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been no self-abasement of that sort in Beatrix's lover. He had claimed
her triumphantly, as he had claimed and enjoyed other loves. She was one
of a series, different from the others insomuch as the time had come for
him to settle down, as the phrase went, and it was more agreeable to
make a start at that postponed process with love as part of the
propulsion than without it. It was not even certain that she would be
the last of the series. In her father's view it was almost certain that
she wouldn't.

She did not see all of this, by any means, as she rode reflectively
homewards. Her knowledge and experience included perhaps a very small
part of it as conscious reflection, and there was no ordered sequence of
thought or discovery in the workings of her girl's mind. Some
progression, however, there was, in little spurts of feeling and
enlightenment. She was more doubtful of her lover, more doubtful of the
strength of her own attachment to him, more inclined to return to her
loving allegiance to her father, whatever the future should hold for
her.

This last impulse of affection was the most significant outcome of all
her aroused sensibilities. She would not at any time have acknowledged
that he had been right and she had been wrong. But she felt the channel
of her love for him cleared of obstruction. It flowed towards him. It
would be good to give it expression, and gain in return the old happy
signs of his tenderness and devotion towards her. She wanted to see him
at once, and behave to him as his spoilt loving child, and rather hoped
that the fortunes of the chase would bring him home before the rest, so
that she might have a cosy companionable little time with him alone.

In the afternoon, as the short winter day began to draw in, having read
and lightly slept, her young blood roused her to activity again. She
would go and see Mollie, and persuade her to come back to tea with her,
so that they could talk confidentially together. Or if she had to stay
to tea at Stone Cottage, because of Mrs. Walter, perhaps Mollie would
come back with her afterwards.

She put on her coat and hat, and went out as the dusk was falling over
the quiet spaces of the park. As she neared the gates she heard the trot
of a horse on the road outside, and wondered if it was her father who
was coming home. She had forgotten her wish that he would do so, as it
had seemed so little likely of fulfilment, but made up her mind to go
back with him if it should happily be he.

It was a man, who passed the gates at a sharp trot, not turning his head
to look inside them. The light was not too far gone for her to
recognise, with a start of surprise, the horsemanlike figure of Bertie
Pemberton, whom she had imagined many miles away. The hunt had set
directly away from Abington, and was not likely to have worked back so
far in this direction. Nor could Abington conceivably be on Bertie's
homeward road, even supposing him so far to have departed from his usual
habits as to have taken it before the end of the day. What was he doing
here?

She thought she knew, and walked on down the road to the village at a
slightly faster pace, with a keen sense of pleasure and excitement at
her breast. She saw him come out of the stable of the inn, on foot, and
walk up the village street at the head of which stood Stone Cottage, at
a pace faster than her own.

Then she turned and went back, smiling to herself, but a little
melancholy too. She was not so happy as Mollie was likely to be in a
very short time.




CHAPTER XXIII

BERTIE AND MOLLIE


The Vicar and Mrs. Mercer were drinking tea with Mrs. Walter and Mollie.
There had been a revival of late of the old intercourse between the
Vicarage and Stone Cottage. Mollie had been very careful. After that
conversation with her mother recorded a few chapters back, she had
resolutely made up her mind that no call from outside should lure her
away from her home whenever her mother would be likely to want her. With
her generous young mind afire with tenderness and gratitude for all the
love that had been given to her, for the years of hard and anxious toil
that had gone to the making of this little home, in which at last she
could make some return for her mother's devotion, she had set herself to
put her above everything, and had never flinched from sacrificing her
youthful desires to that end, while taking the utmost pains to hide the
fact that there was any sacrifice at all. She had had her reward in the
knowledge that her mother was happier than she had ever been since her
widowhood, with an increased confidence in the security she had worked
so hard to gain, and even some improvement in health. The poor woman,
crushed more by the hard weight of difficult years than by any definite
ailment, had seen her hold on her child loosening, and the friendship
that had been so much to her becoming a source of strife and worry
instead of refreshment. It had been easier to suffer under the thought
of what should be coming to her than to make headway against it. She had
no vital force left for further struggle, and to rise and take up the
little duties of her day had often been too much for her while she had
been under the weight of her fear. That fear was now removed, and a
sense of safety and contentment had taken its place. She had been more
active and capable during this early winter than at any such period
since she had gained her freedom.

