October 26, 2020

Anne – Part 66

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 We continue our serialisation of Anne by Constance Fenimore Woolson

“What can be done with such a young savage as this?”

Miss Vanhorn was short and stout; she was muffled in an India shawl, and upon her hands were a pair of cream-colored kid gloves much too large for her, so that when she fumbled, as she did every few moments, in an embroidered bag for aromatic seeds coated with sugar, she had much difficulty in finding them, owing to the empty wrinkled ends of the glove fingers. She lifted a gold- rimmed eyeglass to her eyes as Anne entered, and coolly inspected her.

“Dear me! Dear me!”  She said.  Then, in execrable French,  “What can be done with such a young savage as this?”

“How do you do, aunt?” said Anne, using the conventional words with a slight tremor in her voice.  This was the woman   who had brought up her mother—her dear, unremembered mother.

“Grandaunt,” said Miss Vanhorn, tartly.  “Sit down; I cannot bear to have people standing in front of me. How old are you?”

“I am seventeen, grandaunt.”

Miss Vanhorn let her eyeglass drop, and groaned. “Can anything be done with her?” she asked, closing her eyes tightly, and turning toward Tante, while Anne flushed crimson, not so much from the criticism as the unkindness.

“Oh yes,” said Tante, taking the opportunity given by the closed eyes to pat the young girl’s hand encouragingly. “Miss Douglas is very intelligent; and she has a fine mezzo- soprano voice. Signor Belzini is much pleased with it. It would be well, also, I think, if you would allow her to take a few dancing lessons.”

“She will have no occasion for dancing,” answered Miss Vanhorn, still with her eyes closed.

“It was not so much for the dancing itself as for grace of carriage,” replied Tante. “Miss Douglas has a type of figure rare among American girls.”

“I should say so, indeed!”  Groaned the other, shaking her head gloomily, still voluntarily blinded.

“But none the less beautiful in its way,” continued Tante, unmoved. “It is the Greek type.”

“I am not acquainted with any Greeks,” replied Miss Vanhorn.

“You are still as devoted as ever to the beautiful and refined study of plant life, dear Madame,” pursued Tante, changing the current of conversation. “How delightful to have a young relative to assist you, with the fresh and ardent interest belonging to her age, when the flowers bloom again upon the rural slopes of Haarderwyck!” As Tante said this, she looked off dreamily into space, as if she saw aunt and niece wandering together through groves of allegorical flowers.

“She is not likely to see Haarderwyck,” answered Miss Vanhorn.  Then, after a moment’s pause—a pause that Tante did not break—she peered at Anne with half- open eyes, and asked, abruptly, “Do you, then, know anything of botany?”

Tante made a slight motion with her delicate withered old hand.  But Anne did not comprehend her, and answered, honestly, “No, grandaunt, I do not.”

“Bah!” said Miss Vanhorn; “I might have known without the asking. Make what you can of her, Madame.  I will pay your bill for one year: no longer. But no nonsense, no extras, mind that.” Again she sought a caraway seed, pursuing it vindictively along the bottom of her bag, and losing it at the last, after all.

“As regards wardrobe, I would advise some few changes,” said Tante, smoothly. “It is one of my axioms that pupils study to greater advantage when their thoughts are not disturbed by deficiencies in dress.  Conformity to our simple standard is therefore desirable.”

“It may be desirable; it is not always, on that account, attainable,” answered Miss Vanhorn, conveying a finally caught seed to her mouth, dropping it at the last moment, and carefully and firmly biting the seam of the glove finger in its place.

“Purchases are made for the pupils with discretion by one of our most experienced teachers,” continued Tante.

“Glad to hear it,” said her visitor, releasing the glove finger, and pretending to chew the seed, which was not there.

“But I do not need anything, Tante,” interposed Anne, the deep color deepening in her cheeks.

“So much the better,” said her grandaunt, dryly, “since you will have nothing.”

She went away soon afterward somewhat placated, owing to skillful reminiscences of a favorite cousin, who, it seemed, had been one of Tante’s “dearest pupils” in times past; “a true Vanhorn, worthy of her Knickerbocker   blood.”  The word “Neeker-bo-ker,” delicately comprehended, applied, and, what was more important still, limited, was one of Tante’s most telling achievements—a shibboleth. She knew all the Old Dutch names, and remembered their intermarriages; she was acquainted with the peculiar flavor of Huguenot descent; she comprehended the especial aristocracy of Tory families, whose original property had been confiscated by a raw republic under George Washington. Ah! Skillful old Tante, what a general you would have made!

Anne Douglas, the new pupil, was now left to face the school with her island-made gowns, and what courage she could muster.  Fortunately the gowns were black and severely plain.


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