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speech. He became more and more avuncular as the meal progressed, and at
last Barbara, who was sitting next to him, said: "You know, I think we
must call you Uncle Jimmy, if you don't mind. It seems to fit you, and
we do like things that fit, in this family."

He accepted the title with enthusiasm. "I've got nephews and nieces all
over the place," he said. "But the more the merrier. I'm a first-class
uncle, and never forget anybody at Christmas."

They began to discuss people. A trifle of criticism, hardly to be called
malice, crept into the conversation. Miss Waterhouse found it necessary
to say: "Barbara darling, I don't think you should get into the way of
always calling the Vicar Lord Salisbury. You might forget and do it
before somebody who would repeat it to him."

"I think he'd like it," said Caroline. "I'm sure he loves a lord."

Worthing sat and chuckled as an account was given of the visits of the
'Breezy Bills,' and the Misses Cooper, who were given the name of 'the
Zebras,' partly owing to their facial conformation, partly to the
costumes they had appeared in. He brought forward no criticism himself,
and shirked questions that would have led to any on his part, but he
evidently had no objection to it as spicing conversation, and freed
himself from the slight suspicion of being a professional peacemaker.
"He's an old darling," Barbara said of him afterwards. "I really believe
he likes everybody, including Lord Salisbury."

When the two men were left alone together, Worthing said: "You've got
one of the nicest families I ever met, Grafton. They'll liven us up here
like anything. Lord, what a boon it is to have this house opened up
again!"

"They're a cheery lot," said Grafton. "You'll like the boy too, I think.
He'll be home soon now. I suppose there are some people about for them
all to play with. I hardly know anybody in this part of the world."

"There are some of the nicest people you'd meet anywhere," said
Worthing. "They'll all be coming to call directly. Oh, yes, we're very
fortunate in that way. But yours is the only house quite near. It'll
mean a lot to me, I can tell you, to have the Abbey lived in again,
'specially with those nice young people of yours."

"How far off is Wilborough? You go there a lot, don't you?"

"Oh, yes, I do. I look after the place, as you know, and old Sir
Alexander likes to have me pottering about with him. You'll like the old
boy. He's seventy, but he's full of fun. Good man on a horse too, though
he suffers a lot from rheumatism. Wilborough? It's about two miles from
me; about three from here."

"What's Lady Mansergh like? Wasn't she - - "

"Well, yes, she was; but it's a long time ago. Nobody remembers
anything about it. Charming old woman, with a heart of gold."

"Old woman! I thought she was years younger than him, and still kept her
golden hair and all that sort of thing."

"Well, yes, she does. Wouldn't thank you for calling her old, either.
And I don't suppose she's much over fifty. But she's put on flesh. That
sort of women does, you know, when they settle down. Extraordinary how
they take to it all, though. She used to hunt when I first came here.
Rode jolly straight too. And anybody'd think she'd lived in the country
all her life. Well, I suppose she has, the best part of it. Dick must be
twenty-eight or nine, I should think, and Geoffrey about twenty-five.
Nice fellows, both of them."

"Mercer told me, that second time I came down, that they weren't proper
people for the children to know."

A shade crossed Worthing's expansive face. "Of course a parson has
different ideas about things," he said. "She did divorce her first
husband, it's true; but he was a rotter of the worst type. There was
never anything against her. She was before our time, but a fellow told
me that when she was on the stage she was as straight as they make 'em,
though lively and larky. All I can say is that if your girls were mine I
shouldn't object to their knowing her."

"Oh, well, that's enough for me. They probably won't want to be bosom
friends. It would be awkward, though, having people about that one
didn't want to know. According to Mercer, there aren't many people
about here that one _would_ want to know, except a few parsons and their
families. He seems to have a down on the lot of them."

"Well, between you and me," said Worthing confidentially, "I shouldn't
take much notice of what Mercer says, if I were you. He's a nice enough
fellow, but he does seem, somehow, to get at loggerheads with people. I
wouldn't say anything against the chap behind his back, but you'd find
it out for yourself in time. You'll see everybody there is, and you can
judge for yourself."

"Oh, yes, I can do that all right. Let's go and play bridge. The girls
are pretty good at it."




