Still in the family, this painting is affectionately entitled "Aunt Rachel offering to help do the washing up."
1. Anthony Townsend - married Nancy Krug: Children: Margaret Townsend
2. David Townsend - married Helen Gaylord: Children: Lila Townsend, Sheila Townsend - married Mark Nimlos: Children - Claire Nimlos, Danika Nimlos
Ernest Stephen Lumsden - "Ernest Stephen Lumsden was born in 1883 in London. He studied at the University College in the art department in Reading and at the Academie Julian in Paris. He taught at Edinburgh College of Art and between travels abroad, he spent the rest of his career in Scotland.
From 1905 to 1935, Lumsden produced 336 plates inspired by his travels to Paris, British Columbia, Korea, China, Burma, Tibet and most prolifically, India. He also produced portraits of some of his contemporaries and etchings of Reading, Ludlow and his home city of Edinburgh.
In 1924, Lumsden wrote the text The Art of Etching, which has taught many subsequent generations of etchers."
(Emily Caroline Kington-Blair-Oliphant of Ardblair, died 1933)
I was blessed with many spinster aunts, five on my father's side and one on my mother's. I also had two great-aunts, and when I was very small, a great-grand-aunt whom I was once taken to see at Brighton. I was impressed by her great age, and felt important. Nobody I knew had a great-grand-aunt nearly a hundred years old. I never saw her again, but I am sometimes reminded of her, for I often wear a ring of dark sapphires which once belonged to her.
My maiden aunt on my mother's side was Emily. Most families can boast of one eccentric. Em was ours.
Handsome in a classic style, she was vain of her looks and especially of her white skin. I never saw her hatless out-of-doors, or without a large parasol on sunny days. Neither did I ever see her normally dressed, but always wearing some fantastic and eye-catching frippery, as unsuitable to the mediaeval castle which was her Scottish home, as to the little house in London where she spent her last years.
In the nineties, it was fashionable for sisters to dress alike, so that Em's peculiar taste in clothes did not become apparent until her sisters married. As the one daughter left at home, her wildest fancies could be indulged, for my grandmother, finding remonstrance useless, took the line of least resistance. The scraps of velvet, the ragged lace, the huge paste necklaces and ear-rings, the high-heeled pale satin shoes, and the picture hats which Em loved and always wore, were a mingled source of amusement and humiliation to her family. She would join the guns at a shooting luncheon wearing a woollen skirt, a pink satin blouse, a lace bolero, several pieces of imitation jewellery, and a pair of diamond-buckled shoes, to the astonishment of the local sportsmen and the other women guests, in their conventional sober tweeds and stout brogues; and many a time have I seen passers-by doing their unsuccessful best to hide their smiles as Em scurried rapidly by. (Her walk was almost a run.) It was embarrassing for children to be seen in public with this extraordinary figure, and yet we all enjoyed her company. She noticed the staring strangers, but thought she was merely arousing admiration, for in her own view, no-one knew how to dress but herself. One of her loyal nephews, aged fifteen, once fought a boy whom he had seen laughing at her in a tea-shop. Em, although surprised by his unexplained violence, remained serenely unaware of its cause.
She never used cosmetics or dyed her untidy white hair, but as she grew older the bits and pieces which covered her gaunt form became even more bizarre, and she designed a series of terrible outfits, beloved by her but dreaded by her relations. We had nicknames for some of them, and before any family wedding we used to hold sweepstakes on what Em would wear for the occasion. There was Toreador, a dashing red cloak with Spanish hat, Baby Mine, high-waisted white muslin with blue ribbons, Sea Caves, pastel chiffon hung with iridescent sea shells and sea weed, and several nameless atrocities in vivid brocade with panels of contrasting sateen.
Em's ideas for dresses were carried out by a village dress-maker in Scotland, but heaven knows what dauntless milliner made her hats. I do know, however, that they would not fit into any normal hat-box, and that she had enormous cardboard boxes especially made for them.
Em's arrival at the railway station on a country-house visit was (my mother used to say) a humbling sight. Besides the large trunks and cardboard boxes, there was a little matter of seven old umbrellas which always accompanied her, and she usually wore a tattered black brocade cloak, long since discarded by my grandmother as being too old for her. Beneath a vast Gainsborough hat, her happy smiling face looked out, and all one's sense of outraged convention was lost in a rush of affection. Even the porters, struggling with her difficult luggage, were her willing slaves before the end of the platform was reached.
For everybody loved Em. No picture of her would be complete which did not make that clear. I never saw her cross or even ruffled, but always sunny and warm-hearted, generous to the point of silliness, and well-bred in the essence of her being. Even in her amazing appearance, that shone out. Mad, a stranger would have said, but a mad aristocrat.
Em's chief interest, after clothes, was in writing. Year after year, she bombarded editors with jejune essays, sentimental stories, and poems which never quite scanned. None was ever accepted, but she scribbled happily on in her large angular handwriting, signing her works with all five of her names in full. In addition, she would enter at least one literary competition every week. Occasionally an extract from her entry would be mockingly quoted, and then she was enchanted at having been noticed. She was never cast down, and continued to the end of her life to think of herself as a writer.
