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he had paid his unexpected visit to Exton, for there could
have been few questions concerning the planning of a model
fish hatchery which he had not asked and Turner had not
answered. But it appeared that he had not finished with
Exton, for he told Hilda on the drive down that he intended
to pay his mother a long visit in a week or two's time, and
expressed the hope that they would meet frequently during its
course.

As they passed through the gate leading from the wood



An Unexpected Visit llo

into the park they saw Mrs. Prentice coming along the road
towards them. Mrs. Redcliffe bowed to her as they passed,
and Browne took off his hat. She favoured them with a gaze
of astonishment and the merest inclination of her head. As
the cart passed her she turned round, and adroitly shaded
off a cold stare at Hilda into a smiling recognition of Wro-
tham's greeting. The transition was so comical that a clear
little trill of laughter escaped irom Hilda's lips before she was
aware of it. Mrs. Prentice turned sharp round in the road,
and sent after her a look so full of bitter dislike that the girl
became suddenly grave.

" I say, you've done it now," said Wrotham. " If looks
could kill— eh ? "

" I didn't mean to be rude," she said. " But I really
couldn't help it. You didn't see how she tried to glare at
me and smile at you, both at the same time."

" She's certainly got her claws out. Well, if she makes
herself unpleasant you send for me, Miss Redcliffe. I'll look
after you. Here we are. We've had a jolly afternoon.
Good-bye. Good-bye, Mrs. Redcliffe. Good-bye, Browne.
We shall all meet again soon." And Lord Wrotham disap-
peared through the gate leading into the Abbey gardens.



CHAPTER XIV

A DISCLOSURE

Mrs. Redcliffe chatted equably with Browne as they drove
up to the White House. There was* nothing to show that
she was suffering distress of mind. When they reached home
she went up to her room, removed her outdoor wraps, and sat
down to think.

It was plain now that her secret was known, not only to
Lady Wrotham, but to Mrs. Prentice. Her secret ; yes, it
had come to be that, and she had hidden it in her heart,
hoping, for Hilda's sake, that it would never be divulged.
And yet, when she had first come to England, now twenty
years ago, she had had no intention of keeping the facts of her
marriage secret, nor even any reason to feel ashamed of that
marriage.

She let her thoughts wander back to the early years of her
life, spent on a great cattle station in Northern Queensland.
She again saw the big deep-verandahed wooden house, in
which she had been brought up with a curious mixture of
English convention and wild liberty, the groups of outbuild-
ings and stock-yards lying about it, the carefully irrigated
garden, blossoming riotously with strange trees and fruits and
flowers, the few cultivated fields, and, outside the little oasis
of habitation, the illimitable distances of the Bush, now
parched and bare, now stung into miraculous verdure by a
single night of tropical rain. She reviewed her childhood
and girlhood, so monotonous to outward view that a few
words would have sufficed to describe the breaks that there
had been in it during twenty years — two or three journeys
to Brisbane, a season at Sydney, an occasional visit to a
distant station, or a drive of a hundred miles to an up-country

150



A Disclosure 151

race-meeting. These were all, and yet the life had been full
and happy. In her father's house, "thirty miles distant from
that of his nearest neighbour, there had been refinement,
even luxury, a constant stream of books and periodicals,
so that, though cut off by distance from the movement of
the world, they were never in exile. There had been many
visitors, frequently some welcome guest from the warm centres
of life, of whom, in the intimacy created by isolation, there
had been always a memory kept alive to mark the date of
his stay. And the outdoor activities in the clear sparkling
air had nursed a radiant health, that made every dawn an
excitement and every night a sweet dreamless rest. She
could recall nothing but happiness in those far-off years,
during which she and her elder sister had been so perpetually
and closely together that they had hardly had a thought or
an action apart from one another.

