The rooks had ceased their wheeling and their cawing; the five-minutes bell, with its jerky, toneless tolling, alone broke the Sunday hush. An old horse, not yet taken up from grass, stood motionless, resting a hind-leg, with his face turned towards the footpath. Within the churchyard wicket the Rector, firm and square, a low-crowned hat tilted up on his bald forehead, was talking to a deaf old cottager. He raised his hat and nodded to the ladies; then, leaving his remark unfinished, disappeared within the vestry. At the organ Mrs. Barter was drawing out stops in readiness to play her husband into church, and her eyes, half-shining and half-anxious, were fixed intently on the vestry door.
The Squire and Mrs. Pendyce, now almost abreast, came down the aisle and took their seats beside their daughters and the General in the first pew on the left. It was high and cushioned. They knelt down on tall red hassocks. Mrs. Pendyce remained over a minute buried in thought; Mr. Pendyce rose sooner, and looking down, kicked the hassock that had been put too near the seat. Fixing his glasses on his nose, he consulted a worn old Bible, then rising, walked to the lectern and began to find the Lessons. The bell ceased; a wheezing, growling noise was heard. Mrs. Barter had begun to play; the Rector, in a white surplice, was coming in. Mr. Pendyce, with his back turned, continued to find the Lessons. The service began.
Through a plain glass window high up in the right-hand aisle the sun shot a gleam athwart the Pendyces' pew. It found its last resting-place on Mrs. Barter's face, showing her soft crumpled cheeks painfully flushed, the lines on her forehead, and those shining eyes, eager and anxious, travelling ever from her husband to her music and back again. At the least fold or frown on his face the music seemed to quiver, as to some spasm in the player's soul. In the Pendyces' pew the two girls sang loudly and with a certain sweetness. Mr. Pendyce, too, sang, and once or twice he looked in surprise at his brother, as though he were not making a creditable noise.
Mrs. Pendyce did not sing, but her lips moved, and her eyes followed the millions of little dust atoms dancing in the long slanting sunbeam. Its gold path canted slowly from her, then, as by magic, vanished. Mrs. Pendyce let her eyes fall. Something had fled from her soul with the sunbeam; her lips moved no more.
The Squire sang two loud notes, spoke three, sang two again; the Psalms ceased. He left his seat, and placing his hands on the lectern's sides, leaned forward and began to read the Lesson. He read the story of Abraham and Lot, and of their flocks and herds, and how they could not dwell together, and as he read, hypnotised by the sound of his own voice, he was thinking:
'This Lesson is well read by me, Horace Pendyce. I am Horace Pendyce—Horace Pendyce. Amen, Horace Pendyce!'
And in the first pew on the left Mrs. Pendyce fixed her eyes upon him, for this was her habit, and she thought how, when the spring came again, she would run up to town, alone, and stay at Green's Hotel, where she had always stayed with her father when a girl. George had promised to look after her, and take her round the theatres. And forgetting that she had thought this every autumn for the last ten years, she gently smiled and nodded. Mr. Pendyce said:
"'And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. Then Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the Lord.' Here endeth the first Lesson."
The sun, reaching the second window, again shot a gold pathway athwart the church; again the millions of dust atoms danced, and the service went on.
There came a hush. The spaniel John, crouched close to the ground outside, poked his long black nose under the churchyard gate; the fox-terriers, seated patient in the grass, pricked their ears. A voice speaking on one note broke the hush. The spaniel John sighed, the fox-terriers dropped their ears, and lay down heavily against each other. The Rector had begun to preach. He preached on fruitfulness, and in the first right-hand pew six of his children at once began to fidget. Mrs. Barter, sideways and unsupported on her seat, kept her starry eyes fixed on his cheek; a line of perplexity furrowed her brow. Now and again she moved as though her back ached. The Rector quartered his congregation with his gaze, lest any amongst them should incline to sleep. He spoke in a loud-sounding voice.
God-he said-wished men to be fruitful, intended them to be fruitful, commanded them to be fruitful. God—he said—made men, and made the earth; He made man to be fruitful in the earth; He made man neither to question nor answer nor argue; He made him to be fruitful and possess the land. As they had heard in that beautiful Lesson this morning, God had set bounds, the bounds of marriage, within which man should multiply; within those bounds it was his duty to multiply, and that exceedingly—even as Abraham multiplied. In these days dangers, pitfalls, snares, were rife; in these days men went about and openly, unashamedly advocated shameful doctrines. Let them beware. It would be his sacred duty to exclude such men from within the precincts of that parish entrusted to his care by God. In the language of their greatest poet, "Such men were dangerous"—dangerous to Christianity, dangerous to their country, and to national life. They were not brought into this world to follow sinful inclination, to obey their mortal reason. God demanded sacrifices of men. Patriotism demanded sacrifices of men, it demanded that they should curb their inclinations and desires. It demanded of them their first duty as men and Christians, the duty of being fruitful and multiplying, in order that they might till this fruitful earth, not selfishly, not for themselves alone. It demanded of them the duty of multiplying in order that they and their children might be equipped to smite the enemies of their Queen and country, and uphold the name of England in whatever quarrel, against all who rashly sought to drag her flag in the dust.
The Squire opened his eyes and looked at his watch. Folding his arms, he coughed, for he was thinking of the chaff-cutter. Beside him Mrs. Pendyce, with her eyes on the altar, smiled as if in sleep. She was thinking, 'Skyward's in Bond Street used to have lovely lace. Perhaps in the spring I could——Or there was Goblin's, their Point de Venise——'
Behind them, four rows back, an aged cottage woman, as upright as a girl, sat with a rapt expression on her carved old face. She never moved, her eyes seemed drinking in the movements of the Rector's lips, her whole being seemed hanging on his words. It is true her dim eyes saw nothing but a blur, her poor deaf ears could not hear one word, but she sat at the angle she was used to, and thought of nothing at all. And perhaps it was better so, for she was near her end.
Outside the churchyard, in the sun-warmed grass, the fox-terriers lay one against the other, pretending to shiver, with their small bright eyes fixed on the church door, and the rubbery nostrils of the spaniel John worked ever busily beneath the wicket gate.
GREGORY VIGIL PROPOSES
About three o'clock that afternoon a tall man walked up the avenue at Worsted Skeynes, in one hand carrying his hat, in the other a small brown bag. He stopped now and then, and took deep breaths, expanding the nostrils of his straight nose. He had a fine head, with wings of grizzled hair. His clothes were loose, his stride was springy. Standing in the middle of the drive, taking those long breaths, with his moist blue eyes upon the sky, he excited the attention of a robin, who ran out of a rhododendron to see, and when he had passed began to whistle. Gregory Vigil turned, and screwed up his humorous lips, and, except that he was completely lacking in embonpoint, he had a certain resemblance to this bird, which is supposed to be peculiarly British.
He asked for Mrs. Pendyce in a high, light voice, very pleasant to the ear, and was at once shown to the white morning-room.
She greeted him affectionately, like many women who have grown used to hearing from their husbands the formula "Oh! your people!"—she had a strong feeling for her kith and kin.
"You know, Grig," she said, when her cousin was seated, "your letter was rather disturbing. Her separation from Captain Bellew has caused such a lot of talk about here. Yes; it's very common, I know, that sort of thing, but Horace is so——! All the squires and parsons and county people we get about here are just the same. Of course, I'm very fond of her, she's so charming to look at; but, Gregory, I really don't dislike her husband. He's a desperate sort of person—I think that's rather, refreshing; and you know I do think she's a little like him in that!"
The blood rushed up into Gregory Vigil's forehead; he put his hand to his head, and said:
"Like him? Like that man? Is a rose like an artichoke?"
Mrs. Pendyce went on:
"I enjoyed having her here immensely. It's the first time she's been here since she left the Firs. How long is that? Two years? But you know, Grig, the Maidens were quite upset about her. Do you think a divorce is really necessary?"
Gregory Vigil answered: "I'm afraid it is."
Mrs. Pendyce met her cousin's gaze serenely; if anything, her brows were uplifted more than usual; but, as at the stirring of secret trouble, her fingers began to twine and twist. Before her rose a vision of George and Mrs. Bellew side by side. It was a vague maternal feeling, an instinctive fear. She stilled her fingers, let her eyelids droop, and said:
"Of course, dear Grig, if I can help you in any way—Horace does so dislike anything to do with the papers."
Gregory Vigil drew in his breath.
"The papers!" he said. "How hateful it is! To think that our civilisation should allow women to be cast to the dogs! Understand, Margery, I'm thinking of her. In this matter I'm not capable of considering anything else."
Mrs. Pendyce murmured: "Of course, dear Grig, I quite understand."
"Her position is odious; a woman should not have to live like that, exposed to everyone's foul gossip."
"But, dear Grig, I don't think she minds; she seemed to me in such excellent spirits."
Gregory ran his fingers through his hair.
"Nobody understands her," he said; "she's so plucky!"
Mrs. Pendyce stole a glance at him, and a little ironical smile flickered over her face.
