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make trouble on her own account. She's nice."

"She _is_ nice, isn't she? All of you think so, don't you?"

"Yes, we like her. If it weren't for her horrid husband we should like
her very much. Unfortunately you can't divide them. She's too much under
his thumb."

"I don't think I should put it quite like that," said Mollie
hesitatingly.

"No, I know you wouldn't," said Beatrix quickly. "And that's why you can
never get it quite straight. He _is_ horrid, and he's horrid in nothing
more than the way he treats you."

"He has always been very kind to me - to me and mother too. _Really_
kind, I mean, up till a little time ago, before you came - and I don't
want to forget it."

"Yes, kind, I suppose, in the way he'd have liked to be kind to us. If
he had had his way we should have been bosom friends, and he'd have
half-lived in the house."

"We hadn't anything to give him in return, as you would have had. It
wasn't for that he was kind to us."

"My dear child, you know he's horrid - with girls. It was quite enough
that you were a pretty girl."

"But he wasn't like that with me, B. I should have known it if he had
been."

"No, you wouldn't, my dear. Vera Beckley never knew it till he tried to
kiss her."

Mollie flinched a little at this directness. "Don't you think she may
have made too much fuss about that?" she said. "He's years and years
older than she is - old enough to be her father."

"Yes, of course, that's always the excuse. Moll darling, you haven't
lived enough in the world. You don't know men. Besides Vera didn't make
a fuss. Her people did, because they happened to catch him at it. It
must have been a glorious occasion. I wish I'd been there. She only told
us about it in strict confidence, and with the idea of opening _your_
eyes."

"I still think she needn't have thought so much of it; and Mrs. Beckley
needn't have, either. Anyhow, he has never kissed me. I don't think I
should have thought anything of it if he had."

"I don't suppose you would. That's what they rely on - men like
that - horrid old men. And you came here just after that had happened
with Vera. Naturally he'd be a bit careful."

"I think you're rather horrid about it, yourself, B. I certainly have
been angry the way he has behaved since, but I can't see that _that_
comes in, and I don't believe it does."

"Well, I'm quite sure it does. But what do you think he has sent Mrs.
Mercer here about?"

Mollie hesitated for a moment. "Mrs. Mercer has been talking lately,"
she said, "as if I had quite given them up since you came. You
know - little bits stuck in every now and then, when she's talking about
something else. 'Oh, of course, we can't expect to see much of you now,
Mollie.' All that sort of thing. It makes me uncomfortable. And she
wasn't like it at first. She was so pleased that I had made friends with
you."

"He has talked her over to it. That's what I meant when I said she was
under his thumb. Do you think he has sent her here then to complain to
your mother?"

"I think she is talking me over with mother."

"But Mrs. Walter was angry when _he_ interfered, wasn't she?"

"Oh, yes, she was. But she has made excuses for him since. He ought not
to have said what he did. But he meant well."

"I think it was disgusting, what he said; perfectly outrageous. And I
don't think he meant well either. It's all part of what I tell you. He
hates anybody having anything to do with you but himself." She changed
her tone. "Moll darling," she said coaxingly, "you might tell me about
it. I've told you everything about myself."

Mollie took up her work, and kept her eyes fixed upon it. "Tell you
about what," she asked. "I _am_ telling you everything."

"You do like him, don't you? It's quite plain he likes you."

"What, the Vicar?"

Beatrix laughed, on a thrushlike note of enjoyment. "You know I don't
mean the Vicar," she said. "What happens when you and he go off from the
tennis lawn together?"

"Oh, you mean Bertie Pemberton," said Mollie, enlightened, but still
keeping her eyes on her work. "They are going to give me some plants for
the garden, and we have been choosing them. He knows a lot about
flowers."

Beatrix laughed again. "Do you like him, Mollie?" she asked.

"Yes, of course I do," said Mollie. "But don't be silly about it, B.
Can't a girl like a man without - without - - You're just like what you
complain about in the Vicar, and think so horrid in him."

"No, I'm not, my dear. The Vicar takes it for granted that he means
nothing except just to amuse himself with a pretty girl. I don't think
that at all. I know the signs. I've seen more of the world, and of men,
than you have, Mollie. I know by the way he looks at you, and by the way
he talks about you."

