The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter X. Mrs. Oakley
Betty, when she stepped on board the boat for Marseilles, had had no definite plan of action. She had been caught up and swept away by an over-mastering desire for escape that left no room in her mind for thoughts of the morrow. It was not till the train was roaring its way across southern France that she found herself sufficiently composed to review her position and make plans.
She would not go back. She could not. The words she had used in her letter to Mr. Scobell were no melodramatic rhetoric. They were a plain and literal statement of the truth. Death would be infinitely preferable to life at Mervo on her stepfather's conditions.
But, that settled, what then? What was she to do? The gods are businesslike. They sell; they do not give. And for what they sell they demand a heavy price. We may buy life of them in many ways: with our honor, our health, our independence, our happiness, with our brains or with our hands. But somehow or other, in whatever currency we may choose to pay it, the price must be paid.
Betty faced the problem. What had she? What could she give? Her independence? That, certainly. She saw now what a mockery that fancied independence had been. She had come and gone as she pleased, her path smoothed by her stepfather's money, and she had been accustomed to consider herself free. She had learned wisdom now, and could understand that it was only by sacrificing such artificial independence that she could win through to freedom. The world was a market, and the only independent people in it were those who had a market value.
What was her market value? What could she do? She looked back at her life, and saw that she had dabbled. She had a little of most things--enough of nothing. She could sketch a little, play a little, sing a little, write a little. Also--and, as she remembered it, she felt for the first time a tremor of hope--she could use a typewriter reasonably well. That one accomplishment stood out in the welter of her thoughts, solid and comforting, like a rock in a quicksand. It was something definite, something marketable, something of value for which persons paid.
The tremor of hope did not comfort her long. Her mood was critical, and she saw that in this, her one accomplishment, she was, as in everything else, an amateur. She could not compete against professionals. She closed her eyes, and had a momentary vision of those professionals, keen of face, leathern of finger, rattling out myriads of words at a dizzy speed. And, at that, all her courage suddenly broke; she drooped forlornly, and, hiding her face on the cushioned arm-rest, she began to cry.
Tears are the Turkish bath of the soul. Nature never intended woman to pass dry-eyed through crises of emotion. A casual stranger, meeting Betty on her way to the boat, might have thought that she looked a little worried,--nothing more. The same stranger, if he had happened to enter the compartment at this juncture, would have set her down at sight as broken-hearted beyond recovery. Yet such is the magic of tears that it was at this very moment that Betty was beginning to be conscious of a distinct change for the better. Her heart still ached, and to think of John even for an instant was to feel the knife turning in the wound, but her brain was clear; the panic fear had gone, and she faced the future resolutely once more. For she had just remembered the existence of Mrs. Oakley.
* * * * *
Only once in her life had Betty met her stepfather's celebrated aunt, and the meeting had taken place nearly twelve years ago. The figure that remained in her memory was of a pale-eyed, grenadier-like old lady, almost entirely surrounded by clocks. It was these clocks that had impressed her most. She was too young to be awed by the knowledge that the tall old woman who stared at her just like a sandy cat she had once possessed was one of the three richest women in the whole wide world. She only remembered thinking that the finger which emerged from the plaid shawl and prodded her cheek was unpleasantly bony. But the clocks had absorbed her. It was as if all the clocks in the world had been gathered together into that one room. There had been big clocks, with almost human faces; small, perky clocks; clocks of strange shape; and one dingy, medium-sized clock in particular which had made her cry out with delight. Her visit had chanced to begin shortly before eleven in the morning, and she had not been in the room ten minutes before there was a whirring, and the majority of the clocks began to announce the hour, each after its own fashion--some with a slow bloom, some with a rapid, bell-like sound. But the medium-sized clock, unexpectedly belying its appearance of being nothing of particular importance, had performed its task in a way quite distinct from the others. It had suddenly produced from its interior a shabby little gold man with a trumpet, who had blown eleven little blasts before sliding backward into his house and shutting the door after him. Betty had waited in rapt silence till he finished, and had then shouted eagerly for more.
Just as the beginner at golf may effect a drive surpassing that of the expert, so may a child unconsciously eclipse the practised courtier. There was no soft side to Mrs. Oakley's character, as thousands of suave would-be borrowers had discovered in their time, but there was a soft spot. To general praise of her collection of clocks she was impervious; it was unique, and she did not require you to tell her so, but exhibit admiration for the clock with the little trumpeter, and she melted. It was the one oasis of sentiment in the Sahara of her mental outlook, the grain of radium in the pitchblende. Years ago it had stood in a little New England farmhouse, and a child had clapped her hands and shouted, even as Betty had done, when the golden man slid from his hiding-place. Much water had flowed beneath the bridge since those days. Many things had happened to the child. But she still kept her old love for the trumpeter. The world knew nothing of this. The world, if it had known, would have been delighted to stand before the clock and admire it volubly, by the day. But it had no inkling of the trumpeter's importance, and, when it came to visit Mrs. Oakley, was apt to waste its time showering compliments on the obvious beauties of the queens of the collection.
