Archibald Marshall.

Exton manor online

. (page 14 of 36)
Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 14 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

oh, Hilda darling, you must go through it too, and it will
take away something of your youth and your trust in man-
kind. You must see, even in this small place, something of
the cruel side of the world, and I would so willingly have had
you blind to it a few years longer."

" Mother dear, I am glad of it. Yes, I am glad. If trouble
comes to you because of what }^ou have told me, I shall share
it with you ; and if I could love you better than I do now,
it would make me. We have been close together, Haven't
we ? And now we shall be closer still. Dearest, I know it
must have hurt you to tell me, but you do feel now that it is
a relief, don't you ? "

Mrs. Redcliffe kissed her. " Yes, it is a relief," she said,
the tears in her eyes. " And now we must go about our work
and live our life just as usual. We are both prepared for
what may come, and we need not fear it."

They went out of the room together. The bitter hour was
over, and the sting was drawn from what should come after
it. But Mrs. Redcliffe felt sorrowfully that life could never
be quite the same to her child as it had been before.



It was hardly to be supposed that the passive collected
waiting on developments which, to Mrs. Redcliffe, was the
natural attitude to take up in face of difficulties, would com-
mend itself to a girl of Hilda's ardent temperament. When
she thought over the disclosures that had been made to her,
it was not with any regard to those disclosures themselves,
except as they revealed to her a hitherto unknown passage
in her mother's life. She gave no thought to the general
problem in which they were involved. She did not even tell
herself that her mother had done right. There was no ques-
tion of right or wrong in her mind. She started with the
undiscussed assumption that her mother had done right, and
her anger burnt hotly against the world which would blame
her. She viewed all mankind with suspicion, and emptied
her mind of friendship to every one, since none had as yet
had an opportunity of espousing warmly her mother's cause,
and from henceforward she would have no friends who did
not do so. But most of all her anger burnt against those
who had already taken a side, or so she thought, against
her mother, and she could not rest until she had confronted
them, and shown her wrath and contempt. To her mother
she was all tenderness and gaiety, and Mrs. Redcliffe's sore
heart gained some solace from the thought that the girl's
spirit was not subdued by what she had told her. If she had
had any idea of the ferment of anger and rebellion going on
in Hilda's mind, she would have greatly feared.

Hilda met Mrs. Prentice the next morning on her way to
the village. She drew in her breath as she saw her enemy
approaching her, and went on to meet her, outwardly calm,


F (15;

162 Exton Manor

but raging inwardly like a' young tiger ready for the spring.
Mrs. Prentice was for giving her the merest shadow of a bow
and passing on her way with her nose in the air, but Hilda
stood in front of her.

" Will you please tell me," she said, " why you have
suddenly taken to cutting me in the road ? "

Mrs. Prentice was taken aback for the moment. The girl
spoke quietly, but her nostrils were dilated, and there was a
look in her eyes which gave the older woman a sensation
of discomfort. But it was not for long. It was not her
custom to refuse battle. She gloried in it when she was not
afraid of offending, and she leapt at once to the fray.

" Cutting you ! " she echoed. " Why should I take the
trouble to cut you, I wonder ? "

" That is what I want to know," said Hilda. " At least,
I don't mind your cutting me in the least, but my mother —
I should like to know what is the reason of your abominable
behaviour to her."

Mrs. Prentice lost her temper at once. " How dare you
speak to me in that fashion, you impudent girl ! " she ex-

" Because you deserve it," replied Hilda. " My mother
is the best woman in the world, and she has always been
kind and good to you. Only a week ago she entertained
you, and when she asked you to come to our house on Sunday
you could hardly give her a civil answer. Anyone would
think it was a condescension on your part to give us your

11 It would be a condescension," replied Mrs. Prentice
angrily. " I hope never to darken your mother's doors

Hilda became icy calm, but her face grew white. " You
never shall," she said, " but you shall tell me why you say

" I shall not tell you," cried Mrs. Prentice. " Let me pass."

But Hilda stood in her way. " You shall not go till you
have told me," she said.

Mrs. Prentice saw her way to wound. " You had better
ask Mrs. Redcliffe yourself," she said. " She will know well
enough why no woman whose life is guided by the laws of
the Christian religion will enter her house."

