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Uncle Tone by Kate Godkin

 

“Mother darling! Is Uncle Tone really coming to see us at last? I heard you tell father something about it,” I said to my mother as she sat by my couch, to which I had been tied for some weeks in consequence of a cycling accident.

I had broken my leg, but had now so far recovered as to be able to move cautiously with a stick. It was the first illness that I could remember, and I was an only child, much loved, and I suppose much spoiled by the most indulgent of fathers and mothers. I therefore made the most of my opportunities and called freely on their resources for entertainment.

“Yes, love, I am happy to say he is. He has not been here now since you were quite a little girl, eight years ago. You were just eight.”

“Mother,” I continued coaxingly, for I loved a story, “why are you so fond of him, he is only your step-brother?”

“Step-brother!” she exclaimed. “He has been more than a brother to me. He has been a father, far far more,” she added sadly, “than my own father was. He is, you know, nearly twenty years older than I.”

“Will you tell me something about it?” I asked softly.

It was twilight in July, and I lay at the open French window which led from the drawing-room to the lawn, and from which we had a view across the park, far out over the country, bounded by the twinkling lights of Southampton in the distance, for our house was situated on an elevation in one of the loveliest spots in the New Forest. Dinner was over and father was in the library clearing off some pressing work, as he had to leave home for a day or two. It seemed to me the very time for reminiscences.

“I think I will,” said my mother slowly and thoughtfully.

She was a small, graceful woman, of about forty then, whose soft, dark hair was just beginning to be touched with grey, but her face was as fresh and dainty-looking as a girl's; a strong, sweet face that I loved to look at, and that now, that she is no longer with me, I love to remember.

“You ought to know what he did for your mother, and how much you owe him indirectly. I should like him, too, to feel that he has his reward in you.”

My curiosity was excited, for I had never heard my mother speak like that before, and so I settled myself to listen, and to enjoy what she had to say.

“My childhood was a very wretched one, Cora,” she began. “For that reason I have spoken little of it to you, but endeavoured, assisted by your father, to make yours the very opposite to it as far as lay in my power, and that I could do so is due, I may say wholly, to your Uncle Tone, who taught me to be happy myself, and to endeavour to make others so.”

I slipped my hand into my dear mother's; she was the best, most loving, and wisest mother that ever lived.

“My mother died when I was born,” she continued, “and my father took his loss so to heart that he shut himself off from all society, grew silent and morose, and,” she added after some hesitation, “became in time a drunkard.”

She brought these words out with such an effort, such difficulty, that the tears came to my eyes, and I whispered, “Don't go on, mother darling, if it hurts you.” She continued, however, without appearing to notice my interruption.

“I ran wild till I was twelve or thirteen years of age, I had no society but my father's and the servants', and I got no regular education. He would not send me to school, but the vicar's daughter came over for an hour or two every day to teach me what I could be induced to learn, which was little enough. I was hot-tempered, headstrong, self-willed, accustomed to fight for what I wanted, getting nothing by any other means, and doing without what I could not get in that way. No softening, no refining influence came into my life. My one pleasure even then was music. I had a passion for it. Miss Vincent, the vicar's daughter, taught me to play the piano, and I used to spend hours in the deserted drawing-room, playing what I knew, and picking out tunes by myself, while my father was shut up in his study. We had no near relation, no one who cared enough to take pity on an unruly, troublesome, little girl, with a drunken father. When I was between twelve and thirteen he died, and a godmother who lived in Scotland took charge of me, and sent me to a boarding-school, at which I spent the next four years. Schools were not then what they are now, particularly in Scotland, and between the time spent there and the holidays with Miss Clark, who was a stern, old maid and a confirmed invalid, my life was very dreary; I was becoming harder, and harder. I did not know in fact that I had any feelings; they were not cultivated amongst the people who had to do with me. She, also, died before I was seventeen, and then something happened which was to change my whole life. My step-brother, whom I had never seen, wrote to Miss McDougall, with whom I was at school, saying that my home would, henceforth, be with him. Your Uncle Tone was my father's son by his first marriage, and when his father married my mother, Tone went to live with his maternal grandfather, who, on his death, left him the beautiful place in Derbyshire to which I was to go. He lived there with an old aunt. This news affected me very little; I had never had a happy home, a real home; I did not know what that was, but I presumed I should go somewhere on leaving school.

