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unwilling to destroy the impression that he was hand in glove with the
family of his squire; on the other hand the wounds of vanity needed
consolation. But these _were_ old friends and would no doubt understand,
and sympathise.

"To tell you the truth they haven't turned out quite as well as I hoped
they might at the beginning," he said. "There are a good many things I
don't like about them, although in others I am perhaps, as you say,
fortunate."

Rhoda and Ethel pricked up their ears. This was as breath to their
nostrils.

"Well, now you've said it," said Rhoda, "I'll confess that we have
sometimes wondered how long your infatu - your liking for the Graftons
would last. They're not at all the sort of people _we_ should care to
have living next door to us."

"Far from it," said Ethel. "But, of course, we couldn't say anything as
long as they seemed to be so important to _you_."

"What is there that you particularly object to in them?" asked the Vicar
in some surprise. "I thought you did like them when you went over there
at first."

"At first, yes," said Rhoda; "except that youngest one, Barbara. She
pretended to be very polite, but she seemed to be taking one off all the
time."

"I know what you mean," said the Vicar uneasily. "I've sometimes almost
thought the same myself. But I think it's only her manner. Personally I
prefer her to the other two. She isn't so pretty, but - - "

"I don't deny Caroline and Beatrix's prettiness," said Rhoda. "Some
girls might say they couldn't see it, but thank goodness I'm not a cat.
Still, good looks, to please _me_, must have something behind them, or
I've no use for them."

"They're ill-natured - ill-natured and conceited," said Ethel. "That's
what they are, and that's what spoils them. And the way they go on with
their father! 'Darling' and 'dearest' and hanging round him all the
time! It's all show-off. They don't act in that way to others."

"I dare say Mr. Mercer wishes they did," said Rhoda, who was not
altogether without humour, and also prided herself on her directness of
speech.

"Indeed not!" said the Vicar indignantly. "I quite agree with Miss
Ethel. I dislike all that petting and kissing in company."

"I only meant that they are not so sweet as all that inside," said
Ethel. "I'm sure Rhoda and I did our best to make friends with them.
They are younger than we are, of course, and we thought they might be
glad to be taken notice of and helped to employ and interest themselves.
But not at all. Oh, no. They came over here once, and nothing was good
enough for them. They wouldn't do this, and they didn't care about doing
that, and hadn't time to do the other. At last I said, 'Whatever _do_
you do with yourselves then, all day long? Surely,' I said, 'you take
some interest in your fellow-creatures!' - we'd wanted them to do the
same sort of thing at Abington as we do here, and offered to bicycle
over there as often as they liked to help and advise them. Caroline
looked at me, and said in a high and mighty sort of way, 'Yes we do;
but we like making friends with them by degrees.' Well now, I call that
simply shirking. If we had tried to run this parish on those
lines - well, it wouldn't be the parish it is; that's all I can say."

"They are of very little use in the parish," said the Vicar. "I tried to
get them interested when they first came, and asked them to come about
with me and see things for themselves, but I've long since given up all
idea of that. And none of them will teach in the Sunday-school, where we
really want teachers."

"Yes, I suppose you do," said Rhoda. "Until Mollie Walter came I suppose
you had hardly anybody. How do they get on with Mollie Walter, by the
by? Or _don't_ they get on. She'd hardly be good enough for them, I
suppose."

"Far from that," said the Vicar, "they are spoiling Mollie completely.
She used to be such a nice simple modest girl; well, you often said
yourselves that you would like to have a girl like that to help you in
the parish."

"Yes, we did," said Ethel. "And she used to be so pleased to come over
here and to be told how to do things. Now I think of it she hardly ever
does come over now. So that's the reason, is it? Taken up by the
Graftons and had her head turned. Well, all I can say is that when she
does deign to come over here again, or we go and see her, we shan't
stand any nonsense of _that_ sort. If she wants a talking to she can get
it here."

"I wish you _would_ talk to her," said the Vicar. "I've tried to do so,
seeing her going wrong, and thinking it my duty; but she simply won't
listen to me now. They've entirely altered her, and I whom she used to
look up to almost as a father am nothing any more, beside them."

"That's too bad," said Rhoda. "And you used to make such a pet of her."

