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The Following Past

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The pounding at the door made even Aunt Emma start. She got to her feet at once, standing up from the chaise where she had been sitting reading over Mary's translation of the Beatitudes. Mary looked up at her, confused. She couldn't think of anyone that would be coming, and certainly not pounding at the door like that. Aunt Emma's friends were very restrained -

Then she heard, "Mother! Mother, open this door!" Her mouth dropped open a little. It was in shock.

Aunt Emma went shockingly pale. She pressed her lips together and sat back down. She said, "Attend your reading, Mary." She said it in the voice that meant she couldn't rely on herself to explain without losing her composure. She had explained that to Mary explicitly, once, when Mary had been dreadfully afraid she had angered her aunt and could not think why, only to find that the letter Aunt Emma had just read had told her of the death of a friend from a fever.

Even knowing, however, she could not stop herself from asking, "You aren't going to answer?"

"No," Aunt Emma said, in the same voice. "Your reading, Mary."

The pounding did not stop, not for long. There was pounding and more shouting, a man's voice shouting for his mother. Then the same voice shouting threats, and names, and all the while Aunt Emma sat with a pale face and read Mary's translation, or at least stared at it.

Mary tried to read. It did not do much good.

At last, the noise stopped.

Aunt Emma was very understanding of Mary's distraction for the rest of the lesson period.

*****

At dinner, though, she could not keep from asking, "Aunt, the man at the door - "

"Peter," she said. "One of my sons." She kept her eyes mostly on her dinner. Mary thought perhaps she shouldn't ask, but she couldn't help her curiousity, and Aunt Emma had said that if she ever had questions -

She tried to be oblique, as best she knew how, and asked, "What might he have wanted?" Now Aunt Emma looked up at her, with another one of those expressions that was too complex for Mary to understand all of.

"Money," she said. She went back to her soup, adopting some small amount more briskness as she reached for the bread and tore a piece in half. "That is what my sons have usually wanted of me. They can't get very much - your father and I have arranged that, quite carefully. But sometimes I give them what I have in the house."

Mary reached for the next question, and found too many, and found herself lost. She looked at her aunt, who suddenly looked so very sad, and said, "Aunt, I don't understand?" She turned it up at the end, trying to soften it, perhaps. Make it a question. She found herself kicking her feet, nervous.

"Don't swing your legs, dear," her aunt chided. Then she sighed. "Your uncle bequeathed some unsavoury habits to our sons," she said, her hands paused on her spoon and on the table. "I . . . did not do enough to discourage it, it seems. It caused some very great trouble, before your father gave me his help, and now I do not see them often. Peter must be in quite a lot of trouble, if he has use for what little I could give him."

Her aunt was sad - grieved. That was the right word. Grieved. Mary looked at her and thought the life of a grown woman was so full of confusion. And she thought it abhominable that a son should treat his mother so. And she thought -

Then she opened her mouth with the thought like a very silly girl and asked, "Did you not let him in because I was there?" and wished she hadn't. Aunt Emma went white again, and then her cheeks went red, and Mary clapped her hands over her mouth in regret.

Aunt Emma's face softened, then, and she said, "Yes, dear. But don't speak before you think."

*****

Mary was in her nightgown and had said her prayers, and still hadn't decided if she would do what she had thought of. But in the end, she stood on tip-toe and took the volume of Mr Blake's poetry in both hands. She carried it with her to Aunt Emma's room.

She had thought of many ways to say this, to ask politely if Aunt Emma might read to her, or perhaps to suggest they read together, or something. In the end, what happened was she stood in the doorway, and Aunt Emma looked up, and just held out her arms.

Except instead of taking the book, she gathered Mary up into her lap instead, and held her very tightly. "Promise me," she said, in a tight, strange voice. "Promise me you'll learn, and be careful. Promise me that you will never make yourself beholden to any man who isn't worthy of you, who won't - " but her voice was shaking and Mary was a little frightened.

And angry, she found. Very very angry. But she couldn't think at whom.

"I promise," she said, working her arms around her aunt's neck, making her stop. "I promise, Aunt Emma, I promise."

It was still some time before Aunt Emma let her go.