The Daughters of the Late Colonel

by

Katherine Mansfield

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The Daughters of the Late Colonel Summary

Constantia and Josephine Pinner have spent a week making arrangements after their father’s death. Lying in their beds in the same room, Constantia asks Josephine if they should donate their father’s top-hat to the porter. Josephine disagrees, imagining their father’s hat on the porter’s head. The sisters discuss dying their dressing-gowns black and sending letters with the death notice to Ceylon, where their father worked. Constantia frets over a mouse that has entered their bedroom.

Earlier, the sisters discussed allowing Nurse Andrews, who took care of their father, to stay with them for the rest of the week, though they worry that she might expect to be paid for staying on. Constantia and Josephine are anxious about mealtimes with Nurse Andrews, who is “fearful about butter” and lacks table manners. Their maid, Kate, is ill-tempered and difficult, and they dislike ordering her around.

Constantia and Josephine reflect on their father’s last moments alive. He had opened one eye and “glared at them” disapprovingly, which disturbed them. When Mr. Farolles, a clergyman, arrived and asked if “the end was quite peaceful,” the sisters agreed—though they were certain it wasn’t peaceful. Further, the sisters were “terrified” by the idea that Mr. Farolles proposed: “a little Communion,” which they felt they couldn’t undertake in their apartment (which lacks an altar and space for such a ritual).

Constantia and Josephine also feel anxious about their father’s burial, which they believe they have done “without asking his permission.” Josephine weeps, exclaiming that “Father will never forgive us for this—never!”

Finally, the sisters decide to try and organize their father’s things, but they are put off by their father’s room, which is cold and white, its furniture covered. Josephine begins to feel that her father is hiding in the chest of the drawers, “hidden away […] ready to spring,” and she becomes panicked and anxious. In the end, Constantia insists that they “be weak” for once and leave his belongings behind without going through them.

Later on, the sisters discuss sending their father’s broken timepiece to their brother Benny, who works in Ceylon, though this would involve sending it through a “runner”—a native who delivers parcels. They remember Benny on a “verandah,” dressed in colonial garb and positioned next to his wife Hilda, “the unknown sister-in-law.” Josephine decides that it might be “more usual” for their nephew Cyril, Benny’s son, to take the watch. The two remember one of Cyril’s visits before their father’s death. Cyril was impatient to leave, but Constantia and Josephine insisted that he visit with his grandfather, who—clearly senile at that point—harassed his grandson.

Back in the present, Constantia and Josephine wonder whether they should fire Kate or not, speculating that they will no longer need her assistance now that their father is not around to cook for. The sisters know little about cooking, but they are uncertain about trusting Kate: Constantia suspects that Kate looks through their things while they are gone.

The sisters hear a barrel-organ on the street outside, a regular fixture in the neighborhood that used to irritate their father (who would “thump” his walking stick incessantly, to make them rush to ask the organ-grinder to leave). Josephine reflects on their mother, who died when they were young, leaving them with their Aunt Florence, and wonders whether she and Constantia would have married had their mother lived. Yet there had been no suitors, except for a mysterious man at Eastbourne—where they stayed in a boarding-house—who left a note outside of their bedroom that neither sister could decipher.

Constantia thinks back on the life that she and Josephine have spent serving their father, but it feels unreal to her—as it had “happened in a kind of tunnel.” She cannot decide what she wants from the future, and as she begins to express this sentiment to Josephine, her sister interrupts her. Ultimately, however, neither can remember what they wanted to say.