In the late twilight of the June evening Mrs. Goddard and Eleanor waited home together by the broad road which led towards the park gate.
"Don't you think Mr. Juxon is very kind, mamma?" asked the child.
"Yes, darling, I have no doubt he is. It was very good of him to ask you to go to the Hall."
"And he called me Miss Goddard," said Eleanor. "I wonder whether he will always call me Miss Goddard."
"He did not know your name was Nellie," explained her mother.
"Oh, I wish nobody knew, mamma. It was so nice. When shall I be grown up, mamma?"
"Soon, my child—too soon," said Mrs. Goddard with a sigh. Nellie looked at her mother and was silent for a minute.
"Mamma, do you like Mr. Juxon?" she asked presently.
"No, dear—how can one like anybody one has only seen once?"
"Oh—but I thought you might," said Nellie. "Don't you think you will, mamma? Say you will—do!"
"Why?" asked her mother in some surprise. "I cannot say anything about it. I daresay he is very nice."
"It will be so delightful to go to the Hall to dinner and be waited on by big real servants—not like Susan at the vicarage, or Martha. Won't you like it, mamma? Of course Mr. Juxon will have real servants, just like—like poor papa." Nellie finished her speech rather doubtfully as though not sure how her mother would take it. Mrs. Goddard sighed again, but said nothing. She could not stop the child's talking—why should Nellie not speak of her father? Nellie did not know.
"I think it will be perfectly delightful," said Nellie, seeing she got no answer from her mother, and as though putting the final seal of affirmation to her remarks about the Hall. But she appeared to be satisfied at not having been contradicted and did not return to the subject that evening.
Mr. Juxon lost no time in keeping his word and on the following morning at about eleven o'clock, when Mrs. Goddard was just hearing the last of Nellie's lesson in geography and little Nellie herself was beginning to be terribly tired of acquiring knowledge in such very warm weather, the squire's square figure was seen to emerge from the park gate opposite, clad in grey knickerbockers and dark green stockings, a rose in his buttonhole and a thick stick in his hand, presenting all the traditional appearance of a thriving country gentleman of the period. He crossed the road, stopped a moment and whistled his dog to heel and then opened the wicket gate that led to the cottage. Nellie sprang to the window in wild excitement.
"Oh what a dog!" she cried. "Mamma, do come and see! And Mr. Juxon is coming, too—he has green stockings!"
But Mrs. Goddard, who was not prepared for so early a visit, hastily put away what might be described as the debris of Nellie's lessons, to wit, a much thumbed book of geography, a well worn spelling book, a very particularly inky piece of blotting paper, a pen of which most of the stock had been subjected to the continuous action of Nellie's teeth for several months, and an ancient doll, without the assistance of which, as a species of Stokesite memoria teohnica, Nellie declared that she could not say her lessons at all. Those things disappeared, and, with them, Nellie's troubles, into a large drawer set apart for the purpose. By the time Mr. Juxon had rung the bell and Martha's answering footstep was beginning to echo in the small passage, Mrs. Goddard had passed to the consideration of Nellie herself. Nellie's fingers were mightily inky, but in other respects she was presentable.
"Run and wash your hands, child, and then you may come back," said her mother.
"Oh mamma, must I go? He's just coming in." She gave one despairing look at her little hands, and then ran away. The idea of missing one moment of Mr. Juxon's visit was bitter, but to be caught with inky fingers by a beautiful gentleman with green stockings and a rose in his coat would be more terribly humiliating still. There was a sound as of some gigantic beast plunging into the passage as the front door was opened, and a scream of terror from Martha followed by a good-natured laugh from the squire.
"You'll excuse me, sir, but he don't bite, sir, does he? Oh my! what a dog he is, sir—"
"Is Mrs. Goddard in?" inquired Mr. Juxon, holding the hound by the collar. Martha opened the door of the little sitting-room and the squire looked in. Martha fled down the passage.
"Oh my! What a tremendious dog that is, to be sure!" she was heard to exclaim as she disappeared into the back of the cottage.
"May I come in?" asked Mr. Juxon, rather timidly and with an expression of amused perplexity on his brown face. "Lie down, Stamboul!"
"Oh, bring him in, too," said Mrs. Goddard coming forward and taking Mr. Juxon's hand. "I am so fond of dogs." Indeed she was rather embarrassed and was glad of the diversion.
"He is really very quiet," said the squire apologetically, "only he is a little impetuous about getting into a house." Then, seeing that Mrs. Goddard looked at the enormous animal with some interest and much wonder, he added, "he is a Russian bloodhound—perhaps you never saw one? He was given to me in Constantinople, so I call him Stamboul—good name for a big dog is not it?"
"Very," said Mrs. Goddard rather nervously. Stamboul was indeed an exceedingly remarkable beast. Taller than the tallest mastiff, he combined with his gigantic strength and size a grace and swiftness of motion which no mastiff can possess. His smooth clean coat, of a perfectly even slate colour throughout, was without folds, close as a greyhound's, showing every articulation and every swelling muscle of his body. His broad square head and monstrous jaw betrayed more of the quickness and sudden ferocity of the tiger than those suggested by the heavy, lion-like jowl of the English mastiff. His ears, too, were close cropped, in accordance with the Russian fashion, and somehow the compactness this gave to his head seemed to throw forward and bring into prominence his great fiery eyes, that reflected red lights as he moved, and did not tend to inspire confidence in the timid stranger.
"Do sit down," said Mrs. Goddard, and when the squire was seated Stamboul sat himself down upon his haunches beside him, and looked slowly from his master to the lady and back again, his tongue hanging out as though anxious to hear what they might have to say to each other.
"I thought I should be sure to find you in the morning," began Mr. Juxon, after a pause. "I hope I have not disturbed you?"
"Oh, not at all. Nellie has just finished her lessons."
"The fact is," continued the squire, "that I was going to survey the nakedness of the land which has fallen to my lot, and as I came out of the park I saw the cottage right before me and I could not resist the temptation of calling. I had no idea we were such near neighbours."
"Yes," said Mrs. Goddard, "it is very near."
Mr. Juxon glanced round the room. He was not exactly at a loss for words, but Mrs. Goddard did not seem inclined to encourage the conversation. He saw that the room was not only exceedingly comfortable but that its arrangement betrayed a considerable taste for luxury. The furniture was of a kind not generally seen in cottages, and appeared to have formed part of some great establishment. The carpet itself was of a finer and softer kind than any at the Hall. The writing-table was a piece of richly inlaid work, and the implements upon it were of the solid, severe and valuable kind that are seen in rich men's houses. A clock which was undoubtedly of the Louis Quinze period stood upon the chimneypiece. On the walls were hung three or four pictures which, Mr. Juxon thought, must be both old and of great value. Upon a little table by the fireplace lay four or five objects of Chinese jade and Japanese ivory and a silver chatelaine of old workmanship. The squire saw, and wondered why such a very pretty woman, who possessed such very pretty things, should choose to come and live in his cottage in the parish of Billingsfield. And having seen and wondered he became interested in his charming tenant and endeavoured to carry on the conversation in a more confidential strain.
"You have done more towards beautifying the cottage than I could have hoped to do," said Mr. Juxon, leaning back in his chair and resting one hand on Stamboul's great head.
"It was very pretty of itself," answered Mrs. Goddard, "and fortunately it is not very big, or my things would look lost in it."
"I should not say that—you have so many beautiful things. They seem to suit the place so well. I am sure you will never think of taking them away."
"Not if I can help it—I am too glad to be quiet."
"You have travelled a great deal, Mrs. Goddard?" asked the squire.
"No—not exactly that—only a little, after all. I have not been to Constantinople for instance," she added looking at the hound Mr. Juxon had brought from the East. "You are indeed a traveller."
"I have travelled all my life," said the squire, indifferently, as though the subject of his wanderings did not interest him. "From what little I have seen of Billingsfield I fancy you will find all the quiet you could wish, here. Really, I realise that at my own gate I must come to you for information. What sort of man is that excellent rector down there, whom I met last night?"
The squire's tone became more confidential as he put the question.
"Well—he is not a rector, to begin with," answered Mrs. Goddard with a smile, "he is the vicar, and he is a most good man, whom I have always found most kind."
"I can readily fancy that," said Mr. Juxon. "But his wife seems to be of the severe type."
"No—she struck me so at first, too. I think it is only with strangers. She is such a motherly sort of woman, you do not know! She only has that little manner when you first meet her."
"What a strange thing that is!" remarked the squire, looking at Mrs. Goddard. "The natural belief of English people in each other's depravity until they have had time to make acquaintance! And is there no one else here—no doctor—no doctor's wife?"
