finish him in six months.”

The poor middle-aged lady who sat listening with dry lips apart, and pleasant hazel eyes distended with fright and distress, though she was no older than the unfortunate colonel, had not been exposed to a foreign climate, and had hardly suffered from a serious illness in her life, did not look much like such an arduous undertaking as going out to India to redeem a wrecked fortune. She pulled herself together, however, and set herself to the good woman’s business of comforting and encouraging her husband. “I am certain it is right to go on hoping. You often say that in your profession you have no such helpful allies as hope and courage; you must practice what you’ve preached, Doctor,” and the faithful soul actually contrived to impart a playful ring to her unsteady voice. “The Rector has not preached the duty more strenuously than you have; and you are not going to be the first to break down, especially when there is no real occasion. Depend upon it, Carey’s Bank will pull through like some of your most doubtful patients, with time and care.”

“With all my heart,” he said, absently taking off his spectacles, polishing, and replacing them. Then he resumed his former line of thought. “Tom Robinson is out of the mess. He, and his father before him, found other ways of disposing of their capital where it was more under their own inspection and control. If that foolish girl of ours, Maria, could only have brought herself to listen to Robinson,” he worked himself up into a fresh access of vexation, “the liking would have come in good time. I did not expect her to have a fancy for him on the spot, for quiet, steady young fellows like him are not apt to take girls’ fancies the worse for the girls.”

“But, father” remonstrated Mrs. Millar, involuntarily bestowing on her husband the title the girls gave him she drew herself up as she spoke, and again destroyed the equilibrium of her cap “you cannot surely think that Tom Robinson would have been a fit match for Dora, or any of her sisters. He is well enough in himself, I say nothing against him, but he has not gone into a profession, instead he has identified himself with ’Robinson’s’ that shop;” a shade of ineffable disgust stole into her ordinarily good-humoured voice.

“Showed his good sense and manliness,” said the Doctor gruffly. “I wish every one else had been as wise. I wish all of us had big paying shops at our backs instead of Carey’s shaky bank. I for one would swallow the indignity cheerfully. Why, my father kept on his dispensary in the days when the practice was at its best. The greater fool I to give it up. I tell you England will never be what it was till it gets rid of this rubbish of despising trades and shops. Don’t you help to put it into these silly girls’ heads. It makes me sick to think how they may live to wish they were connected with an honest, solvent shop.”

“My dear, I think you are going a little too far.” Mrs. Millar fired up in defence of her young like a ruffled mother-pigeon. “I should be very sorry to teach the girls to look down on anybody; but that there are different sorts and conditions of men, they may learn from their very Bibles and prayer-books. There are such things as education and culture not to speak of good birth. You yourself, Dr. Millar, are fairly well born and well connected for a professional man.” She instanced this with an imperceptible bridle and toss of her matronly head, which hinted broadly, “If it had not been so, Jonathan, I should never have been Mrs. Millar.” The movement threatened to deposit her cap on the carpet behind her, but she recovered it in time, and took up the thread of her discourse by quoting the much-prized family distinction “There was your Aunt Penny, who married into the county.”

“Oh! are you at that humbug?” he cried, with a man’s disrespectful impatience. “I thought it had seen its day, and was long over and done with. I could not have conceived that you ” ("were such a fool,” he was going to say, when he caught himself up.) He was quick-tempered and impulsive, but he was also suave by nature, and his long habit of courteous indulgence to his wife caused him to alter the phrase. “I did not know that you had so lively an imagination as to persist in believing that old myth, Maria.”

“But your Aunt Penny did marry one of the Beauchamps of Waylands,” insisted Mrs. Millar.

“Certainly; and she made the poorest marriage of anybody that I have ever had to do with, though I have always understood that he was not a bad sort, beyond being as thick-headed as his brother the squire or an officer of dragoons. He get on at the bar! I dare say not. And he was no quicker-witted or longer-sighted in Australia. You must have heard me say how grieved I was once when I came across a fellow from Sydney who had been up the country, and remembered something of the Beauchamps and their straits. They were regularly hard up, and went through no end of trouble. Poor Aunt Penny seldom had a woman-servant women-servants were more difficult to get out there in those days. She had to wash, cook, and scour for the men at the station.”

“Why didn’t they come home?” inquired Mrs. Millar rather weakly.

“Come home! They had nothing to come home with, or to. You don’t suppose his brother, the squire, with a wife and family of his own, would have kept them, though the Beauchamps had received her civilly enough at the time of the marriage! She had to milk the cows when the cow-man was otherwise wanted. I do not say that many a better born woman than she was has not done as much and thought little of it, only it was not in Aunt Penny’s line. I can just remember her when I was a small boy, a pretty creature who read Italian, sang to her guitar, and made bread seals for her amusement. She had such a mortal terror where cows were concerned that she would run like a lapwing when she heard one come lowing up the lane behind the house. Paton, the man from Sydney who remembered them, thought they did a little better towards the end, when they got a store, and Mrs. Beauchamp kept it. Do you hear that, Maria?” cried the Doctor, with a half-humorous, half-indignant emphasis.

“Yes, I hear,” replied Mrs. Millar, with an obstinate inflection of her voice which said, “I am of my own opinion still.” She illustrated this by adding, in an undertone, “They were in Australia.”

