With regard to Jim her thoughts had been even less definite. His attitude to her had been so entirely brotherly that she had never felt the necessity of asking herself whether he was still keeping his expressed love for her alive, although he would not show it, or whether he, too, thought of their love-making as a piece of rather childish folly, and had put it completely behind him. Beyond the first slight awkwardness of meeting him when he came back from Oxford after his letter to her, she had felt none in his presence, and until this very morning her attitude towards him had been frank and her feelings affectionate. He had made that possible by showing the same attitude and apparently the same feelings.
But what she now had to consider was whether he had actually been so frank towards her as she to him; whether he had not been keeping something back, and, in effect, playing a part. If it were so, their relationship was not as she had thought it, and would have to be adjusted.
She turned her mind to this point first. It would really be rather surprising if Jim had been in love with her all this time and she had not known it. She thought she must have known if it were so, and she rejected the idea. What she could not get away from—it hardly needed stating in her mind—was that he had tentatively made love to her that morning. Or rather—and here she rather congratulated herself on making the distinction, as a process of pure thought—he had seemed to show her that marriage was in his mind, perhaps as a thing already settled between them, although she, for her part, had long since given up thinking of it as a matter to be considered, however loosely, settled. Of course she knew he was fond of her, as she was of him. If he was not in love with her, as once he had been, he might still want to marry her, as the nicest person he could find, and the requisite impulsion might come from his return after a long absence. She would be included in his heightened appreciation of all his home surroundings. These considerations passed through her mind, in no logical sequence of thought, but at various points of her self-questioning, and when she was also thinking further of her own part in what might follow, trying to discover what she wanted and to decide what she should do. The fact that he had opened and would probably open again the subject of their marriage was all that really mattered, and she knew that without thinking.
She knew, too, without thinking, that she did not want to engage herself again to marry Jim, at any rate not yet; and, in fact, she would not do so. What her honesty of mind impelled her to was the discovery of the root from which this femininely instinctive decision had flowered. What were her reasons for not wanting to marry Jim now, or soon; and would they take from her, when examined, that always present but always unstated possibility of some day finding herself living at Mountfield as his wife? She a little dreaded the conclusion, which may have shown that she had already made up her mind; but it was here that an answer had to be found, and she faced it bravely.
She was not ready to marry Jim now, or soon, because in the first place she did not love him—not in that way—and in the second place because she did not love, in any way, what he stood for.
When she said to herself that she did not love Jim her mind recoiled a little. He was such a good sort, so kind, so reliable. It was just as if she had said that she did not love her brothers. It was ungracious, and ungrateful. She did love him. Dear old Jim! And she would be sorry to cause him pain. But, if she did not want him to make love to her—and certainly she didn't—she couldn't possibly love him as a girl ought to love her prospective husband—as Beatrice, for instance, loved her young parliamentarian. That seemed settled. And because she did think things over, and was no longer very young indeed, she saw that the change of circumstances in a girl's life when she was going to be married counted for something, something of the pleasure, something of the excitement. It was so with Beatrice, and with Muriel. They loved the men they were going to marry, but they also got a great deal of satisfaction out of the change in their surroundings, quite apart from that. What sort of change would she have as Jim's wife? She would step straight out of one large house into another, and she would no more be the mistress of Mountfield than she had been of Kencote. So she told herself. For the mistresses of houses like Kencote and Mountfield were really a sort of superior housekeeper, allowed to live with the family, but placed where they were with the sole object of serving their lords and masters, with far less independence than a paid housekeeper, who could take her money and go if she were dissatisfied with her position.
What a prospect! To live out the rest of her life in the subjection against which she had already begun to rebel, in exactly similar surroundings and in exactly the same atmosphere! If she married Jim she would not even have the pleasure of furnishing her own house. It would be Jim's house, and the furniture and all the appurtenances of it were so perfect in Jim's eyes that she knew he would never hear of her altering a thing. She would not be able to rearrange her drawing-room without his permission. That was what it meant to marry a country gentleman of Jim's sort, who disliked "gadding about," and would expect his wife to go through the same dull round, day after day, all her life long, while he amused himself in the way that best suited him.
When she had reached this point, and the end of her toilet together, Cicely suddenly determined that she would never marry Jim, and if he pressed her she would tell him so. She didn't want to marry anybody. If only she could get away from Kencote and be a hospital nurse, or something of the sort, that was all she wanted. With this rather unsatisfactory conclusion she cleared her mind, ran downstairs, and found Jim himself alone in the drawing-room.
TOWN versus COUNTRY
"Hullo!" said Jim. "You're down early."
"I didn't know you were here," said Cicely, and was annoyed at herself, and blushed in consequence.
But whatever conclusion Jim may have drawn from her hurried, rather eager entrance, her denial, and her blush, he only said, "Mother and Muriel are upstairs."
"I wonder why Muriel didn't come to my room," said Cicely. "I think I'll go and find her."
"All right," said Jim, and Cicely went out of the room again.
Jim took up a book from a table, turned over a few leaves, and then threw it down and went to the window, where he stood looking out, with his hands in his pockets.
By and by Mr. Birket came in, and joined him. "Shame to be indoors on an evening like this," he said. "I should like to dine at nine o'clock in the summer."
"What about the servants?" asked Jim.
"Ah, yes," said Mr. Birket. "Is it true you are a Free Trader, Graham?"
"Yes, I am," said Jim, with a shade of defiance.
"So am I," said Mr. Birket.
Jim smiled. "Well, you've got to be in your party," he said.
"Not at all. It isn't a question of party. It's a question of common-sense."
"That's just what I think. I've looked into it with as much intelligence as I'm capable of—they say about here that isn't much—and I can't see why you shouldn't be a Tory as good as any of 'em and still stick to Free Trade."
"Nor can I," said Mr. Birket. "But they won't let you. You had better join us, Graham. Anybody with any dawning of sense must be very uncomfortable where you are."
"I should be a jolly sight more uncomfortable with you," said Jim. "And I've got keen on the Empire since I've been travelling."
"Oh, if you've seen it," said Mr. Birket, somewhat cryptically, and then the door opened, and Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Birket came in together.
Mrs. Birket was a tall, good-looking woman, who held herself upright, was well dressed and well informed. She had a good manner, and in mixed company never allowed a drop in the conversation. But as she talked well this was not so tiresome as it might have been. She was quoted amongst her circle, which was a wide one, as an excellent hostess, and the tribute was deserved, because, in addition to her conversational aptitude, she had the art of looking after her guests without apparent effort. She had been strict with her daughters, but they were now her companions, and devoted to her. Mrs. Clinton talked to her, perhaps more than to any other woman she knew, and the two were friends, although the circumstances of their lives were wide apart.
The two ladies were followed by the four girls, who came in chattering, and by Mrs. Graham, who, even in evening clothes, with a necklace of diamonds, looked as if she liked dogs. Then came Humphrey, extraordinarily well dressed, his dark hair very sleek; and Dick, very well dressed too, but with less of a town air; and then the Squire, just upon the stroke of eight, obviously looking forward to his dinner.
"Nina, what on earth can have become of Tom and Grace?" he asked when he had greeted Mrs. Graham and Muriel. "No sign of 'em anywhere. We can't wait, you know."
Mrs. Clinton glanced at the ormolu clock, representing Time with a scythe and hour-glass, on the mantelpiece, but said nothing. As it began to chime the door opened and the Rector and Mrs. Beach were announced.
"Grace! Grace!" said the Squire, holding up a warning finger, but smiling affably. "I've never known you run it so fine before."
"My dear Edward," said Mrs. Beach, with her sweet smile, "Tom broke a collar stud. It is one of those little accidents that nobody can foresee and nobody can guard against."
"Except by laying in a stock," said Mrs. Graham.
"Well, my dear Grace, you were just not late," said the Squire, "I will forgive you."
So they all went in to dinner amicably, and a very good dinner it was, although there was an entire absence of what the Squire called French fal-lals. English versus French cooking was a favourite dinner-table topic of his, and he expatiated on it this evening. "It stands to reason," he said, "that natural food well cooked—of course it must be well cooked, before an open range, and so on—is better than made-up stuff. Now what have we got this evening?" He put on his gold-rimmed glasses and took up a menu-card. A shade of annoyance passed over his face when he discovered that it was written in French. "Who wrote this rubbish?" he asked, looking over his glasses at Mrs. Clinton.
"I did, father," said Cicely, blushing.
"Good for you, Siskin!" broke in Dick. "Very well done. It gives the entertainment an air."
"I helped with the accents," said Angela.