She remembered, oh, so clearly, the excitement of preparing
for a visit from the Governor of the colony, who was to stay
for the night at her father's station, the coming and the going,
and, blotting out every other recollection of the great day, the
handsome young man in his suite, who from the very moment
of dismounting from his horse, and looking up to see the two
fair girls standing arms-entwined above him, had devoted him-
self to them ; and, as he rode away the next morning, had
looked up again, with a message in his eyes for one of them —
or perhaps for either, for he seemed to have wooed them both
in those few glamorous hours, and had certainly had no oppor-
tunity of speaking to either of them apart.

She remembered how changed the life of herself and her
sister had been after that wonderful visit. Love had never
so much as brushed them with his wings before, and now he
had transfixed them both with one fiery arrow. And yet such
was their mutual affection and confidence that they had been
able to ease their laden bosoms of the sweet pain by saying
to each other what other girls could only have whispered to
their own hearts ; and it had brought them still closer together,
if that were possible, for there was no faintest breath of
jealousy, or self-seeking, in the mind of either of them.

A few weeks later he had come again, released from attend-
ance on his chief, and when he went away a month later he
took the elder sister with him as his bride. Surely it had been
the strangest of wooings ; a love idyll in which one heart beat



152 Exton Manor

for two, and two as one. But that could only last until the
idyllic stage merged into the desire for marriage on the part of
the perplexed lover. A word, a breath from the actual had
brought the younger of the two sisters to the earth. It needed
scarcely more than the bitter hour she spent by herself, almost
the first in which she had intentionally kept apart from her
twin soul, to incline the balance against her, and the end came
quickly when the one, still innocently and gladly, accepted the
homage, and the other stood back and closed up her heart.

And so the elder sister took her happiness and went away,
and the younger stayed behind, having been bereft of sister
and lover at one stroke.

Then within a year had come the tragedy of death, and
following it quickly the second wooing, so different from the
first, as the sweetness of autumn, resting on loss and know-
ledge, is different from the sharp new sweetness of Spring.
It was the wooing by a saddened man of a girl with a
woman's soul, tender and experienced, and it fed on feelings
that neither had known before sorrow had come to them.
But both of them were young, and the life which followed
the second marriage was full of deep happiness for the few
short years that it lasted. Then the gallant husband and
lover had died suddenly, and once again there w r as deep sorrow,
and no hope of gladness any more.

Mrs. Redcliffe sat with her hands in her lap, looking out
of the window across the fresh green of the park, and the
waving tree branches under the westering sun, for a long
time.

This was her story up to the time of her coming to Eng-
land twenty years before, and it contained what women like
Mrs. Prentice — better women than Mrs. Prentice, and men
too — called a deadly sin, — she forced herself to use the word
— adultery. Her face burned, but not with shame. Hilda
might have been startled if she had been with her now, for
never in the whole of her twenty years had she seen a look
of anger on that quiet and still beautiful face. Up to that
point in her story had she anything to reproach herself with ?
Loyalty to her dead husband, to her dearly-loved sister, to the
virgin purity of her own girlhood, refuted all blame. There,
she was in arms against the world, if the world should condemn
her.

But afterwards ! There, indeed, she might have taken a



A Disclosure 153

wrong step, or refrained from taking a right one. She had
never told Hilda of her father's previous marriage.

She had stayed in Australia, for six months of her widow*
hood. During that time her father had died, and there was
nothing to keep her in a country which contained now only
the graves of those she had loved, for her mother had died
too, during her early childhood. She made up her mind to
come home to England, and bury herself and her baby in
some quiet country village, to which, in the sickness of her
soul, she looked as a haven of peace and healing. She was
almost entirely without friends in England, for her father's
station, and that which her husband had bought after his first
marriage, were both many miles away from civilization, and
in the latter especially she had been cut off from society, and
had made few friends since her girlhood. So there was no
friend to whom she cared to go when she landed in the
strange country which she had always been accustomed to
call c home." Her husband's family had dwindled till there
was only left one small boy, who was being brought up in
his ancestral home by his mother's relations. Her father's
family, so far as she knew, was extinct ; he had not been in
England for thirty years, and long before his death had ceased
to correspond with any relations he might have had. She and
her baby were alone in the world, and she must begin her life
again and make new friends, for the child's sake, if not for
her own.

