by Lady Lindsay
The Woman’s World, vol. 1 (1888)
Introductory Note: Published in The Woman’s World when it was edited by Oscar Wilde, Lady Lindsay’s “From Her” acquaints us with the tender and impassioned emotional life of a seemingly non-descript brother and sister living a life of genteel poverty. Lady Lindsay traces the ways that love, nostalgia, grief, and hope impel our actions in ways hardly detectable by those around us.
The story exemplifies the tight structure, focus on character, and ironic tone common to late-century aesthetic and New Woman fiction.
MISS HEATHFIELD was sitting at the breakfast table, trying for the sake of her brother Roland to give the matutinal meal an air of freshness. She was not altogether successful. Her own person, remarkable for the mixture of care and economy bestowed on it, was neither young nor attractive; her thin sleek hair bore the appearance of having been for the greater part brushed away; her gown, turned, dyed, and neatly darned, fitted too closely to the many angles and straight places of her figure. In like measure, the dining-room board, covered as it was by a patched cloth that was old and greyish though not actually dirty, was eminently unattractive in spite of such attempts at luxury as two or three thin slices of greasy bacon, a sodden tea-cake, a couple of dingy eggs (the produce of a London hen), and some pieces of hard toast in an elaborate electro-plated rack.
Assuredly, the morning meal did not seem particularly palatable or inviting to Roland Heathfield. He was standing on the hearth-rug with his back to the fireplace (although there was no fire, but only a bundle of green and pink shavings), and from thence he eyed his food with an expression of unmitigated disgust. Even when the door opened, and Arabella, the maid-of-all-work, brought in a small jug of blue milk to add to the festivity of the occasion, Roland merely raised his eyebrows a little higher, and looked, if possible, more supercilious and discontented than before.
Lodgings were not to his taste; these lodgings, perhaps, least of all; yet, even whilst he viewed the dreary scene before him, a certain alternative which he was revolving in his mind seemed still less appetising.
Roland Heathfield was a man of small strength and stature, in every way unlike his name, or perhaps it should rather be said that his name was essentially unfitted for him. Such a want of fitness is not rare, however; we seldom grow up into the personification that our godfathers and godmothers imagined or intended when they bestowed on us our baptismal nomenclature.
Roland stood twisting his small sandy moustache between his thin fingers; his was a sensitive face, the outward token of a highly sensitive organisation. But sensitiveness—not usually considered to stand in the stead of good looks—was the only beauty he possessed. In ordinary language, he was decidedly “ugly,” with a colourless countenance that people passed by without noticing, and a figure which his tailor held to be a very poor advertisement indeed, more especially as such an advertisement was the only remuneration Mr. Roland Heathfield’s tailor was likely to receive. Roland’s debts did not trouble him greatly, nor did the non-payment of them weigh heavily on his mind. Miss Heathfield was looking straight up at her brother, straight over the cups and saucers, the metal tea-pot, the chilly urn, and all the other disastrous appurtenances of her table; she felt that she had tried her best, and that it was now impossible for her to make any further effort.1An appurtenance is an object associated with a certain way of living. Had she been possessed of money, everything might have been different; through her though coursed a vague yet rapid stream of all the possibilities and advantages which money could have brought—possibilities none the less delightful because of their undefined and incoherent character. A fairy palace of delight reared itself suddenly in Miss Heathfield’s mind, but her cool common sense swept it away again instantly as though it were wrought of gossamer cobwebs. She bent forward, pressing one of her strong, almost masculine hands upon the other, as she turned to her brother and said quietly:
“Then you really are not going, Roland? You have quite, absolutely quite made up your mind to refuse?”
“You always ask such uncomfortable questions,” returned the young man, speaking rapidly. “It is very hard, Selina, that I am never allowed to weigh matters properly without being forced into a decision one way or the other before, so to speak, I can thoroughly know my own mind.”
Miss Heathfield sighed. She was aware how much time was necessary for Roland’s thorough knowledge of his own mind.
“A step of this sort,” continued he, almost fretfully, “requires the utmost consideration. Don’t you see, Selina, that it requires consideration?”
“Yes,” replied Miss Heathfield.
“Give me my tea, like a good old girl,” said Roland cheerily, wishing to change the subject; but a moment later, as he advanced to take the cup, he saw tears shining between his sister’s eyelashes. He was kind-hearted; however weak, petulant, or undecided he might be, he was assuredly kind-hearted. He laid his hand gently on his sister’s shoulder:
“A man cannot go out to California, give up all his old associations, and begin a new life just as he might sit down to drink a cup of tea. Don’t you see that, Selina?”