She also considered herself to be a connoisseur of female beauty. It was a harmless enough notion, except that she loyally fancied her nieces to be lovely beyond compare. This nonsense embarrassed and exasperated us all, especially as she took the view that no men were good enough for us, and our perfectly suitable engagements were greeted by a disappointed sigh. My mother told me that Em had been even worse in her youth, holding that nobody was a grand enough match for her brilliant sisters, and saying so to anyone who would listen. Her two brothers-in-law had consequently a good deal to forgive. She forgot her disapproval, however, when babies came along. Em loved children (though her affection took the form, so dreaded by nannies, of over-feeding and over-exciting them) and she gradually became reconciled to the fact that their fathers were neither Royal nor even ducal.
After my grandmother's death, Em left Scotland and went to live in London. At first she found a haven in an obscure boarding-house (my Zoo, she called it) where she made friends with a number of elderly oddities. "It's a shame," I remember her saying, "there is a dear old lady in my Zoo whose selfish daughter never takes her out anywhere. I shall take her to luncheon in a nice restaurant," and she did, but only once, because in the middle of the meal the excited old lady suddenly gave an eldritch shriek and tore off all her clothes. "Still, she enjoyed her treat," said Em blandly afterwards.
Later Em took a charming little Mews cottage in Belgravia. She would never allow anyone into her bedroom, which was piled to the ceiling with old newspapers, hatboxes, manuscripts, and dust, but the rest of the house was perfunctorily cleaned by a series of disreputable women who were experts at getting money out of her. Here she lived in the way she really enjoyed, turning night into day. She stayed in bed through most of the daylight hours, and, getting up in the evenings, she would trot off to a restaurant and then to a late cinema, returning to read or write till dawn. It was disconcerting to have a daytime engagement with Em, for she almost always fell asleep, and one hostess, I remember, after Em had dozed and nodded throughout a tea-party, bade her farewell with a grim smile and the words: "Goodbye, Emily, I do hope you'll have a good night."
Most film actors were grist to Em's romantic mill, but one star outshone all the rest. It was Rudolph Valentino. We all felt that the adoration of this ageing woman for the young actor was too pathetic to be amusing, but when after his death Em somehow acquired his Cossack hat and wore it all over London, our mortification overcame our sense of pity. We would have preferred the Gainsborough creations, but there was no holding Em; she worshipped him, she worshipped his hat, and we had to put up with it. After all, we had been used all our lives to seeing Em in Fancy Dress.
One of her favourite occupations in London was attending the weddings of perfect strangers and afterwards denigrating the dresses, but her happiest outings were to watch Royal processions. She would somehow manage to keep awake for these, and would always contrive to have an excellent view. One of her nephews, a young officer in the Guards, said that he never took part in any ceremony without wondering if he would see Em on the top of a lamp-post. What with weddings, processions, and cinemas, her life in London was full of interest, and I am certain that it completely satisfied her.
Em had a comfortable fortune, but no money sense at all, and as the years went on, her capital dwindled in a way that would have alarmed anyone less blithe than she. Her sisters found that giving her money was useless (my mother discovered that Em was supporting, among other beggars, the lover of her last charwoman but two) and that the only way to ensure her comfort was to pay the landlord and the grocer direct. For years her little house had become a magnet for spongers and idlers, and when she died she was very nearly penniless. She was ill for months, but she never complained, and with incredible pluck and spirit she went gamely to her end.
I never knew what became of the Cossack hat.
THE MAXTONE GRAHAMS OF CULTOQUHEY
(Mary Scott Maxtone, 1822-1909)
My unmarried aunts on my father's side, Zina, Madge, Carrie, Bessie and Georgie, were not picturesque like Em. They were amusing and original, but not eccentrics. There was a wide contrast between their home life and the gay confident happiness of my mother's background. The shadow of their intolerant and intolerable Papa fell heavily across their youth; what they did have in common with Em and her sisters was humour, good spirits, and warm hearts .
They were a Victorian family of eight brothers and sisters, living in a Scottish country-house where we spent much of our early childhood. Their devotion to their nieces and nephews is a happy and lasting memory for us.
There was also another spinster living in the house, my grand-father's sister Mary.
Molly, my aunts called her. She was a good deal of a trial to these nieces of hers, who would not have chosen her as an intimate of their home; but, having been invited by my grand-mother for a fortnight's stay, she calmly remained for sixteen years till, with the death of my grandfather, the old life came to an end.
He never spoke to her during this time. "I gave up my sister Mary," he said, "the day she borrowed the cook's bonnet to go to church because it was raining."
But Molly was quite unmoved by the surly disapproval of her host. She was a great hand at economising, to put it mildly, and it was naturally a considerable saving to be housed and fed at his expense, quite worth any snubs she might be called upon to endure.
Molly was very deaf, and extremely touchy. If she had not heard some family joke, she would insist on its being repeated again and again till she grasped it, when she would look unamused and affronted. Reading a letter one morning, one of my aunts smiled. "What are you smiling at?" asked Molly sharply.