"Well," said the Squire, "I don't like it. As far as I can make out it's a purely English dinner, except, perhaps, the soup, and it ought to be described in English. What's the good of calling roast lamb 'agneau roti'?" He pronounced it "rotty," with an inflection of scorn. "There's no sense in it. But as I was saying—where are you going to find better food than salmon and roast lamb, new potatoes, asparagus, peas—of course they're forced, but they're English—and so on?" He threw down the card and took off his glasses. "Everything grown on the place except the salmon, which old Humphrey Meadshire sent me."
"You've left out the 'Peche a la Melba'," said Mrs. Beach. "It is the crowning point of the whole dinner. But I quite agree with you, Edward, you couldn't have a better one anywhere."
"Rather on the heavy side," commented Humphrey.
"Not at all," said Mr. Birket. "The fruits of the earth in due season, or, if possible, a little before it; that's the best dinner any man can have."
"Every country has its own cooking," said Mrs. Birket. "I really think the English is the best if it is well done."
"Which it very seldom is," said Mrs. Graham.
"Of course this is the very best time of all the year for it," said the Rector. "Did you bring back any new curry recipes from India, Jim?"
Jim replied that he had not, and the Squire said, "By the bye, Jim, I see that fellow Mackenzie came home in the Punjaub. The papers are full of him this evening. Did you happen to meet him?"
Jim said that he had shared the same cabin, and that Mackenzie had promised to spend a week-end at Mountfield some time or other.
"We are going to make a lion of him in London," said Humphrey. "We haven't had an explorer for a long time. I believe he's shaggy enough to be a great success."
"You must bring him over to dine, Jim," said the Squire. "It's interesting to hear about these fellows who trot all over the world. But heavens, what a life!"
"A very good life, I think," said Mr. Birket. "Not much chance to get moss-grown."
"Now, I'm sure that is a dig at us people who live in the country," said Mrs. Beach. "Because you don't get moss-grown, Mr. Birket."
"He would if he lived in the country," said Mrs. Birket. "He would lie on his back all day long and do nothing at all. He has an unequalled power of doing nothing."
"Not at all," said Mr. Birket. "I'm a very hard worker. Cicely caught me at it at six o'clock this morning, didn't you, my dear?"
"You've no responsibilities, Herbert," the Squire broke in. "If you owned land you wouldn't want to lie on your back."
"He is trying to make the land lie on our backs," said Dick. "We shan't have any left soon."
"All you Radicals," began the Squire; but Mrs. Beach had something to say: "Mr. Birket, you despise us country folk at the bottom of your heart. I'm sure you do."
"Not at all," said Mr. Birket. "I think you live a peaceful and idyllic existence, and are much to be envied."
"Peaceful!" the Squire snorted. "That's all you Radicals know about it. I assure you we work as hard as anybody, and get less return for it. I wish you'd tell your precious leaders so, Herbert."
"I will," said Mr. Birket.
"What with one thing and another," proceeded the Squire, "the days are gone as soon as they are begun."
"But when they are finished something has always been done," said Mrs. Beach. "That is the difference between a town life and a country life. In London you are immensely busy and tire yourself to death, but you've nothing to show for it."
"Your brains are sharpened up a bit," said Humphrey.
"If you have any," suggested Mrs. Graham.
"Mother, don't be rude," said Muriel.
"The remark had no personal bearing," said Humphrey, with a grin.
"I didn't say so," retorted Mrs. Graham.
"I think it is a matter of temperament," said Mrs. Birket. "Everybody who lives in London likes the country, and everybody who lives in the country likes London—for a change. But if you had to live in one or the other all the year round——"
"I would choose the country," said Mrs. Beach, "and I'm sure you would, Edward."
"Of course I would," said the Squire. "I do live in the country all the year round. I've had enough of London to last me all my life."
"Two for the country," said Dick. "Now we'll go round the table. Mother, where do your tastes lie?"
Mrs. Clinton did not reply for a moment; then she said, "I don't think I should mind which it was if I had my family round me."
"Oh, come now, Nina," said the Squire, "that's no answer. Surely you don't want to become a town madam."
"You mustn't bring pressure, Edward," said Mrs. Beach. "We shall have quite enough on our side."
"Mother neutral," said Dick. "Jim?"
"Oh, the country," said Jim.
"Three for the country. Angela?"
"You must give a reason," said Mrs. Beach.
Angela laughed. "I like music, and plays," she said, "and hearing people talk."
"Well, surely you can hear people talk in the country," said the Squire.
"And such talk!" added Mrs. Graham, at which everybody laughed except the Squire, who saw no humour in the remark.
"Three to one," said Dick. "Aunt Grace, you've had your turn. Now it's mine. I don't want to bury myself yet awhile, but when the time comes I expect I shall shy at London as the governor does. I'm country."
"Why?" asked Angela.
"Oh, because there's more to do. Now then, Beatrice. You're London, I suppose."
"Yes," said Beatrice. "Because there's more to do."
"Good for you! That's four to two. Mrs. Graham!"
"Can you ask?" said that lady. "And I won't give any reasons. I like the country best because I like it best."
"Father is country. Five to two."
"And my reason," said the Squire, "is that every man who doesn't like the country best, when he can get it, isn't a man at all. He's a popinjay."
"Well, at the risk of being called the feminine for popinjay," said Mrs. Birket, with a smile, "I must choose London."
"Oh, but I don't include the women, my dear Emmeline," said the Squire. "And I don't include men like Herbert either, who've got their work to do. I'm thinking of the fellows who peacock about on pavements when they might be doing 'emselves good hunting, or some such pursuit. It's country sport that's good for a man, keeps him strong and healthy; and he sees things in the proper light too. England was a better country than it is now when the House of Commons was chiefly made up of country gentlemen. You didn't hear anything about this preposterous socialism then. I tell you, the country gentlemen are the backbone of England, and your party will find it out when you've turned them out of the country."
"Oh, but we shan't do that," said Mr. Birket. "That would be too dreadful."
"No politics," said Dick. "We're five to three. Tom, you're a country man, I'm sure."
But the Rector was not at all sure that he was. He sometimes thought that people were more interesting than Nature. On the whole, he thought he would choose the town.
"Then I change round," said Mrs. Beach. "Where thou goest, Tom, I will go. Dick, I'm town."
"Then that changes the game. Town's one up. Muriel, be careful."
"Certainly not country," said Muriel. "I've had enough of it. I think the best place to live in is a suburb."
"Melbury Park!" laughed the Squire. "Ha! ha!"
"That's town," said Dick. "Four to six. We yokels are getting worsted."
"I'll come to your rescue," said Humphrey. "I don't want to be cut off with a shilling. Give me a big country house and a season ticket, and I'm with you."
"Five to six then. Now, Siskin, make it all square."
"No," said Cicely. "I hate the country."
"What!" exclaimed the Squire.
"It's so dreadfully dull," said Cicely. "There's nothing in the world to do."
"But this is a revolt!" said Dick.
"Nothing to do!" echoed the Squire, in a voice of impatient censure. "There's everything to do. Don't talk nonsense, Cicely. You have got to live in the country whether you like it or not, so you had better make the best of it."
"Very sound advice," said Mr. Birket. "I follow it myself. It may surprise the company, but I'm for the country. Cows enrapture me, and as for the buttercups, there's no flower like 'em."
"Town has it," said Dick. "Seven to six—a very close match."
* * * * *
When Mr. and Mrs. Birket were alone together that night, Mr. Birket said, "My dear, I think Edward Clinton gets more intolerable every time I see him. I hope I have succeeded in disguising that opinion."
"Perfectly, Herbert," said his wife. "And you must please continue to do so for Nina's sake."
Mr. Birket sighed. "Poor dear Nina!" he said. "She was so bright as a girl. If she hadn't married that dunderhead she'd have been a happy woman. I bet she isn't now. He has crushed every bit of initiative out of her. And I'll tell you what, my dear, he'll crush it out of Cicely if she doesn't get away from these deadly surroundings. Heavens, what a life for a clever girl!"
"Do you think Cicely clever?"
"She doesn't know anything, because they have never let her learn anything. But she thinks for herself, and she's beginning to kick at it all. If she'd had the chances our girls have had, she'd have made use of them. Can't we give her a chance, Emmeline? She's a particularly nice girl. Have her up to London for a month or two. The girls are fond of her—and you're fond of her too, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm very fond of her," said Mrs. Birket.
"Well—then, why not?"
"Do you think Edward would let her come?"
"My private opinion of Edward would probably surprise him, if he could hear it, but I don't think even he would go so far as to deny his children a pleasure so long as it didn't put him out personally."
