The Merry-Go-Roundby William Somerset Maugham
ALL her life Miss Elizabeth Dwarris had been a sore trial to her relations. A woman of means, she ruled tyrannously over a large number of impecunious cousins, using her bank balance like the scorpions of Rehoboam to chastise them; and, like many another pious creature, for their souls' good making all and
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An excerpt from the beginning of Part I, Chapter I:
ALL her life Miss Elizabeth Dwarris had been a sore trial to her relations. A woman of means, she ruled tyrannously over a large number of impecunious cousins, using her bank balance like the scorpions of Rehoboam to chastise them; and, like many another pious creature, for their souls' good making all and sundry excessively miserable. Nurtured in the Evangelical ways current in her youth, she insisted that her connections should seek salvation according to her own lights, and with harsh tongue and bitter gibe made it her constant business to persuade them of their extreme unworthiness. She arranged lives as she thought fit, and ventured not only to order the costume and habits, but even the inner thought, of those about her; the Last Judgment could have no terrors for any that had faced her searching examination. She invited to stay with her in succession various poor ladies who presumed on a distant tie to call her Aunt Eliza, and they accepted her summons, more imperious than a royal command, with gratitude by no means unmixed with fear, bearing the servitude meekly as a cross which in the future would meet due testamentary reward.
Miss Dwarris loved to feel her power. During these long visits—for in a way the old lady was very hospitable—she made it her especial object to break the spirit of her guests, and it entertained her hugely to see the mildness with which were borne her extravagant demands, the humility with which every inclination was crushed. She took a malicious pleasure in publicly affronting persons, ostensibly to bend a sinful pride, or in obliging them to do things which they peculiarly disliked. With a singular quickness for discovering the points on which they were most sensitive, she attacked every weakness with blunt invective till the sufferer writhed before her raw and bleeding; no defect, physical or mental, was protected from her raillery, and she could pardon as little an excess of avoirdupois as a want of memory. Yet with all her heart she despised her victims, she flung in their face insolently their mercenary spirit, vowing that she would never leave a penny to such a pack of weak fools; it delighted her to ask for advice in the distribution of her property among charitable societies, and she heard with unconcealed hilarity their unwilling and confused suggestions. .
With one of her relations only Miss Dwarris found it needful to observe a certain restraint—for Miss Ley, perhaps the most distant of her cousins, was as plain-spoken as herself, and had besides a far keener wit, whereby she could turn rash statements to the utter ridicule of the speaker. Nor did Miss Dwarris precisely dislike this independent spirit; she looked upon her, in fact, with a certain degree of affection and not a little fear. Miss Ley, seldom lacking a repartee, appeared really to enjoy the verbal contests, from which, by her greater urbanity, readiness, and knowledge, she usually emerged victorious; it confounded, but at the same time almost amused, the elder lady that a woman so much poorer than herself, with no smaller claim than others to the coveted inheritance, should venture not only to be facetious at her expense, but even to carry war into her very camp. Miss Ley, really not grieved to find someone to whom without prickings of conscience she could speak her whole mind, took a grim pleasure in pointing out to her cousin the poor logic of her observations or the foolish unreason of her acts. No cherished opinion of Miss Dwarris was safe from satire; even her Evangelicism was laughed at, and the rich old woman, unused to argument, was easily driven to self-contradiction; and then—for the victor took no pains to conceal her triumph—she grew pale and speechless with rage. The quarrels were frequent, but Miss Dwarris, though it was a sharp thorn in her flesh that the first advances must be made by her, in the end always forgave. Yet at last it was inevitable that a final breach should occur. The cause thereof, characteristically enough, was very trivial.
Miss Ley, accustomed when she went abroad for the winter to let her little flat in Chelsea, had been obliged by unforeseen circumstances to return to England while her tenants were still in possession, and had asked Miss Dwarris whether she might stay with her in Old Queen Street. The old tyrant, much as she hated her relatives, hated still more to live alone; she needed someone on whom to vent her temper, and through the illness of a niece, due to spend March and April with her, had been forced to pass a month of solitude. She wrote back, in the peremptory fashion which even with Miss Ley she could not refrain from using, that she expected her on such and such a day by such and such a train. It is not clear whether there was in the letter anything to excite in Miss Ley a contradictory spirit,...
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