"So it is," said the squire, heartily. "We will take turns, Mr. Short." The suggestion did not meet with any enthusiastic response from John, who wished Mr. Juxon were not able to skate.
Poor John, he had but one idea, which consisted simply in getting Mrs. Goddard to himself as often and as long as possible. Unfortunately this idea did not coincide with Mr. Juxon's views. Mr. Juxon was an older, slower and calmer man than the enthusiastic young scholar, and though very far from obtruding his views or making any assertion of his rights, was equally far from forgetting them. He was a man more of actions than words. He had been in the habit of monopolising Mrs. Goddard's society for months and he had no intention of relinquishing his claims, even for the charitable purpose of allowing a poor student to enjoy his Christmas holiday and bit of romance undisturbed. If John had presented himself as a boy, it might have been different; but John emphatically considered himself a man, and the squire was quite willing to treat him as such, since he desired it. That is to say he would not permit him to "cut him out" as he would have expressed it. The result of the position in which John and Mr. Juxon soon found themselves was to be expected.
John did not sleep so peacefully nor dream so happily that night as on the night before. The course of true love had not run smooth that afternoon. The squire had insisted upon having his share of the lovely Mrs. Goddard's society and she herself had not seemed greatly disturbed at a temporary separation from John. The latter amused her for a little while; the former held the position of a friend whose conversation she liked better than that of other people. John was disappointed and thought of going back to Cambridge the next day. So strong, indeed, was his sudden desire to leave Billingsfield without finishing his visit, that before going to bed he had packed some of his belongings into his small portmanteau; the tears almost stood in his eyes as he busied himself about his room and he muttered certain formulae of self-accusation as he collected his things, saying over and over in his heart—"What a fool I am! Why should she care for me? What am I that she should care for me?" etc. etc. Then he opened his window and looked at the bright stars which shone out over the old yew tree; but it was exceedingly cold, and so he shut it again and went to bed, feeling very uncomfortable and unhappy.
But when he awoke in the morning he looked at his half-packed portmanteau and laughed, and instead of saying "What a fool I am!" he said "What a fool I was!"—which is generally and in most conditions of human affairs a much wiser thing to say. Then he carefully took everything out of the portmanteau again and replaced things as they had lain before in his room, lest perchance Susan, the housemaid, should detect what had passed through his mind on the previous evening and should tell Mrs. Ambrose. And from all this it appears that John was exceedingly young, as indeed he was, in spite of his being nearly one and twenty years of age. But doubtless if men were willing to confess their disappointments and foolish, impetuous resolutions, many would be found who have done likewise, being in years much older than John Short. Unfortunately for human nature most men would rather confess to positive wrong-doing than to any such youthful follies as these, while they are young; and when they are old they would rather be thought young and foolish than confess the evil deeds they have actually done.
John, however, did not moralise upon his situation. The weather was again fine and as he dressed his spirits rose. He became magnanimous and resolved to forget yesterday and make the most of today. He would see Mrs. Goddard of course; perhaps he would show her a little coldness at first, giving her to understand that she had not treated him well on the previous afternoon; then he would interest her by his talk—he would repeat to her one of those unlucky odes and translate it for her benefit, making use of the freedom he would thus get in order to make her an unlimited number of graceful compliments. Perhaps, too, he ought to pay more attention to Nellie, if he wished to conciliate her mother. Women, he reflected, have such strange prejudices!
He wondered whether it would be proper for him to call upon Mrs. Goddard. He was not quite sure about it, and he was rather ashamed of having so little knowledge of the world; but he believed that in Billingsfield he might run the risk. There had been talk of skating again that morning, and so, about ten o'clock, John told Mr. Ambrose he would go for a short walk and then join them all at the pond in the park. The project seemed good, and he put it into execution. As he walked up the frozen road, he industriously repeated in his mind the Greek verses he was going to translate to Mrs. Goddard; he had no copy of them but his memory was very good. He met half a dozen labourers, strolling about with their pipes until it was time to go and have a pint of beer, as is their manner upon holidays; they touched their hats to him, remembering his face well, and he smiled happily at the rough fellows, contrasting his situation with theirs, who from the misfortune of social prejudice were not permitted to go and call upon Mrs. Goddard. His heart beat rather fast as he went up to the door of the cottage, and for one unpleasant moment he again doubted whether it was proper for him to make such an early visit. But being bent on romantic adventure he rang boldly and inquired for Mrs. Goddard.
She was surprised to see John at that hour and alone; but it did not enter her head to refuse him admittance. Indeed as he stood in the little passage he heard the words which passed between her and Martha.
"What is it, Martha?"
"It's a young gentleman, mam. I rather think, mam, it's the young gentleman that's stopping at the vicarage."
"Oh—ask him to come in."
"In 'ere, mam?"
"No—into the sitting-room," said Mrs. Goddard, who was busy in the dining-room.
John was accordingly ushered in and told to wait a minute; which he did, surveying with surprise the beautiful pictures, the rich looking furniture and the valuable objects that lay about upon the tables. He experienced a thrill of pleasure, for he felt sure that Mrs. Goddard possessed another qualification which he had unconsciously attributed to her—that of being accustomed to a certain kind of luxury, which in John's mind was mysteriously connected with his romance. It is one of the most undefinable of the many indefinite feelings to which young men in love are subject, especially young men who have been, or are, very poor. They like to connect ideas of wealth and comfort, even of a luxurious existence, with the object of their affections. They desire the world of love to be new to them, and in order to be wholly new in their experience, it must be rich. The feeling is not so wholly unworthy as it might seem; they instinctively place their love upon a pedestal and require its surroundings to be of a better kind than such as they have been accustomed to in their own lives. King Cophetua, being a king, could afford to love the beggar maid, and a very old song sings of a "lady who loved a swine," but the names of the poor young men who have loved above their fortune and station are innumerable as the swallows in spring. John saw that Mrs. Goddard was much richer than he had ever been, and without the smallest second thought was pleased. In a few moments she entered the room. John had his speech ready.
"I thought, if you were going to skate, I would call and ask leave to go with you," he said glibly, as she gave him her hand.
"Oh—thanks. But is not it rather early?"
"It is twenty minutes past ten," said John, looking at the clock.
"Well, let us get warm before starting," said Mrs. Goddard, sitting down by the fire. "It is so cold this morning."
John thought she was lovely to look at as she sat there, warming her hands and shielding her face from the flame with them at the same time. She looked at him and smiled pleasantly, but said nothing. She was still a little surprised to see him and wondered whether he himself had anything to say.
"Yes," said John, "it is very cold—traditional Christmas weather. Could not be finer, in fact, could it?"
"No—it could not be finer," echoed Mrs. Goddard, suppressing a smile. Then as though to help him out of his embarrassment by giving an impulse to the conversation, she added, "By the bye, Mr. Short, while we are warming ourselves why do not you let me hear one of your odes?"
She meant it kindly, thinking it would give him pleasure, as indeed it did. John's heart leaped and he blushed all over his face with delight. Mrs. Goddard was not quite sure whether she had done right, but she attributed his evident satisfaction to his vanity as a scholar.
"Certainly," he said with alacrity, "if you would like to hear it. Would you care to hear me repeat the Greek first?"
"Oh, of all things. I do not think I have ever heard Greek."
John cleared his throat and began, glancing at his hostess rather nervously from time to time. But his memory never failed him, and he went on to the end without a break or hesitation.
"How do you think it sounds?" he asked timidly when he had finished.
"It sounds very funny," said Mrs. Goddard. "I had no idea Greek sounded like that—but it has a pleasant rhythm."
"That is the thing," said John, enthusiastically. "I see you really appreciate it. Of course nobody knows how the ancients pronounced Greek, and if one pronounced it as the moderns do, it would sound all wrong—but the rhythm is the thing, you know. It is impossible to get over that."
Mrs. Goddard was not positively sure what he meant by "getting over the rhythm;" possibly John himself could not have defined his meaning very clearly. But his cheeks glowed and he was very much pleased.
"Yes, of course," said Mrs. Goddard confidently. "But what does it all mean, Mr. Short?"
"Would you really like to know?" asked John in fresh embarrassment. He suddenly realised how wonderfully delightful it was to be repeating his own poetry to the woman for whom it was written.
"Indeed yes—what is the use of your telling me all sorts of things in Greek, if you do not tell me what they mean?"
"Yes—you will promise not to be offended?"
"Of course," said Mrs. Goddard; then blushing a little she added, "it is quite—I mean—quite the sort of thing, is not it?"
"Oh quite," said John, blushing too, but looking grave for a moment. Then he repeated the English translation of the verses which, as they were certainly not so good as the original, may be omitted here. They set forth that in the vault of the world's night a new star had appeared which men had not yet named, nor would be likely to name until the power of human speech should be considerably increased, and the verses dwelt upon the theme, turning it and revolving it in several ways, finally declaring that the far-darting sun must look out for his interests unless he meant to be outshone by the new star. Translated into English there was nothing very remarkable about the performance though the original Greek ode was undoubtedly very good of its kind. But Mrs. Goddard was determined to be pleased.