It was not until she had lived in England for a year or more
that the poor lady gained the added distress of feeling that, in
the eyes of many of her neighbours, her position, if it were
known, would be considered an equivocal one. Her life had
been spent in ways so far apart from the mass of mankind that
it had never once suggested itself to her mind, nor had it been
suggested to her from outside, that her marriage was in any
way irregular. The shock she sustained when she learnt that
by English lav/ her child was illegitimate was severe, and she
received one still more severe when it was brought home to
her that there were those who would regard her marriage, did
they know of its circumstances, as no marriage at all, but a
sin against righteousness. It had never been her intention to
keep from her child the knowledge of her sister's marriage.
It would have seemed the most natural thing to tell her all
about that dearly loved sister, when she should be of an age to



154 Exton Manor

understand, and of the mingled sadness and happiness of her
own life. But how could she do so in the light of her new
knowledge ? The very statement of the facts would take the
shape of an excuse, and she had no mind to excuse herself or
her husband to their daughter. And besides, even if the child
were brought to regard the story in the light that her mother
would desire — the light in which she herself regarded it —
as of course she would have been taught, she could not be
told to keep it secret ; and if she spoke of it to others who
did not know of it, there might be a rude awakening for
her.

Any kind of concealment was alien from Mrs. Redcliife's
nature, but the circumstances in which she was placed made
the concealment that she did practise only passive. She lived
for ten years in a moorland sea-coast village in Yorkshire,
very quietly, seeing but few people of her own class, and
those for the most part her neighbours. None of them knew
her past history, and it would have seemed like a desecration
of something holy to speak of it to them. In her somew T hat
unusual innocence of the ways of the world it did not occur
to her that, even if no rumour from the world that had known
her brought the facts of her marriage to the light, there might
arise circumstances — her daughter's marriage, for instance —
in which she would have to disclose them. And so, merely
keeping her peace, she had let Hilda grow up without the
knowledge.

For some time now she had said to herself that she had
been mistaken, that she ought to have prepared her daughter
for what she must know sooner or later, at a time when the
story would have made no painful impression on the child's
mind. She had prepared herself, at any rate, for the necessit}?
of telling her before very long, but had not yet fixed a date
for doing so ; not through lack of courage, for when she saw
the necessity for any action, however painful, it was not her
habit to delay taking it. But she shrank from the necessity
of distressing Hilda, and there had arisen no occasion which
made one time more than another seem suitable for the dis-
closure.

But now, as she sat quietly at her window, thinking over
these things, with the sole desire to act rightly with regard to
them, she saw that the time had come, and, if she were to delay
longer, Hilda might come to know of the secret which con-



A Disclosure 155

cerned her, not from her own mother but from some unsym-
pathetic stranger.

It would be a very painful matter to tell her. Mrs. Red-
cliffe was not disposed to dwell on the pain it would bring to
herself, but she wanted above all to make the disclosure in a
way which would absolve her husband's name and her own
youth from blame. She could not accept blame, and, know-
ing her daughter as she did, she had little fear but that the
girl would warmly espouse her cause. But it was the very
attitude of espousal that she dreaded. By her confession —
for her tale must take the form of a confession — she must
definitely take up the attitude of one having, however un-
knowingly, broken an accepted law. And part of the trouble
was that she had come tacitly to accept the law, as a social, if
not a religious, ordinance. She was not of the stuff of which
rebels against convention are made. If she had known at
the time of her marriage what she knew now, it would not
have taken place. She had put away from her the half-
proffered love when she had first drawn back and allowed her
sister to take the happiness which she then resigned for her-
self. And she would not have allowed the love to spring up
again in her heart and accepted the happiness after all, if she
had known of a law that would have forbade her. Renuncia-
tion was a flower that grew readily in the soil of her nature,
and happiness would blossom alongside of it, but not by
choking it out.