"Not a soul," answered Mrs. Goddard. "There is a doctor, but the vicarage suspects him of free thought. He certainly never goes to church. He has no wife."
"This is the most Arcadian retreat I ever was in. Upon my word, I am a very lucky man."
"I suppose that it must be a relief when one has travelled so much," replied Mrs. Goddard.
"Or suffered very much," added the squire, half unconsciously, looking at her sad face.
"Yes," she answered. At that moment the door opened and Nellie entered the room, having successfully grappled with the inkstains. She went straight to the squire, and held out her hand, blushing a little, but looking very pretty. Then she saw the huge head of Stamboul who looked up at her with a ferociously agreeable canine smile, and thwacked the carpet with his tail as he sat; Nellie started back.
"Oh, what a dog!" she exclaimed. But very soon she was on excellent terms with him; little Nellie was not timid, and Stamboul, who liked people who were not afraid of him and was especially fond of children, did his best to be amusing.
"He is a very good dog," remarked Mr. Juxon. "He once did me a very good service."
"How was that?"
"I was riding in the Belgrade forest one summer. I was alone with Stamboul following. A couple of ruffians tried to rob me. Stamboul caught one of them."
"Did he hurt him very much?"
"I don't know—he killed him before the fellow could scream, and I shot the other," replied the squire calmly.
"What a horrible story!" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard, turning pale. "Come here, Nellie—don't touch that dreadful dog!"
"Do not be afraid—he is perfectly harmless. Come here Stamboul!" The huge beast obeyed, wagging his tail, and sat down at his master's feet, still looking rather wistfully at Nellie who had been playing with him. "You see," continued Mr. Juxon, "he is as quiet as a lamb—would not hurt a fly!"
"I think it is dreadful to have such animals about," said Mrs. Goddard in a low voice, still looking at the dog with horror.
"I am sorry I told you. It may prejudice you against him. I only meant to explain how faithful he is, that is all. You see a man grows fond of a creature that has saved his life."
"I suppose so, but it is rather startling to see such an animal so near to one. I fear I am very nervous."
"By the bye." said the squire with the bold irrelevancy of a man who wants to turn the subject, "are you fond of flowers?"
"I?" said Mrs. Goddard in surprise. "Yes—very. Why?"
"I thought you would not mind if I had the garden here improved a little. One might put in a couple of frames. I did not see any flowers about. I am so fond of them myself, you see, that I always look for them."
"You are very kind," answered Mrs. Goddard. "But I would not have you take any trouble on my account. We are so comfortable and so fond of the cottage already—"
"Well, I hope you will grow to like it even better," returned the squire with a genial smile. "Anything I can do, you know—" he rose as though to take his leave. "Excuse me, but may I look at that picture? Andrea del Sarto? Yes, I thought so—wonderful—upon my word, in a cottage in Billingsfield. Where did you find it?"
"It was my husband's," said Mrs. Goddard.
"Ah—ah, yes," said the squire in a subdued tone. "I beg your pardon," he added, as people often do, unconsciously, when they fancy they have accidentally roused in another a painful train of thought. Then he turned to go. "We dine at half-past seven, you know, so as to be early for Miss Nellie," he said, as he went out.
Mrs. Goddard was glad he was gone, though she felt that he was not unsympathetic. The story of the dog had frightened her, and her own mention of her husband had made her nervous and sad. More than ever she felt that fear of being in a false position, which had assailed her when she had first met the squire on the previous evening. He had at once opened relations with her in a way which showed that he intended to be intimate; he had offered to improve her cottage, had insisted upon making frames in her garden, had asked her to dinner with the Ambroses and had established the right to talk to her whenever he got a chance. He interested her, too, which was worse. His passing references to his travels and to his adventures, of which he spoke with the indifference of a man accustomed to danger, his unassuming manner, his frank ways—everything about him awakened her interest. She had supposed that in two years the very faculty of being interested by a man would be dulled if not destroyed; she found to her annoyance that though she had seen Mr. Juxon only twice she could not put him out of her thoughts. She was, moreover, a nervous, almost morbid, woman, and the natural result of trying to forget his existence was that she could think of nothing else.
How much better it would be, she thought, if he knew her story from the first. He might then be as friendly as he pleased; there would be no danger in it, to him or to her. She almost determined to go at once and ask the vicar's advice. But by the time she had nearly made up her mind it was the hour for luncheon, and little Nellie's appetite was exigent. By the time lunch was over her determination had changed. She had reflected that the vicar would think her morbid, that, with his usual good sense, he would say there was no necessity for telling the squire anything; indeed, that to do so would be undignified. If the squire were indeed going to lead the life of a recluse as he proposed doing, he was not really a man to cause her any apprehension. If he had travelled about the world for forty years, without having his heart disturbed by any of the women he must have met in that time, he was certainly not the kind of man, when once he had determined to settle in his home, to fall in love with the first pretty woman he met. It was absurd; there was no likelihood of it; it was her own miserable vanity, she told herself, which made the thing seem probable, and she would not think any more about it. She, a woman thirty-one years of age, with a daughter who ere long would be growing up to womanhood! To be afraid of a mere stranger like Mr. Juxon—afraid lest he should fall in love with her! Could anything be more ridiculous? Her duty was to live quietly as she had lived before, to take no more notice of the squire than was necessary in order to be civil, and so all would be well.
And so it seemed for a long time. The squire improved the garden of the cottage and Mrs. Goddard and Nellie, with the Ambroses, dined at the Hall, which at first seemed an exceedingly dreary and dismal place, but which, as they returned thither again and again, grew more and more luxurious, till the transformation was complete. Mr. Juxon brought all manner of things to the house; vans upon vans arrived, laden with boxes of books and pictures and oriental carpets and rare objects which the squire had collected in his many years of travel, and which he appeared to have stored in London until he had at last inherited the Hall. The longer the Ambroses and Mrs. Goddard knew him, the more singularly impressed they were with his reticence concerning himself. He appeared to have been everywhere, to have seen everything, and he had certainly brought back a vast collection of more or less valuable objects from his travels, besides the large library he had accumulated and which contained many rare and curious editions of ancient books. He was evidently a man of very good education, and a much better scholar than he was willing to allow. The vicar delighted in his society and when the two found themselves together in the great room which Mr. Juxon had lined with well-filled shelves, they remained for hours absorbed in literary and scholastic talk. But whenever the vicar approached the subject of the squire's past life, the latter became vague and gave ambiguous answers to any direct questions addressed to him. He evidently disliked talking of himself, though he would talk about anything else that occurred to him with a fluency which Mrs. Ambrose declared was the only un-English thing about him. The consequence was that the vicar became more and more interested in his new acquaintance, and though the squire was so frank and honest a man that it was impossible to suspect him of any doubtful action in the past, Mr. Ambrose suspected that he had a secret. Indeed after hearing the story Mrs. Goddard had confided to his ears, nothing would have surprised the vicar. After finding that so good, so upright and so honourable a woman as the fair tenant of the cottage could be put into such a singularly painful position as that in which she now found herself, it was not hard to imagine that this singular person who had inherited the Hall might also have some weighty reason for loving the solitude of Billingsfield.
To chronicle the small events which occurred in that Arcadian parish, would be to overstep the bounds of permissible tediousness. In such places all events move slowly and take long to develop to their results. The passions which in our own quickly moving world spring up, flourish, wither and are cut down in a month require, when they are not stimulated by the fertilising heat of artificial surroundings, a longer period for their growth; and when that growth is attained they are likely to be stronger and more deeply rooted. It is not true that the study of them is less interesting, nor that they have less importance in themselves. The difficulty of narrative is greater when they are to be described, for it is necessary to carry the imagination in a short time over a long period, to show how from small incidents great results follow, and to show also how the very limited and trivial nature of the surroundings may cause important things to be overlooked. Amidst such influences acquaintance is soon made between the few persons so thrown together, but each is apt to regard such new acquaintance merely as bearing upon his or her own particular interests. It is surprising to see how people will live side by side in solitude, even in danger, in distant settlements, in the mining districts of the West, in up-country stations in India, on board ship, even, for months and years, without knowing anything of each other's previous history; whereas in the crowded centres of civilisation and society the first questions are "Where does he come from?" "What are his antecedents?" "What has he done in the world?" And unless a man can answer such inquiries to the general satisfaction he is likely to be heavily handicapped in the social race. But in more primitive situations men are ruled by more primitive feelings of mutual respect; it is considered that a man should not be pressed to speak of things he shows no desire to discuss and that, provided he does not interfere with his neighbour's wellbeing, his past life is nobody's business. One may feel curiosity concerning him, but under no circumstances is one justified in asking questions.