"Well, Molly, its only that Mrs 0 (a country neighbour) writes that she sent the carriage to represent her at Lord R's funeral, 'and sent the footman too, to lend dignity to the occasion,' and I thought that was rather funny."
"Lendignity? What's lendignity?"
"LEND DIGNITY, Molly."
"Lendignity? I never heard the word before. What can you possible mean by lendignity?"
At this my aunt smiled, and Molly said furiously: "The Bible says, Curse not the deaf!"
Another day, when the famous Tranby Croft baccarat scandal was being discussed, Molly asked, "What's all this barrow cat?"
"It's a game, Molly.
"I want to play it. Why can we not play barrow cat?" She went on beseeching my aunts to play it with her, till finally one of them said: "Well, Molly, you see you have got to get a barrow and a cat before you can begin." This satisfied her. She quite saw that it was going to be a difficult game for the drawing-room, and she reluctantly abandoned the idea.
Molly was always on the look-out for slights, and nothing annoyed her more than to hear of plans for an expedition in which she had not been included. She would fret and look injured and make herself such a nuisance that my aunts would eventually weaken and take her with them, which as she was rather lame and very demanding, often spoiled the day. She did not always enjoy these occasions and had no scruples about voicing her complaints. But sometimes she was quite cheerful and was not above making a ribald joke or two, most surprising, coming from her. When she was in a good mood, she enjoyed shocking my aunts, who always played up and pretended to be appalled by her levity.
One summer Molly took a determined fancy to drive in the public wagonette to a local beauty-spot called Amulree. Nobody wanted to go with her, but she wouldn't go alone, and she nagged and made everyone's life miserable, so that eventually my aunt Carrie good-naturedly consented to accompany her. "But, Molly," she said, "I won't go unless you promise to reserve the box seats in the wagonette. I can't face driving all those miles stuffed in with a lot of hot people at the back."
Molly promised, and when Carrie enquired later, merely said with dignity: "Everything is satisfactorily arranged, Carrie," and would say no more.
The day of the excursion was hot and sultry, and when aunt and niece reached the wagonette the box seats were already occupied. Not till then did Molly confess that she had only been able to reserve two seats at the back. It is the measure of Carries kindness that she did not then and there march home. Instead, she followed Molly into the overcrowded vehicle among the perspiring passengers, and somehow endured the long drive, mostly uphill, to Amulree. Arrived there, the thunder broke, the rain poured in torrents, and every conceivable mishap and annoyance followed. It was late before the weary travellers reached home, and Molly, who had been looking huffy for several hours, summed up the day by saying crossly: "Well, Carrie, I'm cured of Amulree."
Molly could never see her nieces starting for a walk without insisting on going too. As they were vigorous walkers and she was lame, they would try every method of politely circumventing her, and on one occasion were pushed into playing a slightly unkind trick on her. After pottering along for half a mile, my aunt Bessie suddenly said: "We're going to have a game now, Molly, do you want to play?"
"Certainly I want to play, said Molly.
"Very well, then. You see the oak tree at the bottom of that field? We will all be blindfolded and turn round three times, and then all try to reach the tree, and whoever touches it first has won the game." Her sisters listened open-mouthed, but Molly trustfully submitted to being blindfolded, was turned round three times, and told to start. Off she wandered, groping her way towards the tree, while her nieces, led by Bessie, went for a brisk five-mile walk in the opposite direction. It was quite a long time before Molly discovered that she was alone. Oddly enough, she took it quite nicely. One could never tell, with Molly. Once when Carrie and Bessie were small children, they raided Molly's laundry-basket and ran all over the house dressed in her tatty old combinations. Molly was enraged and said severely: "I like fun, but I don't like impiddence." (My great-aunt belonged to the last generation of Highland gentry who spoke with a distinct Scottish accent). It was hard to tell where fun ended and impudence began, where Molly was concerned; she was unpredictable.
The next time Molly was left alone it was not done for a joke. One night the family was at dinner when a raw young footman burst into the dining-room and spluttered: "The mansion-hoose is on fire!" With one accord all the diners rushed out of the room and upstairs, where they passed buckets of water from hand to hand till the fire was under control. All, that is to say, except Molly. She had not heard the footman's announcement, and her head being happily bent over her food, she didn't at first notice that everyone else had left the room. When she looked up she naturally supposed that some trick was being played on her, and her indignation knew no bounds. Even when she learned the truth, she still seemed bitterly offended.
It would be unfair to give the impression that my aunts teased Molly unduly. On the contrary, they were extremely kind, patient and unselfish to her, only now and then her exigence became a little too much for them. She was an incensing guest, and it says much for my aunts and for my sweet-tempered grand-mother that Molly was not firmly ejected from their home.
Molly had an old lady friend who once invited her for a fortnight's holiday, anywhere that Molly chose.
"How lovely for you, Molly!" cried my aunts. "And where will you go? Paris? Switzerland? The Italian Lakes?" But Molly would only say that she hadn't decided.