"Well, I'll ask, if you like. I should be very glad to have her. But some one might fall in love with her, you know, Herbert. She's very pretty, and there's always the chance."
"And why on earth not? He doesn't want to keep her an old maid, does he?"
"He wants her to marry Jim Graham."
"I thought that was all over years ago."
"As far as she is concerned, perhaps. I'm sure Edward still looks upon it as going to happen some day."
"I don't believe she'll marry Graham, even if he wants her. He's just such another as Edward, with a trifle more sense."
"No, Herbert, he is quite different. I like him. I think it would be a good thing for Cicely to marry him."
"She ought to have the chance of seeing other fellows. Then, if she likes to embark afresh on a vegetable existence, it will be her own choice. Of course, you needn't vegetate, living in the country, but the wife of Jim Graham probably would. Give her her chance, anyway."
But this particular chance was denied to Cicely. The Squire wouldn't hear of it. "My dear Emmeline," he said, "it is very kind of you—very kind of you indeed. But she'd only get unsettled. She's got maggots in her head already. I hope some day to see her married to a country gentleman, like her mother before her. Though I say it, no women could be better off. Until the time comes, it's best for Cicely to stay at home."
"Idiot!" said Mr. Birket, when the decision was conveyed to him. "I was mistaken in him. I think now he would be capable of any infamy. Don't tell Cicely, Emmeline."
But the Squire told her, and rebuked her because the invitation had been offered. "What you have to do," he said, "is to make yourself happy at home. Heaven knows there's enough to make you so. You have everything that a girl can want. For goodness' sake be contented with it, and don't always want to be gadding about."
Cicely felt too sore to answer him, and retired as soon as his homily was over. In the afternoon—it was on Sunday—she went for a walk with her uncle. He did not express himself to her as he had done to Mrs. Birket, but gave her the impression that he thought her father's refusal unfortunate, but not unreasonable, smiling inwardly to himself as he did so.
"I should have loved to come, you know, Uncle Herbert," she said.
"And we should have loved to have you, my dear," he said. "But, after all, Kencote is a very jolly place, and it's your own fault if you're bored in it. Nobody ought to be bored anywhere. I never am."
"Well then, please tell me what to do with myself."
"What do you do, as it is?"
"I read a little, and try to paint, and——"
"Then read more, and try to paint better. Effort, my dear,—that's the secret of life. Give yourself some trouble."
He gave her more advice as they walked and talked together, and she listened to him submissively, and became interested in what he said to her.
"I should like to make myself useful in some way," she said. "I don't want to spend all my life amusing myself or even improving myself."
"Oh, improving yourself! That's not quite the way to put it. Expressing yourself—that's what you want to do—what everybody ought to do. And look here, my dear, when you say you want to make yourself useful—I suppose you mean hospital nursing or something of that sort, eh?"
Cicely laughed. "I have thought of that," she said.
"Well then, don't think of it any more. It's not the way—at least not for you. You make yourself useful when you make yourself loved. That's a woman's sphere, and I don't care if all the suffragettes in the country hear me say it. A woman ought to be loved in one way or another by everybody around her; and if she is, then she's doing more in the world than ninety-nine men out of a hundred. Men want opportunities. Every woman has them already. Somebody is dependent on her, and the more the better for her—and the world. What would your old aunts do without you, or your mother, or indeed anybody in the place? They would all miss you, every one. Don't run away with the idea you're not wanted. Of course you're wanted. We want you, only we can't have you because they want you here."
"You give me a better conceit of myself," she said gratefully.
"Keep it, my dear, keep it," said Mr. Birket. "The better conceit we have of ourselves the more we accomplish. Now I think we'd better be turning back."
The London newspapers devoted small space, if any, to the wedding of Walter Clinton, Esq., M.D., third son of Edward Clinton, Esq., of Kencote, Meadshire, and Muriel, only daughter of the late Alexander Graham, Esq., and the Honourable Mrs. Graham of Mountfield, Meadshire, but the Bathgate Herald and South Meadshire Advertiser devoted two of its valuable columns to a description of the ceremony, a list of the distinguished guests present, and a catalogue of the wedding presents. No name that could possibly be included was left out. The confectioner who supplied the cake, the head gardeners at Kencote and Mountfield who—obligingly—supplied the floral decorations; the organist who presided, as organists always do, at the organ, and gave a rendering, a very inefficient one, of Mendelssohn's Wedding March; the schoolmaster who looked after the children who strewed flowers on the churchyard path; the coachman who drove the happy pair to the station; the station-master who arranged for them a little salvo of his own, which took the form of fog-signals, as the train came in—they were all there, and there was not an error in their initials or in the spelling of their names, although there were a good many in the list of distinguished guests, and still more in the long catalogue of presents.
There was a large number of presents, more than enough to open the eyes of the readers of the Melbury Park Chronicle and North London Intelligencer, which, by courtesy of its contemporary, printed the account in full, except for the omission of local names, and in minion instead of bourgeois type. Some of the presents were valuable and others were expensively useless, and the opinion expressed in Melbury Park was that the doctor couldn't possibly find room for them all in his house and would have to take a bigger one. Melbury Park opened its eyes still wider at the number of titles represented amongst the donors, for the Clintons, as has been said, had frequently married blood, and many of their relations were represented, Walter had been popular with his school and college friends, and on Muriel's side the Conroys and their numerous connections had come down handsomely in the way of Georgian sugar-sifters, gold and enamelled umbrella tops, silver bowls and baskets and bridge boxes, writing-sets, and candlesticks, and other things more or less adapted to the use of a doctor's wife in a rather poor suburb of London.
The wedding, if not "a scene of indescribable beauty, fashion and profusion," as the Bathgate reporter, scenting promotion, described it, was a very pretty one. The two big houses produced for the occasion a sufficient number of guests, and the surrounding country of neighbours, to fill Mountfield church with a congregation that was certainly well dressed, if not noticeably reverent. The bride looked beautiful, if a trifle pale, under her veil and orange blossoms, and the bridegroom as gallant as could be expected under the circumstances. There were six bridesmaids, the Honourable Olivia and Martha Conroy and Miss Evelyn Graham, cousins of the bride, and the Misses Cicely, Joan, and Nancy Clinton, sisters of the bridegroom, who were attired—but why go further into these details, which were so fully gone into in the journals already mentioned? Suffice it to say that the old starling, in a new gown and the first toque she had ever worn, wept tears of pride at the appearance of her pupils, and told them afterwards, most unwisely, that the Misses Olivia and Martha Conroy could not hold a candle to them in respect of good looks.
The twins—there is no gainsaying it—did look angelic, with their blue eyes and fair hair, and the Misses Conroy, who were of the same sort of age, were not so well favoured by nature; but that was no reason why Joan should have told them that they were a plain-headed pair, and Nancy that they had spoilt the whole show, when some trifling dispute arose between them at the close of a long day's enthusiastic friendship. The Misses Conroy, though deficient in beauty, were not slow in retort, and but for the fine clothes in which all four were attired, it is to be feared that the quarrel would have been pushed to extremes. It was a regrettable incident, but fortunately took place in a retired corner of the grounds, and stopped short of actual violence.
Jim Graham gave his sister away, and Dick acted as best man to his brother, piloting him through the various pitfalls that befall a bridegroom with the same cool efficiency as he displayed in all emergencies, great or small. It was this characteristic which chiefly differentiated him from his father, who may have been efficient, but was not cool.
Jim Graham's eyes often rested on Cicely during the wedding ceremony. She was by far the prettiest of the bridesmaids, and it was little wonder if his thoughts went forward to the time when he and she would be playing the leading part in a similar ceremony. But there was some uneasiness mixed with these anticipations. Cicely was not quite the same towards him as she had been before his journey, although since that morning by the lake he had made no attempt to depart from the brotherly intimacy which he had told himself was the best he had a right to until he could claim her for his own. She had never seemed quite at her ease with him, and he was beginning to follow up the idea, in his slow, tenacious way, that his wooing, when he should be ready for it, would have to be done all over again—that it might not be easy to claim her for his own. And, of course, that made him desire her all the more, and added in his eyes to her grace and girlish beauty.
Afterwards, in the house and on the lawn, where a band played and a tent for refreshments had been put up, he talked to her whenever he could and did his best to keep a cheerful, careless air, succeeding so well that no one observing him would have guessed that he had some difficulty in doing so. Except Cicely; she felt the constraint. She felt that he was in process of marking the difference in her attitude towards him, and was impatient of the slow, ruminating observation of which she would be the object. As long as he was natural with her she would do her best to keep up the same friendly and even affectionate relations which had existed between them up to a year ago, but she could not help a slight spice of irritation creeping into her manner in face of that subtle change behind his ordinary address. She was trying to clear up her thoughts on many matters, and Jim was the last person in the world to help her. She wanted to be left alone. If only he would do that! It was the only possible way by which he could gain the end which, even now, she was not quite sure that she would refuse him in the long-run.