"No one can look at her without seeing her spirit. But, Grig, perhaps you don't quite understand her either!"
Gregory Vigil put his hand to his head.
"I must open the window a moment," he said.
Again Mrs. Pendyce's fingers began twisting, again she stilled them.
"We were quite a large party last week, and now there's only Charles. Even George has gone back; he'll be so sorry to have missed you!"
Gregory neither turned nor answered, and a wistful look came into Mrs. Pendyce's face.
"It was so nice for the dear boy to win that race! I'm afraid he bets rather! It's such a comfort Horace doesn't know."
Still Gregory did not speak.
Mrs. Pendyce's face lost its anxious look, and gained a sort of gentle admiration.
"Dear Grig," she said, "where do you go about your hair? It is so nice and long and wavy!"
Gregory turned with a blush.
"I've been wanting to get it cut for ages. Do you really mean, Margery, that your husband can't realise the position she's placed in?"
Mrs. Pendyce fixed her eyes on her lap.
"You see, Grig," she began, "she was here a good deal before she left the Firs, and, of course, she's related to me—though it's very distant. With those horrid cases, you never know what will happen. Horace is certain to say that she ought to go back to her husband; or, if that's impossible, he'll say she ought to think of Society. Lady Rose Bethany's case has shaken everybody, and Horace is nervous. I don't know how it is, there's a great feeling amongst people about here against women asserting themselves. You should hear Mr. Barter and Sir James Maiden, and dozens of others; the funny thing is that the women take their side. Of course, it seems odd to me, because so many of the Totteridges ran away, or did something funny. I can't help sympathising with her, but I have to think of—of——In the country, you don't know how things that people do get about before they've done them! There's only that and hunting to talk of."
Gregory Vigil clutched at his head.
"Well, if this is what chivalry has come to, thank God I'm not a squire!"
Mrs. Pendyce's eyes flickered.
"Ah!" she said, "I've thought like that so often."
Gregory broke the silence.
"I can't help the customs of the country. My duty's plain. There's nobody else to look after her."
Mrs. Pendyce sighed, and, rising from her chair, said: "Very well, dear Grig; do let us go and have some tea."
Tea at Worsted Skeynes was served in the hall on Sundays, and was usually attended by the Rector and his wife. Young Cecil Tharp had walked over with his dog, which could be heard whimpering faintly outside the front-door.
General Pendyce, with his knees crossed and the tips of his fingers pressed together, was leaning back in his chair and staring at the wall. The Squire, who held his latest bird's-egg in his hand, was showing its spots to the Rector.
In a corner by a harmonium, on which no one ever played, Norah talked of the village hockey club to Mrs. Barter, who sat with her eyes fixed on her husband. On the other side of the fire Bee and young Tharp, whose chairs seemed very close together, spoke of their horses in low tones, stealing shy glances at each other. The light was failing, the wood logs crackled, and now and then over the cosy hum of talk there fell short, drowsy silences—silences of sheer warmth and comfort, like the silence of the spaniel John asleep against his master's boot.
"Well," said Gregory softly, "I must go and see this man."
"Is it really necessary, Grig, to see him at all? I mean—if you've made up your mind——"
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
"It's only fair, I think!" And crossing the hall, he let himself out so quietly that no one but Mrs. Pendyce noticed he had gone.
An hour and a half later, near the railway-station, on the road from the village back to Worsted Skeynes, Mr. Pendyce and his daughter Bee were returning from their Sunday visit to their old butler, Bigson. The Squire was talking.
"He's failing, Bee-dear old Bigson's failing. I can't hear what he says, he mumbles so; and he forgets. Fancy his forgetting that I was at Oxford. But we don't get servants like him nowadays. That chap we've got now is a sleepy fellow. Sleepy! he's——What's that in the road? They've no business to be coming at that pace. Who is it? I can't see."
Down the middle of the dark road a dog cart was approaching at top speed. Bee seized her father's arm and pulled it vigorously, for Mr. Pendyce was standing stock-still in disapproval. The dog cart passed within a foot of him and vanished, swinging round into the station. Mr. Pendyce turned in his tracks.
"Who was that? Disgraceful! On Sunday, too! The fellow must be drunk; he nearly ran over my legs. Did you see, Bee, he nearly ran over——"
"It was Captain Bellew, Father; I saw his face." "Bellew? That drunken fellow? I shall summons him. Did you see, Bee, he nearly ran over my——"
"Perhaps he's had bad news," said Bee. "There's the train going out now; I do hope he caught it!"
"Bad news! Is that an excuse for driving over me? You hope he caught it? I hope he's thrown himself out. The ruffian! I hope he's killed himself."
In this strain Mr. Pendyce continued until they reached the church. On their way up the aisle they passed Gregory Vigil leaning forward with his elbows on the desk and his hand covering his eyes....
At eleven o'clock that night a man stood outside the door of Mrs. Bellew's flat in Chelsea violently ringing the bell. His face was deathly white, but his little dark eyes sparkled. The door was opened, and Helen Bellew in evening dress stood there holding a candle in her hand.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The man moved into the light.
"Jaspar! You? What on earth——"
"I want to talk."
"Talk? Do you know what time it is?"
"Time—there's no such thing. You might give me a kiss after two years. I've been drinking, but I'm not drunk."
Mrs. Bellew did not kiss him, neither did she draw back her face. No trace of alarm showed in her ice-grey eyes. She said: "If I let you in, will you promise to say what you want to say quickly, and go away?"
The little brown devils danced in Bellew's face. He nodded. They stood by the hearth in the sitting-room, and on the lips of both came and went a peculiar smile.
It was difficult to contemplate too seriously a person with whom one had lived for years, with whom one had experienced in common the range of human passion, intimacy, and estrangement, who knew all those little daily things that men and women living together know of each other, and with whom in the end, without hatred, but because of one's nature, one had ceased to live. There was nothing for either of them to find out, and with a little smile, like the smile of knowledge itself, Jaspar Bellew and Helen his wife looked at each other.
"Well," she said again; "what have you come for?"
Bellew's face had changed. Its expression was furtive; his mouth twitched; a furrow had come between his eyes.
"How—are—you?" he said in a thick, muttering voice.
Mrs. Bellew's clear voice answered:
"Now, Jaspar, what is it that you want?"
The little brown devils leaped up again in Jaspar's face.
"You look very pretty to-night!"
His wife's lips curled.
"I'm much the same as I always was," she said.
A violent shudder shook Bellew. He fixed his eyes on the floor a little beyond her to the left; suddenly he raised them. They were quite lifeless.
"I'm perfectly sober," he murmured thickly; then with startling quickness his eyes began to sparkle again. He came a step nearer.
"You're my wife!" he said.
Mrs. Bellew smiled.
"Come," she answered, "you must go!" and she put out her bare arm to push him back. But Bellew recoiled of his own accord; his eyes were fixed again on the floor a little beyond her to the left.
"What's that?" he stammered. "What's that—that black——?"
The devilry, mockery, admiration, bemusement, had gone out of his face; it was white and calm, and horribly pathetic.
"Don't turn me out," he stammered; "don't turn me out!"
Mrs. Bellew looked at him hard; the defiance in her eyes changed to a sort of pity. She took a quick step and put her hand on his shoulder.
"It's all right, old boy—all right!" she said. "There's nothing there!"
MR. PARAMOR DISPOSES
Mrs. Pendyce, who, in accordance with her husband's wish, still occupied the same room as Mr. Pendyce, chose the ten minutes before he got up to break to him Gregory's decision. The moment was auspicious, for he was only half awake.
"Horace," she said, and her face looked young and anxious, "Grig says that Helen Bellew ought not to go on in her present position. Of course, I told him that you'd be annoyed, but Grig says that she can't go on like this, that she simply must divorce Captain Bellew."
Mr. Pendyce was lying on his back.
"What's that?" he said.
Mrs. Pendyce went on
"I knew it would worry you; but really"—she fixed her eyes on the ceiling—"I suppose we ought only to think of her."
The Squire sat up.
"What was that," he said, "about Bellew?"
Mrs. Pendyce went on in a languid voice and without moving her eyes:
"Don't be angrier than you can help, dear; it is so wearing. If Grig says she ought to divorce Captain Bellew, then I'm sure she ought."
Horace Pendyce subsided on his pillow with a bounce, and he too lay with his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
"Divorce him!" he said—"I should think so! He ought to be hanged, a fellow like that. I told you last night he nearly drove over me. Living just as he likes, setting an example of devilry to the whole neighbourhood! If I hadn't kept my head he'd have bowled me over like a ninepin, and Bee into the bargain."
Mrs. Pendyce sighed.
"It was a narrow escape," she said.
"Divorce him!" resumed Mr. Pendyce—"I should think so! She ought to have divorced him long ago. It was the nearest thing in the world; another foot and I should have been knocked off my feet!"
Mrs. Pendyce withdrew her glance from the ceiling.
"At first," she said, "I wondered whether it was quite—but I'm very glad you've taken it like this."
