Uncle Herbert and Aunt Alberta’s silver wedding was delicately referred to among the Stirlings during the following weeks as “the time we first noticed poor Valancy was – a little – YOU understand?”
Not for words would any of the Stirlings have said out and out at first that Valancy had gone mildly insane or even that her mind was slightly deranged. Uncle Benjamin was considered to have gone entirely too far when he had ejaculated, “She’s dippy – I tell you, she’s dippy,” and was only excused because of the outrageousness of Valancy’s conduct at the aforesaid wedding dinner.
But Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles had noticed a few things that made them uneasy BEFORE the dinner. It had begun with the rosebush, of course; and Valancy never was really “quite right” again. She did not seem to worry in the least over the fact that her mother was not speaking to her. You would never suppose she noticed it at all. She had flatly refused to take either Purple Pills or Redfern’s Bitters. She had announced coolly that she did not intend to answer to the name of “Doss” any longer. She had told Cousin Stickles that she wished she would give up wearing that brooch with Cousin Artemas Stickles’ hair in it. She had moved her bed in her room to the opposite corner. She had read Magic of Wings Sunday afternoon. When Cousin Stickles had rebuked her Valancy had said indifferently, “Oh, I forgot it was Sunday”—and HAD GONE ON READING IT.
Cousin Stickles had seen a terrible thing – she had caught Valancy sliding down the bannister. Cousin Stickles did not tell Mrs. Frederick this – poor Amelia was worried enough as it was. But it was Valancy’s announcement on Saturday night that she was not going to go to the Anglican church any more that broke through Mrs. Frederick’s stony silence.
“Not going to church any more! Doss, have you absolutely taken leave – “
“Oh, I’m going to church,” said Valancy airily. “I’m going to the Presbyterian church. But to the Anglican church I will not go.”
This was even worse. Mrs. Frederick had recourse to tears, having found outraged majesty had ceased to be effective.
“What have you got against the Anglican church?” she sobbed.
“Nothing – only just that you’ve always made me go there. If you’d made me go to the Presbyterian church I’d want to go to the Anglican.”
“Is that a nice thing to say to your mother? Oh, how true it is that it is sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child.”
“Is that a nice thing to say to your daughter?” said unrepentant Valancy.
So Valancy’s behaviour at the silver wedding was not quite the surprise to Mrs. Frederick and Christine Stickles that it was to the rest. They were doubtful about the wisdom of taking her, but concluded it would “make talk” if they didn’t. Perhaps she would behave herself, and so far no outsider suspected there was anything queer about her. By a special mercy of Providence it had poured torrents Sunday morning, so Valancy had not carried out her hideous threat of going to the Presbyterian church.
Valancy would not have cared in the least if they had left her at home. These family celebrations were all hopelessly dull. But the Stirlings always celebrated everything. It was a long-established custom. Even Mrs. Frederick gave a dinner party on her wedding anniversary and Cousin Stickles had friends in to supper on her birthday. Valancy hated these entertainments because they had to pinch and save and contrive for weeks afterwards to pay for them. But she wanted to go to the silver wedding. It would hurt Uncle Herbert’s feelings if she stayed away, and she rather liked Uncle Herbert. Besides, she wanted to look over all her relatives from her new angle. It would be an excellent place to make public her declaration of independence if occasion offered.
“Put on your brown silk dress,” said Mrs. Stirling.
As if there were anything else to put on! Valancy had only the one festive dress – that snuffy-brown silk Aunt Isabel had given her. Aunt Isabel had decreed that Valancy should never wear colours. They did not become her. When she was young they allowed her to wear white, but that had been tacitly dropped for some years. Valancy put on the brown silk. It had a high collar and long sleeves. She had never had a dress with low neck and elbow sleeves, although they had been worn, even in Deerwood, for over a year. But she did not do her hair pompadour. She knotted it on her neck and pulled it out over her ears. She thought it became her – only the little knot was so absurdly small. Mrs. Frederick resented the hair but decided it was wisest to say nothing on the eve of the party. It was so important that Valancy should be kept in good humour, if possible, until it was over. Mrs. Frederick did not reflect that this was the first time in her life that she had thought it necessary to consider Valancy’s humours. But then Valancy had never been “queer” before.
