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Date first posted: May 2023
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IT all narrowed down to Elfrida; the others had each, somehow, secured direct destinies of their own.
Belle's future might have as well been written in letters of light among the golden diadem of curls on her candid brow, so clear it was; at twenty she was married.
Tom had what he called his career, what others called his job, and Grace possessed a definite talent for music; she was studying in Dresden, happy, secure in her work.
All three, it was clearly understood by everyone, were resolutely set on their different paths, Belle in her home life, Tom in his architect's office, Grace in her studies; but Elfrida remained free of any such obligation or employment.
Elfrida was the eldest. When Belle had been married five years Elfrida was past thirty and rather old for her age; it was tacitly believed that nothing now would happen to Elfrida, that neither matrimony nor talents nor any kind of change or excitement would disturb her quiet ways.
She would, when all had gone eagerly about their separate affairs, remain behind and look after mother.
Mrs. Delaney had always counted on that; whenever she had resigned herself afresh to losing any of the others, she had consoled herself with the thought that there always was, and always would be, Elfrida.
And Tom, Belle and Grace had likewise comforted themselves in the thought that however far away they were, or however absorbed in their own concerns, there always had been, and always would be, Elfrida—Elfrida the domesticated, Elfrida the stay-at-home, Elfrida who was the plainest, the least gifted, the best tempered and the most useful member of the family.
"We can take a smaller flat now, Elfrida," said Mrs. Delaney. "Grace isn't likely to be with us much, she has made so many foreign friends—and the other two being married—"
She made a little gesture of resignation with her fine hands: yes, they could well take a smaller flat, she had lost them all save Elfrida.
"We could sub-let this very well," said Elfrida quietly, a little mechanically perhaps.
"And we might travel," added Mrs. Delaney with a note of pleasure in her voice. "I always thought, dear, that when the others were all quite settled we would travel—you and I—"
"Yes, we might travel," agreed Elfrida, in the same even tone; "there is really nothing to keep us in England now," she added, as if considering the case.
"I have not been abroad since I was very young," reflected Mrs. Delaney, her eyes brightening. "Everything must have changed a great deal. I should very much like to see Italy again. I remember how I liked Florence—it has always been like a dream to me—Florence, and the flowers and the sun."
"It would be very nice," agreed Elfrida.
She said no more than that, and her face, which was a very serene and gentle face, did not change in expression; she had never been heard to speak of any dream or to mention any desire.
And Mrs. Delaney, looking at her affectionately, thought what a delightful companion she would make and how pleasant it would be to show her Florence.
"We really deserve a little time to ourselves," she smiled. "We've been doing something for the others for years."
"I suppose we have." Elfrida smiled too; she was knitting a coat for Belle's last baby now.
"And now that there are only the two of us—"
Elfrida interrupted, quietly:
"Don't you think that Grace will ever come back?"
"No—she has so many interests abroad, and of course she will get married—any minute."
Elfrida smiled again.
"We mustn't count on Grace," added the mother, with a touch of triumph in her resignation.
"I suppose not," said the daughter, knitting carefully; "that leaves just you and me."
"And there is no reason why we shouldn't have a good time."
"Of course not." Elfrida's whole personality was at this moment like an echo. "A good time."
"I'd like to do what you want," said Mrs. Delaney, but with the complacency of one who expects no opposition. "If there is anywhere you prefer to Florence—"
"There's nowhere I would prefer," smiled the daughter.
"Then we might call that settled."
And so, with no more discussion than that, it was settled.
Mrs. Delaney and Elfrida were going to Florence in the spring, of course, and to quite a good boarding-house.
"We can sub-let the flat," said Mrs. Delaney, "and take a much smaller place—one maid would do—we've no boys, no young people, two women can manage very well."
Elfrida bent her head lower over the pale wool; these words of her mother seemed to shut doors—yes, there was a sound of shutting doors all about Elfrida.
"We shall want so very little," she agreed.
"Of course." Her mother looked at her affectionately "I'm not the wealthy woman that I was—the children have cost a good deal, one way and another—"
"I know," said Elfrida: she had cost nothing beyond her keep.
"And I'd like to go on helping Belle and Tom—and there's all Grace's expenses; they don't get less."
"No, of course not."