The poor woman nodded; she seemed as if she could not answer, and he went on with a sudden change of mood:
“You have been good to me; yes, very good, before—before and since also; never think that I don’t remember that. If I fail now—I have failed often enough already, Heaven knows—if I fail now, Selina, and throw the best chance overboard that has ever come to me, just because I can’t for the life of me summon up pluck to accept it—well, if I’m a downright unsuccessful idiot, will you cease altogether to care for me?”
“No,” answered Miss Heathfield huskily, and, taking the delicate hand that was so near her face in her own strong clasp, she pressed her hot cheek against it. There was a moment’s silence, after which Roland, with what seemed like a light sigh of relief because he had extorted her submission if not her approbation, sat down and ate his breakfast in silence.
Half an hour later, when the front door banged behind him, his sister sat alone occupied in darning a heap of tattered dusters. Her heart was much perturbed concerning the young man, though she had not found it possible to say much to him. She knew that it would be for his good, i.e. for his advancement in life, to accept the offer to go to California. On the other hand, he was the one relation she possessed in the whole wide world, and she could not bring her lips to utter such decisive words as might definitely send him forth and part him from her altogether. She was older than he, and from time immemorial had been a sort of mother to him; that sister-motherhood had been the great aim and actuating power of her own life, a life which, to outward appearance, was stagnant and uninteresting. Miss Heathfield had never been demonstrative. Possibly, as she thought to herself with a sigh, Roland was scarcely aware of her deep affection for him; he certainly did not return it in full measure; nevertheless, she argued, he was very lovable. For, even during the brief time when his life had suddenly blossomed into happiness and diverged from hers, as well as during the crisis of his great trial, and through the petty worries and irritabilities of these last two years, the sister’s heart had never for one instant wavered in its true and fond allegiance to what she considered above all things “her charge.”
Whilst Miss Heathfield sat thinking her sad thoughts, Roland had started on a walk, aimless as to destination, but intended to bring him to a settled determination, he being one of those people who aver that peripatetic exercise is the best remedy for all moral uncertainties and difficulties.2Peripatetic, traveling from place to place.
He wandered on for some time, and finally turned into Hyde Park. It was a lovely spring morning, not as yet the fashionable hour, and Rotten Row and its adjoining walks were comparatively empty. Possibly this was the children’s hour, for many pretty babies were being wheeled along in perambulators, or allowed to run and play, filling the air with happy sounds of prattle and laughter. Across the balmy air floated sweet perfume from a group of pink hawthorns in full flower, whilst, a little farther on, one tall tree, robed in white blossoms, looked like a lovely spirit of the woods rising from the green sward. So thought Roland, as he sat down on a bench and mused. He was what is called “a bit of a poet,” and in his mind vague phantasies now began, as was usual with him, to form themselves into numbers—”may” and “day,” “sighing” and “lying,” and other convenient rhymes suggesting ideas which in return evoked fresh rhymes. Still, he was not actually composing; that decision which he must needs make as to his future life haunted and perplexed him; it was as ceaseless as the sound of the sea to one who paces the shore. A definite answer must without fail be given that very evening—should he start for California, or should he not? If he stayed in England he must assuredly, as he had told his sister, go to the dogs. (By this vehement expression, I regret to say that Mr. Heathfield meant the following of the path of literature as his only career.) It was not in him, he thought, to work very seriously at anything—not even at writing. Two or three of his effusions had already appeared in print, doubtless, but they were by no means struggled for by publishers, nor had they appeared in such places of high distinction as to have brought their author more than a few shillings of payment, and an occasional short word of praise. Thus, even Roland himself could not shut his eyes to the fact that to stay on in England must imply for him a desultory life, earning a pittance here and there, dwelling with his sister, being helped on by her efforts considerably more than by his own, and having no particular future to look to.
Yet, for all that, he could not easily forego the life he deprecated. He wished vaguely that some sign might be given to him as to what he should do—some sign either from the outward world or within his own inner consciousness—that should guide him as to what path to pursue. Was it not old John Bunyan who had begged for such a sign? thought Roland; had not that great man in his wavering faith required the mountains to move in order to satisfy him ?
But Roland needed no mountains.
“Any sign,” he said to himself, “however small a thing—only a sure sign that I can truly acknowledge, and I shall be satisfied; I will gladly make up my mind to the new life and the new country.”