“A store,” continued the Doctor, “is the rudest, most uncouth kind of shop; and Beauchamp was not fit to keep it, he had to turn it over to his wife, who was thankful to serve shepherds and bush-rangers for aught I know. She lost one child in the bush, God help her! The little thing wandered away and was never heard of again; and her other child, a boy, who grew up, did not turn out well. I tell you, I never like to think or speak of the mother.”

“Poor Aunt Penny!” said Mrs. Millar hastily. “But there is one thing” with a sudden accent of triumph in the perception that she had the advantage of her husband at last “your Aunt Penny married the man she cared for; she got her choice, and in that light she had no reason to complain, though she had to abide by it.”

The Doctor was a little taken aback. “I do not know that she complained at least her people at home heard nothing of it. And you must do me the justice of owning that I have done nothing to force Dora’s inclinations. Indeed, I am not clear that I have done my duty. I ought to have reasoned with the girl. Robinson is not only a good man, he is also a gentleman, every inch of him, so was his father before him.”

“In the choice of Jenny Coppock, of Coppock’s Farm, for a wife!” exclaimed Mrs. Millar, still rebellious, even satirical and disdainful.

“He was entitled to choose whom he would, I suppose, so long as she was an honest woman, and Jenny Coppock was that quite as much as her husband was a gentleman. She made him happy, I believe, strange as it may sound to some people, as ladies do not always make their husbands happy you know I mean nothing personal, Maria. Whether she was quite happy herself is a different question, of which I have had no means of judging. But I have heard you yourself say that she never presumed on her rise in rank, or sought to thrust her comely, kindly face where it was not wanted. Her son has a look of her, without her good looks. Poor Mrs. Robinson! I was with her in her first and last illness, as you are aware, and a more courageous, self-forgetful soul I had never the privilege to attend.”

Mrs. Millar turned back in the conversation, and took to dogmatizing. “People who are well-informed and well-bred will never descend to a lower level without great discomfort and serious loss. I for one, though I have not profited by the advantages the girls have commanded, and I daresay have not their brains” she made the frank admission with womanly, motherly humility “though I could not to save my life make one of Rose’s beautiful water-colour sketches, or read Greek and Latin like ‘little May,’ or even talk to the point on every subject under the sun like Annie, still I should not be happy if I had to keep company with Wilkins the butcher’s or Ord the baker’s wife, and they would not be happy either. It would not matter, in one sense, though I knew they were respectable, worthy women, and were ever so much better off as to money than I. That would not keep me from feeling thoroughly out of place and having hardly an idea in common with my neighbours in their plush-trimmed gowns and fur-lined mantles. I could not stand such degradation for my girls,” she protested, with rising agitation. “I had far rather that they and I should be the poorest ladies in the land, should have to pinch and deny ourselves all round.”

“It is little you know of it,” muttered Dr. Millar, shaking his white head, and pensively contemplating his finger-nails.

“While we still retained the position to which we were born, and the associations among which we were reared,” ended Mrs. Millar, with a gasp.

“Bless the woman, what does she mean?” cried Dr. Millar after his lively fashion, with an air of injured innocence. “Does she pretend that Tom Robinson has not been educated stamped, for that matter, with the last university brand, to which he does credit, I must say? Stay, there goes the night-bell. I am wanted for somebody.”

“You’ll never go out again to-night, Jonathan,” pleaded Mrs. Millar, “after all your worry, when you have not had more than a couple of hours’ rest.” She was already reproaching herself keenly for having contradicted and argued with him. She had never been able to comprehend, for her comfort, that to a man like him an argument is both rousing and refreshing. In the middle of her remorse she instinctively held up her head, and balanced her cap as a Dutchwoman of the last century balanced her milk-pail, or a girl of the Roman Campagna her sheaf of grass and wild flowers. “It is a shame,” she reflected indignantly; “it is very likely nothing of any consequence, just one of those inconsiderate people who think that a professional man ought to be always at their beck and call.”

“There, Maria, you’re scoring another point for trade,” said the little doctor, getting on his feet, and buttoning up his coat as a preliminary to obeying the call. “I’ll warrant Wilkins and Ord will be toasting their toes, and retiring to bed with the comfortable conviction that their night’s rest will not be disturbed; since Wilkins’s head-man attends to the slaughter-house, and the eldest journeyman baker sees to the setting of the sponge. Why don’t you say, noblesse oblige, Maria? But I think I know the name of the inconsiderate individual who has interrupted our conversation, and I assure you he would not if he could. It is little Johnny Fleming Fleming the grocer’s son whose case is critical, I fear. I told his mother if he got worse to send for me at once. When I am out, at any rate, I’ll just look in on old Todd, in Skinners’ Buildings. He appeared in a dying state this morning; but as the family have not sent to let me know of the death, if he has hung on so long, the chance is he will rally and come round this bout. I’ll be some time; don’t sit up for me, my dear.”

“It is too bad,” Mrs. Millar fretted. “They ought to send at night for Newton or Capes from Woodleigh it is only a step for any of the young doctors, instead of disturbing a man of your age.”

“Good heavens! don’t breathe such a thing. I could not afford it. I thought of taking a young partner twenty years ago, but I put it off till it was too late. Perhaps it was a mistake; we all make mistakes,” he sighed. “An active young practitioner, well up to date, might have kept the business better together.”

“Nonsense!” cried his wife energetically. “Nobody would have looked at him when they could have had your skill and experience.”

“Then be thankful I’m still fit for work one must take the bad with the good. It is the fortune of war, Maria,” said the gallant old doctor as he departed.