"I think it is charming," she said, when John had reached the end and paused for her criticism.
"The Greek is very much better," said John doubtfully. "I cannot write English verses—they seem to me so much harder."
"I daresay," said Mrs. Goddard. "But did you really write that when—" she stopped not knowing exactly how to express herself. But John had his answer ready.
"Oh, I wrote ever so many," he said, "and I have got them all at Cambridge. But that is the only one I quite remember. I wrote them just after the day when I waked up Muggins—the only time I had seen you till now. I think I could—"
"How funny it seems," said Mrs. Goddard, "without knowing a person, to write verses to them! How did you manage to do it?"
"I was going to say that I think—I am quite sure—I could write much better things to you now."
"Oh, that is impossible—quite absurd, Mr. Short," said Mrs. Goddard, laughing more gaily than usual.
"Why?" asked John, somewhat emboldened by his success. "I do not see why, if one has an ideal, you know, one should not understand it much better when one comes near to it."
"Yes—but—how can I possibly be your ideal?" She felt herself so much older than John that she thought it was out of the question to be annoyed; so she treated him in a matter of fact way, and was really amused at his talk.
"I don't see why not," answered John stoutly. "You might be any man's ideal."
"Oh, really—" ejaculated Mrs. Goddard, somewhat startled at the force of the sweeping compliment. To be told point-blank, even by an enthusiastic youth of one and twenty, that one is the ideal woman, must be either very pleasant or very startling.
"Excuse me," she said quickly, before he could answer her, "you know of course I am very ignorant—yes I am—but will you please tell me what is an 'ideal'?"
"Why—yes," said John, "it is very easy. Ideal comes from idea. Plato meant, by the idea, the perfect model—well, do you see?"
"Not exactly," said Mrs. Goddard.
"It is very simple. When I, when anybody, says you are the ideal woman, it is meant that you are the perfect model, the archetype of a woman."
"Yes—but that is absurd," said his companion rather coldly.
"I am sorry that it should seem absurd," said John in a persuasive tone; "it seems very natural to me. A man thinks for a long time about everything that most attracts him and then, on a sudden, he sees it all before him, quite real and alive, and then he says he has realised his ideal. But you liked the verses, Mrs. Goddard?" he added quickly, hoping to bring back the smile that had vanished from her face. He had a strong impression that he had been a little too familiar. Probably Mrs. Goddard thought so too.
"Oh yes, I think they are very nice," she answered. But the smile did not come back. She was not displeased, but she was not pleased either; she was wondering how far this boy would go if she would let him. John, however, felt unpleasantly doubtful about what he had done.
"I hope you are not displeased," he said.
"Oh, not in the least," said she. "Shall we go to the park and skate?"
"I am not sure that I will skate to-day," said John, foolishly. Mrs. Goddard looked at him in unfeigned surprise.
"Why not? I thought it was for that—"
"Oh, of course," said John quickly. "Only it is not very amusing to skate when Mr. Juxon is pushing you about in a chair."
"Really—why should not he push me about, if I like it?"
"If you like it—that is different," answered John impatiently.
Mrs. Goddard began to think that John was very like a spoiled child, and she resented his evident wish to monopolise her society. She left the room to get ready for the walk, vaguely wishing that he had not come.
"I have made a fool of myself again," said John to himself, when he was left alone; and he suddenly wished he could get out of the house without seeing her again. But before he had done wishing, she returned.
"Where is Miss Nellie?" he asked gloomily, as they walked down the path. "I hope she is coming too."
"She went up to the pond with Mr. Juxon, just before you came."
"Do you let her go about like that, without you?" asked John severely.
"Why not? Really, Mr. Short," said Mrs. Goddard, glancing up at his face, "either you dislike Mr. Juxon very much, or else I think you take a good deal upon yourself in remarking—in this way—"
She was naturally a little timid, but John's youth and what she considered as his extraordinary presumption inspired her with courage to protest. The effect upon John was instantaneous.
"Pray forgive me," he said humbly, "I am very silly. I daresay you are quite right and I do not like Mr. Juxon. Not that I have the smallest reason for not liking him," he continued quickly, "it is a mere personal antipathy, a mere idea, I daresay—very foolish of me."
"It is very foolish to take unreasonable dislikes to people one knows nothing about," she said quietly. "Will you please open the gate?" They were standing before the bars, but John was so much disturbed in mind that he stood still, quite forgetting to raise the long iron latch.
"Dear me—I beg your pardon—I cannot imagine what I was thinking of," he said, making the most idiotic excuse current in English idiom.
"Nor I," said Mrs. Goddard, with a little laugh, as he held the gate back for her to pass. It was a plain white gate with stone pillars, and there was no gatehouse. People who came to the Hall were expected to open it for themselves. Mrs. Goddard was so much amused at John's absence of mind that her good humour returned, and he felt that since that object was attained he no longer regretted his folly in the least. The cloud that had darkened the horizon of his romance had passed quickly away, and once more he said inwardly that he was enjoying the happiest days of his life. If for a moment the image of Mr. Juxon entered the field of his imaginative vision in the act of pushing Mrs. Goddard's chair upon the ice, he mentally ejaculated "bother the squire!" as he had done upon the previous night, and soon forgot all about him. The way through the park was long, the morning was delightful and Mrs. Goddard did not seem to be in a hurry.
"I wish the winter would last for ever," he said presently.
"So do I," answered his companion, "it is the pleasantest time of the year. One does not feel that nature is dead because one is sure she will very soon be alive again."
"That is a charming idea," said John, "one might make a good subject of it."
"It is a little old, perhaps. I think I have heard it before—have not you?"
"All good ideas are old. The older the better," said John confidently. Mrs. Goddard could not resist the temptation of teazing him a little. They had grown very intimate in forty-eight hours; it had taken six months for Mr. Juxon to reach the point John had won in two days.
"Are they?" she asked quietly. "Is that the reason you selected me for the 'idea' of your ode, which you explained to me?"
"You?" said John in astonishment. Then he laughed. "Why, you are not any older than I am!"
"Do you think so?" she inquired with a demure smile. "I am very much older than you think."
"You must be—I mean, you know, you must be older than you look."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Goddard, still smiling, and just resting the tips of her fingers upon his arm as she stepped across a slippery place in the frozen road. "Yes, I am a great deal older than you."
John would have liked very much to ask her age, but even to his youthful and unsophisticated mind such a question seemed almost too personal. He did not really believe that she was more than five years older than he, and that seemed to be no difference at all.
"I don't know," he said. "I am nearly one and twenty."
"Yes, I know," said Mrs. Goddard, who had heard every detail concerning John from Mr. Ambrose, again and again. "Just think," she added with a laugh, "only one and twenty! Why when I was one and twenty I was—" she stopped short.
"What were you doing then?" asked John, trying not to seem too curious.
"I was living in London," she said quietly. She half enjoyed his disappointment.
"Yes," he said, "I daresay. But what—well, I suppose I ought not to ask any questions."
"Certainly not," said she. "It is very rude to ask a lady questions about her age."
"I do not mean to be rude again," said John, pretending to laugh. "Have you always been fond of skating?" he asked, fixing his eye upon a distant tree, and trying to look unconscious.
"No—I only learned since I came here. Besides, I skate very badly."
"Did Mr. Juxon teach you?" asked John, still gazing into the distance. From not looking at the path he slipped on a frozen puddle and nearly fell. Whereat, as usual, when he did anything awkward, he blushed to the brim of his hat.
"Take care," said Mrs. Goddard, calmly. "You will fall if you don't look where you are going. No; Mr. Juxon was not here last year. He only came here in the summer."
"It seems to me that he has always been here," said John, trying to recover his equanimity. "Then I suppose Mr. Ambrose taught you to skate?"
"Exactly—Mr. Ambrose taught me. He skates very well."
"So will you, with a little more practice," answered her companion in a rather patronising tone. He intended perhaps to convey the idea that Mrs. Goddard would improve in the exercise if she would actually skate, and with him, instead of submitting to be pushed about in a chair by Mr. Juxon.
"Oh, I daresay," said Mrs. Goddard indifferently. "We shall soon be there, now. I can hear them on the ice."
"Too soon," said John with regret.
"I thought you liked skating so much."
"I like walking with you much better," he replied, and he glanced at her face to see if his speech produced any sign of sympathy.
"You have walked with me; now you can skate with Nellie," suggested Mrs. Goddard.
"You talk as though I were a child," said John, suddenly losing his temper in a very unaccountable way.
"Because I said you might skate with Nellie? Really, I don't see why. Mr. Juxon is not a child, and he has been skating with her all the morning."
"That is different," retorted John growing very red.
"Yes—Nellie is much nearer to your age than to Mr. Juxon's," answered Mrs. Goddard, with a calmness which made John desperate.
"Really, Mrs. Goddard," he said stiffly, "I cannot see what that has to do with it."
"'The atrocious crime of being a young man, which the lady so much older than myself has charged—' How does the quotation end, Mr. Short?"