At last she announced that the plans were fixed. She and her friend had taken lodgings in Crieff, about three miles away. The advantage of this idea became apparent when on every day of the holiday, Molly and her friend appeared for luncheon, a decided financial gain for them.
However, one day hospitality was returned, and my aunts were invited to tea at the lodgings. "We cursed," Carrie told me, "but we went." Tea was ready, with scones and bread, and several pots of jam, which my aunts, with secret delight, recognised as having come from home. (It transpired later that the two old ladies on their daily visits had raided the stillroom and taken back anything they fancied to their lodgings.) As tea went on and the scones began to disappear, Molly was heard to whisper hoarsely to the maid: "Get the buns! The buns on approval I They're under my bed." Molly was not one to risk an outright expenditure if it could be safeguarded.
The holiday over, she returned home. It had not been much of a rest for her nieces.
Molly's thrift was a constant amusement. When she lost her gold watch, she was persuaded to advertise for it, but she described it as "a watch with a yellow face'', fearing that if the word gold were mentioned, a more generous reward would be expected. Once, however, she did become conscious that parsimony could be overdone. A great friend of the family was to be married, and Molly's gift to the bride was a particularly cheap and nasty little pepperpot. When she saw it, her card beside it, among all the handsome presents at the wedding reception, it dawned on her that this time she had really gone too far. Beneath a masterly sweep of her cloak she abstracted her meagre contribution and her card, and took them away in her pocket. No doubt she later returned the pepperpot to the shop and was reimbursed for it, but honour had been saved at the wedding.
When the family broke up, Molly bought a house in the suburbs of Edinburgh, and retired there with Zina, her oldest niece. ''You're none of you nice enough to poor Zina," she would scold the younger ones. "Zina's pure gold." Perhaps she had never taken a thoughtful look at Zina's protruding chin and the gleam of power-mania behind the pince-nez. But alas, when she and Zina set up house together, she soon discovered that Zina, freed from her autocratic father, was a dictator herself; and so Molly's last years, smothered in shawls and harried perpetually "for her own good", were not very happy ones. She struggled forlornly against the tyranny of over-kindness, but old Molly had met her Waterloo at last.
Her chief consolation was her tame bullfinch, Bully, whom she taught, to our fascinated disgust, to take hempseed off her tongue. One night Bully died and was secretly replaced next morning by another bullfinch. Molly didn't realise this, and said in surprise, "Bully's rather wild this morning," as the unfortunate newcomer fluttered away from her in terror. Eventually he, too, was tamed, and so with others, for an excess of hempseed produced a fairly regular mortality -- though we of course said it was caused by having to eat off Molly's tongue. She never knew the difference, and merely thought Bully had unaccountable moods of being rather wild."
I hardly remember Molly in her uppish days. I think of her as a crippled old lady in a wheel-chair, helplessly subservient to the domination of her niece. But I have been told that just before she died, Molly's arthritic old hand was with difficulty raised, and in a last gesture of defiance she cocked a snook at "pure gold" Zina.
(Alexina Mary Maxtone Graham, 1852-1912)
Zina was the eldest of the children. In her early years she had been spoiled by her parents (my grandfather must have been less disagreeable in those days), and as she grew older she developed a domineering tendency which drove her sisters to open rebellion. It was all in the guise of loving-kindness, and thus particularly difficult to combat, and one of its worst forms was a constant worry about their health. Unlike most Scots, Zina had a dread of fresh air, and when she was not shutting windows, she was running after her sisters with extra coats and wraps. There was a window at the end of a passage which all the other members of the family automatically flung open as they went by, because it was a fetish with Zina to keep it shut.
She could work herself into a state of senseless alarm at the slightest provocation. One evening she was going up the back stairs, which she seldom used, when she happened to touch the wall. The big kitchen flue went up there, and the wall was warm. Zina's ill-divining soul rushed to the conclusion that the house would shortly go up in flames. She hurried to get a flannel petticoat, dipped it in cold water, and was found an hour later still holding it against the wall, convinced that by this means she was saving the house. In the same way, she thought that by excluding air and forcing unwanted garments on her relations, she was saving them from certain death from pneumonia. In those days, hip-baths were almost universal, but my grandfather took his bath in the one bathroom. Every morning Zina would scuttle in ahead of time and turn on the hot water till the room was full of steam, so that Papa should not feel cold when he made his majestic entry. Naturally the bathroom ceiling, weakened by years of this treatment, eventually fell down, but unfortunately my grandfather was absent at the time.
Zina's interference in matters of health was equalled by her religious nagging. All her sisters were Christians in the very best sense of the word, but Zina roused the devil in them, as she did in the servants, and in us as small children. We were never naughty with our other aunts, and we didn't consciously resent Zina's incessant fussing, taking, as children do, our relations very much for granted; but we were noticeably fiendish in her company.
Church attendance, Sunday strictness, and Family Prayers were some of the scourges she used on her sisters. They thought they had quite enough of this sort of thing from Papa already, and, added to Zina's ceaseless goading about their health, it was more than they were prepared to stand. There were almost no lengths to which they would not go in order to thwart her.
