The Romance of Aunt Beatrice by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Margaret always maintains that it was a direct inspiration of Providence that took her across the street to see Aunt Beatrice that night. And Aunt Beatrice believes that it was too. But the truth of the matter is that Margaret was feeling very unhappy, and went over to talk to Aunt Beatrice as the only alternative to a fit of crying. Margaret's unhappiness has nothing further to do with this story, so it may be dismissed with the remark that it did not amount to much, in spite of Margaret's tragical attitude, and was dissipated at once and forever by the arrival of a certain missent letter the next day.
Aunt Beatrice was alone. Her brother and his wife had gone to the "at home" which Mrs. Cunningham was giving that night in honour of the Honourable John Reynolds, M.P. The children were upstairs in bed, and Aunt Beatrice was darning their stockings, a big basketful of which loomed up aggressively on the table beside her. Or, to speak more correctly, she had been darning them. Just when Margaret was sliding across the icy street Aunt Beatrice was bent forward in her chair, her hands over her face, while soft, shrinking little sobs shook her from head to foot.
When Margaret's imperative knock came at the front door, Aunt Beatrice started guiltily and wished earnestly that she had waited until she went to bed before crying, if cry she must. She knew Margaret's knock, and she did not want her gay young niece, of all people in the world, to suspect the fact or the cause of her tears.
"I hope she won't notice my eyes," she thought, as she hastily plumped a big ugly dark-green shade, with an almond-eyed oriental leering from it, over the lamp, before going out to let Margaret in.
Margaret did not notice at first. She was too deeply absorbed in her own troubles to think that anyone else in the world could be miserable too. She curled up in the deep easy-chair by the fire, and clasped her hands behind her curly head with a sigh of physical comfort and mental unhappiness, while Aunt Beatrice, warily sitting with her back to the light, took up her work again.
"You didn't go to Mrs. Cunningham's 'at home,' Auntie," said Margaret lazily, feeling that she must make some conversation to justify her appearance. "You were invited, weren't you?"
Aunt Beatrice nodded. The hole she was darning in the knee of Willie Hayden's stocking must be done very carefully. Mrs. George Hayden was particular about such matters. Perhaps this was why Aunt Beatrice did not speak.
"Why didn't you go?" asked Margaret absently, wondering why there had been no letter for her that morning--and this was the third day too! Could Gilbert be ill? Or was he flirting with some other girl and forgetting her? Margaret swallowed a big lump in her throat, and resolved that she would go home next week--no, she wouldn't, either--if he was as hateful and fickle as that--what was Aunt Beatrice saying?
"Well, I'm--I'm not used to going to parties now, my dear. And the truth is I have no dress fit to wear. At least Bella said so, because the party was to be a very fashionable affair. She said my old grey silk wouldn't do at all. Of course she knows. She had to have a new dress for it, and, we couldn't both have that. George couldn't afford it these hard times. And, as Bella said, it would be very foolish of me to get an expensive dress that would be no use to me afterward. But it doesn't matter. And, of course, somebody had to stay with the children."
"Of course," assented Margaret dreamily. Mrs. Cunningham's "at home" was of no particular interest. The guests were all middle-aged people whom the M.P. had known in his boyhood and Margaret, in her presumptuous youth, thought it would be a very prosy affair, although it had made quite a sensation in quiet little Murraybridge, where people still called an "at home" a party plain and simple.
"I saw Mr. Reynolds in church Sunday afternoon," she went on. "He is very fine-looking, I think. Did you ever meet him?"
"I used to know him very well long ago," answered Aunt Beatrice, bowing still lower over her work. "He used to live down in Wentworth, you know, and he visited his married sister here very often. He was only a boy at that time. Then--he went out to British Columbia and--and--we never heard much more about him."
"He's very rich and owns dozens of mines and railroads and things like that," said Margaret, "and he's a member of the Dominion Parliament, too. They say he's one of the foremost men in the House and came very near getting a portfolio in the new cabinet. I like men like that. They are so interesting. Wouldn't it be awfully nice and complimentary to have one of them in love with you? Is he married?"
"I--I don't know," said Aunt Beatrice faintly. "I have never heard that he was."
"There, you've run the needle into your finger," said Margaret sympathetically.
"It's of no consequence," said Aunt Beatrice hastily.
She wiped away the drop of blood and went on with her work. Margaret watched her dreamily. What lovely hair Aunt Beatrice had! It was so thick and glossy, with warm bronze tones where the lamp-light fell on it under that hideous weird old shade. But Aunt Beatrice wore it in such an unbecoming way. Margaret idly wondered if she would comb her hair straight back and prim when she was thirty-five. She thought it very probable if that letter did not come tomorrow.