"'Has, with such spirit and decency, charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny,'" said John savagely. "Quite so, Mrs. Goddard. I shall not attempt to palliate it, nor will I venture to deny it."
"Then why in the world are you so angry with me?" she asked, suddenly turning her violet eyes upon him. "I was only laughing, you know."
"Only laughing!" repeated John. "It is more pleasant to laugh than to be laughed at."
"Yes—would not you allow me the pleasure then, just for once?"
"Certainly, if you desire it. You are so extremely merry—"
"Come, Mr. Short, we must not seem to have been quarrelling when we reach the pond. It would be too ridiculous."
"Everything seems to strike you in a humorous light to-day," answered John, beginning to be pacified by her tone.
"Do you know, you are much more interesting when you are angry," said Mrs. Goddard.
"And you only made me angry in order to see whether I was interesting?"
"Perhaps—but then, I could not help it in the least."
"I trust you are thoroughly satisfied upon the point, Mrs. Goddard? If there is anything more that I can do to facilitate your researches in psychology—"
"You would help me? Even to the extent of being angry again?" She smiled so pleasantly and frankly that John's wrath vanished.
"It is impossible to be angry with you. I am very sorry if I seemed to be," he answered. "A man who has the good fortune to be thrown into your society is a fool to waste his time in being disagreeable."
"I agree with the conclusion, at all events—that is, it is much better to be agreeable. Is it not? Let us be friends."
"Oh, by all means," said John.
They walked on for some minutes in silence. John reflected that he had witnessed a phase of Mrs. Goddard's character of which he had been very far from suspecting the existence. He had not hitherto imagined her to be a woman of quick temper or sharp speech. His idea of her was formed chiefly upon her appearance. Her sad face, with its pathetic expression, suggested a melancholy humour delighting in subdued and tranquil thoughts, inclined naturally to the romantic view, or to what in the eyes of youths of twenty appears to be the romantic view of life. He had suddenly found her answering him with a sharpness which, while it roused his wits, startled his sensibilities. But he was flattered as well. His instinct and his observation of Mrs. Goddard when in the society of others led him to believe that with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose, or even with Mr. Juxon, she was not in the habit of talking as she talked with him. He was therefore inwardly pleased, so soon as his passing annoyance had subsided, to feel that she made a difference between him and others.
It was quite true that she made a distinction, though she did so almost unconsciously. It was perfectly natural, too. She was young in heart, in spite of her thirty years and her troubles; she had an elastic temperament; to a physiognomist her face would have shown a delicate sensitiveness to impressions rather than any inborn tendency to sadness. In spite of everything she was still young, and for two years and a half she had been in the society of persons much older than herself, persons she respected and regarded as friends, but persons in whom her youth found no sympathy. It was natural, therefore, that when time to some extent had healed the wound she had suffered and she suddenly found herself in the society of a young and enthusiastic man, something of the enforced soberness of her manner should unbend, showing her character in a new light. She herself enjoyed the change, hardly knowing why; she enjoyed a little passage of arms with John, and it amused her more than she could have expected to be young again, to annoy him, to break the peace and heal it again in five minutes. But what happened entirely failed to amuse the squire, who did not regard such diversions as harmless; and moreover she was far from expecting the effect which her treatment of John Short produced upon his scholarly but enthusiastic temper.
The squire had remarked that John Short seemed to have a peculiar temper, and Mrs. Goddard had observed the same thing. What has gone before sufficiently explains the change in John's manner, and the difference in his behaviour was plainly apparent even to Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose. The vicar indeed was wise enough to see that John was very much attracted by Mrs. Goddard, but he was also wise enough to say nothing about it. His wife, however, who had witnessed no love-making for nearly thirty years, except the courtship of the young physician who had married her daughter, attributed John's demeanour to no such disturbing cause. He was overworked, she said; he was therefore irritable; he had of course never taken that excellent homoeopathic remedy, highly diluted aconite, since he had left the vicarage; the consequence was that he was subject to nervous headache—she only hoped he would not be taken ill on the eve of the examination for honours. She hoped, too, that he would prolong his holiday to the very last moment, for the country air and the rest he enjoyed were sure to do him so much good. With regard, to the extension of John's visit, the vicar thought differently, although he held his peace. There were many reasons why John should not become attached to Mrs. Goddard both for her sake and his own, and if he staid long, the vicar felt quite sure that he would fall in love with her. She was dangerously pretty, she was much older than John—which in the case of very young men constitutes an additional probability—she evidently took an innocent pleasure in his society, and altogether such a complication as was likely to ensue was highly undesirable. Therefore, when Mrs. Ambrose pressed John to stay longer than he had intended, the vicar not only gave him no encouragement, but spoke gravely of the near approach of the contest for honours, of the necessity of concentrating every force for the coming struggle, and expressed at the same time the firm conviction that, if John did his best, he ought to be the senior classic in the year.
Even Mrs. Goddard urged him to go. Of course he asked her advice. He would not have lost that opportunity of making her speak of himself, nor of gauging the exact extent of the interest he hoped she felt in him.
It was two or three days after the long conversation he had enjoyed with her. In that time they had met often and John's admiration for her, strengthened by his own romantic desire to be really in love, had begun to assume proportions which startled Mrs. Goddard and annoyed Mr. Juxon. The latter felt that the boy was in his way; whenever he wanted to see Mrs. Goddard, John was at her side, talking eagerly and contesting his position against the squire with a fierceness which in an older and wiser man would have been in the worst possible taste. Even as it was, Mr. Juxon looked considerably annoyed as he stood by, smoothing his smooth hair from time to time with his large white hand and feeling that even at his age, and with his experience, a man might sometimes cut a poor figure.
On the particular occasion when the relations between John and the squire became an object of comment to Mrs. Ambrose, the whole party were assembled at Mrs. Goddard's cottage. She had invited everybody to tea, a meal which in her little household represented a compromise between her appetite and Nellie's. She had felt that in the small festivities of the Billingsfield Christmas season she was called upon to do her share with the rest and, being a simple woman, she took her part simply, and did not dignify the entertainment of her four friends by calling it a dinner. The occasion was none the less hospitable, for she gave both time and thought to her preparations. Especially she had considered the question of precedence; it was doubtful, she thought, whether the squire or the vicar should sit upon her right hand. The squire, as being lord of the manor, represented the powers temporal, the vicar on the other hand represented the church, which on ordinary occasions takes precedence of the lay faculty. She had at last privately consulted Mr. Juxon, in whom she had the greatest confidence, asking him frankly which she should do, and Mr. Juxon had unhesitatingly yielded the post of honour to the vicar, adding to enforce his opinion the very plausible argument that if he, the squire, took Mrs. Goddard in to tea, the vicar would have to give his arm either to little Nellie or to his own wife. Mrs. Goddard was convinced and the affair was a complete success.
John felt that he could not complain of his position, but as he was separated from the object of his admiration during the whole meal, he resolved to indemnify himself for his sufferings by monopolising her conversation during the rest of the evening. The squire on the other hand, who had been obliged to talk to Mrs. Ambrose during most of the time while they were at table, and who, moreover, was beginning to feel that he had seen almost enough of John Short, determined to give the young man a lesson in the art of interesting women in general and Mrs. Goddard in particular. She, indeed, would not have been a woman at all had she not understood the two men and their intentions. After tea the party congregated round the fire in the little drawing-room, standing in a circle, of which their hostess formed the centre. Mr. Juxon and John, anticipating that Mrs. Goddard must ultimately sit upon one side or other of the fireplace had at first chosen opposite sides, each hoping that she would take the chair nearest to himself. But Mrs. Goddard remained standing an unreasonably long time, for the very reason that she did not choose to sit beside either of them. Seeing this the squire, who had perhaps a greater experience than his adversary in this kind of strategic warfare, left his place and put himself on the same side as John. He argued that Mrs. Goddard would probably then choose the opposite side, whereas John who was younger would think she would come towards the two where they stood; John would consequently lose time, Mr. Juxon would cross again and install himself by her side while his enemy was hesitating.
While these moves and counter-moves were proceeding, the conversation was general. The vicar was for the hundredth time admiring the Andrea del Sarto over the chimney-piece and his wife was explaining her general objections to the representation of sacred subjects upon canvas, while Mrs. Goddard answered each in turn and endeavoured to disagree with neither. What the squire had foreseen when he made his last move, however, actually took place at last. Mrs. Goddard established herself upon the side opposite the two men. Mr. Juxon crossed rapidly to where she was seated, and Mrs. Ambrose, who had turned with the intention of speaking to the squire, found herself confronted by John. He saw that he had been worsted by his foe and immediately lost his temper; but being brought face to face with Mrs. Ambrose was obliged to control it as he might. That excellent lady beamed upon him with a maternal smile of the kind which is peculiarly irritating to young men. He struggled to get away however, glancing over Mrs. Ambrose's shoulder at the squire and longing to be "at him" as he would have expressed it. But the squire was not to be got at so easily, for the vicar's wife was of a fine presence and covered much ground. John involuntarily thought of the dyke before Troy, of Hector and his heroes attempting to storm it and of the Ajaces and Sarpedon defending it and glaring down from above. He could appreciate Hector's feelings—Mrs. Ambrose was very like the dyke.
