A Widow's Tale, and Other Stories
I remember well my first meeting with Mrs Oliphant a dozen years ago, how she "ordered" me to Windsor where she was then living (I like to think that it was an order, and obeyed as such by her very loyal subject), and that I was as proud to go, and as nervous, as those must be who make the same journey by command of another lady resident in the same place. I have an odd recollection too of buying my first umbrella for this occasion – for no reason apparently except that I wanted to impress her.
They say she was not tall, but she seemed tremendous to me that day. I find an old letter in which I dwelt on the height of her and her grand manner, so that evidently the umbrella was of little avail. In her presence, I think, those whose manner is of to-day must always have felt suddenly boorish. She belonged to a politer age: you never knew it more surely than when she was putting you at your ease with a graciousness that had something of a command in it. Mrs Oliphant was herself the fine Scots gentlewoman she drew so incomparably in her books, most sympathetic when she unbent and a ramrod if she chose – the grande dame at one moment, almost a girl, it might be, the next (her sense of fun often made her a girl again), she gave you the impression of one who loved to finger beautiful things, and always wore rare caps and fine lace as if they were part of her. She could be almost fearsomely correct, and in the middle of it become audacious (for there was a dash of the Bohemian about her); her likes and dislikes were intense; in talk she was extremely witty without trying to be so (she was often, I think, amused and surprised to hear what she had just said); her eyes were so expressive, and such a humorous gleam leapt into them when you attempted to impress her (with anything more pretentious than an umbrella), that to catch sight of them must often to the grandiloquent have been to come to an abrupt stop; and, more noticeable perhaps than anything else, she was of an intellect so alert that one wondered she ever fell asleep. That was but a first impression, a photograph of externals, little to be read in it of the beautiful soul and most heroic woman who was the real Mrs Oliphant. The last time I saw her, which was shortly before her death, I knew her better. The wit had all gone out of her eyes, though not quite from her talk; her face had grown very sweet and soft, and what had started to be the old laugh often ended pitifully. The two sons who had been so much to her were gone, and for the rest of her days she never forgot it, I think, for the length of a smile. She was less the novelist now than a pathetic figure in a novel. She was as brave as ever, but she had less self-control; and so, I suppose it was, that the more exquisite part of her, which the Scotswoman's reserve had kept hidden, came to the surface and dwelt for that last year in her face, as if to let all those who looked on Mrs Oliphant know what she was before she bade them good-bye.
I wonder if there is among the younger Scottish novelists of to-day any one so foolish as to believe that he has a right to a stool near this woman, any one who has not experienced a sense of shame (and some rage at his heart) if he found that for the moment his little efforts were being taken more seriously than hers: I should like to lead the simple man by the ear down the long procession of her books. It is too long a procession, though there are so many fine figures in it – men and women and boys (the boy in 'Sir Tom' is surely among the best in fiction) in the earlier stories, nearly all women in the latest; but whether they would have been greater books had she revised one instead of beginning another is probably to be doubted. Not certainly because the best of them could not have been made better. That is obvious to almost any reader: there nearly always comes a point in Mrs Oliphant's novels where almost any writer of the younger school, without a sixth part of her capacity, could have stepped in with advantage. Often it is at the end of a fine scene, and what he would have had to tell her was that it was the end, for she seldom seemed to know. Even 'Kirsteen,' which I take to be the best, far the best, story of its kind that has come out of Scotland for the last score of years, could have been improved by the comparative duffer. Condensation, a more careful choice of words, we all learn these arts in the schools nowadays – they are natural to the spirit of the age; but Mrs Oliphant never learned them, they were contrary to her genius (as to that of some other novelists greater than she), and they would probably have trammelled her so much that the books would have lost more than they gained. We must take her as she was, believing that she knew the medium which best suited her talents, though it was not the best medium.
