"You're a little fool," she said calmly. "Let me drive and you can listen to me now. If you listen to stupid, wicked people talking of your father, then listen to me for a change. You don't know anything whatever about him, because you won't give him a chance to talk to you himself. If you once let him, you'd very soon stop all this nonsense."
"You're bluffing," he said. "You think you'll get round me like that, but you won't. You're only a girl. You don't know anything. It's men tell me about my father. You think he's good, because you love him; but he's bad, really—as bad as hell—as bad as hell."
"What's he done then? I'm not bluffing, Abel. There's nothing to bluff about. What's your father done to you? You must have some reason for hating him?"
"Yes, I have."
"What is it, then?"
"It's because the Mill ought to be mine when he dies—there!"
She did not answer immediately. She had often thought the same thing. Instinct told her that frankness must be the only course. Through frankness he might still be won.
He did not speak again after his last assertion, and presently she answered in a manner to surprise him. Directness was natural to Estelle and both her father and her friend, Mr. Churchouse, had fostered it. People either deprecated or admired this quality of her talk, for directness of speech is so rare that it never fails to appear surprising.
"I think you're right there, Abel. Perhaps the Mill ought to be yours some day. Perhaps it will be. The things that ought to happen really do sometimes."
Then he surprised her in his turn.
"I wouldn't take the Mill—not now. I'll never take anything from him. It's too late now."
She realised the futility of argument.
"You're tired," she said, "and so am I. We'll talk about important things again some day. Only don't—don't imagine people aren't your friends. If you'd only think, you'd see how jolly kind people have been to you over and over again. Didn't you ever wonder how you got off so well after trying to burn down the works? You must have. Anyway, it showed you'd got plenty of good friends, surely?"
"It didn't matter to me. I'd have gone to prison. I don't care what they do to me. They can't make me feel different."
"Well, leave it. We've had a good day and you needn't quarrel with me, at any rate."
"I don't know that. You're his friend."
"You surely don't want to quarrel with all his friends as well as him? We are going to be friends, anyway, and have some more good times together. I like you."
"I thought I liked you," he said, "but you called me a little fool."
"That's nothing. You were a little fool just now. We're all fools sometimes. I've been a fool to-day, myself. You're a little fool to hate anybody. What good does it do you to hate?"
"It does do me good; and if I didn't hate him, I should hate myself," the boy declared.
"Well, it's better to hate yourself than somebody else. It's a good sign I should think if we hate ourselves. We ought to hate ourselves more than we do, because we know better than anybody else how hateful we can be. Instead of that, we waste tons of energy hating other people, and think there's nobody so fine and nice and interesting as we are ourselves."
"Mister Churchouse says the less we think about ourselves the better. But you've got to if you've been ill-used."
In the dusk twinkled out a glow-worm beside the hedge, and they stopped while Abel picked it up. Gradually he grew calmer, and when they parted he thanked her for her goodness to him.
"It's been a proper day, all but the end," he said, "and I will like you and be your friend. But I won't like my father and be his friend, because he's bad and served mother and me badly. You may think I don't understand such things, but I do. And I never will be beholden to him as long as I live—never."
He left her at the outer gate of his home and she drove on and considered him rather hopelessly. He had some feeling for beauty on which she had trusted to work, but it was slight. He was vain, very sensitive, and disposed to be malignant. As yet reason had not come to his rescue and his emotions, ill-directed, ran awry. He was evidently unaware that his father had so far saved the situation for him. What would he do when he knew it?
Estelle felt the picnic not altogether a failure, yet saw little signs of a situation more hopeful at present.
"I can win him," she decided; "but it looks as though his father never would."
Estelle was as good as her word and devoted not a few of his holidays to the pleasure of Sabina's son. Unconsciously she hastened the progress of other matters, for her resolute attempt to win Abel, at any cost of patience and trouble, brought her still deeper into the hidden life and ambitions of the boy's father.
She was frank with Raymond, and when Abel had gone back to school and made no sign, Estelle related her experiences.
"He's sworn eternal friendship with me," she said, "but it's not a friendship that extends to you, or anybody else. He's very narrow. He concentrates in a terrifying way and wants everything. He told me that he hated me to have any other friends but him. It took him a long time to decide about me; but now he has decided. He extracts terrific oaths of secrecy and then imparts his secrets. Before giving the oaths, I always tell him I shan't keep them if he's going to confide anything wicked; but his secrets are harmless enough. The last was a wonderful hiding-place. He spends many hours in it. I nearly broke my neck getting there. That's how far we've reached these holidays; and after next term I shall try again."
"He's got a heart, if one could only reach it, I suppose."
"A very hot heart. I shall try to extend his sympathies when he comes back."
Her intention added further fuel to the fire burning in Raymond's own thoughts. He saw both danger and hope in the situation, as it might develop from this point. The time was drawing nearer when he meant to ask Estelle to marry him, and since he looked now at life and all its relations from this standpoint, he began to consider his son therefrom.
On the whole he was cheered by Estelle's achievements and argued well of them. The danger he set aside, and chose rather to reflect on the hope. With Abel back at school again and his mother in a more placid temper, there came a moment of peace. Ironsyde was able to forget them and did so thankfully, while he concentrated on the task before him. He felt very doubtful, both of Estelle's response and her father's view. The girl herself, however, was all that mattered, for Waldron would most surely approve her choice whatever it might be. Arthur had of late, however, been giving it as his opinion that his daughter would not marry. He had decided that she was not the marrying sort, and told Raymond as much.
"The married state's too limited for her: her energies are too tremendous to leave any time for being a wife. To bottle Estelle down to a husband and children is impossible. They wouldn't be enough for her intellect."
This had been said some time before, when unconscious of Ironsyde's growing emotions; but of late he had suspected them and was, therefore, more guarded in his prophecies.
Then came a shock, which delayed progress, for Abel thrust himself to the front of his mind again. Estelle corresponded with her new friend, and the boy had heard from her that in future he must thank his father for his education. She felt that it was time he knew this, and hoped that he would now be sane enough to let the fact influence him. It did, but not as she had expected. Instead there came the news that Abel had been expelled. He deliberately refused to proceed with his work, and, when challenged, explained that he would learn no more at his father's expense.
Nothing moved him, and Estelle's well-meant but ill-judged action merely served to terminate Abel's education for good and all.
The boy was rapidly becoming a curse to his father. Puritans, who knew the story, welcomed its development and greeted each phase with religious enthusiasm; but others felt the situation to be growing absurd. Raymond himself so regarded it, and when Abel returned home again he insisted on seeing him.
"You can be present if you wish to be," he told Sabina, but she expressed no such desire. Her attitude was modified of late, and, largely under the influence of Estelle, she began to see the futility of this life-enmity declared against Raymond by her son. Of old she had thought it natural, and while not supporting it had made no effort to crush it out of him. Now she perceived that it could come to nothing and only breed bitterness. She had, therefore, begun to tone her indifference and withhold the little bitter speeches that only fortified Abel's hate. She had even argued with him—lamely enough—and advised him not to persist in a dislike of his father that could not serve him in after life.
But he had continued to rejoice in his hatred. While Estelle hoped with Sabina to break down his obstinacy, he actually looked forward to the time when Estelle would hate his enemy also. He had been sorry to see his mother weakening and even blaming him for his opinions.
But now he was faced with his father under conditions from which there was no escape. The meeting took place in Mr. Churchouse's study and Abel was called to listen, whether he would or no. Raymond knew that the child understood the situation and he did not mince words. He kept his temper and exhausted his arguments.
"Abel," he said, "you've got to heed me now, and whatever you may feel, you must use your self-control and your brains. I'm speaking entirely for your sake and I'm only concerned for your future. If you would use your reason, it would show you that the things you have done and are doing can't hurt me; they can only hurt yourself; and what is the good of hurting yourself, because you don't like me? If you had burned down the works, the insurance offices would have paid me back all the money they were worth, and the only people to suffer would have been the men and women you threw out of work. So, when you tried to hurt me, you were only hurting other people and yourself. Boys who do that sort of thing are called embryo criminals, and that's what they are. But for me and the great kindness and humanity of other men—my friends on the magistrates' bench—you would have been sent to a reformatory after that affair; but your fellow creatures forgave you and were very good to me also, and let you go free on consideration that I would be responsible for you. Then I sent you to a good school, where nothing was known against you. Now you have been expelled from that school, because you won't work, or go on with your education. And your reason is that I am paying for your education and you won't accept anything at my hands.
"But think what precisely this means. It doesn't hurt me in the least. As far as I am concerned, it makes not a shadow of difference. I have no secrets about things. Everybody knows the situation, and everybody knows I recognise my obligations where you are concerned and wish to be a good father to you. Therefore, if you refuse to let me be, nobody is hurt but yourself, because none can take my place. You don't injure my credit; you only lose your own. The past was past, and people had begun to forget what you did two years ago. Now you've reminded them by this folly, and I tell you that you are too old to be so foolish. There is no reason why you should not lead a dignified, honourable and useful life. You have far better opportunities than thousands and thousands of boys, and far better and more powerful friends than ninety-nine boys out of a hundred.