The squire smiled serenely and smoothed his hair as he talked to Mrs. Goddard and she herself looked by no means discontented, thereby adding, as it were, an insult to the injury done to John.
"I shall always envy you the cottage," the squire was saying. "I have not a single room in the Hall that is half so cheery in the evening."
"I shall never forget my terror when we first met," answered Mrs. Goddard, "do you remember? You frightened me by saying you would like to live here. I thought you meant it."
"You must have thought I was the most unmannerly of barbarians."
"Instead of being the best of landlords," added Mrs. Goddard with a grateful smile.
"I hardly know whether I am that," said Mr. Juxon, settling himself in his chair. "But I believe I am by nature an exceedingly comfortable man, and I never fail to consult the interests of my comfort."
"And of mine. Think of all you have done to improve this place. I can never thank you enough. I suppose one always feels particularly grateful at Christmas time—does not one?"
"One has more to be grateful for, it seems to me—in our climate, too. People in southern countries never really know what comfort means, because nature never makes them thoroughly uncomfortable. Only a man who is freezing can appreciate a good fire."
"I suppose you have been a good deal in such places," suggested Mrs. Goddard, vaguely.
"Oh yes—everywhere," answered the squire with equal indefiniteness. "By the bye, talking of travelling, when is our young friend going away?" There was not a shade of ill-humour in the question.
"The day after New Year's—I believe."
"He has had a very pleasant visit."
"Yes," replied Mrs. Goddard, "I hope it will do him a great deal of good."
"Why? Was he ill? Ah—I remember, they said he had worked too hard. It is a great mistake to work too hard, especially when one is very young."
"He is very young, is not he?" remarked Mrs. Goddard with a faint smile, remembering the many conversations she had had with him.
"Very. Did it ever strike you that—well, that he was losing his head a little?"
"No," answered his companion innocently. "What about?"
"Oh, nothing. Only he has rather a peculiar temper. He is perpetually getting very angry with no ostensible reason—and then he glares at one like an angry cat."
"Take care," said Mrs. Goddard, "he might hear you."
"Do him good," said the squire cheerfully.
"Oh, no! It would hurt his feelings dreadfully. How can you be so unkind?"
"He is a very good boy, you know. Really, I believe he is. Only he is inclined to be rather too unreasonable; I should think he might be satisfied."
"Satisfied with what?" inquired Mrs. Goddard, who did not wish to understand.
"With the way you have treated him," returned the squire bluntly. "You have been wonderfully good to him."
"Have I?" The faint colour rose to her cheek. "I don't know—poor fellow! I daresay his life at Cambridge is very dull."
"Yes. Entirely devoid of that species of amusement which he has enjoyed so abundantly in Billingsfield. It is not every undergraduate who has a chance to talk to you for a week at a time."
Mr. Juxon made the remark very calmly, without seeming to be in the least annoyed. He was much too wise a man to appear to be displeased at Mrs. Goddard's treatment of John. Moreover, he felt that on the present occasion, at least, John had been summarily worsted; it was his turn to be magnanimous.
"If you are going to make compliments, I will go away," said Mrs. Goddard.
"I? I never made a compliment in my life," replied the squire complacently. "Do you think it is a compliment to tell you that Mr. Short probably enjoys your conversation much more than the study of Greek roots?"
"Besides, in general," continued the squire, "compliments are mere waste of breath. If a woman has any vanity she knows her own good points much better than any man who attempts to explain them to her; and if she has no vanity, no amount of explanation of her merits will make her see them in a proper light."
"That is very true," answered Mrs. Goddard, thoughtfully. "It never struck me before. I wonder whether that is the reason women always like men who never make any compliments at all?"
The squire's face assumed an amusing expression of inquiry and surprise.
"Is that personal?" he asked.
"Oh—of course not," answered Mrs. Goddard in some confusion. She blushed and turning towards the fire took up the poker and pretended to stir the coals. Women always delight in knocking a good fire to pieces, out of pure absence of mind. John Short saw the movement and, escaping suddenly from the maternal conversation of Mrs. Ambrose, threw himself upon his knee on the hearth-rug and tried to take the poker from his hostess's hand.
"Oh, Mrs. Goddard, don't! Let me do it—please!" he exclaimed.
"But I can do it very well myself," said she protesting and not relaxing her hold upon the poker. But John was obstinate in his determination to save her trouble, and rudely tried to get the instrument away.
"Please don't—you hurt me," said Mrs. Goddard petulantly.
"Oh—I beg your pardon—I wanted to help you," said John leaving his hold. "I did not really hurt you—did I?" he asked, almost tenderly.
"Dreadfully," replied Mrs. Goddard, half angry and half amused at his impatience and subsequent contrition. The squire sat complacently in his chair, watching the little scene. John hated him more than ever, and grew very red. Mrs. Goddard saw the boy's embarrassment and presently relented.
"I daresay you will do it better than I," she said, handing him the poker, which John seized with alacrity. "That big coal—there," she added, pointing to a smouldering block in the corner of the grate.
"I did not mean to be rude," said John. "I only wanted to help you." He knelt by her side poking the fire industriously. "I only wanted to get a chance to talk to you," he added, in a low voice, barely audible to Mrs. Goddard as she leaned forward.
"I am afraid you cannot do that just now," she said, not unkindly, but with the least shade of severity in her tone. "You will get dreadfully hot if you stay there, so near the fire."
"I don't mind the heat in the least," said John heroically. Nevertheless as she did not give him any further encouragement he was presently obliged to retire, greatly discomfited. He could not spend the evening on his knees with the poker in his hand.
"Bad failure," remarked the squire in an undertone as soon as John had rejoined Mrs. Ambrose, who had not quite finished her lecture on homoeopathy.
Mrs. Goddard leaned back in her chair and looked at Mr. Juxon rather coolly. She did not want him to laugh at John, though she was not willing to encourage John herself.
"You should not be unkind," she said. "He is such a nice boy—why should you wish him to be uncomfortable?"
"Oh, I don't in the least. I could not help being amused a little. I am sure I don't want to be unkind."
Indeed the squire had not shown himself to be so, on the whole, and he did not refer to the matter again during the evening. He kept his place for some time by Mrs. Goddard's side and then, judging that he had sufficiently asserted his superiority, rose and talked to Mrs. Ambrose. But John, being now in a thoroughly bad humour, could not take his vacant seat with a good grace. He stood aloof and took up a book that lay upon the table and avoided looking at Mrs. Goddard. By and by, when the party broke up, he said good-night in such a particularly cold and formal tone of voice that she stared at him in surprise. But he took no notice of her look and went away after the Ambroses, in that state of mind which boys call a huff.
But on the following day John repented of his behaviour. All day long he wandered about the garden of the vicarage, excusing himself from joining the daily skating which formed the staple of amusement during the Christmas week, by saying that he had an idea for a copy of verses and must needs work it out. But he inwardly hoped that Mrs. Goddard would come to the vicarage late in the afternoon, without the inevitable Mr. Juxon, and that he might then get a chance of talking to her. He was not quite sure what he should say. He would find words on the spur of the moment; it would at all events be much easier than to meet her on the ice at the Hall with all the rest of them and to see Mr. Juxon pushing her about in that detestable chair, with the unruffled air of superiority which John so hated to see upon his face. The vicar suspected more than ever that there was something wrong; he had seen some of the by-play on the previous evening, and had noticed John's ill-concealed disappointment at being unable to dislodge the sturdy squire from his seat. But Mrs. Ambrose seemed to be very obtuse, and the vicar would have been the last to have spoken of his suspicions, even to the wife of his bosom. It was his duty to induce John to go back to his work at the end of the week; it was not his duty to put imputations upon him which Mrs. Ambrose would naturally exaggerate and which would drive her excellent heart into a terrible state of nervous anxiety.