Mollie's face, which she never once raised, was pink. "It's very kind of
him to interest himself in me," she said. "What does he say?"

Beatrix laughed again. "You're awfully sweet," she said affectionately.
"He thinks you're so much nicer than all the smart young women in
London. That was one for me, but I didn't show any offence. I said you
were, and as good as gold. That seemed to surprise him rather, and I had
to tell him why I thought so. He wanted to hear all about you. I think
your ears must have burned. He thinks you're awfully _kind_. That was
his great word for you. You know, I think he's awfully nice, Mollie. All
the Pembertons are, when you get down beneath the noise they make. They
love their country life, and all the nice things in it."

Mollie raised her eyes at last. "That's what I do like about him," she
said, speaking steadily, but with the blush still on her cheeks. "I
think I've found out that he really has simple tastes, though I
shouldn't have thought it at first. He goes about a lot in London, but
he doesn't really care about it. He says he makes a good deal of money,
but what is the good of money if you're not living the life you want?"

There was a twinkle in Beatrix's eyes, but she replied gravely: "That's
what he told me. He's had enough of it. He'd like himself much better
living here on his allowance, and only going to London occasionally. I
think if you were to advise him to do that, Mollie, he would."

Mollie took up her work again hastily. "Oh, I couldn't very well advise
him about a thing like that," she said. "I don't know enough about it."

"Hasn't he asked your advice?"

"No, not exactly. He has only just mentioned it, and I said - - "

"What did you say?"

"I said perhaps he would be happier living quietly in the country. I
thought a quiet country life was the nicest of all."

"It wouldn't be very quiet where any of the Pembertons were, but - - "

"Oh, but they only talk so loud because old Mr. Pemberton is so deaf.
They are quite different when you are alone with one of them. Nora has
told me a lot about herself. I like Nora very much, and I'm rather sorry
for her in a way. She seems so independent and satisfied with
everything, but she likes having a girl friend, all the same. Of course
I don't love her as I do you, B; but I do like her, awfully. It's she
who's really my friend at Grays."

"Is it?" said Beatrix, and laughed again, gently.

At that moment Mrs. Mercer was heard coming downstairs. She took her
leave on the same note of hurried aloofness as that on which she had
entered, and immediately afterwards Mrs. Walter knocked on the floor of
her room above in summons of her daughter.

Beatrix kissed Mollie good-bye. "Don't be frightened, darling," she
said. "We can easily get the better of Lord Salisbury between us. Come
to tea this afternoon and tell me all about it."

Mrs. Walter, sitting up in bed with a dressing-jacket on her thin frame,
looked flustered. "I think there is something in what she says, Mollie
dear," she said at once. "I want to talk to you about it."

"I knew she had come to talk about me," said Mollie. "I told Beatrix
so."

"Well, that is one of the things," said her mother. "Aren't you and
Beatrix rather inclined to encourage each other in setting yourself
against - against - - "

"What, against the Vicar, Mother?"

"I didn't mean that. But there's Beatrix certainly setting herself
against her father's wishes, and - - "

"Oh, but Mr. Grafton has given way. She came to tell me so. She is not
to see M. de Lassigny for six months, but after that they are to be
allowed to be engaged."

Mrs. Walter was rather taken aback. "Oh!" she said. "Mrs. Mercer didn't
know that."

"But what has it got to do with Mrs. Mercer, Mother? Or with the
Vicar? - because, of course, it is he who has sent her. You know that the
Graftons don't like the way in which he tries to direct them in their
affairs. I told you that they had told me that. Surely it isn't for him
or Mrs. Mercer to interfere in such a thing as B's engagement - and to
try to do it through me!"

"I don't think they have any idea of interfering, but they do take a
great interest in you, Mollie; and, of course, they were everything to
you before the Graftons came. I can't wonder that they are a little hurt
that you make such a very intimate friend of Beatrix, and that they feel
themselves shut out now. At least - that Mrs. Mercer does. I don't think
it is so much the Vicar. And you are wrong in thinking that he sent her.
She said expressly that she came of her own accord. He didn't even know
that she was coming."

