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to Miss Amelia. "When did you last use this chimney?"

"Three years ago when I had bronchitis," she qua-
vered, gazing up at him with tragic intensity.

"Then it's that beastly jackdaw from the Bowling Green
Inn," he said.

"Jackdaw!" cried Pauline.
I "Jackdaw!" shrieked Miss Amelia.

"They forgot to cut its wings and it has been lost for
some time," said Unwin. "I play bowls there, and I
asked what had happened to it."

"I knew it was a low ghost," said Miss Amelia faintly,
sinking down on the nearest chair. "A public-house.
. . . We are, indeed, all the victims of our surroundings."
And her distress having been very great and the reaction
sudden and complete, she subsided gently upon the floor.

In a moment or two, however, she opened her eyes and
murmured fervently

"Mr. Unwin Pauline your united kindness I can
never forget."

"It is nothing. I am glad to have found the old vil-
lain," replied Unwin, and he went to procure a man, a
ladder and other requisites for removing the bird from
the disused chimney. But this proved to be no easy task,
and it was after two o'clock when he finally stood before
Miss Amelia and Pauline, very grimy indeed, with a still
grimier bird in a covered basket.

"Well, here's the ghost at last," he said. "Its wings
are clipped now, all right, but I thought the beggar was
going to escape before I could get it out of its hiding
place."

"Oh, how I shall sleep to-night!" sighed Miss Amelia.
"Oh, Mr. Unwin, I can never, never thank you enough."

"Nonsense! Great fun, I assure you," said Unwin
cheerily. "Rather like bird-nesting, which I always en-



MISS AMELIA'S GHOST 39

joyed. And now I'll take the jackdaw back to the land-
lady with your compliments at once, if you don't mind."

' ' Landlady ! ' ' exclaimed Miss Amelia. ' ' But, of course,
you are jesting again. I am sure you quite understand
that this matter must be kept absolutely between our-
selves. My poor sister. ... I can imagine nothing more
painful to her than the knowledge that she had become
part-heroine of what might be termed er a funny
story."

"Quite so," said Unwin. "You may rely on my dis-
cretion, and I am convinced that Miss Westcott will be
equally silent."

Then he made his adieux and retired with a grave for-
mality rather marred, but not destroyed, by a streak of
black over one eye.

Pauline accompanied him to the door, and as he was
going out she said, hesitating

"You know . . . you've been awfully good. But she's
a dear, isn't she?"

"Of course she is. I love her," said Unwin.

Pauline laughed.

"You seem to love lots of people."

He glanced at her in slight surprise, as if it were a
true fact about himself which he had not noticed before.

"Oh, well," he said, "people are jolly, aren't they?"

Then he went away, and Pauline stood looking after
him as he went jauntily down the street carrying the
jackdaw.

A fine rain was now falling, and he blessed this common
circumstance 'because it would ensure the bowling green
being sufficiently deserted for the private repatriation
of the jackdaw. So he avoided the front door of the
inn, slipped round to the back, and had just let the bird
out of the basket when a red face appeared over the
clipped hedge and a loud female voice shouted suddenly

"Hi! What are you doing with our Mary Jane?"



40 THE GOSSIP SHOP

Then, as Unwin straightened himself and stared at her:
"Mr. Unwin! It's never you, Mr. Unwin?"

"Y-yes," acknowledged Unwin reluctantly. "The er
fact is, I found your jackdaw and was just quietly re-
storing it to its old haunts." Then the word "haunt"
seeming so particularly appropriate in this connection, he
smiled at her. "Didn't want to make a fuss," he added.

"Seems not," said the landlady. Then she added, after
a pause, "You can't help feeling it's queer."

"Such a lot of things are," urged Unwin. "Supposing
we put this among the rest and say no more about it, eh ? "

"Our little Bessie cried herself sick about losing the
poor bird," said the landlady. "I can't get over that, all
in a minute, nor Bessie neither."

"Do you think a new doll ... as Mary Jane has come
back?" suggested Unwin, tendering five shillings.

"Oh! well ..." said the landlady, taking the money.
"Only I'd rather know what really got our Mary Jane,
you know."

As Unwin was unable, however, to satisfy this natural
feminine instinct, he departed with all convenient speed
and walked thoughtfully back to his office wondering why
such things must always happen to him. So when the
Vicar put up a detaining hand and said importantly:
"One moment! There is something I wish to say to you
in strictest confidence," it is not surprising that he re-
plied, on the spur of the moment: "Not if I know it!
Confidences are too much of a strain. Besides, I'm not a
millionaire."

The Vicar smiled vaguely.

