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come down to about a hundred and thirty a year. No man without private
means - considerable private means - could possibly afford to take it. And
those men are getting scarcer and scarcer. After me, I don't know what
will happen at Abington."

The village of Abington consisted mainly of one broad street lined on
either side with red brick houses, cottages and little shops. The
Vicarage was a good-sized Georgian house which abutted right on to the
pavement, and had cottages built against it on one side and its own
stable-yard on the other. The Vicar was often inclined to complain of
its consequent lack of privacy, but the fact that its front windows
provided an uninterrupted view of the village street, and what went on
there, went a good way towards softening the deprivation. For he liked
to know what his flock were doing. He took a good deal of responsibility
for their actions.

One of the front rooms downstairs was the study. The Vicar's
writing-table was arranged sideways to the window, so that he could get
the light coming from the left while he was writing. If he looked up he
had a good view right down the village street, which took a very slight
turn when the Vicarage was passed. Another reason he had for placing his
table in this position was that it was a good thing for his
parishioners to see him at work. "The idea that a clergyman's life is an
easy one," he would say to any one who might show a tendency to advance
or even to hold that opinion, "is quite wrong. His work is never ended,
either within or without. I myself spend many hours a day at my desk,
but all that the public sees of what I do there is represented by an
hour or two in church during the week."

An irrepressible nephew of his wife engaged in London journalism, to
whom this had once been said during a week-end visit, had replied: "Do
you mean to say, Uncle, that the sermon you preached this morning took
you hours to write up? I could have knocked it off in half an hour, and
then I should have had most of it blue-pencilled."

That irreverent young man had not been asked to the house again, but it
had been explained to him that sermon-writing was not the chief labour
of a parish priest. He had a great deal of correspondence to get
through, and he had to keep himself up in contemporary thought. The
Vicar, indeed, did most of his reading sitting at his table, with his
head propped on his hand. Few people could beat him in his knowledge of
contemporary thought as infused through the brains of such writers as
Mr. Philips Oppenheim, Mr. Charles Garvice, and Mr. William le Queux.
Women writers he did not care for, but he made an exception in favour of
Mrs. Florence Barclay, whose works he judged to contain the right
proportions of strength and feeling. It must not be supposed that he
was at all ashamed of his novel-reading, as some foolish people are. He
was not ashamed of anything that he did, and, as for novels, he would
point out that the proper study of mankind was man, and that next to
studying the human race for yourself, it was the best thing to read the
works of those authors who had trained themselves to observe it.
Literature, as such, had nothing to do with it. If you wanted literature
you could not have anything finer than certain parts of the Old
Testament. It was hardly worth while going to modern authors for that.
The more literature there was in a modern novel, the less human nature
you would be likely to find. No; it would generally be found that the
public taste was the right taste in these matters, whatever people who
thought themselves superior might say. He himself claimed no superiority
in such matters. He supposed he had a brain about as good as the
average, but what was good enough for some millions of his
fellow-countrymen was good enough for him. He preferred to leave Mr.
Henry James to others who thought differently.

The "Daily Telegraph" came by the second post, at about twelve o'clock,
and Mrs. Mercer was accustomed to bring it in to her husband, with
whatever letters there were for him or for her. She liked to stay and
chat with him for a time, and sometimes, if there was anything that
invited discussion in her letters, he would encourage her to do so. But
he generally happened to be rather particularly busy at this time, not,
of course, with novel-reading, which was usually left till a later
hour. He would just 'glance through the paper' and then she must really
leave him. They could talk about anything that wanted talking about at
lunch. He would glance through the paper hurriedly and then lay it aside
and return to his writing; but when she had obediently left the room he
would take up the paper again. It was necessary for him to know what was
going on in the world. His wife never took the paper away with her. She
had her own "Daily Mirror," which he despised and sometimes made her
ashamed of reading, but never to the extent of persuading her to give it
up. He was a kind husband, and seldom let a day go by without looking
through it himself, out of sympathy with her.