"Well, you needn't be snappy," Jim said to her, with a good-humoured smile on his placid face when he had asked her for further details of her visit to London.
She made herself smile in return. "Was I?" she said. "I didn't mean to be; but I have been home nearly a month now, and I'm rather tired of talking about London."
"All right," replied Jim. "I agree that this is a better place. Come and have a look at the nags. There has been such a bustle that I haven't been near them to-day."
But Cicely refused to go and look at the nags. Nags were rather a sore point with her, and the constant inspection and weighing of the qualities of those at Kencote was enough for her without the addition of the stables at Mountfield. So they went back from the rose-garden where they were standing to join the crowd on the lawn.
Aunt Ellen and Aunt Laura sat in the shade of a big cedar and held a small reception. During their long lives they had been of scarcely any account in the ebb and flow of Clinton affairs, but the tide of years had shelved them on a little rock of importance, and they were paid court to because of their age. Old Lord Meadshire was the only other member of their generation left alive. He was their first cousin. His mother had been the youngest of Merchant Jack's five daughters. He had never failed to pay them courteous attention whenever he had been at Kencote, and he was talking to them now, as Cicely joined them, of the days when they were all young together. The two old ladies had quite come to believe that they and their cousin Humphrey had spent a large part of their childhood together, although he was fifteen years younger than Aunt Ellen, and his visits to Kencote during his youth had been extremely rare. Colonel Thomas had been too busy with his chosen pursuits to have much time for interchange of social duties, proclaimed himself a fish out of water, and behaved like one, whenever he went to the house of his youngest sister, and had little to offer a lady of high social importance and tastes in a visit to his own.
"Well, my dear," Lord Meadshire said to Cicely, as she approached, "I was reminding your aunts of the time when we used to drive over from Melford to Kencote in a carriage with postillions. Very few railways in those days. We old people like to put our heads together and talk about the past sometimes. I recollect my grandfather—our grandfather," and he bowed to the two old ladies—"Merchant Jack they used to call him here, because he had made his money in the city as younger sons used to do in those days, and are beginning to do again now, but they don't go into trade as they did then; and he was born in the year of the Battle of Culloden. That takes you back—what?"
"I recollect," said Aunt Ellen in a slow, careful voice, "when our Uncle John used to come down to Kencote by the four-horse coach, and post from Bathgate."
"Ah," said Lord Meadshire sympathetically, "I never saw my Uncle John, to my knowledge, though he left me a hundred pounds in his will. I recollect I spent it on a tie-pin. I was an extravagant young dog in those days, my dear. You wouldn't have suspected me of spending a hundred pounds on a tie-pin, would you?"
"Uncle John was very kind to us," said Aunt Laura. "There were six of us, but he never came to the house without bringing us each a little present."
"He was always dressed in black and wore a tie-wig," said Aunt Ellen. "Our dear father and he were very dissimilar, but our father relied on his judgment. It was he who advised him to send Edward to Bathgate Grammar School."
"He would take a kind interest in our pursuits," said Aunt Laura, "and would always walk with us and spend part of the day with us, however occupied he might be with our father."
"Edward was very high-spirited as a child," said Aunt Ellen, "and our dear father did not sufficiently realise that if he encouraged him to break away from his lessons, which we all took it in turns to give him, it made him difficult to teach."
"And when Uncle John went away in the morning he gave us each one a present of five new sovereigns wrapped in tissue paper," said Aunt Laura, "and he would say, 'That is to buy fal-lals with.'"
"So our Uncle John and our Uncle Giles, the Rector, persuaded our father to send Edward to Bathgate Grammar School, where he remained until he went to Eton, riding over there on Monday morning and returning home on Saturday," concluded Aunt Ellen.
Lord Meadshire took his leave of the old ladies, and Aunt Ellen said, "I am afraid that our cousin Humphrey is ageing. We do not see him as much as we used to do. He was very frequently at Kencote in the old days, and we were always pleased to see him. With the exception of your dear father, there is no man for whom I have a greater regard."
"He is a darling," said Cicely. "He is as kind as possible to everybody. Would you like me to get you anything, Aunt Ellen? I must go to Muriel now."
"No thank you, my dear," said Aunt Ellen. "Your Aunt Laura and I have had sufficient. We will just rest quietly in the shade, and I have no doubt that some others of our kind friends will come and talk to us."
It was getting towards the time for the bride and bridegroom to depart for their honeymoon, which they were to spend in Norway. Walter had had no holiday of any sort that year and had thought the desire for solitude incumbent on newly married couples might reasonably be conjoined with the desire for catching salmon; and Muriel had agreed with him.
The men were beginning to show a tendency to separate from the ladies. The Rector of Kencote and the Vicar of Melbury Park, a new friend of Walter's who happened, as the Squire put it, to be a gentleman, were talking together by the buffet under the tent. The Vicar, who was thin and elderly, and looked jaded, was saying that the refreshment to mind and spirit, to say nothing of body, which came from living close to Nature was incalculable, and the Rector was agreeing with him, mentally reserving his opinion that the real refreshment to mind and spirit, to say nothing of body, was to be found, if a man were strong enough to find it, in hard and never-ending work in a town.
At the other end of the buffet Dick and Humphrey and Jim Graham were eating sandwiches and drinking champagne. They were talking of fishing, with reference to Walter's approaching visit to a water which all four of them had once fished together.
"It is rather sad, you know," said Humphrey. "Remember what a good time we had, Jim? It'll never happen again. I hate a wedding. It'll be you next."
Jim looked at him inscrutably. "Or Dick," he said.
Dick put down his glass. "I'm not a starter," he said. "I must go and see that Walter doesn't forget to change his tie."
The Squire and Mrs. Clinton and Lord Conroy were in a group together on the lawn. Lord Conroy, bluff and bucolic, was telling Mrs. Clinton about his own marriage, fifteen years before. "Never thought I should do it," he said, "never. There was I, forty and more, but sound, Mrs. Clinton, mind you, sound as a bell, though no beauty—ha, ha! And there was my lady, twenty odd, as pretty as paint, and with half the young fellows in London after her. I said, 'Come now, will you have me? Will you or won't you? I'm not going near London,' I said, 'not once in five years, and I don't like soup. Otherwise you'll have your own way and you'll find me easy to get on with.' She took me, and here we are now. I don't believe there's a happier couple in England. I believe in marrying, myself. Wish I'd done it when I was a young fellow, only then I shouldn't have got my lady. I'm very glad to see my niece married to such a nice young fellow as your son—very glad indeed; and my sister tells me there's likely to be another wedding in both families before long—eh? Well, I mustn't be too inquisitive; but Jim's a nice young fellow too, a very nice young fellow, though as obstinate as the devil about this Radical kink he's got in his brain."
"Oh, he'll get over that," said the Squire. "It isn't sense, you know, going against the best brains in the country; I tell him we're not all likely to be wrong. And he's got a stake, too. It don't do to play old Harry with politics when you've got a stake."
"Gad, no," assented Lord Conroy. "We've got to stand together. I'm afraid your brother's against us, though, eh, Mrs. Clinton?"
"Oh, Herbert!" said the Squire. "He's a lawyer, and they can always make white black if it suits 'em."
Mrs. Clinton flushed faintly, and Lord Conroy said, "He's a very rising man, though, and not so advanced as some. He told me a story just now about a judge and one of those Suffragettes, as they call 'em, and I haven't heard such a good story for many a long day." And Lord Conroy laughed very heartily, but did not repeat the story.
The carriage drove round to the door, the coachman and the horses adorned with white favours, and the guests drifted towards the house and into the big hall. Walter and Dick came down the staircase, and Muriel and her mother and Cicely followed immediately afterwards. Muriel's eyes were wet, but she was merry and talkative, and Mrs. Graham was more brusque in her speech than usual, but very talkative too. Every one crowded round them, and Walter had some difficulty in leading his bride through the throng. There was laughter and hand-shaking and a general polite uproar. At last they got themselves into the carriage, which rolled away with them to their new life. It was really Joan and Nancy who had conceived the idea of tying a pair of goloshes on behind, but the Misses Conroy had provided them, one apiece, and claimed an equal share in the suggestion. It was arising out of this that their quarrel presently ensued, and they might not have quarrelled at all had not Miss Bird told the twins in the hearing of their friends that where they had learned such a vulgar notion passed her comprehension. It was really a dispute that did all four young ladies very great credit.
