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is another side to it."



Mrs. Prentice tastes Success 183

Mrs. Prentice rose. " I shall say no more/- she said. " It
is useless. You seem to be infatuated with Mrs. Redcliffe.
Since you decline to believe a word that I say, you had better
go and get the truth from her."

" That is just what I intend to do," replied her husband.
" I would give a great deal not to have to speak to her about
it ; but now that all this has been let loose upon the poor lady
it is for her own advantage that I shall do so."

Mrs. Prentice bethought herself. It would not be well that
her husband should be able to accuse her of keeping anything
back from him. " I dare say she will make out a very good
story for herself," she said. " If you prefer to believe her
rather than your wife, you must do so ; and you are always
soft where women are concerned — except me, and there you
are as hard as stone. Of course there is the principle of
the thing, but that won't weigh with you for a moment."

The Vicar laughed grimly. " You are talking very fool-
ishly," he said. " But as I have spoken pretty strongly to
you, I suppose is it only fair that I should listen to your
accusations without resentment. I certainly don't resent
them ; they are too silly."

" Thank you," returned Mrs. Prentice. " That is so like
a man. I was going to tell you that Mrs. Redcliffe says that
she didn't know that marriage with a deceased wife's sister was
not quite a usual and praiseworthy custom until she came to
England. It is a good deal to swallow, but I dare say you
will have no difficulty in swallowing it."

" I shall have no difficulty in swallowing any direct state-
ment that Mrs. Redcliffe makes," returned the Vicar. " If
that is so it makes the poor lady's case a hard one. Well,
they say that women are cruel to one another, Agatha, but,
really, one finds it difficult to believe that a woman who has
known another woman as you have known Mrs. Redcliffe
should find it in her heart to behave as you are doing towards
her. I will say no more than that until I have seen her, which
I will do this afternoon."

Mrs. Prentice left the room. The interview had ended
quietly and with far less tribulation to the spirit than she had
anticipated. But it did occur to her once or twice later that
her husband had not yet said all that he was likely to say on
the subject, and she was not altogether at her ease. She spent
the afternoon in her room reading what Lady Wrotham had



IS4 Exton Manor

asked her to read. The tracts prepared by the Ladies' Reform-
ation League for the strengthening of their anti-ritual cam-
paign left her cold, and had indeed been unwisely chosen for'
the purpose which Lady Wrotham had had in mind, but the
book, which was written by an Evangelical dean, and contained
no controversial rancour, comforted her considerably. The
chief lesson she drew from it was that those who acted rightly
regardless of consequences were in an exceptionally enviable
condition, and the application to her own case was so impos-
sible not to make that the truth of the general Evangelical
attitude commended itself to her agreeably, and she felt that
she and Lady Wrotham had more in common than she had
hitherto suspected.



CHAPTER XVII

THE VICAR

The Vicar walked up to the White House that afternoon
considerably disturbed in mind. The matter immediately in
hand was not chiefly responsible for his discomfort. He
disliked the idea of talking to Mrs. Redcliffe of her most
intimate affairs, but his feeling towards her was so firmly
anchored in respect, and his desire now so strong to help
her, that he could be in no doubt as to the ultimate outcome
of this visit.

There were other things to try him. Difficulties seemed
to be gathering round him. The autocratic narrow-minded
old woman, who had come apparently determined to impose
her views on all about her, and to destroy the peace of mind
of a fairly contented community — how would her actions
affect him in his work and in his life ? Disastrously, he feared.
And if, added to her opposition in Church matters, she was
such a woman as to be ready to persecute Mrs. Redcliffe,
whom she had never met, for the mistake — as he judged it —
of her past life, she would in truth be a stumbling-block in
the way of all peace and goodness. He had had some
further conversation, couched in more mutually tolerant form
than before, with his wife over the luncheon table, with a
view of extracting from her what had passed between herself
and Lady Wrotham ; and what he had learnt, although he
discounted a good deal of it, distressed him. His wife, with
such an ally, would exhibit all her worst points, and find
herself encouraged in that merciless self-sufficiency and apti-
tude for strife which he had told her more than once or twice,
with the frankness engendered of the married state, was her
besetting sin. This was not a state of things that could br

185



186 Exton Manor

looked forward to with complacency, and if, besides this,
she was really about to stultify all her previous beliefs and
championships and follow the lead of Lady Wrotham in
her opposition to himself, would not life with her become
intolerable ?

