The Blue Castle-3

CHAPTER IX

 Uncle Herbert and Aunt Alberta's silver wedding was delicately referred to among the Stirlings during the following weeks as "the time we first noticed poor Valancy was — a little — YOU understand?"

Not for words would any of the Stirlings have said out and out at first that Valancy had gone mildly insane or even that her mind was slightly deranged.  Uncle Benjamin was considered to have gone entirely too far when he had ejaculated, "She's dippy — I tell you, she's dippy," and was only excused because of the outrageousness of Valancy's conduct at the aforsaid wedding dinner.

But Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles had noticed a few things that made them uneasy BEFORE the dinner.  It had begun with the rosebush, of course; and Valancy never was really "quite right" again.  She did not seem to worry in the least over the fact that her mother was not speaking to her.  You would never suppose she noticed it at all.  She had flatly refused to take either Purple Pills or Redfern's Bitters.  She had announced coolly that she did not intend to answer to the name of "Doss" any longer.  She had told Cousin Stickles that she wished she would give up wearing that brooch with Cousin Artemas Stickles' hair in it.  She had moved her bed in her room to the opposite corner.  She had read Magic of Wings Sunday afternoon.  When Cousin Stickles had rebuked her Valancy had said indifferently, "Oh, I forgot it was Sunday" — and HAD GONE ON READING IT.

Cousin Stickles had seen a terrible thing — she had caught Valancy sliding down the bannister.  Cousin Stickles did not tell Mrs. Frederick this — poor Amelia was worried enough as it was.  But it was Valancy's announcement on Saturday night that she was not going to go to the Anglican church any more that broke through Mrs. Frederick's stony silence.

"Not going to church any more!  Doss, have you absolutely taken leave — "

"Oh, I'm going to church," said Valancy airily.  "I'm going to the Presbyterian church.  But to the Anglican church I will not go."

This was even worse.  Mrs. Frederick had recourse to tears, having found outraged majesty had ceased to be effective.

"What have you got against the Anglican church?" she sobbed.

"Nothing — only just that you've always made me go there.  If you'd made me go to the Presbyterian church I'd want to go to the Anglican."

"Is that a nice thing to say to your mother?  Oh, how true it is that it is sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless child."

"Is that a nice thing to say to your daughter?" said unrepentant Valancy.

So Valancy's behaviour at the silver wedding was not quite the surprise to Mrs. Frederick and Christine Stickles that it was to the rest.  They were doubtful about the wisdom of taking her, but concluded it would "make talk" if they didn't.  Perhaps she would behave herself, and so far no outsider suspected there was anything queer about her.  By a special mercy of Providence it had poured torrents Sunday morning, so Valancy had not carried out her hideous threat of going to the Presbyterian church.

Valancy would not have cared in the least if they had left her at home.  These family celebrations were all hopelessly dull.  But the Stirlings always celebrated everything.  It was a long-established custom.  Even Mrs. Frederick gave a dinner party on her wedding anniversary and Cousin Stickles had friends in to supper on her birthday.  Valancy hated these entertainments because they had to pinch and save and contrive for weeks afterwards to pay for them. But she wanted to go to the silver wedding.  It would hurt Uncle Herbert's feelings if she stayed away, and she rather liked Uncle Herbert.  Besides, she wanted to look over all her relatives from her new angle.  It would be an excellent place to make public her declaration of independence if occasion offered.

"Put on your brown silk dress," said Mrs. Stirling.

As if there were anything else to put on!  Valancy had only the one festive dress — that snuffy-brown silk Aunt Isabel had given her. Aunt Isabel had decreed that Valancy should never wear colours. They did not become her.  When she was young they allowed her to wear white, but that had been tacitly dropped for some years. Valancy put on the brown silk.  It had a high collar and long sleeves.  She had never had a dress with low neck and elbow sleeves, although they had been worn, even in Deerwood, for over a year.  But she did not do her hair pompadour.  She knotted it on her neck and pulled it out over her ears.  She thought it became her — only the little knot was so absurdly small.  Mrs. Frederick resented the hair but decided it was wisest to say nothing on the eve of the party.  It was so important that Valancy should be kept in good humour, if possible, until it was over.  Mrs. Frederick did not reflect that this was the first time in her life that she had thought it necessary to consider Valancy's humours.  But then Valancy had never been "queer" before.

On their way to Uncle Herbert's — Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles walking in front, Valancy trotting meekly along behind — Roaring Abel drove past them.  Drunk as usual but not in the roaring stage. Just drunk enough to be excessively polite.  He raised his disreputable old tartan cap with the air of a monarch saluting his subjects and swept them a grand bow, Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles dared not cut Roaring Abel altogether.  He was the only person in Deerwood who could be got to do odd jobs of carpentering and repairing when they needed to be done, so it would not do to offend him.  But they responded with only the stiffest, slightest of bows.  Roaring Abel must be kept in his place.

