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A short story by George A. Birmingham

Aunt Nell

Title:     Aunt Nell
Author: George A. Birmingham [More Titles by Birmingham]

Mrs. MacDermott splashed her way across the yard towards the stable. It was raining, softly and persistently. The mud lay deep. There were pools of water here and there. Mrs. MacDermott neither paused nor picked her steps. There was no reason why she should. The rain could not damage the tweed cap on her head. Her complexion, brilliant as the complexions of Irish women often are, was not of the kind that washes off. Her rough grey skirt, on which rain-drops glistened, came down no further than her knees. On her feet were a pair of rubber boots which reached up to the hem of her skirt, perhaps further. She was comfortably indifferent to rain and mud.

If you reckon the years since she was born, Mrs. MacDermott was nearly forty. But that is no true way of estimating the age of man or woman. Seen, not in the dusk with the light behind her, but in broad daylight on horseback, she was little more than thirty. Such is the reward of living an outdoor life in the damp climate of Connaught. And her heart was as young as her face and figure. She had known no serious troubles and very few of the minor cares of life. Her husband, a man twenty-five years older than she was, died after two years of married life, leaving her a very comfortable fortune. Nell MacDermott--the whole country called her Nell--hunted three days a week every winter.

"Why shouldn't she be young?" John Gafferty, the groom, used to say. "Hasn't she five good horses and the full of her skin of meat and drink? The likes of her never get old."

Johnny Gafferty was rubbing down a tall bay mare when Mrs. MacDermott opened the stable door and entered the loose box.

"Johnny," she said, "you'll put the cob in the governess cart this afternoon and have him round at three o'clock. I'm going up to the station to meet my nephew. I've had a letter from his father to say he'll be here to-day."

Johnny Gafferty, though he had been eight years in Mrs. MacDermott's service, had never before heard of her nephew.

"It could be," he said, cautiously, "that the captain will be bringing a horse with him, or maybe two."

He felt that a title of some sort was due to the nephew of a lady like Mrs. MacDennott. The assumption that he would have a horse or two with him was natural. All Mrs. MacDermott's friends hunted.

"He's not a captain," said Mrs. MacDennott, "and he's bringing no horses and he doesn't hunt. What's more, Johnny, he doesn't even ride, couldn't sit on the back of a donkey. So his father says, anyway."

"Glory be to God!" said Johnny, "and what sort of a gentleman will he be at all?"

"He's a poet," said Mrs. MacDennott.

Johnny felt that he had perhaps gone beyond the limits of respectful criticism in expressing his first astonishment at the amazing news that Mrs. MacDermott's nephew could not ride.

"Well," he said, "there's worse things than poetry in the world."

"Very few sillier things," said Mrs. MacDermott. "But that's not the worse there is about him, Johnny. His health is completely broken down. That's why he's coming here. Nerve strain, they call it."

"That's what they would call it," said Johnny sympathetically, "when it's a high-up gentleman like a nephew of your own. And it's hard to blame him. There's many a man does be a bit foolish without meaning any great harm by it."

"To be a bit foolish" is a kindly, West of Ireland phrase which means to drink heavily.

"It's not that," said Mrs. MacDermott. "I don't believe from what I've heard of him that the man has even that much in him. It's just what his father says, poetry and nerves. And he's coming here for the good of his health. It's Mr. Bertram they call him, Mr. Bertram Connell."

Mrs. MacDermott walked up and down the platform waiting for the arrival of her nephew's train. She was dressed in a very becoming pale blue tweed and had wrapped a silk muffler of a rather brighter blue round her neck. Her brown shoes, though strong, were very well made and neat. Between them and her skirt was a considerable stretch of knitted stocking, blue like the tweed. Her ankles were singularly well-formed and comely. The afternoon had turned out to be fine and she had taken some trouble about her dress before setting out to meet a strange nephew whom she had not seen since he was five years old. She might have taken more trouble still if the nephew had been anything more exciting than a nerve-shattered poet.

The train steamed in at last. Only one passenger got out of a first-class carriage. Mrs. MacDermott looked at him in doubt. He was not in the least the sort of man she expected to see. Poets, so she understood, have long hair and sallow, clean-shaven faces. This young man's head was closely-cropped and he had a fair moustache. He was smartly dressed in well-fitting clothes. Poets are, or ought to be, sloppy in their attire. Also, judged by the colour of his cheeks and his vigorous step, this man was in perfect health. Mrs. MacDermott approached him with some hesitation. The young man was standing in the middle of the platform looking around. His eyes rested on Mrs. MacDermott for a moment, but passed from her again. He was expecting someone whom he did not see.