“My love of music had, in the meantime, increased. I had had a very good master, a real musician, and I had worked hard for him. To me it was a delight, but I never thought nor cared that it could give pleasure to any one else. I used to shut myself up for hours in the holidays, out of hearing of my godmother, who seldom left her room, and play, and play, till my arms ached.

“I remember well the day he came for me. I was ready, waiting, when the maid brought me the message that Sir Tone Wolsten was in the drawing-room. He was standing on the hearth-rug talking to Miss McDougall, and looked so tall to me. He is over six feet. I can see him now as he stood there, erect, broad-shouldered, with bright chestnut hair, clear, keen, dark blue eyes, and bronzed skin, a strong, kind, fearless face. He looked a thorough man, one to be trusted. He greeted me very kindly as his little sister, and took me home with him. Goldmead Park was the loveliest place I had ever seen. His Aunt Evangeline, whom I also called 'aunt,' was a frail, querulous old lady, whom he treated as his mother. He did not marry till after her death, five years later. I was planted in entirely new surroundings, with everything pleasant about me, everything that I could desire, or ought to have desired. Your uncle was kindness itself. He taught me to ride and to drive, supplied me with books, took the greatest interest in me; but the restrictions of every well-ordered home which would have been nothing to a properly trained girl were unendurable to me. I resisted from sheer perverseness and dislike of control. I do not mean to say that I was always ill-tempered; I was lively and merry enough, and your uncle used to tease me, and jest with me, which I enjoyed very much, and responded to willingly.

“Some weeks had passed like this, my step-brother being most kind and indulgent. Frequently Aunt Evangeline had asked me to play to them in the evening after dinner, but I had refused obstinately. I liked to play to myself, but I had never been accustomed to do so before any one, and it never entered my head that it could give them pleasure, or that I was bound to do it out of politeness. At last she became more irritable and frequently made sarcastic remarks about the young people of the present day. This happened again one evening, and I answered sharply, not to say rudely.

“The next morning I wandered through the woods belonging to the park, gathering violets, and had sat down, hot and tired, under a lovely chestnut, with my lap full of flowers which I was arranging and tying up in bunches in order to carry them home more easily. I heard footsteps, which I recognised by their briskness and firmness, and looking up I saw my brother approach, walking, as usual, erect, with his head well thrown back but with stern lines in his face which I had not seen there before. I looked up smiling, expecting his usual kind greeting, but instead of that he strode straight up and stopped in front of me.

“'I was just thinking of you, Elfie,' he said, looking down at me, 'I have something to say to you which I can as well say here as any place else. I don't know why you should be so unamiable and discourteous to my aunt, as you are, and I cannot allow it to continue. I will say nothing of your manner to me. You receive here nothing but kindness. My great desire is to make you happy, but it does not seem as if I succeeded very well. At any rate, Aunt Evangeline must not be made uncomfortable, and I should be doing you a wrong if I allowed you to behave so rudely.'

“'Why can't she leave me alone?' I exclaimed angrily, 'I don't want to play to her.'

“'One does not leave little girls alone,' he answered calmly and sternly, 'and such behaviour from a young girl to an old lady is most unbecoming. It must come to an end, and the sooner the better! To-night,' he continued in a tone that made me look up at him, 'you will apologise to my aunt and offer to play.'

“'I shall do nothing of the sort!' I exclaimed, turning crimson.

“'Oh yes, you will,' he answered quietly, 'I am accustomed to be obeyed, and I don't think my little sister will defy me.'

“And with that he strode away, leaving me in a perfect turmoil of angry feelings. I jumped up, scattering my lapful of violets, and started to walk in the opposite direction. At lunch we met, he ignored me completely, but I did not care, I felt hard and defiant.