Yet having, so to speak, pledged himself to himself, he grew nervous of the consequences. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes for a few moments as though he wished to shut out all possibility of the very sign he had invoked. Presently he sat up again, and began to trace figures on the gravel with the end of his cane. The sunshine glittered through the leaves, flickering between the shadows at his feet. As he looked about him, he saw that this and other paths were becoming more animated. Gaily-dressed people were sauntering to and fro; the Row was fuller than it had been before. Close at hand a girl in white, leaning against the railings, smiled as she listened to a man who was speaking eagerly to her. Some analogy—a quick recollection of the past, the memory of a morning not unlike this morning—struck Roland’s mind, taking such vehement possession of it that the present slid suddenly back and melted into the long ago till the two became one. It was with a painful shock of awakening that he rose hastily to his feet, forced to realise that it was the present, and not the past, in which he lived, and that he, Roland Heathfield, was a lonely disappointed man, with his inward sorrow to fight, and his outward decision to make.
However, the short moment of oblivion had given him the impetus he so sorely needed. He shook himself as he left the shady place where he had been sitting, and walked with rapid steps across the Park towards Bayswater. Presently, leaving the green trees behind him, he threaded many monotonous streets. It was long since he had wandered in this direction; he was accustomed carefully to avoid the whole neighbourhood. Now, as he walked on, there grew upon him a dreamy, almost pleasant, sense of old acquaintanceship; his eyes scanned the names of shops and thoroughfares once daily familiar; it was as though he were retracing the lines of some former existence. The very figures he met, (and there were not many in the quiet locality to which he came at last,) seemed part of his old surroundings, as though even the boys playing in the gutter, the vendor of cheap wares, the baker’s lad, the passers-by one and all, had moved or met him thus two years ago. He pulled his hat well down on his forehead, lest any one should recognise and greet him; he had no wish to be recognised, and he had a very great dread of being greeted.
At last, still journeying northwards, he reached a deserted spot that called itself a square, though it was indeed but a poor imitation of the large green enclosures in more favoured parts of London. Roland paused in front of a dull looking corner house; he did not go close up to it, but stood, with his back against the railings of the so-called garden of the square, gazing up at the uninteresting pile of brickwork with its ugly blistered door and its grimy closed windows. For one of the windows only was open, and from thence flapped out a discoloured rag of curtain. As the young man stood thus he was scarcely conscious of what he was doing; his physical and mental capabilities alike seemed numbed. Some children gathered close to him wonderingly, laughing amongst themselves with the unsympathetic pertness of little street-arabs; but he did not notice them. The last two years of his life were suddenly swept away; the dull bricks before him became the golden walls of Paradise, the ragged curtain that flapped idly above shone like a silken banner, and the open window was once more–her window.
In Roland Heathfield’s life there had been but little of joy or happiness; few dreams realised, few hopes attained. His one dearest hope, his one sweetest dream had been fulfilled for a while, but ah! how short a while! He had loved his young wife with a tenderness and passion of which none would have thought him capable; but the end came too soon, and he, a weakhanded son of earth, was no match for the conqueror Death. Was it surprising that, after his jewel had been torn from his grasp, and the light had faded out of his life as her life passed away, he could not take up any of the interests and ambitions which his friends so strongly advised? At best he might struggle on, but the caring had gone out of his heart, and “caring” is the salt of life to men as well as women, whatever the former may say. It is especially so to such men as Roland Heathfield.
He gazed and gazed and the past floated by at last, and left him chill and lonely. He turned with a kind of shiver, glancing angrily at the pitiless faces of the children; then he pulled himself together, and walked sturdily along the pavement as though he had some business on hand. From the open windows of a house across the square came the sound of a cracked piano, on which the player’s feeble touch was disentangling a melody of Mozart’s. It recalled to Roland a favourite short poem by Coppée called Adagio, and the music, tremulously rising and falling, whilst curiously following the meaning of the poem, seemed equally to weave itself into the broken threads of his own history:–
”La rue était déserte; et le flâneur morose
Et triste, comme sont souvent les amoureux,
Qui passait, l’œil fixé sur les gazons poudreux,
Toujours à la même heure, avait pris l’habitude
D’entendre ce vieil air dans cette solitude.
Le piano chantait sourd, doux, attendrissant,
Rempli du souvenir douloureux de l’absent
Et reprochant tout bas les anciennes extases.”3Translation: The road was deserted; and the loafer gloomy / And sad, as lovers often are, / Who pass, with their eyes fixed on the powdery lawns, / Always at the same time, having gotten into the habit / Of hearing the old air in that solitude. / The piano sang deaf, soft, touching, / Full of painful memories of the absent / And quietly reproaching the old ecstasies.