No, Mrs. Delaney was no longer anything but comfortable; it would be the tiny flat and one maid and a little modest travel on well-beaten tracks, staying at cheap hotels.
Not much had ever been spent on Elfrida; there had not been any occasion to do so, and she had never asked for anything.
Mrs. Delaney constantly told herself that Elfrida could have had as much as Belle or Grace, or even Tom, if she had wanted it; but, then, she never had.
And Mrs. Delaney, who prided herself sincerely on being just, had left, in consideration of this, the bulk of her remaining fortune to Elfrida. And continuing these thoughts out loud, she added:
"You mustn't think that you're forgotten, Elfrida. I want to leave you provided for, comfortably provided for—the bulk of what I have left is for you, so we mustn't be extravagant."
Another door seemed to close—saving for one's old age—the end drawing nearer—two ageing women being careful—travelling about decorously and being careful. Elfrida had had a long training in being careful, careful in everything, in every way; for none of the others had been careful, and Mrs. Delaney herself, an over-anxious mother, was apt to "lose her head" on occasion and to require Elfrida's sure touch to rescue her from dilemma, perhaps disaster.
Mrs. Delaney was thinking of that, of how useful and wonderful Elfrida had been and how pleasantly life would pass with her, plain and dull as she was, poor child, compared to the other three!
Elfrida, who had so successfully made arrangements for sub-letting the large flat, made equally efficient arrangements for shutting up the tiny flat and for the tour in Italy.
Elfrida went to say "good-bye" to Belle, and Belle said:
"Lucky wretch! Italy in the springtime!"
And Elfrida said, "Yes, it will be very nice."
And Belle wished she could get away, but she was afraid with an exacting husband—and the babies—
She smiled her golden smile.
Tom was envious also; he told Elfrida that she had all the luck—all work and no play!
She had a list of the things she was to bring back, for Tom and Tom's pretty wife, and Belle and her babies. Mrs. Delaney thought that it would be great fun buying them—little intimate foolish things!
That was going to be the great excitement of the trip—buying things for other people, that and writing home—Elfrida knew how her mother would always be writing "home" to those three she was so absorbed in; even Dresden, where Grace was, would be "home" when they were in Italy!
Elfrida went shopping just before they were due to leave England; her shopping had always been "careful" too.
She avoided extremes of fashion from a nervous sense of her own insignificance, and in these days of well-dressed women she was always rather notably dull and ordinary in her appearance.
Now she was going shopping without much heart—"Oh, well," she thought to herself, "it doesn't really much matter what I buy."
On the doorstep of the block of flats where they now so prudently resided she met James Mayrick, who had come to say "good-bye"; he was an old friend whom Mrs. Delaney had often smiled at in a kindly sort of way, he was so odd and quiet and plain in a rather amusing fashion, and thought and spoke and lived so differently from everyone else the Delaneys knew.
Of course there was really nothing to laugh at in James Mayrick, who happened to be a famous engraver, a man of great talent, gifts, intelligence and culture, not young, and very dry in manner, but altogether very likeable and pleasant.
Mrs. Delaney was fond of him though she smiled at him so often, and so kindly, and she encouraged his visits, for she always thought of him as a rather lonely man, who, despite his fame and his money, had few friends.
Elfrida told him about the tour in Italy; they would be away for about a year, then in London for a month or two, and then they very much wanted to go to Algiers.
"Now that the family is all settled," smiled Elfrida, "Mother and I feel that we can enjoy some nice long holidays."
They had fallen into step together down the sun-washed street; the sky was beautiful with the colour of freshly budding violets, and the air, even here in the centre of the wide city, had a woodland freshness.
They walked slowly; Elfrida's shopping plans were vague.
"Come and have some tea first," said Mr. Mayrick.
And Elfrida said, "Yes, I will do so."
She felt in a silent mood; there was music while they drank their tea and there were flowers about them and prettily dressed women.
Everything and everybody seemed alive save herself.
"I think I am rather tired," she said vaguely. "There has been a good deal to do, one way and another."
"I thought," answered James Mayrick, "that you would have had a little time to yourself now."
