The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XI. A Letter of Introduction
New York, revisited, had much the same effect on Betty as it had had on John during his first morning of independence. As the liner came up the bay, and the great buildings stood out against the clear blue of the sky, she felt afraid and lonely. That terror which is said to attack immigrants on their first sight of the New York sky-line came to her, as she leaned on the rail, and with it a feeling of utter misery. By a continual effort during the voyage she had kept her thoughts from turning to John, but now he rose up insistently before her, and she realized all that had gone out of her life.
She rebelled against the mad cruelty of the fate which had brought them together again. It seemed to her now that she must always have loved him, but it had been such a vague, gentle thing, this love, before that last meeting--hardly more than a pleasant accompaniment to her life, something to think about in idle moments, a help and a support when things were running crosswise. She had been so satisfied with it, so content to keep him a mere memory. It seemed so needless and wanton to destroy her illusion.
Of love as a wild-beast passion, tearing and torturing quite ordinary persons like herself, she had always been a little sceptical. The great love poems of the world, when she read them, had always left her with the feeling that their authors were of different clay from herself and had no common meeting ground with her. She had seen her friends fall in love, as they called it, and it had been very pretty and charming, but as far removed from the frenzies of the poets as an amateur's snapshot of Niagara from the cataract itself. Elsa Keith, for instance, was obviously very fond and proud of Marvin, but she seemed perfectly placid about it. She loved, but she could still spare half an hour for the discussion of a new frock. Her soul did not appear to have been revolutionized in any way.
Gradually Betty had come to the conclusion that love, in the full sense of the word, was one of the things that did not happen. And now, as if to punish her presumption, it had leaped from hiding and seized her.
There was nothing exaggerated or unintelligible in the poets now. They ceased to be inhabitants of another world, swayed by curiously complex emotions. They were her brothers--ordinary men with ordinary feelings and a strange gift for expressing them. She knew now that it was possible to hate the man you loved and to love the man you hated, to ache for the sight of someone even while you fled from him.
It did not take her long to pass the Customs. A small grip constituted her entire baggage. Having left this in the keeping of the amiable proprietor of a near-by delicatessen store, she made her way to the ferry.
Her first enquiry brought her to the cottage. Mrs. Oakley was a celebrity on Staten Island.
At the door she paused for a moment, then knocked.
The Swede servant, she who had been there at her former visit, twelve years ago, received her stolidly. Mrs. Oakley was dusting her clocks.
"Ask her if she can see me," said Betty. "I'm--" great step-niece sounded too ridiculous--"I'm her niece," she said.
The handmaid went and returned, stolid as ever. "Ay tal her vat yu say about niece, and she say she not knowing any niece," she announced.
Betty amended the description, and presently the Swede returned once more, and motioned her to enter.
Like so many scenes of childhood, the room of the clocks was sharply stamped on Betty's memory, and, as she came into it now, it seemed to her that nothing had changed. There were the clocks, all round the walls, of every shape and size, the big clocks with the human faces and the small, perky clocks. There was the dingy, medium-sized clock that held the trumpeter. And there, looking at her with just the old sandy-cat expression in her pale eyes, was Mrs. Oakley.
Even the possession of an income of eighteen million dollars and a unique collection of clocks cannot place a woman above the making of the obvious remark.
"How you have grown!" said Mrs. Oakley.
The words seemed to melt the chill that had gathered around Betty's heart. She had been prepared to enter into long explanations, and the knowledge that these would not be required was very comforting.
"Do you remember me?" she exclaimed.
"You are the little girl who clapped her hands at the trumpeter, but you are not little now."
"I'm not so very big," said Betty, smiling. She felt curiously at home, and pity for the loneliness of this strange old woman caused her to forget her own troubles.
"You look pretty when you smile," said Mrs. Oakley thoughtfully. She continued to look closely at her. "You are in trouble," she said.
Betty met her eyes frankly.
"Yes," she said.
The old woman bent her head over a Sevres china clock, and stroked it tenderly with her feather duster.
"Why did you run away?" she asked without looking up.
Betty had a feeling that the ground was being cut from beneath her feet. She had expected to have to explain who she was and why she had come, and behold, both were unnecessary. It was uncanny. And then the obvious explanation occurred to her.
"Did my stepfather cable?" she asked.
Mrs. Oakley laid down the feather duster and, opening a drawer, produced some sheets of paper--to the initiated eye plainly one of Mr. Scobell's lengthy messages.
"A wickedly extravagant cable," she said, frowning at it. "He could have expressed himself perfectly well at a quarter of the expense."
Betty began to read. The dimple on her chin appeared for a moment as she did so. The tone of the message was so obsequious. There was no trace of the old peremptory note in it. The words "dearest aunt" occurred no fewer than six times in the course of the essay, its author being apparently reckless of the fact that it was costing him half a dollar a time. Mrs. Oakley had been quite right in her criticism. The gist of the cable was, "Betty has run away to America dearest aunt ridiculous is sure to visit you please dearest aunt do not encourage her." The rest was pure padding.