"Well, I don't know that I ever did that," said the Vicar. "Of course I
was fond of the child, and tried to bring her out; but I was training
her all the time, to make a good useful woman of her. Her mother was
grateful to me for it, I know, and she herself has often told me what a
different life it was for her from the one she had been living, and how
happy she was at Abington in their little cottage, and having us as
their friends. Well she might be too! We've done everything for that
girl, and this is the return. I haven't yet told you what disturbs me so
much. You know how I dislike those noisy rackety Pembertons."

"Why I thought you were bosom friends with them again," said Rhoda. "Mr.
Brill came over the other day - Father Brill I refuse to call him - and
said he had met you and Mrs. Mercer dining there."

"Oh, one must dine with one's neighbours occasionally," said the Vicar,
"unless one wants to cut one's self off from them entirely. Besides, I
thought I'd done them an injustice. Mrs. Pemberton had done me the
honour to consult me about certain good works that she was engaged in,
and I did what I could, naturally, to be helpful and to interest
myself. Why she did it I don't know, considering that when I took the
trouble to bicycle over there last I was informed that she was not at
home, although, if you'll believe me, there was a large party there, the
Graftons and Mollie among them, playing tennis."

"Mollie! I didn't know _she_ knew the Pembertons! She _is_ getting on!
No wonder her head's turned!"

"What I wanted to tell you was that young Pemberton met her at the Abbey
some time ago, when the Graftons first came, and took a fancy to her. It
was _he_ who got her asked over to Grays, and she actually went there
before Mrs. Pemberton had called on Mrs. Walter. Now I ask you, is that
the proper way for a girl to behave?"

"Well, you haven't told us how she does behave yet," said Rhoda. "Has
she taken a fancy to young Pemberton? It would be a splendid match for
her."

The Vicar made an exclamation of impatience. "Is it likely, do you
think, that he has anything of that sort in his head?" he asked. "He's
just amusing himself with a pretty girl, and thinks he can do what he
likes with her, because she's beneath him in station. It makes my blood
boil. And there's the girl lending herself to it - in all innocence, of
course; I know that - and nobody to give her a word of warning."

"Haven't you given her a word of warning?" asked Ethel.

"I tried to do so. But she misunderstood me. I've said that it's all
innocence on _her_ part. And it's difficult for a man to advise in these
matters."

"Couldn't Mrs. Mercer?"

"My wife doesn't see quite eye to eye with me in this, unfortunately.
She thinks I made a mistake in mentioning the matter to Mollie at all.
Perhaps it would have been better if I'd left it to her. But she
couldn't do anything now."

"Couldn't you say anything to Mrs. Walter?"

"I did that. She was there when I talked to Mollie. I'm sorry to say
that she took offence. I ought really to have talked to them separately.
They listened to what I had to say at first, and seemed quite to realise
that a mistake had been made in Mollie going over to Grays in that way
before Mrs. Pemberton had called on Mrs. Walter. It was even doubtful at
that time whether she _would_ call on her, although she did so
afterwards. But when I mentioned young Pemberton, they simply wouldn't
listen to me. Mollie went out of the room with her head in the air, and
Mrs. Walter took the line that I had no right to interfere with the girl
at all in such matters as that. Why, those are the very matters that a
man of the world, as I suppose one can be as well as being a Christian,
ought to counsel a girl about, if he's on such terms with her as to
stand for father or brother, as I have been with Mollie. Don't you think
I'm right?"

"Well, I don't know," said Rhoda. "If she'd just taken it naturally, and
hadn't been thinking of any harm, it _would_ be likely to offend her to
have it put to her in that way; especially if she was inclined to like
him and didn't know it yet."

"Perhaps it was a mistake," the Vicar admitted again. "I suppose I ought
to have talked to Mrs. Walter first. But they had both been so amenable
in the way they had taken advice from me generally, in things that they
couldn't be expected to know about themselves, and so grateful for my
friendship and interest in them, that it never occurred to me not to say
exactly what I thought. One lives and learns. There's very little _real_
gratitude in the world. Mollie has got thoroughly in with the Graftons
now, and all _I_'ve done for her goes for nothing, or very little. And
even Mrs. Walter has laid herself out to flatter and please them, in a
way I didn't think it was in her to do. She is always running after Miss
Waterhouse, and asking her to the Cottage. They both pretend that
nothing is altered - she and Mollie - but it's plain enough that now they
think themselves on a level with the Graftons - well, they have got where
they want to be and can kick down the ladder that led them there. That's
about what it comes to, and I can't help feeling rather sore about it.
Well, I've unburdened myself to you, and it's done me good. Of course
you'll keep what I say to yourselves."