For these reasons, although Mr. Juxon's arrival and instalment in the Hall were regarded with satisfaction by the little circle at Billingsfield, while he himself was at once received into intimacy and treated with cordial friendliness, he nevertheless represented in the minds of all an unsolved enigma. And to the squire the existence of one of the circle was at least as problematical as his own life could seem to any of them. The more he saw of Mrs. Goddard, the more he wondered at her and speculated about her and the less he dared to ask her any questions. But he understood from Mr. Ambrose's manner, that the vicar at least was in possession of her secret, and he inferred from what he was able to judge about the vicar's character that the latter was not a man to extend his friendship to any one who did not deserve it. Whatever Mrs. Goddard's story was, he felt sure that her troubles had not been caused by her own misconduct. She was in every respect what he called a good woman. Of course, too, she was a widow; the way in which she spoke of her husband implied that, on those rare occasions when she spoke of him at all. Charles James Juxon was a gentleman, whatever course of life he had followed before settling in the country, and he did not feel that he should be justified in asking questions about Mrs. Goddard of the vicar. Besides, as time went on and he found his own interest in her increasing, he began to nourish the hope that he might one day hear her story from her own lips. In his simplicity it did not strike him that he himself had grown to be an object of interest to her.
Somehow, during the summer and autumn of that year, Mrs. Goddard contracted a habit of watching the park gate from the window of the cottage, particularly at certain hours of the day. It was only a habit, but it seemed to amuse her. She used to sit in the small bay window with her books, reading to herself or teaching Nellie, and it was quite natural that from time to time she should look out across the road. But it rarely happened, when she was installed in that particular place, that Mr. Juxon failed to appear at the gate, with his dog Stamboul, his green stockings, his stick and the inevitable rose in his coat. Moreover he generally crossed the road and, if he did not enter the cottage and spend a quarter of an hour in conversation, he at least spoke to Mrs. Goddard through the open window. It was remarkable, too, that as time went on what at first had seemed the result of chance, recurred with such invariable regularity as to betray the existence of a fixed rule. Nellie, too, who was an observant child, had ceased asking questions but watched her mother with her great violet eyes in a way that made Mrs. Goddard nervous. Nellie liked the squire very much but though she asked her mother very often at first whether she, too, was fond of that nice Mr. Juxon, the answers she received were not encouraging. How was it possible, Mrs. Goddard asked, to speak of liking anybody one had known so short a time? And as Nellie was quite unable to answer such an inquiry, she desisted from her questions and applied herself to the method of personal observation. But here, too, she was met by a hopeless difficulty. The squire and her mother never seemed to have any secrets, as Nellie would have expressed it. They met daily, and daily exchanged very much the same remarks concerning the weather, the garden, the vicar's last sermon. When they talked about anything else, they spoke of books, of which the squire lent Mrs. Goddard a great number. But this was a subject which did not interest Nellie very much; she was not by any means a prodigy in the way of learning, and though she was now nearly eleven years old was only just beginning to read the Waverley novels. On one occasion she remarked to her mother that she did not believe a word of them and did not think they were a bit like real life, but the momentary fit of scepticism soon passed and Nellie read on contentedly, not omitting however to watch her mother in order to find out, as her small mind expressed it, "whether mamma really liked that nice Mr. Juxon." Events were slowly preparing themselves which would help her to come to a satisfactory conclusion upon that matter.
Mr. Juxon himself was in a very uncertain state of mind. After knowing Mrs. Goddard for six months, and having acquired the habit of seeing her almost every day, he found to his surprise that she formed a necessary part of his existence. It need not have surprised him, for in spite of that lady's surmise with regard to his early life, he was in reality a man of generous and susceptible temperament. He recognised in the charming tenant of the cottage many qualities which he liked, and he could not deny that she was exceedingly pretty. Being a strong man he was particularly attracted by the pathetic expression of her face, the perpetual sadness that was visible there when she was not momentarily interested or amused. Had he suspected her paleness and air of secret suffering to be the result of any physical infirmity, she would not have interested him so much. But Mrs. Goddard's lithe figure and easy grace of activity belied all idea of weakness. It was undoubtedly some hidden suffering of mind which lent that sadness to her voice and features, and which so deeply roused the sympathies of the squire. At the end of six months Mr. Juxon was very much interested in Mrs. Goddard, but despite all his efforts to be agreeable he seemed to have made no progress whatever in the direction of banishing her cares. To tell the truth, it did not enter his mind that he was in love with her. She was his tenant; she was evidently very unhappy about something; it was therefore undeniably his duty as a landlord and as a gentleman to make life easy for her.
He wondered what the matter could be. At first he had been inclined to think that she was poor and was depressed by poverty. But though she lived very simply, she never seemed to be in difficulties. Five hundred pounds a year go a long way in the village of Billingsfield. It was certainly not want of money which made her unhappy. The interest of the sum represented by the pictures hung in her little sitting-room, not to mention the other objects of value she possessed, would have been alone sufficient to afford her a living. The squire himself would have given her a high price for these things, but in six months she never in the most distant manner suggested that she wished to part with them. The idea then naturally suggested itself to Mr. Juxon's mind that she was still mourning for her husband, and that she would probably continue to mourn for him until some one, himself for instance, succeeded in consoling her for so great a loss.
The conclusion startled the squire. That was not precisely the part he contemplated playing, nor the species of consolation he proposed to offer. Mrs. Goddard was indeed a charming woman, and the squire liked charming women and delighted in their society. But Mr. Juxon was a bachelor of more than forty years standing, and he had never regarded marriage as a thing of itself, for himself, desirable. He immediately thrust the idea from his mind with a mental "vade retro Satanas!" and determined that things were very agreeable in their present state, and might go on for ever; that if Mrs. Goddard was unhappy that did not prevent her from talking very pleasantly whenever he saw her, which was nearly every day, and that her griefs were emphatically none of his business. Before very long however Mr. Juxon discovered that though it was a very simple thing to make such a determination it was a very different thing to keep it. Mrs. Goddard interested him too much. When he was with her he was perpetually longing to talk about herself instead of about the weather and the garden and the books, and once or twice he was very nearly betrayed into talking about himself, a circumstance so extraordinary that Mr. Juxon imagined he must be either ill or going mad, and thought seriously of sending for the doctor. He controlled the impulse, however, and temporarily recovered; but strange to say from that time forward the conversation languished when he found himself alone with Mrs. Goddard, and it seemed very hard to maintain their joint interest in the weather, the garden and the books at the proper standard of intensity. They had grown intimate, and familiarity had begun to breed a contempt of those petty subjects upon which their intimacy had been founded. It is not clear why this should be so, but it is true, nevertheless, and many a couple before Charles Juxon and Mary Goddard had found it out. As the interest of two people in each other increases their interest in things, as things, diminishes in like ratio, and they are very certain ultimately to reach that point described by the Frenchman's maxim—"a man should never talk to a woman except of herself or himself."
If Mr. Juxon was not in love with Mary Goddard he was at least rapidly approaching a very dangerous state; for he saw her every day and could not let one day go by without seeing her, and moreover he grew silent in her company, to a degree which embarrassed her and made him feel himself more stupid than he had ever dreamed possible; so that he would sometimes stay too long, in the hope of finding something to say, and sometimes he would leave her abruptly and go and shut himself up with his books, and busy himself with his catalogues and his bindings and the arrangement of his rare editions. One day at last, he felt that he had behaved so very absurdly that he was ashamed of himself, and suddenly disappeared for nearly a week. When he returned he said he had been to town to attend a great sale of books, which was perfectly true; he did not add that the learned expert he employed in London could have done the business for him just as well. But the trip had done him no good, for he grew more silent than ever, and Mrs. Goddard even thought his brown face looked a shade paler; but that might have been the effect of the winter weather. Ordinary sunburn she reflected, as she looked at her own white skin in the mirror, will generally wear off in six months, though freckles will not.
If Mr. Juxon was not in love, it would be very hard to say what Mary Goddard felt. It was not true that time was effacing the memory of the great sorrow she had suffered. It was there still, that memory, keen and sharp as ever; it would never go away again so long as she lived. But she had been soothed by the quiet life in Billingsfield; the evidences of the past had been removed far from her, she had found in the Reverend Augustin Ambrose one of those rare and manly natures who can keep a secret for ever without ever referring to its existence even with the person who has confided it. For a few days she had hesitated whether to ask the vicar's advice about Mr. Juxon or not. She had thought it her duty to allow Mr. Ambrose to tell the squire whatever he thought fit of her own story. But she had changed her mind, and the squire had remained in ignorance. It was best so, she thought; for now, after more than six months, Mr. Juxon had taken the position of a friend towards her, and, as she thought, showed no disposition whatever to overstep the boundaries of friendship. The regularity of his visits and the sameness of the conversation seemed of themselves a guarantee of his simple goodwill. It did not strike her as possible that if he were going to fall in love with her at all, that catastrophe should be postponed beyond six months from their first acquaintance. Nor did it seem extraordinary to her that she should actually look forward to those visits, and take pleasure in that monotonous intercourse. Her life was very quiet; it was natural that she should take whatever diversion came in her way, and should even be thankful for it. Mr. Juxon was an honest gentleman, a scholar and a man who had seen the world. If what he said was not always very original it was always very true, a merit not always conceded to the highest originality. He spoke intelligently; he told her the news; he lent her the newest books and reviews, and offered her his opinions upon them, with the regularity of a daily paper. In such a place, where communications with the outer world seemed as difficult as at the antipodes, and where the remainder of society was limited to the household of the vicarage, what wonder was it if she found Mr. Juxon an agreeable companion, and believed the companionship harmless?
