A Family Conclave
EMILY wakened at daylight the next morning. Through her low, uncurtained window the splendour of the sunrise was coming in, and one faint, white star was still lingering in the crystal-green sky over the Rooster Pine. A fresh sweet wind of dawn was blowing around the eaves. Ellen Greene was sleeping in the big bed and snoring soundly. Except for that the little house was very still. It was the chance for which Emily had waited.
Very carefully she slipped from her bed, tiptoed across the room and opened the door. Mike uncoiled himself from the mat on the middle of the floor and followed her, rubbing his warm sides against her chilly little ankles. Almost guiltily she crept down the bare, dark staircase. How the steps creaked—surely it would waken everybody! But nobody appeared and Emily got down and slipped into the parlour, drawing a long breath of relief as she closed the door. She almost ran across the room to the other door.
Aunt Ruth’s floral pillow still covered the glass of the casket. Emily, with a tightening of the lips that gave her face an odd resemblance to Aunt Elizabeth, lifted up the pillow and set it on the floor.
“Oh, Father—Father!” she whispered, putting her hand to her throat to keep something down. She stood there, a little shivering, white-clad figure, and looked at her father. This was to be her good-bye; she must say it when they were alone together—she would not say it before the Murrays.
Father looked so beautiful. All the lines of pain had vanished—his face looked almost like a boy’s except for the silver hair above it. And he was smiling—such a nice, whimsical, wise little smile, as if he had suddenly discovered something lovely and unexpected and surprising. She had seen many nice smiles on his face in life but never one just like this.
“Father, I didn’t cry before them,” she whispered. “I’m sure I didn’t disgrace the Starrs. Not shaking hands with Aunt Ruth wasn’t disgracing the Starrs, was it? Because she didn’t really want me to—oh, Father, I don’t think any of them like me, unless perhaps Aunt Laura does a little. And I’m going to cry a little bit now, Father, because I can’t keep it back all the time.”
She laid her face on the cold glass and sobbed bitterly but briefly. She must say good-bye before any one found her. Raising her head she looked long and earnestly at the beloved face.
“Good-bye, dearest darling,” she whispered chokingly.
Dashing away her blinding tears she replaced Aunt Ruth’s pillow, hiding her father’s face from her forever. Then she slipped out, intent on speedily regaining her room. At the door she almost fell over Cousin Jimmy, who was sitting on a chair before it, swathed in a huge, checked dressing-gown, and nursing Mike.
“S-s-h!” he whispered, patting her on the shoulder. “I heard you coming down and followed you. I knew what you wanted. I’ve been sitting here to keep them out if any of them came after you. Here, take this and hurry back to your bed, small pussy.”
“This” was a roll of peppermint lozenges. Emily clutched it and fled, overcome with shame at being seen by Cousin Jimmy in her nightgown. She hated peppermints and never ate them, but the fact of Cousin Jimmy Murray’s kindness in giving them to her sent a thrill of delight to her heart. And he called her “small pussy,” too,—she liked that. She had thought nobody would ever call her nice pet names again. Father had had so many of them for her—“sweetheart” and “darling” and “Emily-child” and “dear wee kidlet” and “honey” and “elfkin.” He had a pet name for every mood and she had loved them all. As for Cousin Jimmy, he was nice. Whatever part of him was missing it wasn’t his heart. She felt so grateful to him that after she was safely in her bed again she forced herself to eat one of the lozenges, though it took all her grit to worry it down.
The funeral was held that forenoon. For once the lonesome little house in the hollow was filled. The coffin was taken into the parlour and the Murrays as mourners sat stiffly and decorously all round it, Emily among them, pale and prim in her black dress. She sat between Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Wallace and dared not move a muscle. No other Starr was present. Her father had no near living relatives. The Maywood people came and looked at his dead face with a freedom and insolent curiosity they would never have presumed on in life. Emily hated to have them looking at her father like that. They had no right—they hadn’t been friendly to him while he was alive—they had said harsh things of him—Ellen Greene had sometimes repeated them. Every glance that fell on him hurt Emily; but she sat still and gave no outward sign. Aunt Ruth said afterwards that she had never seen a child so absolutely devoid of all natural feeling.