Valancy, behind them, did a thing they were fortunately spared seeing.  She smiled gaily and waved her hand to Roaring Abel.  Why not?  She had always liked the old sinner.  He was such a jolly, picturesque, unashamed reprobate and stood out against the drab respectability of Deerwood and its customs like a flame-red flag of revolt and protest.  Only a few nights ago Abel had gone through Deerwood in the wee sma's, shouting oaths at the top of his stentorian voice which could be heard for miles, and lashing his horse into a furious gallop as he tore along prim, proper Elm Street.

"Yelling and blaspheming like a fiend," shuddered Cousin Stickles at the breakfast-table.

"I cannot understand why the judgment of the Lord has not fallen upon that man long ere this," said Mrs. Frederick petulantly, as if she thought Providence was very dilatory and ought to have a gentle reminder.

"He'll be picked up dead some morning — he'll fall under his horse's hoofs and be trampled to death," said Cousin Stickles reassuringly.

Valancy had said nothing, of course; but she wondered to herself if Roaring Abel's periodical sprees were not his futile protest against the poverty and drudgery and monotony of his existence. SHE went on dream sprees in her Blue Castle.  Roaring Abel, having no imagination, could not do that.  HIS escapes from reality had to be concrete.  So she waved at him today with a sudden fellow feeling, and Roaring Abel, not too drunk to be astonished, nearly fell off his seat in his amazement.

By this time they had reached Maple Avenue and Uncle Herbert's house, a large, pretentious structure peppered with meaningless bay windows and excrescent porches.  A house that always looked like a stupid, prosperous, self-satisfied man with warts on his face.

"A house like that," said Valancy solemnly, "is a blasphemy."

Mrs. Frederick was shaken to her soul.  What had Valancy said?  Was it profane?  Or only just queer?  Mrs. Frederick took off her hat in Aunt Alberta's spare-room with trembling hands.  She made one more feeble attempt to avert disaster.  She held Valancy back on the landing as Cousin Stickles went downstairs.

"Won't you try to remember you're a lady?" she pleaded.

"Oh, if there were only any hope of being able to forget it!" said Valancy wearily.

Mrs. Frederick felt that she had not deserved this from Providence.

 

CHAPTER X

 "Bless this food to our use and consecrate our lives to Thy service," said Uncle Herbert briskly.

Aunt Wellington frowned.  She always considered Herbert's graces entirely too short and "flippant."  A grace, to be a grace in Aunt Wellington's eyes, had to be at least three minutes long and uttered in an unearthly tone, between a groan and a chant.  As a protest she kept her head bent a perceptible time after all the rest had been lifted.  When she permitted herself to sit upright she found Valancy looking at her.  Ever afterwards Aunt Wellington averred that she had known from that moment that there was something wrong with Valancy.  In those queer, slanted eyes of hers — "we should always have known she was not entirely RIGHT with eyes like that" — there was an odd gleam of mockery and amusement —  as if Valancy were laughing at HER.  Such a thing was unthinkable, of course.  Aunt Wellington at once ceased to think it.

Valancy was enjoying herself.  She had never enjoyed herself at a "family reunion" before.  In social functions, as in childish games, she had only "filled in."  Her clan had always considered her very dull.  She had no parlour tricks.  And she had been in the habit of taking refuge from the boredom of family parties in her Blue Castle, which resulted in an absent-mindedness that increased her reputation for dullness and vacuity.

"She has no social presence whatever," Aunt Wellington had decreed once and for all.  Nobody dreamed that Valancy was dumb in their presence merely because she was afraid of them.  Now she was no longer afraid of them.  The shackles had been stricken off her soul.  She was quite prepared to talk if occasion offered. Meanwhile she was giving herself such freedom of thought as she had never dared to take before.  She let herself go with a wild, inner exultation, as Uncle Herbert carved the turkey.  Uncle Herbert gave Valancy a second look that day.  Being a man, he didn't know what she had done to her hair, but he thought surprisedly that Doss was not such a bad-looking girl, after all; and he put an extra piece of white meat on her plate.

"What herb is most injurious to a young lady's beauty?" propounded Uncle Benjamin by way of starting conversation — "loosening things up a bit," as he would have said.

Valancy, whose duty it was to say, "What?" did not say it.  Nobody else said it, so Uncle Benjamin, after an expectant pause, had to answer, "Thyme," and felt that his riddle had fallen flat.  He looked resentfully at Valancy, who had never failed him before, but Valancy did not seem even to be aware of him.  She was gazing around the table, examining relentlessly every one in this depressing assembly of sensible people and watching their little squirms with a detached, amused smile.

