Constantia and Josephine have had one of the busiest weeks of their lives, and when they lie down in bed, their minds keep running, thinking things over. Constantia, lying like a statue and looking at the ceiling, wonders if they should give their father’s top-hat to the porter. Josephine sharply disagrees and asks why Constantia thinks this would be a good idea. Constantia notes that porters often have to go to funerals, and that their porter only has a bowler (and thus would appreciate a top-hat as a gift for being kind to their father).
From the beginning of the story, Constantia and Josephine prove to be highly indecisive, ambivalent characters who cannot act in difficult situations, choosing instead to ruminate over possible choices and bicker among themselves. Though they are now in charge of their own household after their father’s death, they seem hesitant to begin making important decisions about his estate.
Josephine almost laughs thinking of the top-hat on the porter’s head. The last time she laughed in bed with Constantia was years ago, when they would stay awake at night talking. She fights back her laughter and tells herself to “remember,” then informs Constantia that they can decide about the top-hat tomorrow.
Josephine quickly quells her own impulse to laugh about the top hat by reminding herself to “remember” the gravity of the situation at hand: her father’s death. Though the colonel no longer has a physical presence in his daughters’ lives, his influence is strongly felt. Josephine and Constantia have led somber, quiet lives—sacrificing nights of laughter and enjoyment—in his household.
Constantia wonders if they should have their dressing-gowns dyed black to display their mourning. Josephine finds this idea ridiculous, but Constantia thinks it wouldn’t seem right to wear black outside of the house but not inside. Josephine notes that no one sees them in the house, and Constantia replies that Kate and the postman do. Josephine thinks that they will look like black cats in their black gowns and woolly, colorful slippers. She tells Constantia that it won’t be necessary to dye the gowns.
Josephine and Constantia are again unable to decide on the outcome of a simple task—one that also demonstrates their confinement within their own household. Without their father, the sisters have been left to their own devices, though this is hardly liberating. Their lives are now bound up in the business of mourning their father and maintaining his memory. By proposing that she and Josephine dye their dressing-gowns black, Constantia seems to suggest that even their personal, domestic activities have been overshadowed by their father’s death.
Constantia says that they will have to mail the papers with the notices tomorrow to get them delivered to Ceylon. They had had twenty-three letters, and Josephine has replied to all of them, crying each time after writing “We miss our dear father so much.” She could not have faked this grief even if she wanted to. Constantia asks her if she has enough stamps, and Josephine asks her why she would ask about that now, after the letters have been sent.
Constantia and Josephine continue to quibble about inconsequential details related to organizing their father’s funeral. Tellingly, though, Josephine seems to feel profound grief about the loss, though it is unclear whether this grief is related directly to her father’s absence or to her exhaustion from the tasks she has been forced to handle after his death (such as writing twenty-three repetitive letters). Moreover, it is clear that the sisters’ extended family and community is fragmented and geographically removed: all of the letters they are sending (about the colonel’s death) are directed to Ceylon, a British colony.
Constantia hears what she thinks is a mouse, but Josephine disagrees, declaring that it can’t be a mouse since there aren’t any crumbs in their room. Constantia insists that the mouse might be searching for crumbs, and she feels pity for the creature, thinking about how terrible it would be for it to find nothing. Constantia wonders how mice can live at all while constantly foraging, and Josephine criticizes her for talking about nonsense. The sisters go to sleep.
The mouse seems to represent Constantia’s own feelings of helplessness after her father’s death. She, too, is passive, searching for meaning (like “crumbs”) amidst the ruins of her life, in which she has never been allowed to experience true freedom—having always been subservient to her father’s demands.
Nurse Andrews is staying with the sisters, since they asked her to after the doctor had gone. Josephine suggested that Nurse Andrews stay, though she worries that she might expect to be paid. The sisters feel that Nurse Andrews’s presence is burdensome, since they have to have meals at proper times (if they were alone, they could have Kate bring them food at any time). Moreover, Nurse Andrews overeats, though she is also anxious about butter consumption. When she takes extra helpings at mealtimes, Josephine gets very red, and Constantia gazes away dreamily.
