Authors: Ivy Compton-Burnett
âJustine, I have told you that I do not like the coffee touched until I come down. How can I remember who has had it, and manage about the second cups, if it is taken out of my hands? I don't know how many times I have asked you to leave it alone.'
âA good many, Mother dear, but you tend to be rather a laggard. When the poor boys sit in thirsty patience it quite goes to my heart.'
âIt would not hurt them to wait a few minutes. Your father and your uncle are not down yet. There is no such hurry.'
Mrs Gaveston dealt with the coffee with small, pale, stiff hands, looking with querulous affection at her children and signing in a somewhat strained manner to the servant to take the cups. She had rather uncertain movements and made one or two mistakes, which she rectified with a sort of distracted precision. She lifted her face for her children's greetings with an air of forgetting the observance as each one passed, and of being reminded of it by the next. She was a rather tall, very pale woman of about sixty, who somehow gave the impression of being small, and whose spareness of build was without the wiriness supposed to accompany it. She had wavy, grey hair, a long, narrow chin, long, narrow, dark eyes in a stiff narrow, handsome face, and a permanent air of being held from her normal interest by some passing strain or distraction.
Her only daughter and eldest child was shorter and stronger in build, with clear, light eyes, a fuller face, pleasant features which seemed to be without a plan, and a likeness to her mother which was seen at once to overlie a great difference. She looked as much less than her thirty years as her mother looked more than her double number. Strangers often took Blanche for her children's grandmother, a fact which she had not suspected and would not have believed. She considered that she looked young for her
age, or rather assumed that she did so, as she also took it for granted that she was successful, intelligent, and admired, an attitude which came from a sort of natural buoyancy and had little meaning. She really gave little thought to herself and could almost be said to live for others. Her children had for her a lively, if not the deepest affection, and she was more than satisfied with it. She would hardly have recognized the deepest feeling, as she had never experienced or inspired it.
The three sons kissed their mother and returned to their seats. The eldest was a short, solid young man of twenty-eight, with large, grey eyes, the dark, curly hair his mother had had in her youth, a broader, blunter but perhaps more attractive face, and an air of being reasonably at peace with himself and his world. The second, Clement, was taller and thinner, with straight hair and darker skin, and looked the same age as Mark, although two years younger. He had cold, dark eyes, a cold, aloof expression, and a definite resemblance in feature to his mother. He seemed to look what he was, and neither to require nor repay observation. Aubrey, the youngest by eleven years, was a boy of fifteen, small and plain to the point of being odd and undersized, with a one-sided smile which often called for the abused term of grin, an indefinable lack of balance in movement, and a reputed backwardness which did not actually extend beyond his books. They had all been named after godparents from whom their mother had vague expectations for them. The expectations had not materialized, but Blanche had been too indefinite about them to resent it, or even actually to imagine their doing so, and felt less disappointment than vague appreciation that they had been possible.
Justine and Mark conversed with goodwill and ate with an ordinary appetite; Clement did not converse and showed an excellent one; Blanche watched her children's plates and made as good a meal as she could without giving her attention to it; and Aubrey sat and swung his feet and did not speak or eat.
âAre you not enjoying your breakfast, my dear?' said Blanche, in a faintly outraged and incredulous manner,
which was possibly due to surprise that this should happen again after so many times.
Aubrey gave her a smile, or gave a smile in her direction. The smile seemed to relate to his own thoughts, and did so.
âWake up, little boy,' said Justine, leaning across to tap his shoulder.
Her brother gave a smile of another kind, intended to show that he was at ease under this treatment.
âIf I have some toast, perhaps I shall grow tall enough to go to school.'
Aubrey's life at home with a tutor was a source of mingled embarrassment and content, and the hope that he would eventually go to Eton like his brothers was held by everyone but himself. Everyone knew his age of fifteen, but he alone realized it, and knew that the likelihood of a normal school life was getting less. Blanche regarded him as a young child, Justine as a slightly older one, Mark as an innocently ludicrous exception to a normal family, and Clement as a natural object of uneasiness and distaste. Aubrey saw his family as they were, having had full opportunity to know them, and made his own use of it.
âThis omelette is surely a breach with tradition,' said Clement.
âIt is not,' said Blanche, instantly and without looking at it or following the words beyond recognizing a criticism. âIt is very good and very wholesome.'
âClement speaks from experience,' said Aubrey, glancing at his brother's plate.
âWhy do you eat it, if you don't like it?' said Mark, with no sting in his tone.
âI am hungry; I must eat something.'
âThere is ham,' said Justine.
âClement will eat the flesh of the pig,' said Aubrey.
âIt is certainly odd that civilized people should have it on their tables,' said his brother.
âDo uncivilized people have things on tables?'
âNow, little boy, don't try to be clever,' said Justine, in automatic reproof, beginning to cut the ham.
âJustine understands Clement,' said Aubrey.