So these were the people she had always held in reverence and fear. She seemed to see them with new eyes.

Big, capable, patronising, voluble Aunt Mildred, who thought herself the cleverest woman in the clan, her husband a little lower than the angels and her children wonders.  Had not her son, Howard, been all through teething at eleven months?  And could she not tell you the best way to do everything, from cooking mushrooms to picking up a snake?  What a bore she was!  What ugly moles she had on her face!

Cousin Gladys, who was always praising her son, who had died young, and always fighting with her living one.  She had neuritis — or what she called neuritis.  It jumped about from one part of her body to another.  It was a convenient thing.  If anybody wanted her to go somewhere she didn't want to go she had neuritis in her legs.  And always if any mental effort was required she could have neuritis in her head.  You can't THINK with neuritis in your head, my dear.

"What an old humbug you are!" thought Valancy impiously.

Aunt Isabel.  Valancy counted her chins.  Aunt Isabel was the critic of the clan.  She had always gone about squashing people flat.  More members of it than Valancy were afraid of her.  She had, it was conceded, a biting tongue.

"I wonder what would happen to your face if you ever smiled," speculated Valancy, unblushingly.

Second Cousin Sarah Taylor, with her great, pale, expressionless eyes, who was noted for the variety of her pickle recipes and for nothing else.  So afraid of saying something indiscreet that she never said anything worth listening to.  So proper that she blushed when she saw the advertisement picture of a corset and had put a dress on her Venus de Milo statuette which made it look "real tasty."

Little Cousin Georgiana.  Not such a bad little soul.  But dreary —  very.  Always looking as if she had just been starched and ironed. Always afraid to let herself go.  The only thing she really enjoyed was a funeral.  You knew where you were with a corpse.  Nothing more could happen to IT.  But while there was life there was fear.

Uncle James.  Handsome, black, with his sarcastic, trap-like mouth and iron-grey side-burns, whose favourite amusement was to write controversial letters to the Christian Times, attacking Modernism. Valancy always wondered if he looked as solemn when he was asleep as he did when awake.  No wonder his wife had died young.  Valancy remembered her.  A pretty, sensitive thing.  Uncle James had denied her everything she wanted and showered on her everything she didn't want.  He had killed her — quite legally.  She had been smothered and starved.

Uncle Benjamin, wheezy, pussy-mouthed.  With great pouches under eyes that held nothing in reverence.

Uncle Wellington.  Long, pallid face, thin, pale-yellow hair — "one of the fair Stirlings" — thin, stooping body, abominably high forehead with such ugly wrinkles, and "eyes about as intelligent as a fish's," thought Valancy.  "Looks like a cartoon of himself."

Aunt Wellington.  Named Mary but called by her husband's name to distinguish her from Great-aunt Mary.  A massive, dignified, permanent lady.  Splendidly arranged, iron-grey hair.  Rich, fashionable beaded dress.  Had HER moles removed by electrolysis —  which Aunt Mildred thought was a wicked evasion of the purposes of God.

Uncle Herbert, with his spiky grey hair.  Aunt Alberta, who twisted her mouth so unpleasantly in talking and had a great reputation for unselfishness because she was always giving up a lot of things she didn't want.  Valancy let them off easily in her judgment because she liked them, even if they were in Milton's expressive phrase, "stupidly good."  But she wondered for what inscrutable reason Aunt Alberta had seen fit to tie a black velvet ribbon around each of her chubby arms above the elbow.

Then she looked across the table at Olive.  Olive, who had been held up to her as a paragon of beauty, behaviour and success as long as she could remember.  "Why can't you hold yourself like Olive, Doss?  Why can't you stand correctly like Olive, Doss?  Why can't you speak prettily like Olive, Doss?  Why can't you make an effort, Doss?"

Valancy's elfin eyes lost their mocking glitter and became pensive and sorrowful.  You could not ignore or disdain Olive.  It was quite impossible to deny that she was beautiful and effective and sometimes she was a little intelligent.  Her mouth might be a trifle heavy — she might show her fine, white, regular teeth rather too lavishly when she smiled.  But when all was said and done, Olive justified Uncle Benjamin's summing up — "a stunning girl." Yes, Valancy agreed in her heart, Olive was stunning.

Rich, golden-brown hair, elaborately dressed, with a sparkling bandeau holding its glossy puffs in place; large, brilliant blue eyes and thick silken lashes; face of rose and bare neck of snow, rising above her gown; great pearl bubbles in her ears; the blue- white diamond flame on her long, smooth, waxen finger with its rosy, pointed nail.  Arms of marble, gleaming through green chiffon and shadow lace.  Valancy felt suddenly thankful that her own scrawny arms were decently swathed in brown silk.  Then she resumed her tabulation of Olive's charms.