"Always a jest, always a jest; and a good thing too,
in its way. But to be serious for a moment, my dear fel-
low . . ."

"I am serious," said Unwin; "I never was more seri-
ous in my life. I've had no lunch yet."

"Ah, yes," said the Vicar. "Well, I wanted to tell
you about Lord Southwater. I hear from a private source



MISS AMELIA'S GHOST 41

that he is seeking a new architect. But this must go no
further."

Unwin nodded, and thus received a third confidence,
after all.

The Vicar hesitated.

"I hope you won't think me impertinent, Unwin, but
I rather fear your business is not not quite what it was ? ' '

"You might put it plainer than that without being
offensively candid," said Unwin, with a laugh. "There is
no scope for an architect in this neighbourhood now, as
you know. But my poor father was broken-hearted at
the thought of there being no Unwin to follow on after
three generations, so I couldn't refuse ..."

"No, no. I quite see. I quite see," said the Vicar.
"You did what was right. That, in the end, is every-
thing."

"Is it?" said Unwin. "Well, perhaps it is ... only
. . . "Well, I've got to get my lunch now. Good-bye."

So the Vicar, who was a prig but a very kind prig, went
on to his Mother's Meeting composing remarks about
Unwin which should be suited to the all-powerful ear of
Lord Southwater.



CHAPTER V

A VISITOR OF IMPORTANCE

LORD SOUTHWATER was a rich widower with a long,
bald, pink face, a fine hand and a hobby for restoring
and building churches. He indulged this taste to the full ;
consciously because he had a sincere love for ecclesiastical
architecture; unconsciously, because he wished to occupy
the same prominent position elsewhere as he had always
done here.

At the present moment, however, he slept in a corner
seat of a first-class railway carriage on his way to inspect
the restorations which had been recently made in the chan-
cel of Wendlebury Parish Church, and his last waking
thought had been of Mrs. Delamere flashing eyes and teeth
at him in welcome. Not that he had any great affection
for his sister-in-law, but because her presence always
gave him a faint sense of discomfort which he hid under
a marked cordiality lest he should in any way seem to
slight the memory of his dead brother, though he was a
man to whom even the mildest duplicity was extremely
distasteful.

While he thus slumbered, preparations for his due re-
ception were being made in the little red-roofed town.
Mrs. Delamere and her maids threw back the folding-
doors and placed rows of chairs hired from the inn in the
long, imposing apartment formed by drawing-room and
dining-room combined: the Wendlebury ladies took out
their best dresses from cedar-scented wardrobes, while
Mrs. Chubb before her cottage hearth was brushing with
great care the Sunday hat and coat of Mr. Chubb.

"You can do as you like," said that respectable cab-

42



A VISITOR OF IMPORTANCE 43

driver, eating buttered toast and drinking tea with great
truculence; which sounds difficult, tea and toast being
essentially mild viands, but Chubb could make water-gruel
the element of a jamboree. "I won't wear 'em," he con-
cluded. "I tell you that, straight."

"But a lord " entreated *Mrs. Chubb. "And you

do look so handsome when you're dressed, Chubby."

He frowned, hardening still more outside, but melting
slightly within, and responded surlily

"What's the use of figging myself out for Lord South-
water who never gives more'n a twopenny tip, eh? I like
a lord to ~be a lord, and splash his money about a bit.
That's what we keep 'em for, isn't it?"

But Mrs. Chubb was not to be switched off upon politi-
cal issues and giggled persuasively

"Mrs. White next door said only the other day that
no wonder the ladies always wanted you to drive 'em out.
She should be jealous if she was me, she says."

"Chattering old fool, she is," grunted Chubb: but at
the same time he took the coat without seeming to be
aware of it.

"If I was a lord," pursued Mrs. Chubb, patting his
collar into place, "I should find a better hobby than
doing up churches, shouldn't you?"

"I should that," agreed Mr. Chubb cordially. "Why,
when you think his father won the Derby and his grand-
father owned Perigord ! It makes you believe in all this talk
of the English race going to the dogs, it does indeed."

"Aye, and this Lord Southwater not knowing a hunter
from an old lady's carriage horse," said Mrs. Chubb,
"and spending hundreds, so they say, a-mending up the
church here."

"Well, Unwin will have made a bit," said Chubb. "It
was luck for him, Lord Southwater 's architect being taken
ill." He paused. "But if we ever get enough saved up
to build out that porch, I don't know as I shall employ
young Unwin. He'd forget something, I doubt."