But far down in the involutions of her feminine consciousness there was present a perpetual curiosity in regard to the squire, a curiosity she never expected to satisfy, but was wholly unable to repress. Under the influence of this feeling she made remarks from time to time of an apparently harmless nature, but which in the squire promoted that strange inclination to talk about himself, which he had lately observed and which caused him so much alarm. He said to himself that he had nothing to be concealed, and that if any one had asked him direct questions concerning his past he would have answered them boldly enough. But he knew himself to be so singularly averse to dwelling on his own affairs that he wondered why he should now be impelled to break through so good a rule. Indeed he had not the insight to perceive that Mrs. Goddard lost no opportunity of leading him to the subject of his various adventures, and, if he had suspected it, he would have been very much surprised.
Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose were far from guessing what an intimacy had sprung up between the two. Both the cottage and the Hall lay at a considerable distance from the vicarage, and though Mrs. Ambrose occasionally went to see Mrs. Goddard at irregular hours in the morning and afternoon, it was remarkable that the squire never called when she was there. Once Mrs. Ambrose arrived during one of his visits, but thought it natural enough that Mr. Juxon should drop in to see his tenant. Indeed when she called the two were talking about the garden—as usual.
John Short had almost finished his hard work at college. For two years and a half he had laboured on acquiring for himself reputation and a certain amount of more solid advantage in the shape of scholarships. Never in that time had he left Cambridge even for a day unless compelled to do so by the regulations of his college. His father had found it hard to induce him to come up to town; and, being in somewhat easier circumstances since John had declared that he needed no further help to complete his education, he had himself gone to see his son more than once. But John had never been to Billingsfield and he knew nothing of the changes that had taken place there. At last, however, Short felt that he must have some rest before he went up for honours; he had grown thin and even pale; his head ached perpetually, and his eyes no longer seemed so good as they had been. He went to a doctor, and the doctor told him that with his admirable constitution a few days of absolute rest would do all that was necessary. John wrote to Mr. Ambrose to say that he would at last accept the invitation so often extended and would spend the week between Christmas and New Year's day at Billingsfield.
There were great rejoicings at the vicarage. John had never been forgotten for a day since he had left, each successive step in his career had been hailed with hearty delight, and now that at last he was coming back to rest himself for a week before the final effort Mrs. Ambrose was as enthusiastic as her husband. Even Mrs. Goddard, who was not quite sure whether she had ever seen John or not, and the squire who had certainly never seen him, joined in the general excitement. Mrs. Goddard asked the entire party to tea at the cottage and the squire asked them to come and skate at the Hall and to dine afterwards; for the weather was cold and the vicar said John was a very good skater. Was there anything John could not do? There was nothing he could not do much better than anybody else, answered Mr. Ambrose; and the good clergyman's pride in his pupil was perhaps not the less because he had at first received him on charitable considerations, and felt that if he had risked much in being so generous he had also been amply rewarded by the brilliant success of his undertaking.
When John arrived, everybody said he was "so much improved." He had got his growth now, being close upon one and twenty years of age; his blue eyes were deeper set; his downy whiskers had disappeared and a small moustache shaded his upper lip; he looked more intellectual but not less strong, though Mrs. Ambrose said he was dreadfully pale—perhaps he owed some of the improvement observed in his appearance to the clothes he wore. Poor boy, he had been but scantily supplied in the old days; he looked prosperous, now, by comparison.
"We have had great additions to our society, since you left us," said the vicar. "We have got a squire at the Hall, and a lady with a little girl at the cottage."
"Such a nice little girl," remarked Mrs. Ambrose.
When John found out that the lady at the cottage was no other than the lady in black to whom he had lost his heart two years and a half before, he was considerably surprised. It would be absurd to suppose that the boyish fancy which had made so much romance in his life for so many months could outlast the excitements of the University. It would be absurd to dignify such a fancy by any serious name. He had grown to be a man since those days and he had put away childish things. He blushed to remember that he had spent hours in writing odes to the beautiful unknown, and whole nights in dreaming of her face. And yet he could remember that as much as a year after he had left Billingsfield he still thought of her as his highest ideal of woman, and still occasionally composed a few verses to her memory, regretting, perhaps, the cooling of his poetic ardour. Then he had gradually lost sight of her in the hard work which made up his life. Profound study had made him more prosaic and he believed that he had done with ideals for ever, after the manner of many clever young fellows who at one and twenty feel that they are separated from the follies of eighteen by a great and impassable gulf. The gulf, however, was not in John's case so wide nor so deep but what, at the prospect of being suddenly brought face to face, and made acquainted, with her who for so long had seemed the object of a romantic passion, he felt a strange thrill of surprise and embarrassment. Those meetings of later years generally bring painful disillusion. How many of us can remember some fair-haired little girl who in our childhood represented to us the very incarnation of feminine grace and beauty, for whom we fetched and carried, for whom we bound nosegays on the heath and stole apples from the orchard and climbed upon the table after desert, if we were left alone in the dining-room, to lay hands on some beautiful sweetmeat wrapped in tinsel and fringes of pink paper—have we not met her again in after-life, a grown woman, very, very far from our ideal of feminine grace and beauty? And still in spite of changes in herself and ourselves there has clung to her memory through all those years enough of romance to make our heart beat a little faster at the prospect of suddenly meeting her, enough to make us wonder a little regretfully if she was at all like the little golden-haired child we loved long ago.
But with John the feeling was stronger than that. It was but two years and a half since he had seen Mrs. Goddard, and, not even knowing her name, had erected for her a pedestal in his boyish heart. There was moreover about her a mystery still unsolved. There was something odd and strange in her one visit to the vicarage, in the fact that the vicar had never referred to that visit and, lastly, it seemed unlike Mr. Ambrose to have said nothing of her settlement in Billingsfield in the course of all the letters he had written to John since the latter had left him. John dwelt upon the name—Goddard—but it held no association for him. It was not at all like the names he had given her in his imagination. He wondered what she would be like and he felt nervously anxious to meet her. Somehow, too, what he heard of the squire did not please him; he felt an immediate antagonism to Mr. Juxon, to his books, to his amateur scholarship, even to his appearance as described by Mrs. Ambrose, who said he was such a thorough Englishman and wondered how he kept his hair so smooth.
It was not long before he had an opportunity of judging for himself of what Mr. Ambrose called the recent addition to Billingsfield society. On the very afternoon of his arrival the vicar proposed to walk up to the Hall and have a look at the library, and John readily assented. It was Christmas Eve and the weather, even in Essex, was sharp and frosty. The muddy road was frozen hard and the afternoon sun, slanting through the oak trees that bordered the road beyond the village, made no perceptible impression on the cold. The two men walked briskly in the direction of the park gate. Before they had quite reached it however, the door of the cottage opposite was opened, and Stamboul, the Russian bloodhound, bounded down the path, cleared the wicket gate in his vast stride, and then turning suddenly crouched in the middle of the road to wait for his master. But the dog instantly caught sight of the vicar, with whom he was on very good terms, and trotted slowly up to him, thrusting his great nose into his hand, and then proceeding to make acquaintance with John. He seemed to approve of the stranger, for he gave a short sniff of satisfaction and trotted back to the wicket of the cottage. At this moment Mrs. Goddard and Nellie came out, followed by the squire arrayed in his inevitable green stockings. There was however no rose in his coat. Whether the greenhouses at the Hall had failed to produce any in the bitter weather, or whether Mr. Juxon had transferred the rose from his coat to the possession of Mrs. Goddard, is uncertain. The three came out into the road where the vicar and John stood still to meet them.
"Mrs. Goddard," said the clergyman, "this is Mr. Short, of whom you have heard—John, let me introduce you to Mr. Juxon."
John felt that he blushed violently as he took Mrs. Goddard's hand. He would not have believed that he could feel so much embarrassed, and he hated himself for betraying it. But nobody noticed his colour. The weather was bright and cold, and even Mrs. Goddard's pale and delicate skin had a rosy tinge.