" Your life guided by the Christian religion ! " repeated


Discord 163

Hilda in a low voice. " I think you are the most irreligious
woman I have ever known, full of spite and meanness. You
are not fit to tie my mother's shoe-laces.' '

" You shall pay for this," said Mrs. Prentice, quivering.
" You to dare to speak to 'me like that ! You with your
brazen face 1 I have always disliked yyi from the first.
You have tried your best to get my son into 3^our toils, and
now that there is higher game in view you are pursuing that
in the same shameless way."

" I don't in the least know what you mean," replied Hilda,
11 except that you are probably trying to hatch some false
scandal against me. As for Fred, you know as well as I do
that you are telling a lie. I don't mind at all what you say
about that. Nobody will believe you. Your spiteful tongue
is too well known. But you had better be careful what you
say about my mother."

She stopped and turned round quickly, for Mrs. Prentice's
face, looking past her for a moment, had changed. Mrs.
Redcliffe was coming down the road, and had almost reached

" Perhaps," said Mrs. Prentice, V you had better let me pass.
I have no wish to talk to Mrs. Redcliffe at present."

" No, but you shall," said Hilda. " Mother, this woman
has been saying the most outrageous things. It is impossible
to go on living in the same place with her unless we come to
some understanding, now."

" I have been grossly insulted," said Mrs. Prentice, "and
I will put up with it no longer. Thank heaven there is now
no further need to pretend friendship. For the future we will
meet as strangers. Perhaps I may now be allowed to continue
on my way."

" I think, Mrs. Prentice," said Mrs. Redcliffe, " that Hilda
is right. There are things that had better be said before we
agree to treat each other as strangers."

" You say that she is right ! " cried Mrs. Prentice. " She
plants herself in front of me, preventing me almost by main
force from going my way, and pours out a flood of vulgar
abuse in the middle of the public road, and you say that she
is right."

" I do not say that she was right to stop you in the road/'
said Mrs. Redcliffe, " but since matters have gone so far, we
had better finish them once and for all."


1G4 Exton Manor

" A vulgar wrangle in the middle of the road ! " exclaimed
Mrs. Prentice, " and I the wife of the Vicar 1 It is most
unseemly, and, under the circumstances, it is worse than
unseemly. I absolutely refuse to say anything more." And
she began to walk up the hill.

But Mrs. Redcliffe turned with her. " Mrs. Prentice,"
she said, " you have known me for five years, and we have
been, if not friends, certainly on friendly terms. I think you
owe it to me to come in now and clear up what lies between

" What lies between us ? " echoed Mrs. Prentice. " May
I ask if you wish your daughter to know what, as you say,
lies between us ? "

Hilda broke in. " There is nothing you can talk about
that I don't know," she said. " Do you think mother would
keep from me anything that you could get hold of to harm
her ? "

■' Hilda," said Mrs. Redcliffe peremptorily, " you must not
speak in that way. You are doing me no kindness. Come,
Mrs. Prentice, you will hardly refuse to say to my face what
you are ready to use against me behind my back."

Mrs. Prentice bridled. " I had no intention of saying a
word to any one," she replied, " and should not have men-
tioned anything had it not been forced on me."

" You said, at any rate, that you would never darken our
doors again," said Hilda, but in a quieter tone.

" And you have shown plainly that you wish to avoid me
as much as possible," added Mrs. Redcliffe. " You could
hardly expect to keep to yourself what you have learnt under
those circumstances. You would certainly arouse discussion.
I think that five years' intimacy give me a right to better
treatment than that, Mrs. Prentice. I simply ask you to
come in now, and let us have a clear understanding as to how
we are to stand to one another for the future."

They had reached the gate of the White House. Mrs.
Prentice would have preferred to go on her way, feeding
her resentment with the memory of Hilda's attack upon
her. But there was something compelling in Mrs. Redcliffe's
quiet insistence.

" I have no objection," she said stiffly. " And I hope I
shall not go out of the bouse without a full apology for the
unpardonable language that Hilda has seen fit to use to me."

Discord 165

No answer was made to this suggestion, and they walked
up the drive and into the house in silence, each collecting her
thoughts for what was to follow.