"Taken it! I can tell you, Margery, that sort of thing makes one think. All the time Barter was preaching last night I was wondering what on earth would have happened to this estate if—if——" And he looked round with a frown. "Even as it is, I barely make the two ends of it meet. As to George, he's no more fit at present to manage it than you are; he'd make a loss of thousands."
"I'm afraid George is too much in London. That's the reason I wondered whether—I'm afraid he sees too much of——"
Mrs. Pendyce stopped; a flush suffused her cheeks; she had pinched herself violently beneath the bedclothes.
"George," said Mr. Pendyce, pursuing his own thoughts, "has no gumption. He'd never manage a man like Peacock—and you encourage him! He ought to marry and settle down."
Mrs. Pendyce, the flush dying in her cheeks, said:
"George is very like poor Hubert."
Horace Pendyce drew his watch from beneath his pillow.
"Ah!" But he refrained from adding, "Your people!" for Hubert Totteridge had not been dead a year. "Ten minutes to eight! You keep me talking here; it's time I was in my bath."
Clad in pyjamas with a very wide blue stripe, grey-eyed, grey-moustached, slim and erect, he paused at the door.
"The girls haven't a scrap of imagination. What do you think Bee said? 'I hope he hasn't lost his train.' Lost his train! Good God! and I might have—I might have——" The Squire did not finish his sentence; no words but what seemed to him violent and extreme would have fulfilled his conception of the danger he had escaped, and it was against his nature and his training to exaggerate a physical risk.
At breakfast he was more cordial than usual to Gregory, who was going up by the first train, for as a rule Mr. Pendyce rather distrusted him, as one would a wife's cousin, especially if he had a sense of humour.
"A very good fellow," he was wont to say of him, "but an out-and-out Radical." It was the only label he could find for Gregory's peculiarities.
Gregory departed without further allusion to the object of his visit. He was driven to the station in a brougham by the first groom, and sat with his hat off and his head at the open window, as if trying to get something blown out of his brain. Indeed, throughout the whole of his journey up to town he looked out of the window, and expressions half humorous and half puzzled played on his face. Like a panorama slowly unrolled, country house after country house, church after church, appeared before his eyes in the autumn sunlight, among the hedgerows and the coverts that were all brown and gold; and far away on the rising uplands the slow ploughman drove, outlined against the sky:
He took a cab from the station to his solicitors' in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He was shown into a room bare of all legal accessories, except a series of Law Reports and a bunch of violets in a glass of fresh water. Edmund Paramor, the senior partner of Paramor and Herring, a clean-shaven man of sixty, with iron-grey hair brushed in a cockscomb off his forehead, greeted him with a smile.
"Ah, Vigil, how are you? Up from the country?"
"From Worsted Skeynes."
"Horace Pendyce is a client of mine. Well, what can we do for you? Your Society up a tree?"
Gregory Vigil, in the padded leather chair that had held so many aspirants for comfort, sat a full minute without speaking; and Mr. Paramor, too, after one keen glance at his client that seemed to come from very far down in his soul, sat motionless and grave. There was at that moment something a little similar in the eyes of these two very different men, a look of kindred honesty and aspiration. Gregory spoke at last.
"It's a painful subject to me."
Mr. Paramor drew a face on his blotting-paper.
"I have come," went on Gregory, "about a divorce for my ward."
"Mrs. Jaspar Bellew?"
"Yes; her position is intolerable."
Mr. Paramor gave him a searching look.
"Let me see: I think she and her husband have been separated for some time."
"Yes, for two years."
"You're acting with her consent, of course?"
"I have spoken to her."
"You know the law of divorce, I suppose?"
Gregory answered with a painful smile:
"I'm not very clear about it; I hardly ever look at those cases in the paper. I hate the whole idea."
Mr. Paramor smiled again, became instantly grave, and said:
"We shall want evidence of certain things, Have you got any evidence?"
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
"I don't think there'll be any difficulty," he said. "Bellew agrees —they both agree!"
Mr. Paramor stared.
"What's that to do with it?"
Gregory caught him up.
"Surely, where both parties are anxious, and there's no opposition, it can't be difficult."
"Good Lord!" said Mr. Paramor.
"But I've seen Bellew; I saw him yesterday. I'm sure I can get him to admit anything you want!"
Mr. Paramor drew his breath between his teeth.
"Did you ever," he said drily, "hear of what's called collusion?"
Gregory got up and paced the room.
"I don't know that I've ever heard anything very exact about the thing at all," he said. "The whole subject is hateful to me. I regard marriage as sacred, and when, which God forbid, it proves unsacred, it is horrible to think of these formalities. This is a Christian country; we are all flesh and blood. What is this slime, Paramor?"
With this outburst he sank again into the chair, and leaned his head on his hand. And oddly, instead of smiling, Mr. Paramor looked at him with haunting eyes.
"Two unhappy persons must not seem to agree to be parted," he said. "One must be believed to desire to keep hold of the other, and must pose as an injured person. There must be evidence of misconduct, and in this case of cruelty or of desertion. The evidence must be impartial. This is the law."
Gregory said without looking up:
Mr. Paramor took his violets out of the water, and put them to his nose.
"How do you mean—why?"
"I mean, why this underhand, roundabout way?"
Mr. Paramor's face changed with startling speed from its haunting look back to his smile.
"Well," he said, "for the preservation of morality. What do you suppose?"
"Do you call it moral so to imprison people that you drive them to sin in order to free themselves?"
Mr. Paramor obliterated the face on his blotting-pad.
"Where's your sense of humour?" he said.
"I see no joke, Paramor."
Mr. Paramor leaned forward.
"My dear friend," he said earnestly, "I don't say for a minute that our system doesn't cause a great deal of quite unnecessary suffering; I don't say that it doesn't need reform. Most lawyers and almost any thinking man will tell you that it does. But that's a wide question which doesn't help us here. We'll manage your business for you, if it can be done. You've made a bad start, that's all. The first thing is for us to write to Mrs. Bellew, and ask her to come and see us. We shall have to get Bellew watched."
"That's detestable. Can't it be done without that?"
Mr. Paramor bit his forefinger.
"Not safe," he said. "But don't bother; we'll see to all that."
Gregory rose and went to the window. He said suddenly:
"I can't bear this underhand work."
Mr. Paramor smiled.
"Every honest man," he said, "feels as you do. But, you see, we must think of the law."
Gregory burst out again:
"Can no one get a divorce, then, without making beasts or spies of themselves?"
Mr. Paramor said gravely
"It is difficult, perhaps impossible. You see, the law is based on certain principles."
A smile wreathed Mr. Paramor's mouth, but died instantly.
"Ecclesiastical principles, and according to these a person desiring a divorce 'ipso facto' loses caste. That they should have to make spies or beasts of themselves is not of grave importance."
Gregory came back to the table, and again buried his head in his hands.
"Don't joke, please, Paramor," he said; "it's all so painful to me."
Mr. Paramor's eyes haunted his client's bowed head.
"I'm not joking," he said. "God forbid! Do you read poetry?" And opening a drawer, he took out a book bound in red leather. "This is a man I'm fond of:
"'Life is mostly froth and bubble; Two things stand like stone— KINDNESS in another's trouble, COURAGE in your own.'
"That seems to me the sum of all philosophy."
"Paramor," said Gregory, "my ward is very dear to me; she is dearer to me than any woman I know. I am here in a most dreadful dilemma. On the one hand there is this horrible underhand business, with all its publicity; and on the other there is her position—a beautiful woman, fond of gaiety, living alone in this London, where every man's instincts and every woman's tongue look upon her as fair game. It has been brought home to me only too painfully of late. God forgive me! I have even advised her to go back to Bellew, but that seems out of the question. What am I to do?"
Mr. Paramor rose.
"I know," he said—"I know. My dear friend, I know!" And for a full minute he remained motionless, a little turned from Gregory. "It will be better," he said suddenly, "for her to get rid of him. I'll go and see her myself. We'll spare her all we can. I'll go this afternoon, and let you know the result."
As though by mutual instinct, they put out their hands, which they shook with averted faces. Then Gregory, seizing his hat, strode out of the room.
He went straight to the rooms of his Society in Hanover Square. They were on the top floor, higher than the rooms of any other Society in the building—so high, in fact, that from their windows, which began five feet up, you could practically only see the sky.
A girl with sloping shoulders, red cheeks, and dark eyes, was working a typewriter in a corner, and sideways to the sky at a bureau littered with addressed envelopes, unanswered letters, and copies of the Society's publications, was seated a grey-haired lady with a long, thin, weatherbeaten face and glowing eyes, who was frowning at a page of manuscript.
"Oh, Mr. Vigil," she said, "I'm so glad you've come. This paragraph mustn't go as it is. It will never do."
Gregory took the manuscript and read the paragraph in question.
"This case of Eva Nevill is so horrible that we ask those of our women readers who live in the security, luxury perhaps, peace certainly, of their country homes, what they would have done, finding themselves suddenly in the position of this poor girl—in a great city, without friends, without money, almost without clothes, and exposed to all the craft of one of those fiends in human form who prey upon our womankind. Let each one ask herself: Should I have resisted where she fell?"