Years after her death I was talking to the old butler, long since retired. He loved to recall the old days, but he told me he could never live through them again. "It was the 8.40 train," he said solemnly. "I could face everything else, but not that." It appears that guests from the south always arrived at 8.40 in the evening, and there being no dining car, they had to be given dinner on arrival. Millar's desire that they should be properly welcomed clashed with Zina's implacable determination that the footmen should attend family prayers at nine-thirty, and a battle royal took place on each and every occasion. Millar always won, but it wore him out, he said.
My clearest recollections of Zina are in Edinburgh when she and her aunt Molly set up house there. We lived in Edinburgh in the winters, and used often to go and see them. Their house was airless and smelt of hot shawls and birdseed, and to play in the small dull garden entailed a frightful argument with Zina on the subject of extra scarves and woolly gloves.
One day the children of a neighbouring clergyman were invited to play in the garden with us. When tea arrived they were given theirs in the chilly greenhouse, while we had ours cosily in the house. Zina thought that they might have been in contact with some disease or other, and that the danger of infecting us would be less if we didn't meet them indoors. Naturally this gave dire offence to their parents, since the children were neither lepers nor in quarantine; and Zina's stock in church circles hit an all-time low, to her great surprise.
With all her fret about physical health, Zina had very little sense of psychological welfare. Taking us home on a tram one day, she fell foul of the conductor. She wouldn't take us on the top because it might be cold. She wouldn't take us inside because it might be stuffy. No, she would only stand with us on the platform where passengers were not allowed, and an acrimonious dispute with the conductor followed. My sister and I, who were small children at the time, watched their angry faces with growing apprehension till at last the worst happened. The tram was stopped, a policeman was summoned, and we were ejected. For years after that I suffered a secret terror of policemen and expected instant arrest whenever I saw one. But I was saved from catching cold or feeling stuffy on the tram.
When our parents were abroad, Zina was in her element, and I have never known how our nurses and governesses endured her interference. Perhaps my mother had imbued them with some of her own amused tolerance, though even this wore thin at times. Once Zina overheard our French governess ejaculate: Mon Dieu". Zina rushed to my mother in a frenzy of holy horror, but she was met with firmness, and Mademoiselle remained with us for years. Zina would hang about outside our dancing-class, and pounce when we emerged with offers of a drive home in a cab. Here again, my mother eventually put her foot down. "Much better for them to walk home in the nice cold air after getting thoroughly overheated at their dancing,'' she said mischievously, and Zina despite a torrent of dismayed protests had to give in.
But my sister and I used sometimes to stay with her and Molly when they went to the country in the summer, and then there would be an orgy of shutting windows, wrapping up warmly, and religious determinism. It never did any good. One night, I remember, we got out of bed, stripped ourselves to the skin, and rushed naked round and round the garden, vainly pursued by our aghast hostess. Later, when we confessed this misdemeanour to our other aunts, they all pealed with delighted laughter. That was the effect poor Zina had. Nobody ever wanted her to win.
After Molly's death, Zina took up volunteer work in a Soldiers' Home. I cannot believe she was well-fitted for this job. The Home was in England, and we saw very little of her in her later years. Her sister Madge became fatally ill in 1912, and the efforts of the entire family were concentrated on keeping Zina away from the bedside, knowing that her agitated presence would be the last straw for Madge. Shortly after Madge died, Georgie had a sudden and alarming illness when Zina unfortunately happened to be with her. Zina's worrying then reached heroic proportions, and in a very short time proved too much for her heart.
I once asked my mother what Zina had died of.
"Fuss" was the unvarnished reply.
(Margaret Graeme Maxtone Graham, 1858-1912)
Madge was the aunt I knew least, although she was always good to us and we were fond of her. She was unique among the sisters because she was the only one who ever had the faintest shadow of a love-affair. Years afterwards, she told my mother about it. It was a most innocent story. The attraction was mutual, but the man was married, and so as a matter of course the romance came to an immediate end. I am sure that not even a kiss passed between them, but Madge never forgot.
Perhaps it was this experience that gave her the courage to break away from home. She went on a visit to friends in England, and from there wrote to her father that she had accepted a position as a paid companion and was not coming back. Everyone thought the skies would fall, but Papa took it quite calmly, and instead of exploding with rage or going into one of his famous fits of sulks, he merely said he was glad that one of his daughters could earn her own living.
So Madge began an independent life. She developed many interests, made a host of new friends, became a Christian Scientist, and when she inherited some money took a pretty flat in London, where we loved to go and stay.
Visits to her were an exciting treat. She was generous and imaginative with children, though perhaps it was a mistake to take me to see '"The Only Way", for I cried so much at Sidney
Carton's sacrifice that I couldn't see, and had to be led out of the theatre at the end. But she was also responsible for introducing me to the Ballet, a lasting joy for which I shall always bless her.