Yes, so ran the verses; Roland easily recollected the sweet French words, with their subtle, underlying pathos. Now the player was gently playing trills. Ay, his own life had been full of music once. Then there had come a day when the music ceased.
Suddenly, Roland found himself standing at the door of his old home. He stretched out his hand and rang the bell. There was no speedy answer. He had ample time to decipher the written card of “Apartments” that was placed in the ground-floor window, and to gather his thoughts and frame his intentions leisurely-wise, before an untidy young woman, carrying a baby, replied to his repeated summons. He heard her slipshod feet descending the well-known steps, and shuffling along the familiar passage before she opened the door. He was not in the least impatient; he was in a torpid state of feeling, unreasoningly wishing that this dream-like visit might continue he knew not how, and end by bringing him some comfort, he knew not what.
“Is it lodgings?” asked the woman, eyeing him curiously, for, though Roland was by no means wealthy, his coat and hat were better than those belonging to the ordinary lodgers.
“I want to see the house; I should like to run up and look over it,” he answered. His eyes were already greedily drinking in the outlines of the narrow staircase, with its ugly stained-glass window midway up to the drawing-room landing. Was it not against that unlovely background that she had stood so often in her white dress waving “good-bye” as he set out to his daily work? Was she not standing there even now, vividly portrayed in that marvellous mirror of memory which we all carry with us everywhere, set for joy or for pain?
“I’m only the caretaker–there’s no one else in the house,” said the woman doubtfully, “but if it’s lodgings— —”
“Yes, yes,” answered Roland, interrupting her speech.
He had passed her, and was already climbing the stairs. Now he stood in the white and gold drawing-room, once so bright and fresh, now so inexpressibly close and dusty and dingy. It was as though the youth and beauty of the room itself had died with his darling. He and she together had arranged the house; they had spent much time and more money than they could well afford in decorating it; every piece of furniture, like each tiny ornament, had its history, and all that had been said and done regarding those senseless things of wood or china remained sharply graven in Roland’s mind. He wished it were not so. He wished that he had forgotten how yonder low seat had been specially hers; how she had bade him keep from the extravagance of this particular work-basket; how that ancient picture-frame had been the cause of a whole sheaf of silly jokes—jokes most silly, certainly, yet evoking happy mirth during one twilight evening in early summer when Roland and his wife had sat late under the hawthorns of the Regent’s Park. There was no scent of blossoming may near this desolate house, but Roland seemed to see the snowy trees again, and to inhale a far sweeter perfume than had greeted him that very morning in the gaily-decked pathways of a more fashionable pleasure-ground.
He was both sorry and glad that he had come to visit his old home. He was half sorry that he had not kept the house; ungentle hands had touched her things; careless strangers had lived in her rooms. He and his sister might have gone on living there, thought Roland. That, of course, would have been the right thing to do; but the truth was that when the end had come he had been distraught; he had thrown everything up, and sold the house as it stood, glad to push all old surroundings out of sight. As if we could barter our memory, or wipe away our yearning thoughts!
“It’s a cheerful sort of room,” the caretaker said encouragingly, going round vaguely dusting, “partickler when the blinds is hup,” and thereupon she led the way to the second floor.
Roland followed mechanically.
When they reached the room up-stairs, he held out a couple of shillings to his guide :
“I lived here once—leave me alone for a few minutes,” he said in an odd strained voice. And when the woman, with an acquiescent nod, turned and closed the door softly upon him, when he could no longer hear her retreating steps, when he felt himself utterly and mercifully alone, he broke down and sobbed like a child. No one, since Roland’s childish days, had seen him weep. His was not a strong nature, yet it was by no means devoid of manly pride or reticence. But here, in this room, by the very bed where two short years ago he had also wept in the sanctity of solitude (for the pale form by which he then knelt had no longer any cognisance of his grief), his tears flowed, and would not be kept back. They flowed for some moments; finally, he regained his outward composure. With that composure came the oppressive consciousness of the present, its difficulties and uncertainties—above all, his impending decision.
“Oh, for a sign,” he prayed aloud, “some sign that I might hold to come from her!”
The minutes passed—a loudly-ticking clock on the stairs gave notice of their passing. No sign had come; no sign could come, verily.