But Mrs. Goddard did not come back to the vicarage on that day, and John went to dinner with a sad heart. It did not seem like a day at all if he had not seen her and talked with her. He had now no doubt whatever that he was seriously in love, and he set himself to consider his position. The more he considered it, the more irreconcilable it seemed to be with the passion which beset him. A child could see that for several years, at least, he would not be in a position to marry. With Mr. Juxon at hand from year's end to year's end, the owner of the Hall, of the Billingsfield property and according to all appearances of other resources besides,—with such a man constantly devoted to her, could Mrs. Goddard be expected to wait for poor John three years, even two years, from the time of the examination for the classical Tripos? Nothing was more improbable, he was forced to admit. And yet, the idea of life if he did not marry Mrs. Goddard was dismal beyond all expression; he would probably not survive it. He did not know what he should do. He shrank from the thought of declaring his love to her at once. He remembered with pain that she had a terrible way of laughing at him when he grew confidential or too complimentary, and he dreaded lest at the supreme moment of his life he should appear ridiculous in her eyes—he, a mere undergraduate. If he came out at the head of the Tripos it would be different; and yet that seemed so long to wait, especially while Mr. Juxon lived at the Hall and Mrs. Goddard lived at the park gates. Suddenly a thought struck him which filled him with delight; it was just possible that Mr. Juxon had no intention of marrying Mrs. Goddard. If he had any such views he would probably have declared them before now, for he had met her every day during more than half a year. John longed to ask some one the question. Perhaps Mr. Ambrose, who might be supposed to know everything connected with Mrs. Goddard, could tell him. He felt very nervous at the idea of speaking to the vicar on the subject, and yet it seemed to him that no one else could set his mind at rest. If he were quite certain that Mr. Juxon had no intention of offering himself to the charming tenant of the cottage, he might return to his work with some sense of security in the future. Otherwise he saw only the desperate alternative of throwing himself at her feet and declaring that he loved her, or of going back to Cambridge with the dreadful anticipation of hearing any day that she had married the squire. To be laughed at would be bad, but to feel that he had lost her irrevocably, without a struggle, would be awful. No one but the vicar could and would tell him the truth; it would be bitter to ask such a question, but it must be done. Having at last come to this formidable resolution, towards the conclusion of dinner, his spirits rose a little. He took another glass of the vicar's mild ale and felt that he could face his fate.
"May I speak to you a moment in the study, Mr. Ambrose?" he said as they rose from table.
"Certainly," replied the vicar; and having conducted his wife to the drawing-room, he returned to find John. There was a low, smouldering fire in the study grate, and John had lit a solitary candle. The room looked very dark and dismal and John was seated in one of the black leather chairs, waiting.
"Anything about those verses you were speaking of to-day?" asked the vicar cheerfully, in anticipation of a pleasant classical chat.
"No," said John, gloomily. "The fact is—" he cleared his throat, "the fact is, I want to ask you rather a delicate question, sir."
The vicar's heavy eyebrows contracted; the lines of his face all turned downwards, and his long, clean-shaved upper lip closed sharply upon its fellow, like a steel trap. He turned his grey eyes upon John's averted face with a searching look.
"Have you got into any trouble at Trinity, John?" he asked severely.
"Oh no—no indeed," said John. Nothing was further from his thoughts than his college at that moment. "I want to ask you a question, which no one else can answer. Is—do you think that—that Mr. Juxon has any idea of marrying Mrs. Goddard?"
The vicar started in astonishment and laid both hands upon the arms of his chair.
"What—in the world—put that—into your head?" he asked very slowly, emphasising every word of his question. John was prepared to see his old tutor astonished but was rather taken aback at the vicar's tone.
"Do you think it is likely, sir?" he insisted.
"Certainly not," answered the vicar, still eyeing him suspiciously. "Certainly not. I have positive reasons to prove the contrary. But, my dear John, why, in the name of all that is sensible, do you ask me such a question? You don't seriously think of proposing—"
"I don't see why I should not," said John doggedly, seeing that he was found out.
"You don't see why you should not? Why the thing is perfectly absurd, not to say utterly impossible! John, you are certainly mad."
"I don't see why," repeated John. "I am a grown man. I have good prospects—"
"Good prospects!" ejaculated the vicar in horror. "Good prospects! Why, you are only an undergraduate at Cambridge."
"I may be senior classic in a few months," objected John. "That is not such a bad prospect, it seems to me."
"It means that you may get a fellowship, probably will—in the course of a few years. But you lose it if you marry. Besides—do you know that Mrs. Goddard is ten years older than you, and more?"
"Impossible," said John in a tone of conviction.
"I know that she is. She will be two and thirty on her next birthday, and you are not yet one and twenty."
"I shall be next month," argued John, who was somewhat taken aback, however, by the alarming news of Mrs. Goddard's age. "Besides, I can go into the church, before I get a fellowship—"
"No, you can't," said the vicar energetically. "You won't be able to manage it. If you do, you will have to put up with a poor living."
"That would not matter. Mrs. Goddard has something—"
"An honourable prospect!" exclaimed Mr. Ambrose, growing more and more excited. "To marry a woman ten years older than yourself because she has a little money of her own! You! I would not have thought it of you, John—indeed I would not!"
Indeed no one was more surprised than John Short himself, when he found himself arguing the possibilities of his marriage with his old tutor. But he was an obstinate young fellow enough and was not inclined to give up the fight easily.
"Really," he objected, "I cannot see anything so very terrible in the idea. I shall certainly make my way in the world. You know that it is not for the sake of her money. Many men have married women ten years older than themselves, and not half so beautiful and charming, I am sure."
"I don't believe it," said the vicar, "and if they have, why it has been very different, that is all. Besides, you have not known Mrs. Goddard a week—positively not more than five days—why, it is madness! Do you mean to tell me that at the end of five days you believe you are seriously attached to a lady you never saw in your life before?"
"I saw her once," said John. "That day when I waked Muggins—"
"Once! Nearly three years ago! I have no patience with you, John! That a young fellow of your capabilities should give way to such a boyish fancy! It is absolutely amazing! I thought you were growing to like her society very much, but I did not believe it would, come to this!"
"It is nothing to be ashamed of," said John stoutly.
"It is something to be afraid of," answered the vicar.
"Oh, do not be alarmed," retorted John. "I will do nothing rash. You have set my mind at rest in assuring me that she will not marry Mr. Juxon. I shall not think of offering myself to Mrs. Goddard until after the Tripos."
"Offering myself"—how deliciously important the expression sounded to John's own ears! It conveyed such a delightful sense of the possibilities of life when at last he should feel that he was in a position to offer himself to any woman, especially to Mrs. Goddard.
"I have a great mind not to ask you to come down, even if you do turn out senior classic," said the vicar, still fuming with excitement. "But if you put off your rash action until then, you will probably have changed your mind."
"I will never change my mind," said John confidently. It was evident, nevertheless, that if the romance of his life were left to the tender mercies of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose, it was likely to come to an abrupt termination. When the two returned to the society of Mrs. Ambrose, the vicar was still very much agitated and John was plunged in a gloomy melancholy.
The vicar's suspicions were more than realized and he passed an uncomfortable day after his interview with John, in debating what he ought to do, whether he ought to do anything at all, or whether he should merely hasten his old pupil's departure and leave matters to take care of themselves. He was a very conscientious man, and he felt that he was responsible for John's conduct towards Mrs. Goddard, seeing that she had put herself under his protection, and that John was almost like one of his family. His first impulse was to ask counsel of his wife, but he rejected the plan, reflecting with great justice that she was very fond of John and had at first not been sure of liking Mrs. Goddard; she would be capable of thinking that the latter had "led Short on," as she would probably say. The vicar did not believe this, and was therefore loath that any one else should. He felt that circumstances had made him Mrs. Goddard's protector, and he was moreover personally attached to her; he would not therefore do or say anything whereby she was likely to appear to any one else in an unfavourable light. It was incredible that she should have given John any real encouragement. Mr. Ambrose wondered whether he ought to warn her of his pupil's madness. But when he thought about that, it seemed unnecessary. It was unlikely that John would betray himself during his present visit, since the vicar had solemnly assured him that there was no possibility of a marriage so far as Mr. Juxon was concerned. It was undoubtedly a very uncomfortable situation but there was evidently nothing to be done; Mr. Ambrose felt that to speak to Mrs. Goddard would be to precipitate matters in a way which could not but cause much humiliation to John Short and much annoyance to herself. He accordingly held his peace, but his upper lip set itself stiffly and his eyes had a combative expression which told his wife that there was something the matter.
After breakfast John went out, on pretence of walking in the garden, and Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose were left alone. The latter, as usual after the morning meal, busied herself about the room, searching out those secret corners which she suspected Susan of having forgotten to dust. The vicar stood looking out of the window. The weather was grey and it seemed likely that there would be a thaw which would spoil the skating.
"I think," said Mrs. Ambrose, "that John is far from well."
"What makes you say that?" inquired the vicar, who was thinking of him at that very moment.
"Anybody might see it. He has no appetite—he ate nothing at breakfast this morning. He looks pale. My dear, that boy will certainly break down."
"I don't believe it," answered Mr. Ambrose still looking out of the window. His hands were in his pockets, thrusting the skirts of his clerical coat to right and left; he slowly raised himself upon his toes and let himself down again, repeating the operation as though it helped him to think.
"That is the way you spoil all your coats, Augustin," said his wife looking at him from behind. "I assure you, my dear, that boy is not well. Poor fellow, all alone at college with nobody to look after him—"
"We have all had to go through that. I do not think it hurts him a bit," said the vicar, slowly removing his hands from his pockets in deference to his wife's suggestion.
"Then what is it, I would like to know? There is certainly something the matter. Now I ask you whether he looks like himself?"
"Perhaps he does look a little tired."
"Tired! There is something on his mind, Augustin. I am positively certain there is something on his mind. Why won't you tell me?"