"Are you Bertram Connell, by any chance?" asked Mrs. MacDermott.

"That's me," said the young man, "and I'm expecting an aunt to meet me. I say, are you a cousin? I didn't know I had a cousin."

The mistake was an excusable one. Mrs. MacDermott looked very young and pretty in her blue tweed. She appreciated the compliment paid her all the more because it was obviously sincere.

"You haven't any cousins," she said. "Not on your father's side, anyway. I'm your aunt."

"Aunt Nell!" he said, plainly startled by the information. "Great Scott! and I thought----"

He paused and looked at Mrs. MacDermott with genuine surprise. Then he recovered his self-possession. He put his arm round her neck and kissed her heartily, first on one cheek, then on the other.

Aunts are kissed by their nephews every day as a matter of course. They expect it. Mrs. MacDermott had not thought about the matter beforehand. If she had she would have taken it for granted that Bertram would kiss her, occasionally, uncomfortably and without conviction. The kisses she actually received embarrassed her. She even blushed a little and was annoyed with herself for blushing.

"There doesn't seem to be much the matter with your nerve," she said.

Bertram became suddenly grave.

"My nerves are in a rotten state," he said. "The doctor--specialist, you know, tip-top man--said the only thing for me was life in the country, fresh air, birds, flowers, new milk, all that sort of thing."

"Your father wrote all that to me," said Mrs. MacDermott.

"Poor old dad," said Bertram, "he's horribly upset about it."

Mrs. MacDermott was further puzzled about her nephew's nervous breakdown when she suggested about 7 o'clock that it was time to dress for dinner. Bertram who had been talking cheerfully and smoking a good deal, put his arm round her waist and ran her upstairs.

"Jolly thing to have an aunt like you," he said.

Mrs. MacDermott was slightly out of breath and angry with herself for blushing again. At bedtime she refused a good-night kiss with some dignity. Bertram protested.

"Oh, I say, Aunt Nell, that's all rot, you know. An aunt is just one of the people you do kiss, night and morning."

"No, you don't," she said, "and anyway you won't get the chance to-morrow morning. I shall be off early. It's a hunting day."

"Can't I get a horse somewhere?" said Bertram.

Mrs. MacDermott looked at him in astonishment.

"Your father told me," she said, "that you couldn't ride and had never been on a horse in your life."

"Did he say that? The poor dad! I suppose he was afraid I'd break my neck."

"If you're suffering from nervous breakdown----"

"I am. Frightfully. That's why they sent me here."

"Then you shouldn't hunt," said Mrs. MacDermott. "You should sit quietly in the library and write poetry. That reminds me, the rector is coming to dinner to-night. I thought you'd like to meet him."

"Why? Is he a sporting old bird?"

"Not in the least; but he's the only man about this country who knows anything about poetry. That's why I asked him."

Johnny Gafferty made a report to Mrs. MacDermott when she returned from hunting which surprised her a good deal.

"The young gentleman, ma'am," he said, "was round in the stable this morning, shortly after you leaving. And nothing would do him only for me to saddle the bay for him."

"Did you do it?"

"What else could I do," said Gafferty, "when his heart was set on it?"

"I suppose he's broken his own neck and the mare's knees," said Mrs. MacDermott.

"He has not then. Neither the one nor the other. I don't know how he'd do if you faced him with a stone wall, but the way he took the bay over the fence at the end of the paddock was as neat as ever I seen. You couldn't have done it better yourself, ma'am."

"He can ride, then?"

"Ride!" said Gafferty. "Is it ride? If his poetry is no worse nor his riding he'll make money by it yet."

The dinner with the rector was not an entire success. The clergyman, warned beforehand that he was to entertain a well-known poet, had prepared himself by reading several books of Wordsworth's Excursion. Bertram shied at the name of Wordsworth and insisted on hearing from his aunt a detailed account of the day's run. This puzzled Mrs. MacDermott a little; but she hit upon an explanation which satisfied her. The rector was enthusiastic in his admiration of Wordsworth. Bertram, a poet himself, evidently suffered from professional jealousy.

Mrs. MacDermott, who had looked forward to her nephew's visit with dread, began to enjoy it Bertram was a cheerful young man with an easy flow of slangy conversation. His tastes were very much the same as Mrs. MacDermott's own. He smoked, and drank whisky and soda in moderate quantities. He behaved in all respects like a normal man, showing no signs of the nervousness which goes with the artistic temperament. His politeness to her and the trouble he took, about her comfort in small matters were very pleasant. He had large handsome blue eyes, and Mrs. MacDermott liked the way he looked at her. His gaze expressed a frank admiration which was curiously agreeable.