He spoke dryly and looked, Elfrida thought, queerly at her; she felt puzzled and conscious, in a confused way, that this was an odd background for them. Mr. Mayrick had never asked her to take tea with him before—and she was not used to these light, gay places, so prodigal of music and flowers.
"I'm going on a holiday now," she answered. "I've travelled so little—"
"Travelling," interrupted Mr. Mayrick, "is nothing in itself—"
"No," admitted Elfrida dubiously, "but I shall be interested—in everything, of course—"
For a second Elfrida was startled, then her flash of feeling faded into her habitual quietude.
"So you're going on living with your mother—the two of you, travelling and living in pensions and little flats?"
"Of course," said Elfrida with absolute sincerity, but just a spark of terror touched her controlled thoughts; she must think, against her will, of those closing doors.
Mr. Mayrick was silent; he appeared to be listening to the music, which, facile and voluptuous, filled the warm air with languor.
Elfrida looked at his profile, ascetic, fine and noble, delicately lined, the thick hair touched with grey; she felt timid, odd—she had always been a little afraid of him, afraid somehow to think of him.
He turned abruptly and told her of his last etching.
"It is called," he said, "'The Hourglass.'"
And he took a small pencil sketch from his pocket-book and showed it to Elfrida across the frivolous tea-table. So seldom did he speak of his work that she was half flattered, half awkward, and stared stupidly at the sketch while he looked at her intently with a frown.
The sketch showed a woman, not very young, who was standing beside a table on which was an hourglass through which the sands had more than half run.
Elfrida did not quite understand what it meant; she continued to gaze at it with the music in her ears and James Mayrick's eyes upon her, and then she handed it back with an embarrassed conventional remark of praise.
James Mayrick smiled.
"Thank you so much for showing me," said Elfrida.
The silence between them seemed a notable thing.
When Elfrida spoke it was to suggest that she must leave—it was getting late, she had not done her "shopping."
When they parted she felt a sensation of chill disappointment that she could not explain.
"It will be lovely in Italy," she said with an attempt at a smile, "if the weather keeps like this—"
"Do you think," he asked ironically, "that you will see Italy?"
They parted; the flow of the eager life of the city divided them and in the swift press of people Elfrida felt bitterly lonely.
She did not, after all, do her shopping; she went home and told her mother of James Mayrick's drawing of the woman and the hourglass.
Mrs. Delaney took no notice of this; she was not interested; a long letter had come from Grace and Belle was constantly on the telephone.
But the next day she saw something that made her think, sharply, of the sketch of which Elfrida had spoken, something that also surprised her very much.
Elfrida had been very busy all day, but Mrs. Delaney had thought of something else that she wanted her to do at once and she went to her room to call her; opened the door and looked in.
Elfrida was standing by her writing-table, and on the writing-table was an hourglass through which the sands were running.
"Elfrida!" cried Mrs. Delaney quickly, "wherever did you get that?"
Elfrida picked up the hourglass and put it in her drawer.
"Mr. Mayrick gave it to me," she answered. "It is the model for his etching—I was going past his studio to-day and I thought I would look in—"
"What a funny thing to give you!" said her mother.
"Oh, I really asked for it—it is a lovely design—"
"I don't like it," replied Mrs. Delaney decisively. "It reminds me of skulls and cross-bones and tombstones."
"Well," said Elfrida quietly. "I won't leave it about where you can see it."
There seemed really nothing more to be said on this subject, but what Mrs. Delaney wanted to say was that she had never understood that Elfrida was interested enough in Mr. Mayrick to call at his studio after he had come round to take formal leave and given her tea only the day before; indeed, she had not known that Elfrida ever did go to see Mr. Mayrick alone, and it seemed to her so strange that actually the next day she herself went round to the studio and said, as no doubt Elfrida had said, that she was just passing and hoped that he might be able to give her a cup of tea.
And while she was drinking the cup of tea, she brought the conversation round to the hourglass.
"Elfrida told me that she was here yesterday and that you gave her the hourglass—"
"It is a very beautiful hourglass," said Mr. Mayrick.
"Oh, yes—but a curious thing to give Elfrida! I don't know quite what you meant by the hourglass in the etching."
"Just the passing of time."
"But that's so obvious," smiled Mrs. Delaney.