"Oh!" said Mollie. She had a dim idea that he had had a good deal to do
with her coming, all the same, but did not express the doubt, or even
examine it.

"Mollie dear," said Mrs. Walter, with a sudden change of tone. "Is there
anything between you and young Pemberton? I've hoped you would have said
something to me. But you know, dear, it _does_ seem a little as if
everything were for Beatrix Grafton now."

Mollie was stricken to the heart. Her mother's thin anxious face, and
the very plainness which sits heavily upon women who are middle-aged
and tired, when they are without their poor armour of dress, seemed to
her infinitely pathetic. She folded her mother with her warm fresh young
body. "Oh, my darling," she said through her tears. "I love you better
than anybody in the world. I shall never, never forget what you've done
for me and been to me. I've only told you nothing because there's
nothing to tell."

Mrs. Walter cried a little too. She had struggled for so many years to
have her child with her, and it had seemed to her, with the struggle
over, and peace and security settling down upon them both in this little
green-shaded nest of home, that she had at last gained something that
would fill the rest of her days with contentment. 'Some day' Mollie
would marry; but she had never looked so far forward. It had been enough
for her to take the rest and the love and companionship with gratitude
and an always increasing sense of safety and contentment in it. But it
had already become a little sapped. She was glad enough that her child
should have found friends outside, as long as she remained unchanged at
home, but the friction about it had disturbed her in her dreams of
peace, and she wanted to be first with her daughter as long as she
should keep her with her.

Mollie felt something of all of this on her behalf, and it brought a
sense of compunction to her generous young heart. She loved her mother.
It was not a case between them of satisfying the exigencies of a parent
out of a sense of duty. It touched her deeply that her mother should
show her she wanted her, and she responded instantly to the longing.

"If you don't want me to go to Grays any more I won't," she said, and
had no feeling that she was making any renunciation as she said it.

"Well dear," said Mrs. Walter. "I do think it would be better if you
didn't go quite so often. Every time you do go there is always that
feeling that perhaps it would be better not - after what the Vicar said.
I was annoyed about it then, but perhaps after all he saw more clearly
than I did. He shouldn't have supposed, of course, that _you_ were in
any way to blame, and, if he thought that I was, he ought to have said
so quietly to me alone. But perhaps it is true that by being at the beck
and call of people, as you must rather seem to be to outsiders,
considering the difference there is between the Pembertons and
ourselves - - Don't you see what I mean, dear?"

"Yes, Mother," said Mollie submissively. She had a sense of forlornness
as she said it, but put it away from her, sitting by her mother's side
on the bed, with her arm around her shoulders. "I won't go there so
much. I'll never go unless you tell me that you'd like me to. I'm afraid
I've been gadding about rather too much, and neglecting you, darling.
But you know I love to be with you best of all. We're very happy living
here together, aren't we?"

Her tears flowed again, and once more when she left her mother to rest a
little longer. But she busied herself resolutely about the house, and
when a gleam of sun shone through the scudding clouds thought how happy
she was living there with her mother. But she did not feel quite so
happy as she ought to have done. It was as if she had closed for herself
a window in the little cottage, which opened into a still brighter
world.