"Then why fling away your chances and be impossible and useless and an enemy to society, when society only wants to be your friend? What is the good? What do you gain? And what do I lose? You're not hurting me; but you're hurting and distressing your mother. You're old enough to understand all this, and if your mother can feel as I know she feels and ask you to consider your own future and look forward in a sensible spirit, instead of looking back in a senseless one, then surely, for her sake alone, you ought to be prepared to meet me and turn over a new leaf.
"For you won't tire out my patience, or break my heart. I never know when I'm beat, and since my wish is only your good, neither you, nor anybody, will choke me off it. I ask you now to promise that, if I send you to another school, you'll work hard and complete your education and qualify yourself for a useful place in the world afterwards. That's what you've got to do, and I hope you see it. Then your future will be my affair, for, as my son, I shall be glad and willing to help you on in whatever course of life you may choose.
"So that's the position. You see I've given you the credit of being a sane and reasonable being, and I want you to decide as a sane and reasonable being. You can go on hating me as much as you please; but don't go on queering your own pitch and distressing your mother and making your future dark and difficult, when it should be bright and easy. Promise me that you'll go back to a new school and work your hardest to atone for this nonsense and I'll take your word for it. And I don't ask for my own sake—always remember that. I ask you for your own sake and your mother's."
With bent head the boy scowled up under his eyebrows during this harangue. He answered immediately Raymond had finished and revealed passion.
"And what, if I say 'no'?"
"I hope you won't be so foolish."
"I do say 'no' then—a thousand times I say it. Because if you bring me up, you get all the credit. You shan't get credit from me. And I'll bring myself up without any help from you. I know I'm different from other boys, because you didn't marry my mother. And that's a fearful wrong to her, and you're not going to get out of that by anything I can do. You're wicked and cowardly to my mother, and she's Mister Churchouse's servant, instead of being your wife and having servants of her own, and I'm a poor woman's son instead of being a rich man's son, as I ought to be. All that's been told me by them who know it. And you're a bad man, and I hate you, and I shall always hate you as long as you live. And I'll never be beholden to you for anything, because my life is no good now, and my mother's life is no good neither. And if I thought she was taking a penny of your money, I'd—"
His temper upset him and he burst into tears. The emotion only served to increase his anger.
"I'm crying for hate," he said. "Hate, hate, hate!"
Raymond looked at the boy curiously.
"Poor little chap, I wish to God I could make you see sense. You've got the substance and are shouting for the shadow, which you can never have. You talk like a man, so I'll answer you like a man and advise you not to listen to the evil tongue of those who bear no kindly thought to me, or you either. What is the sense of all this hate? Granted wrong things happened, how are you helping to right the wrong? Where is the sense of this blind enmity against me? I can't call back the past, any more than you can call back the tears you have just shed. Then why waste nervous energy and strength on all this silly hate?"
"Because it makes me better and stronger to hate you. It makes me a man quicker to hate you. You say I talk like a man—that's because I hate like a man."
"You talk like a very silly man, and if you grow up into a man hating me, you'll grow up a bitter, twisted sort of man—no good to anybody. A man with a grievance is only a nuisance to his neighbours; and seeing what your grievance is, and that I am ready and willing to do everything in a father's power to lessen that grievance and retrieve the mistakes of the past—remembering, too, that everybody knows my good intentions—you'll really get none to care for your troubles. Instead, all sensible people will tell you that they are largely of your own making."
"The more you talk, the more I hate you," said the boy. "If I never heard your voice again and never saw your face again, still I'd always hate you. I don't hate anything else in the world but you. I wouldn't spare a bit of hate for anything but you. I won't be your son now—never."
"Well, run away then. You'll live to be sorry for feeling and speaking so, Abel. I won't trouble you again. Next time we meet, I hope you will come to me."
The boy departed and the man considered. It seemed that harm irreparable was wrought, and a reconciliation, that might have been easy in Abel's childhood, when he was too young to appreciate their connection, had now become impossible, since he had grown old enough to understand it. He would not be Raymond's son. He declined the filial relationship—doubtless prompted thereto from his earliest days, first on one admonition, then at another. The leaven had been mixed with his blood by his mother, in his infant mind by his grandmother, in his soul by fellow men as he grew towards adolescence.
Yet from Sabina herself the poison had almost passed away. In the light of these new difficulties she grew anxious, and began to realise how fatally Abel's possession was standing in his own light. She loved him, but not passionately. He would soon be sixteen and her point of view changed. She had listened long to Estelle and began to understand that, whatever dark memories and errors belonged to Raymond Ironsyde's past, he designed nothing but generous goodness for their son in the future.
After the meeting with Abel, Raymond saw Sabina and described what had occurred; but she could only express her regrets. She declared herself more hopeful than he and promised to reason with the boy to the best of her power.
"I've never stood against you with him, and I've never stood for you with him. I've kept out of it and not influenced for or against," she said. "But now I'll do more than that; I'll try and influence him for you."
Raymond was obliged.
"I shall be very grateful to you if you can. If there's any human being who carries weight with him, you do. Such blistering frankness—such crooked, lightning looks of hate—fairly frighten me. I had no idea any young creature could feel so much."
"He's going through what I went through, I suppose," she said. "I don't want to hurt you, or vex you any more. I'm changed now and tired of quarrelling with things that can't be altered. When we find the world's sympathy for us is dead, then it's wiser to accept the situation and cease to run about trying to wake it up again. So I'll try to show him what the world will be for the likes of him if he hasn't got you behind him."
"Do—and don't do it bitterly. You can't talk for two minutes about the past without getting bitter—unconsciously, quite unconsciously, Sabina. And your unconscious bitterness hurts me far more than it hurts you. But don't be bitter with him, or show there's another side of your feelings about it. Keep that for me, if you must. My shoulders are broad enough to bear it. He is brimming with acid as it is. Sweeten his mind if it is in your power. That's the only way of salvation, and the only chance of bringing him and me together."
She promised to attempt it.
"And if I'm bitter still," she said, "it is largely unconscious, as you say. You can't get the taste of trouble out of your mouth very easily after you've been deluged with it and nigh drowned in it, as I have. It's only an echo and won't reach his ear, though it may reach yours."
"Thank you, Sabina. Do what you can," he said, and left her, glad to get away from the subject and back to his own greater interests.
He heard nothing more for a few days, then came the news that Abel had disappeared. By night he had vanished and search failed to find him.
Sabina could only state what had gone before his departure. She had spoken with him on Raymond's behalf and urged him to reconsider his attitude and behave sensibly and worthily. And he, answering nothing, had gone to bed as usual; but when she called him next morning, no reply came and she found that he had ridden away on his bicycle in the night. The country was hunted, but without result, and not for three days did his mother learn what had become of Abel. Then, in reply to police notices of his disappearance, there came a letter from a Devonshire dairy farm, twenty miles to the west of Bridport. The boy had appeared there early in the morning and begged for some breakfast. Then he asked for something to do. He was now working on trial for a week, but whether giving satisfaction or no they did not learn.
His mother went to see him and found him well pleased with himself and proud of what he had accomplished. He explained to her that he had now taken his life into his own hands and was not going to look to anybody in future but himself.
The farmer reported him civil spoken, willing to learn, and quick to please. Indeed, Abel had never before won such a good character.
She left him there happy and content, and took no immediate steps to bring the boy home.
It was decided that a conference should presently be held of those interested in Abel.
"Since he is safe and cheerful and doing honest work, you need not be in distress about him at present, Sabina," said Ernest Churchouse; "but Raymond Ironsyde has no intention that the boy should miss an adequate education, and wishes him to be at school for a couple of years yet, if possible. It is decided that we knock our heads together on the subject presently. We'll meet and try to hit upon a sensible course. Meantime this glimpse of reality and hard work at Knapp Farm will do him good. He may show talent in an agricultural direction. In any case, you can feel sure that whatever tastes he develops, short of buccaneering, or highway robbery, will be gratified."
THE MOTOR CAR
Raymond Ironsyde felt somewhat impatient of the conference to consider the situation of his son. But since he had no authority and Sabina was anxious to do something, he agreed to consult Mr. Churchouse.
They met at 'The Magnolias,' where Miss Ironsyde joined them; but her old energy and forcible opinions had faded. She did little more than listen.
Ironsyde came first and spoke to Ernest in a mood somewhat despondent. They were alone at the time, for Sabina did not join them until Estelle came.
"Is there nothing in paternity?" asked Raymond. "Isn't nature all powerful and blood thicker than water? What is it that over-rides the natural relationship and poisons him against me? Isn't a good father a good father?"