CHAPTER VI

VISITORS


Mrs. Walter and Mollie were at their mid-day Sunday dinner. Stone
Cottage, where they lived, stood at the top of the village street. It
had a fair-sized drawing-room and a little bandbox of a dining-room,
with three bedrooms and an attic, and a garden of about half an acre.
Its rent was under thirty pounds a year, and it was as nice a little
country home as a widow lady with a very small income and her daughter
could wish for.

Mrs. Walter's husband had been a schoolmaster. He was a brilliant
scholar and would certainly have risen high in his profession. But he
had died within two years of their marriage, leaving her almost
unprovided for. She had the income from an insurance policy of a
thousand pounds and he had left the manuscript of a schoolbook, which
was to have been the first of many such. One of his colleagues had
arranged for its publication on terms not as favourable as they should
have been, but it had brought her in something every year, and its sales
had increased until now they produced a respectable yearly sum. For
twenty years she had acted as matron in one of the boarding-houses of
the school at which her husband had been assistant master. It had been a
hard life, and she was a delicate woman, always with the fear before her
of losing her post before she could save enough to live on and keep
Mollie with her. The work, for which she was not well suited, had tried
her, and it was with a feeling of immense relief and thankfulness that
she at last reached the point at which she could give it up, and live
her own quiet life with her daughter. She could not, in fact, have gone
on with it much longer, and kept what indifferent health she had; and
looking back she was inclined to wonder how she had stood it for so
long. Every morning that she woke up in her quiet little cottage brought
a blissful sense of relief at being free from all the stress and worry
of that uncongenial life, and no place she could have found to live in
would have been too quiet and retired for her.

She was a thin colourless woman, with whatever good looks she may have
had in her youth washed out of her by ill-health and an anxious life.
But Mollie was a pretty girl, soft and round and dimpled, and wanting
only encouragement to break into merriment and chatter. She needed a
good deal of encouragement, though. She was shy, and diffident about
herself. Her mother had kept her as retired as possible from the busy
noisy boys' life by which they had been surrounded. The housemaster and
his wife had not been sympathetic to either of them. They were snobs,
and had daughters of their own, not so pretty as Mollie, nor so nice.
There had been slights, which had extended themselves to the day school
at which she had been educated. During the two years before they had
settled down at Abington she had been at a school in Paris, first as a
pupil, then as a teacher. She had gained her French, but not much in the
way of self-confidence. She too was pleased enough to live quietly in
the country; she had had quite enough of living in a crowd. And Abington
had been delightful to them, not only from the pleasure they had from
the pretty cottage, all their own, but from the beauty of the country,
and from the kindness with which they had been received by the Vicar and
Mrs. Mercer, who had given them an intimacy which had not come into
their lives before. For Mrs. Walter had dropped out from among her
husband's friends, and had made no new ones as long as she had remained
at the school.

"You know, dear," Mollie was saying, "I rather dreaded going to the
Abbey. I thought they might be sniffy and stuck up. But they're not a
bit. I do think they are three of the nicest girls I've ever met,
Mother. Don't you?"

"Yes, I think they are very nice," said Mrs. Walter. "But you must be a
little careful. I think that is what the Vicar's warning meant."

"What, Mother?"

"Well, you know he said that you should be careful about going there too
much - never without a special invitation. He is so kind and thoughtful
for us that I think he must have feared that they might perhaps take you
up at first, as you are the only girl in the place besides themselves,
and then drop you. In many ways their life is so different from what
ours can be that there might be a danger of that, though I don't think
they would do it consciously."

"Oh, no; they're much too nice for that. Still, of course, I should hate
to feel that I was poking myself in. Don't you think I might go to tea
this afternoon, Mother? Caroline did ask me, you know, and I'm sure she
meant it."

Mollie had been to church alone that morning, and the Grafton girls had
taken her round the garden of the Abbey afterwards.

"I don't know what to say," said Mrs. Walter, hesitatingly. "I can't
help wishing you had waited for the Vicar and Mrs. Mercer afterwards,
and walked back with them, as we generally do."

"It would have been so difficult to refuse. They introduced me to
Beatrix and to Mr. Grafton, and they were all so nice, and seemed to
take it for granted that I should go with them. I thought perhaps the
Vicar and Mrs. Mercer would have come over too. He likes them so much,
and says they make him feel so at home there. He has helped them a lot
getting into order."