Mrs. Prentice was the first to speak. " The matter is
quite simple/' she said, the moment she had seated herself.
" Since you have told Hilda — which, I confess, I was surprised
to hear — of the — the secret of your life, I can speak plainly.
I do not wish to use words that would hurt you — personally
— but, as a Churchwoman, I am taught to regard a marriage
such as yours as no marriage at all, and I will not, no, I will
not, whatever the circumstances, even pretend to be on
friendly terms, or indeed on any terms, with anyone who
has — has broken the Christian law in that respect."

" I should like to ask you, Mrs. Prentice, if you are really
convinced that the responsibility of punishing me for my
marriage rests upon you ? " said Mrs. Redcliffe.

" Punishing ! ' repeated Mrs. Prentice, rather at a loss.
" There is no question of my punishing you."

" Then for what reason are you refusing to live on friendly
terms, or, as you say, on any terms, with me for the future ?

Mrs. Prentice hesitated for a moment. " It is not my
fault," she said, " if I am obliged to use expressions that may
offend you. The Church teaches, and I believe, that anyone
living — living in that way, under a — under a false marriage
tie, is committing a sin."

M Living in what way, Mrs. Prentice ? "

"Well, if you will have* it, living with a man as your
husband who, in the eyes of the Church, is not your husband."

" But I was married in a church, and in every way according
to the laws of the country in which I lived."

' There are priests, I am well aware, who will break any of
the laws of the Church if the law of the land allows them.
It is quite enough for me that the Catholic Church does forbid
such marriages."

" You feel so strongly on the matter that you cannot bring
yourself to allow a woman, with whom you have lived in
friendship for five years, any mercy. We arje to be complete
strangers to each other, and by your attitude to me you are
to spread my story and invite others to hold aloof from me
— from both me and my daughter, who, at any rate, has done
nothing wrong, even according to your own strict rule."

" Hilda stands on quite another plane," said Mrs. Prentice.


166 Exton Manor

" I should refuse to have anything more to do with her for
many reasons, even if this had not happened."

" There is no necessity to bring me in at all, mother," said
Hilda. " Mrs. Prentice cordially dislikes me, and I certainly
have neither liking nor respect for her. I think that people^
who are always talking of their religious views ought to show
some small signs of Christian charity, and I have never seen
any in her."

She got out her words against Mrs. Redcliffe's warning
hand. Mrs. Prentice looked at her as with almost savage
dislike. " I came in here against my will at your request,"
she said to Mrs. Redcliffe. " If that girl is allowed to speak
to me in that way again I shall go out at once."

"Hilda, I have asked you to keep quiet," said Mrs. Red-
cliffe. " If you disobey me again you must go away."

Hilda shrugged her shoulders and withdrew her dress, the
hem of which was touching Mrs. Prentice's.

"I will put it before you once more," said Mrs. Redcliffe.
" I have no wish to plead with you, but for your own sake,
as well as ours, I think you ought to be told something of
'the circumstances of my marriage. I had no idea until I
'came to England that there was anything in the least irreg-
ular in it — that it was not perfectly regular in any country
in the world. Does that make no difference ? "

" Perhaps it does in the manner of blame that is to be
attached to it," replied Mrs. Prentice. " Not otherwise. If
you sin against a law unwittingly, you still sin against it."

" I did not sin against the law of my country."

" I mean the law of the Church."

" And the English Church throughout Australia celebrates
without question such marriages as mine."

" It may have done twenty years ago. I doubt whether it
would now. But it makes no difference. I stand, as I said
before, by the undoubted law of the Catholic Church."

" And none of the circumstances I have mentioned afford
you a loophole, . not for altering your convictions — I would
not ask you to do that — but for treating me as not quite
outside the social pale. Because, Mrs. Prentice, that is what
you are proposing to do. You are going to ignore every
circumstance that would tell in my favour, and treat me just
as you would an unfortunate woman who might come and live
here, let us say, with another woman's husband."


Discord 167

" In my view that is what it comes to," said Mrs. Prentice.
" I cannot palter with my beliefs. A union with a deceased
wife's sister is either a marriage, or it is not. I hold that it is
not, and no circumstances can make it so/'

" Very well, then, we will leave that point. And now will
you tell me what 3^ou would have me to do ? "

'■ Do ? " echoed Mrs. Prentice. " I do not quite under-
stand you."

