My aunt was the centre of an aureola of good report. She was rumoured to be rich. I was strenuously bidden never to forget this fact, and to be accordingly unremitting in my attention to her. “A widow and without a family,” exclaimed all my well-wishers; “what is she to do with her money if she does not leave it to her most respectful and respectable of nephews?”
My aunt resided in a quarter of the town which was fashionable about say a century ago; — for Fashion is a vagrant deity, enjoying the rites of her altars not as freeholds in perpetuity, but on leasehold tenures for very short terms of years. Commerce and Poverty are the bailiffs that ceaselessly dog her footsteps, distrain upon her chattels, and eject her from her possessions.
Yet the neighbourhood in which my aunt abode, though Fashion had long since wandered miles away from it in pursuit of that aristocratic ignis fatuus called exclusiveness, had not suffered deeply in its respectability. The knockers, it is true, no longer trembled beneath the wrought-up energies of radiant footmen; the rumble of coronetted chariots, the shouts of loud-lunged linkmen no longer roused the echoes of the streets, but Trade as yet held aloof — a Damocles sword hanging over the doomed district.
Shops had not yet commenced to disturb facades and abolish parlours. The symptoms of fall were unmistakeable. The professions had made large inroads on the place. Law and medicine had firmly fixed themselves. Art had been cutting up the first-floor windows. Charity and science were converting the larger mansions into hospitals and institutions. But the Deluge had not yet come. My aunt was secure in the respectability and repose of Abigail Place, Masham Square, in the W.C. district of the Post Office.
When I mention repose, I would have the word understood in a qualified way. For though the vested interests of a century were respected, and the inhabitants were still at liberty to maintain posts, chains, and gates to ward off the profane vulgar, prevent the desecrating influence of cabs and carts, and generally establish as many obstacles and inconveniences to public comfort as was any way practicable — for though “No thoroughfare” was inscribed in every direction, till the streets got quite rusty and mildewed from want of use, and fringes of dank grass bedecked the paving stones — for though a beadle was instituted and salaried for the proper preservation of order and quiet — still the repose of the place was subject to severe and degrading invasion.
For alas! the beadle! — how changed from that beadle formerly governing the quietude of Abigail Place, Masham Square! — was a little withered old man in a faded uniform, off which the gold trimmings had melted like the glories of yesterday’s sunset. The coat he was doomed to wear had evidently in its first construction been planned for a much larger person. He was poor and feeble, quite incapable of the martial air and over-swelling dignity proper to the British beadle. He suffered from cold in the head, both chronic and acute in its attacks, and in defiance of all regulation proprieties would insist on disfiguring his uniform by sweltering his chin and neck in a long and many hued comforter terminating in worsted balls that swayed and bobbed about before him like particolored pippins in a high wind.
The former beadle’s massive staff of office which seemed to have effervesced and burst out at the top in a large brazen bubble, had degenerated in the hands of the existing functionary into a simple bamboo, price one halfpenny. Could such a man so armed hope to make head against the army of boys that resorted to Abigail Place for “fly the garter,” “hop-scotch,” and “three-hole” purposes? Was he not rather a byeword and a reproach amongst those intrepid juvenilities? Could he turn the assaults of grinning, white-teethed, olive-faced organ-men with performing monkeys, depressing comic singers, and “la perche” and “globe roulant” acrobats in faded fleshings?
It was not to be expected of him. He acquiesced in his destiny. He let the peace of Abigail Place take care of itself. If inwardly he lamented the decadence of his official functions, he outwardly betrayed no emotion save a lively appreciation of the Prince of Orange public-house, and the joys to be there purchased at economical cost.
My aunt lived in the old bow-windowed house, No. 6, in Abigail Place. She was an elderly lady, tall and thin, with large gaunt features and light grey eyes, stony and staring in effect. Something of a yellow tone prevailed in her general aspect from her pale sallow complexion and her persistence in wearing, no matter the season of the year, an Indian shawl of a tawny saffron colour. Her long thin hands were always clothed with black lace mittens, through the interstices of which various jewelled rings sparkled hazily. Stiff ringlets of a dead black hue were coiled upon each side of her forehead, and confined in a manner that fostered suspicion as to their genuineness by a black velvet band from which a large garnet set in dull gold dangled on her forehead.