CHAPTER XX

A MEET AT WILBOROUGH


It was the first day of the Christmas holidays, and a fine hunting
morning, with clouds that showed no immediate threat of rain, and a soft
air that contained an illusive promise of spring. Young George, looking
out of his bedroom window, found life very good. Previous Christmas
holidays had held as their culmination visits to country houses in which
he might, if he were lucky, get two or three days' hunting; but hunting
was to be the staple amusement of these holidays, with a young horse all
his own upon which his thoughts were set with an ardour almost
lover-like. He was to shoot too, with the men. His first gun had been
ordered from his father's gun-maker, and Barbara had told him that it
had already come, and was lying snugly in its baize-lined case of new
leather, with his initials stamped upon it, ready for the family
present-giving on Christmas morning. Furthermore there would be a large
and pleasant party at the Abbey for Christmas, and other parties to
follow, with a ball in the week of New Year. Young George, under the
maturing influence of Jimmy Beckley, had come to think that a grown-up
ball might be rather good fun, especially in one's own house, and with
country neighbours coming to it, most of whom one knew. There would be
other festivities in other country houses, including a play at Feltham
Hall, which Jimmy, who was a youth of infinite parts, had written
himself during the foregoing term. Kate Pemberton, to whom his fancy had
returned on the approach of the hunting season, was to be asked to play
the heroine, with himself as the hero. There were also parts for the
Grafton girls and for Young George, who had kindly been given permission
to write his own up if he could think of anything he fancied himself
saying. The play was frankly a melodrama, and turned upon the tracking
down of a murderer through a series of strange and exciting adventures.
Young George had first been cast for the professional detective - Jimmy,
of course, playing the unprofessional one, who loves the heroine - but,
as no writing up of the part had prevented it being apparent that the
professional detective was essentially a fool, he had changed it for
that of the villain. Young George rather fancied himself as the villain,
who was compounded of striking attitudes, personal bravery and
occasional biographical excursions revealing a career of desperate
crime, to which he had added, with Jimmy's approval, a heart not
altogether untouched by gentler emotions. Maggie Williams was to be his
long-lost little sister, the thought of whom was to come over him when
he was stirred to his blackest crimes, aided by a vision of her face
through transparent gauze at the back of the stage; and she was to
appear to him in person on his deathbed, and give him a chance of a
really effective exit from a troubled and, on the whole, thoroughly
ill-used world. It would be great fun, getting ready for it towards the
end of the holidays, and would agreeably fill in the time that could not
be more thrillingly employed in the open air. He was not sure that he
would even want to go up to London for the few nights' play-going that
had been suggested. There would be quite enough to do at Abington, which
seemed to him about the jolliest place that could be found in England,
which to an incipient John Bull like Young George naturally meant the
world.

The meet was to be at Wilborough. The whole Grafton family turned out
for it. George Grafton had hunted regularly two days a week with the
South Meadshire since the opening of the season, and the three girls had
been almost as regular, though they had all of them been away on visits
for various periods during the autumn. Young George felt proud of his
sisters, as he saw them all mounted. He had not thought that they would
show up so well in circumstances not before familiar. But they all
looked as if horses had been as much part of their environment as they
had been of the Pemberton girls, though in their young grace and beauty,
which neither hats nor habits could disguise, not so much as if it had
been their only environment.

There are few scenes of English country life more familiar than a meet
of hounds, but it can scarcely ever fail to arouse pleasure in
contemplation. It is something so peculiarly English in its high
seriousness over a matter not of essential importance, and its
gathering together of so many who have the opportunities to make what
they will of their lives and choose this ordered and ancient excitement
of the chase as among the best that life can offer them. If the best
that can be said for it in some quarters is that it keeps the idle rich
out of mischief for the time being, it is a good deal to say. The idle
rich can accomplish an enormous amount of mischief, as well as the rich
who are not idle, and perhaps accomplish rather less in England than
elsewhere. For a nation of sportsmen is at least in training for more
serious things than sport, and courage and bodily hardness, some
self-discipline, and readiness to risk life and limb, are attributes
that are not to be gained from every form of pleasure. There was not a
boy or a young man among all those who gathered in front of Wilborough
House on that mild winter morning to enjoy themselves who did not come
up to the great test a few years later. The pleasures, and even the
selfishness, of their lives were all cast behind them without a murmur;
they were ready and more than ready to serve.

But the great war had not yet cast its shadow over the mellowed opulent
English country. Changes were at work all round to affect the life
mirrored in its fair chart of hall and farm, village and market-place,
park and wood and meadow, even without that great catastrophe looming
ahead. But the life still went on, essentially unchanged from centuries
back. From the squire in his hall to the labourer in his cottage, they
were in relation to each other in much the same way as their forefathers
had been, living much the same lives, doing much the same work, taking
much the same pleasures. For the end of these things is not yet.