"Yes, but like a good many other obvious things, how many of us notice it? Do we ever stop to consider time as something flowing steadily away all the time—taking life with it? Every day past is a day past, you know, Mrs. Delaney."
"Of course," but she felt a little uneasy, as she had felt a little uneasy when she had seen Elfrida standing by the hourglass in her bedroom.
"Time is made concrete in an hourglass," added Mr. Mayrick. "We really do see it trickling away, never faster, or slower, but steadily, all the time."
He paused a second, and then he added, in just the same tone of voice:
"I've been wanting to marry Elfrida for years, Mrs. Delaney."
Mrs. Delaney was so moved by compassionate amusement that she blushed over all her face and stammered in her reply:
"I'm so sorry—how sad—"
"I'm sorry too," said Mr. Mayrick. "It seems a pity."
It required all Mrs. Delaney's breeding to control her amazement—two such solid, plain people!—the odd, dry man!
He walked away and stood by the window with his back to her; it was really rather rude, but she forgave him; she supposed that he was rather moved.
How ridiculous of him to tell her like this that he had always wanted to marry Elfrida! How amused Elfrida would be!
Mrs. Delaney took her departure; she could think of nothing to say to Mr. Mayrick about his confession, and his manner seemed quite grim and hostile, so she said something pleasant about the weather and hoping it would keep fine for their crossing the day after tomorrow, and so got away.
While she was going home she could think of nothing else than this queer little episode. She was quite longing to tell it to Elfrida, who would certainly be very much amused. She would, of course, be very sorry for the little man and quite tender with his secret, but she could not fail to be amused.
Mrs. Delaney was so full of this queer, surprising and comic thing that when she got home and found Elfrida seated at her desk writing labels, she burst out with her news.
"Elfrida! What do you think? That ridiculous little man, Mr. Mayrick, told me that he had been wanting to marry you for years!"
And she began to laugh, quite hysterically.
"Isn't it ridiculous!"
Elfrida looked up from her labels; and she began to laugh too, also quite hysterically.
"Ridiculous, Mother, ridiculous!"
Mrs. Delaney was relieved to hear Elfrida laugh, though she did not know why this was so.
"He's such a funny creature, I could hardly keep my face when he told me!" she said.
Elfrida ceased to laugh; she put her labels neatly together and rose.
"Funny?" she asked in a queer voice. Perhaps that was the word, perhaps it was "funny."
When she had gone into the studio to look at the etching James Mayrick had said nothing to her of love or marriage—instead, he had told her mother, and her mother had thought it "funny."
"I dare say he is a little unbalanced," added Mrs. Delaney, "as clever people often are—he talked a lot about 'time flowing away'—"
And then she was silent, in a certain confusion, for she remembered that James Mayrick had not "talked a lot" about anything, and what she was expressing was really her own impression, gained largely from his silence.
"Anyhow, it is all over," she added rather nervously. "There is no need to talk about it any more."
"Yes, it is all over," agreed Elfrida. "I shouldn't think about it any more."
No use for either of them to think about it any more; it was over; they would go abroad—it was "funny" that James Mayrick had said that to her mother, so funny that they would never be able to meet him again without smiling; and that would be horrible.
It would be much better if they were never to meet him again; she did not want to again hear her mother say that it was "funny."
Elfrida lay awake that night, coldly thinking; she felt detached from life, a spectator of her own mischances.
The next morning she was out early, the hourglass in her hand-bag, and next to it a list of things Mrs. Delaney still required for the journey, which was now but twenty-four hours ahead.
She passed a milliner's shop and noticed in the window a rich and elegant hat, massed with airy plumes; the sort of hat that Elfrida had never worn, scarcely looked at before, but which now she paused before and regarded with an ironic smile.
"How 'funny' Mother would think me if I bought that!" she thought; and on an impulse that was really a gesture of resigned despair, of self-mockery, she went into the exotic little shop and bought the extravagant hat, which cost all the money she had in her purse, and came out wearing it; the long, soft, peach-coloured feathers floating in the sunshine: the colour, the shopwoman told her, "went with" the new pale costume, and she had sold her a knot of silk flowers in the same tints for her coat.
Elfrida smiled at herself, coldly; she went directly to James Mayrick's studio and, as she mounted the steps, took the hourglass from her bag.