Madge was in a sense less real to us than the aunts who remained in Scotland, but we missed her when she died. Even her appearance is rather a dim memory, though I recall that she was taller than her sisters and that she had the sandy hair and blue eyes so characteristic of the family. I believe that her life in London was very happy. Her sisters had to wait for Papa's death before they could escape from domestic despotism., but Madge struck her blow for freedom when she still had some youth left, and I am sure she never regretted it.
We wore black for her and Zina. Owing to our youth we had only been allowed to wear mauve for King Edward VII, two years before, so this was an important advance for us.
I wish I had known Madge better: the only aunt who flung Victorian tradition to the winds, changed her religion, earned her living, and got away from Papa.
(Elizabeth Christina Maxtone Graham, 1861-1924)
Carrie and Bessie were a separate unit when I was small. They were born within a year of each other, and I never knew sisters so devoted.
Bessie was the sister everybody wanted, and the nearest they ever came to family disputes was -- to her distress -- about her. Brothers and sisters alike adored her, and each wanted to be the centre of Bessie's world.
Bessie herself only wanted peace. She had the sunniest nature of all of them, together with an impishness which was our greatest delight as children. Her jokes were unexpected, her flashes of humour sudden and irreverent, and it was impossible for anyone to be cross or moody in her presence. She could sometimes even get round her father, so irresistible was her charm. When they were all young, my grandfather would suddenly break the gloomy meal-time silence with a disconcerting attempt at social training.
"Bessie," he commanded one day, "Make a remark." The terrified child, her eyes fixed on Papa's stern countenance, stammered at random, "I s-s-see a d-donkey. But because it was Bessie, my grandfather only laughed.
Bessie's was the eye which we always caught when anything ludicrous happened, and it was always Bessie who on solemn occasions reduced us to uncontrollable laughter with some frivolous whisper. Once she was staying with an old friend whose husband had just died, and I was taken by Georgie to pay a visit of condolence on the widow. The atmosphere was one of total gloom, I was young and embarrassed, and I sat in awe-struck silence till Bessie turned to me, winked, and murmured: "The very minute you and Georgie have gone, we're going upstairs to count his pants." I became scarlet with suppressed giggles, but Bessie remained perfectly grave, and my poor hostess must have thought I had suddenly gone mad. Bessie was unable to resist this sort of teasing.
A great deal of joy went out of the family when Bessie died. She was buried in the little hill-side cemetery at Fowlis Wester where her ancestors have lain for nearly six centuries. It was a day of deep sadness for us all, unrelieved until my father asked the ancient grave-digger where he had prepared the grave.
"Och," he answered matter-of-factly; "Ah've jist pit her in on the top o' John'' -- Great-Uncle John having been buried so long before that his coffin had conveniently sunk. Bessie would have loved that.
I can still see her mischievous face and hear across the years the echo of her irrepressible laughter.
After she went, nothing was ever quite such fun again. She was in her middle sixties, but whatever her age, one would always have felt that Bessie had died young.
(Marjory Georgina Ramsay Maxtone Graham, 1871-1935)
Georgie's advent must have been a shock to my grandmother, who was fifty-two when the new baby arrived, eight years after the previous one, but Georgie benefited greatly by this circumstance. She was spoilt by them all, and there being no sisters of schoolroom age, she was even sent to school, instead of being educated by governesses at home.
Georgie's ambition was to be like a man. She loved outdoor life, fishing and gardening, and she was a keen carpenter. My father also taught her to shoot, but my grandfather found out and forbade it at once. Her sisters, however, managed to persuade Papa to allow her a few other pleasures, and friends took her to balls and parties now and then. None of the sisters except Madge had any real freedom, for they were dependent on their father for every penny, but Georgie had a more normal youth and was perhaps less afraid of him in consequence.
After his death, Carrie, Bessie and Georgie set up house together, and their little home in the country became a delightful centre for friends and young relations. Georgie, in spite of a brusque manner, was just as kindly as the others, and, like them, she loved and understood children. She was tweedy and hearty, and used to take us out fishing and driving, and to explore the neighbouring farms; and she could be excellent company.
All her life, Georgie had resented her sister Zina's attempts to manage her, and was especially critical of the way in which old Molly was kept under her niece's thumb. One of my uncles, Robert, had emigrated to California (and oh, how his eldest sister fussed over him from six thousand miles away), and a time came when Zina and Bessie took the adventurous step of going out to see him, while Georgie volunteered to take care of Molly in the Edinburgh house.
Molly's battle-cry for years had been: "Oh if I could just get a tea-spoonful of fresh air!" So Georgie's first act was to remove some of the superfluous shawls and open a window. The result was that the old lady immediately developed pleurisy and nearly died. Georgie had been hearty once too often.