Then she must accuse herself to her daughter of having
done something which she would not have done if she had
had more knowledge, something that she would be sorry to
know that another woman had done with her eyes open. Her
unflinching honesty faced her with that dilemma ; for it was
a dilemma. When all had been said that could be said
against her marriage, she could not regret it, nor suffer her
daughter to look upon it as anything but a perfect and God-
blessed union. How should she reconcile these two opposing
views ? They were irreconcilable, and at last she took refuge
in the thought that there was something definite to be gone
through, and that its difficulty could not be softened by
further cogitation. She must tell Hilda her story at once, and
tell it without reservation or excuses, and afterwards, they two
together must make what adjustments they could.

Then she arose and prepared herself, kneeling at her bed-



156 Exton Manor

side, and went down to her daughter. She told her that she
had something serious to say to her, and they w r ent into a
little room off the parlour, where they would not be likely to
be disturbed.

" Hilda darling," she said, " I have something to tell you
which perhaps you ought to have known years ago. I feel
now, for reasons which I will tell you later, that I must not
keep it from you any longer, and you must listen carefully,
so that you may not misjudge."

Hilda's eyes were fixed upon her with some fear. She
could see that her mother, beneath her placid exterior, was
deeply moved, and that she dreaded the ordeal that lay before
her.

" Mother dear," she said, " don't tell me if it hurts you.
Please don't. Everything you do is right ; and if you haven't
told me before, you must have had the best reasons for not
doing so."

" There were no best reasons," said her mother. " It was
difficult to know what to do. But there are reasons now why
you must hear what I have to tell you, and perhaps share some
trouble with me."

" Then I will listen," said the girl. " You have never let
me share any trouble, mother ; you have kept everything but
happiness away from me." She took her mother's. hand and
pressed it. And then Mrs. Redcliffe told her story.

*' I have told you of my dear sister," she said, " and of how
we were brought up closely together and loved each other.
Perhaps I have not talked to you quite as much as I should
have liked to do, because of what I was keeping back. But
you do know, I think, how much we were to each other
throughout our girlhood, so that until — until her marriage, we
were almost as one."

" Her marriage ! " Hilda would have echoed, but that her
instinct told her to keep silence.

" When your dear father came to us as a young man, we
were all three constantly together. We both loved him, and
made no secret of our love to each other, and he loved both
of us in a way, perhaps, that some might find it difficult to
understand. But he had to choose one of us, and, Hilda
dear, this is what I have never told you before, he chose — her."

She was silent for a space, choosing the words that were to
follow.



A Disclosure 157

" Yes, mother dear," said Hilda softly, but it was plain that
she did not yet understand.

" They were married/' said Mrs. Redcliffe, speaking more
quickly. " But she died in less than a year, and then he came
back to me. It was not difficult for me to love him. It
would have been very difficult for any woman not to do so. I
had always loved him, and there was nothing that I then knew
of, nothing in my mind or my knowledge of the world, that
could have held me back from accepting his love. And my
dear sister, before she died, urged him to marry me ; so that
there could be no feeling that we were acting disloyally to her
memory, which was always cherished between us."

She breathed a deep sigh. She had taken the plunge, and
the worst was over ; but the strain had been great.

" Yes, mother dear," said Hilda again, gently. She looked
at her mother's eyes, withheld from her, as if she expected
something more, and when nothing more came, she said,
"But is that all? Why couldn't you have told me that
before ? "

" Oh, Hilda, can't you see ? " cried Mrs. Redcliffe, with
agitation. '■ I didn't know until afterwards — I had no idea,
until your father died, and I came to England with you, a
tiny baby, that — that mine was a marriage which is not —
not recognized in this country. In Australia it is different,
but I had never heard that there was anything against it."

" But what could there be against it, mother ? "

" Hilda, you have lived more in the world than I did in my
girlhood. You have heard of things which you may not have
thought over, but which are not quite unfamiliar to you, as
they were to me. You have heard that there have been dis-
cussions about — I must use the odious phrase — marriage with
the deceased wife's sister."