Part of Mollie's deeply considered duty had been to recreate the
intimacy with the Vicar and Mrs. Mercer, and by this time there had come
to be no doubt that they occupied first place again in her attentions.
Even Beatrix had had to give way to them, but had found Mollie so keenly
delighted in her society when she did enjoy it, that, divining something
of what was behind it all, she had made no difficulties, except to chaff
her occasionally about her renewed devotion to Lord Salisbury.

Mollie never let fall a hint of the aversion she had conceived for the
man, which seemed to have come to her suddenly, and for no reason that
she wanted to examine. Some change in her attitude towards him he must
have felt, for he showed slight resentments and caprices in his towards
her; but Mrs. Mercer exulted openly in the return of her allegiance, and
if he was not satisfied that it had extended to himself he had no
grounds on which to express complaint. There was no doubt, at least,
that Mollie was more at the disposal of himself and his wife than she
had been at any time since the Graftons had come to the Abbey, and he
put it down as the result of his wife's visit to Mrs. Walter, which he
had instigated if not actually directed. So he accepted the renewal of
intimacy with not too bad a face, and neither Mrs. Walter nor Mrs.
Mercer conceived it to be less complete between all of them than it had
been before.

The Vicar had a grievance on this winter afternoon, which he was
exploiting over the tea-table.

"The least that could be expected," he was saying, "when the Bishop of
the Diocese comes among us is that the clergy of the neighbourhood
should be asked to meet him in a friendly way. Mrs. Carruthers gives a
great deal of hospitality where it suits her, and I hear that the whole
Grafton family has been invited to dinner at Surley Park to-morrow, as
of course was to be expected. They have made a dead set at the lady and
she at them, and I suppose none of her parties would be complete without
a Grafton to grace it, though it's difficult to see what pleasure she
can expect the Bishop to take in meeting a young girl like Barbara, or a
mere child like the boy."

"Oh, but elderly men do like to have young things about them, Albert,"
said Mrs. Mercer; "and as this is a purely private family party I dare
say Mrs. Carruthers thought that his lordship would prefer to meet lay
people rather than the clergy."

The Vicar's mouth shut down, as it always did in company when his wife
made a speech of that sort. She had been a good wife to him - that he
would have been the first to admit - but he never _could_ get her to curb
her tongue, which, as he was accustomed to say, was apt to run away with
her; although he had tried hard, and even prayed about it, as he had
once told her.

"Personally," he said stiffly, "I am unable to draw this distinction
between lay people and clergy, except where the affairs of the church
are concerned, and I must say it strikes me as odd that the wife of a
priest should wish to do so. In ordinary social intercourse I should
have said that a well-educated clergyman, who happened also to be a man
of the world, was about the best company that could be found anywhere.
His thoughts are apt to be on a higher plane than those of other men,
but that need not prevent him shining in the lighter phases of
conversation. I have heard better, and funnier, stories told by
clergymen over the dinner-table than by any other class of human beings,
though never, I am thankful to say, a gross one."

"Oh, yes, dear," said Mrs. Mercer soothingly. "I like funny stories with
a clerical flavour the best of all myself. Do tell Mrs. Walter that one
about the Bishop who asked the man who came to see him to take two
chairs."

"As you have already anticipated the point of the story," said the
Vicar, not mollified, "I think I should prefer to save it for another
occasion. I was over at Surley Rectory yesterday calling on poor old
Mr. Cooper. You have never met him, I think, Mrs. Walter."

"No," she said. "He has been more or less laid up ever since we came
here."

"I am afraid he will never get about again. He seems to me to be on his
last legs, if I may so express myself."

No objection being made to his doing so, he went on. "He has done good
work in his time. He is past it now, poor old man, but in years gone by
he was an example to all - full of energy and good works. I have been
told that before he came to Surley, and held a small living somewhere in
the Midlands, he did not rest until he had raised the endowment by a
hundred pounds a year. That means hard unremitting work, in these days
when the laity is apt to keep its purse closed against the claims of the
church. I always like to give credit where credit is due, and I must say
for old Mr. Cooper that he has deserved well of his generation."