My aunt’s occupations were few. She seldom stirred out of the house, but generally sat all the day through on a large sofa by the fire in her front parlour, with her tawny mantle on her shoulders, her jewel on her forehead — a strange combination of the turban and the nightcap on her head — employed in knitting with her thin black mittened-hands, and with wooden needles of vast calibre, very strong and coarse comforters, the wool-ball in an enclosed basket at her feet, rolling and leaping about as the work required it, unwinding like a desperately active rat in a wire cage.
Occasionally, too, she executed another species of work which rendered it necessary that she should insert her foot in a stirrup and go bowing and jogging on as though she were engaged in equestrian exercise of a prolonged and energetic character. The destination of my aunt’s work no one ever knew. As soon as one comforter was completed another was commenced, and by a curious inconsistency, the hotter the weather the more zealously my aunt seemed to employ herself in the manufacture of extra strong and thick comforters.
Occasionally she left her seat to move to the window, and negative by severe shakings of her head the petitions of pertinacious beggars or obstinate organ-men. And now and then she indulged herself in a promenade up and down her small sitting-room, always walking very upright and joining her hands behind her in quite a quarter-deck commanding officer sort of way. But her love of exercise was not strong, and she was more frequently to be found sitting on the sofa by the fire, knitting to the musical purring of a fat black and white cat with a pink nose, the very feline incarnation of luxurious content and selfish enjoyment.
My aunt had a favourite and confidential servant named Willis, who had lived with her for about thirty years; and, probably from this cause and from being invested and attired in many articles weeded from my aunt’s wardrobe, had acquired no inconsiderable resemblance to her. She was some years younger and stouter, and inure active; but she also wore hair of dense blackness, festooned on her forehead, though unbound by a jewelled fillet. She also assumed at times much of my aunt’s rigid and severe expression; wore on her head a fabric of wire and muslin, in which some type of Orientalism was traceable, and which she called a “turbot,” and rejoiced in black mittens on her hands, though of a less open and heavier material.
Her respect for my aunt amounted to veneration. Her care and attention were unremitting; and my aunt rewarded the fidelity of her companion by admitting her to closer terms of intimacy and friendship than are usual between mistress and servant. Her regard for my aunt Willis also, though in a less degree, extended to her relatives. I know that I often received at her hands an amount of homage that was almost embarrassing.
It was a peculiarity shared by my aunt and Willis to clothe me with a youthfulness which was really inappropriate. My aunt invariably addressed me as “child,” and Willis always preferred to give me the prefix of “master” in lieu of the more mature “mister,” to which my years very fairly entitled me.
“Willis, take the child’s hat,” said my aunt, whenever I called to pay my respects and inquire after her health. She never rose from her seat, but always nodded her head in a severely kind way, and held out a thin cold finger for me to shake.
“I hope you’re quite well, Master?” inquired Willis, in a friendly, patronising way.
It was wonderful with what a schoolboy feeling I became possessed. It always seemed as likely as not that they would on some occasion invite me to spin a top, or would produce a rocking-horse for my delectation, or promise me a feast of sugared bread-and-butter if I would recite, without missing a word, “The Boy stood on the burning deck,” or “My name is Nerval.” I know my aunt maintained a habit of furtively “tipping” me with bright silver coins long after I was eight-and-twenty years of age.
“How you do grow, Master,” Willis would go on, good naturedly; “quite out of all knowledge.”
If she meant old, she was tolerably correct, but if, as I believe, she alluded to my height, it was a singular observation, since for many a long day no inch had been added to my stature.
I generally called upon my aunt in the evening. Our conversation was not very well sustained. It seldom comprised more than a discussion on the weather, my aunt always maintaining that the seasons had quite changed since she was my age, with occasional digressions as to the progress of my aunt’s knitting achievements, and the state of health of the black-and-white cat with the pink nose.
