Death of Lady
Death of Lady
could form no estimate of Deborah’s talents; that was beside the
point. Achievement was good, but the spirit was better. To reckon by
achievements was to make a concession to the prevailing system of
the world; it was a departure from the austere, disinterested,
exacting standards that Lady Slane and her kindred recognized. Yet
what she said was not at all in accordance with her thoughts; she
said, "Oh dear, if I hadn’t given away that fortune I could have
made you independent."
Deborah laughed. She wanted advice, she said, not
money. Lady Slane knew very well she did not really want advice
either; she wanted only to be strengthened and supported in her
resolution. Very well, if she wanted approval, she should have it.
"Of course you are right, my dear," she said quietly.
They talked for a while longer, but Deborah, feeling
herself folded into peace and sympathy, noticed that her
great-grandmother’s mind wandered a little into some maze of
confusion to which Deborah held no guiding thread. It was natural
at Lady Slane’s age. At moments she appeared to be talking to
herself, then recalled her wits, and with pathetic clumsiness tried
to cover up the slip, rousing herself to speak eagerly of the girl’s
future, not of some event which had gone wrong in the distant past.
Deborah was too profoundly lulled and happy to wonder much what that
event could be. This hour of union with the old woman soothed her
like music, like cords lightly touched in the evening, with the
shadows closing and the moths bruising beyond an open window. She
leaned against the old woman’s knee as a support, a prop, drowned,
enfolded, in warmth, dimness, and sold harmonious sounds. The
hurly-burly receded; the clangour was stilled; her grandfather and
her great-aunt Carrie lost their angular importance and shriveled to
little gesticulating puppets with parchment faces and silly waving
hands; other values rose up like great archangels in the room, and
towered and spread their wings. Inexplicable association floated
into Deborah’s mind; she remembered how once she had seen a young
woman in a white dress leading a white borzoi across the darkness of
a southern port. This physical and mental contact with her
great-grandmother — so far removed in years, so closely attuned in
spirit — stripped off the coverings from the small treasure of short
experience that she had jealously stored away. She caught herself
wondering whether she could afterwards recapture the incantation of
this hour sufficiently to render it into terms of music. Her desire
to render an experience in terms of music transcended even her
interest in her great-grandmother as a human being; a form of egoism
which she knew her great-grandmother would neither resent nor
misunderstand. The impulse which had led her to her
great-grandmother was a right impulse. The sense of enveloping music
On some remote piano the chords were struck, and
they were chords which had no meaning, no existence, in the world
inhabited by her grandfather and her great-aunt Carrie; but in her
great-grandmother’s world they had their value and their
significance. But she must not tire her great-grandmother, thought
Deborah, suddenly realizing that the old voice had ceased its
maunderings and that the spell of an hour was broke. Her
great-grandmother was asleep. Her chin had fallen forward on to the
laces at her breast. Her lovely hands were limp in their repose. As
Deborah rose silently, and silently let herself out into the street,
being careful not to slam the door behind her, the chords of her
imagination died away.
Genoux, bringing in the tray an hour later,
announcing "Miladi est servie," altered her formula to a sudden,
"Mon Dieu, mais qu’est-ce que c’est ca — Miladi est morte."
"It was to be expected, " said Carrie, mopping her
eyes as she had not mopped them over the death of her father; "it
was to be expected, Mr. Bucktrout. Yet it comes as a shock. My poor
mother was such an exceptional woman, as you know — though I’m sure
I don’t see how you should have known it, for she was, of course,
only your tenant. A correspondent in
described her this morning as a rare spirit. Just what I always
said myself: a rare spirit." Carrie had forgotten the many other
things she had said. "A little difficult to manage sometimes," she
added, stung by a sudden thought of FitzGeorge’s fortune;
"unpractical to a degree, but practical things are not the only
things that count, are they, Mr. Bucktrout?"
had said that too. "My poor mother had a beautiful nature, I
don’t say that I should always have acted myself as she sometimes
acted. Her motives were sometimes a little difficult to follow.
Quixotic, you know, and — shall we say? — injudicious. Besides, she
could be very stubborn. There were times when she could not be
guided, which was unfortunate, considering how unpractical she was.
We should all be in a very different position now had she been
willing to listen to us. However, it’s no good crying over spilt
milk, is it?" said Carrie, giving Mr. Bucktrout what was meant to be
a brave smile.