"My dear—" began the vicar, and then stopped short. He was a very truthful man, and as he knew very well what was the matter with John he was embarrassed to find an answer. "My dear," he repeated, "I do not think he is ill."
"Then I am right," retorted Mrs. Ambrose, triumphantly. "It is just as I thought, there is something on his mind. Don't deny it, Augustin; there is something on his mind."
Mr. Ambrose was silent; he glared fiercely at the window panes.
"Why don't you tell me?" insisted his better half. "I am quite sure you know all about it. Augustin, do you know, or do you not?"
Thus directly questioned the vicar turned sharply round, sweeping the window with his coat tails.
"My dear," he said, shortly, "I do know. Can you not imagine that it may be a matter which John does not care to have mentioned?"
Mrs. Ambrose grew red with annoyance. She had set her heart on finding out what had disturbed John, and the vicar had apparently made up his mind that she should not succeed. Such occurrences were very rare between that happy couple.
"I cannot believe he has done anything wrong," said Mrs. Ambrose. "Anything which need be concealed from me—the interest I have always taken—"
"He has not done anything wrong," said the vicar impatiently. "I do wish you would drop the subject—"
"Then why should it be concealed from me?" objected his wife with admirable logic. "If it is anything good he need not hide his light under a bushel, I should think."
"There are plenty of things which are neither bad nor good," argued the vicar, who felt that if he could draw Mrs. Ambrose into a Socratic discussion he was safe.
"That is a distinct prevarication, Augustin," said she severely. "I am surprised at you."
"Not at all," retorted the vicar. "What has occurred to John is not owing to any fault of his." In his own mind the good man excused himself by saying that John could not have helped falling in love with Mrs. Goddard. But his wife turned quickly upon him.
"That does not prevent what has occurred to him, as you call it, from being good, or more likely bad, to judge from his looks."
"My dear," said Mr. Ambrose, driven to bay, "I entirely decline to discuss the point."
"I thought you trusted me, Augustin."
"So I do—certainly—and I always consult you about my own affairs."
"I think I have as much right to know about John as you have," retorted his wife, who seemed deeply hurt.
"That is a point then which you ought to settle with John," said the vicar. "I cannot betray his confidence, even to you."
"Oh—then he has been making confidences to you?"
"How in the world should I know about his affairs unless he told me?"
"One may see a great many things without being told about them, you know," answered Mrs. Ambrose, assuming a prim expression as she examined a small spot in the tablecloth. The vicar was walking up and down the room. Her speech, which was made quite at random, startled him. She, too, might easily have observed John's manner when he was with Mrs. Goddard; she might have guessed the secret, and have put her own interpretation on John's sudden melancholy.
"What may one see?" asked the vicar quickly.
"I did not say one could see anything," answered his wife. "But from your manner I infer that there really is something to see. Wait a minute—what can it be?"
"Nothing—my dear, nothing," said the vicar desperately.
"Oh, Augustin, I know you so well," said the implacable Mrs. Ambrose. "I am quite sure now, that it is something I have seen. Deny it, my dear."
The vicar was silent and bit his long upper lip as he marched up and down the room.
"Of course—you cannot deny it," she continued. "It is perfectly clear. The very first day he arrived—when you came down from the Hall, in the evening—Augustin, I have got it! It is Mrs. Goddard—now don't tell me it is not. I am quite sure it is Mrs. Goddard. How stupid of me! Is it not Mrs. Goddard?"
"If you are so positive," said the vicar, resorting to a form of defence generally learned in the nursery, "why do you ask me?"
"I insist upon knowing, Augustin, is it, or is it not, Mrs. Goddard?"
"My dear, I positively refuse to answer any more questions," said the vicar with tardy firmness.
"Oh, it is no matter," retorted Mrs. Ambrose in complete triumph, "if it were not Mrs. Goddard of course you would say so at once."
A form of argument so unanswerable, that the vicar hastily left the room feeling that he had basely betrayed John's confidence, and muttering something about intolerable curiosity. Mrs. Ambrose had vanquished her husband, as she usually did on those rare occasions when anything approaching to a dispute arose between them. Having come to the conclusion that "it" was Mrs. Goddard, the remainder of the secret needed no discovery. It was plain that John must be in love with the tenant of the cottage, and it seemed likely that it would devolve upon Mrs. Ambrose to clear up the matter. She was very fond of John and her first impression was that Mrs. Goddard, whom she now again suspected of having foreign blood, had "led him on"—an impression which the vicar had anticipated when he rashly resolved not to tell his wife John's secret. She knew very well that the vicar must have told John his mind in regard to such an attachment, and she easily concluded that he must have done so on the previous evening when John called him into the study. But she had just won a victory over her husband, and she consequently felt that he was weak, probably too weak to save the situation, and it was borne in upon her that she ought to do something immediately. Unhappily she did not see quite clearly what was to be done. She might go straight to Mrs. Goddard and accuse her of having engaged John's affections; but the more she thought of that, the more diffident she grew in regard to the result of such an interview. Curiosity had led her to a certain point, but caution prevented her from going any further. Mrs. Ambrose was very cautious. The habit of living in a small place, feeling that all her actions were watched by the villagers and duly commented upon by them, had made her even more careful than she was by nature. It would be very unwise to bring about a scene with Mrs. Goddard unless she were very sure of the result. Mrs. Goddard was hardly a friend. In Mrs. Ambrose's opinion an acquaintance of two years and a half standing involving almost daily meetings and the constant exchange of civilities did not constitute friendship. Nevertheless the vicar's wife would have been ashamed to own that after such long continued intercourse she was wholly ignorant of Mrs. Goddard's real character; especially as the latter had requested the vicar to tell Mrs. Ambrose her story when she first appeared at Billingsfield. Moreover, as her excitement at the victory she had gained over her husband began to subside, she found herself reviewing mentally the events of the last few days. She remembered distinctly that John had perpetually pursued Mrs. Goddard, and that although the latter seemed to find him agreeable enough, she had never to Mrs. Ambrose's knowledge given him any of those open encouragements in the way of smiles and signals, which in the good lady's mind were classified under the term "flirting." Mrs. Ambrose's ideas of flirtation may have been antiquated; thirty years of Billingsfield in the society of the Reverend Augustin had not contributed to their extension; but, on the whole, they were just. Mrs. Goddard had not flirted with John. It is worthy of notice that in proportion as the difficulties she would enter upon by demanding an explanation from Mrs. Goddard seemed to grow in magnitude, she gradually arrived at the conclusion that it was John's fault. Half an hour ago, in the flush of triumph she had indignantly denied that anything could be John's fault. She now resolved to behave to him with great austerity. Such an occurrence as his falling in love could not be passed over with indifference. It seemed best that he should leave Billingsfield very soon.
John thought so too. Existence would not be pleasant now that the vicar knew his secret, and he cursed the folly and curiosity which had led him to betray himself in order to find out whether Mr. Juxon thought of marrying Mrs. Goddard. He had now resolved to return to Cambridge at once and to work his hardest until the Tripos was over. He would then come back to Billingsfield and, with his honours fresh upon him and the prospect of immediate success before him, he would throw himself at Mrs. Goddard's feet. But of course he must have one farewell interview. Oh, those farewell interviews! Those leave-takings, wherein often so much is taken without leave!
Accordingly at luncheon he solemnly announced his intention of leaving the vicarage on the morrow. Mrs. Ambrose received the news with an equanimity which made John suspicious, for she had heretofore constantly pressed him to extend his holiday, expressing the greatest solicitude for his health. She now sat stony as a statue and said very coldly that she was sorry he had to go so soon, but that, of course, it could not be helped. The vicar was moved by his wife's apparent indifference. John, he said, might at least have stayed till the end of the promised week; but at this suggestion Mrs. Ambrose darted at her husband a look so full of fierce meaning, that the vicar relapsed into silence, returning to the consideration of bread and cheese and a salad of mustard and cress. John saw the look and was puzzled; he did not believe the vicar capable of going straight to Mrs. Ambrose with the story of the last night's interview. But he was already so much disturbed that he did not attempt to explain to himself what was happening.
But when lunch was over, and he realised that he had declared his intention of leaving Billingsfield on the next day, he saw that if he meant to see Mrs. Goddard before he left he must go to her at once. He therefore waited until he heard Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose talking together in the sitting-room and then slipped quietly out by the garden to the road.
He had no idea what he should say when he met Mrs. Goddard. He meant, of course, to let her understand, or at least suppose, that he was leaving suddenly on her account, but he did not know in the least how to accomplish it. He trusted that the words necessary to him would come into his head spontaneously. His heart beat fast and he was conscious that he blushed as he rang the bell of the cottage. Almost before he knew where he was, he found himself ushered into the little drawing-room and in the presence of the woman he now felt sure that he loved. But to his great annoyance she was not alone; Nellie was with her. Mrs. Goddard sat near the fire, reading a review; Nellie was curled up in a corner of the deep sofa with a book, her thick brown curls falling all over her face and hands as she read. Mrs. Goddard extended her hand, without rising.