44 THE GOSSIP SHOP

"Aye too flighty-like, " said Mrs. Chubb, opening the
cottage door for her husband. And as Mr. Chubb passed
the bright windows of the other cottages, he glanced fur-
tively at his own reflection, realising that his wife was
not without some slight intelligence of the inferior fe-
male sort, for he did indeed look a fine figure of a man
in his Sunday overcoat and hat.

Mrs. Chubb watched him turn the corner and was about
to retire into the house when Eva, Mrs. Dickson's maid,
appeared from the other direction, and after explaining
that the cab was required for that same evening, she
accepted an invitation to walk in. There was still some
good tea in the pot and the two women sat down before
the bright fire. A pleasant aroma of tea, hot butter and
scorching bread filled the apartment, the very incense
most acceptable to the nose of the goddess of scandal in
this climate, though, being universal, she adapts her rites
to the varying conditions of the world, and no doubt has
perfumes equally able to loose the tongue elsewhere.

"And so," said Mrs. Chubb ("Another lump, do!)
And so you want the cab for a quarter to eight? Mrs.
Delamere's party, I suppose?"

"Yes; Chubb must mind and not let anybody run
away with the cab this time," replied Eva, laughing.

"It's all very well to make a joke on it," said Mrs.
Chubb, gazing solemn-eyed over the edge of her cup. "I
know something about that, as would surprise you. But
I'm no gossip and never was."

"No, nor me either," said Eva cordially. "Still, be-
tween two old friends like us . . ."

"It's different, of course," agreed Mrs. Chubb. "Now
there's that Mrs. White, I wouldn't tell her anything I
didn't want to go no further; no, not for a king's ransom."

"You're right there," said Eva. "But us Martins was
always brought up to keep things to ourselves. I shall
ever remember the day when our Emm came running
home with a tale about a woman we knew stealing a



45

neighbour's coal. Mother gave our Emm such a clout
on the head for gossiping before she went round to teil
the neighbours about it. That's how I first learnt to be
so careful. We've a lot to thank our mother for." She
sighed, then dismissing the matter, continued in another
tone: "You were going to say something about that cab
affair when I interrupted, weren't you?"

"Not about the cab," replied Mrs. Chubb.

"About Chubb then?"

"No, indeed."

"Unwin?" suggested Eva.

Mrs. Chubb nodded three times.

' ' What 's he been doing now ? ' ' asked Eva, with the intense
relish of those whose own lives afford no scope for drama.
* ' He 's never been and run away with the cab again ? ' '

"No." Mrs. Chubb leaned forward and continued in
a low, mysterious voice: "You know the Dragon at Rye-
ford? Well, there's somebody very ill there. Chubb 's

driven Doctor Carter over three times. Each time "

Mrs. Chubb paused.

"Well?"

"Each time Chubb saw Unwin hanging about the
Dragon."

"Ah!" said Eva.

"He goes there to get his drink on the quiet," said
Mrs. Chubb. "But I heard tell of him down at the Bowl-
ing Green Inn in Windlebury, too."

"Well," said Eva, reluctantly beginning to tear herself
away by putting down her tea-cup. "As I always say,
men's men. You can't make otherways of 'em. Particu-
larly bachelors. A man and a mug o' beer a boy and
a apple-tree there you are: you can't go against nature."

As Eva was reporting to her mistress the result of her
errand, Unwin cycled past the window. Pauline, who
stood near it, was giving scraps of information to the
invalid by the fire.



46 THE GOSSIP SHOP

"There's Unwin cycling past," she remarked, seizing
hold of the topic with a degree of alertness that only
those can understand who have been much with beloved,
and old, and house-bound people. "I'm sure he ought to
be at the church explaining the alterations to Lord South-
water by this time. I saw the Vicar going in when I passed
half an hour ago."

"Lord South water is a very punctual man," remarked
Aunt Dickson. "He won't like it if Unwin is late. "What-
ever can have made the foolish fellow cycle off to Ryeford
at the last moment in this way?"

"Yes, and in the rain too," added Pauline.

Eva placed some change on the table and said nothing
in words, but her facial expression was such that both
Aunt Dickson and Pauline exclaimed together: "Eva,
what do you know about it?"

"Nothing, oh, nothing," said Eva. "I'm no gossip,
though you did say ..." She broke off and retired,
adding formally: "So it's scrambled eggs for supper."

But her very nose-end radiated suppressed information.

Dignity, however, forbade Aunt Dickson to call her
back, and to her great disappointment she was allowed to
close the door. Slowly she paced the passage to the
kitchen where she stood considering for some time by the
fire; at last her long features became illuminated; she
hastened back to the room, put her head in at the door,
and said in an apologetic tone: "Me memory's going.
Did you say scrambled eggs for supper?"