"Oh, of course," said Rhoda. "Confidences with us are sacred. Then
Mollie still goes over to Grays? Her mother lets her?"

"She goes over with the Graftons. I don't fancy she has been by herself;
but I never ask. I don't mention the subject at all, and naturally they
would be ashamed of bringing it up themselves before me."

"The Grafton girls back her up, of course!"

"I'm afraid they do. And I hardly like to say it, or even to think it,
but Mollie must have given them quite a wrong impression of what was
said after she had dined at Grays with them. There is a difference in
their behaviour towards me, and I can hardly help putting it down to
that. I used to get such a warm welcome at the Abbey, whenever I liked
to go there. I could always drop in for a cup of tea, or at any time of
the day, and know that they were pleased to see me. When their father
was up in town I may have been said really to have looked after them, as
was only natural under the circumstances, and everybody was glad to have
it so. But now it is entirely different. There is a stiffness; a
formality. I no longer feel that I am the chosen friend of the family.
And I'm bound to put it down to Mollie. I go in there sometimes and find
her with them, and - oh, but it's no use talking about it. I must say,
though, that it's hard that everything should be upset for me just
because I have not failed in my duty. Standing as I do, for the forces
of goodness and righteousness in the parish, it's a bitter
disappointment to have my influence spoilt in this fashion; and when at
first I had expected something so different."

"Mr. Grafton seldom goes to church, does he?"

"He has disappointed me very much in that way. I thought he would be my
willing helper in my work. But he has turned out quite indifferent. And
not only that. Barbara would have been confirmed this year if they had
been in London. They told me that themselves. Of course I offered to
prepare her for confirmation myself, as they decided to stay here. They
shilly-shallied about it for some time, but a fortnight ago Miss
Waterhouse informed me that she would not be confirmed till next year."

"That's not right," said Ethel decisively. "She ought to have been
confirmed long ago."

The Vicar got up to leave. "I'm afraid they've very little sense of
religion," he said. "Well, one must work on, through good report and ill
report. Some day, perhaps, one will get the reward of all one's labours.
Good-bye, dear ladies. It has done me good to talk it all over with you.
And it is a real joy to rest for a time in such an atmosphere as this. I
will come again next Sunday."

They saw him to the hall door and watched him ride off on his bicycle.
Then they returned in some excitement to the drawing-room.

"The fact is that he's put his foot in it, and had a sound snub," said
Rhoda.

"He's behaved like a fool about Mollie, and now he's as jealous as a cat
because she's left him for somebody else," said Ethel.




CHAPTER XIII

A LETTER


George Grafton got up one morning in August at six o'clock, as was his
now almost invariable custom, and went to the window. The rain, which
had begun on the evening before, was coming down steadily. It looked as
if it had rained all night and would continue to rain all day. Pools had
already collected in depressions of the road, the slightly sunken lawn
under his window was like a marsh, and the trees dripped heavily and
dismally.

He was greatly disappointed. For nearly a month now he had been hard at
work on the rock-garden and the stream that had been led into it. It had
been a fascinating occupation, planning and contriving and doing the
work himself with no professional guidance, and only occasional extra
labour to lift or move very heavy stones. He had worked at it nearly
every morning before breakfast, with Caroline and Barbara, Bunting, and
Beatrix when she had been at home, and Maurice Bradby, Worthing's pupil,
as an ardent and constant helper both with brain and with hands. They
had all enjoyed it immensely. Those early hours had been the best in the
day. The hard work had made him as fit as he had ever been in his life,
and he felt like a young man again.

As he stood at the window, Bradby came splashing up the road in
mackintosh and heavy boots. He was as keen as the rest, and generally
first in the field.

"Hallo!" Grafton called out to him. "I'm afraid there's nothing doing
this morning. I don't mind getting a little wet, but this is a bit too
much."