"So much is implied in this case," answered the elder. "He's old enough now to understand what it means to be a natural child. Doubtless the disabilities they labour under have been explained to him. That fact is what poisons his mind, as you say, and makes him hate the blood in his veins. We've got to get over that and find antidotes for the poison, if we can."
"I'm beginning to doubt if we ever shall, Uncle Ernest."
Sabina and Estelle entered at this moment and heard Mr. Churchouse make answer.
"Be sure it can be done. Every year makes it more certain, because with increase of reasoning power he'll see the absurdity of this attitude. It is no good to him to continue your enemy."
"Increase of reason cuts both ways. It shows him his grievances, as well as what will pay him best in the future. He's faced with a clash of reason."
"Reason I grant springs from different inspirations," admitted Ernest. "There's the reason of the heart and the reason of the head—yes, the heart has its reasons, too. And though the head may not appreciate them, they exercise their weight and often conquer."
Soon there came a carriage from Bridport and Miss Ironsyde joined them.
"Oh! I'm glad to see a fire," she said, and sat close beside it in an easy chair.
Then Raymond spoke.
"It is good of you all to come and lend a hand over this difficult matter. I appreciate it, and specially I thank Sabina for letting us consider her son's welfare. She knows that we all want to befriend him and that we all are his friends. It's rather difficult for me to say much; but if you can show me how to do anything practical and establish Abel's position and win his goodwill, at any cost to myself, I shall thank you. I've done what I could, but I confess this finds me beaten for the moment. You'd better say what you all think, and see if you agree."
The talk that followed was inconsequent and rambling. For a considerable time it led nowhere. Miss Ironsyde was taciturn. It occupied all her energies to conceal the fact that she was suffering a good deal of physical pain. She made no original suggestions. Churchouse, according to his wont, generalised; but it was through a generalisation that they approached something definite.
"He has yet to learn that we cannot live to ourselves, or design life's pattern single-handed," declared Ernest. "Life, in fact, is rather like a blind man weaving a basket: we never see our work, and we have to trust others for the material. And if we better realised how blind we were, we should welcome and invite criticism more freely than we do."
"No man makes his own life—I've come to see that," admitted Raymond. "The design seems to depend much on your fellow creatures; your triumph or failure is largely the work of others. But it depends on your own judgment to the extent that you can choose what fellow creatures shall help you."
Estelle approved this.
"And if we could only show Abel that, and make him feel this determination to be independent of everybody is a mistake. But he told me once, most reasonably, that he didn't mind depending on those who were good to him. He said he would trust them."
"Trust's everything. It centres on that. Can I get his trust, or can't I?"
"Not for the present, Ray. I expect his mind is in a turmoil over this running away. It's all my fault and I take the blame. Until he can think calmly you'll never get any power over him. The thing is to fill his mind full with something else."
"Find out if you can what's in his thoughts," advised Sabina. "We say this and that and the other, and plan what must be done, but I judge the first person to ask for an opinion is Abel himself. When people are talking about the young, the last thought in their minds is what the young are thinking themselves. They never get asked what's in their minds, yet, if we knew, it might make all the difference."
"Very sound, Sabina," admitted Mr. Churchouse; "and you should know what's in his mind if anybody does."
"I should no doubt, but I don't. I've never been in the boy's secrets, or I might have been more to him. But that's not to say nobody could win them. Any clever boy getting on for sixteen years should have plenty of ideas, and if you could find them, it might save a lot of trouble."
She turned to Estelle as she spoke.
"He's often told me things," said Estelle, "and he's often been going to tell me others and stopped—not because he thought I'd laugh at him; but because he was doubtful of me. But he knows I can keep secrets now."
"He must be treated as an adult," decided Ernest. "Sabina is perfectly right. We must give him credit for more sense than he has yet discovered, and appeal directly to his pride. I think there are great possibilities about him if he can only be brought to face them. His ruling passion must be discovered. One has marked a love of mystery in him and a wonderful power of make-believe. These are precious promises, rightly guided. They point to imagination and originality. He may have the makings of an artist. Without exaggeration, I should say he had an artist's temperament without being an artist; but art is an elastic term. It must mean creative instinct, however, and he has shown that. It has so far taken the shape of a will to create disaster; but why should we not lead his will into another channel and help it to create something worthy?"
"He's fond of machinery," said Sabina, "and very clever with his hands."
"Could your child be anything but clever with his hands, Sabina?" said Estelle.
"Or mine be anything but fond of machinery?" asked Raymond.
He meant no harm, but this blunt and rather brutal claim to fatherhood made Sabina flinch. It was natural that she never could school herself to accept the situation in open conversation without reserve, and all but Ironsyde himself appreciated the silence which fell upon her. His speech, indeed, showed lack of sensibility, yet it could hardly be blamed, since only through acceptation of realities might any hopeful action be taken. But the harm was done and the delicate poise of the situation between Abel's parents upset. Sabina said no more, and in the momentary silence that followed she rose and left them.
"What clumsy fools even nice men can be," sighed Miss Ironsyde, and Churchouse spoke.
"Leave Sabina to me," he said. "I'll comfort her when you've gone. There is a certain ingrained stupidity from which no man escapes in the presence of women. They may, or may not, conceal their feelings; but we all unconsciously bruise and wound them. Sabina did not conceal hers. She is quick in mind as well as body. What matters is that she knows exceedingly well we are all on her side and all valuable friends for the lad. Now let us return to the point. I think with Estelle that Abel may have something of the artist in him. He drew exceedingly well as a child. You can see his pictures in Sabina's room. Such a gift if developed might waken a sense of power."
"If he knew great things were within his reach, he would not disdain the means to reach them," said Miss Ironsyde. "I do think if the boy felt his own possibilities more—if we could waken ambition—he would grow larger-minded. Hate always runs counter to our interests in the long run, because it wastes our energy and, if people only knew it, revenge is really not sweet, but exceedingly bitter."
"I suggest this," said Ironsyde: "that Uncle Ernest and Estelle visit the boy—not in any spirit of weakness, or with any concessions, or attempts to change his mind; but simply to learn his mind. Sabina was right there. We'll approach him as we should any other intelligent being, and invite his opinion, and see if it be reasonable, or unreasonable. And if it is reasonable, then I ought to be able to serve him, if he'll let me do so."
"I shall certainly do what you wish," agreed Ernest. "Estelle and I will form a deputation to this difficult customer and endeavour to find out what his lordship really proposes and desires. Then, if we can prove to him that he must look to his fellow creatures to advance his welfare; if we can succeed in showing him that not even the youngest of us can stand alone, perhaps we shall achieve something."
"And if he won't let me help, perhaps he'll let you, or Estelle, or Aunt Jenny. Agree if he makes any possible stipulation. It doesn't matter a button where he supposes help is coming from: the thing is that he should not know it is really coming from me."
"I hope we may succeed without craft of that sort, Raymond," declared Mr. Churchouse; "but I shall not hesitate to employ the wisdom of the serpent—if the olive branch of the dove fails to meet the situation. I trust, however, more to Estelle than myself. She is nearer Abel in point of time, and it is very difficult to bridge a great gulf of years. We old men talk in another language than the young use, and the scenery that fills their eyes—why, it has already vanished beneath our horizons. Narrowing vision too often begets narrowing sympathies and we depress youth as much as youth puzzles us."
"True, Ernest," said Miss Ironsyde. "Have you noticed how a natural instinct makes the young long to escape from the presence of age? The young breathe more freely out of sight of grey heads."
"And the grey heads survive their absence without difficulty," confessed Mr. Churchouse. "But we are a tonic to each other. They help us to see, Jenny, and we must help them to feel."
"Abel shall help us to see his point of view, and we'll help him to feel who his best friends are," promised Estelle.
Raymond had astonished Bridport and staggered Bridetown with a wondrous invention. The automobile was born, and since it appealed very directly to him, he had acquired one of the first of the new vehicles at some cost, and not only did he engage a skilled mechanic to drive it, but himself devoted time and pains to mastering the machine. He believed in it very stoutly, and held that in time to come it must bulk as a most important industrial factor. Already he predicted motor traction on a large scale, while yet the invention was little more than a new toy for the wealthy.
And now this car served a useful purpose and Mr. Churchouse, in some fear and trembling, ventured a first ride. Estelle accompanied him and together they drove through the pleasant lands where Dorset meets Devon, to Knapp Farm under Knapp Copse, midway between Colyton and Ottery St. Mary, on a streamlet tributary of the Sid.
Mr. Churchouse was amazed and bewildered at this new experience; Estelle, who had already enjoyed some long rides, supported him, lulled his anxieties and saw that he kept warm.