She gave it to him before he could speak.
"Please take this back," she said. "I don't need it—to remind me."
He put the hourglass on the table behind him.
"You did, though," he answered.
Elfrida sat down on the edge of one of the big divans; she suddenly felt utterly fatigued.
He looked at her guardedly; it seemed to Elfrida as if she could not speak, but she thought—"there'll never be anything after this, not even a good-bye," and so subdued her own cowardice.
"Mother told me what you said yesterday," she said. "Why did you tell her and not me?"
"You were so hopeless," he answered dryly. "You wouldn't understand."
"That is true," admitted Elfrida gravely. "I was so obsessed by other people, by doing things for other people—"
They looked at each other.
"But all the time I loved you, Elfrida."
"You might have told me before it was too late."
"You shut me out, you wouldn't give me a chance—even the
other day, when we met, you weren't thinking of me at all; your
thoughts were miles away, you were absorbed in something else."
Elfrida recalled their tea together, the music, the flowers, the gay people, and how she had sat there, dull, unresponsive, worrying about trifles—vaguely uneasy.
"It's true. I've got into a rut, a habit, a lot of habits—" She paused, flushing with the force of her thought. "And I never dared to think about you—about anyone caring for me."
He was silent; his head was turned away. Elfrida looked past him to the hourglass, to the sands slowly flowing away.
"All that is true," she added quietly, "but it is also true that deep in my heart I have loved you without knowing it all these years."
It was beautiful to Elfrida to say this, beautiful to see the look he turned on her; never had any moment of her life been so full of pleasure. He took her hands tightly and she saw the tears rise to his eyes.
"But it is too late," she added gravely. "I'm not young—Mother laughed—Mother thought it 'funny.'"
"Poor Mrs. Delaney," he said, still holding Elfrida's hands.
"That's it—under her laughter she was afraid—she'd been counting on me to be there when the others had gone—and she was afraid—"
He did not answer this; instead he said, with great tenderness:
"I have never seen you in rosy plumes before, Elfrida—why didn't you look like that the other day, then I should have spoken to you—"
She laughed wistfully.
"Does it make such a difference? I bought it to-day—just to grace this—oh, I don't know—a whim—"
"A presage," he corrected. "You'll always wear plumes now, Elfrida. And when you see Italy it will be with me."
She shook her head; a hundred petty details hedged her in.
"Too late. We've got our tickets, our rooms—we've packed, said good-bye—"
"As if that mattered!"
"Mother matters. She counts on me."
"And you are going to give the rest of your life to that?"
"You know I am; you always knew—"
"It's a habit," he said angrily, "a superstition."
It did not make any difference what he called it; the sands had all run out of the hourglass now; looking beyond, she saw her own reflection in an old mirror, a mournful face, shadowed eyes and unsteady lips beneath those gay and mocking plumes.
She rose; better to go now; she had snatched her moment of avowal, there was at least one memory to fondle through the empty years to come; she wished that he would understand this, that he would make it easier and more beautiful for her. How could she convey to him that these few moments were all she had, all she had ever had, all she ever would have?
With a surge of passion that took her beyond all restraint, she cried, without choice of words:
"Oh, do be kind! Oh, do understand what it means to me!"
"What it means to you?" he answered roughly. "If it meant anything at all, you wouldn't, you couldn't go away—"
She had no power to say anything more; she stood still and allowed him to kiss her again and again; but her resolution was not shaken, for all her helpless tears of joy.
When she got away from him it was to move towards the door.
"You're not going—going?"
She heard his voice, hoarse, angry, amazed, and triumph tinged her misery as she dragged herself away; she did not look back; she shut the door on him and, with a trembling swiftness, fled.
Mrs. Delaney was anxiously waiting for her. Elfrida had hoped to escape this meeting; she could not speak nor mask the expression on her ghastly face.
"Why, Elfrida, Elfrida, what has happened? I wondered why you were out so early—"
She pursued her daughter to her tiny bedroom, where the trunks stood strapped and labelled. Elfrida turned, incapable of excuses.
"Mother, let me have just this little time to myself, just till luncheon—I'll buy those things for you this afternoon—"
But Mrs. Delaney could not let go.