" Twenty years ago I committed — unknowingly, as I have
told you — what you call a sin. Is my punishment to last for
ever ? "

" You repeat the word punishment, Mrs. Redcliffe. And
I repeat that I should not have the audacity to take it upon
myself to punish 3^ou. Besides, I should say that if you did
what you did unknowingly — which I should have hardly
thought possible "

" You will not refuse to believe, I hope, that I am telling
you the truth when I say I did not know ? "

"No, I accept what you say. And what I mean is that I
don't think actual blame would attach to you until you did
know. Then the union in my view — and the Church's view
— would become'a sin."

" And it is because of that sin that you decide that you
must for the future hold aloof from me ? "

" Yes. I do regard it as a sin."

" But my husband has been dead twenty years, Mrs. Pren-
tice, and he was dead when I first discovered that in some
respects my marriage was irregular."

Mrs. Prentice was dumb.

Mrs. Redcliffe went on in her quiet voice. " So you see,"
she said, " that unless you are anxious to punish me for doing
many years ago what you say, under the circumstances of my
ignorance, I could not be blamed for — and you deny that you
wish to punish me — you are holding aloof from me for — well,
perhaps you will tell me for what."

Mrs. Prentice grew flustered. " You may better me in
argument," she said, " but I know all the same that I am
right, and I should be false to my convictions if I acted

" Otherwise than how ? "

" Than by showing that, however much I regret the neces-
sity, I cannot hold company with those who break laws that


168 Exton Manor

I hold to be sacred, and defend themselves for breaking them.
Yes, that is the point ; I see it now. You defend your
marriage. Your eyes have been opened to the truth and you
do not repent. You are undoubtedly living in a state of sin
until you do. If your husband were alive you would still be
living with him. The fact of his death makes no difference."

Mrs. Redcliffe rose, her face a deep red. " We need say
no more," she began ; but Hilda broke in, rising too —

" Let her go, mother ! " she cried. " Her hypocrisy is
beyond bearing. 1 1 makes me feel positively sick. You have
treated her with the most splendid patience and forbearance,
and have shown her plainly that she has no excuse even from
her own point of view. She hates you because you are good
and she is not. She only wants an excuse for her wicked
spite. She is glad — you can see it in her face — that she has
something to use against you. Let her go ! It is you who
cannot have anything more to do with her. You can't live
any longer in friendship with a mean and contemptible woman
like that. She is too far beneath you."

She poured forth her words in a torrent of scorn and indig-
nation. Her mother made no effort to stop her. Mrs.
Prentice, rising with the others, confronted her with a furious
face, and tried once or twice to break in on her, but her voice
was borne down by the girl's anger.

" This is what I let myself in for," cried Mrs. Prentice.
" This girl — the daughter of an unholy alliance — — "

Mrs. Redcliffe laid a hand on her arm. " Stop ! " she said.
M Say no more. You shall have your way ; we will not meet
again as friends. Hilda is right. You have shown your
enmity towards me, and the Christianity which is so much
on your lips is worthless. You think wickedly and you speak
wickedly. You may go now ; and I will have nothing more
to do with you."

" That indeed you won't," returned Mrs. Prentice, bursting
with spite and preparing for her departure. " And I shall
take very good care that others whom you would give your
ears to be friends with shall not have anything to do with
you. It is a disgrace that you should be living in the

Hilda took a step forward. " If you don't go at once I
will turn you out," she said. " You shall not speak to my
mother in that way. And you may tell your new friend that


Discord 169

she did a very wicked thing when she gave a woman like you
a weapon to use against my mother."

Mrs. Prentice was at the door. " I shall certainly tell
Lady Wrotham all about your outrageous behaviour/' she
said. " And I shall do my best to get her to turn you cut of
the place. It is intolerable that you should be living here
beside respectable and God-fearing people/'

Hilda, who had almost lost control of herself, would have
followed her with another taunt, but Mrs. Redcliffe restrained
her, and she threw herself into her mother's arms and burst
into a passion of tears.

Mrs. Redcliffe, white to the roots of her hair, soothed her
as well as she was able, sinking into a chair, for she was
hardly able to stand.

" Oh, how hateful ! " cried the girl. " Mother, we must
go away. We can't stay here to have these things said
against us." •

" No, we will not go away," said Mrs. Redclifie. " No
one will behave like that again. The worst is over ; but oh,
it was very hard to bear." ♦

They grew calmer, comforting one another, and presently
went about their duties in the pleasant house w T hich had been
such a happy home to them for the past five years, but had
now become a place from which they would both willingly
have flown if they could have done so without cowardice.