Again, the sisters find it difficult to make a decision about Nurse Andrews, whom they regard as both a nuisance and a source of support (citing her kindness to their cantankerous father). Neither Constantia nor Josephine is able to interpret Nurse Andrews’s actions, and they cannot decide how these actions might be detrimental to their own highly isolated, irregular lives.
At the dinner table with Nurse Andrews one evening, the nurse discusses her time with Lady Tukes, who owned a silver butter dispenser. Josephine says that she thinks things like that are extravagant and distracts herself from Nurse Andrews by asking her sister to ring Kate. Kate, haughty and supercilious—“the enchanted princess”—enters and quickly takes away the sisters’ meals, replacing them with dessert. Josephine asks for jam, but Kate doesn’t find any in the jam-pot in the sideboard. She places the empty jar on the table and storms off. Nurse Andrew notes that there isn’t any jam, and Josephine and Constantia wonder what to do, since they don’t want to bother Kate again. Constantia goes back to daydreaming, and Josephine frowns, realizing that if Nurse Andrews wasn’t present, they could make do without jam for their dessert. She asks Constantia to fetch marmalade instead, and Nurse Andrews says she hopes it isn’t bitter.
Though Kate is severe and often unhelpful with her employers, Constantia and Josephine are unable to confront her. They are dependent on her services, however inadequate, and they have learned to accept her behavior (whereas Nurse Andrews, a visitor to the household, seems confused by Kate’s actions). The sisters rely on Kate to manage aspects of domesticity they have never learned to handle—cooking, cleaning, and organizing.
The sisters know that Nurse Andrews will be gone soon, and they realize that she had been kind to their father during his final days—though she had been reluctant to leave his bedside, which they feel wasn’t necessary (and seemed more tactless than anything). However, their father didn’t want to say anything to them privately before he passed. Instead, he lay there without noticing them, and then suddenly “opened one eye” and glared at them before dying.
It is revealed that the colonel acted with hostility toward his daughters during his final moments of life, suggesting both his tyrannical status as a controlling patriarch and the Pinner family’s profound instability. The colonel is unable to demonstrate paternal love, even at his most vulnerable.
Mr. Farolles, a clergyman and a friend of the family, arrives the day their father dies and asks if the end had been peaceful. Josephine says it had been, but both she and Constantia know that his “eye” hadn’t been peaceful at all. Josephine asks Mr. Farolles to sit, and he begins to sit in their father’s armchair before quickly moving away from it.
Though Josephine and Constantia know that their father was hostile to them until the very end, they do not reveal this fact to Mr. Farolles perhaps because they are fearful of challenging his authority, even after his death. Indeed, Mr. Farolles is embarrassed to have sat in the colonel’s chair, suggesting that the Pinner patriarch greatly influenced those around him (to the point of fear and intimidation).
Mr. Farolles insists that he wants to be helpful to the sisters and offers Communion to them as a comfort. Constantia and Josephine are terrified by this idea, since they feel that their drawing-room isn’t suited to hosting Communion. Kate might interrupt the ritual, or some other guest, and they wouldn’t know whether to greet the visitor or to wait. Josephine asks Mr. Farolles to arrange a simple funeral, and Constantia thinks that their father’s funeral should be appropriate for his position. Mr. Farolles promises to enlist the help of Mr. Knight, a funeral director.
Constantia and Josephine are more worried about preparing a funeral that would suit their father than about their own comfort during this period of mourning and grief, and as a result, they are reluctant to accept Mr. Farolles’s offer of Communion—concerning themselves instead with arranging a funeral befitting the colonel’s “position.”