Soon they sighted the ridge which gave Knapp its name, and presently met Abel, who knew that they were coming. He stood on the tumuli at the top of the knoll and awaited them with interest. His master, from first enthusiasms, now spoke indifferently of him, declared him an average boy, and cared not whether they took him, or left him. As for Abel himself, he slighted both Estelle and Mr. Churchouse at first, and appeared for a time quite oblivious to their approaches. He was only interested in the car, which stood drawn up in an open shed at the side of the farmyard. He concentrated here, desired the company of the driver alone, and could with difficulty be drawn away to listen to the travellers and declare his own ambitions.
He was, however, not sorry to see Estelle, and when, presently, they lured him away from the motor, he talked to them. He bragged about his achievement in running away and finding work; but he was not satisfied with the work itself.
"It was only to see if I could live in the world on my own," he said, "and now I know I can. Nobody's got any hold on me now, because if you can earn your food and clothes, you're free of everybody. I don't tell them here, but I could work twice as hard and do twice as much if it was worth while; only it isn't."
"If you get wages, you ought to earn them," said Estelle.
"I do," he explained. "I get a shilling a day and my grub, and I earn all that. But, of course, I'm not going to be a farmer. I'm just learning about the land—then I'm going. Nobody's clever here. But I like taking it easy and being my own master."
"You oughtn't to take it easy at your time of life, Abel," declared Estelle. "You oughtn't to leave school yet, and I very much hope you'll go back."
"Never," he said. "I couldn't stop there after I knew he was paying for it. Or anywhere else. I'm not going to thank him for anything."
"But you stand in the light of your own usefulness," she explained. "The thing is for a boy to do all in his power to make himself a useful man, and by coming here and doing ploughboy's work, when you might be learning and increasing your own value in the world, you are being an idiot, Abel. If you let your father educate you, then, in the future, you can pay him back splendidly and with interest for all he has done for you. There's no obligation then—simply a fair bargain."
His face hardened and he frowned.
"I may pay him for all he's done for me, whether or no," he answered. "Anyway, I don't want any more book learning. I'm a man very nearly, and a lot cleverer, as it is, than the other men here. I shall stop here for a bit. I want to be let alone and I will be let alone."
"Not at all," declared Mr. Churchouse. "You're going back on yourself, Abel, and if you stop here, hoeing turnips and what not, you'll soon find a great disaster happening to you. You will indeed—just the very thing you don't want to happen. You pride yourself on being clever. Well, cleverness can't stand still, you know. You go back, or forward. Here, you'll go back and get as slow-witted as other ploughboys. You think you won't, but you will. The mud on your boots will work up into your mind, and instead of being full of great ideas for the future, you'll gradually forget all about them. And that would be a disgrace to you."
Abel showed himself rather impressed with this peril.
"I shall read books," he said.
"Where will you get them?" asked Estelle. "Besides, after long days working out of doors, you'll be much too tired to read books, or go on with your studies. I know, because I've tried it."
"Quies was the god of rest in ancient Rome," proceeded Mr. Churchouse, "but he was no god for youth. The elderly turned their weary bodies to his shrine and decorated his altars—not the young. But for you, Abel, there are radiant goddesses, and their names are Stimula and Strenua. To them you must pay suit and service, and your motto should be 'Able and Willing.'"
"Of course," cried Estelle; "but instead of that, you ask to be let alone, to turn slowly and surely into a ploughboy! Why, the harm is already beginning! And you may be quite sure that nobody who cares for you is going to see you turn into a ploughboy."
They produced some lunch presently and Abel enjoyed the good fare. For a time they pressed him no more, but when the meal was taken, let him show them places of interest. While Estelle visited the farm with him and heard all about his work, Mr. Churchouse discussed the boy with his master. Nothing could then be settled, and it was understood that Abel should stop at Knapp until the farmer heard more concerning him.
Estelle advanced the good cause very substantially, however, and felt sanguine of the future; for alone with her, Abel confessed that farming gave him no pleasure and that his ambition was set on higher things.
"I shall be an engineer some day," he said. "Presently I shall go where there is machinery, and begin at the bottom and work up to the top. I know a lot more about it than you might think, as it is."
"I know you do," she said. "And there's nothing your mother would like better than engineering for you. Besides, a boy begins that when he's young, and I believe you ought to be in the shops soon."
"I shall be soon. Very likely the next thing you hear about me will be that I have disappeared again. Then I shall turn up in a works somewhere. Because you needn't think I'm going to be a ploughboy. I shouldn't get level with my father by being a ploughboy."
"Your father would be delighted for you to get level with him and know as much as he does," she answered, pretending to mistake his meaning. "If you said you wanted to know as much about machinery and machines in general as he does, then he would very soon set to work to help you on."
"I won't take any help from him; but I'll do this—to suit myself, not him. I'd do it so as I could be near mother and could look after her. Because, when Mister Churchouse dies, I'll have to look after her."
"You needn't be anxious about your mother, Abel. She's got plenty of friends."
"Her friends don't count if they're his friends, because you can't be my mother's friend and his friend, too. But I'll go into the spinning Mill, and be like anybody else, and work for wages—just the same wages as any other boy going in. That won't be thanking him for anything."
Estelle could hardly hide her satisfaction at this unexpected concession. She dared not show her pleasure for fear that Abel would see it and draw back.
"Then you could live with mother and Mister Churchouse," she said. "It would be tremendously interesting for you. I wonder if you would begin with Roberts at the lathes, or Cogle at the engines?"
"I don't know. Before I ran away, Nicholas Roberts wanted somebody to help him turning. I've turned sometimes. I'd begin like that and rise to better things."
She was careful not to mention his father again.
"I believe Mister Roberts would like to have you in his shop very much. Sarah, his wife, hopes that her son will be a lathe-worker some day, but he's too young to go yet."
"He'll never be any good at machinery," declared Abel. "I know him. He's all for the sea."
They took their leave presently, after Ernest had heard the boy's offer. He, too, was careful, but applauded the suggestion and assured Abel he would be very welcome at his old home.
"I like you, you know; in fact, as a rule, we have got on very well together. I believe you'll make an engineer some day if you remember the Roman goddesses. To be ambitious is the most hopeful thing we can wish for youth. Always be ambitious—that's the first essential for success."
But the old man surprised Estelle by failing to share her delight at Abel's decision. She for her part felt that the grand difficulty was passed, and that once in his father's Mill, the boy must sooner or later come to reason, if only by the round of self-interest; but Mr. Churchouse reminded her that another had to be reckoned with.
"A most delicate situation would be created in that case," he said. "Of course I can't pretend to say how Raymond will regard it. He may see it with your eyes. He sees so many things with your eyes—more and more, in fact—that I hope he will; but you mustn't be very disappointed if he does not. This cannot look to him as it does to you, or even to me. His point of view may reject Abel's suggestion altogether for various reasons; and Sabina, too, will very likely feel it couldn't happen without awakening a great many painful memories."
"She advised us to consult Abel and hear what he thought."
"We have. We return with the great man's ultimatum. But I'm afraid it doesn't follow that his ultimatum will be accepted. Even if Sabina felt she could endure such an arrangement, it is doubtful in the extreme whether Raymond will. Indeed I'll go so far as to prophesy that he won't."
Estelle saw that she had been over-sanguine.
"There's one bright side, however," he continued. "We have got something definite out of the boy and should now be able to help him largely in spite of himself. Every day he lives, he'll become more impressed with the necessity for knowledge, and if, for the moment, he declines any alternative, he'll soon come round to one. He knows already that he can't stop at Knapp, so this great and perilous adventure of the automobile has been successful—though how successful we cannot tell yet."
He knew, however, before the day was done, for Sabina felt very definitely on the subject. Yet her attitude was curious: she held it not necessary to express an opinion.
Mr. Churchouse came home very cold, and while she attended to his needs, brought him hot drink and lighted a fire, Sabina listened.
"The boy is exceedingly well," he said. "I never saw his eye so bright, or his skin so clear and brown. But a farmer he won't be for anybody. Of course, one never thought he would."
When she had heard Abel's idea, she answered without delay.
"It's a thousand pities he's set his heart on that, because it won't happen. What I think doesn't matter, of course, but for once you'll find his father is of a mind with me. He'll not suffer such an arrangement for a moment. It's bringing the trouble too near. He doesn't want his skeleton walking out of the cupboard into the Mill, and whatever happens, that won't."
She was right enough, for when Raymond heard all that Estelle could tell him, he decided instantly against any such arrangement.
"Impossible," he said. "One needn't trouble even to argue about it. But that he would like to be an engineer is quite healthy. He shall be; and he shall begin at the beginning and have every advantage possible—not his way, but mine. I argue ultimate success from this. It eases my mind."
"All the same, if you don't do anything, he'll only run away again," said Estelle, who was disappointed.
"He won't run far. Let him stop where he is for a few months, till he's heartily sick of it and ready to listen to sense. Then perhaps I'll go over and see him myself. You've done great things, Estelle. I feel more sanguine than I have ever felt about him. I wish I could do what he wants; but that's impossible his way. However, I'll do it in my own. Sense is beginning in him, and that is the great and hopeful discovery you've made."