"It is nice to think of his ending his days in peace in that beautiful
place," said Mrs. Walter. "When Mollie and I went to call there in the
summer I thought I had never seen a prettier house and garden of its
size."

"I wish we could have the luck to get the living when old Mr. Cooper
does go," said Mrs. Mercer artlessly. "I don't want the old gentleman to
die yet awhile, naturally, but he can't be expected to hold out very
much longer; he is eighty-four and getting weaker every day. _Somebody_
must be appointed after him, and I think myself it ought to be an
incumbent of the diocese who has borne the heat and burden of the day in
a poorly endowed living."

She was only repeating her husband's oft-spoken words, being ready to
take his view in all matters, and using his methods of expression as
being more suitable than her own. But he was not pleased with the
implied compliment. "I wish you wouldn't talk in that way, Gertrude," he
said, in an annoyed voice. "Before such friends as Mrs. Walter and
Mollie it may do no harm, but if such a thing were said outside it would
look as if I had given rise to the wish myself, which is the last thing
I should like to be said. If it so befalls me I shall be content to go
on working here where Providence has placed me till the end of the
chapter, with no other reward but the approval of my own conscience, and
perhaps the knowledge that some few people are the better and worthier
for the work I have spent a great part of my life in doing amongst them.
At the same time I should not refuse to take such a reward as Surley
would be if it were offered to me freely, and it were understood that it
_was_ a reward for work honestly done through a considerable period of
years. I would not take it under any other conditions, and as for doing
anything to solicit it, it would be to contradict everything that I have
always stood for."

"Oh, yes, dear," said Mrs. Mercer. "But it wouldn't have done any harm
just to have met the Bishop in a friendly way at Surley itself. It might
have sort of connected you with the place in his mind. I wish we had
been able to keep friends with Mrs. Carruthers, or that Rhoda and Ethel
had accepted your offer to preach to-morrow afternoon."

Really, although a devoted helpmate, both in purse and person, this
woman was a trial. His face darkened so at her speech that Mrs. Walter
struck in hurriedly so as to draw the lightning from the tactless
speaker. "The Miss Coopers were hoping the last time they were over here
that their brother might be appointed to succeed their father," was her
not very sedative effort.

But the lightning was drawn. The lowered brows were bent upon her. "I
think it is quite extraordinary," said the Vicar, "that those girls
should give themselves away as they do. Really, in these matters there
are decencies to be observed. A generation or two ago, perhaps, it was
not considered wrong to look upon an incumbency as merely providing an
income and a house, just as any secular post might. You get it in the
works of Anthony Trollope, a tedious long-winded writer, but valuable as
giving a picture of his time. But with the growth of true religion and a
more self-devoted spirit on the part of the clergy it is almost
approaching the sin of simony to talk about an incumbency in the way
those girls do so freely."

"They only said that their brother was very much liked by everybody in
the parish," said Mollie, who had seen her mother wince at the attack.
"They said if the Bishop knew how suitable he really was, he might look
over his youth, and appoint him."

The brows were turned upon Mollie, who was given to understand that such
matters as these were beyond her understanding, and that no Bishop who
valued his reputation could afford to make such an appointment.

Mollie sat silent under the lecture, thinking of other things. It was
enough for her that it was not addressed directly to her mother.
Something in her attitude, that may have betrayed the complete
indifference towards his views which she had thought her submissively
downcast eyes were hiding, must have stung him, for his tone hardened
against her, and when he had finished with the question of Surley
Rectory, his next speech seemed directed at her, with an intention none
of the kindest.

"I'm told that Mrs. Carruthers was seen driving the Bishop over to the
meet at Grays this morning," he said. "Of course there would be one or
two people there whom he might be glad to meet, but he will have a queer
idea of our part of the world if he takes it from people like those
noisy Pembertons."