"That hat, Elfrida—whatever made you get a hat like that? It must have been very expensive, and you'll have no use for it—"
"None," said Elfrida, "none—"
"She took off the airy plumed hat and cast it on the bed; the
two tormented women faced each other."
The repressions of a lifetime rushed from Elfrida's heart—her mother's word "funny" danced in her brain—wasn't it "funny" that she had been silent so long?
And then she put her hand over her mouth, as if she was afraid of what she might be going to say, and turned away heavily and left the room, her own room, in the possession of her mother.
Mrs. Delaney gathered herself together as one will after an encounter with the incredible.
And this was incredible; Elfrida in "this state," Elfrida who had gone out to make modest and necessary purchases and bought—that hat!
That frivolous, extravagant hat with the rosy, peach-coloured plumes!
Elfrida, then, was a rebel; Elfrida did not want to go to Italy?
Mrs. Delaney picked up the marvellous hat with a shaking hand—
She thought of James Mayrick, of the hourglass, of her daughter's distorted face—
The door opened and Elfrida looked into the room.
"It's all right, Mother," she said piteously. "Everything is all right."
And she went out again, as if not trusting herself to say more than that.
But Mrs. Delaney remained, gazing at the plumy hat.
All the fair, pleasant and peaceful prospects of her life seemed to be suddenly overclouded.
Elfrida had just said that everything was all right, and for a second that had comforted her; but almost at once she had realised that it was not all right and never would be all right again.
Never would she forget those glimpses of Elfrida standing by the hourglass—and Elfrida in that absurd hat!
The hourglass! Time flowing away, as Mr. Mayrick had said—these truisms, how little one realised them, and Elfrida had stood watching the hourglass, watching time flow away.
Time that was passing so pleasantly for Mrs. Delaney—but for Elfrida?
It came to this, that she had never thought at all about Elfrida's point of view—only her own; she wanted the tiny London flat, the easy travel, the snug foreign pensions—she was growing old.
Her work, her fun and excitement were over; she had had her fill of all these things; now she was tired and wanted a rest—a comfortable rest—she wanted peace and Elfrida.
And she had taken it for granted that that was what Elfrida had wanted too—this dull, safe, cosy life.
And all the time Elfrida had been wanting to marry Mr. Mayrick, had been thinking of time flowing by, withering her with frosty breath as it went—had been envying lovely, silly, expensive hats such as petted women wore!
And here again a sense of bitter injustice assailed her fiercely.
Had she not let the others go because she had relied on Elfrida?
Did not Destiny owe her Elfrida, after all her absorption in, her sacrifices for, all her children?
Had she not a right to Elfrida? The problem bit into her soul. Was that what maternity meant? Complete giving up, absolute resignation, utter withdrawal?
Mrs. Delaney bleakly faced these questions; her claim on Elfrida and the value of this claim—the claim of Elfrida to be herself, to live her own life.
How would her affection work out to chain Elfrida or let Elfrida go?
She had thrown a glamour over the future of her own choice—but she looked at it now with Elfrida's eyes, an attendance on an ageing woman for whom the main events of life were over—a fading and a dwindling into a futile elderly woman with a comfortable pittance.
To that she would have sacrificed Elfrida if she had not seen her standing by the hourglass, if Mr. Mayrick had not spoken—if Elfrida had not bought the hat—
Mrs. Delaney turned the hat about—Belle had had hats like this—Grace certainly would have them—but she had never thought of Elfrida with these floating, pale plumes—
She went, heavily, into the tiny dining-room; Elfrida was writing labels.
She looked up, composed, even smiling.
"That hat—" murmured Mrs. Delaney.
"Mother," answered Elfrida tenderly, "don't worry—I'll change it for something really useful—"
"No," said the mother. "No—I've never seen you look so nice. It suits you, Elfrida." She sat down, trembling a little. "You ought to have more things like that—"
"Yes—and I think it is a mistake for us to go abroad—"
"Don't you want to go?"
"No—I don't want to go now—I'd rather stay and see you married. And then I might go, by myself." She contrived to smile. "I've always thought that would be rather fun, to go abroad by myself—"
She put out her hands and began to tear up the labels with their exciting addresses.
"Don't cry, Elfrida. Ring up James, and ask him to come round to luncheon—"
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