On this March morning Mrs. Mercer brought in the "Daily Telegraph." It
was all that had come by the post, except circulars, with which she
never troubled him, and her own "Daily Mirror." She rather particularly
wanted to talk to him, as he had come home late the night before from a
day in London, and had not since felt inclined to tell her anything
about it. Whether she would have succeeded or not if she had not come
upon him reading a novel which he had bought the day before is doubtful.
As it was, he did not send her away on the plea of being particularly
busy.

"Ah!" he said, laying the book decidedly aside. "I was just looking
through this. It is so good that I am quite looking forward to reading
it this evening. Well, what's the news with you, my dear?"

Little Mrs. Mercer brightened. She knew his tones; and he was so nice
when he was like this. "It's me that ought to ask what's the news with
you," she said. "You haven't told me anything of what you did or heard
yesterday."

He had been glancing through the paper, but looked up. "There is one
thing I heard that may interest you," he said. "I sat next to a man at
lunch at the Club and got into conversation with him, or rather he with
me, and when it came out that I was Vicar of Abington he said: 'Is that
the Abington in Meadshire?' and when I said yes he said: 'I've had
Abington Abbey on my books for a long time, and I believe I've let it at
last.' He was a House-Agent, a very respectable fellow; the membership
of a club like that is rather mixed, but I should have taken him for a
barrister at least, except that he had seemed anxious to get into
conversation with me."

"It's like that in trams and buses," said Mrs. Mercer. "Anybody who
starts a conversation isn't generally as good as the person they start
it with."

The Vicar let this pass. "He told me," he said, "that a client of
his - he called him a client - who had been looking out for a country
house for some time had taken a fancy to the Abbey, and said that if the
photographs represented it properly, which they generally didn't when
you saw the place itself, and everything else turned out to be as it had
been represented, he thought it would suit him. He should come down and
look at it very soon."

"Who is he?" asked Mrs. Mercer. "Did he tell you?"

"He did not tell me his name. He said he was a gentleman in the City. I
asked the name, but apparently it isn't etiquette for that sort of
people to give it. Every calling, of course, has its own conventions in
such matters. I said we didn't think much of gentlemen in the City in
this part of the world, and I rather hoped his friend would find that
the place did not suit him. Some of us were not particularly rich, but
we were quite content as we were. By that time he had become, as I
thought, a little over-familiar, which is why I said that."

"I think you were quite right, dear. What did he say?"

"Oh, he laughed. He had finished his lunch by that time, and went away
without saying a word. These half-gentlemen always break down in their
manners somewhere."

"Anybody who could buy the Abbey must be pretty rich. It won't be a bad
thing for the parish to have somebody with money in it again."

"No, there is that. Anybody meaner than Mr. Compton-Brett it would be
difficult to imagine. We could hardly be worse off in that respect than
we are at present."

Mr. Compton-Brett was the owner of Abington Abbey, with the acreage
attached thereto, and the advowson that went with it. He was a rich
bachelor, who lived the life of a bookish recluse in chambers in the
Albany. He had inherited Abington from a distant relation, and only
visited it under extreme pressure, about once a year. He refused to let
it, and had also refused many advantageous offers to sell. A buyer must
accept his terms or leave it alone. They included the right of
presentation to the living of Abington at its full actuarial value, and
he would not sell the right separately. Rich men who don't want money
allow themselves these luxuries of decision. It must amuse them in some
way, and they probably need amusement. For a man who can't get it out of
dealing with more money than will provide for his personal needs must be
lacking in imagination.

"I hope they will be nice people to know," said Mrs. Mercer, "and won't
give themselves airs."

"They won't give themselves airs over me twice," replied her husband
loftily. "As a matter of fact, these new rich people who buy country
places are often glad to have somebody to advise them. For all their
money they are apt to make mistakes."

"Are they new people? Did the House-Agent say that?"

"Well, no. But it's more likely than not. 'A gentleman in the City,' he
said. That probably means somebody who has made a lot of money and wants
to blossom out as a gentleman in the country."