On their way to Uncle Herbert’s – Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles walking in front, Valancy trotting meekly along behind – Roaring Abel drove past them. Drunk as usual but not in the roaring stage. Just drunk enough to be excessively polite. He raised his disreputable old tartan cap with the air of a monarch saluting his subjects and swept them a grand bow, Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles dared not cut Roaring Abel altogether. He was the only person in Deerwood who could be got to do odd jobs of carpentering and repairing when they needed to be done, so it would not do to offend him. But they responded with only the stiffest, slightest of bows. Roaring Abel must be kept in his place.
Valancy, behind them, did a thing they were fortunately spared seeing. She smiled gaily and waved her hand to Roaring Abel. Why not? She had always liked the old sinner. He was such a jolly, picturesque, unashamed reprobate and stood out against the drab respectability of Deerwood and its customs like a flame-red flag of revolt and protest. Only a few nights ago Abel had gone through Deerwood in the wee sma’s, shouting oaths at the top of his stentorian voice which could be heard for miles, and lashing his horse into a furious gallop as he tore along prim, proper Elm Street.
“Yelling and blaspheming like a fiend,” shuddered Cousin Stickles at the breakfast-table.
“I cannot understand why the judgment of the Lord has not fallen upon that man long ere this,” said Mrs. Frederick petulantly, as if she thought Providence was very dilatory and ought to have a gentle reminder.
“He’ll be picked up dead some morning – he’ll fall under his horse’s hoofs and be trampled to death,” said Cousin Stickles reassuringly.
Valancy had said nothing, of course; but she wondered to herself if Roaring Abel’s periodical sprees were not his futile protest against the poverty and drudgery and monotony of his existence. SHE went on dream sprees in her Blue Castle. Roaring Abel, having no imagination, could not do that. HIS escapes from reality had to be concrete. So she waved at him today with a sudden fellow feeling, and Roaring Abel, not too drunk to be astonished, nearly fell off his seat in his amazement.
By this time they had reached Maple Avenue and Uncle Herbert’s house, a large, pretentious structure peppered with meaningless bay windows and excrescent porches. A house that always looked like a stupid, prosperous, self-satisfied man with warts on his face.
“A house like that,” said Valancy solemnly, “is a blasphemy.”
Mrs. Frederick was shaken to her soul. What had Valancy said? Was it profane? Or only just queer? Mrs. Frederick took off her hat in Aunt Alberta’s spare-room with trembling hands. She made one more feeble attempt to avert disaster. She held Valancy back on the landing as Cousin Stickles went downstairs.
“Won’t you try to remember you’re a lady?” she pleaded.
“Oh, if there were only any hope of being able to forget it!” said Valancy wearily.
Mrs. Frederick felt that she had not deserved this from Providence.
“Bless this food to our use and consecrate our lives to Thy service,” said Uncle Herbert briskly.
Aunt Wellington frowned. She always considered Herbert’s graces entirely too short and “flippant.” A grace, to be a grace in Aunt Wellington’s eyes, had to be at least three minutes long and uttered in an unearthly tone, between a groan and a chant. As a protest she kept her head bent a perceptible time after all the rest had been lifted. When she permitted herself to sit upright she found Valancy looking at her. Ever afterwards Aunt Wellington averred that she had known from that moment that there was something wrong with Valancy. In those queer, slanted eyes of hers – “we should always have known she was not entirely RIGHT with eyes like that” – there was an odd gleam of mockery and amusement – as if Valancy were laughing at HER. Such a thing was unthinkable, of course. Aunt Wellington at once ceased to think it.
Valancy was enjoying herself. She had never enjoyed herself at a “family reunion” before. In social functions, as in childish games, she had only “filled in.” Her clan had always considered her very dull. She had no parlour tricks. And she had been in the habit of taking refuge from the boredom of family parties in her Blue Castle, which resulted in an absent-mindedness that increased her reputation for dullness and vacuity.
“She has no social presence whatever,” Aunt Wellington had decreed once and for all. Nobody dreamed that Valancy was dumb in their presence merely because she was afraid of them. Now she was no longer afraid of them. The shackles had been stricken off her soul. She was quite prepared to talk if occasion offered. Meanwhile she was giving herself such freedom of thought as she had never dared to take before. She let herself go with a wild, inner exultation, as Uncle Herbert carved the turkey. Uncle Herbert gave Valancy a second look that day. Being a man, he didn’t know what she had done to her hair, but he thought surprisedly that Doss was not such a bad-looking girl, after all; and he put an extra piece of white meat on her plate.