“After dinner, he conducted Aunt Evangeline to the drawing-room as usual, and as soon as she was seated he turned and looked at me, and waited. I made no move, though I felt my courage, which had never before forsaken me, ebb very low. He waited a few moments, and then said in a tone, which in spite of all my efforts I could not resist:

“'Now, Elfie!'

“I rose slowly, with his eyes fixed on me all the time, crossed the room to Aunt Evangeline, and stopped in front of her. 'I am sorry, Aunt Evangeline, that I have been so rude to you,' I said in a low, trembling voice. 'If you wish, I will play to you now.'

“I felt as if it were not I myself, but some one outside me that was moving and speaking for me. I wished not to do it, but I was compelled by my brother's force of will, as much as if I had been hypnotised.

“'Do, dear, do!' the old lady exclaimed kindly and eagerly. 'I am so fond of music, we both are, and we rarely have any one here who can play.'

“I chose a piece in which I could give vent to the stormy feelings raging within me. When I had finished I rose from the piano.

“'Thank you, dear,' she exclaimed. 'That was a treat!'

“'Such a treat,' remarked my brother, 'that it is hard to understand the discourtesy and want of amiability that have deprived us of it so long. Play something else, Elfie!' This was said quietly, but I was as powerless to resist as if it were the sternest command.

“So I played three or four more pieces at his request, and then getting up, took my work and sat down in silence at some distance from them, while they 'talked music' In about half an hour he turned to me again and asked me to play a particular piece which they had been discussing. 'Perhaps she is tired,' suggested Aunt Evangeline kindly.

“'It does not tire her to play for hours by herself,' was the quiet rejoinder.

“I went to the piano in a mutinous, half desperate mood, thinking I would go on till they were sick of it, so I played on and on. Presently I forgot them, got lost in my music, and as usual my angry feelings died away. I had no idea how long I had been playing when I became conscious of a feeling of emotion I had never experienced before. I felt my heart swell and my face flush, and with a sudden sob I burst into tears. I was more startled than they were, for I had never, as far as I could remember, shed a tear except with anger, and this was certainly not anger. I started up and was about to leave the room hastily, when Tone said in the same calm tone:

“Stay here, Elfie, you have no need to be ashamed of those tears.'

“At home I should have rushed from the room, banging the door after me: I could give myself no account of my reason for going and sitting down quietly instead; I did so, nevertheless, though I could not suppress my sobs for some time. At last I became, outwardly at least, calm.

“Aunt Evangeline always retired to her room about nine o'clock, and at first I did the same, but then my brother detained me for a game of chess which he taught me to play, and to talk about some books that he had given me to read, so that we usually sat together till ten o'clock. That night, however, I had no mind to sit alone with him for an hour, so I turned to say good-night as aunt was leaving the room. He held the door open for her, bade her 'good-night,' and then closed it as deliberately as if he had not seen my outstretched hand. He then turned to me, and took it, cold and trembling as it was, in his own firm, warm grasp, but with no intention of letting me go. Holding it, he looked searchingly, but with a kind smile, into my face.

“'Is this revenge or punishment, Elfie?' he asked.

“'I don't know what you mean,' I exclaimed in confusion.

“'My game of chess?'

“'You won't want to play with me to-night, and I can't play either,' I said, pressing my disengaged hand to my hot forehead. 'My stupidity would try your patience more than ever.'

“'You must not say that,' he replied quietly, 'you are not stupid, and as I have never felt the slightest shade of impatience, I cannot have shown any. You play quite well enough to give me a very good game, but I daresay you cannot to-night. One wants a cool, clear head for chess. Let us talk instead.' So saying he led me to the chair aunt had just left, put me in it, and drew his own chair nearer.

“'I don't want you to go to your room feeling lonely and upset,' he said, 'I should like to see your peace of mind restored first. I should like you to feel some satisfaction from the victory you have won over your self-will to-night.'

“'The victory, such as it is, is yours!' I blurted out, looking away.

