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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mrs. Winnington’s Eavesdropping
By William Edward Norris (1847–1925)
 
From ‘No New Thing’

MRS. WINNINGTON was a person of the fine-lady type, common enough twenty years or so ago, but now rapidly becoming extinct. Of a commanding presence, and with the remains of considerable beauty, she was always dressed handsomely, and in bright, decided colors; she carried a gold-mounted double eye-glass, through which she was accustomed to survey inferior mortals with amusing impertinence, while in speaking to them, her voice assumed a drawl so exaggerated as to render her valuable remarks almost unintelligible at times. These little graces of manner had doubtless come to her from a study of the best models, for she went a good deal into the fashionable world at that time; but in addition to these, she possessed a complacent density and an unfeigned self-confidence which were all her own, and which would probably have sufficed at any epoch, and under any circumstances, to render her at once as disagreeable and as contented a woman as could have been found under the sun.  1
  Whether because she resented the slight put upon her by the Brunes, in that they had never seen fit to call at the Palace, or because she had an inkling that their pride surpassed her own vainglory, she made up her mind to snub them; and when Mrs. Winnington made up her mind to any course of action, it was usually carried through with a will. The plainness with which these worthy folks were given to understand that, in her opinion, they were no better than country bumpkins, and the mixture of patronage and insolence with which she bore herself towards them, were in their way inimitable. There are some people magnanimous enough, or indifferent enough, to smile at such small discourtesies; and probably the former owner of Longbourne was more amused than angry when he was informed that the house had been a positive pig-sty before it had been put in order, and that Mrs. Winnington really could not imagine how any one had found it possible to live in such a place….  2
  When she reached home she found the drawing-room and library untenanted; Margaret and Edith having, it was to be presumed, gone out for a walk. Now it was a habit of Mrs. Winnington’s, whenever she found the house empty, to prowl all over it, peeping into blotting-books, opening drawers, occasionally going so far as to read letters that might be lying handy, and—as Mrs. Prosser, who hated her with a perfect hatred, would say—“poking and rummaging about as any under-housemaid that I caught at such tricks should be dismissed immediate, and no character given.”  3
  It is probable that Mrs. Winnington saw no harm at all in such pokings and rummagings. Her daughters, she would have said, had no secrets from her, or at all events ought not to have any. Nor had she any particular end to serve in entering other people’s bedrooms. For some occult reason it gave her pleasure to do so; and the present occasion being favorable for the gratifying of her tastes, she proceeded to profit by it. First she made a thorough examination of all the reception-rooms; then she went up-stairs, and spent some time in overhauling the contents of Margaret’s wardrobe; and then she passed on to the room at that time occupied by Edith, which opened out of a long corridor where the family portraits had hung in the days when the owners of Longbourne had possessed a family to be thus commemorated. This corridor had a peculiarity. It terminated in a small gallery, resembling a theatre box or one of those pews which are still to be met with in a few old-fashioned churches, whence you looked down upon a curious apse-like chamber, tacked on to the house by a seventeenth-century Brune for some purpose unknown. It may have been intended to serve as a theatre, or possibly as a private chapel; of late years it had fallen into disuse, being a gloomy and ill-lighted apartment, and was seldom entered by anybody, except by the housemaids who swept it out from time to time. Some one, however, was in it now. Mrs. Winnington, with her hand on the lock of her daughter’s door, was startled by the sound of voices arising from that quarter, and it was a matter of course that she should at once make her way along the passage as stealthily as might be, and peer over the edge of the gallery to see what might be going on below.  4
  She arrived in time to witness a scene so startling that she very nearly put a dramatic finish to it then and there by falling headlong over the balustrade, which was a low one. Upon an ottoman, directly beneath her, her daughter Edith was sitting in a very pretty and graceful attitude: her elbow resting on her knee and her face hidden by her right hand, while her left was held by Walter Brune, who was kneeling at her feet. And this is what that audacious young reprobate was saying, in accents which rose towards the roof with perfect distinctness:—  5
  “Now, my darling girl, you must not allow yourself to be so cowed by that awful old mother of yours. There! I beg your pardon: I didn’t intend to speak disrespectfully of her, but it came out before I could stop myself. What I mean is, you mustn’t let her bully you to that extent that you daren’t call your soul your own. Stand up to her boldly, and depend upon it she’ll knock under in the long run. When all’s said and done, she can’t eat you alive.”  6
  The feelings of the astounded listener overhead may be imagined.  7
  “Ah, you don’t understand,” sighed Edith. “It is easy enough for a man to talk of standing up for himself; but you don’t consider how different it is with us.”  8