"It will never do to send that out," said the lady again.
"What is the matter with it, Mrs. Shortman?"
"It's too personal. Think of Lady Maiden, or most of our subscribers. You can't expect them to imagine themselves like poor Eva. I'm sure they won't like it."
Gregory clutched at his hair.
"Is it possible they can't stand that?" he said.
"It's only because you've given such horrible details of poor Eva."
Gregory got up and paced the room.
Mrs. Shortman went on
"You've not lived in the country for so long, Mr. Vigil, that you don't remember. You see, I know. People don't like to be harrowed. Besides, think how difficult it is for them to imagine themselves in such a position. It'll only shock them, and do our circulation harm."
Gregory snatched up the page and handed it to the girl who sat at the typewriter in the corner.
"Read that, please, Miss Mallow."
The girl read without raising her eyes.
"Well, is it what Mrs. Shortman says?"
The girl handed it back with a blush.
"It's perfect, of course, in itself, but I think Mrs. Shortman is right. It might offend some people."
Gregory went quickly to the window, threw it up, and stood gazing at the sky. Both women looked at his back.
Mrs. Shortman said gently:
"I would only just alter it like this, from after 'country homes': 'whether they do not pity and forgive this poor girl in a great city, without friends, without money, almost without clothes, and exposed to all the craft of one of those fiends in human form who prey upon our womankind,' and just stop there."
Gregory returned to the table.
"Not 'forgive,"' he said, "not 'forgive'!"
Mrs. Shortman raised her pen.
"You don't know," she said, "what a strong feeling there is. Mind, it has to go to numbers of parsonages, Mr. Vigil. Our principle has always been to be very careful. And you have been plainer than usual in stating the case. It's not as if they really could put themselves in her position; that's impossible. Not one woman in a hundred could, especially among those who live in the country and have never seen life. I'm a squire's daughter myself."
"And I a parson's," said Gregory, with a smile.
Mrs. Shortman looked at him reproachfully.
"Joking apart, Mr. Vigil, it's touch and go with our paper as it is; we really can't afford it. I've had lots of letters lately complaining that we put the cases unnecessarily strongly. Here's one:
"'BOURNEFIELD RECTORY, "'November 1. "'DEAR MADAM,
"'While sympathising with your good work, I am afraid I cannot become a subscriber to your paper while it takes its present form, as I do not feel that it is always fit reading for my girls. I cannot think it either wise or right that they should become acquainted with such dreadful aspects of life, however true they may be.
"'I am, dear madam, "'Respectfully yours, "'WINIFRED TUDDENHAM.
"'P.S.—I could never feel sure, too, that my maids would not pick it up, and perhaps take harm.'"
"I had that only this morning."
Gregory buried his face in his hands, and sitting thus he looked so like a man praying that no one spoke. When he raised his face it was to say:
"Not 'forgive,' Mrs. Shortman, not 'forgive'!"
Mrs. Shortman ran her pen through the word.
"Very well, Mr. Vigil," she said; "it's a risk."
The sound of the typewriter, which had been hushed, began again from the corner.
"That case of drink, Mr. Vigil—Millicent Porter—I'm afraid there's very little hope there."
"Relapsed again; it's the fifth time."
Gregory turned his face to the window, and looked at the sky.
"I must go and see her. Just give me her address."
Mrs. Shortman read from a green book:
"'Mrs. Porter, 2 Bilcock Buildings, Bloomsbury.' Mr. Vigil!"
"Mr. Vigil, I do sometimes wish you would not persevere so long with those hopeless cases; they never seem to come to anything, and your time is so valuable."
"How can I give them up, Mrs. Shortman? There's no choice."
"But, Mr. Vigil, why is there no choice? You must draw the line somewhere. Do forgive me for saying that I think you sometimes waste your time."
Gregory turned to the girl at the typewriter.
"Miss Mallow, is Mrs. Shortman right? do I waste my time?"
The girl at the typewriter blushed vividly, and, without looking round, said:
"How can I tell, Mr. Vigil? But it does worry one."
A humorous and perplexed smile passed over Gregory's lips.
"Now I know I shall cure her," he said. "2 Bilcock Buildings." And he continued to look at the sky. "How's your neuralgia, Mrs. Shortman?"
Mrs. Shortman smiled.
Gregory turned quickly.
"You feel that window, then; I'm so sorry."
Mrs. Shortman shook her head.
"No, but perhaps Molly does."
The girl at the typewriter said:
"Oh no; please, Mr. Vigil, don't shut it for me."
"Truth and honour?"
"Truth and honour," replied both women. And all three for a moment sat looking at the sky. Then Mrs. Shortman said:
"You see, you can't get to the root of the evil—that husband of hers."
"Ah," he said, "that man! If she could only get rid of him! That ought to have been done long ago, before he drove her to drink like this. Why didn't she, Mrs. Shortman, why didn't she?"
Mrs. Shortman raised her eyes, which had such a peculiar spiritual glow.
"I don't suppose she had the money," she said; "and she must have been such a nice woman then. A nice woman doesn't like to divorce—"
Gregory looked at her.
"What, Mrs. Shortman, you too, you too among the Pharisees?"
Mrs. Shortman flushed.
"She wanted to save him," she said; "she must have wanted to save him."
"Then you and I——" But Gregory did not finish, and turned again to the window. Mrs. Shortman, too, biting her lips, looked anxiously at the sky.
Miss Mallow at the typewriter, with a scared face, plied her fingers faster than ever.
Gregory was the first to speak.
"You must please forgive me," he said gently. "A personal matter; I forgot myself."
Mrs. Shortman withdrew her gaze from the sky.
"Oh, Mr. Vigil, if I had known——"
Gregory Gregory smiled.
"Don't, don't!" he said; "we've quite frightened poor Miss Mallow!"
Miss Mallow looked round at him, he looked at her, and all three once more looked at the sky. It was the chief recreation of this little society.
Gregory worked till nearly three, and walked out to a bun-shop, where he lunched off a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. He took an omnibus, and getting on the top, was driven West with a smile on his face and his hat in his hand. He was thinking of Helen Bellew. It had become a habit with him to think of her, the best and most beautiful of her sex—a habit in which he was growing grey, and with which, therefore, he could not part. And those women who saw him with his uncovered head smiled, and thought:
'What a fine-looking man!'
But George Pendyce, who saw him from the window of the Stoics' Club, smiled a different smile; the sight of him was always a little unpleasant to George.
Nature, who had made Gregory Vigil a man, had long found that he had got out of her hands, and was living in celibacy, deprived of the comfort of woman, even of those poor creatures whom he befriended; and Nature, who cannot bear that man should escape her control, avenged herself through his nerves and a habit of blood to the head. Extravagance, she said, I cannot have, and when I made this man I made him quite extravagant enough. For his temperament (not uncommon in a misty climate) had been born seven feet high; and as a man cannot add a cubit to his stature, so neither can he take one off. Gregory could not bear that a yellow man must always remain a yellow man, but trusted by care and attention some day to see him white. There lives no mortal who has not a philosophy as distinct from every other mortal's as his face is different from their faces; but Gregory believed that philosophers unfortunately alien must gain in time a likeness to himself if he were careful to tell them often that they had been mistaken. Other men in this Great Britain had the same belief.
To Gregory's reforming instinct it was a constant grief that he had been born refined. A natural delicacy would interfere and mar his noblest efforts. Hence failures deplored by Mrs. Pendyce to Lady Maiden the night they danced at Worsted Skeynes.
He left his bus near to the flat where Mrs. Bellow lived; with reverence he made the tour of the building and back again. He had long fixed a rule, which he never broke, of seeing her only once a fortnight; but to pass her windows he went out of his way most days and nights. And having made this tour, not conscious of having done anything ridiculous, still smiling, and with his hat on his knee, perhaps really happier because he had not seen her, was driven East, once more passing George Pendyce in the bow-window of the Stoics' Club, and once more raising on his face a jeering smile.
He had been back at his rooms in Buckingham Street half an hour when a club commissionaire arrived with Mr. Paramor's promised letter.
He opened it hastily.
"THE NELSON CLUB, "TRAFALGAR SQUARE. "MY DEAR VIGIL,
"I've just come from seeing your ward. An embarrassing complexion is lent to affairs by what took place last night. It appears that after your visit to him yesterday afternoon her husband came up to town, and made his appearance at her flat about eleven o'clock. He was in a condition bordering on delirium tremens, and Mrs. Bellew was obliged to keep him for the night. 'I could not,' she said to me, 'have refused a dog in such a state.' The visit lasted until this afternoon—in fact, the man had only just gone when I arrived. It is a piece of irony, of which I must explain to you the importance. I think I told you that the law of divorce is based on certain principles. One of these excludes any forgiveness of offences by the party moving for a divorce. In technical language, any such forgiveness or overlooking is called condonation, and it is a complete bar to further action for the time being. The Court is very jealous of this principle of non-forgiveness, and will regard with grave suspicion any conduct on the part of the offended party which might be construed as amounting to condonation. I fear that what your ward tells me will make it altogether inadvisable to apply for a divorce on any evidence that may lie in the past. It is too dangerous. In other words, the Court would almost certainly consider that she has condoned offences so far. Any further offence, however, will in technical language 'revive' the past, and under these circumstances, though nothing can be done at present, there may be hope in the future. After seeing your ward, I quite appreciate your anxiety in the matter, though I am by no means sure that you are right in advising this divorce. If you remain in the same mind, however, I will give the matter my best personal attention, and my counsel to you is not to worry. This is no matter for a layman, especially not for one who, like you, judges of things rather as they ought to be than as they are.