Mr. Bucktrout made no answer. He disliked Carrie. He
wondered how anyone so hard and so hypocritical could be the
daughter of someone so sensitive and so honest as his old friend. He
was determined to reveal to Carrie by no word or look how deeply he
felt the loss of Lady Slane.
"There is a man downstairs who can take the
measurement for the coffin, should you wish, " he said.
Carrie stared. So they had been right about this Mr.
Bucktrout: a heartless old man, lacking the decency to find one
suitable phrase about poor Mother; Carrie herself had been generous
enough to repeat those words about the rare spirit; really, on the
whole, she considered her little oration over her mother to be a
very generous tribute, when one remembers the tricks her mother had
played on them all. She had felt extremely righteous as she
pronounced it, and according to her code Mr. Bucktrout ought to have
said something graceful in reply. No doubt he had expected to pull
some plums out of the pudding himself, and had been embittered by
his failure. The thought of the old shark’s discomfiture was
Carrie’s great consolation. Mr. Bucktrout was just the sort of man
who tried to hook an unsuspecting old lady. And now, full of
revengefulness, he fell back on bringing a man to make the coffin.
"My brother, Lord Slane, will be here shortly to
make all necessary arrangements, " she replied haughtily.
Mr. Gosheron, however, was already at the door. He
came in tilting his bowler hat, but whether he tilted it towards the
silent presence of Lady Slane in her bed, or towards Carrie standing
at the foot, was questionable. Mr. Gosheron in his capacity as an
undertaker was well accustomed to death; still his feeling for Lady
Slane had always been much warmer than for a mere client. He had
already tried to give some private expression to his emotion by
determining to sacrifice his most treasured piece of wood as the lid
for the coffin.
"Her ladyship makes a lovely corpse," he said to Mr.
They both ignored Carrie.
"Lovely in life, lovely in death, is what I always
say," said Mr Gosheron. "It’s astonishing, the beauty that death
brings out. My old grandfather told me that, who was in the same
line of business, and for fifty years I’ve watched to see if his
words were true. ‘Beauty in life,’ he used to say, ‘may come from
good dressing and what-not, but for beauty in death you have to fall
back on character.’ Now look at her ladyship, Mr. Bucktrout. Is it
true, or isn’t it? To tell you the truth," he added confidentially,
"if I want to size a person up, I look at them and picture them
dead. That always gives it away, especially as they don’t know
you’re doing it. The first time I ever set eyes on her ladyship, I
said, yes, she’ll do; and now that I see her as I pictured her then
I still say it. She wasn’t never but half in this world, anyhow."
"No, she wasn’t, " said Mr. Bucktrout, who now that
Mr. Gosheron had arrived, was willing to talk about Lady Slane, "and
she never came to terms with it either. She had the best that it
could give her — all the things she didn’t want. She considered the
lilies of the field, Mr. Gosheron."
"She did, Mr. Bucktrout; many a phrase out of the
Bible have applied to her ladyship. But people will stand things in
the Bible that they won’t stand in common life. They don’t seem to
see the sense of it when they meet it in their own homes, although
they’ll put on a reverent face when they hear it read out from a
Oh goodness, thought Carrie, will these two old men
never stop talking across Mother like a Greek chorus? She had
arrived in Hampstead in a determined frame of mind: she would be
generous, she would be forgiving — and some genuine emotion had come
to her aid — but now her self-possession cracked and her ill-temper
and grievances came boiling up. This agent and this undertaker, who
talked so securely and so sagaciously, what could they know about
"Perhaps," she snapped, "you had better leave my
mother’s funeral oration to be pronounced by one of her own family."
Mr. Bucktrout and Mr. Gosheron both turned gravely
towards her. She saw them suddenly as detached figures; figures of
fun certainly, yet also figures of justice. Their eyes stripped away
the protection of her decent hypocrisy. She felt that they judged
her; that Mr. Gosheron, according to his use and principle, was
imagining her as a corpse; was narrowing his eyes to help the effort
of his imagination; was laying her out upon a bed, examining her
without the defenses she could no longer control. That phrase about
the rare spirit shriveled to a cinder.
Mr. Bucktrout and Mr. Gosheron were in league with
her mother, and no phrases could cover up the truth from such an
"In the presence of death," she said to Mr. Gosheron,
taking refuge in a last convention, "you might at least take off