FOOD AND RAIMENT
The Rector gave out his text, "Is not the life more than meat and the body more than raiment?" and proceeded to read his homily in a monotonous, sweet-toned voice which had all the good effects of a sleeping-draught and none of the bad ones.
Kencote church was old, and untouched by modern restoration or Catholic zeal. The great west door was open, and framed a bright picture of trees and grass and cloudless sky. The hot sunshine of an August morning shone through the traceried windows in the nave, and threw a square of bright colour from the little memorial window in the chancel on to the wide, uneven stone pavement. But the church was cool, with the coolness of ancient, stone-built places, which have resisted for centuries the attacks of sun and storm alike, and gained something of the tranquil insensibility of age.
The congregation was penned, for the most part, in high pews. When they stood up to sing they presented a few score of heads and shoulders above the squares and oblongs of dark woodwork; when they sat or knelt the nave seemed to be suddenly emptied of worshippers, and the drone of the responses mounting up to the raftered roof had a curious effect, and seemed to be the voice of the old church itself, paying its tribute to the unseen mysteries of the long ages of faith.
On the north side of the chancel, which was two steps higher than the nave, was the Squire's pew. Its occupants were shielded from the gaze of those in the body of the church by a faded red curtain hung on an iron rail, but the Squire always drew it boldly aside during the exhortation and surveyed the congregation, the greater part of which was dependent on him for a livelihood and attended church as an undergraduate "keeps chapels," for fear of unpleasant consequences.
The Squire's pew occupied the whole of the space usually devoted to the organ and the vestry in modern built churches, and had a separate entrance from the churchyard. It had a wooden floor, upon which was a worn blue carpet sprinkled with yellow fleurs de lis. The big hassocks and the seat that ran along the north wall were covered with the same material. In front of the fixed bench was a row of heavy chairs; in the wall opposite to the curtain was a fireplace. Mrs. Clinton occupied the chair nearest to the fire, which was always lit early on Sunday morning in the winter, but owing partly to the out-of-date fashion of the grate and partly to the height and extent of the church, gave no more heat than was comfortable to those immediately within its radius, and none at all to those a little way from it. The Squire himself remained outside its grateful influence. His large, healthy frame, well covered with flesh, enabled him to dispense with artificial warmth during his hour and a half's occupation of the family pew, and also to do his duty by using the last of the row of chairs and hassocks, and so to command the opportunities afforded by the red curtain.
On the stone walls above the wainscoting were hung great hatchments, the canvas of some fraying away from the black quadrangular frames after a lapse of years, and none of them very recently hung there. The front of the pew was open to the chancel, and commanded a full view of the reading-desk and a side glimpse of the pulpit through the bars of the carved, rather battered rood-screen. Flanked by the reading-desk on one side and the harmonium on the other were the benches occupied by the school-children who formed the choir, and behind them were other benches devoted to the use of the Squire's household, whose devotions were screened from the gaze of the common worshippers by no curtain, and who, therefore—maids, middle-aged women, and spruce men-servants—provided a source of interested rumination when heads were raised above the wooden partitions, and bonnets, mantles, and broadcloth could be examined, and perhaps envied, at leisure.
Cicely had played the Rector up into the pulpit with the last verse of a hymn, had found the place from which she would presently play him down again with the tune of another, had propped the open book on the desk of the harmonium, and had then slid noiselessly into a chair on a line with the front choir bench, where she now sat with her hands in her lap, facing the members of her assembled family, sometimes looking down at the memorial brass of Sir Richard Clinton, knight, obiit 1445, which was let into the pavement at her feet, sometimes, through the open doors of the rood screen, to where that bright picture of sunlit green shone out of the surrounding gloom at the end of the aisle.
"Is not the life more than meat and the body than raiment?" The text had been given out twice and carefully indexed each time. The Squire had fitted his gold-rimmed glasses on to his nose and tracked down the passage in his big Bible. Having satisfied himself that the words announced were identical with the words printed, he had put the Bible on the narrow shelf in front of him and closed his eyes. His first nod had followed, as usual, about three minutes after the commencement of the sermon. He had then opened his eyes wide, met the fascinated gaze of a small singing-girl opposite to him, glared at her, and, having reduced her to a state of cataleptic terror, pushed aside the red curtain and transferred his glare to the body of the church. The bald head of a respectable farmer and the bonnet of his wife, which were all he could see of the congregation at the moment, assured him that all was well. He drew the curtain again and went comfortably to sleep without further ado.
Mrs. Clinton, at the other end of the row, sat quite still, with no more evidence of mental effort on her comely, middle-aged face than was necessary for the due reception of the Rector's ideas, and that was very little. Joan and Nancy sat one on either side of Miss Bird, Joan next to her mother. They looked about everywhere but at the preacher, and bided with what patience they possessed the end of the discourse, aided thereto by a watchful eye and an occasional admonitory peck from the old starling. Dick had come in late and settled himself upon the seat behind the row of chairs. Upon the commencement of the sermon he had put his back against the partition supporting the curtain, and his long legs up on the bench in front of him, and by the look on his lean, sunburnt face was apparently resting his brain as well as his body.
"Is not the life more than meat and the body than raiment?" The technique of the Rector's sermons involved the repetition of his text at stated intervals. Cicely thought, as the words fell on her ears for the third or fourth time, that she could have supplied a meaning to them which had escaped the preacher. Food and raiment! That represented all the things amongst which she had been brought up, the large, comfortable rooms in the big house, the abundant, punctual meals, the tribe of servants, the clothes and the trinkets, the gardens and stables, well-stocked and well-filled, the home farm, kept up to supply the needs of the large household, everything that came to the children of a well-to-do country gentleman as a matter of course, and made life easy—but oh, how dull!
No one seeing her sitting there quietly, her slender, ungloved hands lying in her lap, prettily dressed in a cool summer frock and a shady, flower-trimmed hat, with the jewelled chains and bracelets and brooches of a rich man's daughter rousing the admiring envy of the school-children, whose weekly excitement it was to count them up—nobody would have thought that under the plaited tresses of this young girl's shapely head was a brain seething in revolt, or that the silken laces of her bodice muffled the beatings of a heart suffocated by the luxurious dulness of a life which she now told herself had become insupportable. Cicely had thought a great deal since her visit to London and Muriel's wedding, and had arrived at this conclusion—that she was suffocating, and that her life was insupportable.
She raised her eyes and glanced at her father, wrapped in the pleasant slumber that overtakes healthy, out-of-door men when they are forced for a time into unwonted quiescence, and at her brother, calm and self-satisfied, dressed with a correct elaboration that was only unobtrusive because it was so expensively perfect. The men of the family—everything was done to bring them honour and gratification. They had everything they wanted and did what they would. It was to them that tribute and obedience were paid by every one around them, including their own womenfolk.
She looked at her two young sisters. They were happy enough in their free and healthy childhood; so had she been at their age, when the spacious house and the big gardens, the stables and the farm and the open country had provided everything she needed for her amusement. But even then there had been the irksome restraint exercised by "the old starling" and the fixed rules of the house to spoil her freedom, while her brothers had been away at Eton, or at Oxford or Cambridge, trying their wings and preparing for the unfettered delights of well-endowed manhood.
She looked at her mother, placid and motionless. Her mother was something of an enigma, even to her, for to those who knew her well she always seemed to be hiding something, something in her character, which yet made its mark in spite of the subjection in which she lived. Cicely loved her mother, but she thought of her now with the least little shade of contempt, which she would have been shocked to recognise as such. Why had she been content to bring all the hopes and ambitions that must have stirred her girlhood thus into subjection? What was the range of her life now? Ruling her large house with a single eye to the convenience of her lord and master, liable to be scolded before her children or her household if anything went wrong; blamed if the faults of any one of the small army of servants reached the point at which it disturbed his ease; driving out in her fine carriage to pay dull calls on dull neighbours; looking after the comfort of ungrateful villagers; going to church; going to dinner-parties; reading; sewing; gardening under pain of the head gardener's displeasure, which was always backed up by the Squire if complaint was brought to him that she had braved it; getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, at stated hours without variation; never leaving her cage of confined luxury, except when it suited his convenience that she should leave it with him. She was nothing but a slave to his whims and prejudices, and so were all the women of the family, slaves to wait upon and defer humbly and obediently to their mankind.