After some years of sharing a home, Carrie went away to devote herself to good works in Perth. Bessie and Georgie remained in the country, where their comfortable little house with its charming garden continued to be a much-loved haven for us. This was quite certainly the happiest period of Georgie's life. After Bessie's death she lived there alone, but with absolutely no wish to survive. Bessie had been her whole life, emotionally speaking, and although she filled her days with friends and occupations, and was interested in our marriages and fond of our children, we realised that she was only marking time. After about eleven years, she developed an incurable disease. She knew it, and we knew it too. I went to say goodbye to her before going abroad with my husband, and found her at the top of a high ladder, vigorously hammering at a loose slate on the roof. She climbed down, gave me some tea, joked, laughed, told stories, criticised, argued and interrupted in her characteristic way. She didn't mention her illness except to say briefly that the treatment prescribed for her was "a lot of rot-tot" (a favourite expression of hers), and she then changed the subject.
I am sure that as soon as I had gone, she climbed up the ladder again; there was nothing of the chaise-longue invalid about the indomitable Georgie.
Soon afterwards her condition deteriorated and she thankfully departed, saying with almost her last breath: "I shall see Bessie tomorrow."
(Caroline Leonora Maxtone Graham, 1860-1941)
Carrie survived all her brothers and sisters. She lived until 1941, when she was over eighty, and became to our eleven children much what she had been to us -- the aunt who was utterly to be trusted, an inexhaustible fund of patience and affection, and the best teller of tales in a family noted for good story-telling. When we were little, these took the form of serial stories which went on for years; later she would tell us true stories, mostly about the family, and it is because she never wrote them down that I am trying to put some on paper now, before they are all forgotten.
It was from Carrie that we got a description of our great-aunt Alexina who lived in a villa in Crieff. I can dimly remember sitting on her knee while she sang "There was a Froggy Lived in a Well", and "Friskin was a Soldier"; and my sister remembers how Aunt Alexina's cook used to make a vast rice pudding every Monday which lasted for the whole week -- a dreadful fact which would naturally impress itself upon a child -- but it is to Carrie that we owe some other glimpses of Aunt Alexina. She seems to have been a lively old lady, much gayer than her sister Molly, and in spite of bad health never plaintive or discontented. Conventions do not appear to have troubled her, and our favourite story was how Aunt Alexina, armed with a large black silk bag, used to pursue horses through the streets of Crieff to collect manure for her garden, till her horrified brother somehow put a stop to this thrifty proceeding. Altogether, I think Aunt Alexina must have been great fun, and she was a never-failing amusement to my aunts. She died in 1903, aged about 77, unmarried like her sister Molly.
It was difficult for Carrie to give a true picture of the life at home. She would talk freely of my grandmother, whose children all greatly loved her, but Carrie's family loyalty was such that she could not bring herself to be candid about her father. My mother being only a daughter-in-law had fewer scruples, and it was chiefly from her that we got our later impressions of the old gentleman. To us as children he was merely kind old Grandpapa, of whom we stood in no awe whatever, but to his wife and his own children he was the Man of Wrath personified. He stands out first and foremost as a killjoy, though he could be genial enough when he liked, and he was an excellent host and a devoted grandfather. Though always severe, he was rather less unkind to his children when they were small, and on one occasion went so far as to buy new hats for the little girls. But he insisted that the eldest girl should have the largest hat, the second daughter the next size, and so down the line. It happened that Zina had a small head, Madge a large one, but Zina was forced to extinguish her face in the biggest hat, while Madge's was perched depressingly on the top of her head. The younger children fared no better, for all the sizes were wrong, but neither my grandmother's timid protests nor the deplorable appearance of the children induced him to allow any exchange. Eldest child, largest hat, and so on. Papa had so decreed. It was the sort of petty tyranny that so signally failed to endear him to his family, and it continued all his life.
When Papa was in one of his frequent black moods, everyone lived under a cloud of apprehension, tip-toeing past his sitting room and talking in whispers, but nothing could permanently dampen the cheerful spirits of my aunts, who were always adepts at making the best of things.
Almost the worst feature of their youth, to modern eyes, was the total lack of vital occupation. Each daughter in turn took on the household management for two months at a time, but as there were sixteen indoor servants and an excellent housekeeper, this could not be called arduous. Each daughter took turns to arrange the flowers. Each daughter took turns to visit the tenants in the farms and villages, striving with complete non-success to reform the local drunkards by means of gentle talks, religious pamphlets, and strong peppermints. (Once my mother felt it her duty to have a try. She presented a tipsy beldame called Mrs. Spens with a bottle of ginger wine, mistakenly supposing it to be non-alcoholic, and extracted a promise that Mrs. Spens would substitute it for whisky when "the craving" came on. The ginger wine being largely composed of brandy, Mrs. Spens was shortly to be seen reeling down the village street, waving an empty bottle and yelling that Mrs. Maxtone Graham had given it to her. My aunts loved teasing my mother with this story.)
Of creative or intellectual occupation there was none. The house was isolated, there were few near neighbours, and although visitors came and went and my aunts occasionally went away to stay with friends, there were long periods of utter dullness. My grandfather sold the horses (on the grounds that he had over-spent himself in building larger stables), and all expeditions had to be on foot. He never went anywhere himself, so that it made no difference to him, but for my grandmother and aunts it was a very real -- and quite unnecessary -- deprivation. They could go nowhere beyond walking distance. On their return from a walk, my grandmother would ask her daughters: "Did you meet anyone you know? No? Or did you see anyone? Not a soul?... Any carts?" For even meeting a farm cart made a break in the monotony. In spite of all this, the home was somehow never dreary, thanks to my aunts lively spirits and humour. My mother, who was devoted to her sisters-in-law, told me that even in the most difficult times they never grumbled, self-pity was unknown to them; and they could even make Papa's vagaries seem funny. They were not only good-tempered, but good.
