Honoria Spencer’s Mistake; or, Duty Versus Love, Part 1
by S. L. Gibbs
The Girl’s Own Paper, vol. 3, issue 140 (1882)
Introductory Note: This short story by S. L. Gibbs was published in The Girl’s Own Paper and written for adolescent girls. When innocent and kind Kate comes to live with her stern, duty-focused aunt, she’s prepared to never feel love again. But everything is turned on its head with the arrival of Kate’s two energetic cousins. As a didactic tale, this story explores the relationship between duty and love and provides commentary on the importance of both.
This entry was published as the first of two parts:
WHAT is your name, child?”
“Kate Morton, please, ma’am, but dear mamma always called me Kitty.”
“Just like Alice! She was always so excessively foolish!”
Little Kitty was striving so hardly to stifle her sobs that she did not hear this remark, or an opinion so freely expressed of her dead mother might not have been soothing to her already troubled feelings.
Who would not pity her as she sat there, trying with all her childish might not to cry, and watched meanwhile by those two hard faces? And yet, perhaps, Miss Honoria Spencer and her maid Hannah deserved some pity, too.
Miss Spencer had, when one and twenty, “come into” a comfortable fortune. She went at once to the manor house, part of her property, and there she had resided ever since.
No one knew if she had ever loved; if so, the feeling had long been over, and she seemed now to have no heart left. Her religion and her charity were alike cold and stern. She however prided herself upon being strictly just.
So, when a letter came to her from her sister Alice in India, telling her that she was about to join her dear husband, that she was glad to go, her only sorrow being in leaving her dear little daughter, but that she left her to her sister’s charge, knowing that she would care for her as she herself would do—when this letter came, accompanied by one from the lawyer saying that Miss Morton was already on her way to England, in the care of a lady who was returning to her native land, and who would see her safely to her aunt’s home—then Miss Spencer felt that her cup was indeed full, and that all contentment—enjoyment she never thought of—was over.
But she would do her duty! When Kitty arrived, which she did late one evening, there was a very nice supper laid for her, a bright fire and lights, but there was no love nor real welcome.
Children are quick observers, and though no unkind remark was made by her aunt to her, yet even on that first night Kitty felt a little chilled, and feared this new home was not to be like her old one, and when she went to bed she cried herself to sleep.
When Hannah went to take the light away she saw the tear-drops on her long lashes, and felt a little sorry for her in a vague, far-off sort of way.
Miss Honoria was waiting for her when she came down, and desired her to take a seat.
“I foresee,” said Miss Spencer, in a calm, decided tone, “we shall have trouble with that child. She has no self-control, a quality so necessary to possess. If Alice had had it, she would not have fretted so over her husband’s death as to die too. It is very hard, but we must do our duty in this heavy trial. We must do our duty, Hannah!”
Ah! how much better than a bushel of duty would have been a grain of love!
THE next day was Sunday, and Miss Spencer felt almost sorry that Kate did not become a trial at once. But she did not do so.
She came down early, gave a bright glance and nod to Hannah, stepped up to her aunt and kissed her (which act so surprised that lady that she almost dropped her cup), and then sat down to the table.
The breakfast proceeded for some time in silence, Hannah standing behind her mistress’s chair and waiting on them. Presently Miss Spencer said, in a very cold voice—
“You know to-day is Sunday?”
“Yes, aunt,” replied Kate.
“Well, Katherine,” coldly, as though the child were an heathen, “we go to church in England on Sunday—”
“Of course, aunt; so we did in India. We had to go three miles—”
“I really must beg, Katherine, that you will not interrupt me. In England it is customary to go to church. I wish you to accompany me; so, if you please, you will get ready.”
Kate jumped up at once and ran out of the room. Once outside it, the tears would flow, but, being naturally a merry little thing, they were checked before she got upstairs.
“What a silly goose I am!” she thought; “it is only aunt’s way, and I was going to make myself unhappy, fancying she did not like me! Well, I am silly! I do wish, though, she was more like dear mamma,” here a few more tears fell; “but of course she will be kinder when she knows me better.”
She was soon ready, and went down again.
“You see, Hannah!” said Miss Spencer, as Kate left the room, “she is bad-tempered and self-willed. Did you see how she ran away? She could not bear to be told of her faults. Well, well, we must do our best!”