Mollie could not prevent a deep blush spreading over her face at this
sudden unexpected introduction of the name. She knew that he must notice
it, and blushed all the deeper. How she hated him at that moment, and
how she blessed his little wife for jumping in with her "Oh, Albert! Not
vulgar, only noisy. And it's all good nature and high spirits. You said
so yourself after we had dined there in the summer."

"I think we had better not discuss our neighbours," said Mrs. Walter,
almost quivering at her own daring. "The Pembertons have shown
themselves very kind and friendly towards us, and personally I like them
all."

"So do I," said Mollie, rallying to her mother's side. "Especially the
girls. I think they're as kind as any girls I've ever met."

The temper of the official upholder of righteousness was of the kind
described by children's nurses as nasty. Otherwise he would hardly have
fixed a baleful eye upon Mollie, and said: "Are you sure it's the girls
you like best?"

It was at that moment that Bertie Pemberton was announced, his heralding
ring at the bell having passed unnoticed.

He told Mollie afterwards that he had noticed nothing odd, having been
much worked up in spirit himself, and being also taken aback at finding
the room full of outsiders, as he expressed it, instead of only Mollie
and her mother.

Mrs. Walter, under the combined stress of the Vicar's speech and
Bertie's appearance, was near collapse. When she had shaken hands with
him she leant back in her chair with a face so white that Mollie cried
out in alarm, and going to her was saved from the almost unbearable
confusion that would otherwise have been hers. Mrs. Walter rallied
herself, smiled and said there was nothing the matter with her but a
sudden faintness which had passed off. She wanted to control the
situation, and made the strongest possible mental call upon herself to
do so. But her strength was not equal to the task, and, although she
protested, she had to allow herself to be led from the room by Mollie
and Mrs. Mercer. She was able, however, to shake hands with Bertie and
tell him that Mollie should be down in a minute to give him his tea.

He and the Vicar were left alone. The young man was greatly concerned at
Mrs. Walter's sudden attack, which, however, he did not connect with his
own arrival, and gave vent to many expressions of concern, of the nature
of "Oh, I say!" "It's too bad, you know." "Poor lady! She did look bad,
and no mistake!"

The Vicar, actually responsible for Mrs. Walter's collapse, and knowing
it, yet felt his anger rising hot and uncontrollable against the
intruder. His simple expressions of concern irritated him beyond
bearing. He had just enough hold over himself not to break out, but
said, in his most Oxford of voices: "Don't you think, sir, that as
there's trouble in the house you would be better out of it?"

Bertie paused in his perambulation of the little room, and stared at
him. Hostility was plainly to be seen in the way in which he met the
look, and he said further: "In any case Mrs. Walter won't be able to
come down, and my wife and I will have to be going in a few minutes. You
can hardly expect Miss Walter to come and sit and talk alone with you
while her mother is ill upstairs."

The Vicar's indefensible attack upon Mollie for her indelicacy in
making friends with a young man not acceptable to himself had been
hidden from Bertie, but some hint of his attitude had presented itself
to him, perhaps by way of his sisters. He had given it no attention,
esteeming it of no importance what a man so outside his own beat should
be thinking of him. But here he was faced unmistakably with strong and
unfriendly opposition, and it had to be met.

Bertie had been at Oxford himself, but had not acquired the 'manner,'
whether as a weapon of claimed superiority or of offence. He said, quite
directly, "What has it got to do with you whether I go or stay? You
heard what Mrs. Walter said?"

"It has this to do with me, sir," said the Vicar, beginning to lose hold
over himself, and exhibiting through his habitually clipped speech
traces of a long since sacrificed Cockney accent, "that I am the man to
whom these ladies look for help and advice in their unprotected lives.
I'm not going to see them at the mercy of any young gentleman who pushes
himself in, it's plain enough to see why, and gets them talked about."

"Gets who talked about and by who?" asked Bertie, innocent of
grammatical niceties, but temperamentally quick to seize a salient
point.

His firm attitude and direct gaze, slightly contemptuous, and showing
him completely master of himself in face of a temper roused to
boiling-point, added fuel to keep that temper boiling, though it was
accompanied now with trembling of voice and hands, as weakness showed
itself to be at its source, and no justified strength of passion.