"I am, my dear Vigil, "Very sincerely yours, "EDMUND PARAMOR. "GREGORY VIGIL, ESQ.
"If you want to see me, I shall be at my club all the evening.-E. P."
When Gregory had read this note he walked to the window, and stood looking out over the lights on the river. His heart beat furiously, his temples were crimson. He went downstairs, and took a cab to the Nelson Club.
Mr. Paramor, who was about to dine, invited his visitor to join him.
Gregory shook his head.
"No, thanks," he said; "I don't feel like dining. What is this, Paramor? Surely there's some mistake? Do you mean to tell me that because she acted like a Christian to that man she is to be punished for it in this way?"
Mr. Paramor bit his finger.
"Don't confuse yourself by dragging in Christianity. Christianity has nothing to do with law."
"You talked of principles," said Gregory—"ecclesiastical"
"Yes, yes; I meant principles imported from the old ecclesiastical conception of marriage, which held man and wife to be undivorceable. That conception has been abandoned by the law, but the principles still haunt——"
"I don't understand."
Mr. Paramor said slowly:
"I don't know that anyone does. It's our usual muddle. But I know this, Vigil—in such a case as your ward's we must tread very carefully. We must 'save face,' as the Chinese say. We must pretend we don't want to bring this divorce, but that we have been so injured that we are obliged to come forward. If Bellew says nothing, the Judge will have to take what's put before him. But there's always the Queen's Proctor. I don't know if you know anything about him?"
"No," said Gregory, "I don't."
"Well, if he can find out anything against our getting this divorce, he will. It is not my habit to go into Court with a case in which anybody can find out anything."
"Do you mean to say"
"I mean to say that she must not ask for a divorce merely because she is miserable, or placed in a position that no woman should be placed in, but only if she has been offended in certain technical ways; and if—by condonation, for instance—she has given the Court technical reason for refusing her a divorce, that divorce will be refused her. To get a divorce, Vigil, you must be as hard as nails and as wary as a cat. Now do you understand?"
Gregory did not answer.
Mr. Paramor looked searchingly and rather pityingly in his face.
"It won't do to go for it at present," he said. "Are you still set on this divorce? I told you in my letter that I am not sure you are right."
"How can you ask me, Paramor? After that man's conduct last night, I am more than ever set on it."
"Then," said Mr. Paramor, "we must keep a sharp eye on Bellew, and hope for the best."
Gregory held out his hand.
"You spoke of morality," he said. "I can't tell you how inexpressibly mean the whole thing seems to me. Goodnight."
And, turning rather quickly, he went out.
His mind was confused and his heart torn. He thought of Helen Bellew as of the woman dearest to him in the coils of a great slimy serpent, and the knowledge that each man and woman unhappily married was, whether by his own, his partner's, or by no fault at all, in the same embrace, afforded him no comfort whatsoever. It was long before he left the windy streets to go to his home.
There comes now and then to the surface of our modern civilisation one of those great and good men who, unconscious, like all great and good men, of the goodness and greatness of their work, leave behind a lasting memorial of themselves before they go bankrupt.
It was so with the founder of the Stoics' Club.
He came to the surface in the year 187-, with nothing in the world but his clothes and an idea. In a single year he had floated the Stoics' Club, made ten thousand pounds, lost more, and gone down again.
The Stoics' Club lived after him by reason of the immortal beauty of his idea. In 1891 it was a strong and corporate body, not perhaps quite so exclusive as it had been, but, on the whole, as smart and aristocratic as any club in London, with the exception of that one or two into which nobody ever got. The idea with which its founder had underpinned the edifice was, like all great ideas, simple, permanent, and perfect—so simple, permanent, and perfect that it seemed amazing no one had ever thought of it before. It was embodied in No. 1 of the members' rules:
"No member of this club shall have any occupation whatsoever."
Hence the name of a club renowned throughout London for the excellence of its wines and cuisine.
Its situation was in Piccadilly, fronting the Green Park, and through the many windows of its ground-floor smoking-room the public were privileged to see at all hours of the day numbers of Stoics in various attitudes reading the daily papers or gazing out of the window.
Some of them who did not direct companies, grow fruit, or own yachts, wrote a book, or took an interest in a theatre. The greater part eked out existence by racing horses, hunting foxes, and shooting birds. Individuals among them, however, had been known to play the piano, and take up the Roman Catholic religion. Many explored the same spots of the Continent year after year at stated seasons. Some belonged to the Yeomanry; others called themselves barristers; once in a way one painted a picture or devoted himself to good works. They were, in fact, of all sorts and temperaments, but their common characteristic was an independent income, often so settled by Providence that they could not in any way get rid of it.
But though the principle of no occupation overruled all class distinctions, the Stoics were mainly derived from the landed gentry. An instinct that the spirit of the club was safest with persons of this class guided them in their elections, and eldest sons, who became members almost as a matter of course, lost no time in putting up their younger brothers, thereby keeping the wine as pure as might be, and preserving that fine old country-house flavour which is nowhere so appreciated as in London.
After seeing Gregory pass on the top of a bus, George Pendyce went into the card-room, and as it was still empty, set to contemplation of the pictures on the walls. They were effigies of all those members of the Stoics' Club who from time to time had come under the notice of a celebrated caricaturist in a celebrated society paper. Whenever a Stoic appeared, he was at once cut out, framed, glassed, and hung alongside his fellows in this room. And George moved from one to another till he came to the last. It was himself. He was represented in very perfectly cut clothes, with slightly crooked elbows, and race-glasses slung across him. His head, disproportionately large, was surmounted by a black billycock hat with a very flat brim. The artist had thought long and carefully over the face. The lips and cheeks and chin were moulded so as to convey a feeling of the unimaginative joy of life, but to their shape and complexion was imparted a suggestion of obstinacy and choler. To the eyes was given a glazed look, and between them set a little line, as though their owner were thinking:
'Hard work, hard work! Noblesse oblige. I must keep it going!'
Underneath was written: "The Ambler."
George stood long looking at the apotheosis of his fame. His star was high in the heavens. With the eye of his mind he saw a long procession of turf triumphs, a long vista of days and nights, and in them, round them, of them—Helen Bellow; and by an odd coincidence, as he stood there, the artist's glazed look came over his eyes, the little line sprang up between them.
He turned at the sound of voices and sank into a chair. To have been caught thus gazing at himself would have jarred on his sense of what was right.
It was twenty minutes past seven, when, in evening dress, he left the club, and took a shilling's-worth to Buckingham Gate. Here he dismissed his cab, and turned up the large fur collar of his coat. Between the brim of his opera-hat and the edge of that collar nothing but his eyes were visible. He waited, compressing his lips, scrutinising each hansom that went by. In the soft glow of one coming fast he saw a hand raised to the trap. The cab stopped; George stepped out of the shadow and got in. The cab went on, and Mrs. Bellew's arm was pressed against his own.
It was their simple formula for arriving at a restaurant together.
In the third of several little rooms, where the lights were shaded, they sat down at a table in a corner, facing each a wall, and, underneath, her shoe stole out along the floor and touched his patent leather boot. In their eyes, for all their would-be wariness, a light smouldered which would not be put out. An habitue, sipping claret at a table across the little room, watched them in a mirror, and there came into his old heart a glow of warmth, half ache, half sympathy; a smile of understanding stirred the crow's-feet round his eyes. Its sweetness ebbed, and left a little grin about his shaven lips. Behind the archway in the neighbouring room two waiters met, and in their nods and glances was that same unconscious sympathy, the same conscious grin. And the old habitue thought:
'How long will it last?'.... "Waiter, some coffee and my bill!"
He had meant to go to the play, but he lingered instead to look at Mrs. Bellew's white shoulders and bright eyes in the kindly mirror. And he thought:
'Young days at present. Ah, young days!'....
"Waiter, a Benedictine!" And hearing her laugh, O his old heart ached. 'No one,' he thought, 'will ever laugh like that for me again!'.... "Here, waiter, how's this? You've charged me for an ice!" But when the waiter had gone he glanced back into the mirror, and saw them clink their glasses filled with golden bubbling wine, and he thought: 'Wish you good luck! For a flash of those teeth, my dear, I'd give——'
But his eyes fell on the paper flowers adorning his little table—yellow and red and green; hard, lifeless, tawdry. He saw them suddenly as they were, with the dregs of wine in his glass, the spill of gravy on the cloth, the ruin of the nuts that he had eaten. Wheezing and coughing, 'This place is not what it was,' he thought; 'I shan't come here again!'