"We were just going for a walk," she explained.
"And we were going to see you at the Hall," said the vicar to Mr. Juxon.
"Let us do both," said the latter. "Let us walk to the Hall and have a cup of tea. We can look at the ice and see whether it will bear to-morrow."
Everybody agreed to the proposal, and it so fell out that the squire and the vicar went before while John and Mrs. Goddard followed and Nellie walked between them, holding Stamboul by the collar, and talking to him as she went. John looked at his companion, and saw with a strange satisfaction that his first impression, the impression he had cherished so long, had not been a mistaken one. Her deep violet eyes were still sad, beautiful and dreamy. Her small nose was full of expression, and was not reddened by the cold as noses are wont to be. Her rich brown hair waved across her forehead as it did on that day when John first saw her; and now as he spoke with her, her mouth smiled, as he had been sure it would. John felt a curious sense of pride in her, in finding that he had not been deceived, that this ideal of whom he had dreamed was really and truly very good to look at. He knew little of the artist's rules of beauty; he had often looked with wonder at the faces in the illustrations to Dr. Smith's classical dictionary, and had tried to understand where the beauty of them lay, and at Cambridge he had seen and studied with interest many photographs and casts from the antiques. But to his mind the antique would not bear comparison for a moment with Mrs. Goddard, who resembled no engraving nor photograph nor cast he had ever seen.
And she, too, looked at him, and said to herself that he did not look like what she had expected. He looked like a lean, fresh young Englishman of moderate intelligence and in moderate circumstances. And yet she knew that he was no ordinary young fellow, that he was wonderfully gifted, in fact, and likely to make a mark in the world. She resolved to take a proper interest in him.
"Do you know," she said, "I have heard so much about you, that I feel as though I had met you before, Mr. Short."
"We really have met," said John. "Do you remember that hot day when you came to the vicarage and I waked up Muggins for you?"
"Yes—was that you? You have changed. That is, I suppose I did not see you very well in the hurry."
"I suppose I have changed in two years and a half. I was only a boy then, you know. But how have you heard so much about me?"
"Billingsfield," said Mrs. Goddard with a faint smile, "is not a large place. The Ambroses are very fond of you and always talk of what you are doing."
"And so you really live here, Mrs. Goddard? How long is it since you came? Mr. Ambrose never told me—"
"I have been here more than two years—two years last October," she answered quietly.
"The very year I left—only a month after I was gone. How strange!"
Mrs. Goddard looked up nervously. She was frightened lest John should have made any deductions from the date of her arrival. But John was thinking in a very different train of thought.
"Why is it strange?" she asked.
"Oh, I hardly know," said John in considerable embarrassment. "I was only thinking—about you—that is, about it all."
The answer did not tend to quiet Mrs. Goddard's apprehensions.
"About me?" she exclaimed. "Why should you think about me?"
"It was very foolish, of course," said John. "Only, when I caught sight of you that day I was very much struck. You know, I was only a boy, then. I hoped you would come back—but you did not." He blushed violently, and then glanced at his companion to see whether she had noticed it.
"No," she said, "I did not come back for some time."
"And then I was gone. Mr. Ambrose never told me you had come."
"Why should he?"
"Oh, I don't know. I think he might. You see Billingsfield has been a sort of home to me, and it is a small place; so I thought he might have told me the news."
"I suppose he thought it would not interest you," said Mrs. Goddard. "I am sure I do not know why it should. But you must be very fond of the place, are you not?"
"Very. As I was saying, it is very like home to me. My father lives in town you know—that is not at all like home. One always associates the idea of home with the country, and a vicarage and a Hall, and all that."
"Does one?" said Mrs. Goddard, picking her way over the frozen mud of the road. "Take care, Nellie, it is dreadfully slippery!"
"How much she has grown," remarked John, looking at the girl's active figure as she walked before them. "She was quite a little girl when I saw her first."
"Yes, she grows very fast," answered Mrs. Goddard rather regretfully.
"You say that as though you were sorry."
"I? No. I am glad to see her grow. What a funny remark."
"I thought you spoke sadly," explained John.
"Oh, dear no. Only she is coming to the awkward age."
"She is coming to it very gracefully," said John, who wanted to say something pleasant.
"That is the most any of us can hope to do," answered Mrs. Goddard with a little smile. "We all have our awkward age, I suppose."
"I should not think you could remember yours."
"Why? Do you think it was so very long ago?" Mrs. Goddard laughed.
"No—I cannot believe you ever had any," said John.
The boyish compliment pleased Mrs. Goddard. It was long since any one had flattered her, for flattery did not enter into the squire's system for making himself agreeable.
"Do they teach that sort of thing at Cambridge?" she asked demurely.
"What sort of thing?"
"Making little speeches to ladies," said she.
"No—I wish they did," said John, laughing. "I should know much better how to make them. We learn how to write Greek odes to moral abstractions."
"What a dreadful thing to do!" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard.
"Do you think so? I do not know. Now, for instance, I have written a great many Greek odes to you—"
"To me?" interrupted his companion in surprise.
"Do you think it is so very extraordinary?"
"Well—you see—I only saw you once—you won't laugh?"
"No," said Mrs. Goddard, who was very much amused, and was beginning to think that John Short was the most original young man she had ever met.
"I only saw you once, when you came to the vicarage, and I had not the least idea what your name was. But I—I hoped you would come back; and so I used to write poems to you. They were very good, too," added John in a meditative tone, "I have never written any nearly so good as they were."
"Really?" Mrs. Goddard looked at him rather incredulously and then laughed.
"You said you would not laugh," objected John.
"I cannot help it in the least," said she. "It seems so funny."
"It did not seem funny to me, I can assure you," replied John rather warmly. "I thought it very serious."
"You don't do it now, do you?" asked Mrs. Goddard, looking up at him quietly.
"Oh no—a man's ideals change so much, you know," answered John, who felt he had been foolishly betrayed into telling his story, and hated to be laughed at.
"I am very glad of that. How long are you going to stay here, Mr. Short?"
"Until New Year's Day, I think," he answered. "Perhaps you will have time to forget about the poetry before I go."
"I don't know why," said Mrs. Goddard, noticing his hurt tone. "I think it was very pretty—I mean the way you did it. You must be a born poet—to write verses to a person you did not know and had only seen once!"
"It is much easier than writing verses to moral abstractions one has never seen at all," explained John, who was easily pacified. "When a man writes a great deal he feels the necessity of attaching all those beautiful moral qualities to some real, living person whom he can see—"
"Even if he only sees her once," remarked Mrs. Goddard demurely.
"Yes, even if he only sees her once. You have no idea how hard it is to concentrate one's faculties upon a mere idea; but the moment a man sees a woman whom he can endow with all sorts of beautiful qualities—why it's just as easy as hunting."
"I am glad to have been of so much service to you, even unconsciously—but, don't you think perhaps Mrs. Ambrose would have done as well?"
"Mrs. Ambrose?" repeated John. Then he broke into a hearty laugh. "No—I have no hesitation in saying that she would not have done as well. I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Ambrose for a thousand kindnesses, for a great deal more than I can tell—but, on the whole, I say, no; I could not have written odes to Mrs. Ambrose."
"No, I suppose not. Besides, fancy the vicar's state of mind! She would have had to call him in to translate your poetry."
"It is very singular," said John in a tone of reflection. "But, if I had not done all that, we should not be talking as we are now, after ten minutes acquaintance."
"Probably not," said Mrs. Goddard.
"No—certainly not. By the bye, there is the Hall. I suppose you have often been there since Mr. Juxon came—what kind of man is he?"
"He has been a great traveller," answered his companion. "And then—well, he is a scholar and has an immense library—"
"And an immense dog—yes, but I mean, what kind of man is he himself?"
"He is very agreeable," said Mrs. Goddard quietly. "Very well bred, very well educated. We find him a great addition in Billingsfield."
"I should think so, if he is all you say," said John discontentedly. His antagonism against Mr. Juxon was rapidly increasing. Mrs. Goddard looked at him in some surprise, being very far from understanding his tone.
"I think you will like him," she said. "He knows all about you from the Ambroses, and he always speaks of you with the greatest admiration."
"Really? It is awfully kind of him, I am sure. I am very much obliged," said John rather contemptuously.
"Why do you speak like that?" asked Mrs. Goddard gravely. "You cannot possibly have any cause for disliking him. Besides, he is a friend of ours—"
"Oh, of course, then it is different," said John. "If he is a friend of yours—"
"Do you generally take violent dislikes to people at first sight, Mr. Short?"