"Yes." Aunt Dickson glanced up expectantly, while
Eva came in, shut the door behind her, and said in a
low voice : "I can 't tell you a lie ! I never have. I won 't
begin now, Unwin or no Unwin. I did hear something
when I was at Mrs. Chubb 's."

For a moment Aunt Dickson fought with her worse
feelings and then gave in. She had found the day so long
with the enforced inaction and constant, slight pain; and



A VISITOR OF IMPORTANCE 47

the thought of something new to think about seemed like
an anodyne.

''Well?" she said.

"Well," said Eva, enjoying the importance very much,
"Mr. Un win's been at the Dragon at Ryeford, I bet a
button. He's always there."

"Who says so?" demanded Pauline.

"Chubb," said Eva.

"Oh, Chubb!" said Pauline.

Aunt Dickson thought for a moment.

"I really can't believe it of young Unwin," she said
at last. "He is such a nice man."

"Aye," responded Eva darkly. "But the devil endows
his own. We all know that. You never did meet a good-
for-nought that wasn't nicer than he ought to be."

' ' I don 't believe a word of it, ' ' declared Pauline.

But Eva was not offended because she instinctively
knew 'Aunt Dickson and Pauline were only preserving the
conventions, and that she had been as interesting as she
could possibly have desired.

One part of the story did indeed bear evidence of
truth, for Unwin arrived at the church with a damp
jacket and the unmistakable mud of the Ryeford Road
on his boots, and a general appearance .of being sartorially
unprepared for the august little group which awaited him.

Lord Southwater had been standing for some time on
the lower step of the chancel, eyeglass in hand, while
Mrs. Delamere murmured in a religious undertone: "I
don't actually visit with the Wendlebury people, of
course, but one's duty to one's neighbour . . . one has
to consider that sometimes ... so I thought it would
be so delightful if you would give a short address on the
architecture of Wendlebury Church this evening in my
drawing-room. We know so little, really, of our church, and
it enables me to invite those whom . . . you understand ? ' *

Then Unwin came hurriedly up the aisle and Lord



48 THE GOSSIP SHOP

Southwater advanced with that air of being the principal
layman at a clerical conference which never seemed to
leave him, and which the imagination pictured present
even in his bath, where he no doubt gave to the soap
and sponge the same impression of secular saintship.

Unwin made such apologies as he could muster, but
the great man was at first very stiff and unapproachable,
as was only natural in a benefactor who has been kept
waiting, while the culprit himself was obviously worried
and preoccupied, though he tried hard to bring his mind
to bear upon the matter in hand. After a while, however,
the genuine love of both men for the village churches of
England those homes of the religion and poetry and
history of the race began to draw them together. For
beneath Lord Southwater 's dull crust of self-importance
and Unwin 's young affectation of indifference was a spring-
ing enthusiasm which made their talk eager and vital.
Each understood and saw in the other more than their
words said, and to the Vicar and Mrs. Delamere was left
that rather forlorn position of watching the minds of two
men, utterly unlike each other, thus touching and fusing
into a very harmonious understanding.

But once the inspection was over and the four stood
grouped by the door speaking of the weather in the
hushed tones desirable in a sacred edifice, all Unwin 's
former preoccupation and constraint returned. He could
not feel at ease when he saw always, on the rich gloom
of the church behind Lord South water's pink, important
face, the face of the dying man at the Green Dragon.
It seemed so strange and terrible that these two had been
little brothers, playing at horses together. . . . The intol-
erable strangeness of human life gripped hold of Unwin.
How could this man stand there, calm and important, un-
aware that his brother was dying amongst strangers only
two miles away?

"Then, Mr. Unwin," and he started to hear Mrs. Dela-
mere 's graciously condescending voice through the gloom



A VISITOR OF IMPORTANCE 49

and wonder, "we shall hope to see you this evening at
eight o'clock?"

Unwin hesitated, but the Vicar's frown and his own
knowledge of the unwisdom of offending Lord South-
water made him answer almost at once

"Thank you, I shall be delighted to come, but I am
obliged to leave immediately after the lecture."

"That is, of course, as you wish," said Mrs. Delamere,
then to her guest, she added with dignity : "I think our
carriage is waiting." And so the party emerged into the
soft falling rain.

Chubb 's mare stood patiently demure between the
shafts, but at Unwin 's affectionate "Hullo, Griselda!" she
did flick a tail, as the demurest matron may on finding
that she still has charms for a nice young man. And
indeed Unwin did rejoice to see her, because she roused
in him just for a moment the sense of fun which he hated
to live without; he so actively detested being obliged to
feel miserable.