He struggled into his coat to go, but he looked once more in the mirror, and met their eyes resting on himself. In them he read the careless pity of the young for the old. His eyes answered the reflection of their eyes, 'Wait, wait! It is young days yet! I wish you no harm, my dears!' and limping-for one of his legs was lame—he went away.
But George and his partner sat on, and with every glass of wine the light in their eyes grew brighter. For who was there now in the room to mind? Not a living soul! Only a tall, dark young waiter, a little cross-eyed, who was in consumption; only the little wine-waiter, with a pallid face, and a look as if he suffered. And the whole world seemed of the colour of the wine they had been drinking; but they talked of indifferent things, and only their eyes, bemused and shining, really spoke. The dark young waiter stood apart, unmoving, and his cross-eyed glance, fixed on her shoulders, had all unconsciously the longing of a saint in some holy picture. Unseen, behind the serving screen, the little wine-waiter poured out and drank a glass from a derelict bottle. Through a chink of the red blinds an eye peered in from the chill outside, staring and curious, till its owner passed on in the cold.
It was long after nine when they rose. The dark young waiter laid her cloak upon her with adoring hands. She looked back at him, and in her eyes was an infinite indulgence. 'God knows,' she seemed to say, 'if I could make you happy as well, I would. Why should one suffer? Life is strong and good!'
The young waiter's cross-eyed glance fell before her, and he bowed above the money in his hand. Quickly before them the little wine-waiter hurried to the door, his suffering face screwed into one long smile.
"Good-night, madam; good-night, sir. Thank you very much!"
And he, too, remained bowed over his hand, and his smile relaxed.
But in the cab George's arm stole round her underneath the cloak, and they were borne on in the stream of hurrying hansoms, carrying couples like themselves, cut off from all but each other's eyes, from all but each other's touch; and with their eyes turned in the half-dark they spoke together in low tones.
GREGORY REOPENS THE CAMPAIGN
At one end of the walled garden which Mr. Pendyce had formed in imitation of that at dear old Strathbegally, was a virgin orchard of pear and cherry trees. They blossomed early, and by the end of the third week in April the last of the cherries had broken into flower. In the long grass, underneath, a wealth of daffodils, jonquils, and narcissus, came up year after year, and sunned their yellow stars in the light which dappled through the blossom.
And here Mrs. Pendyce would come, tan gauntlets on her hands, and stand, her face a little flushed with stooping, as though the sight of all that bloom was restful. It was due to her that these old trees escaped year after year the pruning and improvements which the genius of the Squire would otherwise have applied. She had been brought up in an old Totteridge tradition that fruit-trees should be left to themselves, while her husband, possessed of a grasp of the subject not more than usually behind the times, was all for newer methods. She had fought for those trees. They were as yet the only things she had fought for in her married life, and Horace Pendyce still remembered with a discomfort robbed by time of poignancy how she had stood with her back to their bedroom door and said, "If you cut those poor trees, Horace, I won't live here!" He had at once expressed his determination to have them pruned; but, having put off the action for a day or two, the trees still stood unpruned thirty-three years later. He had even come to feel rather proud of the fact that they continued to bear fruit, and would speak of them thus: "Queer fancy of my wife's, never been cut. And yet, remarkable thing, they do better than any of the others!"
This spring, when all was so forward, and the cuckoos already in full song, when the scent of young larches in the New Plantation (planted the year of George's birth) was in the air like the perfume of celestial lemons, she came to the orchard more than usual, and her spirit felt the stirring, the old, half-painful yearning for she knew not what, that she had felt so often in her first years at Worsted Skeynes. And sitting there on a green-painted seat under the largest of the cherry-trees, she thought even more than her wont of George, as though her son's spirit, vibrating in its first real passion, were calling to her for sympathy.
He had been down so little all that winter, twice for a couple of days' shooting, once for a week-end, when she had thought him looking thinner and rather worn. He had missed Christmas for the first time. With infinite precaution she had asked him casually if he had seen Helen Bellew, and he had answered, "Oh yes, I see her once in a way!"
Secretly all through the winter she consulted the Times newspaper for mention of George's horse, and was disappointed not to find any. One day, however, in February, discovering him absolutely at the head of several lists of horses with figures after them, she wrote off at once with a joyful heart. Of five lists in which the Ambler's name appeared, there was only one in which he was second. George's answer came in the course of a week or so. "MY DEAR MOTHER,
"What you saw were the weights for the Spring Handicaps. They've simply done me out of everything. In great haste,
"Your affectionate son, "GEORGE PENDYCE."
As the spring approached, the vision of her independent visit to London, which had sustained her throughout the winter, having performed its annual function, grew mistier and mistier, and at last faded away. She ceased even to dream of it, as though it had never been, nor did George remind her, and as usual, she ceased even to wonder whether he would remind her. She thought instead of the season visit, and its scurry of parties, with a sort of languid fluttering. For Worsted Skeynes, and all that Worsted Skeynes stood for, was like a heavy horseman guiding her with iron hands along a narrow lane; she dreamed of throwing him in the open, but the open she never reached.
She woke at seven with her tea, and from seven to eight made little notes on tablets, while on his back Mr. Pendyce snored lightly. She rose at eight. At nine she poured out coffee. From half-past nine to ten she attended to the housekeeper and her birds. From ten to eleven she attended to the gardener and her dress. From eleven to twelve she wrote invitations to persons for whom she did not care, and acceptances to persons who did not care for her; she drew out also and placed in due sequence cheques for Mr. Pendyce's signature; and secured receipts, carefully docketed on the back, within an elastic band; as a rule, also, she received a visit from Mrs. Husell Barter. From twelve to one she walked with her and "the dear dogs" to the village, where she stood hesitatingly in the cottage doors of persons who were shy of her. From half-past one to two she lunched. From two to three she rested on a sofa in the white morning-room with the newspaper in her hand, trying to read the Parliamentary debate, and thinking of other things. From three to half-past four she went to her dear flowers, from whom she was liable to be summoned at any moment by the arrival of callers; or, getting into the carriage, was driven to some neighbour's mansion, where she sat for half an hour and came away. At half-past four she poured out tea. At five she knitted a tie, or socks, for George or Gerald, and listened with a gentle smile to what was going on. From six to seven she received from the Squire his impressions of Parliament and things at large. From seven to seven-thirty she changed to a black low dress, with old lace about the neck. At seven-thirty she dined. At a quarter to nine she listened to Norah playing two waltzes of Chopin's, and a piece called "Serenade du Printemps" by Baff, and to Bee singing "The Mikado," or the "Saucy Girl" From nine to ten thirty she played a game called piquet, which her father had taught her, if she could get anyone with whom to play; but as this was seldom, she played as a rule patience by herself. At ten-thirty she went to bed. At eleven-thirty punctually the Squire woke her. At one o'clock she went to sleep. On Mondays she wrote out in her clear Totteridge hand, with its fine straight strokes, a list of library books, made up without distinction of all that were recommended in the Ladies' Paper that came weekly to Worsted Skeynes. Periodically Mr. Pendyce would hand her a list of his own, compiled out of the Times and the Field in the privacy of his study; this she sent too.
Thus was the household supplied with literature unerringly adapted to its needs; nor was it possible for any undesirable book to find its way into the house—not that this would have mattered much to Mrs. Pendyce, for as she often said with gentle regret, "My dear, I have no time to read."
This afternoon it was so warm that the bees were all around among the blossoms, and two thrushes, who had built in a yew-tree that watched over the Scotch garden, were in a violent flutter because one of their chicks had fallen out of the nest. The mother bird, at the edge of the long orchard grass, was silent, trying by example to still the tiny creature's cheeping, lest it might attract some large or human thing.
Mrs. Pendyce, sitting under the oldest cherry-tree, looked for the sound, and when she had located it, picked up the baby bird, and, as she knew the whereabouts of all the nests, put it back into its cradle, to the loud terror and grief of the parent birds. She went back to the bench and sat down again.
She had in her soul something of the terror of the mother thrush. The Maidens had been paying the call that preceded their annual migration to town, and the peculiar glow which Lady Maiden had the power of raising had not yet left her cheeks. True, she had the comfort of the thought, 'Ellen Maiden is so bourgeoise,' but to-day it did not still her heart.
Accompanied by one pale daughter who never left her, and two pale dogs forced to run all the way, now lying under the carriage with their tongues out, Lady Maiden had come and stayed full time; and for three-quarters of that time she had seemed, as it were, labouring under a sense of duty unfulfilled; for the remaining quarter Mrs. Pendyce had laboured under a sense of duty fulfilled.