"How do you do, Mr. Short?" she said. The young man stood hat in hand in the middle of the room, feeling very nervous. It was strange that he should experience any embarrassment now, considering how many hours he had spent in her company during the last few days. He blushed and stammered.
"How do you do? I, in fact—I have come to say good-bye," he blurted out.
"So soon?" said Mrs. Goddard calmly. "Pray sit down."
"Are you really going away, Mr. Short?" asked Nellie. "We are so sorry to lose you." The child had caught the phrase from a book she had been reading, and thought it very appropriate. Her mother smiled.
"Yes—as Nellie says—we are sorry to lose you," she said. "I thought you were to stay until Monday?"
"So I was—but—very urgent business—not exactly business of course, but work—calls me away sooner." Having delivered himself of this masterpiece of explanation John looked nervously at Nellie and then at his hat and then, with an imploring glance, at Mrs. Goddard.
"But we shall hear of you, Mr. Short—after the examinations, shall we not?"
"Oh yes," said John eagerly. "I will come down as soon as the lists are out."
"You have my best wishes, you know," said Mrs. Goddard kindly. "I feel quite sure that you will really be senior classic."
"Mamma is always saying that—it is quite true," explained Nellie.
John blushed again and looked gratefully at Mrs. Goddard. He wished Nellie would go away, but there was not the least chance of that.
"Yes," said Mrs. Goddard, "I often say it. We all take a great interest in your success here."
"You are very kind," murmured John. "Of course I shall come down at once and tell you all about it, if I succeed. I do not really expect to be first, of course. I shall be satisfied if I get a place in the first ten. But I mean to do my best."
"No one can do more," said Mrs. Goddard, leaning back in her chair and looking into the fire. Her face was quiet, but not sad as it sometimes was. There was a long silence which John did not know how to break. Nellie sat upon a carved chair by the side of the fireplace dangling her legs and looking at her toes, turning them alternately in and out. She wished John would go for she wanted to get back to her book, but had been told it was not good manners to read when there were visitors. John looked at Mrs. Goddard's face and was about to speak, and then changed his mind and grew red and said nothing. Had she noticed his shyness she would have made an effort at conversation, but she was absent-minded to-day, and was thinking of something else. Suddenly she started and laughed a little.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "What were you saying, Mr. Short?" Had John been saying anything he would have repeated it, but being thus interrogated he grew doubly embarrassed.
"I—I have not much to say—except good-bye," he answered.
"Oh, don't go yet," said Mrs. Goddard. "You are not going this afternoon? It is always so unpleasant to say good-bye, is it not?"
"Dreadfully," answered John. "I would rather say anything else in the world. No; I am going early to-morrow morning. There is no help for it," he added desperately. "I must go, you know."
"The next time you come, you will be able to stay much longer," said Mrs. Goddard in an encouraging way. "You will have no more terms, then."
"No indeed—nothing but to take my degree."
"And what will you do then? You said the other day that you thought seriously of going into the church."
"Oh mamma," interrupted Nellie suddenly looking up, "fancy Mr. Short in a black gown, preaching like Mr. Ambrose! How perfectly ridiculous he would look!"
"Nellie—Nellie!" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard, "do not talk nonsense. It is very rude to say Mr. Short would look ridiculous."
"I didn't mean to be rude, mamma," returned Nellie, blushing scarlet and pouting her lips, "only it would be very funny, wouldn't it?"
"I daresay it would," said John, relieved by the interruption. "I wish you would advise me what to do, Mrs. Goddard," he added in a confidential tone.
"I?" she exclaimed, and then laughed. "How should I be able to advise you?"
"I am sure you could," said John, insisting. "You have such wonderfully good judgment—"
"Have I? I did not know it. But, tell me, if you come out very high are you not sure of getting a fellowship?"
"It is likely," answered John indifferently. "But I should have to give it up if I married—"
"Surely, Mr. Short," cried Mrs. Goddard, with a laugh that cut him to the quick, "you do not think of marrying for many years to come?"
"Oh—I don't know," he said, blushing violently, "why should not I?"
"In the first place, a man should never marry until he is at least five and twenty years old," said Mrs. Goddard, calmly.
"Well—I may be as old as that before I get the fellowship."
"Yes, I daresay. But even then, why should you want to resign a handsome independence as soon as you have got it? Is there anything else so good within your reach?"
"There is the church, of course," said John. "But Miss Nellie seems to think that ridiculous—"
"Never mind Nellie," answered Mrs. Goddard. "Seriously, Mr. Short, do you approve of entering the church merely as a profession, a means of earning money?"
"Well—no—I did not put it in that way. But many people do."
"That does not prove that it is either wise or decent," said Mrs. Goddard. "If you felt impelled to take orders from other motives, it would be different. As I understand you, you are choosing a profession for the sake of becoming independent."
"Certainly," said John.
"Well, then, there is nothing better for you to do than to get a fellowship and hold it as long as you can, and during that time you can make up your mind." She spoke with conviction, and the plan seemed good. "But I cannot imagine," she continued, "why you should ask my advice."
"And not to marry?" inquired John nervously.
"There is plenty of time to think of that when you are thirty—even five and thirty is not too late."
"Dear me!" exclaimed John, "I think that is much too old!"
"Do you call me old?" asked Mrs. Goddard serenely. "I was thirty-one on my last birthday."
For the twentieth time, John felt himself growing uncomfortably hot. Not only had he said an unconscionably stupid thing, but Mrs. Goddard, after advising him not to marry for ten years, had almost hinted that she might meanwhile be married herself. What else could she mean by the remark? But John was hardly a responsible being on that day. His views of life and his understanding were equally disturbed.
"No indeed," he protested on hearing her confession of age. "No indeed—why, you are the youngest person I ever saw, of course. But with men—it is quite different."
"Is it? I always thought women were supposed to grow old faster than men. That is the reason why women always marry men so much older than themselves."
"Oh—in that case—I have nothing more to say," replied John in very indistinct tones. The perspiration was standing upon his forehead; the room swam with him and he felt a terrible, prickly sensation all over his body.
"Mamma, shan't I open the door? Mr. Short is so very hot," said Nellie looking at him in some astonishment. At that moment John felt as though he could have eaten little Nellie, long legs, ringlets and all, with infinite satisfaction. He rose suddenly to his feet.
"The fact is—it is late—I must really be saying good-bye," he stammered.
"Must you?" said Mrs. Goddard, suspecting that something was the matter. "Well, I am very sorry to say good-bye. But you will be coming back soon, will you not?"
"Yes—I don't know—perhaps I shall not come back at all. Good-bye—Mrs. Goddard—good-bye, Miss Nellie."
"Good-bye, Mr. Short," said Mrs. Goddard, looking at him with some anxiety. "You are not ill? What is the matter?"
"Oh dear no, nothing," answered John with an unnatural laugh. "No thank you—good-bye."
He managed to get out of the door and rushed down to the road. The cold air steadied his nerves. He felt better. With a sudden revulsion of feeling, he began to utter inward imprecations against his folly, against the house he had just left, against everybody and everything in general, not forgetting poor little Nellie.
"If ever I cross that threshold again—" he muttered with tragic emphasis. His face was still red, and he swung his stick ferociously as he strode towards the vicarage. Several little boys in ragged smock-frocks saw him and thought he had had some beer, even as their own fathers, and made vulgar gestures when his back was turned.
So poor John packed his portmanteau and left the vicarage early on the following morning. He sent an excuse to Mr. Juxon explaining that the urgency of his work called him back sooner than he had expected, and when the train moved fairly off towards Cambridge he felt that in being spared the ordeal of shaking hands with his rival he had at least escaped some of the bitterness of his fate; as he rolled along he thought very sadly of all that had happened in that short time which was to have been so gay and which had come to such a miserable end.
Reflecting calmly upon his last interview with Mrs. Goddard, he was surprised to find that his memory failed him. He could not recall anything which could satisfactorily account for the terrible disappointment and distress he had felt. She had only said that she was thirty-one years old, precisely as the vicar had stated on the previous evening, and she had advised him not to marry for some years to come. But she had laughed, and his feelings had been deeply wounded—he could not tell precisely at what point in the conversation, but he was quite certain that she had laughed, and oh! that terrible Nellie! It was very bitter, and John felt that the best part of his life was lived out. He went back to his books with a dark and melancholy tenacity of purpose, flavoured by a hope that he might come to some sudden and awful end in the course of the next fortnight, thereby causing untold grief and consternation to the hard-hearted woman he had loved. But before the fortnight had expired he found to his surprise that he was intensely interested in his work, and once or twice he caught himself wondering how Mrs. Goddard would look when he went back to Billingsfield and told her he had come out at the head of the classical Tripos—though, of course, he had no intention of going there, nor of ever seeing her again.