Tall.  Queenly.  Confident.  Everything that Valancy was NOT. Dimples, too, in cheeks and chin.  "A woman with dimples always gets her own way," thought Valancy, in a recurring spasm of bitterness at the fate which had denied her even one dimple.

Olive was only a year younger than Valancy, though a stranger would have thought that there was at least ten years between them.  But nobody ever dreaded old maidenhood for her.  Olive had been surrounded by a crowd of eager beaus since her early teens, just as her mirror was always surrounded by a fringe of cards, photographs, programmes and invitations.  At eighteen, when she had graduated from Havergal College, Olive had been engaged to Will Desmond, lawyer in embryo.  Will Desmond had died and Olive had mourned for him properly for two years.  When she was twenty-three she had a hectic affair with Donald Jackson.  But Aunt and Uncle Wellington disapproved of that and in the end Olive dutifully gave him up. Nobody in the Stirling clan — whatever outsiders might say — hinted that she did so because Donald himself was cooling off.  However that might be, Olive's third venture met with everybody's approval. Cecil Price was clever and handsome and "one of the Port Lawrence Prices."  Olive had been engaged to him for three years.  He had just graduated in civil engineering and they were to be married as soon as he landed a contract.  Olive's hope chest was full to overflowing with exquisite things and Olive had already confided to Valancy what her wedding-dress was to be.  Ivory silk draped with lace, white satin court train, lined with pale green georgette, heirloom veil of Brussels lace.  Valancy knew also — though Olive had not told her — that the bridesmaids were selected and that she was not among them.

Valancy had, after a fashion, always been Olive's confidante —  perhaps because she was the only girl in the connection who could not bore Olive with return confidences.  Olive always told Valancy all the details of her love affairs, from the days when the little boys in school used to "persecute" her with love letters.  Valancy could not comfort herself by thinking these affairs mythical. Olive really had them.  Many men had gone mad over her besides the three fortunate ones.

"I don't know what the poor idiots see in me, that drives them to make such double idiots of themselves," Olive was wont to say. Valancy would have liked to say, "I don't either," but truth and diplomacy both restrained her.  She DID know, perfectly well. Olive Stirling was one of the girls about whom men do go mad just as indubitably as she, Valancy, was one of the girls at whom no man ever looked twice.

"And yet," thought Valancy, summing her up with a new and merciless conclusiveness, "she's like a dewless morning.  There's SOMETHING lacking."

 

CHAPTER XI

 Meanwhile the dinner in its earlier stages was dragging its slow length along true to Stirling form.  The room was chilly, in spite of the calendar, and Aunt Alberta had the gas-logs lighted. Everybody in the clan envied her those gas-logs except Valancy. Glorious open fires blazed in every room of her Blue Castle when autumnal nights were cool, but she would have frozen to death in it before she would have committed the sacrilege of a gas-log.  Uncle Herbert made his hardy perennial joke when he helped Aunt Wellington to the cold meat — "Mary, will you have a little lamb?" Aunt Mildred told the same old story of once finding a lost ring in a turkey's crop.  Uncle Benjamin told HIS favourite prosy tale of how he had once chased and punished a now famous man for stealing apples.  Second Cousin Jane described all her sufferings with an ulcerating tooth.  Aunt Wellington admired the pattern of Aunt Alberta's silver teaspoons and lamented the fact that one of her own had been lost.

"It spoiled the set.  I could never get it matched.  And it was my wedding-present from dear old Aunt Matilda."

Aunt Isabel thought the seasons were changing and couldn't imagine what had become of our good, old-fashioned springs.  Cousin Georgiana, as usual, discussed the last funeral and wondered, audibly, "which of us will be the next to pass away."  Cousin Georgiana could never say anything as blunt as "die."  Valancy thought she could tell her, but didn't.  Cousin Gladys, likewise as usual, had a grievance.  Her visiting nephews had nipped all the buds off her house-plants and chivied her brood of fancy chickens —  "squeezed some of them actually to death, my dear."

"Boys will be boys," reminded Uncle Herbert tolerantly.

"But they needn't be ramping, rampageous animals," retorted Cousin Gladys, looking round the table for appreciation of her wit. Everybody smiled except Valancy.  Cousin Gladys remembered that.  A few minutes later, when Ellen Hamilton was being discussed, Cousin Gladys spoke of her as "one of those shy, plain girls who can't get husbands," and glanced significantly at Valancy.

Uncle James thought the conversation was sagging to a rather low plane of personal gossip.  He tried to elevate it by starting an abstract discussion on "the greatest happiness."  Everybody was asked to state his or her idea of "the greatest happiness."