At eight o’clock my aunt always put away her work, folded her hands before her, placed her feet upon the fender — she had a fire nearly all the year round — and sat quite still for nearly half an hour. She was not asleep; but she kept her eyes fixed on the clock over the mantelpiece. I remember that dial well; it was a curious piece of French ingenuity that did not keep very correct time, and represented the figure of a harlequin in a loose patchwork suit and black mask carrying on his back a large drum, the side of which formed the face of the clock. It was hemmed in by a variety of grotesque china ornaments, terminating at either end of the shelf in a green dog in a gold collar — an animal of unnatural and surpassing hideousness.
My aunt watched the clock until it chirped the half-hour: she then rang the bell. “Tea, Willis.” Soon after Willis entered with a large urn, something of the funeral form seen in cemeteries, and with large rings at the side by which to carry it: it only wanted a weeping willow over it to complete an admirable sign for a mourning shop.
The teapot was a large china vessel, with a remarkable sort of basket suspended from its spout for filtering purposes. My ount poured hot water into the pot with great solemnity. I know I always — I suppose for want of better occupation — watched the operation with considerable interest. I counted the number of spoonfuls of tea put into the pot: one for my aunt, I thought — one for me — one for the pot — and one — who was the fourth for?
I always wondered, for she always put four in; and then I always noticed that three cups had been brought up; — two of a neat ordinary pattern for my aunt and myself, and a third of much more elaborate design, richly gilded, and pictured over with glowing rosebuds and festoons of green vine-leaves and golden grapes. Who was this cup for? The process of brewing the tea was one of some duration. My aunt turned her eyes to the clock at every pause in the proceeding. It was nine o’clock by the time the tea was ready for outpouring. As the clock struck my aunt rang the bell again.
“Well, Willis?” my aunt said, inquiringly: Willis wore a vague mysterious look.
“It’s nine and past,” she said.
“Yes!” My aunt heaved a deep sigh.
“He’ll hardly be here now,” Willis continued.
“No.” My aunt looked very sad indeed. Willis shook her head strangely and solemnly.
“He must know by this time,” said my aunt.
“Of course he does,” Willis answered, “unless—”
“Unless what?” My aunt looked up eagerly.
“Unless he’s gone to the north-east.” Willis spoke in a low voice.
“Or to the south-east.” My aunt bowed her head in a mournful way.
“Ay, or to the north-west,” Willis went on.
“Or to the south-west.” My aunt hid her face in her handkerchief. The minute-hand on the harlequin’s drum was stealing on to the quarterpost. My aunt roused herself.
“I should never forgive myself, if he were to come and find us unprepared for him.”
Willis seemed to think the consequences of such a contingency would be utterly terrible.
“You had better go to the corner, Willis, and look out.”
And Willis left the room, and I could hear her go out into the street. My aunt did not speak or move, or take the slightest notice of my presence: she kept her gaze fixed to the clock. In a few minutes Willis returned. My aunt turned towards her anxiously; but the expression on Willis’s countenance seemed to be a sufficient answer.
“He’ll not come now,” said my aunt.
“I think not.”
“And the night’s fine?”
“Not too cold?”
“No, not too cold.”
“I’m glad of that. Thank you, Willis: that will do, Willis. Put coal on, Willis. Elder wine at ten o’clock, Willis.”
And then my aunt poured out the tea. What did this mean?
The same formula went on each time I paid my evening visit to my aunt. The same interchange of looks and words; the same question and reply; the same doubts about the north and south-east, the north and south-west; the same going out into the street; the same gazing at the clock; the same return alone of Willis, and observations upon the weather.
What did it all mean? This was my aunt’s mystery. In vain I sought some explanation of the enigma; in vain I tried to dissipate the clouds about it by some reasonable solution; in vain I put the case to my friends, and besought their views in regard to it. I was only recommended to boldly inquire of my aunt. I was a long time before I could make up my mind to adopt this course. At length human patience could survive it no longer.