A week after his arrival Mrs. MacDermott paid a high compliment to her nephew. She promised to mount him on the bay mare and take him out hunting. She had satisfied herself that Johnny Gafferty was not mistaken and that the young man really could ride. Bertram, excited and in high good humour, succeeded, before she had time to protest, in giving her a hearty kiss of gratitude.

The morning of the hunt was warm and moist. The meet was in one of the most favourable places in the country. Mrs. MacDermott, drawing on her gloves in the hall before starting, noted with gratification that her nephew's breeches were well-cut and his stock neatly fastened. Johnny Gafferty could be heard outside the door speaking to the horses which he held ready.

A telegraph boy arrived on a bicycle. He handed the usual orange envelope to Mrs. Mac-Dermott. She tore it open impatiently and glanced at the message inside. She gave an exclamation of surprise and read the message through slowly and carefully. Then, without a word, she handed it to her nephew.

"Very sorry," the telegram ran, "only to-day discovered that Bertram had not gone to you as arranged. He is in a condition of complete prostration. Cannot start now. Connell."

"It's from my brother," said Mrs. MacDermott, "but what on earth does it mean? You're here all right, aren't you?"

"Yes," he said, "_I'm_ here."

He laid a good deal of emphasis on the "I." Mrs. MacDermott looked at him with sudden suspicion.

"I've had a top-hole time," he said. "What an utterly incompetent rotter Connell is! He had nothing on earth to do but lie low. His father couldn't have found out."

Mrs. MacDermott walked over to the door and addressed Gafferty.

"Johnny," she said, "the horses won't be wanted to-day." She turned to the young man who stood beside her. "Now," she said, "come into the library and explain what all this means."

"Oh, I say, Aunt Nell," he said, "don't let's miss the day. I'll explain the whole thing to you in the evening after dinner."

"You'll explain it now, if you can."

She led the way into the library.

"It's quite simple really," he said. "Bertram Connell, your nephew, though a poet and all that, is rather an ass."

"Are you Bertram Connell, or are you not?" said Mrs. MacDermott.

"Oh Lord, no. I'm not that sort of fellow at all. I couldn't write a line of poetry to save my life. He's--you simply can't imagine how frightfully brainy he is. All the same I rather like him. He was my fag at school and we were up together at Cambridge. I've more or less kept up with him ever since. He's more like a girl than a man, you know. I daresay that's why I liked him. Then he crocked up, nerves and that sort of thing. And they said he must come over here. He didn't like the notion a bit. I was in London just then on leave, and he told me how he hated the idea."

"So did I," said Mrs. MacDermott.

"I said that he was a silly ass and that if I had the chance of a month in the west of Ireland in a sporting sort of house--he told me you hunted a lot--I'd simply jump at it. But the poor fellow was frightfully sick at the prospect, said he was sure he wouldn't get on with you, and that you'd simply hate him. He had a book of poetry just coming out and he was hoping to get a play of his taken on, a play about fairies. I give you my word he was very near crying, so, after a lot of talking, we hit on the idea of my coming here. He was to lie low in London so that his father wouldn't find him."

"You neither of you thought about me, apparently," said Mrs. MacDermott.

"Oh, yes we did. We thought as you hadn't seen him since he was a child that you wouldn't know him. And of course we thought you'd be frightfully old. There didn't seem to be much harm in it."

"And you--you came here and called me Aunt Nell."

"You're far the nicest aunt I've ever seen or even imagined."

"And you actually had the cheek to----"

Mrs. MacDermott stopped abruptly and blushed. She was thinking of the kisses. His thoughts followed hers, though she did not complete the sentence.

"Only the first day," he said. "You wouldn't let me afterwards. Except once, and you didn't really let me then. I just did it. I give you my word I couldn't help it. You looked so jolly. No fellow could have helped it. I believe Bertram would have done the same, though he is a poet."

"And now," said Mrs. MacDermott, "before you go----"

"Must I go----"

"Out of this house and back to London today," said Mrs. MacDermott. "But before you go I'd rather like to know who you are, since you're not Bertram Connell."

"My name is Maitland, Robert Maitland, but they generally call me Bob. I'm in the 30th Lancers. I say, it was rather funny your thinking I couldn't ride and turning on that old parson to talk poetry to me."

Mrs. MacDermott allowed herself to smile.

The matter was really settled that day before Bob Maitland left for London; but it was a week later when Mrs. MacDermott announced her decision to her brother.

"There's no fool like an old fool," she wrote, "and at my age I ought to have more sense. But I took to Bob the moment I saw him, and if he makes as good a husband as he did a nephew we'll get on together all right--though he is a few years younger than I am."

[The end]
George A. Birmingham's Short Story: Aunt Nell