Aunt Mildred thought the greatest happiness — for a woman — was to be "a loving and beloved wife and mother."  Aunt Wellington thought it would be to travel in Europe.  Olive thought it would be to be a great singer like Tetrazzini.  Cousin Gladys remarked mournfully that HER greatest happiness would be to be free — absolutely free —  from neuritis.  Cousin Georgiana's greatest happiness would be "to have her dear, dead brother Richard back."  Aunt Alberta remarked vaguely that the greatest happiness was to be found in "the poetry of life" and hastily gave some directions to her maid to prevent any one asking her what she meant.  Mrs. Frederick said the greatest happiness was to spend your life in loving service for others, and Cousin Stickles and Aunt Isabel agreed with her — Aunt Isabel with a resentful air, as if she thought Mrs. Frederick had taken the wind out of her sails by saying it first.  "We are all too prone," continued Mrs. Frederick, determined not to lose so good an opportunity, "to live in selfishness, worldliness and sin." The other women all felt rebuked for their low ideals, and Uncle James had a conviction that the conversation had been uplifted with a vengeance.

"The greatest happiness," said Valancy suddenly and distinctly, "is to sneeze when you want to."

Everybody stared.  Nobody felt it safe to say anything.  Was Valancy trying to be funny?  It was incredible.  Mrs. Frederick, who had been breathing easier since the dinner had progressed so far without any outbreak on the part of Valancy began to tremble again.  But she deemed it the part of prudence to say nothing. Uncle Benjamin was not so prudent.  He rashly rushed in where Mrs. Frederick feared to tread.

"Doss," he chuckled, "what is the difference between a young girl and an old maid?"

"One is happy and careless and the other is cappy and hairless," said Valancy.  "You have asked that riddle at least fifty times in my recollection, Uncle Ben.  Why don't you hunt up some new riddles if riddle you MUST?  It is such a fatal mistake to try to be funny if you don't succeed."

Uncle Benjamin stared foolishly.  Never in his life had he, Benjamin Stirling, of Stirling and Frost, been spoken to so.  And by Valancy of all people!  He looked feebly around the table to see what the others thought of it.  Everybody was looking rather blank. Poor Mrs. Frederick had shut her eyes.  And her lips moved tremblingly — as if she were praying.  Perhaps she was.  The situation was so unprecedented that nobody knew how to meet it. Valancy went on calmly eating her salad as if nothing out of the usual had occurred.

Aunt Alberta, to save her dinner, plunged into an account of how a dog had bitten her recently.  Uncle James, to back her up, asked where the dog had bitten her.

"Just a little below the Catholic church," said Aunt Alberta.

At that point Valancy laughed.  Nobody else laughed.  What was there to laugh at?

"Is that a vital part?" asked Valancy.

"What do you mean?" said bewildered Aunt Alberta, and Mrs. Frederick was almost driven to believe that she had served God all her years for naught.

Aunt Isabel concluded that it was up to her to suppress Valancy.

"Doss, you are horribly thin," she said.  "You are ALL corners.  Do you EVER try to fatten up a little?"

"No."  Valancy was not asking quarter or giving it.  "But I can tell you where you'll find a beauty parlour in Port Lawrence where they can reduce the number of your chins."

"Val-an-cy!"  The protest was wrung from Mrs. Frederick.  She meant her tone to be stately and majestic, as usual, but it sounded more like an imploring whine.  And she did not say "Doss."

"She's feverish," said Cousin Stickles to Uncle Benjamin in an agonised whisper.  "We've thought she's seemed feverish for several days."

"She's gone dippy, in my opinion," growled Uncle Benjamin.  "If not, she ought to be spanked.  Yes, spanked."

"You can't spank her."  Cousin Stickles was much agitated.  "She's twenty-nine years old."

"So there is that advantage, at least, in being twenty-nine," said Valancy, whose ears had caught this aside.

"Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, "when I am dead you may say what you please.  As long as I am alive I demand to be treated with respect."

"Oh, but you know we're all dead," said Valancy, "the whole Stirling clan.  Some of us are buried and some aren't — yet.  That is the only difference."

"Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, thinking it might cow Valancy, "do you remember the time you stole the raspberry jam?"

Valancy flushed scarlet — with suppressed laughter, not shame.  She had been sure Uncle Benjamin would drag that jam in somehow.

"Of course I do," she said.  "It was good jam.  I've always been sorry I hadn't time to eat more of it before you found me.  Oh, LOOK at Aunt Isabel's profile on the wall.  Did you ever see anything so funny?"

Everybody looked, including Aunt Isabel herself which of course, destroyed it.  But Uncle Herbert said kindly, "I — I wouldn't eat any more if I were you, Doss.  It isn't that I grudge it — but don't you think it would be better for yourself?  Your — your stomach seems a little out of order."