Kate and her aunt went to church. This, to the child’s surprise, seemed to be no more than a whitewashed barn, so plain, dull-looking, clean, but very cold was it. She was so little she could hardly see over the high pew, and the clergyman who read the Psalms and Lessons seemed to be reciting the Funeral Service.
When he ascended the pulpit, and she could see him, he preached the sermon, but drew such horrible pictures of the grave and death, that poor Kitty felt her flesh creep, and thought her hair was rising.
This was dreadful enough; but presently he looked straight at her, in her black dress, and spoke of losing those we loved (not in the way her mother had done, of a parting with a sure, blessed, and pleasant meeting together by-and-by), but as the most terrible thing that could happen.
When he went on to speak of those with no hope, then Kitty looked wildly round for a means of escape, and would assuredly have disgraced herself by screaming or fainting away, had not Mr. Green been good enough just to finish his discourse.
The congregation was dismissed after singing a most doleful hymn, and the child found herself in the open air again, but with the preacher’s words still ringing in her ears.
Kate looked up to her aunt for comfort, but that lady looked so coldly self-satisfied, and so firmly agreeing with all that had been said, that she dared not speak.
They reached home, Hannah walking behind them like a grim sentinel. Kate went to her room to take off her things, but the remembrance of that sermon was too much for her.
Hannah came in to help her. She sprang up suddenly, and throwing her arms round the old servant’s neck, cried, “Oh, Hannah! I am so frightened!”
To her own great surprise, Hannah found herself taking the poor child on her knee and saying words, which she greatly feared were heresy, to comfort her.
“Maybe Mr. Green said more than he knew, dearie, seeing he ain’t dead yet. (No loss if he was, perhaps,” she muttered to herself). “Anyhow, you have no call to fret. You seem a good little lamb.”
“Oh! but, Hannah, mamma said it was nice to die, because she would see papa and be always well and happy, and ——. But that gentleman said——,” cried Kitty, still trembling and crying bitterly.
“Never you mind what that gentleman said!” interrupted Hannah, huskily. “You mind what your ma told you. Here’s a bit a cake for you, my dear. Wipe your eyes, and make haste down, or else your aunt will be cross.”
From that time Hannah was kind to her in her rough way, and the only specks of brightness in her dull, uneventful life were those the old servant created for her.
Miss Spencer would have been righteously indignant if she had been accused of being unkind to her niece.
She would have answered that she did her duty by her, that she was fed, clothed, and cared for as carefully as her own mother could have done. What more would the child have?
Had Kate been asked the question, she would have said, “A little love, a little praise when I do well.” But, then, she was not consulted, and such a reply would have been thought most unreasonable.
When Kate Morton had come there, she was only eight years old, and naturally a happy, merry child. Her only grief had been her parents’ death, and though that loss had been a very heavy one at her age, the feelings are elastic, and had she had a pleasant home, she would have been a thoroughly cheerful girl.
As it was, as she grew up she became a quiet, reserved, but accomplished young lady.
Her aunt had been her instructress—a position for which she was excellently fitted, as her talents were of a very high order.
Very few persons visited Miss Spencer. Of these, the gentlemen were like Mr. Green, the ladies like her aunt, and of each and all of them Kate was much frightened.
They greatly pitied Miss Honor for having the care of so strange a girl, and did not scruple to say so, but felt they had a perfect right to criticise her conduct.
As these remarks were invariably made in Kate’s presence, they did not tend to make her less strange or quiet, but they did make her very unhappy.
Kate lived entirely in a world of her own. She peopled her dull surroundings with radiant splendour, and wove bright fancies of a fairy prince coming to free her from her bondage.
She wondered, sometimes, how it would have been if anyone had loved her, and sympathised with her, or tried to be kind to her, and hoped for happier hours to come.
But as that time did not come, only the weary days dragged on in the same monotonous way, without any great trouble, but without the slightest joy, her dreams faded; she simply became a handsome machine, doing whatever she was told to do in a listless manner that would have warned anyone who cared for her that there was something greatly amiss.
But at this sad time a change was coming, and brightness was, at last, to enter into her dull life.
(To be concluded.)
This story is continued in Honoria Spencer’s Mistake; or, Duty Versus Love, Part 2.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
S. L. Gibbs. “Honoria Spencer’s Mistake; or, Duty Versus Love, Part 1.” The Girl’s Own Paper, vol. 3, no. 140, 1882, pp. 780-1. Edited by Savannah Porter. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 10 June 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/honoria-spencers-mistake-or-duty-versus-love/.
21 March 2020
7 June 2023