In the lives of all, even the least enterprising or adventurous, moments now and then arrive when a decision has to be made; and our demeanour at such times throws a strong light upon our character. Many of us postpone action, either sheltering behind a natural reluctance to do anything emphatic, or feeling that the Fates ought to arrange our affairs for us. After all, it is their métier.
But my Ben was not like that. My Ben (to give her her full name, Benita Staveley) was instantly practical, and her disapproval of the pastoral process known as letting the grass grow under your feet was intense. All her actions were prompt, without, however, coming within the zone of impulse. Even at twenty-two she envisaged a situation with perfect clearness, and knew her mind; but why I should mention twenty-two as though it were a tender age, I can't explain, except as the result of pure want of thought. To say of a man that he is twenty-two is often merely to accuse him of callowness; but in a woman twenty-two can be maturity in everything but actual physique; and this is especially the case with those who, like Ben, even from young girlhood have been relied upon by father, mother, brothers and sisters to solve their difficulties and make things smooth for them.
Ever since I have known Ben—and her mother and I were playfellows half a century and more ago—she has been a mixture of factotum and oracle, yet without ever for a moment declining into a drudge or losing gaiety. A Cinderella perhaps; but a Cinderella who went to the ball without any supernatural assistance; a Cinderella with a laugh and a retort; a Cinderella who won respect and as much chocolate as she wanted, both from those within the home and out of it. Not a few boxes, for instance, from my own hand.
But there had, as yet, been no glass slipper and no Prince, unless, of course, you count poor Tommy Clinton as one: Tommy, who has been coming home every summer from his billet in Madeira for the past six years with two mastering motives to impel him—one being the wish to carry off something, either in singles or doubles, at Wimbledon, and the other to propose again to Ben—and so far has had no success in either enterprise.
Personally I am glad that she didn't marry Tommy, for he takes his defeats too sweetly, almost indeed as though he preferred them to victories. Such plastic and easy-going youths, although they may be agreeable enough during the time of courtship, and as dancing partners, or even as husbands for a little while, never grow into the sterner stuff that our Bens require, desire and deserve. But girls who have the Atlas habit run, of course, great risks of attracting the men who want to be treated as though they were the world.
Under the circumstances it is a little odd that Ben, save for the punctual, if casual, annual attack of Tommy Clinton, was unpursued; but one has to remember that Colonel Staveley did not like young men about the house. Not that that makes any difference when passion rules, for we know how Love treats locksmiths; but at the time this story opens Ben was heart-free. She might appear indeed to strangers to look like becoming one of those attractive girls who somehow or other seem to be insufficiently attractive ever to marry. But I never thought so. She had, however, no doubt, missed the first matrimonial train, the one that conveys to the altar carriage-loads of immature, high-spirited couples on the edge of the twenties. Other trains come along later, but the service is not so good.