âWell, I know you all in and out. After all, I ought, having practically brought you all up.'
âWell, hardly that, dear,' said Blanche, looking at her daughter with the contraction of her eyes which marked her disagreement. âYou were only two when Mark was born. It is I who have brought up the four of you, as is natural.'
âWell, well, have it your own way, little Mother,'
âIt is not only Mother's way. It is the way of the world,' said Mark.
âWould some ham make me grow?' said Aubrey. âI am afraid my size is really worrying for Clement.'
âWhat does it matter on what scale Aubrey is?' said the latter.
âI should always be your little brother. So you do not mind.'
âAlways Mother's little boy,' said Blanche, taking Aubrey's hand.
âMother's hand looks lily-white in my brown, boyish one.'
âDon't let us sit bickering all through breakfast,' said Justine, in an absent tone.
âWe are surely not doing that, dear,' said Blanche, her eyes again contracting. âWe are only having some conversation. We can't all think alike about everything.'
âBut you do all agree that I am hardly up to my age,' said Aubrey. âNot that there is anything to take hold of.'
âI thought the conversation was tending to a bickering note.'
âI don't think it was, dear. I do not know what you mean.'
âWell, then, neither do I, little Mother. I was only talking at random.'
âSuppose Justine's voice was to be stilled!' said Aubrey. âWhat should we feel about it then?'
âDon't say such things,' said his mother, turning on him sharply.
âI am not so very late,' said a voice at the door. âYou will be able to feel that you had me in the first hour of your day.'
âWell, Uncle dear,' said Justine, accepting the normal entrance of a member of the house.
âGood morning, good morning,' said another voice. âGood morning, Blanche; good morning Justine; good morning, my sons. Good morning.'
âGood morning, Father dear,' said Justine, leaning forward to adjust the cups for her mother.
The two brothers who entered were tall, lean men in the earlier fifties, the elder being the squire of the neighbourhood, or rather the descendant of men who had held this title together with a larger estate. He had thick, straight, speckled hair, speckled, hazel eyes, vaguely speckled clothes, a long solid nose and chin, a look of having more bone and less flesh than other men, a face and hands which would have been called bronzed, if there had been anything in the English climate of his home to have this effect on them, and a suggestion of utter honesty which he had transmitted to his daughter. The younger brother, Dudley, was of the same height and lighter build, and was said to be a caricature of the elder, and was so in the sense that his face was cast in a similar mould and had its own deviations from it. His nose was less straight; his eyes were not entirely on a line, and had a hint of his youngest nephew's; and his skin was rather pale than bronzed, though the pair had lived in the same place, even in the same house, all their lives. It was a question in the neighbourhood which brother looked the more distinguished, and it was thought a subtle judgement to decide for Dudley. The truth was that Dudley looked the more distinguished when he was seen with his brother, and Edgar by himself, Dudley being dependent on Edgar's setting of the type, and Edgar affording the less reward to a real comparison. The butler who followed them into the room, bearing a dish to replace the cold one, was a round-featured, high-coloured man about thirty, of the same height as his masters but in other respects very different.
âGood morning, sir; good morning, sir,' he said with a slight, separate bow to each.
âGood morning,' said Dudley.
âGood morning, good morning,' said Edgar, taking no longer over the words.
Blanche looked up in a daily disapproval of Jellamy's initiative in speech, which had never been definite enough to be expressed.
âIt is a very unsettled day, sir.'
âYes, it appears to be,' said Edgar; âyes, it is unsettled.'
âThe atmosphere is humid, sir.'
âYes, humid; yes, it seems to be damp.'
Edgar seldom made a definite statement. It was as if he feared to commit himself to something that was not the utter truth.
âI love a conversation between Father and Jellamy,' said Justine, in an undertone.
Blanche looked up with an expression which merely said that she did not share the feeling.
âThe plaster is peeling off the walls in the hall, sir.'
âI will come some time and see. I will try to remember to come and look at it.'
âI meant the servants' hall, sir,' said Jellamy, as if his master would hardly penetrate to this point.
âThat room you all use to sit in? The one that used to have a sink in it?'
âThe sink has been removed, sir. It is now put to the individual purpose.'
âThat will do, Jellamy, thank you,' said Blanche, who disliked the presence of servants at meals. âIf we want you again we will ring.'
âIt would be a good plan to remove all sinks and make all rooms into halls,' said Dudley. âIt would send up the standard of things.'
âIn this poor old world,' said Aubrey.
âHow did you sleep, Father?' said Justine.
âVery well, my dear; I think I can say well. I slept for some hours. I hope you have a good account to give.'
âOh, don't ask about the sleep of a healthy young woman, Father. Trust you to worry about the sleep of your only daughter!' Edgar flinched in proportion to his doubt how
far this confidence was justified, âIt is your sleep that matters, and I am not half satisfied about it.'
âThe young need sleep, my dear.'