"He is one of those men who likes to help everybody," said Mrs. Walter.
"Nobody could possibly have been kinder to _us_ than he has been, from
the beginning. We are very fortunate indeed to have found such a nice
clergyman here. It might have been so different. We must be especially
careful not to give him the _slightest_ reason to think that he doesn't
come first with us."

"Oh, of course, he and Mrs. Mercer would always be our chief friends
here. But you see, Mother dear, I've had so few girl friends, and I
think these really might be. I love than all, especially Beatrix. She's
sweet, and I believe she'd like to be friends. When I said I must ask
you first, she said you couldn't possibly object, and I _must_ come."

"Well, dear, of course, you could, in the ordinary way. But you know we
nearly always go to tea at the Vicarage on Sunday afternoons. If you had
walked home with them they would have been sure to ask you. I expect the
Vicar will, at Sunday-school this afternoon. Wouldn't it look ungracious
if you said you were going somewhere else?"

Poor Mollie could not deny that it might, but looked so downcast that
her mother suggested waiting to see if the Vicar did ask her, but
without suggesting that she should accept the invitation if he did.

Mollie was a good girl, and had the reward which does not always attend
goodness. She made up her mind that it would not be right to forsake old
friends for new ones, that she would walk back with the Vicar after
Sunday-school as usual, and if by some fortunate chance he omitted to
ask her and her mother to tea she would then go to the Abbey.

The Vicar came out as she passed his house with his Bible in his hand.
"Well, Mollie," he said. "What became of you after church this morning?
I hope your mother isn't unwell."

"She didn't sleep well last night, and I made her stay in bed," said
Mollie. "But she's up now."

She expected that the Vicar's invitation would then be forthcoming, but
he said nothing.

She waited for him after school as he liked her to do, but as he came
out he said: "Well, I suppose you're going home now, dear." He had
dropped into the way of calling her dear within a short time of their
arrival, and she liked it. She had never known her own father, nor any
man who used protecting or affectionate speech towards her. "I must wait
for Mrs. Mercer. We are going to the Abbey together."

Mollie was vastly relieved. "Oh, then, perhaps we can go together," she
said. "They asked me this morning."

He did not look so pleased as she had thought he would, for he had
always shown himself ready for her company, wherever it might be, and
had told her more than once that he didn't know what he had done for
company before she came. "They asked you, did they?" he said. "Didn't
they ask your mother too?"

"No. I went over with them after church. It was the girls who asked me."

"Did they ask you to go over with them after church?"

"Oh, yes. I shouldn't have gone without an invitation. I remembered what
you had said."

"But I hope you didn't hang about as if you were looking for one. You
know, Mollie, you must be very careful about that sort of thing. If
these girls turn out to be thoroughly nice, as I quite hope they will,
it will be nice for you to go to the Abbey sometimes. It will make a
change in your life. But you see you haven't mixed with that sort of
people before, and I am very anxious that you shan't make mistakes. I
would rather you went there first with me - or Mrs. Mercer."

Mollie felt some offence at it being supposed possible that she should
hang about for an invitation. But she knew that men were like
that - clumsy in their methods of expression; they meant nothing by it.
And it was kind of him to take this interest in her behalf.

"Thank you," she said. "Of course I should be careful not to go unless
they really wanted me. But I'm sure they did by the way they asked me.
If you and Mrs. Mercer are going too that will be all the better."

"Ought you to leave your mother alone?" he asked. "I quite thought you
had hurried back to her this morning. If she isn't well, it was a little
thoughtless, wasn't it, Mollie, to stay behind like that? She might have
been worrying herself as to what had become of you."

"Oh, no," she said artlessly. "She would have thought I was with you. I
have once or twice been to the Vicarage after church when she has stayed
at home. And she didn't mind my going this afternoon a bit."

Mrs. Mercer was seen bearing down upon them. "Oh well," he said, not
very graciously, "I suppose you had better come. But you mustn't let the
attentions of the girls at the Abbey turn your head, Mollie; and above
all you mustn't get into the way of leaving your mother to be with them.
They have asked Mollie to tea," he said as his wife came up. "So we can
all go together."