When my grandmother died, in 1898, she left all her money to her daughters. This caused my grandfather intense annoyance, and he stopped their miserable allowances at once; but even so, they were better off than before, and had certainly gained a small measure of independence. The first thing they did with their own money was to buy bicycles. Middle-aged women though they were, they felt obliged to get Papa's permission to do so. Coaxed by Bessie, he consented, not realising that to his daughters, bicycles would be as wings. Life was never so impossible after that, for they pedalled their way to comparative freedom.
When Carrie used to tell us about the old days, she only recounted the amusing side. I believe it was all she would allow herself to remember. But Bessie was completely frank, and it is owing to her as well as to my mother that we have a more complete picture of the family life.
Most of Carrie's later years were dedicated to good works, and for a long time she lived in a mission-house in Perth. Her gifts of sympathy made her beloved among those she tried to help, and on the whole she had the happiest and certainly the most useful life of the five sisters. Though she was in constant contact with the roughest of the slum element, she never lost a sort of starry innocence which we loved, although it made us laugh.
There was, for instance, the story of Thompson.
By this time Carrie had acquired a small house of her own in Perth, and it was here that her cook, in spiteful triumph, informed her that Thompson, her lady's-maid, was eight months advanced in pregnancy, a fact which had escaped her employer's notice.
One of Carrie's weaknesses was an almost pathological shrinking from matters of sex, and her dismay was not lessened by the fact that Thompson was a great lump of over forty, who ought to have known better.
Carrie immediately made suitable arrangements for Thompson's care, but she could hardly bear to look at her. However, Thompson knew her lady, and she played for sympathy most successfully, as my sister and I discovered that afternoon when we answered Carrie's agitated summons. Her round face was pale and her voice shaky as she told us: "It was a case of assault. Poor Thompson!"
Assault? We gave each other a cynical glance, ''What did she tell you, Aunt Car?"
"I questioned her, said our aunt, ''and she said it happened one evening as she was walking down Balhousie Avenue."
"Balhousie Avenue? we repeated. ''Brightly lit, houses all the way, a few yards from home -- why, all Thompson had to do was to give one scream, and twenty heads would have been out of windows. So what else did she say?"
I asked her," said Aunt Car, "what she did after the assault took place, and she said: 'Please, M'm, I went to the pictures'."
"Now, Aunt Car,'" we said firmly, "we are married women, and we assure you that if Thompson, a virtuous female, had just been forcibly attacked and criminally assaulted in the street, she would not have spent the rest of the evening at the cinema. So go on, what then?
"I asked her," said Aunt Car, ''if she knew who the man was, and she said yes, she did, and I asked her if she had ever seen him since, and she said yes, she had sometimes met him by chance, 'but we never speak, we just bow'.
At this, my sister and I were dissolved in helpless laughter, and pretty soon we had beloved Aunt Car laughing too. Later we often used to make her tell the story of Thompson's rape, and it became a favourite tale in the family.
It was sad for Carrie to be the last survivor of the eight brothers and sisters, but her life being entirely devoted to helping other people, her private sorrows never overwhelmed her.
There was always somebody who needed her, whose troubles were worse than her own, who craved and received her friendship and understanding. She took a great interest in the new generation, and it was happiness for us to see the pattern repeating itself -- our children listening entranced to Aunt Car's serial stories, and her tenderness enfolding them.
Watching my aunts Carrie, Bessie and Georgie with young creatures made me wonder over and over again why love and marriage had so completely passed them by. They were not pretty, but they were delightful company, and possessed of quick wits and loving hearts. Bessie would have made an ideal wife, Carrie a wonderful mother, and Georgie a loyal and devoted companion. They always said that they were quite content as they were, but when our engagements were announced, their pleasure was touching. I think they felt they had missed something important in life, and because they loved us, they didn't want us to miss it too.
Carrie, so gentle and unaggressive, so remote from violence in every way, nevertheless met a violent end. She had been getting increasingly blind, and one evening during the war when she was on her way to church, she was knocked down by an Army lorry. She never recovered consciousness, and died that night. We miss her still.
To our spinster aunts and great-aunts we owe the memory of interest that never flagged, of affection that never failed, and of an infinity of jokes and fun. One way and another, they greatly enriched our lives. I like to think that we contributed something to theirs.
Lately my sister and I were playing with our great-nieces when she suddenly said: "Do you realise that we are, so to speak, Molly and Alexina to these children?"
But I am afraid that we shall never become so funny and dear a legend, for everyone is standardised nowadays, and we never fed bullfinches off our tongues, ordered buns on approval, or chased horses through the streets for their droppings.