Mrs. Mercer laughed at this, as it seemed to be expected of her. "I hope
he _will_ be a gentleman," she said. "I suppose there will be a lady
too, and perhaps a family. It will be rather nice to have somebody
living at the Abbey. We are not too well off for nice neighbours."

"I should think we are about as badly off as anybody can be," said the
Vicar. "There is not a soul in the village itself who is any good to
anybody except, of course, Mrs. Walter and Mollie; and as for the people
round - well, you know yourself that a set of people more difficult to
get on with it would be impossible to find anywhere. I am not a
quarrelsome man. Except where my sacred calling is in question, my motto
is 'Live and let live.' But the people about us here will not do that.
Each one of them seems to want to quarrel. I sincerely hope that these
new people at the Abbey will not want that. If they do, well - - "

"Oh, I hope not," said little Mrs. Mercer hastily. "I do hope we shall
all be good friends, especially if there is a nice family. Whoever buys
the Abbey will be your patron, won't he, dear? Mr. Worthing has often
told us that Mr. Compton-Brett won't sell the property without selling
the patronage of the living."

"Whoever buys the property will have the _future_ right to present to
this living," replied the Vicar. "He will have no more right of
patronage over me than anybody else. If there is likely to be any doubt
about that I shall take an early opportunity of making it plain."

"Oh, I'm sure there won't be," said Mrs. Mercer. "I only meant that he
_would_ be patron of the living; not that he would have any authority
over the present incumbent. Of course, I know he wouldn't have that."

"_You_ know it, my dear, because you are in the way of knowing such
elementary facts. But it is extraordinary what a large number of people
are ignorant of them. A rich self-made City man, with not much education
behind him, perhaps not even a churchman, is just the sort of person to
be ignorant of such things. He is quite likely to think that because he
has bought the right to present to a living he has also bought the right
to domineer over the incumbent. It is what the rich Dissenters do over
their ministers. If this new man is a Dissenter, as he is quite likely
to be if he is anything at all, he will be almost certain to take that
view. Well, as I say, I am a man of peace, but I know where I stand, and
for the sake of my office I shall not budge an inch."

The Vicar breathed heavily. Mrs. Mercer felt vaguely distressed. Her
husband was quite right, of course. There did seem to be a sort of
conspiracy all round them to refuse him the recognition of his claims,
which were only those he felt himself bound to make as a beneficed
priest of the Church of England, and for the honour of the Church
itself. Still, the recognition of such claims had not as yet been
actually denied him from this new-comer, whose very name they did not
yet know. It seemed to be settled that he was self-made, ignorant and in
all probability a Dissenter; but he might be quite nice all the same,
and his family still nicer. It seemed a pity to look for trouble before
it came. They hadn't, as it was admitted between them, too many friends,
and she did like to have friends. Even among the people round them whom
it was awkward to meet in the road there were some whom she would have
been quite glad to be on friendly terms with again, in spite of the way
they had behaved to her husband.

She was preparing to say in an encouraging manner something to the
effect that people were generally nicer than they appeared to be at
first sight. Her husband would almost certainly have replied that the
exact contrary was the case, and brought forward instances known to them
both to prove it. So it was just as well that there was a diversion at
this moment. It took the form of a large opulent-looking motor-car,
which was passing slowly down the village street, driven by a
smart-looking uniformed chauffeur, while a middle-aged man and a young
girl sat behind and looked about them; enquiringly on either side. They
were George Grafton and Caroline, who supposed that they had reached the
village of Abington by this time, but were as yet uncertain of the
whereabouts of the Abbey. At that moment a question was being put by the
chauffeur to one of the Vicar's parishioners on the pavement. He replied
to it with a pointing finger, and the car slid off at a faster pace down
the street.

"That must be them!" said Mrs. Mercer in some excitement. "They do look
nice, Albert - quite gentle-people, I must say."

The Vicar had also gathered that it must be 'them,' and was as
favourably impressed by their appearance as his wife. But it was not his
way to take any opinion from her, or even to appear to do so. "If it is
our gentleman from the City," he said, "he would certainly be rich
enough to make that sort of appearance. But I should think it is very
unlikely. However, I shall probably find out if it is he, as I must go
up to the church. I'll tell you when I come back."