But Betty, ignoring these, jumped up and down before the dingy clock, demanding further trumpetings, and, turning to Mrs. Oakley, as one possessing influence, she was aware of a curious, intent look in the old lady's eyes.
"Do you like that clock, my dear?" said Mrs. Oakley.
"Yes! Oh, yes!"
"Perhaps you shall have it some day, honey."
Betty was probably the only person who had been admitted to that room who would not, on the strength of this remark, have steered the conversation gently to the subject of a small loan. Instead, she ran to the old lady, and kissed her. And, as to what had happened after that, memory was vague. There had been some talk, she remembered, of a dollar to buy candy, but it had come to nothing, and now that she had grown older and had read the frequent paragraphs and anecdotes that appeared in the papers about her stepfather's aunt, she could understand why. She knew now what everybody knew of Mrs. Oakley--her history, her eccentricities, and the miserliness of which the papers spoke with a satirical lightness that seemed somehow but a thin disguise for what was almost admiration.
Mrs. Oakley was one of two children, a son and a daughter, of a Vermont farmer. Of her early life no records remain. Her public history begins when she was twenty-two and came to New York. After two years' struggling, she found a position in the firm of one Redgrave. Those who knew her then speak of her as a tall, handsome girl, hard and intensely ambitious. From contemporary accounts she seems to have out-Nietzsched Nietzsche. Nietzsche's vision stopped short at the superman. Jane Scobell was a superwoman. She had all the titanic selfishness and indifference to the comfort of others which marks the superman, and, in addition, undeniable good looks and a knowledge of the weaknesses of men. Poor Mr. Redgrave had not had a chance from the start. She married him within a year. Two years later, catching the bulls in an unguarded moment, Mr. Redgrave despoiled them of a trifle over three million dollars, and died the same day of an apoplectic stroke caused by the excitement of victory. His widow, after a tour in Europe, returned to the United States and visited Pittsburg. Any sociologist will support the statement that it is difficult, almost impossible, for an attractive widow, visiting Pittsburg, not to marry a millionaire, even if she is not particularly anxious to do so. If such an act is the primary object of her visit, the thing becomes a certainty. Groping through the smoke, Jane Redgrave seized and carried off no less a quarry than Alexander Baynes Oakley, a widower, whose income was one of the seven wonders of the world. In the fullness of time he, too, died, and Jane Oakley was left with the sole control of two vast fortunes.
She did not marry again, though it was rumored that it took three secretaries, working nine hours a day, to cope with the written proposals, and that butler after butler contracted clergyman's sore throat through denying admittance to amorous callers. In the ten years after Alexander Baynes' death, every impecunious aristocrat in the civilized world must have made his dash for the matrimonial pole. But her pale eyes looked them over, and dismissed them.
During those early years she was tempted once or twice to speculation. A failure in a cotton deal not only cured her of this taste, but seems to have marked the point in her career when her thoughts began to turn to parsimony. Until then she had lived in some state, but now, gradually at first, then swiftly, she began to cut down her expenses. Now we find her in an apartment in West Central Park, next in a Washington Square hotel, then in a Harlem flat, and finally--her last, fixed abiding-place--in a small cottage on Staten Island.
It was a curious life that she led, this woman who could have bought kingdoms if she had willed it. A Swedish maid-of-all-work was her only companion. By day she would walk in her little garden, or dust, arrange and wind up her clocks. At night, she would knit, or read one of the frequent reports that arrived at the cottage from charity workers on the East Side. Those were her two hobbies, and her only extravagances--clocks and charity.
Her charity had its limitations. In actual money she expended little. She was a theoretical philanthropist. She lent her influence, her time, and her advice, but seldom her bank balance. Arrange an entertainment for the delectation of the poor, and you would find her on the platform, but her name would not be on the list of subscribers to the funds. She would deliver a lecture on thrift to an audience of factory girls, and she would give them a practical example of what she preached.
Yet, with all its limitations, her charity was partly genuine. Her mind was like a country in the grip of civil war. One-half of her sincerely pitied the poor, burned at any story of oppression, and cried "Give!" but the other cried "Halt!" and held her back, and between the two she fell.
* * * * *
It was to this somewhat unpromising haven of refuge that Betty's mind now turned in her trouble. She did not expect great things. She could not have said exactly what she did expect. But, at least, the cottage on Staten Island offered a resting-place on her journey, even if it could not be the journey's end. Her mad dash from Mervo ceased to be objectless. It led somewhere.