Neither Josephine nor Constantia can believe that their father is never coming back. Josephine felt terrified when his coffin was lowered at the cemetery, since she feels that she and Constantia have buried him without his permission. She thinks that the colonel will find out “sooner or later” what they’ve done—and that the burial was a cruel thing to do, since the colonel is helpless in death. Josephine further speculates that he would disapprove of the expenses they have spared on his funeral, and she exclaims to Constantia that they shouldn’t have buried him. Constantia notes that they couldn’t have kept him unburied in their small flat. Josephine declares that their father will never forgive them for what they have done to him.
Once again, Constantia and Josephine begin to worry that their father would disapprove of the way that they have been handling his death, even though he is no longer physically present to voice his disapproval. The colonel continues to hold power over his ever-subservient daughters, especially Josephine, who frets about the way that they have chosen to manage his death. Burial, in Josephine’s view, effectively renders the colonel helpless, forcing him to relinquish some of the authority he had in life. Mansfield seems to be suggesting that the influence of patriarchy is severe enough to be felt powerfully even when male figures of authority fall away—even when they die, in the colonel’s case.
Josephine and Constantia decide to try to organize their father’s belongings in his room. While their father was alive, they never disturbed him in the morning, but now they have no reason not to open his door—though they continue to feel nervous about doing so. Josephine tries to get Constantia to go first, but Constantia tells Josephine to open the door, since she is older. Meanwhile, Kate watches the sisters from the kitchen. When the sisters finally work up the nerve to enter the room, they note that it seems different: it is cold, and everything is covered with white cloth, sheets, and paper. They pull up a blind, and Constantia begins to wonder if they should put off the errand for another day.
The sisters cannot decide whether to clear up their father’s belongings or not, since they are highly anxious about entering his room—a space they have never before been allowed to enter freely. Even though the room without their father is profoundly changed (now cold and bare, as if sapped of their father’s authority), the sisters continue to feel uneasy about disrupting their father’s space and thus implicitly challenging his power.
Josephine insists that they have to get it done today and asks Constantia why she keeps staring at the bed. Josephine moves over to open the chest of drawers but retreats quickly, feeling suddenly as if she has seen her father in the top drawer, hidden away as if preparing to attack. Josephine tells Constantia that she can’t open the chest, and Constantia consoles her, telling her that it’s better not to open anything—and that they should be “weak,” since it is “much nicer to be weak than to be strong.” Constantia walks over to the wardrobe and locks it, though she knows that their father might be inside. Josephine feels that she would not be surprised if the wardrobe toppled over on Constantia, but nothing happens. Constantia and Josephine leave their father’s room, and Josephine allows herself to be led by Constantia, who smiles as she did when she pushed Benny into the round pond.
Josephine begins to believe that their father is hiding in his room, waiting to “spring” on his daughters—an imagined scenario that powerfully suggests Josephine’s own internalized fear about her father’s cruelty and influence. Though Constantia puts an end to Josephine’s fear by locking the wardrobe (thereby locking in her imagined version of the colonel), she also insists that they leave the room altogether. Thus, the sisters are ultimately unable to move forward from their father’s death by confronting (and potentially getting rid of) his possessions. Moreover, Constantia’s cruelty in childhood toward her brother Benny is briefly mentioned. The Pinner family, it seems, is deeply dysfunctional, and Constantia seems in some way to share the same tyrannical streak that her father demonstrated.
Once out of their father’s room, the sisters sit down and look at each other. They decide to ask Kate for two cups of hot water, but they decide that they don’t need a jug; Kate can pour the water straight out of the kettle. Josephine wonders what they should send of their father’s to Benny, but she notes that it’s difficult to know what to send to Ceylon, since there is no post there, only “runners.” The sisters imagine a black man running through the fields with a parcel. Josephine imagines a tiny black man, while Constantia imagines a tall, thin man, whom she envisions as “unpleasant.”
The sisters hold racist views about the natives in Ceylon, the British colony where their father and brother have worked. Patriarchy is reinforced by imperialism, since the colonial system in which Benny and the colonel are implicated also relies on masculine authority to subjugate others (in this case the black male “runners,” Ceylonese natives who are virtually enslaved to white colonial administrators like the Pinner men).