'"' Oh ! " The girl's face changed involuntarily. Her
mother went on quickly, her voice taking an intonation that
was almost pleading. " I have come to see that — in some
cases — there may be reasons why sucj^. marriages might not be
advisable, but not in my own case. No one who knew the
circumstances could say so. I enjoyed perfect happiness,
and all my nature was lifted and deepened by it. There
could have been no* more perfect marriage, and it was only
made more perfect by what, had gone before. Whatever
wrong thing I did, I could not commit the wickedness of



158 Exton Manor

regretting it. I should be sinning against the light that has
been given me if I tried to do so. I was blessed in it, as well
as made perfectly happy. Whatever may be said — against
— it would be a lie to say that my marriage was displeasing
to God."

" Oh, mother, but who could say such a thing ? "

" There are many who would say it ; many religious
people."

" Not good people."

" Yes, good people ; though I know from my own inward
experience that they would be wrong."

I should not mind what such people said."

" I cannot say that I do not mind. I mind to some extent
for my own sake, but not perhaps, very much, as the step that
they would blame me for has brought me more good than any
other I have ever taken. But I mind very much for your
sake, my darling, and that is why I have kept the knowledge
of the truth from you."

Hilda threw herself at her mother's feet and embraced her.
" Dearest mother," she said in tears, " I wish you had told
me before. How could you think — oh, you can't think, that
I should not be glad to shield you from the unjust things
narrow-minded people might say, that I should want to be
apart from you in this or in anything."

" No, darling ; I know. I don't think I have ever doubted
that you would feel like that about what I have told you.
But it has been so difficult to tell. I have often said to my-
self that I could not tell you without appearing to be excusing
myself, and I am too proud of the memory of my married
life, and of your father's memory, to bear the thought of
excusing anything in it."

" Oh, no, mother. And now you will talk to me more of
it, won't you ? You will tell me about father when you first
knew him, and of Aunt Margaret."

" Yes. That will be one of my consolations. I would so
often have liked to tell^you more than I have been able to
do, for fear you should ask me questions that I was not pre-
pared to answer. But, Hilda, I have not told you yet why
I have had to make up my mind, quickly at last, to tell you
of this now. It has so happened that no one in England has
known of it hitherto, no one whom we in our quiet way of
life have met. If it had not been so, I must have told you



A Disclosure 159

before. I could not have helped it. But Lady Wrotham
knows, and we may have to prepare ourselves for cold looks."

" Lady Wrotham, mother ? How does she know ? "

" You heard what Lord Wrotham said. She knows the
family to which your father belonged, although I have never
mentioned the connection to any one in England — not be-
cause there was any reason for concealing it, but because no
occasion has arisen which would lead me to do so. And she
Was in Australia at the time of my marriage. Your father
may have known her when he was aide-de-camp to Lord
Chippenham, the Governor of Queensland, though if he did
he never mentioned it to me."

" But surely, mother, Lady Wrotham would not say any-
thing to any one else if — I mean until she had seen you."

" I should have thought not ; but I very much doubt
whether she has not already dene so."

H To Lord Wrotham, you mean ? "

*■ He must know, I should think, but I should not expect
him to attach any great importance to it, either one way or
the other. He would not take the strictest view, and it
would be enough for him that in the colonies such marriages
as mine are as regular as others. No, I do not mean Lord
Wrotham. I am nearly certain that she must have told
Mrs. Prentice."

"Oh, mother, that woman ! "

" I am afraid that it is so. And Mrs. Prentice is just the
woman who, I am afraid, would think herself bound by her
religious creed to make the worst of what irregularity there is."
1 Then that accounts for her horrid behaviour to you on
Sunday and to-day. I thought that it was just snobbishness
and jealousy."

" I think that Lady Wrotham has told her."

" Then I think that she ought to be ashamed of herself.
What kind of woman can she be to come down here, and,
before she has even seen you, to make scandal ? — and with
Mrs. Prentice, of all people ! "

M It would not be the act of a charitable woman. But we
must be prepared for its having taken place. People will
talk — I fear there is no doubt of it, for if Mrs. Prentice knows,
as I think she does, she will not keep it to herself. The talk
will not last long. I am what I am, and it will make little
difference in the long run. Those whose friendship is worth



'160 Exton Manor

having will not withdraw it. I can go through with it, but



Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 13 of 36)