"I'm ever so glad you're pleased about it," she said. "He loved the motor car much better than the sight of us. Yet he was glad to see us too. He's really a very human boy, you know, Ray."
Upon a Sunday afternoon, Sarah Roberts and her husband were drinking tea at 'The Seven Stars.' They sat in Nelly Legg's private room, and by some accident all took rather a gloomy view of life.
As for Nelly, she had been recently weighed, and despite drastic new treatment, was found to have put on two pounds in a month.
"Lord knows where it'll end," she said. "You can't go on getting heavier and heavier for ever more. Even a vegetable marrow, and such like things, reach their limit; and if they can it's hard that a creature with an immortal soul have got to go growing larger and larger, to her own misery and her husband's grief. To be smothered with your own fat is a proper cruel end I call it; and I haven't deserved it; and it shakes my faith in an all-wise God, to feel myself turning into a useless mountain of flesh. Worse than useless in fact, because them that can't work themselves are certain sure to make work for others. Which I do."
"I never knew anything so aggravating, I'm sure," assented Nicholas; "but so far as I can see, if life don't fret you from within, it frets you from without. It can't leave you alone to go on your way in a dignified manner. It's always intruding, so to speak. In fact, life comes between us and our living, if you understand me, and sometimes for my part I can look on to the end of it with a lot of resignation."
Sentiments so unusual from her husband startled Mrs. Roberts as well as her aunt.
"Lor, Nicholas! What's the matter with you?" asked Sarah.
"It ain't often I grumble," he answered, "and if anybody's better at taking the rough with the smooth than me, I'd like to see him; but there are times when nature craves for a bit of pudding, and gets sick to death of its daily meal of bread and cheese. I speak in a parable, however, because I don't mean the body but the mind. Your body bothers you, Missis Legg, as well it may; but your mind, thanks to your husband, is pretty peaceful year in year out. In my case, my body calls for no attention. Thin as a rake I am and so shall continue. But the tissue is good, and no man is made of better quality stuff. It's my mind that turns in upon itself and gives me a pang now and again. And the higher the nature of the mind, the worse its troubles. In fact the more you can feel, the more you are made to feel; and what the mind is built to endure, that, seemingly, it will be called to endure."
But Nelly had no patience with the philosophy of Mr. Roberts.
"You're so windy when you've got anything on your chest," she said. "You keep talking and don't get any forwarder. What's the fuss about now?"
"You've been listening to Baggs, I expect," suggested the wife of Nicholas. "Baggs has got the boot at last and leaves at Christmas, and his pension don't please him, so he's fairly bubbling over with verjuice. I should hope you'd got too much sense to listen to him, Nick."
"So should I. He's no more than the winter wind in a hedge at any time," answered Mr. Roberts. "Baggs gets attended to same as a wasp gets attended to—because of his sting. All bad-tempered people win a lot more attention and have their way far quicker than us easy and amiable ones. Why, we know, of course. Human nature's awful cowardly at bottom and will always choose the easiest way to escape the threatened wrath of a bad temper. In fact, fear makes the world go round, not love, as silly people pretend. In my case I feel much like Sabina Dinnett, who was talking about life not a week ago in the triangle under the sycamore tree. And she said, 'Those who do understand don't care, and those who don't understand, don't matter'—so there you are—one's left all alone."
"I'm sure you ain't—more's Sabina. She's got lots of friends, and you've got your dear wife and children," said Nelly.
"I have; but the mind sometimes takes a flight above one's family. It's summed up in a word: there's nothing so damned unpleasant as being took for granted, and that's what's the matter with me."
"Not in your home, you ain't," declared Sarah. "No good, sensible wife takes her husband for granted. He's always made a bit of a fuss over under his own roof."
"That's true; but in my business I am. To see people—I'll name no names—to see other people purred over, and then to find your own craft treated as just a commonplace of Nature, no more wonderful than the leaves on a bush—beastly, I call it."
Mr. Legg had joined them and he admitted the force of the argument.
"We're very inclined to put our own job higher in the order of the universe than will other people," he said; "and better men than you have hungered for a bit of notice and a pat on the back and never won it. But time covers that trouble. I grant, all the same, that it's a bit galling when we find the world turns a cold shoulder to our best."
"It's a human weakness, Nicholas, to want to be patted," said Nelly, and her husband agreed.
"It is. We share it with dogs," he declared. "But the world in general is too busy to pat us. I remember in my green youth being very proud of myself once and pointing to a lot of pewter in a tub, that I'd worked up till it looked like silver; and I took some credit, and an old man in the bar said that scouring pots was nothing more than scouring pots, and that any other honest fool could have done them just as well as me."
"That's all right and I don't pretend my work on the lathe is a national asset, and I don't pretend I ought to have a statue for doing it," answered Nicholas; "but what I do say is that I am greater than my lathe and ought to get more attention according. I am a man and not a cog-wheel, and when Ironsyde puts cog-wheels above men and gives a dumb machine greater praise than the mechanic who works it—then it's wrong and I don't like it."
"He can't make any such mistake as that," argued Job. "It's rumoured he's going to stand for Parliament at the next General Election, so his business is with men, not machines, and he'll very soon find all about the human side of politics."
"He'll be human enough till he gets in. They always are. They'll stoop to anything till they're elected," said Mrs. Legg, "but once there, the case is often altered with 'em."
"I want to be recognised as a man," continued Roberts, "and Ironsyde don't do it. He isn't the only human being with a soul and a future. And now, if he's for Parliament, I dare say he'll become more indifferent than ever. He may be a machine himself, with no feelings beyond work; but other people are built different."
"A man like him ought to try and do the things himself," suggested Sarah. "If employers had to put in a day laying the stricks on the spreadboard, or turning the rollers on the lathe, or hackling, or spinning, they'd very soon get a respect for what the workers do. In fact, if labour had its way, it ought to make capital taste what labour means, and get out of bed when labour gets out, and do what labour does, and eat what labour eats. Then capital would begin to know it's born."
"It never will happen," persisted Nicholas. "Nothing opens the eyes of the blind, or makes the man who can buy oysters, eat winkles. The gulf is fixed between us and it won't be crossed. If he goes into Parliament, or stops out, he'll be himself still, and look on us doubtfully and wish in his soul that we were made of copper and filled with steam."
"A master must follow his people out of the works into their homes if he's worth a rap," declared Job. "Your aunt always did so with her maidens, and I do so with the men. And it's our place to remember that men and women are far different from metal and steam. You can't turn the power off the workers and think they're going to be all right till you turn it on again. They go on all the time—same as the masters and mistresses do. They sleep and eat and rest; they want their bit of human interest, and bit of fun, and pinch of hope to salt the working day. And as for Raymond Ironsyde, I've seen his career unfolding since he was a boy and marked him in bad moments and seen his weakness; which secrets were safe enough with me, for I'd always a great feeling for the young. And I say that he's good as gold at heart and his faults only come from a lack of power to put himself in another man's place. He could never look very much farther than his own place in the world and the road that led to it. He did wrong, like all of us, and his faults found him out; which they don't always do. But he's the sort that takes years and years to ripen. He's not yet at his best you'll find; but he's a learner, and he may learn a great many useful things if he goes into Parliament—if it's only what to avoid."
"There's one thing that will do him a darned sight more good than going into Parliament, and that's getting married," said Sarah. "In fact, a few of us, that can see further through a milestone than some people, believe it's in sight."
"Miss Waldron, of course?" asked Nelly.
"Yes—her. And when that happens, she'll make of Mister Ironsyde a much more understanding man than going into Parliament will. He's fair and just—not one of us, bar Levi Baggs, ever said he wasn't that—but she's more—she's just our lady, and our good is her good, and what she's done for us would fill a book; and if she could work on him to look at us through her eyes, then none of us, that deserved it, as we all do, would lose our good word."
"What do you say to that, Job?" asked Mrs. Legg.
"I say nothing better could happen," he answered. "But don't feel too hopeful. The things that promise best to the human eye ain't the things that Providence very often performs. To speak in a religious spirit and without feeling, there's no doubt that Providence does take a delight in turning down the obvious things and bringing us up against the doubtful and difficult and unexpected ones. That's why there's such a gulf between story books and real life. The story books that I used to read in my youth, always turned out just as a man of good will and good heart and kindly spirit would wish them to do; but you'd be straining civility to Providence and telling a lie if you pretended real life does. Therefore I say, hope it may happen; but don't bet on it."
Job finished his tea and bustled away.
"The wisdom of the man!" said Nicholas. "He's the most comforting person I know, because he don't pretend. There's some think that everything that happens to us is our own fault, and they drive you silly with their bleating. Job knows it ain't so."