"My dear," Lady Maiden had said, having told the pale daughter to go into the conservatory, "I'm the last person in the world to repeat gossip, as you know; but I think it's only right to tell you that I've been hearing things. You see, my boy Fred" (who would ultimately become Sir Frederick Maiden) "belongs to the same club as your son George—the Stoics. All young men belong there of course-I mean, if they're anybody. I'm sorry to say there's no doubt about it; your son has been seen dining at—perhaps I ought not to mention the name—Blafard's, with Mrs. Bellew. I dare say you don't know what sort of a place Blafard's is—a lot of little rooms where people go when they don't want to be seen. I've never been there, of course; but I can imagine it perfectly. And not once, but frequently. I thought I would speak to you, because I do think it's so scandalous of her in her position."
An azalea in a blue and white pot had stood between them, and in this plant Mrs. Pendyce buried her cheeks and eyes; but when she raised her face her eyebrows were lifted to their utmost limit, her lips trembled with anger.
"Oh," she said, "didn't you know? There's nothing in that; it's the latest thing!"
For a moment Lady Maiden wavered, then duskily flushed; her temperament and principles had recovered themselves.
"If that," she said with some dignity, "is the latest thing, I think it is quite time we were back in town."
She rose, and as she rose, such was her unfortunate conformation, it flashed through Mrs. Pendyce's mind 'Why was I afraid? She's only—' And then as quickly: 'Poor woman! how can she help her legs being short?'
But when she was gone, side by side with the pale daughter, the pale dogs once more running behind the carriage, Margery Pendyce put her hand to her heart.
And out here amongst the bees and blossom, where the blackbirds were improving each minute their new songs, and the air was so fainting sweet with scents, her heart would not be stilled, but throbbed as though danger were coming on herself; and she saw her son as a little boy again in a dirty holland suit with a straw hat down the back of his neck, flushed and sturdy, as he came to her from some adventure.
And suddenly a gush of emotion from deep within her heart and the heart of the spring day, a sense of being severed from him by a great, remorseless power, came over her; and taking out a tiny embroidered handkerchief, she wept. Round her the bees hummed carelessly, the blossom dropped, the dappled sunlight covered her with a pattern as of her own fine lace. From the home farm came the lowing of the cows on their way to milking, and, strange sound in that well-ordered home, a distant piping on a penny flute ....
"Mother, Mother, Mo-o-ther!"
Mrs. Pendyce passed her handkerchief across her eyes, and instinctively obeying the laws of breeding, her face lost all trace of its emotion. She waited, crumpling the tiny handkerchief in her gauntleted hand.
"Mother! Oh, there you are! Here's Gregory Vigil!"
Norah, a fox-terrier on either side, was coming down the path; behind her, unhatted, showed Gregory's sanguine face between his wings of grizzled hair.
"I suppose you're going to talk. I'm going over to the Rectory. Ta-to!"
And preceded by her dogs, Norah went on.
Mrs. Pendyce put out her hand.
"Well, Grig," she said, "this is a surprise."
Gregory seated himself beside her on the bench.
"I've brought you this," he said. "I want you to look at it before I answer."
Mrs. Pendyce, who vaguely felt that he would want her to see things as he was seeing them, took a letter from him with a sinking heart.
"LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS, "April 21, 1892. "MY DEAR VIGIL,
"I have now secured such evidence as should warrant our instituting a suit. I've written your ward to that effect, and am awaiting her instructions. Unfortunately, we have no act of cruelty, and I've been obliged to draw her attention to the fact that, should her husband defend the suit, it will be very difficult to get the Court to accept their separation in the light of desertion on his part—difficult indeed, even if he doesn't defend the suit. In divorce cases one has to remember that what has to be kept out is often more important than what has to be got in, and it would be useful to know, therefore, whether there is likelihood of opposition. I do not advise any direct approaching of the husband, but if you are possessed of the information you might let me know. I hate humbug, my dear Vigil, and I hate anything underhand, but divorce is always a dirty business, and while the law is shaped as at present, and the linen washed in public, it will remain impossible for anyone, guilty or innocent, and even for us lawyers, to avoid soiling our hands in one way or another. I regret it as much as you do.
"There is a new man writing verse in the Tertiary, some of it quite first-rate. You might look at the last number. My blossom this year is magnificent.
"With kind regards, I am, "Very sincerely yours, "EDMUND PARAMOR. "Gregory Vigil, Esq."
Mrs. Pendyce dropped the letter in her lap, and looked at her cousin.
"He was at Harrow with Horace. I do like him. He is one of the very nicest men I know."
It was clear that she was trying to gain time.
Gregory began pacing up and down.
"Paramor is a man for whom I have the highest respect. I would trust him before anyone."
It was clear that he, too, was trying to gain time.
"Oh, mind my daffodils, please!"
Gregory went down on his knees, and raised the bloom that he had trodden on. He then offered it to Mrs. Pendyce. The action was one to which she was so unaccustomed that it struck her as slightly ridiculous.
"My dear Grig, you'll get rheumatism, and spoil that nice suit; the grass comes off so terribly!"
Gregory got up, and looked shamefacedly at his knees.
"The knee is not what it used to be," he said.
Mrs. Pendyce smiled.
"You should keep your knees for Helen Bellow, Grig. I was always five years older than you."
Gregory rumpled up his hair.
"Kneeling's out of fashion, but I thought in the country you wouldn't mind!"
"You don't notice things, dear Grig. In the country it's still more out of fashion. You wouldn't find a woman within thirty miles of here who would like a man to kneel to her. We've lost the habit. She would think she was being made fun of. We soon grow out of vanity!"
"In London," said Gregory, "I hear all women intend to be men; but in the country I thought——"
"In the country, Grig, all women would like to be men, but they don't dare to try. They trot behind."
As if she had been guilty of thoughts too insightful, Mrs. Pendyce blushed.
Gregory broke out suddenly:
"I can't bear to think of women like that!"
Again Mrs. Pendyce smiled.
"You see, Grig dear, you are not married."
"I detest the idea that marriage changes our views, Margery; I loathe it."
"Mind my daffodils!" murmured Mrs. Pendyce.
She was thinking all the time: 'That dreadful letter! What am I to do?'
And as though he knew her thoughts, Gregory said:
"I shall assume that Bellew will not defend the case. If he has a spark of chivalry in him he will be only too glad to see her free. I will never believe that any man could be such a soulless clod as to wish to keep her bound. I don't pretend to understand the law, but it seems to me that there's only one way for a man to act and after all Bellew's a gentleman. You'll see that he will act like one!"
Mrs. Pendyce looked at the daffodil in her lap.
"I have only seen him three or four times, but it seemed to me, Grig, that he was a man who might act in one way today and another tomorrow. He is so very different from all the men about here."
"When it comes to the deep things of life," said Gregory, "one man is much as another. Is there any man you know who would be so lacking in chivalry as to refuse in these circumstances?"
Mrs. Pendyce looked at him with a confused expression—wonder, admiration, irony, and even fear, struggled in her eyes.
"I can think of dozens."
Gregory clutched his forehead.
"Margery," he said, "I hate your cynicism. I don't know where you get it from."
"I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to be cynical—I didn't, really. I only spoke from what I've seen."
"Seen?" said Gregory. "If I were to go by what I saw daily, hourly, in London in the course of my work I should commit suicide within a week."
"But what else can one go by?"
Without answering, Gregory walked to the edge of the orchard, and stood gazing over the Scotch garden, with his face a little tilted towards the sky. Mrs. Pendyce felt he was grieving that she failed to see whatever it was he saw up there, and she was sorry. He came back, and said:
"We won't discuss it any more."
Very dubiously she heard those words, but as she could not express the anxiety and doubt torturing her soul, she told him tea was ready. But Gregory would not come in just yet out of the sun.
In the drawing-room Beatrix was already giving tea to young Tharp and the Reverend Husell Barter. And the sound of these well-known voices restored to Mrs. Pendyce something of her tranquillity. The Rector came towards her at once with a teacup in his hand.
"My wife has got a headache," he said. "She wanted to come over with me, but I made her lie down. Nothing like lying down for a headache. We expect it in June, you know. Let me get you your tea."
Mrs. Pendyce, already aware even to the day of what he expected in June, sat down, and looked at Mr. Barter with a slight feeling of surprise. He was really a very good fellow; it was nice of him to make his wife lie down! She thought his broad, red-brown face, with its protecting, not unhumorous, lower lip, looked very friendly. Roy, the Skye terrier at her feet, was smelling at the reverend gentleman's legs with a slow movement of his tail.
"The old dog likes me," said the Rector; "they know a dog-lover when they see one wonderful creatures, dogs! I'm sometimes tempted to think they may have souls!"
Mrs. Pendyce answered:
"Horace says he's getting too old."
The dog looked up in her face, and her lip quivered.
The Rector laughed.
"Don't you worry about that; there's plenty of life in him." And he added unexpectedly: "I couldn't bear to put a dog away, the friend of man. No, no; let Nature see to that."
Over at the piano Bee and young Tharp were turning the pages of the "Saucy Girl"; the room was full of the scent of azaleas; and Mr. Barter, astride of a gilt chair, looked almost sympathetic, gazing tenderly at the old Skye.