"Don't worry about my stomach, old dear," said Valancy.  "It is all right.  I'm going to keep right on eating.  It's so seldom I get the chance of a satisfying meal."

It was the first time any one had been called "old dear" in Deerwood.  The Stirlings thought Valancy had invented the phrase and they were afraid of her from that moment.  There was something so uncanny about such an expression.  But in poor Mrs. Frederick's opinion the reference to a satisfying meal was the worst thing Valancy had said yet.  Valancy had always been a disappointment to her.  Now she was a disgrace.  She thought she would have to get up and go away from the table.  Yet she dared not leave Valancy there.

Aunt Alberta's maid came in to remove the salad plates and bring in the dessert.  It was a welcome diversion.  Everybody brightened up with a determination to ignore Valancy and talk as if she wasn't there.  Uncle Wellington mentioned Barney Snaith.  Eventually somebody did mention Barney Snaith at every Stirling function, Valancy reflected.  Whatever he was, he was an individual that could not be ignored.  She resigned herself to listen.  There was a subtle fascination in the subject for her, though she had not yet faced this fact.  She could feel her pulses beating to her finger- tips.

Of course they abused him.  Nobody ever had a good word to say of Barney Snaith.  All the old, wild tales were canvassed — the defaulting cashier-counterfeiter-infidel-murderer-in-hiding legends were thrashed out.  Uncle Wellington was very indignant that such a creature should be allowed to exist at all in the neighbourhood of Deerwood.  He didn't know what the police at Port Lawrence were thinking of.  Everybody would be murdered in their beds some night. It was a shame that he should be allowed to be at large after all that he had done.

"What HAS he done?" asked Valancy suddenly.

Uncle Wellington stared at her, forgetting that she was to be ignored.

"Done!  Done!  He's done EVERYTHING."

"WHAT has he done?" repeated Valancy inexorably.  "What do you KNOW that he has done?  You're always running him down.  And what has ever been proved against him?"

"I don't argue with women," said Uncle Wellington.  "And I don't need proof.  When a man hides himself up there on an island in Muskoka, year in and year out, and nobody can find out where he came from or how he lives, or what he does there, THAT'S proof enough.  Find a mystery and you find a crime."

"The very idea of a man named Snaith!" said Second Cousin Sarah. "Why, the name itself is enough to condemn him!"

"I wouldn't like to meet him in a dark lane," shivered Cousin Georgiana.

"What do you suppose he would do to you?" asked Valancy.

"Murder me," said Cousin Georgiana solemnly.

"Just for the fun of it?" suggested Valancy.

"Exactly," said Cousin Georgiana unsuspiciously.  "When there is so much smoke there must be some fire.  I was afraid he was a criminal when he came here first.  I FELT he had something to hide.  I am not often mistaken in my intuitions."

"Criminal!  Oh course he's a criminal," said Uncle Wellington. "Nobody doubts it" — glaring at Valancy.  "Why, they say he served a term in the penitentiary for embezzlement.  I don't doubt it.  And they say he's in with that gang that are perpetrating all those bank robberies round the country."

"WHO say?" asked Valancy.

Uncle Wellington knotted his ugly forehead at her.  What had got into this confounded girl, anyway?  He ignored the question.

"He has the identical look of a jail-bird," snapped Uncle Benjamin. "I noticed it the first time I saw him."

 

     "'A fellow by the hand of nature marked,        Quoted and signed to do a deed of shame',"

 declaimed Uncle James.  He looked enormously pleased over the managing to work that quotation in at last.  He had been waiting all his life for the chance.

"One of his eyebrows is an arch and the other is a triangle," said Valancy.  "Is THAT why you think him so villainous?"

Uncle James lifted HIS eyebrows.  Generally when Uncle James lifted his eyebrows the world came to an end.  This time it continued to function.

"How do YOU know his eyebrows so well, Doss?" asked Olive, a trifle maliciously.  Such a remark would have covered Valancy with confusion two weeks ago, and Olive knew it.

"Yes, how?" demanded Aunt Wellington.

"I've seen him twice and I looked at him closely," said Valancy composedly.  "I thought his face the most interesting one I ever saw."

"There is no doubt there is something fishy in the creature's past life," said Olive, who began to think she was decidedly out of the conversation, which had centred so amazingly around Valancy.  "But he can hardly be guilty of EVERYTHING he's accused of, you know."

Valancy felt annoyed with Olive.  Why should SHE speak up in even this qualified defence of Barney Snaith?  What had she to do with him?  For that matter, what had Valancy?  But Valancy did not ask herself this question.

"They say he keeps dozens of cats in that hut up back on Mistawis," said Second Cousin Sarah Taylor, by way of appearing not entirely ignorant of him.