The sisters remember their brother Benny on a verandah, dressed in the costume of a colonial administrator. His right hand would shake up and down, like their father’s did when he was impatient. Benny’s wife Hilda, unknown to the sisters, sat behind him in a cane rocker, reading the Tatler.
Benny is described as sharing mannerisms related to “impatience” with the colonel, suggesting that he, too, carries patriarchal force and authority; the sisters remember him as an authoritative figure (implied by his colonial garb). But since the sisters do not imagine him or his wife in much detail—recalling Hilda as merely “uninterested”—it is clear that the members of the Pinner family are not very close with each other.
Josephine decides that their father’s watch would be the most apposite gift, though Constantia is surprised that she would give it to a native to deliver. Josephine ensures her sister that she would disguise the gift, perhaps in the corset-box that she has kept for a while—though it has never come in handy for anything. Yet it would be strange for Benny to open a corset-box and find the watch inside. Constantia remarks that the watch no longer works, or that it would be unusual if for some reason it did after all this time.
The sisters’ preoccupation with their father’s timepiece demonstrates their unstable relationship with time. Though they are nearly middle-aged, they are still childlike in many ways (helpless, passive, and confused). This is evidenced by Josephine’s admission that she has never needed her corset-box—perhaps because she has never needed a corset for formal events, since these events would require her to become more independent.
Josephine thinks of Cyril and wonders whether it wouldn’t be more appropriate for the only grandson to have the watch. Cyril would appreciate the gift, and Benny likely no longer wears watches, since men don’t wear waistcoats in hot climates. Cyril, though, wears watches frequently. The sisters would appreciate seeing the timepiece when Cyril comes to tea with them. His sympathetic note had been disheartening, but they understood.
It is clear that the sisters have not seen their male relatives, Cyril and Benny, in some time, since they are not sure if Benny even wears watches, and it is implied that Cyril declined an invitation to their father’s funeral. The Pinner family is utterly disconnected and detached from one another.
The sisters recall Cyril’s last visit. Josephine tells Cyril not to be frightened of eating their cakes, since she and Constantia bought them at Buszard’s in the morning. Josephine cuts the cake—a great luxury, not unlike her winter gloves or Constantia’s shoes, which she has resoled frequently—but Cyril refuses to eat, explaining that he has just had lunch. Though it is after four, Cyril notes that he had to meet a man at Victoria and was so delayed that he wasn’t able to eat lunch until later in the day. Constantia and Josephine feel disappointed, but they would not expect Cyril to know.
Again, it is clear that the Pinner family is highly dysfunctional and lacks intimacy, since Cyril’s visit to his aunts’ home is highly uncomfortable: Cyril does not seem to want to stay, although Constantia and Josephine—still blissfully oblivious to their family’s fracturing—attempt to cajole him with desserts. Additionally, Cyril’s references to a busy work life in London contrast significantly with the Pinner sisters’ lives, occupied mainly by frivolous domestic tasks (like buying cakes or resoling shoes). Trapped in a male-centric world, Constantia and Josephine are not able to access opportunities for work outside of their household.
Josephine offers Cyril a meringue, noting that Cyril’s father was fond of them. Constantia asks if Benny is still fond of meringues, and Cyril replies that he doesn’t know. Josephine wonders why Cyril doesn’t know a thing like that about his own father, and Cyril acts sheepish, noting that it has been a “long time since—” before catching himself at the sight of his aunts’ faces. Cyril then declares that he must have forgotten that his father was fond of meringues. Josephine and Constantia are pleased.
Cyril does not want to admit to his aunts that he is no longer close with his father, as he realizes that they will be disappointed. They cannot see what he does, which is that their family is completely disconnected, and that paternal love (from either the colonel or Benny, Cyril’s father) is lacking.