Mrs. Oakley watched her with a glowering eye. "If Bennie Scobell," she soliloquized, "imagines that he can dictate to me--" She ceased, leaving an impressive hiatus. Unhappy Mr. Scobell, convicted of dictation even after three dollars' worth of "dearest aunt!"
Betty handed back the cable. Her chin, emblem of war, was tilted and advanced.
"I'll tell you why I ran away, Aunt," she said.
Mrs. Oakley listened to her story in silence. Betty did not relate it at great length, for with every word she spoke, the thought of John stabbed her afresh. She omitted much that has been told in this chronicle. But she disclosed the essential fact, that Napoleonic Mr. Scobell had tried to force her into a marriage with a man she did not--she hesitated at the word--did not respect, she concluded.
Mrs. Oakley regarded her inscrutably for a while before replying.
"Respect!" she said at last. "I have never met a man in my life whom I could respect. Harpies! Every one of them! Every one of them! Every one of them!"
She was muttering to herself. It is possible that her thoughts were back with those persevering young aristocrats of her second widowhood. Certainly, if she had sometimes displayed a touch of the pirate in her dealings with man, man, it must be said in fairness, had not always shown his best side to her.
"Respect!" she muttered again. "Did you like him, this Prince of yours?"
Betty's eyes filled. She made no reply.
"Well, never mind," said Mrs. Oakley. "Don't cry, child! I'm not going to press you. You must have hated him or else loved him very much, or you would never have run away.... Dictate to me!" she broke off, half-aloud, her mind evidently once more on Mr. Scobell's unfortunate cable.
Betty could bear it no longer.
"I loved him!" she cried. "I loved him!"
She was shaking with dry sobs. She felt the old woman's eyes upon her, but she could not stop.
A sudden whirr cut through the silence. One of the large clocks near the door was beginning to strike the hour. Instantly the rest began to do the same, till the room was full of the noise. And above the din there sounded sharp and clear the note of the little trumpet.
The noise died away with metallic echoings.
It was a changed voice that spoke. Betty looked up, and saw that the eyes that met hers were very soft. She moved quickly to the old woman's side.
"Honey, I'm going to tell you something about myself that nobody dreams of. Betty, when I was your age, I ran away from a man because I loved him. It was just a little village tragedy, my dear. I think he was fond of me, but father was poor and her folks were the great people of the place, and he married her. And I ran away, like you, and went to New York."
Betty pressed her hand. It was trembling.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"I went to New York because I wanted to kill my heart. And I killed it. There's only one way. Work! Work! Work!" She was sitting bolt upright, and the soft look had gone out of her eyes. They were hard and fiery under the drawn brows. "Work! Ah, I worked! I never rested. For two years. Two whole years. It fought back at me. It tore me to bits. But I wouldn't stop. I worked on, I killed it."
She stopped, quivering. Betty was cold with a nameless dismay. She felt as if she were standing in the dark on the brink of an abyss.
The old woman began to speak again.
"Child, it's the same with you. Your heart's tearing you. Don't let it! It will get worse and worse if you are afraid of it. Fight it! Kill it! Work!"
She stopped again, clenching and unclenching her fingers, as if she were strangling some living thing. There was silence for a long moment.
"What can you do?" she asked suddenly.
Her voice was calm and unemotional again. The abruptness of the transition from passion to the practical took Betty aback. She could not speak.
"There must be something," continued Mrs. Oakley. "When I was your age I had taught myself bookkeeping, shorthand, and typewriting. What can you do? Can you use a typewriter?"
"Yes," said Betty promptly.
"Not very well?"
"H'm. Well, I expect you will do it well enough for Mr. Renshaw--on my recommendation. I'll give you a letter to him. He is the editor of a small weekly paper. I don't know how much he will offer you, but take it and work! You'll find him pleasant. I have met him at charity organization meetings on the East Side. He's useful at the entertainments--does conjuring tricks--stupid, but they seem to amuse people. You'll find him pleasant. There."
She had been writing the letter of introduction during the course of these remarks. At the last word she blotted it, and placed it in an envelope.
"That's the address," she said. "J. Brabazon Renshaw, Office of Peaceful Moments. Take it to him now. Good-by."
It was as if she were ashamed of her late display of emotion. She spoke abruptly, and her pale eyes were expressionless. Betty thanked her and turned to go.
"Tell me how you get on," said Mrs. Oakley.
"Yes," said Betty.
"And work. Keep on working!"
There was a momentary return of her former manner as she spoke the words, and Betty wavered. She longed to say something comforting, something that would show that she understood.
Mrs. Oakley had taken up the feather duster again.
"Steena will show you out," she said curtly. And Betty was aware of the stolid Swede in the doorway. The interview was plainly at an end.
"Good-by, Aunt," she said, "and thank you ever so much--for everything."