Cats.  It sounded quite alluring to Valancy, in the plural.  She pictured an island in Muskoka haunted by pussies.

"That alone shows there is something wrong with him," decreed Aunt Isabel.

"People who don't like cats," said Valancy, attacking her dessert with a relish, "always seem to think that there is some peculiar virtue in not liking them."

"The man hasn't a friend except Roaring Abel," said Uncle Wellington.  "And if Roaring Abel had kept away from him, as everybody else did, it would have been better for — for some members of his family."

Uncle Wellington's rather lame conclusion was due to a marital glance from Aunt Wellington reminding him of what he had almost forgotten — that there were girls at the table.

"If you mean," said Valancy passionately, "that Barney Snaith is the father of Cecily Gay's child, he ISN'T.  It's a wicked lie."

In spite of her indignation Valancy was hugely amused at the expression of the faces around that festal table.  She had not seen anything like it since the day, seventeen years ago, when at Cousin Gladys' thimble party, they discovered that she had got — SOMETHING —  in her head at school.  LICE in her head!  Valancy was done with euphemisms.

Poor Mrs. Frederick was almost in a state of collapse.  She had believed — or pretended to believe — the Valancy still supposed that children were found in parsley beds.

"Hush — hush!" implored Cousin Stickles.

"I don't mean to hush," said Valancy perversely.  "I've hush-hushed all my life.  I'll scream if I want to.  Don't make me want to. And stop talking nonsense about Barney Snaith."

Valancy didn't exactly understand her own indignation.  What did Barney Snaith's imputed crimes and misdemeanours matter to her? And why, out of them all, did it seem most intolerable that he should have been poor, pitiful little Cecily Gay's false lover? For it DID seem intolerable to her.  She did not mind when they called him a thief and a counterfeiter and jail-bird; but she could not endure to think that he had loved and ruined Cecily Gay.  She recalled his face on the two occasions of their chance meetings —  his twisted, enigmatic, engaging smile, his twinkle, his thin, sensitive, almost ascetic lips, his general air of frank daredeviltry.  A man with such a smile and lips might have murdered or stolen but he could not have betrayed.  She suddenly hated every one who said it or believed it of him.

"When _I_ was a young girl I never thought or spoke about such matters, Doss," said Aunt Wellington, crushingly.

"But I'm not a young girl," retorted Valancy, uncrushed.  "Aren't you always rubbing that into me?  And you are all evil-minded, senseless gossips.  Can't you leave poor Cissy Gay alone?  She's dying.  Whatever she did, God or the Devil has punished her enough for it.  You needn't take a hand, too.  As for Barney Snaith, the only crime he has been guilty of is living to himself and minding his own business.  He can, it seems, get along without you.  Which IS an unpardonable sin, of course, in your little snobocracy." Valancy coined that concluding word suddenly and felt that it was an inspiration.  That was exactly what they were and not one of them was fit to mend another.

"Valancy, your poor father would turn over in his grave if he could hear you," said Mrs. Frederick.

"I dare say he would like that for a change," said Valancy brazenly.

"Doss," said Uncle James heavily, "the Ten Commandments are fairly up to date still — especially the fifth.  Have you forgotten that?"

"No," said Valancy, "but I thought YOU had — especially the ninth. Have you ever thought, Uncle James, how dull life would be without the Ten Commandments?  It is only when things are forbidden that they become fascinating."

But her excitement had been too much for her.  She knew, by certain unmistakable warnings, that one of her attacks of pain was coming on.  It must not find her there.  She rose from her chair.

"I am going home now.  I only came for the dinner.  It was very good, Aunt Alberta, although your salad-dressing is not salt enough and a dash of cayenne would improve it."

None of the flabbergasted silver wedding guests could think of anything to say until the lawn gate clanged behind Valancy in the dusk.  Then —

"She's feverish — I've said right along she was feverish," moaned Cousin Stickles.

Uncle Benjamin punished his pudgy left hand fiercely with his pudgy right.

"She's dippy — I tell you she's gone dippy," he snorted angrily. "That's all there is about it.  Clean dippy."

"Oh, Benjamin," said Cousin Georgiana soothingly, "don't condemn her too rashly.  We MUST remember what dear old Shakespeare says —  that charity thinketh no evil."

"Charity!  Poppycock!" snorted Uncle Benjamin.  "I never heard a young woman talk such stuff in my life as she just did.  Talking about things she ought to be ashamed to think of, much less mention.  Blaspheming!  Insulting US!  What she wants is a generous dose of spank-weed and I'd like to be the one to administer it.  H- uh-h-h-h!"  Uncle Benjamin gulped down the half of a scalding cup of coffee.

"Do you suppose that the mumps could work on a person that way?" wailed Cousin Stickles.