Bradby looked round him at the leaden sky, which showed no signs of a
break anywhere. "Perhaps it will clear up," he said. "I didn't suppose
you'd be out, but I thought I might as well come up. I want to see what
happens with the pipes, and where the water gets to with heavy rain."

"Well, you go up and have a look, my boy," said Grafton, "and if you're
not drowned beforehand come to breakfast. We might be able to get out
afterwards. I'm going back to bed now."

He went back to bed and dozed intermittently until his servant came in
to call him. The idle thoughts that filled his brain, waking and
half-sleeping, were concerned with the rock-garden, with the roses he
and Caroline had planted, with other plantings of flowers and shrubs,
and the satisfaction that he had already gained or expected to gain from
them. The garden came first. In the summer it provided the chief
interest of the country, and the pleasure it had brought was at least as
great as that to be gained from the sports of autumn and winter. But it
was not only the garden as giving these pleasures of contrivance,
expectation and satisfaction, that coloured his thoughts as he lay
drowsily letting them wander over the aspects of the life he was so
much enjoying. It was the great playground, in these rich summer months,
when he had usually shunned the English country as lying in its state of
quiescence, and affording none of the distractions to be found
elsewhere. Lawn tennis and other garden games, with the feeling of
fitness they induced, the companionship they brought in the long
afternoons when people came to play and talk and enjoy themselves, and
the consequent heightening of the physical satisfaction of meals, cool
drinks, baths, changing of clothes; the lazy hours in the heat of the
day, with a book, or family chat in the shade of a tree, with the bees
droning among the flowers in the soaking sunshine, and few other sounds
to disturb the peace and the security; the intermittent wanderings to
look at this or that which had been looked at a score of times before,
but was always worth looking at again - those garden hours impressed
themselves upon the memory, sliding into one another, until the times of
rain and storm were forgotten, and life seemed to be lived in the
garden, in the yellow sunshine or the cool green shade.

The influence of the garden extended itself to the house in these summer
days. This room in which he was lying - it was a joy to wake up in it in
the morning - to be awakened by the sun pouring in beams of welcome and
invitation; it was a satisfaction to lie down in it at night, flooded
with the fragrant air that had picked up sweetness and freshness from
the trees and the grass. The stone hall was cool and gratefully dim,
when one came in out of the heat and glare of the hottest hours of the
day. The long low library between the sunk lawn and the cloister court,
whose calf-bound treasures, which he never looked into, gave it a mellow
retired air, was a pleasant room in which to write the few letters that
had to be written or do the small amount of business that had to be
done; or, when there were men in the house, to give them their
refreshments or their tobacco in. The long gallery was a still
pleasanter room, facing the setting sun and the garden and the trees,
with a glimpse of the park, and nothing to be seen from its
deep-recessed windows but those surrounding cultivated spaces. All the
rooms of the house were pleasant rooms, and pervaded with that sense of
retired and gracious beauty which came from their outlook, into garden
or park or ancient court.

The rain showed signs of decreasing at breakfast-time, and there were
some ragged fringes to be seen in the grey curtain of cloud that had
overhung the dripping world. Bradby had not put in his appearance.
Although he was now made as welcome as anybody when he came to the
Abbey, and had proved himself of the utmost assistance in many of the
pursuits that were carried on there with such keenness, his diffidence
still hung to him. Perhaps the invitation had not been clear enough; he
would not come, except at times when it was clearly expected of him, or
to meals, without a clearly understood invitation.

Young George clamoured for him during breakfast. His father had
announced a morning with letters and papers, too long postponed. Young
George wanted somebody to play with, and Bradby, after his father, and
now even before Barbara, was his chosen companion.

"He has work to do, you know, Bunting," said Caroline. "He can't always
be coming here."

"He may be going about the estate," said Young George. "I shall go down
to the office after breakfast."

"Why don't you go over and see Jimmy Beckley?" asked Barbara. "You could
ride. I'll come with you, if you like, and the Dragon will let me. I
should like to see Vera and the others."

Bunting thought he would. It would be rather fun to see old Jimmy, and
it would be certain to clear up by the time they got to Feltham.