She did not ask if she might go with him, although she must have known
well enough that his visit to the church had been decided on, on the
spur of the moment, so that he might get just that opportunity for
investigation of which she herself would frankly have acknowledged she
was desirous. He would have rebuked her for her prying disposition, and
declined her company.

He went out at once, and she watched him walk quickly down the village
street, his head and body held very stiff - a pompous man, a
self-indulgent man, an ignorant self-satisfied man, but her lord and
master, and with some qualities, mostly hidden from others, which caused
her to admire him.




CHAPTER III

THE FIRST VISIT


The Vicar was in luck, if what he really wanted was an opportunity of
introducing himself to the new-comers. At the end of the village the
high stone wall which enclosed the park of the Abbey began, and curved
away to the right. The entrance was by a pair of fine iron gates flanked
by an ancient stone lodge. A little further on was a gate in the wall,
which led to a path running across the park to the church. When he came
in view of the entrance the car was standing in front of the gates, and
its occupants were just alighting from it to make their way to the
smaller gate.

The Vicar hurried up to them and took off his hat. "Are you trying to
get in to the Abbey?" he said. "The people of the lodge ought to be
there to open the gates."

Grafton turned to him with his pleasant smile. "There doesn't seem to be
anybody there," he said. "We thought we'd go in by this gate, and my man
could go and see if he could get the keys of the house. We want to look
over it."

"But the lodge-keeper certainly ought to be there," said the Vicar, and
hurried back to the larger gate, at which he lifted up his voice in
accents of command. "Mrs. Roeband!" he called, "Mrs. Roeband! Roeband!!
Where are you all? I'm afraid they must be out, sir."

"Yes, I'm afraid they must," said Grafton. "But please don't bother
about it. Perhaps you could tell my man where to get the keys."

"They ought not to leave the place like this," said the Vicar in an
annoyed voice. "It's quite wrong; quite wrong. I must find out the
reason for it. I think the best way, sir, would be for your man to go to
the Estate Office. I'll tell him."

He gave directions to the chauffeur, while Grafton and Caroline stood
by, stealing a glance at one another as some slight failure on the
chauffeur's part to understand him caused the Vicar's voice to be raised
impatiently.

It was a sweet and mild March day, but the long fast drive had chilled
them both in spite of their furs. Caroline's pretty face looked almost
that of a child with its fresh colour, but her long fur coat, very
expensive even to the eye of the uninitiated, and the veil she wore,
made the Vicar take her for the young wife of the 'gentleman from the
City,' as he turned again towards them, especially as she had slipped
her arm into her father's as they stood waiting, and was evidently much
attached to him. Grafton himself looked younger than his years, with his
skin freshened by the cold and his silver hair hidden under his cap. "A
newly married couple," thought the Vicar, now ready to put himself at
their service and do the honours of the place that they had come to see.

"It isn't far to walk to the Abbey," he said. "You will save time. I
will show you the way."

He led them through the gate, and they found themselves in a beechy
glade, with great trees rising on either side of the hollow, and a
little herd of deer grazing not far from the path.

Caroline exclaimed in delight. "Oh, how topping!" she said. "You didn't
tell me there were deer, Dad."

"Oh, father and daughter!" the Vicar corrected himself. "I wonder where
the wife is!"

"I had better introduce myself," he said affably, as they walked through
the glade together. "Salisbury Mercer my name is. I'm the Vicar of the
parish, as I dare say you have gathered. We have been without a resident
Squire here for some years. Naturally a great deal of responsibility
rests upon me, some of which I shouldn't be altogether sorry to be
relieved of. I hope you are thinking of acquiring the place, sir, and if
you are that it will suit you. I should be very glad to see the Abbey
occupied again."

"Well, it seems as if it might be the place for us," said Grafton.
"We're going to have a good look at it anyhow. How long has it been
empty?"