"I opened an umbrella in the house yesterday," sniffed Cousin Georgiana.  "I KNEW it betokened some misfortune."

"Have you tried to find out if she has a temperature?" asked Cousin Mildred.

"She wouldn't let Amelia put the thermometer under her tongue," whimpered Cousin Stickles.

Mrs. Frederick was openly in tears.  All her defences were down.

"I must tell you," she sobbed, "that Valancy has been acting very strangely for over two weeks now.  She hasn't been a bit like herself — Christine could tell you.  I have hoped against hope that it was only one of her colds coming on.  But it is — it must be something worse."

"This is bringing on my neuritis again," said Cousin Gladys, putting her hand to her head.

"Don't cry, Amelia," said Herbert kindly, pulling nervously at his spiky grey hair.  He hated "family ructions."  Very inconsiderate of Doss to start one at HIS silver wedding.  Who could have supposed she had it in her?  "You'll have to take her to a doctor. This may be only a — er — a brainstorm.  There are such things as brainstorms nowadays, aren't there?"

"I — I suggested consulting a doctor to her yesterday," moaned Mrs. Frederick.  "And she said she wouldn't go to a doctor — wouldn't. Oh, surely I have had trouble enough!"

"And she WON'T take Redfern's Bitters," said Cousin Stickles.

"Or ANYTHING,' said Mrs. Frederick.  "And she's determined to go to the Presbyterian church," said Cousin Stickles — repressing, however, to her credit be it said, the story of the bannister.

"That proves she's dippy," growled Uncle Benjamin.  "I noticed something strange about her the minute she came in today.  I noticed it BEFORE today."  (Uncle Benjamin was thinking of "m-i-r- a-z-h.")  "Everything she said today showed an unbalanced mind. That question — 'Was it a vital part?'  Was there any sense at all in that remark?  None whatever!  There never was anything like that in the Stirlings.  It must be from the Wansbarras."

Poor Mrs. Frederick was too crushed to be indignant.  "I never heard of anything like that in the Wansbarras," she sobbed,

"Your father was odd enough," said Uncle Benjamin.

"Poor Pa was — peculiar," admitted Mrs. Frederick tearfully, "but his mind was never affected."

"He talked all his life exactly as Valancy did today," retorted Uncle Benjamin.  "And he believed he was his own great-great grandfather born over again.  I've heard him say it.  Don't tell ME that a man who believed a thing like THAT was ever in his right senses.  Come, come, Amelia, stop sniffling.  Of course Doss has made a terrible exhibition of herself today, but she's not responsible.  Old maids are apt to fly off at a tangent like that. If she had been married when she should have been she wouldn't have got like this."

"Nobody wanted to marry her," said Mrs. Frederick, who felt that, somehow, Uncle Benjamin was blaming her.

"Well, fortunately there's no outsider here," snapped Uncle Benjamin.  "We may keep it in the family yet.  I'll take her over to see Dr. Marsh tomorrow.  _I_ know how to deal with pig-headed people.  Won't that be best, James?"

"We must have medical advice certainly," agreed Uncle James.

"Well, that's settled.  In the meantime, Amelia, act as if nothing had happened and keep an eye on her.  Don't let her be alone. Above all, don't let her sleep alone."

Renewed whimpers from Mrs. Frederick.

"I can't help it.  Night before last I suggested she'd better have Christine sleep with her.  She positively refused — AND LOCKED HER DOOR.  Oh, you don't know how she's changed.  She won't work.  At least, she won't sew.  She does her usual housework, of course. But she wouldn't sweep the parlour yesterday morning, though we ALWAYS sweep it on Thursdays.  She said she'd wait till it was dirty.  'Would you rather sweep a dirty room than a clean one?' I asked her.  She said, 'Of course.  I'd see something for my labour then.'  Think of it!"

Uncle Benjamin thought of it.

"The jar of potpourri" — Cousin Stickles pronounced it as spelled —  "has disappeared from her room.  I found the pieces in the next lot.  She won't tell us what happened to it."

"I should never have dreamed it of Doss," said Uncle Herbert.  "She has always seemed such a quiet, sensible girl.  A bit backward — but sensible."

"The only thing you can be sure of in this world is the multiplication table," said Uncle James, feeling cleverer than ever.

"Well, let's cheer up," suggested Uncle Benjamin.  "Why are chorus girls like fine stock raisers?"

"Why?" asked Cousin Stickles, since it had to be asked and Valancy wasn't there to ask it.

"Like to exhibit calves," chuckled Uncle Benjamin.

Cousin Stickles thought Uncle Benjamin a little indelicate.  Before Olive, too.  But then, he was a man.

Uncle Herbert was thinking that things were rather dull now that Doss had gone.

 


                                       

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