Story 2 | Chapter IV | A Little Skirmish | The Golden Incubus

Story 2—Chapter IV.

I didn’t believe in the people opposite, in spite of their references being said to be good. You may say that’s because of what followed; but it isn’t for I didn’t like the looks of the stiff elderly Miss Mimprisses; and I didn’t like the two forward servants, though they seemed to keep themselves to themselves wonderfully, and no man ever allowed in the house. Worst of all, I didn’t like that handsome young Miss Adela, sitting at work over coloured worsted at the dining-room or drawing-room window, for young Mr Barclay was always looking across at her; and though he grew red-faced, my poor Miss Virginia grew every day more pale.

They seemed very strange people over the way, and it was only sometimes on a Sunday that any one at our place caught a glimpse of them, and then one perhaps would come to a window for a few minutes and sit and talk to Miss Adela—one of the elder sisters, I mean; and when I caught sight of them, I used to think that it was no wonder they had taken to dressing so primly and so plain, for they must have given up all hope of getting husbands long before.

Mr Barclay suggested to Sir John twice in my hearing that he should invite his new tenants over to dinner; and—once, in a hesitating way, hinted something about Miss Virginia calling. But Sir John only grunted; while I saw my dear young lady dart such an indignant look at Mr Barclay as made him silent for the rest of the evening, and seem ashamed of what he had said.

I talked about it a good deal to Tom as I sat before my pantry fire of an evening; and he used to leap up in my lap and sit and look up at me with his big eyes, which were as full of knowingness at those times as they were stupid and slit-like at others. He was a great favourite of mine was Tom, and had been ever since I found him, a half-starved kitten in the area, and took him in and fed him till he grew up the fine cat he was.

“There’s going to be trouble come of it, Tom,” I used to say; and to my mind, the best thing that could have happened for us would have been for over-the-way to have stopped empty; for, instead of things going on smoothly and pleasantly, they got worse every day. Sir John said very little, but he was a man who noticed a great deal. Mr Barclay grew restless and strange, but he never said a word now about going away. While, as for Miss Virginia, she seemed to me to be growing older and more serious in a wonderful way; but when she was spoken to, she had always a pleasant smile and a bright look, though it faded away again directly, just as the sunshine does when there are clouds. She used to pass the greater part of her time reading to Sir John, and she kept his accounts for him and wrote his letters; and one morning as I was clearing away the breakfast things, Mr Barclay being there, reading the paper, Sir John says sharply: “Those people opposite haven’t paid their first quarter’s rent.”

No one spoke for a moment or two, and then in a fidgety sharp way, Mr Barclay says: “Why, it was only due yesterday, father.”

“Thank you, sir,” says Sir John, in a curiously polite way; “I know that; but it was due yesterday, and it ought to have been paid.—’Ginny, write a note to the Misses Mimpriss with my compliments, and say I shall be obliged by their sending the rent.”

Miss Virginia got up and walked across to the writing-table; and I went on very slowly clearing the cloth, for Sir John always treated me as if I was a piece of furniture; but I felt uncomfortable, for it seemed to me that there was going to be a quarrel.

I was right; for as Miss Virginia began to write, Mr Barclay crushed the newspaper up in his hands and said hotly: “Surely, father, you are not going to insult those ladies by asking them for the money the moment it is due.”

“Yes, I am, sir,” says the old gentleman sharply; “and you mind your own business. When I’m dead, you can collect your rents as you like; while I live, I shall do the same.”

Miss Virginia got up quickly and went and laid her hand upon Sir John’s breast without saying a word; but her pretty appealing act meant a deal, and the old man took the little white hand in his and kissed it tenderly. “You go and do as I bid you, my pet,” he said; “and you, Burdon, wait for the note, take it over, and bring an answer.”

“Yes, Sir John,” I said quietly; and I heard Miss Virginia give a little sob as she went and sat down and began writing. Then I saw that the trouble was coming, and that there was to be a big quarrel between father and son.

“Look here, father,” says Mr Barclay, getting up and walking about the room, “I never interfere with your affairs—”

“I should think not, sir,” says the old man, very sarcastic-like.

“But I cannot sit here patiently and see you behave in so rude a way to those four ladies who honour you by being your tenants.”

“Say I feel greatly surprised that the rent was not sent over yesterday, my dear,” says Sir John, without taking any notice of his son.

“Yes, uncle,” says Miss Virginia. She always called him “uncle,” though he wasn’t any relation.

“It’s shameful!” cried Mr Barclay. “The result will be that they will give you notice and go.”

“Good job, too,” said Sir John. “I don’t like them, and I wish they had not come.”

“How can you be so unreasonable, father?” cried the young man hotly.

“Look here, Bar,” says Sir John—(“Fold that letter and seal it with my seal, ’Ginny”)—“look here, Bar.”

I glanced at the young man, and saw him pass his hand across his forehead so roughly that the big signet ring he wore—the old-fashioned one Sir John gave him many years before, and which fitted so tightly now that it wouldn’t come over the joint—made quite a red mark on his brow.

“I don’t know what you are going to say, father,” cried Mr Barclay quickly; “but, for Heaven’s sake, don’t treat me as a boy any longer, and I implore you not to send that letter.”

There was a minute’s silence, during which I could hear Mr Barclay breathing hard. Then Sir John began again. “Look here, sir,” he said. “Over and over again, you’ve wanted to go away and travel, and I’ve said I didn’t want you to go. During the past three months you’ve altered your mind.”

“Altered my mind, sir?” says the young man sharply.

“Yes, sir; and I’ve altered mine. That’s fair. Now, you don’t want to go, and I want you to.”


“Have you done that letter, my pet?—Yes? That’s well. Now, you stand there and take care of me, for fear Mr Barclay should fly in a passion.”

“Sir, I asked you not to treat me like a boy,” says Mr Barclay bitterly.

“I’m not going to,” says Sir John, as he sat playing with Miss Virginia’s hand, while I could see that the poor darling’s face was convulsed, and she was trying to hide the tears which streamed down. “I’m going to treat you as a man. You can have what money you want. Be off for a year’s travel. Hunt, shoot, go round the world, what you like; but don’t come back here for a twelvemonth.—Burdon, take that letter over to the Misses Mimpriss, and wait for an answer.”

I took the note across, wondering what would be said while I was gone, and knowing why Sir John wanted his son to go as well as he did, and Miss Virginia too, poor thing. The knocker seemed to make the house opposite echo very strangely, as I thumped; but when the door was opened in a few minutes, everything in the hall seemed very proper and prim, while the maid who came looked as stiff and disagreeable as could be.

“For Miss Mimpriss, from Sir John Drinkwater,” I said; “and I’ll wait for an answer.”

“Very well,” says the woman shortly.

“I’ll wait for an answer,” I said, for she was shutting the door.

“Yes; I heard,” she says, and the door was shut in my face.

“Hang all old maids!” I said. “They needn’t be afraid of me;” and there I waited till I heard steps again and the door was opened; and the ill-looking woman says in a snappish tone: “Miss Adela Mimpriss’s compliments, and she’ll come across directly.”

“Any one would think I was a wild beast,” I said to myself, as I went back and gave my message, finding all three in the room just as I had left them when I went away.