Josephine asks Cyril to come and see his grandfather. Cyril remarks that he thinks their clock is a bit slow and that he needs to get to Paddington just after five. Josephine insists that Cyril see their father before he leaves. Meanwhile, Constantia stares at the clock, wondering whether it is fast or slow.
Once again, time proves to be unstable for both Josephine and Constantia. Cyril notices that time moves more slowly in their household, while Constantia cannot figure out whether it does or not. Confused, ambivalent, and still somewhat immature, the sisters have not developed as adults; even their younger nephew seems more stable and mature.
Cyril and his aunts enter Grandfather Pinner’s room, where he sits in front of a fire with his walking stick and a rug and handkerchief over his knees. The colonel glares at Cyril in the way that he is famous for. Constantia stares at her father, and he asks Cyril what he has to say. Cyril feels like an “imbecile” as he smiles at his grandfather. Josephine remarks that Cyril has said that Benny is still fond of meringues. The colonel doesn’t seem to hear her, even after she repeats the statement. He asks Cyril to repeat his aunt, and Cyril asks Constantia if he has to, blushing furiously. She encourages him to speak. Cyril loudly tells his grandfather that his father is still fond of meringues, and his grandfather yells back a reprimand, ordering him not to shout. Josephine notes that the colonel is going deaf. The colonel declares that it was an “esstrodinary thing” for Cyril to come all the way to the apartment to tell him about his father’s love for meringues.
Cyril’s uncomfortable interaction with his grandfather demonstrates both the colonel’s tyrannical, patriarchal influence and the deeply fragmented nature of their family relationships. The colonel’s senility seems to have only increased his rancor, and the rigid, formal awkwardness of the encounter suggests that he has never been particularly close with his grandson.
Josephine decides to send Cyril the watch. She and Constantia are interrupted by Kate, who asks them, “Fried or boiled?” They ask her what she means, and she clarifies: “fish.” Josephine notes that there are many things that might be fried or boiled and asks what Constantia would prefer. Constantia hesitantly asks for fried fish, but then realizes that she can’t seem to make up her mind between “fried” or “boiled.” Kate says that she will fry the fish and slams the door of the kitchen shut.
Josephine and Constantia continue to quibble over minor details of everyday life—having fish “fried or boiled”—while depending on Kate to interpret their own desires.
Josephine and Constantia retreat into the drawing-room to discuss Kate. Josephine asks Constantia whether they should keep her on or not, since they are no longer as dependent on her as they used to be; they no longer need a cook for their father. Josephine suggests that she and Constantia could manage their own food, either by making eggs or pre-prepared food. Constantia notes that cooked food is expensive.
Constantia and Josephine cannot decide whether to fire Kate or not. While they are no longer dependent on her services for their father, they are dependent on her cooking, though they seem unwilling to admit this fact. Yet they are also reluctant to become fully independent (Constantia notes that food is expensive to prepare, though surely keeping a maid is just as expensive). Their indecision now extends to nearly all areas of their banal lives, from funeral arrangements to domestic chores to personal care.
Josephine remarks that she isn’t sure whether to trust Kate or not, and Constantia agrees. It’s difficult to prove things, and she wouldn’t automatically assume that Kate was malicious. But Constantia also suspects that when she and Josephine are out, Kate goes to her chest of drawers to look through her things, since she often finds her accessories misplaced. Constantia once laid a trap for Kate by setting things in a specific order, but when she went back to check, she could not decide whether it was Kate or a movement of her own that rearranged the items. Josephine cannot decide either.
The sisters are not assured of Kate’s untrustworthiness, though it seems clear that Kate has betrayed their trust by going through their items. Again, Constantia and Josephine feel indebted to and reliant on Kate, though they are not able to vocalize their feelings on this matter—or recognize how to end their arrangement of dependency on her.