Mr. Juxon was relieved to hear that John Short had suddenly gone back to Cambridge. He had indeed meant to like him from the first and had behaved towards him with kindness and hospitality; but while ready to admire his good qualities and to take a proper amount of interest in his approaching contest for honours, he had found him a troublesome person to deal with and, in his own words, a nuisance. Matters had come to a climax after the tea at the cottage, when the squire had so completely vanquished him, but since that evening the two had not met.
The opposition which John brought to bear against Mr. Juxon was not, however, without its effect. The squire was in that state of mind in which a little additional pressure sufficed to sway his resolutions. It has been seen that he had for some time regarded Mrs. Goddard's society as an indispensable element in his daily life; he had been so much astonished at discovering this that he had absented himself for several days and had finally returned ready to submit to his fate, in so far as his fate required that he should see Mrs. Goddard every day. Shortly afterwards John had appeared and by his persistent attempts to monopolise Mrs. Goddard's conversation had again caused an interruption in the squire's habits, which the latter had resented with characteristic firmness. The very fact of having resisted John had strengthened and given a new tone to Mr. Juxon's feelings towards his tenant. He began to watch the hands of the clock with more impatience than formerly when, after breakfast, he sat reading the papers before the library fire, waiting for the hour when he was accustomed to go down to the cottage. His interest in the papers decreased as his interest in the time of day grew stronger, and for the first time in his life he found to his great surprise that after reading the news of the day with the greatest care, he was often quite unable to remember a word of what he had read. Then, at first, he would be angry with himself and would impose upon himself the task of reading the paper again before going to the cottage. But very soon he found that he had to read it twice almost every day, and this seemed such an unreasonable waste of time that he gave it up, and fell into very unsystematic habits.
For some days, as though by mutual consent, neither Mrs. Goddard nor the squire spoke of John Short. The squire was glad he was gone and hoped that he would not come back, but was too kind-hearted to say so; Mrs. Goddard instinctively understood Mr. Juxon's state of mind and did not disturb his equanimity by broaching an unpleasant subject. Several days passed by after John had gone and he would certainly not have been flattered had he known that during that time two, out of the four persons he had met so often in his short holiday, had never so much as mentioned him.
One afternoon in January the squire found himself alone with Mrs. Goddard. It was a great exception, and she herself doubted whether she were wise to receive him when she had not Nellie with her. Nellie had gone to the vicarage to help Mrs. Ambrose with some work she had in hand for her poor people, but Mrs. Goddard had a slight headache and had stayed at home in consequence. The weather was very bad; heavy clouds were driving overhead and the north-east wind howled and screamed through the leafless oaks of the park, driving a fine sleet against the cottage windows and making the dead creepers rattle against the wall. It was a bitter January day, and Mrs. Goddard felt how pleasant a thing it was to stay at home with a book beside her blazing fire. She was all alone, and Nellie would not be back before four o'clock. Suddenly a well-known step echoed upon the slate flags without and there was a ring at the bell. Mrs. Goddard had hardly time to think what she should do, as she laid her book upon her knee and looked nervously over her shoulder towards the door. It was awkward, she thought, but it could not be helped. In such weather it seemed absurd to send the squire away because her little girl was not with her. He had come all the way down from the Hall to spend this dreary afternoon at the cottage—she could not send him away. There were sounds in the passage as of some one depositing a waterproof coat and an umbrella, the door opened and Mr. Juxon appeared upon the threshold.
"Come in," said Mrs. Goddard, banishing her scruples as soon as she saw him. "I am all alone," she added rather apologetically. The squire, who was a simple man in many ways, understood the remark and felt slightly embarrassed.
"Is Miss Nellie out?" he asked, coming forward and taking Mrs. Goddard's hand. He had not yet reached the point of calling the child plain "Nellie;" he would have thought it an undue familiarity.
"She is gone to the vicarage," answered Mrs. Goddard. "What a dreadful day! You must be nearly frozen. Will you have a cup of tea?"
"No thanks—no, you are very kind. I have had a good walk; I am not cold—never am. As you say, in such weather I could not resist the temptation to come in. This is a capital day to test that India-rubber tubing we have put round your windows. Excuse me—I will just look and see if the air comes through."
Mr. Juxon carefully examined the windows of the sitting-room and then returned to his seat.
"It is quite air-tight, I think," he said with some satisfaction, as he smoothed his hair with his hand.
"Oh, quite," said Mrs. Goddard. "It was so very good of you."
"Not a bit of it," returned the squire cheerily. "A landlord's chief pre-occupation ought to be the comfort of his tenants and his next thought should be to keep his houses in repair. I never owned any houses before, so I have determined to start with good principles."
"I am sure you succeed. You walked down?"
"Always walk, in any weather. It is much less trouble and much cheaper. Besides, I like it."
"The best of all reasons. Then you will not have any tea? I almost wish you would, because I want some myself."
"Oh of course—in that case I shall be delighted. Shall I ring?"
He rang and Martha brought the tea. Some time was consumed in the preparations which Mr. Juxon watched with interest as though he had never seen tea made before. Everything that Mrs. Goddard did interested him.
"I do not know why it is," she said at last, "but weather like this is delightful when one is safe at home. I suppose it is the contrast—"
"Yes indeed. It is like the watch below in dirty-weather."
"Excuse me—I don't quite understand—"
"At sea," explained the squire. "There is no luxury like being below when the decks are wet and there is heavy weather about."
"I should think so," said Mrs. Goddard. "Have you been at sea much, Mr. Juxon?"
"Thirty years," returned the squire laconically. Mrs. Goddard looked at him in astonishment.
"You don't mean to say you have been a sailor all your life?"
"Does that surprise you? I have been a sailor since I was twelve years old. But I got very tired of it. It is a hard life."
"Were you in the navy, Mr. Juxon?" asked Mrs. Goddard eagerly, feeling that she was at last upon the track of some information in regard to his past life.
"Yes—I was in the navy," answered the squire, slowly. "And then I was at college, and then in the navy again. At last I entered the merchant service and commanded my own ships for nearly twenty years."
"How very extraordinary! Why then, you must have been everywhere."
"Very nearly. But I would much rather be in Billingsfield."
"You never told me," said Mrs. Goddard almost reproachfully. "What a change it must have been for you, from the sea to the life of a country gentleman!"
"It is what I always wanted."
"But you do not seem at all like the sea captains one hears about—"
"Well, perhaps not," replied the squire thoughtfully. "There are a great many different classes of sea captains. I always had a taste for books. A man can read a great deal on a long voyage. I have sometimes been at sea for more than two years at a time. Besides, I had a fairly good education and—well, I suppose it was because I was a gentleman to begin with and was more than ten years in the Royal Navy. All that makes a great difference. Have you ever made a long voyage, Mrs. Goddard?"
"I have crossed the channel," said she. "But I wish you would tell me something more about your life."
"Oh no—it is very dull, all that. You always make me talk about myself," said the squire in a tone of protestation.
"It is very interesting."
"But—could we not vary the conversation by talking about you a little?" suggested Mr. Juxon.
"Oh no! Please—" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard rather nervously. She grew pale and busied herself again with the tea. "Do tell me more about your voyages. I suppose that was the way you collected so many beautiful things, was it not?"
"Yes, I suppose so," answered the squire, looking at her curiously. "In fact of course it was. I was a great deal in China and South America and India, and in all sorts of places where one picks up things."
"And in Turkey, too, where you got Stamboul?"
"Yes. He was so wet that I left him outside to day. Did not want to spoil your carpet."
The squire had a way of turning the subject when he seemed upon the point of talking about himself which was very annoying to Mrs. Goddard. But she had not entirely recovered her equanimity and for the moment had lost control of the squire. Besides she had a headache that day.
"Stamboul does not get the benefit of the contrast we were talking about at first," she remarked, in order to say something.
"I could not possibly bring him in," returned the squire looking at her again. "Excuse me, Mrs. Goddard—I don't mean to be inquisitive you know, but—I always want to be of any use."
She looked at him inquiringly.
"I mean, to be frank, I am afraid that something is giving you trouble. I have noticed it for some time. You know, if I can be of any use, if I can help you in any way—you have only to say the word."
Again she looked at him. She did not know why it was so, but the genuinely friendly tone in which he made the offer touched her. She was surprised, however; she could not understand why he should think she was in trouble, and indeed she was in no greater distress than she had suffered during the greater part of the last three years.
"You are very kind, Mr. Juxon. But there is nothing the matter—I have a headache."
"Oh," said the squire, "I beg your pardon." He looked away and seemed embarrassed.
"You have done too much already," said Mrs. Goddard, fearing that she had not sufficiently acknowledged his offer of assistance.
"I cannot do too much. That is impossible," he said in a tone of conviction. "I have very few friends, Mrs. Goddard, and I like to think that you are one of the best of them."
"I am sure—I don't know what to say, Mr. Juxon," she answered, somewhat startled by the directness of his speech. "I am sure you have always been most kind, and I hope you do not think me ungrateful."
"I? You? No—dear me, please never mention it! The fact is, Mrs. Goddard—" he stopped and smoothed Ms hair. "What particularly disagreeable weather," he remarked irrelevantly, looking out of the window at the driving sleet.