It was surely time for Roland to depart; he had no excuse to linger in that dreary room. How dreary it was! As he wandered aimlessly about, unable to tear himself from its painful fascination, he was more and more struck by the dirty untidiness, as well as dinginess, of the place. On entering, he had leant his cane against the side of a large press or wardrobe; now, as he was about to take up the cane, and touched it lightly, it fell behind the wardrobe, and when Roland stooped a cloud of dust rose up into his face. Certainly, the room had never been properly cleaned during the last two years.
Roland, accustomed to his sister’s spotless though meagre furniture, had drawn hastily back, brushing some dusty fluff from his coat and waistcoat. Then he bent down again, and drew out the cane. It had a jagged carved knob, and to that there clung a little piece of thin crumpled paper. He instantly saw that it was a bank-note. As with trembling fingers he smoothed the crackling paper, he knew that this was the sign for which he had looked.
Full well he recollected how one day his poor little wife had lost a bank-note, had sought for it everywhere, and at last came to him with tears in her eyes to confess what had happened. He had searched the whole room to the best of his ability, and finally they two had agreed, hand in hand, to forego each of them something, in order to save the amount—no very large amount, being but ten pounds; still, one which, in their modest household, must make some considerable difference. Thereupon he had written the number of the missing note (which his wife remembered) in his pocket-book. He drew out his pocket-book now. His fingers were trembling so violently that he could scarce turn the pages. Yes, here was the number carefully written down beneath the date on which the note had been lost: No. 33772. Roland folded the note carefully away in one of the satin pockets of the book, resolved to endure the direst straits of need rather than spend that precious ten pounds. For in his possession he held the sign he needed, the sign which had indeed been sent direct from her he loved, touched by no alien hands since her dear hands had touched it. His mind was thoroughly made up now; he would start for California; he would try honestly and manfully to lead a new life, and throw off the overwhelming sloth and feebleness which was weighing him down bodily and mentally. He would seek to do, though in a new country and without her, what in this old country and with her he might have done.
* * * * *
It was more than a year after the slight episode narrated in these pages that a young Englishman was killed in a street-fight at San Francisco. He was a man so little known that scant mention was made of the occurrence, even in the Californian paper which devoted a short paragraph to it. There was, indeed, some doubt as to the origin of the squabble, but that did not much signify, for the young man’s opponent was a rough miner of bad character, and the whole thing was rather disgraceful, so perhaps the less said the better. Some of the bystanders (who were poor folks, and therefore not altogether credited in their statements) asserted that it was a shame, as well as a pity, for the miner had been ill-treating a young woman (his wife, of course, but that also was no matter), and she was weak and ill, and he had given her a terrible blow between the eyes, and the young Englishman had stepped forward to save her from further injury, and the miner, who was more than half drunk, had suddenly pulled out a long knife and stabbed him. But these details never found their way into the short paragraph, which spoke jocularly of a street-row and British fisticuffs, and pointed out, with some pride, that England could not expect always to be triumphant.
There was no one to mourn Roland Heathfield except his sister, and she—receiving the announcement of his death from his employers, with a curt mention that it was owing to an accident—arrayed herself in sable garments, and lived her life more sadly than before, with little outward show of grief perhaps, but with a sense of greater and more forlorn desolation. After a time, she became a sick-nurse in one of the London hospitals, and was heard of no more, even by her limited circle of acquaintances.
Roland Heathfield’s employers duly forwarded to his sister the small amount of money which he had earned during his service, also his watch and a pocketbook found on his dead body; the book contained a couple of letters (fond, childish effusions) written by his young wife, and an English bank-note for the value of ten pounds. Strangely enough, on one of the pages of the pocket-book was recorded the number of this very note, together with a date more than three years old, and over this date Miss Heathfield puzzled much, but the secret was one which she was never able to unravel.
Download PDF of original Text (validated PDF/A conformant)
How To Cite (MLA Format)
Lady Lindsay. “From Her.” The Woman’s World, vol. 1, 1888, pp. 225-9. Edited by Shelbie McDonald. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 10 June 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/from-her/.
4 April 2020
10 June 2023
|↑1||An appurtenance is an object associated with a certain way of living.|
|↑2||Peripatetic, traveling from place to place.|
|↑3||Translation: The road was deserted; and the loafer gloomy / And sad, as lovers often are, / Who pass, with their eyes fixed on the powdery lawns, / Always at the same time, having gotten into the habit / Of hearing the old air in that solitude. / The piano sang deaf, soft, touching, / Full of painful memories of the absent / And quietly reproaching the old ecstasies.|