  “But I do understand—I do consider,” declared Walter, scrambling up to his feet. “I know it’s awfully hard upon you, my dearest; but wouldn’t it be harder still to marry some decrepit old lord to please your mother, and to be miserable and ashamed of yourself for the rest of your life?”  9
  At this terrible picture Edith shuddered eloquently.  10
  “So you see it’s a choice of evils,” continued the young man. “Some people, I know, would think it was a great misfortune for you that you should have come to care for a poor beggar like me; but I am not going to say that because I don’t believe it is a real misfortune at all. How can it be a misfortune to love the man who loves you better than any one else in the world can possibly do, and who will always love you just the same as long as he lives?”  11
  “Upon my word!” ejaculated Mrs. Winnington inaudibly.  12
  “Of course,” Walter went on, “we shall have troubles, and probably we shall have to wait a good many years; but we are young, and we can afford to wait, if we must. You won’t mind waiting?”  13
  “Oh, no: it is not the waiting that I shall mind,” said Edith faintly.  14
  “And we know that it won’t be for ever, and that nothing can make either of us change. When one thinks of that, all the rest seems almost plain sailing. The first explosion will be the worst part of the business. I shall tell my father to-night.”  15
  “Oh, must you? So soon? What will he say?”  16
  “He? Oh, he won’t say much, dear old man. I dare say he won’t exactly approve just at first; but when he sees that I am in earnest, he’ll do what he can to help me. And then, you know, my dear, you’ll have to tell your mother.”  17
  “Walter, I can’t. I really could not do it. You have really no idea of what a coward I am. I always lie awake shivering all night before I go to the dentist’s; and indeed, I would rather have all my teeth pulled out, one by one, than tell mamma that I had engaged myself to you.”  18
  At this juncture it was only natural that the young lovers should embrace; and if Mrs. Winnington had not been literally stunned and paralyzed, she could hardly have maintained her silence any longer in the presence of such a demonstration. As it was, she neither moved nor uttered a word; and presently she heard Edith whisper pleadingly:—  19
  “Walter—dear—don’t you think we could—mightn’t we—keep it secret just a little longer?”  20
  The honest Walter rubbed his ear in perplexity. “Well, of course we could; but it would be only a putting off of the evil day, and I should like to feel that we had been perfectly straight with the old—with your mother. Look here: how would it do if I were to break it to her?”  21
  “Oh, that would be a great deal worse! If only there were some means of letting her find it out!”  22
  Hardly had this aspiration been breathed when a hollow groan was heard, proceeding apparently from the upper air. Edith started violently, and clasped her hands.  23
  “Oh!” she shrieked, “what was that? Did you hear it?”  24
  “Yes,” answered Walter, who had himself been somewhat startled: “it was nothing; it was only one of the cows outside. What a timid little goose you are!”  25
  “Oh, it was not a cow! No cow ever made such a dreadful sound as that. I am sure this dismal room is haunted—I can’t stay here any more.” And Edith fled precipitately.  26
  Walter lingered for a moment, looked all around him, looked up at the ceiling, looked everywhere,—except at the gallery just over his head,—and then hurried away after her.  27
  The cause of all this disturbance was reclining in an arm-chair, fanning herself with her pocket-handkerchief, and feeling by no means sure that she was not about to have a fit.  28
  It is perhaps hardly to be expected that any pity or sympathy should be felt for Mrs. Winnington, who nevertheless was a human creature very much like the rest of us—better, possibly, than some, and no worse than a good many others. In the course of the present narrative her failings have necessarily been brought much to the front; but she was not one of those depraved persons—if indeed there be any such—who deliberately say to Evil, “Be thou my Good.” She was not a religious woman (though she had always paid due respect to the observances of the Church, as beseemed a Bishop’s wife); but neither was she a woman without clear, albeit perverted, notions of duty. That she was a miserable sinner, she was bound, in a general sort of way, to believe; but she certainly did not suppose that her sins were any blacker than those of her neighbors. According to her lights, she had done the best that she could for her daughters, whom she really loved after a certain fashion; and according to her lights, she intended to continue doing the best she could for them. It is a fact that she thought a great deal more about them than she did about herself. Thus it was that she was every whit as much astonished and pained by what she had witnessed as the most virtuous mother into whose hands this book may chance to fall, would be, were she to discover her own immaculate daughter in the act of embracing—say the parish doctor or the poverty-stricken parish curate.  29
  “I could not have believed it!” moaned poor Mrs. Winnington, as she sat humped up in her arm-chair, with all her majesty of deportment gone out of her. “I could not have believed it possible! Edith, of all people! If it had been Kate, or even Margaret, I could have understood it better—but Edith! Oh, I am crushed! I shall never get over this.”  30
  She really looked and felt as if she might be going to have a serious attack of illness; but as there was nobody there to be alarmed, or to offer her assistance, she picked herself up after a time, and made her way down the corridor with a slow, dragging step.  31
 
 
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