"Is not the life more than meat and the body than raiment?" It was the men who enjoyed the life, and the meat and raiment as well. While the women vegetated at home, they went out into the world. It was true that they were always pleased to come back again, and no wonder, when everything was there that could minister to their amusement. It was quite different for her, living at home all the year round. She was quite sick of it. Why was not her father like other men of his wealth and lineage, who had their country houses and their country sports, but did not spend the whole year over them? Daughters of men of far less established position than the Squire went to London, went abroad, visited constantly at other country houses, and saw many guests in their own houses. Her own brothers did all these things, except the last. They seldom brought their friends to Kencote, she supposed because it was not like other big country houses, at any rate not like the houses at which they stayed. It was old-fashioned, not amusing enough; shooting parties were nearly always made up from amongst neighbours, and if any one stayed in the house to shoot, or for the few winter balls, it was nearly always a relation, or at best a party of relations. And the very few visits Cicely had ever paid had been to the houses of relations, some of them amusing, others not at all so.
She was now rather ashamed of her diatribe to Muriel Graham about her London visit. She must have given Muriel the impression that what she hungered for was smart society. She remembered that she had compared the ball at the house of her aunt, Mrs. Birket, unfavourably with those at other houses at which she had danced, and blushed and fidgeted with her fingers when she thought of this. She liked staying with Mrs. Birket better than with any other of her relations, and she was still sore at her father's refusal to allow her to spend some months with her. She met clever, interesting people there, she was always made much of, and she admired and envied her cousins. They had travelled, they heard music, saw plays and pictures, read books; and they could talk upon all these subjects, as well as upon politics and upon what was going on in the big world that really mattered—not superficially, but as if they were the things that interested them most, as she knew they were. It was that kind of life she really longed for; she had only got her thoughts a little muddled in London because she had been rather humiliated in feeling herself a stranger where her brothers were so much at home. When she saw Muriel again she must put herself right there. Muriel would understand her. Muriel had cut herself adrift from the well-fed stagnation of country life and rejoiced to be the partner of a man who was doing something in the world. Life was more than food to her and the body than raiment. Cicely wished that such a chance had come to her.
But the Rector had repeated his text for the last time, and was drawing to the end of his discourse. She must slip back to her seat at the harmonium, and defer the consideration of her own hardships until later.
The congregation aroused itself and stood up upon the stroke of the word "now"; and, whilst the last hymn was being given out and played over, the Squire started on a collecting tour with the wooden, baize-lined plate which he drew from beneath his chair. The coppers clinked one by one upon the silver already deposited by himself and his family, and he closely scrutinised the successive offerings. His heels rang out manfully upon the worn pavement beneath which his ancestors were sleeping, as he strode up the chancel and handed the alms to the Rector. He was refreshed by his light slumber, his weekly duty was coming to an end, and he would soon be out in the open air inspecting his stables and looking forward to his luncheon. He sang the last verses of the hymn lustily, his glasses on his nose, a fine figure of a man, quite satisfied with himself and the state in life to which he had been called.
The congregation filed out of church into the bright sunshine. Dick, with Joan on one side of him and Nancy on the other, set out at a smart pace across the park, bound for the stables and the home farm. Cicely walked with the old starling, who lifted her flounced skirt over her square-toed kid boots, as one who expected to find dew where she found grass, even in the hot August noonday. The Squire and Mrs. Clinton brought up the rear, and the men and maids straggled along a footpath which diverged to another quarter of the house.
Cicely left the rest of the family to the time-honoured inspection of horses and live stock, always undertaken, summer and winter, after church on Sunday morning, as a permissible recreation on a day otherwise devoted to sedentary pursuits. It was one of the tiresome routine habits of her life, and she was sick of routine. She dawdled in her bedroom, a room at least twenty feet square, with two big windows overlooking the garden and the park and the church tower rising from amongst its trees, until the gong sounded, when she hurried downstairs and took her seat at the luncheon table on the right of her father.
The sweets and a big cake were on the table, of which the appointments were a mixture of massive silver plate and inexpensive glass and china. The servants handed round the first hot dish, placed a cold uncut sirloin of beef in front of the Squire and vegetable dishes on the sideboard, and then left the room. After that it was every one help yourself. This was the invariable arrangement of luncheon on Sundays, and allowing for the difference of the seasons the viands were always the same. If anybody staying in the house liked to turn up their noses at such Sunday fare—one hot entree, cold beef, fruit tarts and milk puddings, a ripe cheese and a good bottle of wine, why they needn't come again. But very few people did stay in the house, as has been said, and none of those who did had ever been known to object. There were no week-end parties, no traffic of mere acquaintances using the house like an hotel and amusing themselves with no reference to their host or hostess. The Squire was hospitable in an old-fashioned way, liked to see his friends around him and gave them of his best. But they must be friends, and they must conform to the usages of the house.
The talk over the luncheon table began with the perennial topic of the breeding of partridges and pheasants, and was carried on between the Squire and Dick, while the women kept submissive silence in the face of important matters with which they had no concern. Then it took a more general turn, and drifted into a reminiscence of the conversation that had taken place over the dinner table the night before. Mrs. Graham and Jim had dined at Kencote and brought Ronald Mackenzie with them, who had arrived the evening before on his promised week-end visit.
Humphrey's prophecy had come true. Mackenzie had been the lion of the London season, and now that London was empty might have taken his choice of country houses for a week-end visit from whatever county he pleased. His visit was something of an honour, and was even chronicled in the newspapers, which had not yet lost interest in his movements. He was a star of considerable magnitude, liable to wane, of course, but never to sink quite into obscurity, and just now a planet within everybody's ken.
It was characteristic of the Clinton point of view that the parentage of this man, whose sole title to fame arose from the things that he had done, should be discussed. Dick knew all about him. He did not belong to any particular family of Mackenzies. He was the son of a Scots peasant, and was said to have tramped to London at the age of sixteen, and to have taken forcible shipment as a stowaway in the Black-Lyell Arctic Expedition; and afterwards to have climbed to the leadership of expeditions of his own with incredible rapidity. He had never made any secret of his lowly origin, and was even said to be proud of it. The Squire approved heartily of this.
It was also characteristic of the Squire that a man who had done big things and got himself talked about should be accepted frankly as an equal, and, outside the sphere of clanship, even as a superior. A great musician would have been treated in the same way, or a great painter, or even a great scholar. For the Squire belonged to the class of all others the most prejudiced and at the same time the most easily led, when its slow-moving imagination is once touched—a class which believes itself divinely appointed to rule, but will give political adherence and almost passionate personal loyalty to men whom in the type it most dislikes, its members following one another like sheep when their first instinctive mistrust has been overcome. Mackenzie was one of the most talked of men in England at this moment. It was a matter of congratulation that Jim had caught him for a two-days' visit, though Jim's catch had involved no more skill than was needed to answer an unexpected note from Mackenzie announcing his arrival on Friday afternoon. The Clintons had dined at Mountfield on Friday night, the Grahams and Mackenzie had dined at Kencote on Saturday, and it had been arranged that Jim and his guest should drive over this afternoon and stay to dine again.
When luncheon was over the Squire retired into the library with the Spectator, which it was known he would not read, Dick went into the smoking-room, Mrs. Clinton and Miss Bird upstairs, and the twins straight into the garden, where Cicely presently followed them with a book. She settled herself in a basket chair under a great lime tree on the lawn, and leaving her book lying unopened on her lap, gave herself over to further reverie.
Perhaps the sudden descent of this man from a strange world into the placid waters of her life had something to do with the surging up of her discontent, for she had not been so discontented since the Birkets' visit two months before, having followed out to some extent her uncle's advice and found life quite supportable in consequence. She knew she had waited for Mackenzie's name to be mentioned at luncheon and had blushed when she heard it, only, fortunately, nobody had seen her, not even the sharp-eyed twins. She would have resented it intensely if her interest and her blush had been noticed, and put down to personal attraction. It was not that at all. She rather disliked the man, with his keen, hawklike face, his piercing eyes, and his direct, unvarnished speech. He was the sort of man of whom a woman might have reason to be afraid if she were, by unaccountable mischance, attracted by him, and he by her. He would dominate her and she would be at least as much of a chattel as in the hands of a male Clinton. It was what he stood for that interested her, and she could not help comparing his life with that of her father and her brothers, or of Jim Graham, much to the disadvantage of her own kind.
