The Dissipation of Miss Ponsonby by Lucy Maud Montgomery
We hadn't been very long in Glenboro before we managed to get acquainted with Miss Ponsonby. It did not come about in the ordinary course of receiving and returning calls, for Miss Ponsonby never called on anybody; neither did we meet her at any of the Glenboro social functions, for Miss Ponsonby never went anywhere except to church, and very seldom there. Her father wouldn't let her. No, it simply happened because her window was right across the alleyway from ours. The Ponsonby house was next to us, on the right, and between us were only a fence, a hedge of box, and a sprawly acacia tree that shaded Miss Ponsonby's window, where she always sat sewing--patchwork, as I'm alive--when she wasn't working around the house. Patchwork seemed to be Miss Ponsonby's sole and only dissipation of any kind.
We guessed her age to be forty-five at least, but we found out afterward that we were mistaken. She was only thirty-five. She was tall and thin and pale, one of those drab-tinted persons who look as if they had never felt a rosy emotion in their lives. She had any amount of silky, fawn-coloured hair, always combed straight back from her face, and pinned in a big, tight bun just above her neck--the last style in the world for any woman with Miss Ponsonby's nose to adopt. But then I doubt if Miss Ponsonby had any idea what her nose was really like. I don't believe she ever looked at herself critically in a mirror in her life. Her features were rather nice, and her expression tamely sweet; her eyes were big, timid, china-blue orbs that looked as if she had been badly scared when she was little and had never got over it; she never wore anything but black, and, to crown all, her first name was Alicia.
Miss Ponsonby sat and sewed at her window for hours at a time, but she never looked our way, partly, I suppose, from habit induced by modesty, since the former occupants of our room had been two gay young bachelors, whose names Jerry and I found out all over our window-panes with a diamond.
Jerry and I sat a great deal at ours, laughing and talking, but Miss Ponsonby never lifted her head or eyes. Jerry couldn't stand it long; she declared it got on her nerves; besides, she felt sorry to see a fellow creature wasting so many precious moments of a fleeting lifetime at patchwork. So one afternoon she hailed Miss Ponsonby with a cheerful "hello," and Miss Ponsonby actually looked over and said "good afternoon," as prim as an eighteen-hundred-and-forty fashion plate.
Then Jerry, whose name is Geraldine only in the family Bible, talked to her about the weather. Jerry can talk interestingly about anything. In five minutes she had performed a miracle--she had made Miss Ponsonby laugh. In five minutes more she was leaning half out of the window showing Miss Ponsonby a new, white, fluffy, frivolous, chiffony waist of hers, and Miss Ponsonby was leaning halfway out of hers looking at it eagerly. At the end of a quarter of an hour they were exchanging confidences about their favourite books. Jerry was a confirmed Kiplingomaniac, but Miss Ponsonby adored Laura Jean Libbey. She said sorrowfully she supposed she ought not to read novels at all since her father disapproved. We found out later on that Mr. Ponsonby's way of expressing disapproval was to burn any he got hold of, and storm at his daughter about them like the confirmed old crank he was. Poor Miss Ponsonby had to keep her Laura Jeans locked up in her trunk, and it wasn't often she got a new one.
From that day dated our friendship with Miss Ponsonby, a curious friendship, only carried on from window to window. We never saw Miss Ponsonby anywhere else; we asked her to come over but she said her father didn't allow her to visit anybody. Miss Ponsonby was one of those meek women who are ruled by whomsoever happens to be nearest them, and woe be unto them if that nearest happen to be a tyrant. Her meekness fairly infuriated Jerry.
But we liked Miss Ponsonby and we pitied her. She confided to us that she was very lonely and that she wrote poetry. We never asked to see the poetry, although I think she would have liked to show it. But, as Jerry says, there are limits.
We told Miss Ponsonby all about our dances and picnics and beaus and pretty dresses; she was never tired of hearing of them; we smuggled new library novels--Jerry got our cook to buy them--and boxes of chocolates, from our window to hers; we sat there on moonlit nights and communed with her while other girls down the street were entertaining callers on their verandahs; we did everything we could for her except to call her Alicia, although she begged us to do so. But it never came easily to our tongues; we thought she must have been born and christened Miss Ponsonby; "Alicia" was something her mother could only have dreamed about her.