"Oh, I'm so glad," said Mrs. Mercer. "I thought you might wonder, dear,
why we hadn't asked you and Mrs. Walter to the Vicarage this afternoon.
But you see, Mr. Grafton is only here on Saturdays and Sundays, and the
Vicar has a good many things to talk over with him; so we thought we'd
invite ourselves to tea there - at least, go there, rather early, and if
they like to ask us to stay to tea, well they can."

"Really, my dear!" expostulated the Vicar, "you put things in a funny
way. It's no more for people like ourselves to drop in at a house like
the Abbey and ask for a cup of tea than to go to Mrs. Walter, for
instance."

"No, dear, of course not," said Mrs. Mercer soothingly.

They went into the park through the hand gate, and when they had got a
little way along the path an open motor-car passed them a little way off
on the road. It was driven by a girl in a big tweed coat, and another
girl similarly attired sat by her. Behind were an old lady and gentleman
much befurred, and a third girl on the back seat.

"The Pembertons!" said the Vicar in a tone of extreme annoyance. "Now
what on earth do they want over here? They can't surely be coming to pay
their first call on a Sunday, and I'm sure they haven't called already
or I should have heard of it."

"Perhaps they are just going through the park," said Mrs. Mercer, which
suggestion her husband accepted until they came in sight of the house
and saw the empty car standing before it.

"Just like them to pay a formal call on a Sunday!" he said. "I'm very
annoyed that this should have happened. I was going to give Grafton a
warning about those people. They're not the sort of girls for his girls
to know - loud and slangy and horsey! I abhor that sort of young woman.
However, I suppose we shall have to be polite to them now they're here.
But I don't want _you_ to have anything to do with them, Mollie. I
should keep in the background if I were you, as much as possible. And I
dare say they won't stay very long."

They were taken up to the long gallery, which seemed to be full of talk
as they entered it. It was a chilly windy day, and the two girls stood
in front of one of the fires, of which there were two burning, while old
Mr. and Mrs. Pemberton were sitting by the other. All four of them were
talking at once, in loud clear voices, and there were also present,
besides the Grafton family and Worthing, two young men, one of whom was
talking louder than anybody.

The entrance of the Vicar had the effect of stopping the flow for a
moment, but it was resumed again almost immediately, and was never
actually discontinued by the two young men, who were talking to
Caroline, until she left them to greet the new arrivals.

"Ah, that's right; I'm glad you've come," said Grafton. "I suppose you
know Mr. and Mrs. Pemberton. We've just discovered they're old friends
of my wife's people."

"No, I don't think that we've ever met before," said Mrs. Pemberton,
addressing herself to the Vicar, who stood awkwardly beside her. She had
the air of not minding to whom she addressed herself as long as she was
not asked to discontinue addressing somebody. "I suppose you're the
clergyman here. It's been rather beyond our beat, you know, until we got
the car, and, of course, there hasn't been anybody here for years. Nice
to have the place occupied again, isn't it? Must make a lot of
difference to you, I should think. And such nice people too! Yes, it's
odd, isn't it? Mr. Francis Parry came to spend the week-end with us - my
son brought him - and he asked us if we knew the Graftons who had just
bought this place, and we said we didn't but were going to call on them
when they'd got settled in; and then suddenly I remembered and said:
'Didn't one of the Graftons marry Lord Handsworth's sister, and she
died?' Well, I've known the Handsworths ever since I was a girl, and
that's a good many years ago, as you may imagine. You needn't trouble to
contradict me, you know."

She looked up at him with a sharp smile. She was a hard-bitten old lady,
with a face full of wrinkles in a skin that looked as if it had been
out in the sun and rain for years, as indeed it had, and a pair of
bright searching eyes. The Vicar returned her smile. One would have said
that she had already made a conquest of him, in spite of his previous
disapprobation, and her having taken no particular pains to do so.

"Was Mrs. Grafton Lord Handsworth's sister?" he asked.

"Yes. Ain't I telling you so? Ruth Handsworth she was, but I don't think
I ever knew her. She was of the second family, and I never saw much of
the old man after he married again. Well, Francis Parry suggested
walking over with my son. He's a friend of these people. So we thought
we might as well drop ceremony and all come. Have you got a
clothing-club in this village?"