"Oh, dear no. Not at all—at least, not dislikes. I suppose Mr. Juxon's face reminds me of somebody I do not like. I will behave like an angel. Here we are."
The effect of this conversation upon the two persons between whom it took place was exceedingly different. Mrs. Goddard was amused, without being altogether pleased. She had made the acquaintance of a refreshingly young scholar whom she understood to be full of genius. He was enthusiastic, simple, seemingly incapable of concealing anything that passed through his mind, unreasonable and evidently very susceptible. On the whole, she thought she should like him, though his scornful manner in speaking of the squire had annoyed her. The interest she could feel in him, if she felt any at all, would be akin to that of the vicar in the boy. He was only a boy; brilliantly talented, they said, but still a mere boy. She was fully ten years older than he—she might almost be his mother—well, not quite that, but very nearly. It was amusing to think of his writing odes to her. She wished she could see translations of them, and she almost made up her mind to ask him to show them to her.
John on the other hand experienced a curious sensation. He had never before been in the society of so charming a woman. He looked at her and looked again, and came to the conclusion that she was not only charming but beautiful. He had not the least idea of her age; it is not the manner of his kind to think much about the age of a woman, provided she is not too young. The girl might be ten. Mrs. Goddard might have married at sixteen—twenty-six, twenty-seven—what was that? John called himself twenty-two. Five years was simply no difference at all! Besides, who cared for age?
He had suddenly found himself almost on a footing of intimacy with this lovely creature. His odes had served him well; it had pleased her to hear the story. She had laughed a little, of course; but women, as John knew, always laugh when they are pleased. He would like to show her his odes. As he walked through the park by her side he felt a curious sense of possession in her which gave him a thrill of exquisite delight; and when they entered the Hall he felt as though he were resigning her to the squire, which gave him a corresponding sense of annoyance. When an Englishman experiences these sensations, he is in love. John resolved that whatever happened he would walk back with Mrs. Goddard.
"Come in," said the squire cheerily. "We are not so cold as we used to be up here."
A great fire of logs was burning upon the hearth in the Hall. Stamboul stalked up to the open chimney, scratched the tiger's skin which served for a rug, and threw himself down as though his day's work were done. Mr. Juxon went up to Mrs. Goddard.
"I think you had better take off your coat," he said. "The house is very warm."
Mrs. Goddard allowed the squire to help her in removing the heavy black jacket lined and trimmed with fur, which she wore. John eyed the proceeding uneasily and kept on his greatcoat.
"Thank you—I don't mind the heat," he said shortly when the squire suggested to him that he might be too warm. John was in a fit of contrariety. Mrs. Goddard glanced at him, as he spoke, and he thought he detected a twinkle of amusement in her eyes, which did not tend to smooth his temper.
"You will have some tea, Mrs. Goddard?" said Mr. Juxon, leading the way into the library, which he regarded as the most habitable room in the house. Mrs. Goddard walked by his side and the vicar followed, while John and Nellie brought up the rear.
"Is not it a beautiful place?" said Nellie, who was anxious that the new-comer should appreciate the magnificence of the Hall.
"Can't see very well," said John, "it is so dark."
"Oh, but it is beautiful," insisted Miss Nellie. "And they have lots of lamps here in the evening. Perhaps Mr. Juxon will have them lighted before we go. He is always so kind."
"Is he?" asked John with a show of interest.
"Yes—he brings mamma a rose every day," said Nellie.
"Not really?" said John, beginning to feel that he was justified in hating the squire with all his might.
"Yes—and books, too. Lots of them—but then, he has so many. See, this is the library. Is not it splendid!"
John looked about him and was surprised. The last rays of the setting sun fell across the open lawn and through the deep windows of the great room, illuminating the tall carved bookcases, the heavily gilt bindings, the rich, dark Russia leather and morocco of the folios. The footsteps of the party fell noiselessly upon the thick carpet and almost insensibly the voices of the visitors dropped to a lower key. A fine large wood fire was burning on the hearth, carefully covered with a metal netting lest any spark should fly out and cause damage to the treasures accumulated in the neighbouring shelves.
"Pray make yourself at home, Mr. Short," said the squire, coming up to John. "You may find something of interest here. There are some old editions of the classics that are thought rare—some specimens of Venetian printing, too, that you may like to look at. Mr. Ambrose can tell you more about them than I."
John's feeling of antagonism, and even his resentment against Mr. Juxon, roused by Nellie's innocent remark about the roses, were not proof against the real scholastic passion aroused by the sight of rare and valuable books. In a few minutes he had divested himself of his greatcoat and was examining the books with an expression of delight upon his face which was pleasant to see. He glanced from time to time at the other persons in the room and looked very often at Mrs. Goddard, but on the whole he was profoundly interested in the contents of the library. Mrs. Goddard was installed in a huge leathern easy-chair by the fire, and the squire was handing her one after another a number of new volumes which lay upon a small table, and which she appeared to examine with interest. Nellie knew where to look for her favourite books of engravings and had curled herself up in a corner absorbed in "Hyde's Royal Residences." The vicar went to look for something he wanted to consult.
"What do you think of our new friend?" asked Mrs. Goddard of the squire. She spoke in a low tone and did not look up from the new book he had just handed her.
"He appears to have a very peculiar temper," said Mr. Juxon. "But he looks clever."
"What do you think he was talking about as we came through the park?" asked Mrs. Goddard.
"He was saying that he saw me once before he went to college, and—fancy how deliciously boyish! he said he had written ever so many Greek odes to my memory since!" Mrs. Goddard laughed a little and blushed faintly.
"Let us hope, for the sake of his success, that you may continue to inspire him," said the squire gravely. "I have no doubt the odes were very good."
"So he said. Fancy!"
Mrs. Goddard did not mean to walk home with John; but on the other hand she did not mean to walk with the squire. She revolved the matter in her mind as she sat in the library talking in an undertone with Mr. Juxon. She liked the great room, the air of luxury, the squire's tea and the squire's conversation. It is worth noticing that his flow of talk was more abundant to-day than it had been for some time; whether it was John's presence which stimulated Mr. Juxon's imagination, or whether Mrs. Goddard had suddenly grown more interesting since John Short's appearance it is hard to say; it is certain that Mr. Juxon talked better than usual.
The afternoon, however, was far spent and the party had only come to make a short visit. Mrs. Goddard rose from her seat.
"Nellie, child, we must be going home," she said, calling to the little girl who was still absorbed in the book of engravings which she had taken to the window to catch the last of the waning light.
John started and came forward with alacrity. The vicar looked up; Nellie reluctantly brought her book back.
"It is very early," objected the squire. "Really, the days have no business to be so short."
"It would not seem like Christmas if they were long," said Mrs. Goddard.
"It does not seem like Christmas anyhow," remarked John, enigmatically. No one understood his observation and no one paid any attention to it. Whereupon John's previous feeling of annoyance returned and he went to look for his greatcoat in the dark corner where he had laid it.
"You must not come all the way back with us," said Mrs. Goddard as they all went out into the hall and began to put on their warm things before the fire. "Really—it is late. Mr. Ambrose will give me his arm."
The squire insisted however, and Stamboul, who had had a comfortable nap by the fire, was of the same opinion as his master and plunged wildly at the door.
"Will you give me your arm, Mr. Ambrose?" said Mrs. Goddard, looking rather timidly at the vicar as they stood upon the broad steps in the sparkling evening air. She felt that she was disappointing both the squire and John, but she had quite made up her mind. She had her own reasons. The vicar, good man, was unconsciously a little flattered by her choice, as with her hand resting on the sleeve of his greatcoat he led the way down the park. The squire and John were fain to follow together, but Nellie took her mother's hand, and Stamboul walked behind affecting an unusual gravity.
"You must come again when there is more daylight," said Mr. Juxon to his companion.
"Thank you," said John. "You are very good." He intended to relapse into silence, but his instinct made him ashamed of seeming rude. "You have a magnificent library," he added presently in a rather cold tone.
"You have been used to much better ones in Cambridge," said the squire, modestly.
"Do you know Cambridge well, Mr. Juxon?"
"Very well. I am a Cambridge man, myself."
"Indeed?" exclaimed John, immediately discovering that the squire was not so bad as he had thought. "Indeed! I had no idea. Mr. Ambrose never told me that."
"I am not sure that he is aware of it," said Mr. Juxon quietly. "The subject never happened to come up."
"How odd!" remarked John, who could not conceive of associating with a man for any length of time without asking at what University he had been.
"I don't know," answered Mr. Juxon. "There are lots of other things to talk about."
"Oh—of course," said John, in a tone which did not express conviction.
Meanwhile Mr. Ambrose and Mrs. Goddard walked briskly in front; so briskly in fact that Nellie occasionally jumped a step, as children say, in order to keep up with them.