When the service was over the Murrays rose and marched around the coffin for a dutiful look of farewell. Aunt Elizabeth took Emily’s hand and tried to draw her along with them but Emily pulled it back and shook her head. She had said her good-bye already. Aunt Elizabeth seemed for a moment to be on the point of insisting; then she grimly swept onward, alone, looking every inch a Murray. No scene must be made at a funeral.
Douglas Starr was to be taken to Charlottetown for burial beside his wife. The Murrays were all going but Emily was not to go. She watched the funeral procession as it wound up the long, grassy hill, through the light grey rain that was beginning to fall. Emily was glad it was raining; many a time she had heard Ellen Greene say that happy was the corpse the rain fell on; and it was easier to see Father go away in that soft, kind, grey mist than through sparkling, laughing sunshine.
“Well, I must say the funeral went off fine,” said Ellen Greene at her shoulder. “Everything’s been done regardless. If your father was looking down from heaven at it, Emily, I’m sure he’d be pleased.”
“He isn’t in heaven,” said Emily.
“Good gracious! Of all the children!” Ellen could say no more.
“He isn’t there yet. He’s only on the way. He said he’d wait around and go slow until I died, too, so that I could catch up with him. I hope I’ll die soon.”
“That’s a wicked, wicked thing to wish,” rebuked Ellen.
When the last buggy had disappeared Emily went back to the sitting-room, got a book out of the bookcase, and buried herself in the wing-chair. The women who were tidying up were glad she was quiet and out of the way.
“It’s well she can read,” said Mrs. Hubbard gloomily. “Some little girls couldn’t be so composed—Jennie Hood just screamed and shrieked after they carried her mother out—the Hoods are all such a feeling people.”
Emily was not reading. She was thinking. She knew the Murrays would be back in the afternoon; and she knew her fate would probably be settled then. “We’ll talk the matter over when we come back,” she had heard Uncle Wallace saying that morning after breakfast. Some instinct told her just what “the matter” was; and she would have given one of her pointed ears to hear the discussion with the other. But she knew very well she would be sent out of the way. So she was not surprised when Ellen came to her in the twilight and said:
“You’d better go upstairs, Emily. Your aunts and uncles are coming in here to talk over the business.”
“Can’t I help you get supper?” asked Emily, who thought that if she were going and coming around the kitchen she might catch a word or two.
“No. You’d be more bother than help. March, now.”
Ellen waddled out to the kitchen, without waiting to see if Emily marched. Emily got up reluctantly. How could she sleep to-night if she did not know what was going to happen to her? And she felt quite sure she would not be told till morning, if then.
Her eyes fell on the oblong table in the centre of the room. Its cloth was of generous proportions, falling in heavy folds to the floor. There was a flash of black stockings across the rug, a sudden disturbance of drapery, and then—silence. Emily, on the floor under the table, arranged her legs comfortably and sat triumphant. She would hear what was decided and nobody would be any the wiser.
She had never been told that it was not considered strictly honourable to eavesdrop, no occasion for such instruction ever having arisen in her life with her father; and she considered that it was a bit of pure luck that she had thought of hiding under the table. She could even see dimly through the cloth. Her heart beat so loudly in her excitement that she was afraid they would hear it; there was no other sound save the soft, faraway singing of frogs through the rain, that sounded through the open window.
In they came; down they sat around the room; Emily held her breath; for a few minutes nobody spoke, though Aunt Eva sighed long and heavily. Then Uncle Wallace cleared his throat and said,
“Well, what is to be done with the child?”
Nobody was in a hurry to answer. Emily thought they would never speak. Finally Aunt Eva said with a whine,
“She’s such a difficult child—so odd. I can’t understand her at all.”
“I think,” said Aunt Laura timidly, “that she has what one might call an artistic temperament.”
“She’s a spoiled child,” said Aunt Ruth very decidedly. “There’s work ahead to straighten out her manners, if you ask me.”