Josephine remarks that they can’t postpone deciding to fire Kate or not, but at that moment, a barrel-organ begins to play outside of their apartment. Josephine tells Constantia to run and fetch a six-pence, but they then remember that they no longer have to stop the organ-grinder, whose music used to bother their father (who would “bellow” at them to get their attention). Their father’s walking stick will never thump again. The barrel organ begins to play this tune: It will never thump again, it will never thump again. Josephine wonders what Constantia is thinking, since she looks different, smiling strangely. Constantia notes that it has been a whole week since father died, a sentence echoed by the organ: A week since father died, a week since father died. Josephine smiles, too, and notes that the sun has come out and is shining on the Indian carpet.
The Pinner sisters realize suddenly that their father’s death indicates newfound freedom for them: freedom from his demands (like those related to the barrel organ noise). As if all at once, they begin to feel somewhat happy—evidenced by their smiles—since they seem to have seen a glimmer of hope for their lives in the future.
Constantia looks at her favorite Buddha statue on the mantlepiece, one whose smile always gave her a strange feeling—as if he was keeping a secret. She cannot figure out what this secret might be. Josephine looks at the sunlight reflected on the photograph of her mother above the piano, dressed in earrings “shaped like tiny pagodas” and a “black feather boa.” Josephine wonders why photographs of dead people always fade, but she realizes that this photograph is thirty-five years old. Josephine remembers pointing at the boa in the picture and telling Constantia that a snake killed their mother in Ceylon. She begins to wonder whether her life would have been different if her mother hadn’t died, but she doesn’t think it would have been. Their Aunt Florence lived with them until they finished school. They then moved three times, had a yearly holiday, and their servants changed occasionally.
Part of the Pinner family’s dysfunction might be attributable to the death of the colonel’s wife. Josephine seems to think that their lives may have been better—perhaps more independent—if their mother had lived, since they would not have had to uproot themselves so frequently. Mansfield seems to be suggesting that while mothers are nurturing, patriarchy is limiting, since Josephine and Constantia have never experienced real maternal love (or, if so, cannot remember it).
Josephine hears sparrows on the window-ledge, but their crying sounds seem to be within her instead of outside. She wonders whether she and Constantia would have married had their mother lived, but then recalls that there had been nobody to marry. Her father fell out with his Anglo-Indian friends, and she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen after that. Josephine doesn’t know how to meet men or get to know them. Once, a man at their boarding-house in Eastbourne placed a note on a jug of water outside of the bedroom door, but they were unable to decipher the note later. They spent the rest of their lives taking care of their father and staying out of his way.
Josephine reflects on how limited her and Constantia’s options in life have been, since they have not been exposed to the world of courtship of marriage. Josephine and Constantia have had to sacrifice all hope for independent futures (perhaps with husbands and children) because of their father and his demands.
Constantia remembers the times she came into the drawing-room to lie on the floor with her arms outstretched under the light of the moon. When they went to the seaside, she would try to get as close to the ocean as possible, singing songs she made up. Constantia reflects on the life she has spent running errands for her father and seeking his approval, but this life seems unreal—as if it occurred in a “kind of tunnel.” Only when she is able to emerge from the tunnel, encountering the ocean, moonlight, or even a thunderstorm, is she able to feel like herself. She wonders what it is she has always wanted and what her life has led to now.
Constantia realizes that her life has been bound up in her father’s wishes and limitations, and she remembers the brief moments of true freedom and transcendence she has experienced in the past. Yet she does not know how to capture freedom in the future, nor can she take stock of her life appropriately. Instead, her past seems like a hallucination or a dream, as if she is still unwilling to confront her own identity, memories, and aspirations.
Constantia approaches Josephine and tries to say something about the future, but Josephine interrupts her. They both stop speaking and look at each other, then try to prompt the other to speak. Finally, Constantia says that she has forgotten what she was going to say. Josephine agrees, remarking that she, too, has forgotten.
In the end, neither Constantia nor Josephine can vocalize their dreams for the future, reverting back to ambivalence and indecision. Though they seem poised on the threshold of revelation and self-improvement, they are ultimately unable to alter their lives, choosing irresolution and passivity instead.