Her resentment, if it deserved that name, had fixed itself upon her father and brothers, and Jim shared in it. He was just the same as they were, making the little work incumbent on him as easy as possible and spending the best part of his life in the pursuits he liked best. She had come to the conclusion that there was no place for her in such a life as that. When Jim proposed to her, as she felt sure he would do when he was ready, she would refuse him. She felt now that she really could not go through with it, and her determination to refuse to marry Jim rose up in her mind and fixed itself as she sat in her chair under the tree. If he had been a poor man, with a profession to work at, she would have married him and found her happiness in helping him on. She wanted the life. The food and the raiment were nothing to her, either at Kencote or Mountfield.
Cicely rose from her seat and strolled across the lawn, through an iron gate and a flower-garden, and on to another lawn verging on the shrubberies. Joan and Nancy were employed here in putting tennis balls into a hole with the handles of walking sticks. Cicely rebuked them, for, according to his lights, the Squire was a strict Sabbatarian.
"Darling!" expostulated Joan, in a voice of pleading, "we are not using putters and golf balls. There can't be any harm in this."
Cicely did not think there was, and passed on through the shrubbery walk to where a raised path skirting a stone wall afforded a view of the road along which Jim and Ronald Mackenzie would presently be driving.
She hardly knew why she had come. It was certainly not to watch for Jim. And if there was any idea in her mind of catching a glimpse of Ronald Mackenzie, herself unobserved by him, so that she might by a flash gain some insight into the character of a man who had interested her, she was probably giving herself useless trouble, for it was not yet three o'clock and the two men were not likely to arrive for another half-hour or more.
But she had no sooner taken her stand by the stone wall and looked down at the road from under the shade of the great beech which overhung it, than Jim's dog-cart swung round the corner, and Ronald Mackenzie, sitting by his side, had looked up and sent a glance from his bold dark eyes right through her. She had not had time to draw back; she had been fairly caught. She drew back now, and coloured with annoyance as she pictured to herself the figure she must have presented to him, a girl so interested in his coming and going that she must lie in wait for him, and take up her stand an hour or so before he might have been expected. At any rate, he should not find her submissively waiting for him when he drove up to the door. She would keep out of the way until tea-time, and he might find somebody else to entertain him.
The shrubbery walk, which skirted the road, wound for over a mile round the park, and if she followed it she would come, by way of the kitchen gardens and stableyard, to the house again, and could regain her bedroom unseen, at the cost of a walk rather longer than she would willingly have undertaken on this hot afternoon. But it was the only thing to do. If she went back by the way she had come, she might meet Jim and his friend in the garden, and of course they would think she had come on purpose to see them. If she crossed the park she ran the risk of being seen. So she kept to the shelter of the trees, and followed the windings of the path briskly, and in rather a bad temper.
At a point about half-way round the circle, the dense shrubbery widened into a spinney, and cut through it transversely was a broad grass ride, which opened up a view of the park and the house. When Cicely reached this point she looked to her right, and caught her breath in her throat sharply, for she saw Ronald Mackenzie striding down the broad green path towards her. He was about fifty yards away, but it was impossible to pretend she had not seen him, or to go on without waiting for him to catch her up. Indeed, the moment he caught sight of her he waved his hand and called out, "I thought I should catch you." He then came up with a smile upon his face, and no apparent intention of apologising for his obvious pursuit of her.
What was the right attitude to take up towards a man who behaved like that? Cicely blushed, and felt both surprised and annoyed. But she was powerless to convey a hint of those feelings to him, and all he knew was that she had blushed.
"You shouldn't have run away from me like that," he said, as he shook hands with her and looked her straight in the face. "I shan't do you any harm. We will go back this way"; and he walked on at a fairly smart rate by the way she had been going, and left her to adapt her pace to his, which she did, with the disgusted feeling that she was ambling along at an undignified trot.
She was aware that if she opened her mouth she would say just the one thing that she did not want to say, so she kept it closed, but was not saved by so doing, because he immediately said it for her. "How did I know where to find you? Well, I guessed you didn't expect to be spied under that tree, and that you'd keep away for a bit. I didn't want that, because I had come over on purpose to see you. So I cast my eye round the country—I've an eye for country—saw where you would be likely to go and the place to intercept you. So now you know all about it."
This was a little too much. Cicely found her tongue. "Thank you," she said, with dignity, "I didn't want to know all about it," and then felt like a fool.
"Then you have something you didn't want," he replied coolly. "But we won't quarrel; there's no time. Do you know what I think about you and about this place?"
He looked down at her and waited for an answer; and an answer had to be given. She was not quite prepared, or it would be more accurate to say that she hardly dared, to say, "No, and I don't want to," so she compromised weakly on "No."
"Well, I'll tell you. It seems to me just Paradise, this lovely, peaceful, luxurious English country, after the places I've been to and the life I've led. And as for you, you pretty little pink and white rose, you're the goddess that lives in the heart of it. You're the prettiest, most graceful creature on God's earth, and you're in the right setting."
Cicely felt like a helpless rabbit fascinated by a snake. Nothing that she had ever learned, either by direct precept from the old starling, or as the result of her own observation of life, had prepared her to cope with this. Outrageous as were his words and tone, she could only show that she resented them by implicitly accusing him of making love to her; and her flurried impulse was to shun that danger spot.
She laughed nervously. "You use very flowery language; I suppose you learned it in Tibet," she said, and felt rather pleased with herself.
"One thing I learned in Tibet," he answered, "if I hadn't learned it before, was that England is the most beautiful country in the world. I'm not sure that I wouldn't give up all the excitement and adventure of my life to settle down in a place like Graham's—or like this."
Cicely congratulated herself upon having turned the conversation. She was ready to talk on this subject. "You wouldn't care for it very long," she said. "It is stagnation. I feel sometimes as if I would give anything to get out of it."
He looked down at her with a smile. "And what would you like to do if you could get out of it?" he asked.
"I should like to travel for one thing," she said. "If I were a man I would. I wouldn't be content to settle down in a comfortable country house to hunt foxes and shoot pheasants and partridges all my life."
"Like Graham, eh? Well, perhaps you are right. You're going to marry Graham, aren't you?"
"No," she said shortly.
"He thinks you are," he said, with a laugh. "He's a good fellow, Graham, but perhaps he takes too much for granted, eh? But I know you are not going to marry Graham. I only asked you to see what you would say. You are going to marry me, my little country flower."
"Mr. Mackenzie!" She put all the outraged surprise into her voice of which she was capable, and stopped short in the path.
He stopped too, and faced her. His face was firmly set. "I have no time to go gently," he said. "I ask straight out for what I want, and I want you. Come now, don't play the silly miss. You've got a man to deal with. I've done things already and I'm going to do more. You will have a husband you can be proud of."
He was the type of the conquering male as he stood before her, dark, lean, strong and bold-eyed. His speech, touched with a rough northern burr, broke down defences. He would never woo gently, not if he had a year to do it in. Men of his stamp do not ask their wives in marriage; they take them.
Cicely went red and then white, and looked round her helplessly. "You can't run away," he said, and waited for her to speak.
His silence was more insolently compelling than any words could have been. Her eyes were drawn to his in spite of herself, fluttered a moment, and rested there in fascinated terror. So the women in ages of violence and passion, once caught, surrendered meekly.
"You are mine," he said, in a voice neither raised nor lowered. "I said you should be when I first saw you. I'll take care of you. And I'll take care of myself for your sake."
Suddenly she found herself trembling violently. It seemed to be her limbs that were trembling, not she, and that she could not stop them. He put his arm around her. "There, there!" he said soothingly. "Poor little bird! I've frightened you. I had to, you know. But you're all right now."
For answer she burst into tears, her hands to her face. He drew them away gently, mastering her with firm composure. "It was a shock, wasn't it?" he said in a low, vibrating monotone. "But it had to be done in that way. Jim Graham doesn't upset you in that way, I'll be bound. But Jim Graham is a rich, comfortable vegetable; and I'm not exactly that. You don't want to be either, do you?"
"No," she said, drying her eyes.
"You want a mate you can be proud of," he went on, still soothing her. "Somebody who will do big things, and do them for your sake, eh? That's what I'm going to do for you, little girl. I'm famous already, so I find. But I'll be more famous yet, and make you famous too. You'll like that, won't you?"
He spoke to her as if she were a little child. His boasting did not sound like boasting to her. His strength and self-confidence pushed aside all the puny weapons with which she might have opposed him. She could not tell him that she did not love him. He had not asked for her love; he had asked for herself; or rather, he had announced his intention of taking her. She was dominated, silenced, and he gave her no chance to say anything, except what he meant her to say.
He took his arms from her. "We must go back now," he said, "or they will wonder what has become of us." He laughed suddenly. "They were a little surprised when I ran away after you."