(The little listener under the table turned her head and shot a scornful glance at Aunt Ruth through the tablecloth. “I think that your own manners have a slight curve.” Emily did not dare even to murmur the words under her breath, but she shaped them with her mouth; this was a great relief and satisfaction.)
“I agree with you,” said Aunt Eva, “and I for one do not feel equal to the task.”
(Emily understood that this meant Uncle Wallace didn’t mean to take her and she rejoiced thereat.)
“Aunt Nancy would never dream of taking her and you know it well enough!” said Uncle Oliver. “Besides, she’s entirely too old to have the bringing up of a child—her and that old witch Caroline. Upon my soul, I don’t believe either of them is human. I would like to take Emily—but I feel that I can hardly do it. I’ve a large family to provide for.”
“She’ll not likely live long to bother any one,” said Aunt Elizabeth crisply. “She’ll probably die of consumption same as her father did.”
(“I won’t—I won’t!” exclaimed Emily—at least she thought it with such vim that it almost seemed that she exclaimed it. She forgot that she had wanted to die soon, so that she could overtake Father. She wanted to live now, just to put the Murrays in the wrong. “I haven’t any intention of dying. I’m going to live—for ages—and be a famous authoress—you’ll just see if I don’t, Aunt Elizabeth Murray!”)
“She is a weedy looking child,” acknowledged Uncle Wallace.
(Emily relieved her outraged feelings by making a face at Uncle Wallace through the tablecloth. “If I ever possess a pig I am going to name it after you,” she thought—and then felt quite satisfied with her revenge.)
“Somebody has to look after her as long as she’s alive though, you know,” said Uncle Oliver.
(“It would serve you all right if I did die and you suffered terrible remorse for it all the rest of your lives,” Emily thought. Then in the pause that happened to follow, she dramatically pictured out her funeral, selected her pall-bearers, and tried to choose the hymn verse that she wanted engraved on her tombstone. But before she could settle this Uncle Wallace began again.)
“Well, we are not getting anywhere. We have to look after the child—”
(“I wish you wouldn’t call me ‘the child,’” thought Emily bitterly.)
“—and some of us must give her a home. Juliet’s daughter must not be left to the mercy of strangers. Personally, I feel that Eva’s health is not equal to the care and training of a child—”
“Of such a child,” said Aunt Eva.
(Emily stuck her tongue out at Aunt Eva.)
“Poor little soul,” said Aunt Laura gently.
(Something frozen in Emily’s heart melted at that moment. She was pitifully pleased over being called “poor little soul” so tenderly.)
“I do not think you need pity her overmuch, Laura,” said Uncle Wallace decidedly. “It is evident that she has very little feeling. I have not seen her shed a tear since we came here.”
“Did you notice that she would not even take a last look at her father?” said Aunt Elizabeth.
Cousin Jimmy suddenly whistled at the ceiling.
“She feels so much that she has to hide it,” said Aunt Laura.
Uncle Wallace snorted.
“Don’t you think we might take her, Elizabeth?” Laura went on timidly.
Aunt Elizabeth stirred restlessly.
“I don’t suppose she’d be contented at New Moon, with three old people like us.”
(“I would—I would!” thought Emily.)
“Ruth, what about you?” said Uncle Wallace. “You’re all alone in that big house. It would be a good thing for you to have some company.”
“I don’t like her,” said Aunt Ruth sharply. “She is as sly as a snake.”
(“I’m not!” thought Emily.)
“With wise and careful training many of her faults may be cured,” said Uncle Wallace, pompously.
(“I don’t want them cured!” Emily was getting angrier and angrier all the time under the table. “I like my faults better than I do your—your—” she fumbled mentally for a word—then triumphantly recalled a phrase of her father’s—“your abominable virtues!”)
“I doubt it,” said Aunt Ruth, in a biting tone. “What’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh. As for Douglas Starr, I think that it was perfectly disgraceful for him to die and leave that child without a cent.”
“Did he do it on purpose?” asked Cousin Jimmy blandly. It was the first time he had spoken.