"Your attentions to Miss Walter have been remarked upon by everybody,
sir," continued the furious man. "They are dishonouring to her, and are
not wanted, sir. My advice to you is to keep away from the young lady,
and not get her talked about. It does her no good to have her name
connected with yours. And I won't have her persecuted. _I_ won't have
it, I say. Do you hear that?"

"Oh, I hear it all right," said Bertie. "They'll hear it upstairs too if
you can't put the curb on yourself a bit. What I ask you is what you've
got to do with it. You heard what Mrs. Walter said. That's enough for
me, and it'll have to be enough for you. All the rest is pure impudence,
and I'm going to take no notice of it."

He sat down in a low chair, with his legs stretched out in front of him.
This attitude was owing to the tightness of his buckskins at the knee,
but it appeared to the Vicar as a deliberate and insulting expression of
contempt.

"How dare you behave like that to me, sir?" he cried. "Are you aware
that I am a minister of religion?"

"You don't behave much like one," returned Bertie. "I think you've gone
off your head. Anyhow, I'm not going to carry on a brawl with you in
somebody else's house. I shall be quite ready to come and have it out
with you whenever you like when I leave here - in your vestry, if you
like."

"Your manners and speech are detestable, sir," said the Vicar. "You're
not fit to come into the house of ladies like these, and if you don't
leave it at once - I shall - I shall - - "

"You'll what?" asked Bertie. "Put me out? I don't think you could. What
I should suggest is that you clear out yourself. You're not in a fit
state to be in a lady's drawing-room."

His own anger was rising every moment, but in spite of some deficiencies
in brain power he had fairly sound control over the brains he did
possess, and they told him that, with two angry men confronted, the one
who shows his anger least has an unspeakable advantage over the other.

He was not proof, however, against the next speech hurled at him.

"You are compromising Miss Walter by coming here. If you don't leave off
persecuting that young lady with your odious and unwelcome attentions, I
shall tell her so plainly, and leave it to her to choose between you and
me."

Bertie sprang up. "That's too much," he said, his hands clenched and his
eyes blazing. "How dare you talk about my compromising her? And choose
between me and you! What the devil do you mean by that?"

The Vicar would have found it hard to explain a speech goaded by his
furious annoyance, and what lay behind it. But he was spared the
trouble. Mollie came into the room, to see the two men facing one
another as if they would be at fisticuffs the next moment. She and Mrs.
Mercer coming downstairs had heard the raised voices, and Mrs. Mercer,
frightened, had incontinently fled. She had heard such tones from her
lord and master before, and knew that she, unfortunately, could do
nothing to calm them. Mollie hardly noticed her flustered apology for
flight, but without a moment's hesitation went into the room and shut
the door behind her.

Bertie was himself in a moment. This was to be his mate; he knew it for
certain at that instant, by the way she held her head and looked
directly at him as she came into the room. The sudden joy of her
presence made the red-faced spluttering man in front of him of no
account, and anger against him not worth holding. Only she must be
guarded against annoyance, of all sorts and for ever.

He took a step towards her and asked after her mother. If the Vicar had
been master enough of himself to be able to take the same natural line,
the situation could have been retrieved and he have got out of it with
some remains of dignity. It was his only chance, and he failed to take
it.

"Mollie," he said, in the dictatorial voice that he habitually used
towards those whom he conceived to owe him deference, and had used not
infrequently to her in the days when he had represented protective
authority to her, "I have told this young man that it isn't fitting
that he should be alone here with you, while your mother is ill. She
will want you. Besides that, he has acted with gross rudeness towards
me. Will you please tell him to go? and I will speak to you afterwards."

Bertie gave her no time to reply. He laughed at the absurd threat with
which the speech had ended, and said: "Mr. Mercer seems to think he has
some sort of authority over you, Mollie. It's what I came here to ask
you for myself. If you'll give it me, my dear, I'll ask him to go, and
it will be me that will speak to you afterwards."

It was one of the queerest proposals that a girl had ever had, but
confidence had come to him, and the assurance that she was his already.
The bliss of capitulation might be postponed for a time. The important


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