“Whom do you expect, aunt?” I boldly broke out with one evening, after a more than usually provoking performance of the mystery.
“Hush, Master “cried Willis, with a frightened gesture.
“Children shouldn’t ask questions,” said my aunt grimly, and with a petrified look about her eyes. She was seriously offended: she did not speak to me again that evening. At ten o’clock she took her usual refreshment of a glass of hot inky-looking elder wine, and a stick of dry toast, and then was led away to bed by Willis.
I never dared to repeat the inquiry. People said my aunt was mad — “had a loose slate,” was the expression; and satisfied themselves with that explanation, but it never satisfied me. That some fixed notion absorbed her, that her whole faculties were concentrated upon one particular idea seemed likely. Yet this, “though it lacked form a little, was not like madness.”
To reach the root of an old tree one must dig down very deep. To arrive at the commencement of my aunt’s mystery, I have to turn back a good many pages of Time’s chronicles. I have to revert to days when those extinct marvels called Tory gentlemen, over deep glasses of fiery Port, held “Boney” in stinging derision; when an elderly prince, corpulently debonnaire, with a strong feeling for auburn wigs and massive, balustrade-like calves, swayed the destiny of Britain as deputy for a more elderly king, whom mental embarrassment had constrained to retire from the business; when Lawrence was painting glittering-eyed, carmine-lipped, satin-skinned women; when Canova was chiselling florescent compromises between the antique nymph and the modern flirt; when Byron was dropping at intervals his red-hot shells of poems upon amazed London.
It is not with London that I have to deal, however: but with the classic city founded by Bladud, Son of Lud Hudibras, Eighth King of the Britons — with Bath, of hot-spring and pump-room fame, shining fair and clean amid its hills, like a lump of white sugar in a green cup.
There is quite a blazing forest of wax-candles in the Assembly Room, rapidly filling with a most distinguished company. The clatter of dance music rings through the elegant salon, making the very glass beads of the chandeliers jump and click themselves together. The master of the ceremonies is in the extremest agonies of his office. He shuffles and deals out the company like a conjurer with his cards, never once loses sight of the more eligible or trumps, and winning all sorts of odd tricks by his adroitness and sleight of hand.
I desire to point out a young lady making her debut at this ball. She is tall and slight, not ungraceful. She is not beautiful, but attractive from her amiable, subdued, rather shy expression. Her attire is in the mode of the day; the dress scanty in quantity, and peculiar in form — “gored,” I believe to be the correct term for the breadths of a dress cut narrower at the top than at the bottom of the skirt. Globular puffs of muslin form the sleeves of the frock, and white kid gloves, almost as long as stockings, enclose her arms.
She carries a very small fan, and wears a short waist, girded by a bright-coloured sash, tied in a bow at the back, and flowing off into streamers, like a duplex blue-peter floating from the fore. Her head appears to be regarded rather as a foundation for further height, than as the capital of the human figure. There is quite a square half-foot of tortoiseshell erected on her crown, and from this arise elaborate plaits of hair, bunches of ribbon, and garlands of very small daisies. Cataracts of small crisp curls gush on to her temples: long gold drops depend from her ears and strings of coral beads set off the white of her neck.
The dress is short enough to display amply very neat feet and anckles, in open-work net stockings and white satin sandals ingeniously tied with many cross-foldings. The effect of such a costume in a modern ball-room would be, perhaps, a little startling: at the period I refer to it was most modestly en regle.
She was timid and shy: it was her first ball. From a quiet country-house in the most retired part of Somersetshire she had been transplanted into the festive city of Bath, and she found the air a little overcharged and feverish, a little overscented with pommade, a little deficient in freshness altogether.
And a great difficulty was startling her mind as it was disturbing the discriminations of very many respectable people in those days — for it was a serious, earnest, vital question; accordingly as the young lady made answer was her fate to be decided, she was to be either banned as a prude, or launched as a coquette. And this was the question. Was waltzing proper? There was no escape from giving a reply. The thing must be classified under one or other of those very English divisions — it was “proper,” or it was “shocking!”