And Mrs. Prentice walked homewards, her knees trembling
under her, alternately exulting and afraid.



Mrs. Prentice possessed, although she did not often allow
it to appear, a wholesome dread of her husband. The Vicar,
underneath the crust of his rigid beliefs, was an easy-going
man, and had solved the problem of living in a not altogether
ideal companionship by allowing his wife more room in which
to exercise her less agreeable characteristics than was good
for her. But he had at the bottqm of his heart a solid lump
of fundamental Christianity, and was sometimes shaken out
of his wonted tolerance towards her, to express himself
forcibly on her crying lack of charity. Now it would not be
possible for anyone to follow as doggedly as Mrs. Prentice did
the letter of religion, and to escape altogether the calls of
the spirit, unless actuated by the most deadly hypocrisy ; and
Mrs. Prentice was not a conscious hyprocrite. Therefore
there was something in her which her husband's occasional
rebukes could affect. You may call it conscience or only
vanity, but the fact remains that they caused her discomfort
enough to make her dislike and dread them.

As she walked down to the village from the White House,
convinced as she was that she had acted only uprightly, and
had received abominable treatment for righteousness' sake,
she was yet aware that whatever story she told her husband
of what had passed between her and the RedclirTes, he would
look at her, his face growing stern, amazed, indignant, and
then he would break out upon her and rout her self-com-
placency, driving her out of the room in angry tears, perhaps,
as had happened before. And, although she had done her
duty — much as it had pained her — she knew that she would
not be able to stand up against his wrath.


Mrs. Prentice tastes Success in

Really, at the present moment she could not go through
with it. Her knees knocked under her and she felt faint
and unstrung — though still conscious of rectitude. She could
hardly summon up enough fortitude to carry her over the
short mile which lay between the White House and the
vicarage, with the populous village in between.

A recreating thought came to her. She would call at the
Abbey on her way home and see Lady Wrotham. She would
tell her patroness of what she had said and of what had been
said to her. She must certainly put matters on a footing
there some time, and if she did it before she saw her husband,
she might be fortified by the great lady's approval and
alliance against her husband's displeasure. At any rate she
would be offered a chair, and she badly wanted a chair at the

She was admitted at once to Lady Wrotham's presence and
tottered to a seat.

" Oh, Mrs. Prentice ! " cried Lady Wrotham. " You are
ill. Some brandy, Hooker, quickly ! "

" If I might have a glass of port wine and a biscuit," said
Mrs. Prentice faintly. " Brandy flies to my head."

" Oh, yes. Port wine and a biscuit, Hooker, quickly !
Pray what is the matter, Mrs. Prentice ? But do not talk.
Tell me afterwards. Lean your head back. Wait, I will put
a cushion behind you."

But Mrs. Prentice was already recovering, and the port
which she sipped and the biscuits at which she nibbled
soon completed the process. When she had put the empty
glass back on to the tray beside her she was herself once more.

"lam sure you must be surprised at my coming in in this
way, Lady Wrotham," she said. " And I am sure I did not
mean to alarm you. I was just a little overwrought."

Lady Wrotham still looked alarmed. She was a different
being, motherly, solicitous, from the autocratic dame that
Mrs. Prentice had hitherto had to deal with, and that lady
experienced a sense of comfortable gratitude as she put down
her glass and prepared to tell her story.

" The fact is," she said, " that I have just gone through a
most trying half-hour and it has greatly upset me."

" I can see that," said Lady Wrotham. " Please tell me
about it if you feel yourself able to do so."

" Quite able now, thank you," returned Mrs. Prentice.

172 Exton Manor

" I have been treated in the most outrageous way by Mrs.
Redcliffe and her daughter. I could not have believed such
unpleasantness as I have had to go through could have

Lady Wrotham's face settled into a slightly harder ex-
pression. " I hope/' she said, " that the unpleasantness has
had nothing to do with the circumstances of Mrs. Redcliffe's
marriage, of which I told you in confidence/'

" Yes, it had. But, Lady Wrotham, pray do not blame
me before you have heard what has passed. I assure you
that I would never have said a word, not a single word, either

Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 14 of 36)