In the meantime, on the other side of the fire-place, old Mr. Pemberton
was giving his host some information about the previous inhabitants of
the Abbey. He was rather deaf, and addressed his opponent in
conversation as if his disability were the common lot of humankind,
which probably accounted for the high vocal tone of the Pemberton family
in general. "When I was a young fellow," he was saying, "there was no
house in the neighb'r'ood more popular than this. There were four Brett
girls, and all of them as pretty as paint. All we young fellows from
twenty miles round and more were quarrelling about them. They all stuck
together and wouldn't look at a soul of us - not for years - and then they
all married in a bunch, and not a single one of them into the county. I
was in love with the eldest myself, but I was only a boy at Eton and she
was twenty-four. If it had been the other way about we might have kept
one of them. Good old times those were. The young fellows used to ride
over here, or drive their dog-carts, which were just beginning to come
in in those days, and those who couldn't afford horseflesh used to walk.
There were one or two sporting parsons in the neighb'r'ood then, and
some nice young fellows from the Rectories. Sir Charles Dawbarn, the
judge - his father was rector of Feltham when I was a young fellow. He
wanted to marry the second one, but she wouldn't look at him. Nice
fellow he was too. They don't seem to send us the parsons they used to
in the old days. We've got a fellow at Grays goes about in a cassock,
just like a priest. Behaves like one too. Asked my wife when he first
came if she'd ever been to confession. Ha! ha! ha! She told him what she
thought of him. But he's not a bad fellow, and we get on all right. What
sort of a fellow have you got here? They can make themselves an infernal
nuisance sometimes if they're not the right sort; and not many of them
are nowadays, at least in these parts."

"That's our Vicar talking to Mrs. Pemberton," said Grafton in as low a
voice as he thought would penetrate.

"Eh! What!" shouted the old man. "Gobbless my soul! Yes. I didn't notice
he was a parson. Hope he didn't hear what I said. Hate to hurt
anybody's feelings. Let's get further away. I've had enough of this
fire."

Miss Waterhouse was talking to Mrs. Mercer by one of the windows, and
all the young people had congregated round the further fire-place. The
two older men joined them, and presently there was a suggestion of going
over the house to see what had been done with it.

Mollie found herself with Beatrix, who, as she told her mother
afterwards, was very sweet to her, not allowing her to feel out of it,
though there were so many people there, and she was the least important
of all of them. She was not alone with Beatrix however. Bertie Pemberton
stuck close to them, and took the leading part in the conversation,
though Beatrix did her share, with a dexterous unflustered ability which
Mollie, who said very little, could not but admire. She judged Bertie
Pemberton to be immensely struck with Beatrix, and did not wonder at it.
She herself was beginning to have that enthusiastic admiration for her
which generous girls accord to others more beautiful and more gifted
than themselves. Everything about Beatrix pleased her - her lovely face
and delicious colouring, the grace of her young form, the way she did
her hair, the way she wore her pretty clothes. And she was as 'nice' as
she was beautiful, with no affectations about her, and no 'airs,' which
she very well might have given herself, considering how richly she was
endowed by nature and circumstance. That Bertie Pemberton seemed to
admire her in much the same way as Mollie herself disposed her to like
him, though her liking was somewhat touched with awe, for he was of the
sort of young man whom Mollie in her retired life had looked upon as of
a superior order, with ways that would be difficult to cope with if
chance should ever bring one of them into her own orbit. He was, in
fact, a good-natured young man, employed temporarily with stocks and
shares until he should succeed to the paternal acres, of the pattern of
other young men who had received a conventionally expensive education
and gained a large circle of acquaintances thereby, if no abiding
interest in the classical studies which had formed its basis. He seemed
to be well satisfied with himself, and indeed there was no reason why he
should not have been, since so far there had been little that he had
wanted in life which he had not obtained. If he should chance to want
Beatrix in the near future, which Mollie, looking forward as she
listened and observed, thought not unlikely, there might be some
obstacles to surmount, but at this stage there was nothing to daunt him.
He handled the situation in the way dictated by his temperament and
experience, kept up a free flow of good-humoured chaff, and under cover


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