From Aunt Beatrice's hair Margaret's eyes fell to Aunt Beatrice's face. She gave a little jump. Had Aunt Beatrice been crying? Margaret sat bolt upright.
"Aunt Beatrice, did you want to go to that party?" she demanded explosively. "Now tell me the truth."
"I did," said Aunt Beatrice weakly. Margaret's sudden attack fairly startled the truth out of her. "It is very silly of me, I know, but I did want to go. I didn't care about a new dress. I'd have been quite willing to wear my grey silk, and I could have fixed the sleeves. What difference would it have made? Nobody would ever have noticed me, but Bella thought it wouldn't do."
She paused long enough to give a little sob which she could not repress. Margaret made use of the opportunity to exclaim violently, "It's a shame!"
"I suppose you don't understand why I wanted to go to this particular party so much," went on Aunt Beatrice shyly. "I'll tell you why--if you won't laugh at me. I wanted to see John Reynolds--not to talk to him--oh, I dare say he wouldn't remember me--but just to see him. Long ago--fifteen years ago--we were engaged. And--and--I loved him so much then, Margaret."
"You poor dear!" said Margaret sympathetically. She reached over and patted her aunt's hand. She thought that this little bit of romance, long hidden and unsuspected, blossoming out under her eyes, was charming. In her interest she quite forgot her own pet grievance.
"Yes--and then we quarrelled. It was a dreadful quarrel and it was about such a trifle. We parted in anger and he went away. He never came back. It was all my fault. Well, it is all over long ago and everybody has forgotten. I--I don't mind it now. But I just wanted to see him once more and then come quietly away."
"Aunt Beatrice, you are going to that party yet," said Margaret decisively.
"Oh, it is impossible, my dear."
"No, it isn't. Nothing is impossible when I make up my mind. You must go. I'll drag you there by main force if it comes to that. Oh, I have such a jolly plan, Auntie. You know my black and yellow dinner dress--no, you don't either, for I've never worn it here. The folks at home all said it was too severe for me--and so it is. Nothing suits me but the fluffy, chuffy things with a tilt to them. Gil--er--I mean--well, yes, Gilbert always declared that dress made me look like a cross between an unwilling nun and a ballet girl, so I took a dislike to it. But it's as lovely as a dream. Oh, when you see it your eyes will stick out. You must wear it tonight. It's just your style, and I'm sure it will fit you, for our figures are so much alike."
"But it is too late."
"'Tisn't. It's not more than half an hour since Uncle George and Aunt Bella went. I'll have you ready in a twinkling."
"But the fire--and the children!"
"I'll stay here and look after both. I won't burn the house down, and if the twins wake up I'll give them--what is it you give them--soothing syrup? So go at once and get you ready, while I fly over for the dress. I'll fix your hair up when I get back."
Margaret was gone before Aunt Beatrice could speak again. Her niece's excitement seized hold of her too. She flung the stockings into the basket and the basket into the closet.
"I will go--and I won't do another bit of darning tonight. I hate it--I hate it--I hate it! Oh, how much good it does me to say it!"
When Margaret came flying up the stairs Aunt Beatrice was ready save for hair and dress. Margaret cast the gown on the bed, revealing all its beauty of jetted lace and soft yellow silk with a dextrous sweep of her arm. Aunt Beatrice gave a little cry of admiration.
"Isn't it lovely?" demanded Margaret. "And I've brought you my opera cape and my fascinator and my black satin slippers with the cunningest gold buckles, and some sweet pale yellow roses that Uncle Ned gave me yesterday. Oh, Aunt Beatrice! What magnificent arms and shoulders you have! They're like marble. Mine are so scrawny I'm just ashamed to have people know they belong to me."
Margaret's nimble fingers were keeping time with her tongue. Aunt Beatrice's hair went up as if by magic into soft puffs and waves and twists, and a golden rose was dropped among the bronze masses. Then the lovely dress was put on and pinned and looped and pulled until it fell into its simple, classical lines around the tall, curving figure. Margaret stepped back and clapped her hands admiringly.
"Oh, Auntie, you're beautiful! Now I'll pop down for the cloak and fascinator. I left them hanging by the fire."
When Margaret had gone Aunt Beatrice caught up the lamp and tiptoed shamefacedly across the hall to the icy-cold spare room. In the long mirror she saw herself reflected from top to toe--or was it herself! Could it be--that gracious woman with the sweet eyes and flushed cheeks, with rounded arms gleaming through their black laces and the cluster of roses nestling against the warm white flesh of the shoulder?
"I do look nice," she said aloud, with a little curtsey to the radiant reflection. "It is all the dress, I know. I feel like a queen in it--no, like a girl again--and that's better."
Margaret went to Mrs. Cunningham's door with her.
"How I wish I could go in and see the sensation you'll make, Aunt Beatrice," she whispered.