"A far-seeing man," admitted Nelly, "and a great reader of the signs of the times. People used to think he was a simple sort—God forgive me, I did myself; but I know better now. All through that business with poor Richard Gurd, Job understood our characters and bided his time and knew that the crash must come between us. He's told me since that he never really feared Gurd, because he looked ahead and felt that two such natures as mine and Richard's were never meant to join in matrimony. Looking back, I see Job's every move and the brain behind it. Talk about Parliament! If Bridport was to send Legg there, they'd be sending one that's ten times wiser than Raymond Ironsyde—and ten times deeper. In fact, the nation's very ill served by most that go there. They are the showy, rich, noisy sort, who want to bulk in the public eye without working for it—ciphers who do what they're told, and don't understand the inner nature of what they're doing more than a hoss in a plough. But men like Job, though not so noisy, would get to the root, and use their own judgment, and rise superior to party politics and the pitiful need to shout with your side, right or wrong."
"Miss Waldron is very wishful for him to get in, and she says he's got good ideas," replied Nicholas.
"If so, he has to thank her for them," added Sarah.
"And I hope," continued Nicholas, "that if he does get in, he'll be suffered to make a speech, and his words will fall stone dead on the ears of the members, and his schemes will fail. Then he'll know what it is to be flouted and to see his best feats win not a friendly sign."
"Electors are a lot too easy going in my opinion," said Nelly. "I'm old enough to have seen their foolish ways in my time, and find, over and over again, that they are mostly gulls to be took with words. They never ask what a man's record is and turn over the pages of his past. They never trouble about what he's done, or how he's made his money, or where he stands in public report. It isn't what he has done, but what he's going to do. Yet you can better judge of a man from his past than his promises, and measure, in the light of his record, whether he's going to the House of Commons for patriotic, decent reasons, or for mean ones. And never you vote for a lawyer, Nicholas Roberts. 'Tis a golden rule with Job that never, under any manner of circumstances, will he help to get a lawyer into Parliament. They stand in the way of all progress but their own; they suck our blood in every affair of life; they baffle all honest thinking with their cunning, and look at right and wrong only from the point of expediency. Job says there ought to be a law against lawyers going in at all. But catch them making it! In fact, we're in their clutches more than the fly in the web, because they make the laws; and they'll never make any laws to limit their own powers over us, though always quick enough to increase them. Job says that the only bright side to a revolution would be that the law and the lawyers would be swept into the street orderly bin together. Then we'd start clean and free, and try to keep clean and free."
Upon this subject Mrs. Legg always found plenty to say. Indeed she continued to open her mind till they grew weary.
"We must be moving if we're going to church," said Sarah. "I think we'd better go and pick up a bit of charity to our neighbour—Sunday and all."
THE OFFER OF MARRIAGE
Raymond met Estelle on his way from the works and together they walked home. Here and there in the cottage doorways sat women braiding. Among them was Sally Groves—now grown too old and slow to tend the 'Card'—and accident willed that she should make an opening for thoughts that now filled Ironsyde's mind. They stopped, for Sally was an old acquaintance of both, and Estelle valued the big woman for her resolute character and shrewd sense. Now Sally, on strength of long-standing friendship, grew personal. It was an ancient joke to chaff Miss Groves about marriage, but to-day, when Raymond asked if the net she made was to catch a husband, Sally retorted with spirit.
"All very fine for you two to be poking fun at me," she said. "But what about you? It's time you made up your minds I'm sure, for everybody knows you're in love with each other—though you don't yourselves seemingly."
"Give us a lead, Sally," suggested Raymond; but she shook her head.
"You're old enough to know your own business," she answered; "but don't you go lecturing other people about matrimony while you're a bachelor yourself—else you'll get the worst of it—as you have now."
They left her and laughed together.
"Yet I've heard you say she was the most sensible woman that ever worked in the mills," argued Raymond.
Estelle made no direct reply, but spoke of Sally in the past at one of her parties, when the staff took holiday and spent a day at Weymouth.
Their conversation faded before they reached North Hill House, and then, as they entered the drive, Raymond reminded Estelle of a time long vanished and an expedition taken when she was a child.
"Talking of good things, d'you remember our walk to Chilcombe in the year one? Or, to be more exact, when you were in short frocks."
"I remember well enough. How my chatter must have bored you."
"You never bored me in your life, Chicky. In fact, you always seem to have been a part of my life since I began to live. That event happened soon after our walk, if I remember rightly. You really seem as much a part of my life as my right hand, Estelle."
"Well, your right hand can't bore you, certainly."
"Some of the things that it has done have bored me. But let's go to Chilcombe again—not in the car—but just tramp it as we did before. How often have you been there since we went?"
"Twice, I think. My friends there left ten years ago and my girl friend died. I haven't been there since I grew up."
"Well, come this afternoon."
"It's going to rain, Ray."
"Since when did rain frighten you?"
"I'd love to come."
"A walk will do me good," he said. "I'm getting jolly lazy."
"So father thinks. He hates motors—says they are going to make the next generation flabby and good-for-nothing."
They started presently under low grey clouds, but the sky was not grey for them and the weather of their minds made them forget the poor light and sad south-west wind laden with rain. It held off until they had reached Chilcombe chapel, entered the little place of prayer and stood together before the ancient reredos. The golden-brown wood made a patch of brightness in the little building. They were looking at it and recalling Estelle's description of it in the past, when the storm broke and the rain beat on the white glass in the windows above them.
"How tiny it's all grown," said Estelle. "Surely everything has shrunk?"
They had the chapel to themselves and, sitting beside her in a pew, Raymond asked her to marry him. Thunder had wakened in the sky, and the glare of lightning touched their faces now and then. But they only remembered that afterwards.
"Sally Groves was no more than half right," he said, "so her fame for wisdom is shaken. She told us we didn't know we loved one another, Estelle. But I know I love you well enough, and I've been shaking in my shoes to tell you so for months and months. I knew I was getting too old every minute and yet couldn't say the word. But I must say it now at any cost. Chicky, I love you—dearly, dearly I love you—because I'm calm and steady, that doesn't mean I'm not in a blaze inside. I never thought of it even while you were growing up. But a time came when I did begin to think of it like the deuce; and when once I did, the thought towered up like the effreet let out of the bottle—that story you loved when you were small. But my only fear and dread is that you've always been accustomed to think of me as so much older than you are. If you once get an idea into your head about a person's age, you can't get it out again. At least, I can't; so I'm afraid you'll regard me as quite out of the question for a husband. If that's so, I'll begin over again."
Her eyes were round and her mouth a little open. She did not blink when the lightning flashed.
"But—but—" she said.
"If I'm not too old, there are no 'buts' left," he declared firmly. "Ten years is no great matter after all, and from the point of view of brains, I'm an infant beside you. Then say 'yes,' my darling—say 'yes' to me."
"I wonder—I wonder, Ray?"
"Haven't you ever guessed what I felt?"
"Yes, in a vague way. At least I knew there was something growing up between us."
"It was love, my beautiful dear."
She smiled at him doubtfully. The colour had come back to her face, but she did not respond when he lifted his arms to her.
"Are you sure—can you be sure, Ray? It's so different,—so shattering. It seems to smash up all the past into little bits and begin the world all over again—for you and me. It's such a near thing. I've seen the married people and wondered about it. You might get so weary of always having me so close."
"I want you close—closer and closer. I want you as the best part of myself—to make me happier first and, because happier, more useful in the world. I want you at the helm of my life—to steer me, Chicky. What couldn't we do together! It's selfish—? it's one-sided, I know that. I get everything—you only get me. But I'll try and rise to the occasion. I worship you, and no woman ever had a more devout worshipper. I feel that your father wouldn't be very mad with me. But it's for you to decide, nothing else matters either way."
"I love to think you care for me so much," she said. "And I care for you, Ray, and have cared for you—more than either of us know. Yes, I have. Sally Groves knew somehow. I should like to say 'yes' this moment; but I can't. I know I shall say it presently; but I'm not going to say it till I've thought a great many thoughts and looked into the future and considered all this means—for you as well as for me. It's life or death really, for both of us, and the more certain sure we are before, the happier we should be afterwards, I expect."
"I'm sure enough, Estelle. I've been sure enough for many a long day. I know the very hour I began to be sure."
"I think I am too; but I can't say 'yes' and mean 'yes' for the present. I've got to thresh out a lot of things. I dare say they'd be absurd to you; but they're not to me."
"Can I help you?"
"I don't know. You can, I expect. I shall come to you again to throw light on the difficult points."
"How long are you going to take?"
"How can I tell? But I can all the same, I'm not going to take long."
"Say you love me—do say that."
"I should have told you if I didn't."
"That's all right, but not so blessed as hearing you say with your own lips you do. Say it—say it, Chicky. I won't take advantage of it. I only want to hear it. Then I'll leave you in peace to think your thoughts."