"Mr. Compton-Brett inherited it about six years ago. He comes down
occasionally, but generally shuts himself up when he does. He isn't much
use to anybody. An old couple lived here before him - his cousins. They
weren't much use to anybody either - very cantankerous both of them.
Although the old man had presented me to the living - on the advice of
the bishop - a year before he died, he set himself against me in every
way here, and actually refused to see me when he was dying. The old lady
was a little more amenable afterwards, and I was with her at the
last - she died within six months. But you see I have not been very
fortunate here so far. That is why I am anxious that the right sort of
people should have the place. A clergyman's work is difficult enough
without having complications of that sort added to it."

"Well, I hope we shall be the right sort of people if we do come," said
Grafton genially. "You'll like going about visiting the poor, won't you,
Cara?"

"I don't know," said Caroline. "I've never tried it."

The Vicar looked at her critically. He did not quite like her tone; and
so young a girl as she now showed herself to be should not have been
looking away from him with an air almost of boredom. But she was a
'lady'; that was quite evident to him. She walked with her long coat
thrown open, showing her beautifully cut tweed coat and skirt and her
neat country boots - country boots from Bond Street, or thereabouts. A
very well-dressed, very pretty girl - really a remarkably pretty girl
when you came to look at her, though off-hand in her manners and no
doubt rather spoilt. The Vicar had an eye for a pretty girl - as the
shape of his mouth and chin might have indicated to an acute observer.
Perhaps it might be worth while to make himself pleasant to this one.
The hard lot of vicars is sometimes alleviated by the devotion of the
younger female members of their flock, in whom they can take an
affectionate and fatherly, or at least avuncular, interest.

"There isn't much actual visiting of the poor as poor in a parish like
this," he said. "It isn't like a district in London. But I'm sure a lot
of the cottagers will like to see you when you get to know them." He had
thought of adding 'my dear,' but cut it out of his address as Caroline
turned her clear uninterested gaze upon them.

"Oh, of course I shall hope to get to know some of them as friends," she
said, "if we come here. Oh, look, Dad. Isn't it ripping?"

The wide two-storied front of the house stood revealed to them at the
end of another vista among the beeches. It stood on a level piece of
ground with the church just across the road which ran past it. The
churchyard was surrounded by a low stone wall, and the grass of the park
came right up to it. The front of the house was regular, with a fine
doorway in the middle, and either end slightly advanced. But on the
nearer side a long line of ancient irregular buildings ran back and
covered more ground than the front itself. They were faced by a lawn
contained within a sunk fence. The main road through the park ran along
one side of it, and along the other was a road leading to stables and
back premises. This lawn was of considerable size, but had no garden
decoration except an ancient sun-dial. It made a beautiful setting for
the little old stone and red-brick and red-tiled buildings which seemed
to have been strung out with no design, and yet made a perfect and
entrancing whole. Tall trees, amongst which showed the sombre tones of
deodars and yews, rising above and behind the roofs and chimneys, showed
the gardens to be on the other side of the house.

"Perhaps you would like to look at the church first," said the Vicar,
"while the keys are being fetched. It is well worth seeing. We are proud
of our church here. And if I may say so it will be a great convenience
to you to have it so close."

Caroline was all eagerness to see what there was to be seen of this
entrancing house, even before the keys came. She didn't in the least
want to spend time over the church at this stage. Nor did her father.
But this Vicar seemed to have taken possession of them. They both began
to wonder how, if ever, they were to shake him off, and intimated the
same by mutual glances as he unlocked the door of the church, explaining
that he did not keep it open while the house was empty, as it was so far
from everywhere, but that he should be pleased to do so when the Abbey
was once more occupied. He was quite at his ease now, and rather
enjoying himself. The amenity which the two of them had shown in
following him into the church inclined him to the belief that they would
be easy to get on with and to direct in the paths that lay within his
domain. He had dropped his preformed ideas of them. They were not
'new,' nor half-educated, and obviously they couldn't be Dissenters. But
Londoners they had been announced to be, and he still took it for
granted that they would want a good deal of shepherding. Well, that was
what he was there for, and it would be quite a pleasant task, with
people obviously so well endowed with this world's goods, and able to
give something in return that would redound to the dignity of the


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