“What herb is most injurious to a young lady’s beauty?” propounded Uncle Benjamin by way of starting conversation – “loosening things up a bit,” as he would have said.
Valancy, whose duty it was to say, “What?” did not say it. Nobody else said it, so Uncle Benjamin, after an expectant pause, had to answer, “Thyme,” and felt that his riddle had fallen flat. He looked resentfully at Valancy, who had never failed him before, but Valancy did not seem even to be aware of him. She was gazing around the table, examining relentlessly every one in this depressing assembly of sensible people and watching their little squirms with a detached, amused smile. So these were the people she had always held in reverence and fear. She seemed to see them with new eyes.
Big, capable, patronizing, voluble Aunt Mildred, who thought herself the cleverest woman in the clan, her husband a little lower than the angels and her children wonders. Had not her son, Howard, been all through teething at eleven months? And could she not tell you the best way to do everything, from cooking mushrooms to picking up a snake? What a bore she was! What ugly moles she had on her face!
Cousin Gladys, who was always praising her son, who had died young, and always fighting with her living one. She had neuritis – or what she called neuritis. It jumped about from one part of her body to another. It was a convenient thing. If anybody wanted her to go somewhere she didn’t want to go she had neuritis in her legs. And always if any mental effort was required she could have neuritis in her head. You can’t THINK with neuritis in your head, my dear.
“What an old humbug you are!” thought Valancy impiously.
Aunt Isabel. Valancy counted her chins. Aunt Isabel was the critic of the clan. She had always gone about squashing people flat. More members of it than Valancy were afraid of her. She had, it was conceded, a biting tongue.
“I wonder what would happen to your face if you ever smiled,” speculated Valancy, unblushingly.
Second Cousin Sarah Taylor, with her great, pale, expressionless eyes, who was noted for the variety of her pickle recipes and for nothing else. So afraid of saying something indiscreet that she never said anything worth listening to. So proper that she blushed when she saw the advertisement picture of a corset and had put a dress on her Venus de Milo statuette which made it look “real tasty.”
Little Cousin Georgiana. Not such a bad little soul. But dreary – very. Always looking as if she had just been starched and ironed. Always afraid to let herself go. The only thing she really enjoyed was a funeral. You knew where you were with a corpse. Nothing more could happen to IT. But while there was life there was fear.
Uncle James. Handsome, black, with his sarcastic, trap-like mouth and iron-grey side-burns, whose favourite amusement was to write controversial letters to the Christian Times, attacking Modernism. Valancy always wondered if he looked as solemn when he was asleep as he did when awake. No wonder his wife had died young. Valancy remembered her. A pretty, sensitive thing. Uncle James had denied her everything she wanted and showered on her everything she didn’t want. He had killed her – quite legally. She had been smothered and starved.
Uncle Benjamin, wheezy, pussy-mouthed. With great pouches under eyes that held nothing in reverence.
Uncle Wellington. Long, pallid face, thin, pale-yellow hair – “one of the fair Stirlings” – thin, stooping body, abominably high forehead with such ugly wrinkles, and “eyes about as intelligent as a fish’s,” thought Valancy. “Looks like a cartoon of himself.”
Aunt Wellington. Named Mary but called by her husband’s name to distinguish her from Great-aunt Mary. A massive, dignified, permanent lady. Splendidly arranged, iron-grey hair. Rich, fashionable beaded dress. Had HER moles removed by electrolysis – which Aunt Mildred thought was a wicked evasion of the purposes of God.
Uncle Herbert, with his spiky grey hair. Aunt Alberta, who twisted her mouth so unpleasantly in talking and had a great reputation for unselfishness because she was always giving up a lot of things she didn’t want. Valancy let them off easily in her judgment because she liked them, even if they were in Milton’s expressive phrase, “stupidly good.” But she wondered for what inscrutable reason Aunt Alberta had seen fit to tie a black velvet ribbon around each of her chubby arms above the elbow.
Then she looked across the table at Olive. Olive, who had been held up to her as a paragon of beauty, behaviour and success as long as she could remember. “Why can’t you hold yourself like Olive, Doss? Why can’t you stand correctly like Olive, Doss? Why can’t you speak prettily like Olive, Doss? Why can’t you make an effort, Doss?”