"You dear, silly child! It's just the purple and fine linen," laughed Aunt Beatrice. But she did not altogether think so, and she rang the doorbell unquailingly. In the hall Mrs. Cunningham herself came beamingly to greet her.
"My dear Beatrice! I'm so glad. Bella said you could not come because you had a headache."
"My headache got quite better after they left, and so I thought I would get ready and come, even if it were rather late," said Beatrice glibly, wondering if Sapphira had ever worn a black-and-yellow dress, and if so, might not her historic falsehood be traced to its influence?
When they came downstairs together, Beatrice, statuesque and erect in her trailing draperies, and Mrs. Cunningham secretly wondering where on earth Beatrice Hayden had got such a magnificent dress and what she had done to herself to make her look as she did--a man came through the hall. At the foot of the stairs they met. He put out his hand.
"Beatrice! It must be Beatrice! How little you have changed!"
Mrs. Cunningham was not particularly noted in Murraybridge for her tact, but she had a sudden visitation of the saving grace at that moment, and left the two alone.
Beatrice put her hand into the M.P.'s.
"I am glad to see you," she said simply, looking up at him.
She could not say that he had not changed, for there was little in this tall, broad-shouldered man of the world, with grey glints in his hair, to suggest the slim, boyish young lover whose image she had carried in her heart all the long years.
But the voice, though deeper and mellower, was the same, and the thin, clever mouth that went up at one corner and down at the other in a humorous twist; and one little curl of reddish hair fell over his forehead away from its orderly fellows, just as it used to when she had loved to poke her fingers through it; and, more than all, the deep-set grey eyes looking down into her blue ones were unchanged. Beatrice felt her heart beating to her fingertips.
"I thought you were not coming," he said. "I expected to meet you here and I was horribly disappointed. I thought the bitterness of that foolish old quarrel must be strong enough to sway you yet."
"Didn't Bella tell you I had a headache?" faltered Beatrice.
"Bella? Oh, your brother's wife! I wasn't talking to her. I've been sulking in corners ever since I concluded you were not coming. How beautiful you are, Beatrice! You'll let an old friend say that much, won't you?"
Beatrice laughed softly. She had forgotten for years that she was beautiful, but the sweet old knowledge had come back to her again. She could not help knowing that he spoke the simple truth, but she said mirthfully,
"You've learned to flatter since the old days, haven't you? Don't you remember you used to tell me I was too thin to be pretty? But I suppose a bit of blarney is a necessary ingredient in the composition of an M.P."
He was still holding her hand. With a glance of dissatisfaction at the open parlour door, he drew her away to the little room at the end of the hall, which Mrs. Cunningham, for reasons known only to herself, called her library.
"Come in here with me," he said masterfully. "I want to have a long talk with you before the other people get hold of you."
When Beatrice got home from the party ten minutes before her brother and his wife, Margaret was sitting Turk fashion in the big armchair, with her eyes very wide open and owlish.
"You dear girlie, were you asleep?" asked Aunt Beatrice indulgently.
Margaret nodded. "Yes, and I've let the fire go out. I hope you're not cold. I must run before Aunt Bella gets here, or she'll scold. Had a nice time?"
"Delightful. You were a dear to lend me this dress. It was so funny to see Bella staring at it."
When Margaret had put on her hat and jacket she went as far as the street door, and then tiptoed back to the sitting-room. Aunt Beatrice was leaning back in the armchair, with a drooping rose held softly against her lips, gazing dreamily into the dull red embers.
"Auntie," said Margaret contritely, "I can't go home without confessing, although I know it is a heinous offence to interrupt the kind of musing that goes with dying embers and faded roses in the small hours. But it would weigh on my conscience all night if I didn't. I was asleep, but I wakened up just before you came in and went to the window. I didn't mean to spy upon anyone--but that street was bright as day! And if you will let an M.P. kiss you on the doorstep in glaring moonlight, you must expect to be seen."
"I wouldn't have cared if there had been a dozen onlookers," said Aunt Beatrice frankly, "and I don't believe he would either."
Margaret threw up her hands. "Well, my conscience is clear, at least. And remember, Aunt Beatrice, I'm to be bridesmaid--I insist upon that. And, oh, won't you ask me to visit you when you go down to Ottawa next winter? I'm told it's such a jolly place when the House is in session. And you'll need somebody to help you entertain, you know. The wife of a cabinet minister has to do lots of that. But I forgot--he isn't a cabinet minister yet. But he will be, of course. Promise that you'll have me, Aunt Beatrice, promise quick. I hear Uncle George and Aunt Bella coming."
Aunt Beatrice promised. Margaret flew to the door.
"You'd better keep that dress," she called back softly, as she opened it.