"Wet day, Chubb," smiled Mrs. Delamere, claiming
him as an old and grateful retainer: but Chubb main-
tained an unresponsive gravity, refusing to be so claimed
by any one living for a less tip than threepence a journey.

As Unwin made his way down the street he was hailed
from the curb by Miss Argle who was the one social equal
of Mrs. Delamere, being an Argle of Argle Hall.

"Sorry to trouble you," she said excitedly. "Gentle-,
men so scarce in Wendlebury . . . away for some weeks
. . . rather a delicate matter ..."

"Then I think you'd better find some one else," said
Unwin, with decision. " I 'm no good at anything delicate. ' '
And he prepared to cycle on.

"Oh, please! Please!" cried Miss Argle. "It's my
nephew. Seventeen. He is staying with me and has a
new dress suit and Mrs. Delamere says evening dress
optional. I do think it is a most trying thing for people



50 THE GOSSIP SHOP

to say that, Mr. Unwin. There are problems enough in
the world, I should suppose, without people adding to
them by saying evening dress optional. If my nephew
dresses and others don't, it looks a little ostentatious,
doesn't it? And if he refrains and others do, he will be
exceedingly angry with me and glower in a corner and re-
fuse to hand round the coffee and sandwiches. So I
thought I would ask you what you were going to do."

" Oh ! 1 11 put on swallow-tails and then he '11 feel all right,
anyway. When in doubt, dress, I suppose," said Unwin.

''Oh! Quite an epigram, I declare," said Miss Argle.
"Always so good-natured ... see you this evening . . ."
and she murmured herself away at last, leaving Unwin
free to mount his bicycle.

When Mrs. Delamere said vaguely to her brother-in-
law that his lecture gave her a chance to invite those
whom . . . and left it, she was once more endeavouring
to convey her most rigid principle, namely, that she
did not visit with the Wendlebury people but only with
the county, though she saw Miss Harriet and Miss Amelia
Pritchard at least fifty times more often than, for in-
stance, the Bracegirdles of Bracegirdle. But it is a fool-
ish thing to think that voluntary climbers up are the
only snobs, because involuntary climbers down are often
just the same, and perhaps even more insistent.

So Lord South water's sister-in-law was very glad to
show him to her little world in what might be termed
a non-committal manner, and by eight o'clock her apart-
ments gave one, as Miss Amelia remarked to Pauline,
quite a brilliant example of what aristocratic At Homes
in London must be like. And the jewel or apex of all this
subdued splendour was the peer by the mantelpiece, who
wore, not exactly a dress suit, but the sanctified and hy-
brid garb used by him for giving addresses at Young
Men's Associations, consisting of a frock coat, a black
tie, and a good deal of white shirt front.



A VISITOR OF IMPORTANCE 51

As soon as the company was seated, the address began,
and Lord South-water's excellent flat voice boomed gra-
ciously across the fluttering rows of Wendlebury ladies in
their light silks and laces and grenadines, with an odd
man making a dark patch here and there. Miss Amelia
sat next to the Vicar, and had seldom felt so much in
spirits, with Pauline on her other side, and Unwin most
pleasant in the row behind.

But when she turned round to catch Unwin 's eye, while
Lord Southwater paused for breath and water and there
was a delicate clatter of applause, she felt disturbed to
see his look of stern gravity, for it had not occurred to her
that his blunt, debonair features could wear such a look.
Then Lord Southwater gave a preparatory cough and
the impression faded from the surface of her mind.

Unwin, however, still sat with his eyes fixed on the
speaker, and his look remained the same. For behind
Lord Southwater he again saw Delamere's worn cheeks
and burnt-out eyes. And no pictured comparison of Ho-
garth could have been so startlingly real to Unwin 's mod-
ern view as that large, pink, assured face with the other
one looming behind it.

Yet Delamere had been the best loved son of his
mother. His first wreckage had come through a sort of
love. Unwin loved him now, though he was irritable,
wretched, dying. And no one had ever greatly loved
Lord Southwater.

Unwin thought this, sitting there among the gaily clad
Wendlebury ladies; but he could find no answer to the
immortal problem. And, gradually, for he had been al-
ready watching three consecutive nights at the Dragon,
the sonorous periods of the speaker began to make him
drowsy. He ceased to think and puzzle and let his glance
rest idly upon Pauline's ear as it emerged from the
shadow of her dark hair. She had pretty ears, he thought,
and a pretty neck. How exquisitely she was shaped alto-
gether. ... A man scarcely noticed how delicately lovely



52 THE GOSSIP SHOP

she was until he sat near her quietly and watched her


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Online LibraryAnnie Edith Foster JamesonThe gossip shop → online text (page 3 of 22)