"I do love you," she said gently and steadily. "It can be nothing smaller than that. You are a very great part of my life—the greatest. I know that, because when you go away life is at evening, and when you come back again life is at morning. Let me have a little time, Ray—only a very little. Then I'll decide."
"I hope your wisdom will let you follow your will, then, and not forbid the banns."
"You mustn't think it cold and horrid of me."
"You couldn't be cold and horrid, my sweet Estelle. We're neither of us capable of being cold, or horrid. We are not babies. I don't blame you a bit for wanting to think about it. I only blame myself. If I was all I might have been, you wouldn't want to think about it."
This challenge shook her, but did not change her.
"Nobody's all they might be, Ray; but many people are a great deal more than they might be. That's what makes you love people best, I think—to see how brave and patient and splendid men and women can be. Life's so difficult even for the luckiest of us; but it isn't the luckiest who are the pluckiest generally—is it? I've had such a lot more than my share of luck already. So have you—at least people think so. But nobody knows one's luck really except oneself."
"It's the things that are going to happen will make our good luck," he said. "You'll find men are seldom satisfied with the past, whatever women may be. God knows I'm not."
"You were always one of my two heroes when I was a child; and father was the other. He is still my hero—and so are you, Ray."
"A pretty poor hero. I wouldn't pretend that to my dog. I only claim to have something worth while in me that you might bring out—raw material for you to turn into the finished article."
She laughed to hear this.
"Come—come—you're not as modest as all that. You're much too clever even to pretend any such thing. Women don't turn strong men into finished articles. At best, perhaps, they can only decorate a little of the outside."
"You laugh," he answered, "but you know better. If you love me, be ambitious for me. That's the most helpful love a woman can give a man—to see his capabilities better than he can, and fire him on the best and biggest he can do, and help him to grasp his opportunities."
"So it is."
"You've got to decide whether it's worth while marrying me, Chicky. You do love me, as I love you—because you can't help it. But you can help marrying me. You've got to think of your own show as well as mine. I quite understand that. You must be yourself and make your own mark, and take advantage of all the big new chances offered to the rising generation of women. I love you a great deal too much to want to lessen you, or drift you into a back-water. It's just a question whether my work, and the Mill, and so on, give you the chance you want—if, working together, we can each help on the other. You could certainly help me hugely and you know it; but whether I could help you—that's what you've got to think about I suppose."
"Yes, I suppose it is, Ray."
"Your eyes say 'yes' already, and they're terrible true eyes."
But she only lowered them and neither spoke any more for a little while. The worst of the storm had passed, and its riot and splash gave place to a fine drizzle as the night began to close in.
They started for home and, both content to think their own thoughts, trudged side by side. For Raymond's part, he knew the woman too well to suffer any doubt of the issue and he was happy. For he felt that she was quietly happy too, and if instincts had brought grave doubts, or prompted her to deny him, she would not have been happy.
Estelle did not miss the romance from his offer of marriage. She had dreamed of man's love in her poetry-reading days, but under the new phase and the practical bent, developed by a general enthusiasm for her kind, personal emotions were not paramount. There could be but little sex in her affection for Raymond: she had lived too near him for that. Indeed, she had grown up beside him, and the days before he came to dwell at North Hill seemed vague and misty. Thus his challenge came as an experience both less and greater than love. It was less, in that no such challenge can be so urgent and so mighty as the call of hungry hearts to each other; it was greater, because the interests involved were built on abiding principles. They arrested her intellectual ambitions and pointed to a sphere of usefulness beyond her unaided power. What must have made his prosaic offer flat in the ear of an amorous woman, edged it for her. He had dwelt on the aspect of their union that was likely most to attract her.
There was a pure personal side where love came in and made her heart beat warmly enough; but, higher than that, she saw herself of living value to Raymond and helping him just where he stood most in need of help. She believed that they might well prove the complement of each other in those duties, disciplines, and obligations to which life had called them.
That night she went closely, searchingly over old ground again from the new point of vision. What had always been interesting to her, became now vital, since these characteristics belonged to the man who wanted to wed her. She tried to be remorseless and cruel that she might be kind. But the palette of thought was only set with pleasant colours. She had been intellectually in love with him for a long time, and he had offered problems which made her love him for the immense interest they gave her. Now came additional stimulus in the knowledge that he loved her well enough to share his life, his hopes, and his ambitions with her.
She believed they might be wedded in very earnest. He was masterful and possessed self-assurance; but what man can lead and control without these qualities? His self-assurance was less than his self-control, and his instinct for self-assertion had nearly always been counted by a kind heart. It seemed to her that she had never known a man who balanced reason and feeling more judicially, or better preserved a mean between them.
She had found that men could differentiate in a way beyond woman's power and be unsociable if their duty demanded it. But to be unsociable is not to be unsocial. Raymond took long views, and if his old, genial and jolly attitude to life was a thing of the past, there had been substituted for it a wiser understanding and saner recognition of the useful and useless. Men did take longer views than women—so Estelle decided: and there Raymond would help her; but the all-important matter that night was to satisfy herself how much she could help him. In this reverie she found such warmth and light as set her glowing before dawn, for she built up the spiritual picture of Raymond, came very close to its ultimate realities, quickened by the new inspiration, and found that it should be well within her power to serve him generously. She took no credit to herself, but recognized a happy accident of character.
There were weak spots in all masculine armour, that only a woman could make strong, and by a good chance she felt that her particular womanhood might serve this essential turn for Raymond's manhood. To strengthen her own man's weak spots—surely that was the crown and completion of any wedded life for a woman. To check, to supplement, to enrich: that he would surely do for her; and she hoped to deal as faithfully with him.
She was not clear-sighted here, for love, if it be love at all, must bring the rosy veil with it and dim the seeing of the brightest eyes. While the fact that she had grown up with Raymond made her view clear enough in some directions, in others it served, of course, to dim judgment. She credited him with greater intellect than he possessed, and dreamed that higher achievements were in his power than was the truth. But there existed a mean, below her dream yet above his present ambition, that it was certainly possible with her incentive he might attain. She might make him more sympathetic and so more synthetic also, and show him how his own industry embraced industrial problems at large—how it could not be taken by itself, but must hold its place only by favour of its progress, and command respect only as it represented the worthiest relation between capital and labour. Thus, from the personal interest of his work, she would lift him to measure the world-wide needs of all workers. And then, in time to come, he would forget the personal before the more splendid demands of the universal. The trend of machinery was towards tyranny; he must never lose sight of that, or let the material threaten the spiritual. Private life, as well as public life, was open to the tyranny of the machine; and there, too, it would be her joyful privilege to fight beside him for added beauty, added liberty, not only in their own home, but all homes wherein they had power to increase comfort and therefore happiness. The sensitiveness of women should be linked to the driving force of men, as the safety valve to the engine. Thus, in a simile surely destined to delight him, she summed her intentions and desires.
She had often wondered what must be essential to the fullest employment of her energies and the best and purest use of her thinking; and now she saw that marriage answered the question—not marriage in the abstract, but just marriage with this man. He, of all she had known, was the one with whom she felt best endowed to mingle and merge, so that their united forces should be poured to help the world and water with increase the modest territory through which they must flow.
She turned to go to sleep at last, yet dearly longed to tell Raymond and amaze her father with the great tidings.
An impulse prompted her to leave her lover not a moment more in doubt. She rose, therefore, and descended to his room, which opened beside his private study on the ground floor. The hour was nearly four on an autumn morning. She listened, heard him move restlessly and knew that he did not sleep. He struck a match and lighted a cigarette, for he often smoked at night.
Then she knocked at the door.
"Who the devil's that?" he shouted.
"I," she said, opening the door an inch and talking softly. "Stop where you are and stop worrying and go to sleep. I'm going to marry you, Ray, and I'm happier than ever I was before in all my life."
Then she shut the door and fled away.
SABINA AND ABEL
Now was Raymond Ironsyde too busy to think any thought but one, and though distractions crowded down on the hour, he set them aside so far as it was possible. His betrothal very completely dominated his life and the new relation banished the old attitude between him and Estelle. The commonplace existence, as of sister and brother, seemed to perish suddenly, and in its place, as a butterfly from a chrysalis, there reigned the emotional days of prelude to marriage. The mere force of the situation inspired them and they grew as loverly as any boy and girl. It was no make-believe that led them to follow the immemorial way and glory only in the companionship of each other; they felt the desire, and love that had awakened so tardily and moved in a manner so desultory, seemed concerned to make up for lost time.
Arthur Waldron was not so greatly astonished as they expected, and whatever may have been his private hopes and desires for his daughter, he never uttered them, but seeing her happiness, echoed it.