We thought we knew all about Miss Ponsonby's past; but even pale, drab, china-blue women can have their secrets and keep them. It was a full half year before we discovered Miss Ponsonby's.
* * * * *
In October, Stephen Shaw came home from the west to visit his father and mother after an absence of fifteen years. Jerry and I met him at a party at his brother-in-law's. We knew he was a bachelor of forty-five or so and had made heaps of money in the lumber business, so we expected to find him short and round and bald, with bulgy blue eyes and a double chin. On the contrary, he was a tall, handsome man with clear-cut features, laughing black eyes like a boy's, and iron-grey hair. That iron-grey hair nearly finished Jerry; she thinks there is nothing so distinguished and she had the escape of her life from falling in love with Stephen Shaw.
He was as gay as the youngest, danced splendidly, went everywhere, and took all the Glenboro girls about impartially. It was rumoured that he had come east to look for a wife but he didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to find her.
One evening he called on Jerry; that is to say, he did ask for both of us, but within ten minutes Jerry had him mewed up in the cosy corner to the exclusion of all the rest of the world. I felt that I was a huge crowd, so I obligingly decamped upstairs and sat down by my window to "muse," as Miss Ponsonby would have said.
It was a glorious moonlight night, with just a hint of October frost in the air--enough to give sparkle and tang. After a few moments I became aware that Miss Ponsonby was also "musing" at her window in the shadow of the acacia tree. In that dim light she looked quite pretty. It was suddenly borne in upon me for the first time that, when Miss Ponsonby was young, she must have been very pretty, with that delicate elusive fashion of beauty which fades so early if the life is not kept in it by love and tenderness. It seemed odd, somehow, to think of Miss Ponsonby as young and pretty. She seemed so essentially middle-aged and faded.
"Lovely night, Miss Ponsonby," I said brilliantly.
"A very beautiful night, dear Elizabeth," answered Miss Ponsonby in that tired little voice of hers that always seemed as drab-coloured as the rest of her.
"I'm mopy," I said frankly. "Jerry has concentrated herself on Stephen Shaw for the evening and I'm left on the fringe of things."
Miss Ponsonby didn't say anything for a few moments. When she spoke some strange and curious note had come into her voice, as if a chord, long unswept and silent, had been suddenly thrilled by a passing hand.
"Did I understand you to say that Geraldine was--entertaining Stephen Shaw?"
"Yes. He's home from the west and he's delightful," I replied. "All the Glenboro girls are quite crazy over him. Jerry and I are as bad as the rest. He isn't at all young but he's very fascinating."
"Stephen Shaw!" repeated Miss Ponsonby faintly. "So Stephen Shaw is home again!"
"Why, I suppose you would know him long ago," I said, remembering that Stephen Shaw's youth must have been contemporaneous with Miss Ponsonby's.
"Yes, I used to know him," said Miss Ponsonby very slowly.
She did not say anything more, which I thought a little odd, for she was generally full of mild curiosity about all strangers and sojourners in Glenboro. Presently she got up and went away from her window. Deserted even by Miss Ponsonby, I went grumpily to bed.
Then Mrs. George Hubbard gave a big dance. Jerry and I were pleasantly excited. The Hubbards were the smartest of the Glenboro smart set and their entertainments were always quite brilliant affairs for a small country village like ours. This party was professedly given in honour of Stephen Shaw, who was to leave for the west again in a week's time.
On the evening of the party Jerry and I went to our room to dress. And there, across at her window in the twilight, sat Miss Ponsonby, crying. I had never seen Miss Ponsonby cry before.
"What is the matter?" I called out softly and anxiously.
"Oh, nothing," sobbed Miss Ponsonby, "only--only--I'm invited to the party tonight--Susan Hubbard is my cousin, you know--and I would like so much to go."
"Then why don't you?" said Jerry briskly.
"My father won't let me," said Miss Ponsonby, swallowing a sob as if she were a little girl of ten years old. Jerry had to dodge behind the curtain to hide a smile.
"It's too bad," I said sympathetically, but wondering a little why Miss Ponsonby seemed so worked up about it. I knew she had sometimes been invited out before and had not been allowed to go, but she had never cared apparently.