The young lady was much moved by this question. She had fairly walked into the Rubicon, but could not make up her mind whether she should cross over or walk back again. She had learnt the step, but then she had only performed the dance with other young ladies fair, shy, and trembling like herself. She had not yet yielded her waist to the arm of the male waltzer. Should she now submit? The question could be no longer begged, for the stupendous master of the ceremonies was approaching and leading towards her a gentleman, evidently a dancer, and the orchestra had struck up that defunct air “Lieber Augustin,” one of the first waltzes imported.
I shall not attempt to describe further the master of the ceremonies; for though but a dim representative of that renowned Beau Nash whose sceptre he swayed, I feel that so great a subject cannot fittingly be treated episodically. I turn therefore to the gentleman who is being pioneered so dexterously through the crowded throngs of the ball-room.
It was rather a transitional period. “The blood,” was dying out — the fighting, strong, swaggering, hard-headed, muscular blood was fairly going out of fashion. “The swell” was not born or thought of, being entirely of a nobility of recent creation. There were the interim stages of the “buck” and the “dandy.” Effeminacy was the vogue, inanity the ruling mode. Gentlemen boasted of their weak nerves, interchanged vapid Brummelisms, padded their limbs and shoulders, plastered curls on their foreheads, even to their eyebrows, splashed about Eau de Cologne to keep off the odour of “low people,” wore stays, and bragged as having done a daring coarse thing, that they “had once eat a pea!” The man of fashion of that day was not altogether a thing to lie very highly respected.
The gentleman in the care of the master of the ceremonies was an average specimen of his class. He was as good-looking, according to the modern views, as his costume would permit him to be. “Knees and silks” were becoming the peculiar properties of the professions and of old gentlemen Pantaloons were the intermediate step to the trousers of to-day. Necks were worn long and muslined and buckramed to a point that seemed to put life in peril. The bow of the neck-tie was a thing on which to stake a reputation — to accomplish, and then die. Waists were short, and heavy watch chains hung from the fob-pockets, weighted with bunches of massive seals and keys. Pumps were the fashion, with ribbed silk stockings. A luxuriant foliage of frilling flourished upon the bosom, and violet hued waistcoats were worn with false collars of supposititious other waistcoats appearing above the genuine.
The gentleman I am referring to wore a bright green silk “vest,” crowned by a collar of red and then a collar of white. His coat was long, narrow, and pointed at the tails — very tight in its sleeves, very rolling in its collar — very much puffed up on the shoulders. It was decorated with gilt basket buttons, and its colour was plum — a vivid and fruity plum.
The lady, speechless and trembling, hardly knowing what she did, yielded to the entreaties of the master of the ceremonies — to the polite application of the gentleman. In a sort of unconscious way she stood up to join in the dance. The gentleman appreciating her trouble and diffidence, considerately zoned her waist with his arm in a firm decided manner, and they started off on their revolving exploit. They succeeded, for they were both excellent dancers. The room paused to witness their wonderful circling career. There was a loud buzz of “admirable!” Only a few severe ladies, with strong prejudices in favour of the “Gavotte,” “Sir Roger,” and “The Tank,” growled out lowly, but intensely, “Shocking!”
The master of the ceremonies condescended to congratulate the dancers on their triumph. Such a thing was almost without precedent. Between the lady and the gentleman, however, little conversation passed, for dancing and talking are not altogether compatible.
Once he asked her if she would take some negus; once he admired her fan; once he inquired if she didn’t think the room hot; and when they parted for the evening he muttered an incomplete sentence, something about his regret that an acquaintance so delightfully begun should cease so suddenly, and that if the devotion of a life…; but here a lurch in the crush-room snapped the sense of the observation, and parted the lady and gentleman. He jerked out, “Too-bad, ‘pon honor!” put his quizzing glass to his eye, and went to look out for some more supper — for romance only defers, it does not satiate the appetite.