Valancy’s elfin eyes lost their mocking glitter and became pensive and sorrowful. You could not ignore or disdain Olive. It was quite impossible to deny that she was beautiful and effective and sometimes she was a little intelligent. Her mouth might be a trifle heavy – she might show her fine, white, regular teeth rather too lavishly when she smiled. But when all was said and done, Olive justified Uncle Benjamin’s summing up – “a stunning girl.” Yes, Valancy agreed in her heart, Olive was stunning.
Rich, golden-brown hair, elaborately dressed, with a sparkling bandeau holding its glossy puffs in place; large, brilliant blue eyes and thick silken lashes; face of rose and bare neck of snow, rising above her gown; great pearl bubbles in her ears; the blue- white diamond flame on her long, smooth, waxen finger with its rosy, pointed nail. Arms of marble, gleaming through green chiffon and shadow lace. Valancy felt suddenly thankful that her own scrawny arms were decently swathed in brown silk. Then she resumed her tabulation of Olive’s charms.
Tall. Queenly. Confident. Everything that Valancy was NOT. Dimples, too, in cheeks and chin. “A woman with dimples always gets her own way,” thought Valancy, in a recurring spasm of bitterness at the fate which had denied her even one dimple.
Olive was only a year younger than Valancy, though a stranger would have thought that there was at least ten years between them. But nobody ever dreaded old maidenhood for her. Olive had been surrounded by a crowd of eager beaus since her early teens, just as her mirror was always surrounded by a fringe of cards, photographs, programmes and invitations. At eighteen, when she had graduated from Havergal College, Olive had been engaged to Will Desmond, lawyer in embryo. Will Desmond had died and Olive had mourned for him properly for two years. When she was twenty-three she had a hectic affair with Donald Jackson. But Aunt and Uncle Wellington disapproved of that and in the end Olive dutifully gave him up. Nobody in the Stirling clan – whatever outsiders might say – hinted that she did so because Donald himself was cooling off. However that might be, Olive’s third venture met with everybody’s approval. Cecil Price was clever and handsome and “one of the Port Lawrence Prices.” Olive had been engaged to him for three years. He had just graduated in civil engineering and they were to be married as soon as he landed a contract. Olive’s hope chest was full to overflowing with exquisite things and Olive had already confided to Valancy what her wedding-dress was to be. Ivory silk draped with lace, white satin court train, lined with pale green georgette, heirloom veil of Brussels lace. Valancy knew also – though Olive had not told her – that the bridesmaids were selected and that she was not among them.
Valancy had, after a fashion, always been Olive’s confidante – perhaps because she was the only girl in the connection who could not bore Olive with return confidences. Olive always told Valancy all the details of her love affairs, from the days when the little boys in school used to “persecute” her with love letters. Valancy could not comfort herself by thinking these affairs mythical. Olive really had them. Many men had gone mad over her besides the three fortunate ones.
“I don’t know what the poor idiots see in me, that drives them to make such double idiots of themselves,” Olive was wont to say. Valancy would have liked to say, “I don’t either,” but truth and diplomacy both restrained her. She DID know, perfectly well. Olive Stirling was one of the girls about whom men do go mad just as indubitably as she, Valancy, was one of the girls at whom no man ever looked twice.
“And yet,” thought Valancy, summing her up with a new and merciless conclusiveness, “she’s like a dewless morning. There’s SOMETHING lacking.”
Zaznacz zdania prawdziwe literą T (true), a fałszywe – literą F (false).
1. Barney Snaith was the only Valancy’s acquaintance she met during her walk from the doctor’s.
2. Valancy decided to get rid of her rose bush because she hated cousin Georgiana who’d given it to her.
3. Olive’s dust pile made Valancy upset.
4. Valancy’s friendly gesture surprised Roaring Abel.
5. Olive and Valancy often shared their secrets with each other.
“Valancy thought bitterly – they really cared two straws about her.”
Not care/give a straw/two straws oznacza nie dbać (o coś), nie wykazywać naj-mniejszego zainteresowania. Oto kilka innych idiomów z wyrazem straw (słoma, słomka):
the last straw (that breaks the camel’s back) – ostatnia kropla (która przepełnia dzban)
be clutching/grasping at straws – chwytać się wszelkich sposobów (jak tonący brzytwy)
straw man – człowiek słabego charakteru; marionetka (np. w polityce)
a straw in the wind – zwiastun (czegoś, co nastąpi)
Draw straws to oczywiście ciągnąć słomki (zapałki) w drodze losowania. Dlatego idiom draw/get the short straw oznacza mieć pecha.