"Well, what is to be done?" I whispered to Jerry.
"Take Miss Ponsonby to the party with us, of course," said Jerry, popping out from behind the curtain.
I didn't ask her if she expected to fly through the air with Miss Ponsonby, although short of that I couldn't see how the latter was to be got out of the house without her father knowing. The old gentleman had a den off the hall where he always sat in the evening and smoked fiercely, after having locked all the doors to keep the servants in. He was a delightful sort of person, that old Mr. Ponsonby.
Jerry poked her head as far as she could out of the window. "Miss Ponsonby, you are going to the dance," she said in a cautious undertone, "so don't cry any more or your eyes will be dreadfully red."
"It is impossible," said Miss Ponsonby resignedly.
"Nothing is impossible when I make up my mind," said Jerry firmly. "You must get dressed, climb down that acacia tree, and join us in our yard. It will be pitch dark in a few minutes and your father will never know."
I had a frantic vision of Miss Ponsonby scrambling down that acacia tree like an eloping damsel. But Jerry was in dead earnest, and really it was quite possible if Miss Ponsonby only thought so. I did not believe she would think so, but I was mistaken. Her thorough course in Libbey heroines and their marvellous escapades had quite prepared her to contemplate such an adventure calmly--in the abstract at least. But another obstacle presented itself.
"It's impossible," she said again, after her first flash hope. "I haven't a fit dress to wear--I've nothing at all but my black cashmere and it is three years old."
But the more hindrances in Jerry's way when she sets out to accomplish something the more determined and enthusiastic she becomes. I listened to her with amazement.
"I have a dress I'll lend you," she said resolutely. "And I'll go over and fix you up as soon as it's a little darker. Go now and bathe your eyes and just trust to me."
Miss Ponsonby's long habit of obedience to whatever she was told stood her in good stead now. She obeyed Jerry without another word. Jerry seized me by the waist and waltzed me around the room in an ecstasy.
"Jerry Elliott, how are you going to carry this thing through?" I demanded sternly.
"Easily enough," responded Jerry. "You know that black lace dress of mine--the one with the apricot slip. I've never worn it since I came to Glenboro, so nobody will know it's mine, and I never mean to wear it again for it's got too tight. It's a trifle old-fashioned, but that won't matter for Glenboro, and it will fit Miss Ponsonby all right. She's about my height and figure. I'm determined that poor soul shall have a dissipation for once in her life since she hankers for it. Come on now, Elizabeth. It will be a lark."
I caught Jerry's enthusiasm, and while she hunted out the box containing the black lace dress, I hastily gathered together some other odds and ends I thought might be useful--a black aigrette, a pair of black silk gloves, a spangled gauze fan, and a pair of slippers. They wouldn't have stood daylight, but they looked all right after night. As we left the room I caught up some pale pink roses on my table.
We pushed through a little gap in the privet hedge and found ourselves under the acacia tree with Miss Ponsonby peering anxiously at us from above. I wanted to shriek with laughter, the whole thing seemed so funny and unreal. Jerry, although she hasn't climbed trees since she was twelve, went up that acacia as nimbly as a pussy-cat, took the box and things from me, passed them to Miss Ponsonby, and got in at the window while I went back to my own room to dress, hoping old Mr. Ponsonby wouldn't be running out to ring the fire alarm.
In a very short time I heard Miss Ponsonby and Jerry at the opposite window, and I rushed to mine to see the sight. But Miss Ponsonby, with a red fascinator over her head and a big cape wrapped round her, slipped out of the window and down that blessed acacia tree as neatly and nimbly as if she had been accustomed to doing it for exercise every day of her life. There were possibilities in Miss Ponsonby. In two more minutes they were both safe in our room.
Then Jerry threw off Miss Ponsonby's wraps and stepped back. I know I stared until my eyes stuck out of my head. Was that Miss Ponsonby--that!
The black lace dress, with the pinkish sheen of its slip beneath, suited her slim shape to perfection and clung around her in lovely, filmy curves that made her look willowy and girlish. It was high-necked, just cut away slightly at the throat, and had great, loose, hanging frilly sleeves of lace. Jerry had shaken out her hair and piled it high on her head in satiny twists and loops, with a pompadour such as Miss Ponsonby could never have thought about. It suited her tremendously and seemed to alter the whole character of her face, giving verve and piquancy to her delicate little features. The excitement had flushed her cheeks into positive pinkness and her eyes were starry. The roses were pinned on her shoulder. Miss Ponsonby, as she stood there, was a pretty woman, with fifteen apparent birthdays the less.