"What a glorious Christmas eve!" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard, as they turned a bend in the drive and caught sight of the western sky still clear and red. "And there is the new moon!" The slender crescent was hanging just above the fading glow.
"Oh mamma, have you wished?" cried Nellie. "You must, you know, when you see the new moon!"
Mrs. Goddard did not answer, but she sighed faintly and drew a little closer to the worthy vicar as she walked. She always wished, whether there was a new moon or not, and she always wished the same wish. Perhaps Mr. Ambrose understood, for he was not without tact. He changed the subject.
"How do you like our John Short?" he asked.
"Very much, I think," answered Mrs. Goddard. "He is so fresh and young."
"He is a fine fellow. I was sure you would like him. Is he at all like what you fancied he would be?"
"Well no—not exactly. I know you told me how he looked, but I always thought he would be rather Byronic—the poetical type, if you know what I mean."
"He has a great deal of poetry in him," said Mr. Ambrose in a tone of profound admiration. "He writes the best Greek verse I ever saw."
"Oh yes—I daresay," replied Mrs. Goddard smiling in the dusk. "I am sure he must be very clever."
So they chatted quietly as they walked down the park. But the squire and John did not make progress in their conversation, and by the time they reached the gate they had yielded to an awkward silence. They had both been annoyed because Mrs. Goddard had taken the vicar's arm instead of choosing one of themselves, but the joint sense of disappointment did not constitute a common bond of interest. Either one would have suffered anything rather than mention Mrs. Goddard to the other in the course of the walk. And yet Mr. Juxon might have been John's father. At the gate of the cottage they separated. The squire said he would turn back. Mrs. Goddard had reached her destination. John and the vicar would return to the vicarage. John tried to linger a moment, to get a word with Mrs. Goddard. He was so persistent that she let him follow her through the wicket gate and then turned quickly.
"What is it?" she asked, rather suddenly, holding out her hand to say good-bye.
"Oh, nothing," answered John. "That is—would you like to see one of those—those little odes of mine?"
"Yes, certainly, if you like," she answered frankly, and then laughed. "Of course I would. Good-night."
He turned and fled. The vicar was waiting for him, and eyed him rather curiously as he came back. Mr. Juxon was standing in the middle of the road, making Stamboul jump over his stick, backwards and forwards.
"Good-night," he said, pausing in his occupation. The vicar and John turned away and walked homewards. Before they turned the corner towards the village John instinctively looked back. Mr. Juxon was still making Stamboul jump the stick before the cottage, but as far as he could see in the dusk, Mrs. Goddard and Nellie had disappeared within. John felt that he was very unhappy.
"Mr. Ambrose," he began. Then he stopped and hesitated. "Mr. Ambrose," he continued at last, "you never told me half the news of Billingsfield in your letters."
"You mean about Mrs. Goddard? Well—no—I did not think it would interest you very much."
"She is a very interesting person," said John. He could have added that if he had known she was in Billingsfield he would have made a great sacrifice in order to come down for a day to make her acquaintance. But he did not say it.
"She is a great addition," said the vicar.
"Oh—very great, I should think."
Christmas eve was passed at the vicarage in preparation for the morrow. Mrs. Ambrose was very active in binding holly wherever it was possible to put it. The mince-pies were tasted and pronounced a success, and old Reynolds was despatched to the cottage with a small basket containing a certain number of them as a present to Mrs. Goddard. An emissary appeared from the Hall with a variety of articles which the squire begged to contribute towards the vicar's Christmas dinner; among others a haunch of venison which Mrs. Ambrose pronounced to be in the best condition. The vicar retorted by sending to the Hall a magnificent Cottenham cheese which, as a former Fellow of Trinity, he had succeeded in obtaining. Moreover Mr. Ambrose himself descended to the cellar and brought up several bottles of Audit ale which he declared must be allowed to stand some time in the pantry in order to bring out the flavour and to be thoroughly settled. John gave his assistance wherever it was needed and enjoyed vastly the old-fashioned preparations for Christmas day. It was long since the season had brought him such rejoicing and he intended to rejoice with a good will towards men and especially towards the Ambroses. After dinner the whole party, consisting of three highly efficient persons and old Reynolds, adjourned to the church to complete the decorations for the morrow.
The church of Billingsfield, known as St. Mary's, was quite large enough to contain twice the entire population of the parish. It was built upon a part of the foundations of an ancient abbey, and the vicar was very proud of the monument of a crusading Earl of Oxford which he had caused to be placed in the chancel, it having been discovered in the old chancel of the abbey in the park, far beyond the present limits of the church. The tower was the highest in the neighbourhood. The whole building was of gray rubble, irregular stones set together with a crumbling cement, and presented an appearance which, if not architecturally imposing, was at least sufficiently venerable. At the present time the aisles were full of heaped-up holly and wreaths; a few lamps and a considerable number of tallow candles shed a rather feeble light amongst the pillars; a crowd of school children, not yet washed for the morrow, were busy under the directions of the schoolmistress in decorating the chancel; Mr. Thomas Reid the conservative sexton was at the top of a tall ladder, presumably using doubtful language to himself as every third nail he tried to drive into the crevices of the stone "crooked hisself and larfed at him," as he expressed it; the organ was playing and a dozen small boys with three or four men were industriously practising the anthem "Arise, Shine," producing strains which if not calculated altogether to elevate the heart by their harmony, would certainly have caused the hair of a sensitive musician to rise on end; three or four of the oldest inhabitants were leaning on their sticks in the neighbourhood of the great stove in the middle aisle, warming themselves and grumbling that "times warn't as they used to be;" Mr. Abraham Boosey was noisily declaring that he had "cartlods more o' thim greens" to come, and Muggins, who had had some beer, was stumbling cheerfully against the pews in his efforts to bring a huge load of fir branches to the foot of Mr. Thomas Reid's long ladder. It was a thorough Christmas scene and John Short's heart warmed as he came back suddenly to the things which for three years had been so familiar to him and which he had so much missed in his solitude at Cambridge. Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose set to work and John followed their example. Even the prickly holly leaves were pleasant to touch and there was a homely joy in the fir branches dripping with half melted snow.
Before they had been at work very long, John was aware of a little figure, muffled in furs and standing beside him. He looked up and saw little Nellie's lovely face and long brown curls.
"Can't I help you, Mr. Short?" she asked timidly. "I like to help, and they won't let me."
"Who are 'they'?" asked John kindly, but looking about for the figure of Nellie's mother.
"The schoolmistress and Mrs. Ambrose. They said I should dirty my frock."
"Well," said John, doubtfully, "I don't know. Perhaps you would. But you might hold the string for me—that won't hurt your clothes, you know."
"There are more greens this year," remarked Nellie, sitting down upon the end of the choir bench where John was at work and taking the ball of string in her hand. "Mr. Juxon has sent a lot from the park."
"He seems to be always sending things," said John, who had no reason whatever for saying so, except that the squire had sent a hamper to the vicarage. "Did he stay long before dinner?" he added, in the tone people adopt when they hope to make children talk.
"Stay long where?" asked Nellie innocently.
"Oh, I thought he went into your house after we left you," answered John.
"Oh no—he did not come in," said Nellie. John continued to work in silence. At some distance from where he was, Mrs. Goddard was talking to Mrs. Ambrose. He could see her graceful figure, but he could hardly distinguish her features in the gloom of the dimly-lighted church. He longed to leave Nellie and to go and speak to her, but an undefined feeling of hurt pride prevented him. He would not forgive her for having taken the vicar's arm in coming home through the park; so he stayed where he was, pricking his fingers with the holly and rather impatiently pulling the string off the ball which Nellie held. If Mrs. Goddard wanted to speak to him, she might come of her own accord, he thought, for he felt that he had behaved foolishly in asking if she wished to see his odes. Somehow, when he thought about it, the odes did not seem so good now as they had seemed that afternoon.
Mrs. Goddard had not seen him at first, and for some time she remained in consultation with Mrs. Ambrose. At last she turned and looking for Nellie saw that she was seated beside John; to his great delight she came towards him. She looked more lovely than ever, he thought; the dark fur about her throat set off her delicate, sad face like a frame.
"Oh—are you here, too, Mr. Short?" she said.
"Hard at work, as you see," answered John. "Are you going to help, Mrs. Goddard? Won't you help me?"
"I wanted to," said Nellie, appealing to her mother, "but they would not let me, so I can only hold the string."
"Well, dear—we will see if we can help Mr. Short," said Mrs. Goddard good-naturedly, and she sat down upon the choir bench.