“He was a miserable failure,” snapped Aunt Ruth.
“He wasn’t—he wasn’t!” screamed Emily, suddenly sticking her head out under the tablecloth, between the end legs of the table.
For a moment the Murrays sat as silent and motionless as if her outburst had turned them to stone. Then Aunt Ruth rose, stalked to the table, and lifted the cloth, behind which Emily had retired in dismay, realising what she had done.
“Get up and come out of that, Em’ly Starr!” said Aunt Ruth.
“Em’ly Starr” got up and came out. She was not specially frightened—she was too angry to be that. Her eyes had gone black and her cheeks crimson.
“What a little beauty—what a regular little beauty!” said Cousin Jimmy. But nobody heard him. Aunt Ruth had the floor.
“You shameless little eavesdropper!” she said. “There’s the Starr blood coming out—a Murray would never have done such a thing. You ought to be whipped!”
“Father wasn’t a failure!” cried Emily, choking with anger. “You had no right to call him a failure. Nobody who was loved as much as he was could be a failure. I don’t believe anybody ever loved you. So it’s you that’s a failure. And I’m not going to die of consumption.”
“Do you realize what a shameful thing you’ve been guilty of?” demanded Aunt Ruth, cold with anger.
“I wanted to hear what was going to become of me,” cried Emily. “I didn’t know it was such a dreadful thing to do—I didn’t know you were going to say such horrid things about me.”
“Listeners never hear any good of themselves,” said Aunt Elizabeth impressively. “Your mother would never have done that, Emily.”
The bravado all went out of poor Emily. She felt guilty and miserable—oh, so miserable. She hadn’t known—but it seemed she had committed a terrible sin.
“Go upstairs,” said Aunt Ruth.
Emily went, without a protest. But before going she looked around the room.
“While I was under the table,” she said, “I made a face at Uncle Wallace and stuck my tongue out at Aunt Eva.”
She said it sorrowfully, desiring to make a clean breast of her transgressions; but so easily do we misunderstand each other that the Murrays actually thought that she was indulging in a piece of gratuitous impertinence. When the door had closed behind her they all—except Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy—shook their heads and groaned.
Emily went upstairs in a state of bitter humiliation. She felt that she had done something that gave the Murrays the right to despise her, and they thought it was the Starr coming out in her—and she had not even found out what her fate was to be.
She looked dismally at little Emily-in-the-glass.
“I didn’t know—I didn’t know,” she whispered. “But I’ll know after this,” she added with sudden vim, “and I’ll never, never do it again.”
For a moment she thought she would throw herself on her bed and cry. She couldn’t bear all the pain and shame that were burning in her heart. Then her eyes fell on the old yellow account book on her little table. A minute later Emily was curled up on her bed, Turk-fashion, writing eagerly in the old book with her little stubby lead pencil. As her fingers flew over the faded lines her cheeks flushed and her eyes shone. She forgot the Murrays although she was writing about them—she forgot her humiliation—although she was describing what had happened; for an hour she wrote steadily by the wretched light of her smoky little lamp, never pausing, save now and then, to gaze out of the window into the dim beauty of the misty night, while she hunted through her consciousness for a certain word she wanted; when she found it she gave a happy sigh and fell to again.
When she heard the Murrays coming upstairs she put her book away. She had finished; she had written a description of the whole occurrence and of that conclave ring of Murrays, and she had wound up by a pathetic description of her own deathbed, with the Murrays standing around imploring her forgiveness. At first she depicted Aunt Ruth as doing it on her knees in an agony of remorseful sobs. Then she suspended her pencil—“Aunt Ruth couldn’t ever feel as bad as that over anything,” she thought—and drew her pencil through the line.
In the writing, pain and humiliation had passed away. She only felt tired and rather happy. It had been fun, finding words to fit Uncle Wallace; and what exquisite satisfaction it had been to describe Aunt Ruth as “a dumpy little woman.”
“I wonder what my uncles and aunts would say if they knew what I really think of them,” she murmured as she got into bed.