"Oh, Alicia, you look just lovely!" I gasped. The name slipped out quite naturally. I never thought about it at all.
"My dear Elizabeth," she said, "it's like a dream of lost youth."
We got Jerry ready and then we started for the Hubbards', out by our back door and through our neighbour-on-the-left's lane to avoid all observation. Miss Ponsonby was breathless with terror. She was sure every footstep she heard behind her was her father's in pursuit. She almost fainted on the spot when a belated man came tearing along the street. Jerry and I breathed a sigh of devout thanksgiving when we found ourselves safely in the Hubbard parlour.
We were early, but Stephen Shaw was there before us. He came up to us at once, and just then Miss Ponsonby turned around.
"Alicia!" he said.
"How do you do, Stephen?" she said tremulously.
And there he was looking down at her with an expression on his face that none of the Glenboro girls he had been calling on had ever seen. Jerry and I just simply melted away. We can see through grindstones when there are holes in them!
We went out and sat down on the stairs.
"There's a mystery here," said Jerry, "but Miss Ponsonby shall explain it to us before we let her climb up that acacia tree tonight. Now that I come to think of it, the first night he called he asked me about her. Wanted to know if her father were the same old blustering tyrant he always was, and if we knew her at all. I'm afraid I made a little mild fun of her, and he didn't say anything more. Well, I'm awfully glad now that I didn't fall in love with him. I could have, but I wouldn't."
Miss Ponsonby's appearance at the Hubbards' party was the biggest sensation Glenboro had had for years. And in her way, she was a positive belle. She didn't dance, but all the middle-aged men, widowers, wedded, and bachelors, who had known her in her girlhood crowded around her, and she laughed and chatted as I hadn't even imagined Miss Ponsonby could laugh and chat. Jerry and I revelled in her triumph, for did we not feel that it was due to us? At last Miss Ponsonby disappeared; shortly after Jerry and I blundered into the library to fix some obstreperous hairpins, and there we found her and Stephen Shaw in the cosy corner.
There were no explanations on the road home, for Miss Ponsonby walked behind us with Stephen Shaw in the pale, late-risen October moonshine. But when we had sneaked through the neighbour-to-the-left's lane and reached our side verandah we waited for her, and as soon as Stephen Shaw had gone we laid violent hands on Miss Ponsonby and made her 'fess up there on the dark, chilly verandah, at one o'clock in the morning.
"Miss Ponsonby," said Jerry, "before we assist you in returning to those ancestral halls of yours you've simply got to tell us what all this means."
Miss Ponsonby gave a little, shy, nervous laugh.
"Stephen Shaw and I were engaged to be married long ago," she said simply. "But Father disapproved. Stephen was poor then. And so--and so--I sent him away. What else could I do?"--for Jerry had snorted--"Father had to be obeyed. But it broke my heart. Stephen went away--he was very angry--and I have never seen him since. When Susan Hubbard invited me to the party I felt as if I must go--I must see Stephen once more. I never thought for a minute that he remembered me--or cared still...."
"But he does?" said Jerry breathlessly. Jerry never scruples to ask anything right out that she wants to know.
"Yes," said Miss Ponsonby softly. "Isn't it wonderful? I could hardly believe it--I am so changed. But he said tonight he had never thought of any other woman. He--he came home to see me. But when I never went anywhere, even when I must know he was home, he thought I didn't want to see him. If I hadn't gone tonight--oh, I owe it all to you two dear girls!"
"When are you to be married?" demanded that terrible Jerry.
"As soon as possible," said Miss Ponsonby. "Stephen was going away next week, but he says he will wait until I can get ready."
"Do you think your father will object this time?" I queried.
"No, I don't think so. Stephen is a rich man now, you know. That wouldn't make any difference with me--but Father is very--practical. Stephen is going to see him tomorrow."
"But what if he does object?" I persisted anxiously.
"The acacia tree will still be there," said Miss Ponsonby firmly.