It occurred to her that they must have been considerably surprised. The thought added to her confusion. "Oh, I can't go back to them!" she cried.
"No, no," he said soothingly. "You shall slip into the house by a back way. I shall say I couldn't find you."
They were walking along the path, side by side. His muscular hands were pendant; he had attempted no further possession of her, had not tried to kiss her. Perhaps he knew that a kiss would have fired her to revolt, and once revolting she would be lost to him. Perhaps he was not guided by policy at all, but by the instinctive touch of his power over men—and women.
Cicely was beginning to recover her nerve, but her thoughts were in a whirl. She was not angry; her chief desire was to go away by herself and think. In the meantime she wanted no further food for thought. But that was a matter not in her hands.
"I'm going away in a fortnight, you know," he said. "Back to Tibet. I left some things undone there."
"You only came home a month ago," she said, clutching eagerly at a topic not alarmingly personal.
"I know. But I'm tired of it—the drawing-rooms and the women. I want to be doing. You know."
She thought she did know. The rough appeal thrown out in those two words found a way through her armour, which his insolent mastery had only dented and bruised. It gave her a better conceit of herself. This was a big man, and he recognised something of his own quality in her. At any rate, she would stand up to him. She would not be "a silly miss."
"Of course, you have surprised me very much," she said, with an effort at even speech, which probably came to him as hurried prattle. "I can't say what I suppose you want me to say at once. But if you will give me time—if you will speak to my father——"
He broke in on her. "Good heavens!" he said, with a laugh. "You don't think I've got time for all that sort of thing, do you?—orange flowers and church bells and all the rest of it. Don't you say a word to your father, or any one else. Do you hear?"
His roughness nerved her. "Then what do you want me to do?" she asked boldly.
"Do? Why, come to London and marry me, of course. You've got the pluck. Or if you haven't, you're not what I thought you, and I don't want you at all. There's no time to settle anything now, and I'm off to-morrow. If I stay longer, and come over here again with Graham, they will suspect something. Meet me to-night out here—this very spot, do you see? I'll get out of the house and be over here at two o'clock. Then I'll tell you what to do."
They had come to a little clearing, the entrance to a strip of planted ground which led to a gate in the walled kitchen garden, and so to the back regions of the house. She stood still and faced him. "Do you think I am going to do that?" she asked, her blue eyes looking straight into his.
He had aroused her indignant opposition. What would he do now, this amazing and masterful man?
He looked down at her with an odd expression in his face. It was protecting, tender, amused. "Little shy flower!" he said—he seemed to cling to that not very original metaphor—"I mustn't forget how you have been brought up, in all this shelter and luxury, must I? It is natural to you, little girl, and I'll keep you in it as far as I can. But you've got to remember what I am too. You must come out of your cotton wool sometimes. Life isn't all softness and luxury."
Food and raiment! What had she been thinking of all the morning? Her eyes fell.
"You can trust me, you know," he said, still speaking softly. "But you believe in daring, don't you? You must show a little yourself."
"It isn't at all that I'm afraid," she said weakly.
"Of course not. I know that," he answered. "It is simply that you don't do such things here." He waved his hand towards the corner of the big house, which could be seen through the trees. "But you want to get out of it, you said."
Did she want to get out of it? She was tired of the dull ease. She was of the Clintons, of the women who were kept under; but there were men Clintons behind her too, men who took the ease when it came to them, but did not put it in the first place, men of courage, men of daring. It was the love of adventure in her blood that made her answer, "Perhaps I will come," and then try to dart past him.
He put out his arm to stop her. "I'm not going to walk six miles here and back on the chance," he said roughly. But she was equal to him this time. "If you don't think it worth while you need not come," she said. "I won't promise." Then she was gone.
He walked back slowly to the garden. Jim Graham was lying back in a basket chair, dressed in smart blue flannel and Russian leather boots, talking to Joan and Nancy. Through the open window of the library the top of the Squire's head could be seen over the back of an easy-chair.
Mackenzie joined the little group under the lime. "Couldn't find her," he said shortly.
"She'll turn up at tea-time," said Jim equably.
The clear eyes of the twins were fixed on Mackenzie. They had run round to the front of the house on hearing the wheels of Jim's cart on the gravel. They wanted to see the great man he had brought with him, and they were not troubled with considerations of shyness. But the great man had taken no notice of them at all, standing on the gravel of the drive staring at him.
He had jumped down from the cart and made off, directly, round the corner of the house.
"Where is he going?" asked the twins.
"He wants to show Cicely some drawings," said Jim. "He saw her in the shrubbery. Want a drive round to the stables, twankies?"
Now the twins devoured Mackenzie with all their eyes. "I am Joan Clinton, and this is my sister Nancy," said Joan. "Nobody ever introduces us to anybody that comes here, so we always introduce ourselves. How do you do?"
Mackenzie seemed to wake up. He shook hands with both twins. "How do you do, young ladies," he said with a smile. "You seem very much alike."
"Not in character," said Nancy. "Miss Bird says that Joan would be a very well-behaved girl if it were not for me."
"I'm sure you are both well behaved," said Mackenzie. "You look as if you never gave any trouble to anybody."
"What we look and what we are are two very different things," said Joan. "Aren't they, Jim?"
"Good Lord, I should think they were," said Jim. He had been bustled off immediately after luncheon, and was lying back in his chair in an attitude inviting repose. He had rather hoped that Mackenzie, whose quick energy of mind and body were rather beyond his power to cope with, would have been off his hands for half an hour when he had announced his intention of going in search of Cicely. He would have liked to go in search of Cicely himself, but that was one of the things that he did no longer. He had nothing to do now but wait with what patience he could until his time came. He had a sort of undefined hope that Mackenzie might say something that would advance him with Cicely, praise him to her, cause her to look upon him with a little refreshment of her favour. But he had not welcomed the questions with which the twins had plied him concerning his guest.
"Jim wants to go to sleep," said Nancy. "Would you like to come up into the schoolroom, Mr. Mackenzie? We have a globe of the world."
"We can find Cicely if you want to see her," added Joan.
Mackenzie laughed his rough laugh. "We won't bother Miss Clinton," he said. "But I should like to see the globe of the world."
So the twins led him off proudly, chattering. Jim heard Joan say, "We have had a bishop in our schoolroom, but we would much rather have an explorer," but by the time they had crossed the lawn he was sleeping peacefully.
If he had known it, it was hardly the time for him to sleep.
"If you're ill, go to bed; if not, behave as usual," was a Clinton maxim which accounted for Cicely's appearance at the tea-table an hour later, when she would much rather have remained in her own room. The effort, no small one, of walking across the lawn in full view of the company assembled round the tea-table, as if nothing had happened to her within the last hour, braced her nerves. She was a shade paler than ordinary, but otherwise there was nothing in her appearance to arouse comment. Mackenzie sprang up from his chair as she approached and went forward to meet her. "I tried to find you directly I came, Miss Clinton," he said in his loud voice, which no course of civilisation would avail to subdue. "I've brought those sketches I told you about last night."
Cicely breathed relief. She had not been told the pretext upon which he had started off in pursuit of her immediately upon his arrival, and had had terrifying visions of a reception marked by anxious and inquiring looks. But Jim greeted her with his painfully acquired air of accepted habit, and immediately, she was sitting between him and Mackenzie, looking at the bundle of rough pencil drawings put into her hands, outlines of rugged peaks, desolate plains, primitive hillside villages, done with abundant determination but little skill. She listened to Mackenzie's explanations without speaking, and was relieved to hand over the packet to the Squire, who put on his glasses to examine them, and drew the conversation away from her.
Mackenzie spoke but little to her after that. He dominated the conversation, much more so than on the previous evening, when there had been some little difficulty in extracting any account of his exploits from him. Now he was willing to talk of them, and he talked well, not exactly with modesty, but with no trace of boastful quality, such as would certainly have aroused the prejudices of his listeners against him.
He talked like a man with whom the subject under discussion was the one subject in the world that interested him. One would have said that he had nothing else in his mind but the lust for strange places to conquer. He appeared to be obsessed by his life of travel, to be able to think of nothing else, even during this short interval in his years of adventure, and in this stay-at-home English company whose thoughts were mostly bound up in the few acres around them.
Cicely stole glances at him. Was he acting a carefully thought out plan, or had he really forgotten her very existence for the moment, while his thoughts winged their way to cruel, dark places, whose secrets he would wrest from them, the only places in which his bold, eager spirit could find its home? He radiated power. She was drawn to him, more than half against her will. He had called to her to share his life and his enterprise. Should she answer the call? It was in her mind that she might do so.