"I believe it is going to clear up," said Grafton, looking out of the
window. "Shall you and I ride too, Cara? I must write a few letters.
They're getting on my mind now; but we could start about eleven."

So it was agreed. They stood at the hall door after breakfast and looked
at the rain. Then Grafton went into the library, and was soon immersed
in his writing. Even that was rather agreeable, for a change. It was so
quiet and secluded in this old book-lined room. And there was the ride
to come, pleasant to look forward to even if it continued to rain,
trotting along the muddy roads, between the hedges and trees and fields,
and coming back with the two girls and the boy to a lunch that would
have been earned by exercise. Everything was pleasant in this quiet easy
life, of which the present hour's letter-writing and going through of
papers was the only thing needed to keep the machinery going, at least
by him. It was only a pity that B wasn't there. He missed B, with her
loving merry ways, and she did love Abington, and the life there, as
much as any of them. He would write a line to his little B, up in
Scotland, before he went out, and tell her that he wanted her back, and
she'd better come quickly. She couldn't be enjoying herself as much as
she would if she came home, to her ever loving old Daddy.

The second post came in just as he had finished. Caroline had already
looked in to say that she was going up to change. He took the envelopes
and the papers from old Jarvis, and looked at certain financial
quotations before going through the letters. There was only one he
wanted to open before going upstairs. It was from Beatrix - a large
square envelope addressed in an uneven rather sprawling hand, not yet
fully formed.

Caroline waited for him in the hall. The horses were being led up and
down outside. He was usually a model of punctuality, but she was already
considering going up to see what had happened to him when he came down
the shallow stairs, in his breeches and gaiters.

"What a time you've been!" she said.

He did not reply, and had his back to her as old Jarvis helped him on
with his raincoat and handed him his gloves and crop. She did not notice
that there was anything wrong with him until they were mounted and had
set off. Then she saw his face and exclaimed in quick alarm: "What's
the matter, darling? Aren't you well?"

His voice was not like his as he replied: "I've had a letter from B. She
says she's engaged to Lassigny."

Caroline had to use her brain quickly to divine how such a piece of news
would affect him. But for his view of it, it would have been only rather
exciting. She knew Lassigny, and liked him. "I didn't know he was
there," she said lamely.

"She hadn't told me that he was," he said. "I suppose he went up there
after her - got himself an invitation. He's staying in the house."

"I don't think he'd do anything underhand, Dad."

"I don't say it would be underhand. If he hasn't done that he must have
been invited with all the rest, and she must have known it. But she
never said so."

Caroline was disturbed at the bitterness with which he spoke, and did
not quite understand it. He had made no objections to Lassigny as a
friend of hers, nor to her having asked him to Abington at Whitsuntide.
He seemed to have liked him himself. What was it that he was so upset
about? Was it with Beatrix?

"Do you think she ought not to have accepted him without asking you
first, darling?" she said. "I suppose she does ask your permission."

"No, she doesn't. She takes it for granted. She's engaged to him, and
hopes I shall be as happy about it as she is. He's going to write to me.
But there's no letter from him yet."

"I think she ought to have asked your permission. But I suppose when
that sort of thing comes to you suddenly - - "

"_He_ ought certainly to have asked my permission," he interrupted her.

"Oh, but darling! You hardly expect that in these days, do you? He's
seen her everywhere; he's been invited here. It would be enough,
wouldn't it? - if he writes to you at once. Francis didn't ask you before
he asked me; and you didn't mind."

"Francis is an Englishman. This fellow's a Frenchman. Things aren't done
in that way in France."

'This fellow!' She didn't understand his obvious hostility. Did he know
anything against Lassigny. If so, surely he must have found it out quite
lately.

"Why do you object to the idea so much, darling? I think he's nice."

"Oh, nice!" he echoed. "I told you the other day that I should hate the
idea of one of you marrying a foreigner."

He had told her that, and she had replied that Lassigny hardly seemed
like a foreigner. It was no good saying it again. She wanted to soothe
him, and to help him if she could.

"What shall you do?" she asked.

"I'm going to wire to her to come home at once - send a wire now."

He turned aside on to the grass, and then cantered down to the gate.
Caroline would have wished to discuss it further before he took the step


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