Mrs. Pendyce felt a sudden yearning to free her mind, a sudden longing to ask a man's advice.
"Oh, Mr. Barter," she said, "my cousin, Gregory Vigil, has just brought me some news; it is confidential, please. Helen Bellew is going to sue for a divorce. I wanted to ask you whether you could tell me——" Looking in the Rector's face, she stopped.
"A divorce! H'm! Really!"
A chill of terror came over Mrs. Pendyce.
"Of course you will not mention it to anyone, not even to Horace. It has nothing to do with us."
Mr. Barter bowed; his face wore the expression it so often wore in school on Sunday mornings.
"H'm!" he said again.
It flashed through Mrs. Pendyce that this man with the heavy jowl and menacing eyes, who sat so square on that flimsy chair, knew something. It was as though he had answered:
"This is not a matter for women; you will be good enough to leave it to me."
With the exception of those few words of Lady Malden's, and the recollection of George's face when he had said, "Oh yes, I see her now and then," she had no evidence, no knowledge, nothing to go on; but she knew from some instinctive source that her son was Mrs. Bellew's lover.
So, with terror and a strange hope, she saw Gregory entering the room.
"Perhaps," she thought, "he will make Grig stop it."
She poured out Gregory's tea, followed Bee and Cecil Tharp into the conservatory, and left the two men together:
CONTINUED INFLUENCE OF THE REVEREND HUSSELL BARTER
To understand and sympathise with the feelings and action of the Rector of Worsted Skeynes, one must consider his origin and the circumstances of his life.
The second son of an old Suffolk family, he had followed the routine of his house, and having passed at Oxford through certain examinations, had been certificated at the age of twenty-four as a man fitted to impart to persons of both sexes rules of life and conduct after which they had been groping for twice or thrice that number of years. His character, never at any time undecided, was by this fortunate circumstance crystallised and rendered immune from the necessity for self-search and spiritual struggle incidental to his neighbours. Since he was a man neither below nor above the average, it did not occur to him to criticise or place himself in opposition to a system which had gone on so long and was about to do him so much good. Like all average men, he was a believer in authority, and none the less because authority placed a large portion of itself in his hands. It would, indeed, have been unwarrantable to expect a man of his birth, breeding, and education to question the machine of which he was himself a wheel.
He had dropped, therefore, at the age of twenty-six, insensibly, on the death of an uncle, into the family living at Worsted Skeynes. He had been there ever since. It was a constant and natural grief to him that on his death the living would go neither to his eldest nor his second son, but to the second son of his elder brother, the Squire. At the age of twenty-seven he had married Miss Rose Twining, the fifth daughter of a Huntingdonshire parson, and in less than eighteen years begotten ten children, and was expecting the eleventh, all healthy and hearty like him self. A family group hung over the fireplace in the study, under the framed and illuminated text, "Judge not, that ye be not judged," which he had chosen as his motto in the first year of his cure, and never seen any reason to change. In that family group Mr. Barter sat in the centre with his dog between his legs; his wife stood behind him, and on both sides the children spread out like the wings of a fan or butterfly. The bills of their schooling were beginning to weigh rather heavily, and he complained a good deal; but in principle he still approved of the habit into which he had got, and his wife never complained of anything.
The study was furnished with studious simplicity; many a boy had been, not unkindly, caned there, and in one place the old Turkey carpet was rotted away, but whether by their tears or by their knees, not even Mr. Barter knew. In a cabinet on one side of the fire he kept all his religious books, many of them well worn; in a cabinet on the other side he kept his bats, to which he was constantly attending; a fishing-rod and a gun-case stood modestly in a corner. The archway between the drawers of his writing-table held a mat for his bulldog, a prize animal, wont to lie there and guard his master's legs when he was writing his sermons. Like those of his dog, the Rector's good points were the old English virtues of obstinacy, courage, intolerance, and humour; his bad points, owing to the circumstances of his life, had never been brought to his notice.
When, therefore, he found himself alone with Gregory Vigil, he approached him as one dog will approach another, and came at once to the matter in hand.
"It's some time since I had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Vigil," he said. "Mrs. Pendyce has been giving me in confidence the news you've brought down. I'm bound to tell you at once that I'm surprised."
Gregory made a little movement of recoil, as though his delicacy had received a shock.
"Indeed!" he said, with a sort of quivering coldness.
The Rector, quick to note opposition, repeated emphatically:
"More than surprised; in fact, I think there must be some mistake."
"Indeed?" said Gregory again.
A change came over Mr. Barter's face. It had been grave, but was now heavy and threatening.
"I have to say to you," he said, "that somehow—somehow, this divorce must be put a stop to."
Gregory flushed painfully.
"On what grounds? I am not aware that my ward is a parishioner of yours, Mr. Barter, or that if she were——"
The Rector closed in on him, his head thrust forward, his lower lip projecting.
"If she were doing her duty," he said, "she would be. I'm not considering her—I'm considering her husband; he is a parishioner of mine, and I say this divorce must be stopped."
Gregory retreated no longer.
"On what grounds?" he said again, trembling all over.
"I've no wish to enter into particulars," said Mr. Barter, "but if you force me to, I shall not hesitate."
"I regret that I must," answered Gregory.
"Without mentioning names, then, I say that she is not a fit person to bring a suit for divorce!"
"You say that?" said Gregory. "You——"
He could not go on.
"You will not move me, Mr. Vigil," said the Rector, with a grim little smile. "I have my duty to do."
Gregory recovered possession of himself with an effort.
"You have said that which no one but a clergyman could say with impunity," he said freezingly. "Be so good as to explain yourself."
"My explanation," said Mr. Barter, "is what I have seen with my own eyes."
He raised those eyes to Gregory. Their pupils were contracted to pin-points, the light-grey irises around had a sort of swimming glitter, and round these again the whites were injected with blood.
"If you must know, with my own eyes I've seen her in that very conservatory over there kissing a man."
Gregory threw up his hand.
"How dare you!" he whispered.
Again Mr. Barter's humorous under-lip shot out.
"I dare a good deal more than that, Mr. Vigil," he said, "as you will find; and I say this to you—stop this divorce, or I'll stop it myself!"
Gregory turned to the window. When he came back he was outwardly calm.
"You have been guilty of indelicacy," he said. "Continue in your delusion, think what you like, do what you like. The matter will go on. Good-evening, sir."
And turning on his heel, he left the room.
Mr. Barter stepped forward. The words, "You have been guilty of indelicacy," whirled round his brain till every blood vessel in his face and neck was swollen to bursting, and with a hoarse sound like that of an animal in pain he pursued Gregory to the door. It was shut in his face. And since on taking Orders he had abandoned for ever the use of bad language, he was very near an apoplectic fit. Suddenly he became aware that Mrs. Pendyce was looking at him from the conservatory door. Her face was painfully white, her eyebrows lifted, and before that look Mr. Barter recovered a measure of self-possession.
"Is anything the matter, Mr. Barter?"
The Rector smiled grimly.
"Nothing, nothing," he said. "I must ask you to excuse me, that's all. I've a parish matter to attend to."
When he found himself in the drive, the feeling of vertigo and suffocation passed, but left him unrelieved. He had, in fact, happened on one of those psychological moments which enable a man's true nature to show itself. Accustomed to say of himself bluffly, "Yes, yes; I've a hot temper, soon over," he had never, owing to the autocracy of his position, had a chance of knowing the tenacity of his soul. So accustomed and so able for many years to vent displeasure at once, he did not himself know the wealth of his old English spirit, did not know of what an ugly grip he was capable. He did not even know it at this minute, conscious only of a sort of black wonder at this monstrous conduct to a man in his position, doing his simple duty. The more he reflected, the more intolerable did it seem that a woman like this Mrs. Bellew should have the impudence to invoke the law of the land in her favour a woman who was no better than a common baggage—a woman he had seen kissing George Pendyce. To have suggested to Mr. Barter that there was something pathetic in this black wonder of his, pathetic in the spectacle of his little soul delivering its little judgments, stumbling its little way along with such blind certainty under the huge heavens, amongst millions of organisms as important as itself, would have astounded him; and with every step he took the blacker became his wonder, the more fixed his determination to permit no such abuse of morality, no such disregard of Hussell Barter.
"You have been guilty of indelicacy!" This indictment had a wriggling sting, and lost no venom from the fact that he could in no wise have perceived where the indelicacy of his conduct lay. But he did not try to perceive it. Against himself, clergyman and gentleman, the monstrosity of the charge was clear. This was a point of morality. He felt no anger against George; it was the woman that excited his just wrath. For so long he had been absolute among women, with the power, as it were, over them of life and death. This was flat immorality! He had never approved of her leaving her husband; he had never approved of her at all! He turned his steps towards the Firs.
From above the hedges the sleepy cows looked down; a yaffle laughed a field or two away; in the sycamores, which had come out before their time, the bees hummed. Under the smile of the spring the innumerable life of the fields went carelessly on around that square black figure ploughing along the lane with head bent down under a wide-brimmed hat.