John never forgot that delightful Christmas Eve. For nearly two hours he never left Mrs. Goddard's side, asking her advice about every branch and bit of holly and following out to the letter her most minute suggestions. He forgot all about the squire and about the walk back from the park, in the delight of having Mrs. Goddard to himself. He pushed the school children about and spoke roughly to old Reynolds if her commands were not instantly executed; he felt in the little crowd of village people that he was her natural protector, and he wished he might never have anything in the world to do save to decorate a church in her company. He grew more and more confidential and when the work was all done he felt that he had thoroughly established himself in her good graces and went home to dream of the happiest day he had ever spent. The organ ceased playing, the little choir dispersed, the school children were sent home, Mr. Abraham Boosey retired to the bar of the Duke's Head, Muggins tenderly embraced every tombstone he met on his way through the churchyard, the "gentlefolk" followed Reynolds' lantern towards the vicarage, and Mr. Thomas Reid, the conservative and melancholic sexton, put out the lights and locked the church doors, muttering a sour laudation of more primitive times, when "the gentlefolk minded their business."
For the second time that day, John and Mr. Ambrose walked as far as the cottage, to see Mrs. Goddard to her home. When they parted from her and Nellie, John was careful not to say anything more about the odes, a subject to which Mrs. Goddard had not referred in the course of the evening. John thanked her rather effusively for her help—he could never have got through those choir benches without her, he said; and the vicar added that he was very much obliged, too, and surreptitiously conveyed to Mrs. Goddard's hand a small package intended for Miss Nellie's Christmas stocking, from him and his wife, and which he had forgotten to give earlier. Nellie was destined to have a fuller stocking than usual this year, for the squire had remembered her as well as Mr. Ambrose.
John went to bed in his old room at the vicarage protesting that he had enjoyed the first day of his holiday immensely. As he blew out the light, he thought suddenly how often in that very room he had gone to bed dreaming about the lady in black and composing verses to her, till somehow the Greek terminations would get mixed up with the Latin roots, the quantities all seemed to change places, and he used to fall asleep with a delicious half romantic sense of happiness always unfulfilled yet always present. And now at last it began to be fulfilled in earnest; he had met the lady in black at last, had spent nearly half a day in her company and was more persuaded than ever that she was really and truly his ideal. He did not go to sleep so soon as in the old days, and he was sorry to go to sleep at all; he wanted to enjoy all his delicious recollections of that afternoon before he slept and, as he recapitulated the events which had befallen him and recalled each expression of the face that had charmed him and every intonation of the charmer's voice, he felt that he had never been really happy before, that no amount of success at Cambridge could give him half the delight he had experienced during one hour in the old Billingsfield church, and that altogether life anywhere else was not worth living. To-morrow he would see Mrs. Goddard again, and the next day and the day after that and then—"bother the future!" ejaculated John, and went to sleep.
He awoke early, roused by the loud clanging of the Christmas bells, and looking out he saw that the day was fine and cold and bright as Christmas day should be, and generally is. The hoar frost was frozen into fantastic shapes upon his little window, the snow was clinging to the yew branches outside and the robins were hopping and chirping over the thin crust of frozen snow that just covered the ground. The road was hard and brown as on the previous day, and the ice in the park would probably bear. Perhaps Mrs. Goddard would skate in the afternoon between the services, but then—Juxon would be there. "Never mind Juxon," quoth John to himself, "it is Christmas day!"
At the vicarage and elsewhere, all over the land, those things were done which delight the heart of Englishmen at the merry season. Everybody shook hands with everybody else, everybody cried "Merry Christmas!" to his neighbour in the street, with an intonation as though he were saying something startlingly new and brilliant which had never been said before. Every labourer who had a new smock-frock put it on, and those who had none had at least a bit of new red worsted comforter about their throats and began the day by standing at their doors in the cold morning, smoking a "ha'p'orth o' shag" in a new clay pipe, greeting each other across the village street. Muggins, who had spent a portion of the night in exchanging affectionate Christmas wishes with the tombstones in the churchyard, appeared fresh and ruddy at an early hour, clad in the long black coat and tall hat which he was accustomed to wear when he drove Mr. Boosey's fly on great festivals. Most of the cottages in the single street sported a bit of holly in their windows, and altogether the appearance of Billingsfield was singularly festive and mirthful. At precisely ten minutes to eleven the vicar and Mrs. Ambrose, accompanied by John, issued from the vicarage and went across the road by the private path to the church. As they entered the porch Mr. Reid, who stood solemnly tolling the small bell, popularly nicknamed the "Ting-tang," and of which the single rope passed down close to the south door, vouchsafed John a sour smile of recognition. John felt as though he had come home. Mrs. Goddard and Nellie appeared a moment afterwards and took their seats in the pew traditionally belonging to the cottage, behind that of the squire who was always early, and the sight of whose smoothly brushed hair and brown beard was a constant source of satisfaction to Mrs. Ambrose. John and Mrs. Ambrose sat on the opposite side of the aisle, but John's eyes strayed very frequently towards Mrs. Goddard; so frequently indeed that she noticed it and leaned far back in her seat to avoid his glance. Whereupon John blushed and felt that the vicar, who was reading the Second Lesson, had probably noticed his distraction. It was hard to realise that two years and a half had passed since he had sat in that same pew; perhaps, however, the presence of Mrs. Goddard helped him to understand the lapse of time. But for her it would have been very hard; for the vicar's voice sounded precisely as it used to sound; Mrs. Ambrose had not lost her habit of removing one glove and putting it into her prayer book as a mark while she found the hymn in the accompanying volume; the bright decorations looked as they looked years ago above the organ and round the chancel; from far down the church, just before the sermon, came the old accustomed sound of small boys shuffling their hobnailed shoes upon the stone floor and the audible guttural whisper of the churchwarden admonishing them to "mind the stick;" the stained-glass windows admitted the same pleasant light as of yore—all was unchanged. But Mrs. Goddard and Nellie occupied the cottage pew, and their presence alone was sufficient to mark to John the fact that he was now a man.
The service was sympathetic to John Short. He liked the simplicity of it, even the rough singing of the choir, as compared with the solemn and magnificent musical services of Trinity College Chapel. But it seemed very long before it was all over and he was waiting for Mrs. Goddard outside the church door.
There were more greetings, more "Merry Christmas" and "Many happy returns." Mrs. Goddard looked more charming than ever and was quite as cordial as on the previous evening.
"How much better it all looked this morning by daylight," she said.
"I think it looked very pretty last night," answered John. "There is nothing so delightful as Christmas decorations, is there?"
"Perhaps you will come down next year and help us again?" suggested Mrs. Goddard.
"Yes—well, I might come at Easter, for that matter," answered the young man, who after finding it impossible to visit Billingsfield during two years and a half, now saw no difficulty whatever in the way of making two visits in the course of six months. "Do you still decorate at Easter?" he asked.
"Oh yes—do you think you can come?" she said pleasantly. "I thought you were to be very busy just then."
"Yes, that is true," answered John. "But of course I could come, you know, if it were necessary."
"Hardly exactly necessary—" Mrs. Goddard laughed.
"The doctor told me some relaxation was absolutely indispensable for my health," said John rather sententiously.
"You don't really look very ill—are you?" She seemed incredulous.
"Oh no, of course not—only a little overworked sometimes."
"In that case I have no doubt it would do you good," said Mrs. Goddard.
"Do you really think so?" asked John, hopefully.
"Oh—that is a matter for your doctor to decide. I cannot possibly tell," she answered.
"I think you would make a very good doctor, Mrs. Goddard," said John venturing on a bolder flight.
"Really—I never thought of trying it," she replied with a little laugh. "Good morning, Mr. Ambrose. Nellie wants to thank you for your beautiful present. It was really too good of you."
The vicar came out of the vestry and joined the group in the path. Mrs. Ambrose, who had been asking Tom Judd's wife about her baby, also came up, and the squire, who had been presenting Mr. Reid with ten shillings for his Christmas box and who looked singularly bereaved without the faithful Stamboul at his heels, sauntered up and began congratulating everybody. In the distance the last of the congregation, chiefly the old women and cripples who could not keep up with the rest, hobbled away through the white gate of the churchyard.
It had been previously agreed that if the ice would bear there should be skating in the afternoon and the squire was anxious to inform the party that the pond was in excellent condition.
"As black as your hat," he said cheerfully. "Stamboul and I have been sliding all over it, so of course it would bear an ox. It did not crack anywhere."
"Do you skate, Mrs. Goddard?" asked John.
"Not very well—not nearly so well as Nellie. But I am very fond of it."
"Will you let me push you about in a chair, then? It is capital fun."
"Very good fun for me, no doubt," answered Mrs. Goddard, laughing.
"I would rather do it than anything else," said John in a tone of conviction. "It is splendid exercise, pushing people about in chairs."