ONE of the things I often did ... was to go and stay with my aunt by marriage, Lady Ritchie, who was Thackeray's daughter.
I can see her at this moment, beautifully fresh in her lace cap, coming down the staircase of her London house in the morning after breakfast, with a few pages of manuscript fluttering in her hand. She would tell me to read it over aloud to her by the dining-room fire, then she would dictate a few alterations, put the charming impressionistic writing into an envelope, and rapidly address it to Messrs. Smith and Elder. After that, there were plans for the day to be made, and then came the unmaking of plans too impulsively undertaken. A letter is swiftly written to a millionairess to say that, alas! after all she had been rash in saying she could join her in a yachting cruise; she did not feel quite equal to it; and she would laugh at herself as she sat by the fire for having thought that she ever could impulsively have accepted anything so unsuitable to herself as going on a yachting cruise and undergoing all the fatigues it would involve, such as conversation in the wind on deck. Then she must give up her sitting for her portrait next day. Her order has been given to an artist whose talent is almost nil, but who must be helped. `He hasn't allowed me to look at my picture yet, but I see him squeezing piles of vermilion on to his palette, and I quite dread it,' and she posts a cheque to the painter.
Very soon after we are whirling away in a little victoria in the morning sunshine. An old lady who has lost her husband must be visited: and all in a moment Aunt Army has alighted in Queen's Gate, and is sitting in a heavy, early Victorian dining-room, under an East India Company member's portrait, among the massive mahogany chairs, encouraging and improving the old lady's spirits. The canary begins to sing....
We drive on to Westminster, and the victoria stops in Dean's Yard. And now Aunt Anny begins to feel nervous and anxious about the `odd little errand' upon which we are going. She has an appointment with the Dean; and he is ready for us: he leads us through his house and on into the Abbey and down into the crypt, and there we find in an alcove Mr. Onslow Ford, the sculptor, and his assistant, and the bust of William Thackeray that has been moved there by them from its niche in Poets' Corner.
The fact is for years, whenever she has been to Westminster Abbey, Aunt Anny has deplored the length of the whiskers on each side of the face of her father's bust. The Italian sculptor, Marachetti, made them too long. They spoil the likeness for her and she has longed to have them clipped, and so at last she has begged Mr. Ford and has implored the Dean to let her have her wish, and have them shortened. So now chip, chip, chip fly the bits under the whitebloused assistant's chisel. Mr. Ford stands by, very cross, for he does not like undoing another sculptor's work, and if the daughter of Thackeray had not happened to be such a charming old lady it is probable she would not have had her way. She laughs; admits that there is something absurd about the commission, but is firm that it shall be carried out; so she talks to him without paying any attention to his crossness, and makes him at last smile as he superintends the work. Finally the bust is flicked over with a cloth, as after a shave, and it is carried up into the nave and back into its own niche, and the silence and dignity of the Abbey receives it again.
Aunt Anny is a little emotional as she gets into the Victoria, smiling at her tears, then weeping again a little at her smiles; she is triumphant, for it has been a great relief to her mind.
From Mary MacCarthy, A Nineteenth-Century Childhood (1924), pp. 85-88.
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