"No better thing could have happened from my point of view," he declared, "for if she'd married anybody else in the world, I should have been called to say 'good-bye' to her. Since she's chosen you, there's no necessity for me to do so. I hope you're going on living at North Hill, and I trust you're going to let me do the same. Of course, it would be an impossible arrangement if you were dealing with anybody but me; but since we are what we are in spirit and temper and understanding, I claim that I may stop. The only difference I can see is this: that whereas at present, when we dine, you sit between Estelle and me, in future I shall sit between Estelle and you."
"Not even that," vowed the lover. "Why shouldn't I go on sitting between you?"
"No—you'll be the head of the house in future."
"The charm of this house is that there's no head to it," said Estelle, "and Raymond isn't going to usurp any such position just because he means to marry me."
But distractions broke in upon their happiness. Ernest Churchouse fell grievously ill and lacked strength to fight disease; while there came news from Knapp that the farmer was tired of Abel and wished him away.
For their old friend none could prolong his life; in the case of the boy, Raymond decided that Sabina had better see him and go primed with a definite offer. Abel's father did not anticipate much more trouble in that quarter. He guessed that the lad, now in his seventeenth year, was sufficiently weary of the land and would be glad to take up engineering. He felt confident that Sabina must find him changed for the better, prepared for his career and willing to enter upon it without greater waste of time. He invited the boy's mother to learn if he felt more friendly to him, and hoped that Abel had now revealed a frame of mind and a power of reasoning, that would serve to solve the problem of his career, and finally abolish his animosity to his father.
Sabina went to see her son and heard the farmer first. He was not unfriendly, but declared Abel a responsibility he no longer desired to incur.
"He's just at a tricky age—and he's shifty and secret—unlike other lads. You never know what's going on in his mind, and he never laughs, or takes pleasure in things. He's too difficult for me, and my wife says she's frightened of him. As to work, he does it, but you always feel he's got no love for it. And I know he means to bolt any day. I've marked signs; so it will be better for you people to take the first step."
The farmer's wife spoke to similar purpose and added information that made Sabina more than uneasy.
"It's about this friend of his, Miss Waldron, that came to see him backalong," she explained. "He'd talk pretty free about her sometimes and was very proud of it when he got a letter now and again. But since she's wrote and told him she's going to be married, he's turned a gloomier character than ever. He don't like the thought of it and it makes him dark. 'Tis almost as if he'd been in love with the lady. You do hear of young boys falling in love before their time like that."
Sabina was on the point of explaining, but did not do so. Her first care was to see Abel and learn the truth of this report. Perhaps she felt not wholly sorry that he resented this conclusion. Not a few had spoken of Ironsyde's marriage before her: it was the gossip of Bridetown; but none appeared to consider how it must affect her, or sympathise with her emotions on the subject. What these emotions were, or whither they tended, she hardly knew herself. Unowned even to her innermost heart, a sort of dim hope had not quite died, that he might, after all, come back to her. She blushed at the absurdity of the idea now, but it had struck in her subconsciously and never wholly vanished. Before the engagement was announced she had altered her attitude to Raymond and used him civilly and shared his desire that Abel should be won over by his father. The old hatred at receiving anything from Ironsyde's hands no longer existed. She felt indifferent and, before her own approaching problems, was not prepared to decline the offers of help that she knew would quickly come when Ernest Churchouse died.
She intended to preach patience and reason in the ears of Abel, and she hoped he would not make her task difficult; but now it was clear that Estelle's betrothal had troubled the boy.
She saw him and they spoke together for a long time; but already his force of character began to increase beyond his mother's. Despite her purpose and sense of the gravity of the situation, he had more effect upon her than she had upon him. Yet her arguments were rational and his were not. But the old, fatal, personal element of temper crept in and, during her speech with him, Sabina found fires that she believed long quenched, were still smouldering in the depths of memory. The boy could not indeed fan them to flame again; but the result of his attitude served to weaken hers. She did not argue with conviction after finding his temper. By some evil chance, that seemed more like art than accident, he struck old wounds, and she was interested and agitated to find that now he knew all there was to be known of the past and its exact significance. The dream hidden so closely in her heart: that there might yet be a reconciliation—the dream finally killed when she perceived that Ironsyde had fallen in love with Estelle Waldron—was no dream in her son's mind. What she knew was impossible, till now represented no impossibility to him. He actually declared it as a thing which, in his moral outlook, ought to be. Only so could the past be retrieved, or the future made endurable. But to that matter they did not immediately come. She dined at the farmer's table with Abel and three men. Then he was told that he might make holiday and spend the afternoon with his mother where he pleased. He took her therefore to the old barrows nigh Knapp, and there on a stone they sat, watched the sun sink over distant woodlands and talked together till the dusk was down.
"I ought never to have trusted her," he said. "But I did. And, if I'd thought she would ever have married him, I wouldn't have trusted her. I thought she was the right sort; but if she was, she would never have married a man who had sworn to marry you."
"Good gracious, Abel! Whatever are you talking about?" she asked, concerned to find the matter in his mind.
"I'm talking about things that happened," he answered. "I'm not a child now. I'm nearly seventeen and older than that, for I overheard two of the men say so. You needn't tell me these things; I found them out for myself, and I hated Raymond Ironsyde from the time I could hate anybody, because the honest feeling to hate him was in me. And nobody has the right to marry him but you, and he's got no right to marry anybody but you. But he doesn't know the meaning of justice, and she is not fine, or brave, or clever, or any of the things I thought she was, because she wants to marry him."
His mother considered this speech.
"It's no good vexing yourself about the past," she said. "You and me have got to look to the future, Abel, and not to dwell on all that don't make the future any easier. It's difficult enough, but, for us, the luxury of pride and hate isn't possible. I know very well what you feel. It all went through me like fire before you were born—and after; but we've got to go on living, and things are going to change, and we must cut our coats according to our cloth—you and me."
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"It means we're not independent. There's not enough for your education and my keep. So it's got to be him, or one other, and the other is an old woman—his aunt. But it's all the same really, and he'll see that it comes out of his pocket in the end. He's all powerful and we must do according. Christianity's a very convenient thing for the likes of us. It teaches that the meek are blessed and the weak the worthy ones. You must look to your father if you want to succeed in the world."
"Never," he said. "He's got everything else in the world, but he shan't have me. I don't care much about being alive at best, seeing I must be different from other people all my life; but I'd rather die twenty times than owe anything to him. He knew before I was born that he was going to wreck my life, and he did it, and he wrecked yours, and his marriage with any other woman but you is a lie and a sham, and Estelle knows it very well. Now I hate her as much as him, and I hate those who let her marry him, and I hate the clergyman that will do it; and if I could ruin them by killing myself on their doorstep, I would. But he wouldn't care for that. If I was to do that, it would just suit the devil, because he'd know I'd gone and could never rise up against him any more."
She made a half-hearted attempt to distract his thoughts. She began to argue and, as usual, ended in bitterness.
"You mustn't talk nonsense, like that. He means well by you, and you mustn't cut off your nose to spite your face. You'll find plenty of people to take his side and you mustn't only listen to his enemies. There's always wise people to stand up for young men and excuse them, though not many to stand up for young women."
"Let them stand up for me and excuse me, then," he answered. "Let them explain me and tell me why I should think different, and why I should take his filthy money just to set his mind at rest. What has he done for me that I should ease him and do as he pleases? Is it out of any care for me he'd lift me up? Not likely. It's all to deceive the people and make them say he's a good man. And until he puts you right, he's not a good man, and soon or late I'll have it out with him. God blast me if I don't. But I'll revenge myself clean on him. He shan't make out to the world that he's done what a father should do for a son. He's my natural father and no more, and he never wanted or meant to be more. And no right will take away that wrong. And I'll treat him as other natural creatures treat their fathers."
"You can't do that," she said. "You're a human, and you've got a conscience and must answer to it."
"I will—some day. I know what my conscience says to me. My conscience tells me the truth, not a lot of lies like yours tells you. I know what's right and I know what's justice. I gave the man one chance. I offered to go in his works—my works that ought to be some day. But that didn't suit him. I must always knuckle under and bend to his will. But never—never. I'd starve first, or throw myself into the sea. He don't want me near him for people to point to, so I must be drove out of Bridetown to the ends of the earth if he chooses. And if the damned world was straight and honest and looked after the women and innocent children, 'tis him, not me, would have been drove out of Bridetown."
He spoke with amazing bitterness for youth, and echoed much that he had heard, as well as what he had thought. His mother felt some astonishment to find how his mind had enlarged, and some fear, also, to see the hopelessness of the position.
Already she considered in secret what craft might be necessary to bring him to a more reasonable mind.
"You'll have to think of me as well as yourself," she said. "Life's hard enough without you making it so much harder. Two things will happen in a few weeks from now and nothing can stop them. First you've got to leave here, because farmer don't want you any more, and then poor Mister Churchouse is going to pass away. He's just fading out like a night-light—flickering up and down and bound to be called. And the best man and the truest friend to sorrow that ever trod the earth."