“'You say that,' he replied very gently, 'as if you thought it a poor thing for a man to bully a young girl. Don't forget, Elfie, that I am nearly old enough to be your father, that, in fact, I stand in that position to you—I am your only relative and protector—that I am right and you are wrong, and above all that it is for your own sake that I do it. Poor child! you have had far too little home life and home influence. I want you to be happy here, but the greatest source of happiness lies in ourselves. What Milton says is very true, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.” You cannot be happy and make those around you happy, as long as you are the slave of your will. A strong will is one of the most valuable gifts we can have, but it must be our servant, not our master, or it will prove a curse instead of a blessing. It must be under our control, or it will force us to do things of which our good sense, good feeling, and our consciences all disapprove. We must be able to use it against ourselves if need be. You are nearly grown up, Elfie, and still such an undisciplined child! What you will not learn with me and let me teach you in the next two or three years, the world will teach you very harshly later. We none of us can go through life, least of all a woman, doing what we like, knocking against every one as we go along. We get very hard knocks back, and they hurt. We miss, too, the best happiness that life can give. It contains none to equal that of making other people happy. As we treat them, they treat us.

“'It is not in the least your fault, little one,' he added very kindly, 'you have had no chance of being different. You have, I am afraid, received very little kindness, but help me to change all this. Don't think for a moment that I want to subdue your will to mine, that I want forced obedience to my wishes—that is the last thing I desire. I want to place your will under your control. I forced you to do to-night what I wanted, to make a beginning, to show you it was possible, to let you feel the pleasure of being agreeable, to stir some gentler, softer feelings in you. They came, much to your surprise, though not to mine. We all have them, and it is not good to crush them.'

“While he was talking, a strange, subdued feeling came over me, such as I had never known before. He spoke gently and impressively, in a deep, soft tone peculiar to him when very much in earnest. I felt I wanted to be what he wished me to be, to do what he wanted, and this sensation was so new to me, that I could not at all understand it. I felt impelled to tell him, but I was ashamed. I had never in my life been sorry for anything I had done, still less acknowledged a fault. It was a new and strange experience, I felt like a dumb animal as I raised my eyes piteously to his.

“'What is it, little one? You want to say something, surely you are not afraid?' he asked gently.

“'Forgive me, Tone,' I gasped, as two big tears rolled down my cheeks, 'I am sorry.'

“'I am glad to hear you say you are sorry,' he said, taking my hand, 'but between us there is no question of forgiveness. I have nothing to pardon, I am not angry, I want to help you.'

“'I never felt like this before,' I muttered, 'I don't understand it, but I will try to do what you want.'

“'You feel like this, Elfie, because you know that I am right, and that I only want what is good for you. I want you to be happy, to open your heart to the kindness we wish to show you, and to encourage feelings of kindness in yourself towards other people. When you feel hard, and cross, and disobliging, try to remember what I have been saying, and let me help. Even if I have to appear stern sometimes, don't misunderstand it.'

“He then talked about my mother, my home, told me something of my father as he had known him, until he actually succeeded in making me feel peaceful and happy.

“From that day he never for a moment lost sight of the object he had in view. He had me with him as much as possible, for long walks, rides and drives. With infinite patience but unvarying firmness, he helped me along, recognising every effort I made, appreciating my difficulties, never putting an unnecessary restriction on me. So he moulded and formed my character, lavishing kindness and affection on me in which, I must say, Aunt Evangeline was not far behind, awakening all that was best and noblest in my nature, never allowing simple submission of my will to his.

“On my wedding-day, as we were bidding each other 'Good-bye!' he said:

“'You will be happy now, little sister, I know it. You have striven nobly and will have your reward.'

“'The reward should be yours, Tone, not mine,' I answered, as I put my arms round his neck and kissed him.

“Do you wonder now, Cora, that I love him so dearly, though he is my step-brother?” my mother asked as she concluded, “and that I should like him to see that I have endeavoured to do for you what he did for me?”

 
 
 

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