Her short stories, of which this book is a sample, contain some of her finest work, – indeed nearly all of her deepest imaginings have appeared, as it happens, in this form. There is nothing in this volume that deserves to rank with, say, 'Old Lady Mary,' nor has it the rippling humour of the delicious 'Chronicles of Carlingford': its tale of the Fellow of his college who becomes a raving lunatic because society has discovered that his mother sells butter would be quite unworthy of inclusion were it not for the noble figure of the mother; yet the book has numberless flashes of insight, several of those women "no longer in the first flush of youth" of whom Mrs Oliphant wrote always with abundant sympathy, and latterly as if she loved them the best, and at least one sweet love story in "Mademoiselle" (Mademoiselle writes such a charming love letter, saying No, that if she had dropped it on the way to the post-office the first man who picked it up and read it would have rushed her to the registrar); and as if all this were not enough, she gives us in "Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond" as terrible and grim a picture of a man tired of fifty years of respectability as was ever written. One would have liked to be able to pitchfork the son out of the story, because he will talk, and, after the supreme situation, to drop the curtain on the analysis of Queen Eleanor's state of mind. But it is a story to set you thinking. Mrs Oliphant wrote so many short stories that she forgot their names and what they were about, but readers, I think, will not soon forget this one; and if not this, when shall their hearts grow cold and their admiration wane for the wonderful woman of whom it is but the thousandth part?
J. M. BARRIE.
A WIDOW'S TALE
The Bamptons were expecting a visitor that very afternoon: which made it all the more indiscreet that young Fitzroy should stay so long practising those duets with May. It was a summer afternoon, warm and bright, and the drawing-room was one of those pretty rooms which are as English as the landscape surrounding them – carefully carpeted, curtained, and cushioned against all the eccentricities of an English winter, yet with all the windows open, all the curtains put back, the soft air streaming in, the sunshine not too carefully shut out, the green lawn outside forming a sort of velvety extension of the mossy soft carpet in which the foot sank within. This combination is not common in other countries, where the sun is so hot that it has to be shut out in summer, and coolness is procured by the partial dismantling of the house. From the large open windows the trees on the lawn appeared like members of the party, only a little withdrawn from those more mobile figures which were presently coming to seat themselves round the pretty table shining with silver and china which was arranged under the acacia. Miss Bampton, who had been watching its arrangement, cast now and then an impatient glance at the piano where May sat, with Mr Fitzroy standing over her. He was not one of the county neighbours, but a young man from town, a visitor, who had somehow fallen into habits of intimacy it could scarcely be told why. And though he was visiting the Spencer-Jacksons, who were well known and sufficiently creditable people, nobody knew much about Mr Fitzroy. It is a good name: but then it is too good a name to belong to a person of whom it can be said that nobody knows who he is. A Fitzroy ought to be so very easily identified: it ought to be known at once to which of the families of that name he belongs – very distantly perhaps – as distantly as you please; but yet he must somehow belong to one of them.
This opinion Miss Bampton, who was a great genealogist, had stated over and over again, but without producing any conviction in her hearers. Her father asked hastily what they had to do with Fitzroy that they should insist on knowing to whom he belonged. And May turned round upon her little, much too high, heel and laughed. What did she care who he was? He had a delightful baritone, which "went" beautifully with her own soprano. He was very nice-looking. He had been a great deal abroad, and his manners were beautiful, with none of the stiffness of English manners. He did not stand and stare like Bertie Harcourt, or push between a girl and anything she wanted like the new curate. He knew exactly how to steer between these two extremes, to be always serviceable without being officious, and to insinuate a delightful compliment without saying it right out. This was May's opinion of the matter: and then he had such a delightful voice! So that this stranger had come into the very front of affairs at Bampton-Leigh, to the disturbance of the general balance of society, and of many matters much more important than an agreeable visitor, which were going on there. For example, Bertie Harcourt had almost been banished from the house: and he was a young squire of the neighbourhood with a good estate and very serious intentions; while the Spencer-Jacksons, with whom Mr Fitzroy was staying, were not above half pleased to have their novelty, their new man, absorbed in this way. Mrs Spencer-Jackson was a lively young woman who liked to have a cavalier on hand, whom she could lend, so to speak, to a favourite girl as a partner, whether at carpet dance or picnic, and dispose of according to her pleasure – an arrangement which Mr Fitzroy had much interfered with by devoting himself to Bampton-Leigh.