Wilborough was a great square house of stone, wrapped round by a park
full of noble trees, as most of the parks in that rich corner of
Meadshire were. Its hall door stood widely open, and there was constant
coming and going between the hospitalities within and the activities
without. On the grass of the park and the gravel of the drive stood or
moved the horses which generations of care and knowledge had brought to
the pitch of perfection for the purpose for which they would presently
be employed, and their sleek well-tempered beauty would have gladdened
the eye of one who knew least about them. The huntsman and whips came up
with the hounds - a dappled mob of eager, restless or dogged, free-moving
muscle and intelligence, which also filled the eye. There were
motor-cars, carriages and smart-looking carts, and a little throng of
people of all sorts and conditions. The scene was set, the characters
all on the stage, and there was England, in one of its many enchanting
time-told aspects.

Old Sir Alexander Mansergh, in a well-worn pink coat of old-fashioned
cut, was in front of the house as the party from Abington Abbey rode up.
He was welcoming his guests with a mixture of warmth and ferocity
peculiarly English. He was an old bear, a tyrant, an ignoramus, a
reactionary. But his tenants respected him, and his servants stayed with
him. There was a gleam in his faded old eyes as he greeted the Grafton
family, with the same gruffness as he used towards everybody else. He
liked youth, and beauty, and these girls weren't in the least afraid of
him, and by their frank treatment brought some reflection of the happy
days of his youth into his crusty old mind - of the days when he had not
had to wrap himself up in a mantle of grumpiness as a defence against
the shoulders of the world, which turn from age. He had laughed and
joked with everybody then, and nobody had been afraid of him.

"My son Richard's at home," he said. "Want to introduce him to you
girls. All the nice girls love a sailor, eh?"

This was Sir Alexander's 'technique,' as the Graftons had it. Nice girls
must always be running after somebody, in the world as the old bashaw
saw it. But it did not offend them, though it did not exactly recommend
'my son Richard' to them.

Of the three girls only Barbara accepted Sir Alexander's pressed
invitation to 'come inside.' Caroline and Beatrix, comfortably ensconced
in their saddles, preferred to stay there rather than face the prospect
of mounting again in a crowd. But before the move was made Lady Mansergh
waddled down the house steps accompanied by a young man evidently
in tow, whom she presented to them forthwith, with an air that
made plain her expectation that more would come of it. "My stepson,
Richard - Captain Mansergh," she said, beaming over her broad
countenance. "He knows who all of _you_ are, my dears, for I've never
stopped talking of you since he came home. But in case there's any
mistake, this is Caroline and this is Beatrix and this is Barbara; and
if there's one of them you'll like better than the other, well, upon my
word, I don't know which it is. And this is Mr. Grafton, and Young
George. If Young George was a girl I should say the same of him."

Captain Mansergh was not so affected to awkwardness by this address as
might have been expected, but shook hands cheerfully all round and
produced the necessary introductory remarks with great readiness. He was
not so young on a closer inspection as his trim alert figure had seemed
to indicate. His open rather ugly face was much weathered, but a pair of
keen sailor's eyes looked out of its chiselled roughness, and his
clean-cut mouth showed two rows of strong white teeth. He was taller
than most sailors, but carried his calling about him even in his smart
hunting-kit. He was likeable at first sight, and the Grafton girls liked
him, as he stood and talked to them, in spite of the obvious fact that
they were on exhibition, and that one or other of them was expected to
show more than liking for him at very short notice.

They discussed it frankly enough between themselves later on. "It can't
be me, you know, because I'm already engaged," said Beatrix, "and it
can't be Barbara, because she's too young. So it must be you, Caroline,
and I don't think you could do much better. He's really nice, and he
won't be grumpy and bearish like old Sir Alexander when he gets old.
That's very important. You must look ahead before you're caught. Of
course when you _are_ caught nothing makes any difference. If I thought
René was going to turn into a grump when he gets old I shouldn't mind.
At least I should mind, but I shouldn't want not to marry him. But I
know he won't. I don't think my son Richard will either. He's much too
nice."

"If neither of you want him he might do for me," said Barbara
reflectively. "But I think I'd rather wait for a bit. Dad likes him very
much. But I don't think he wants him for Caroline."

"He doesn't want anybody for any of us," said Caroline. "He wants to
keep us. Most fathers would only be too glad to get one of us off, but
he isn't like that. If he likes him to come here, I'm sure it isn't with
any idea of that sort."

"I'm not so sure," said Barbara oracularly.

Pressed to explain, she advanced the opinion that their father hoped


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