The lady went home, and in due time sunk back into her retired country life. She always thought of her evening in the Bath ball-room, as one of the most important events in her life; she often dreamt of her partner the gentleman in the plum coloured coat; she was never tired of talking of him. Often she dwelt upon the delights of her first waltz; often she looked in subsequent ball-rooms for that exquisite partner in the plum coloured coat. She made all sorts of inquiries about him; sought to ascertain his name — his place of abode — but not successfully. She was unable to fix upon him any more definite title than that of the gentleman in the plum-coloured coat.
After a lapse of some years the young lady was sought in marriage, and duly led to the altar by a gentleman returned from the East Indies with the reputation of being “a nabob.” Her heart was not greatly in the business; but with that of course nobody had anything to do. The nabob was not of a very amiable disposition, and did not treat his wife too tenderly; he was a violent, turgid, cruel man, with no thought but for himself. The kindest action he ever performed towards his poor frightened wife was when, thirty-five years after his marriage, he made her his widow, and was interred with extraordinary pomp in the vaults of Marylebone Church.
The widow bore her bereavement like King Claudius, “with wisest sorrow;” she sold off a great deal of her large cumbrous furniture, and with the rest, and a faithful old servant who had been with her almost from her marriage, and who, as the reader will have inferred, bore the name of Willis, settled down in a quiet and respectable street known as Abigail Place, Masham Square, W.C.
One day I had seen the formula of the mystery for the last time. My poor old aunt, in a quiet, painless illness, had passed away. Willis was in very great distress.
“Ah! Master —, she was the kindest, truest, goodest mistress that ever was.” Willis sobbed piteously. “I shall never find such another; never —never! Poor soul, it’s a comfort to think that she didn’t want for nothing. It’s a consolation to reflect on, that is. Her wants weren’t many, but she had them all supplied.”
A thought occurred to me.
“Not all,” I said.
Willis looked up inquiringly through her tears.
“He didn’t come.”
Willis started, and turned quite pale.
“O Master , how did you know anything about it.”
“l know all.” I said.
It was a shameful artifice. I assumed a mysterious, solemn, and meaning air that quite imposed upon Willis, and led her on to forgetting her sorrows in conversation. Gradually the narrative of the Bath ball-room came from her. On the particulars gathered from Willis I have founded that portion of my story. As the reader has no doubt conjectured, the lady who waltzed with the gentleman in the plum-coloured coat was my aunt.
“Ah, Master,” Willis went on shaking her head to and fro, pathetically, “my poor mistress had a sad time of it. Her late husband was a hard, hard man. He’d been accustomed to such slave driving ways in the Indies, he couldn’t treat a simple English lady properly. My poor Mistress was often very sad and wretched about him, and sat alone, and thought and cried over her young days and how quiet and happy they were, and often she talked of the ball at Bath, and her dancing, and her partner there.
And then five years after my master died she had a long, long illness, and her head was a good bit troubled; and when she recovered, which wasn’t for ever so long, she got to rambling back to her young times more than ever, and her memory was touched like, and she could only recollect the things which happened quite far back.
Then she would be always talking of the Bath gentleman, and she got it fixed in her mind that she should meet him again even yet; and that now she was free again, he would make her an offer of his hand, in pledge of the devotion of a life, and they would be married and happy at last. She got to be for ever talking of this, and wanting to make fresh inquiries, and try and find him out. At last old Mrs. Luff came here one day to do some charing work, and she was full of a wise-woman living next door to her in Brooker’s Buildings.
“A wise-woman — a good woman some calls them —who knew everything, could do all sorts of conjuring tricks, tell you all you’d done, bless you, in the whole course of your life, and predict the future by looking in teacups and spreading out packs of cards.
Well my mistress heard of this, and at last made up her mind to see the woman and try if she could tell where the gentleman was to be found. Well they had long consultations, and my mistress gave the woman all sorts of things to work the spells with as she called it; — now it was cold meat, now it was gowns, now stout, now bonnets, and now it was one of every coin of the realm, to be left on the door-step at the full moon and to be gone by the morning — took by the spirits, she said.
Well, at last she gave her prediction.— It was about time, for it had cost ever so much money. She said that my mistress and the gentleman would be sure to meet again, and would be happy; that the gentleman was travelling, but the stars wouldn’t quite tell her where; that he must be written to, and that as it stood to reason he must be either in the north, south, east, or west, four letters must be sent so addressed, and one would be sure to reach him.”
“And my aunt wrote?”
“Yes, Master; she wrote four letters: they were all alike. She kept a copy of what she wrote; I know where to find it — I’ll show it to you.”
She produced a sheet of note-paper, written upon in my aunt’s cramped irregular writing. The letter ran thus:
Dear Sir, —Many years ago you may remember meeting the present writer at a ball at Bath. I wore a lace frock over white silk, with a blue sash. You were dressed in a green waistcoat and a plum-coloured coat. I have been married, but my husband is dead, and I am now free again. Pray come and see me. There is nothing now to prevent our union. Your affectionate,
P.S.—I address this from the house with the bow window. Recollect this, please, as there are four number sixes.
There was no date, nor was the address given, and my aunt had apparently only signed her christian names.
“How were the letters directed?”
“Simply ‘To the Gentleman in the Plum coloured Coat, North, South, East, West.'”
“Well, we were to post the letters at the most distant London post-offices we could find. My mistress hired a fly and went round posting her letters. One was put in at Camberwell, one at Islington, one at Kensington, and one in Whitechapel. The wise-woman was told of this, and said we had done quite right. My mistress then gave her her sable boa and muff, and she then predicted that the gentleman would arrive in a very few days, and that he would appear precisely at teatime, at nine o’clock.”
“He didn’t come?”
“He didn’t, indeed, Master! But my mistress was always expecting him. When after a few weeks she got tired a little, she sent again to the wise-woman to try and learn more about him. But the woman had left the neighbourhood suddenly, and we couldn’t find out where she had moved to. Then we had a great talking over of the matter, and my mistress wouldn’t give up that he would come yet, but was only frightened about his having gone to the north-east or north-west, or to the south-east or south-west, and so not got the letters. So she expected him, and made tea for him, and waited, and sent me out to look for him every night, poor thing, right up to her death last Tuesday.”
“And did you expect him, Willis?”
“Well, Master! what with the wise-woman and my mistress and the incessant talking about him and the perpetual wondering whether and when he’d come, I got to think of it at last as all true and likely, and to actually believe that he would come. Ah! it’s a sad business to think that she should have died and not seen him again after all! Poor soul! poor soul!”
And Willis gave way again to her tears.
My aunt’s mystery was explained.
Her mind, never very strong, in the last years of her life still further weakened by wear, and shattered and crazed by grief and illness, had strayed back to the one happy passage in her rather dull and doleful life, and clung to it with a tenacity which only death could relax. The desire to meet again her first waltz partner had swelled and ripened into a confirmed monomania.
I never read in the newspapers of a fortuneteller taken up for swindling but I think of the wise-woman who preyed upon my aunt, and trust that the worthy magistrate will deal out the law with the utmost rigour. I never see a stout old gentleman, curly in wig and hat-rim, tight in his girths, and with a general savour of the Regency buck about him, decking the window of a St. James’s Street club, or taking very cautious promenades in Pall Mall, but I ask myself whether it is possible he could have been the gentleman who wore the plum-coloured coat and waltzed with my aunt at the Bath ball in 181—.
I may mention that my aunt’s wealth had been the subject of a grievous exaggeration. The nabob had played highly, and at his death left his widow little more than a comfortable annuity, which died with her. Of her savings, however, there was enough to secure a small pension for the faithful Willis. All that I received — at any rate, all that I now possess — of my aunt’s property is comprised in my chimney-decorations: the French harlequin with the drum-clock and the hideous green china dogs.