Curiously, perhaps, when he had got to the stage of asking
himself this question, he did not find the reply to it to be
altogether discouraging. He knew his wife so well. Dis-
pleased though he was with her at the present moment, he
felt little of that indignant anger which only an adversary
whom w r e are doubtful of subduing can arouse in our minds.
She was undoubtedly tiresome in many ways ; her faults,
when they were pushed to extremes, distressed and even
scandalized him ; she was not always easy to live with. But
she was Agatha, his wife of five and twenty years. He had
grown used to her. Virtues, little apparent to the outside
world, but known to him, tempered her naughtiness of heart,
and coloured his judgment. And in the long run he knew
that he could have his way with her. At the same time there
would be serious difficulties and annoyances to overcome
before she would be finally in subjection, and he would not
spare the rod of his displeasure when she deserved it.

These musings brought him to the gate of the White
House, and he shook them off to bend his mind to the task
that lay immediately before him.

Hilda was at work among the rose-bushes in the garden,
and came forward to meet him as he walked up the drive.
Her attitude was uncompromising, and she neither smiled nor
offered her hand.

" Mother is lying down," she said. " Naturally, she is
not well after what happened this morning, and I don't think
she will be able to see you."

" I am very sorry to hear that," he said. " But aren't you
going to shake hands with me, Hilda ? "

She looked him straight in the face. " I think I would
rather not," she said, " until I know what you think, or have
to say, about what you have probably heard of. And I will
never take Mrs. Prentice's hand again as long as I live."

There was a flame of the old resentment in her face which
saddened him. " My dear," he said, " I know that there
were regrettable things said this morning. I have come up
to see if I can do something to take away the effect of them.



The Vicar 187

You must not treat an old friend as if he were an enemy,
certainly not before you have heard what he has to say for
himself."

The antagonism in her face died down, but she did not
move. " I don't know who are friends and who are enemies
now," she said. " I only know that my dear mother, who
is the best woman in the world, is in trouble, and because
she is in trouble those who ought to be her friends and value
her as she deserves hate her."

" I hope you will find very soon that that is not so, Hilda.
And here is one friend who does value your mother as she
deserves, and would like to assure her of it."

" I am glad you have said that," she said, softening a
little. "It is no more than you ought to say. But how
can we go on being friends with you, Mr. Prentice, after
what has happened ? I said things to Mrs. Prentice this
morning that you would be shocked to hear. But I meant
them every word, and I would say them again."

They were standing on the gravel near the house. Mrs.
Redcliffe, whose bedroom windows were at this corner, had
heard their voices and hastened to come down. She now
appeared at the door.

" Come in, if you please, Mr. Prentice," she said, and
led the way to the parlour. Hilda closed the door, and again
there were three of them closeted together, and distressing
things to be said.

But the Vicar hastened to relieve the tension. " Mrs.
Redcliffe," he said, " I have heard everything that happened
this morning, and I am sure you will not want to discuss
it with me. I will only say this — that I am deeply sorry
that my wife should have acted as she did. More than that
you will not expect me to say. But I want you to con-
sider if you will that I am not only your friend of some
years' standing. If it were only that perhaps I could not
come here apart from my wife, after what has happened,

until Well, at all events, I have come, because I am the

clergyman of this parish, as well as your friend, and you
have a right to my help and advice, if you care to make use
of it."

" Thank you, Mr. Prentice," replied Mrs. Redcliffe. " But
I do not feel now that I want help or advice. Things became
plainer to me this morning, and I see that 'there is nothing to



188 Exton Manor

be done, except to go on living my life as I have been doing,
keeping such friendships as are still open to me, and doing
without those that are withdrawn. Even from the point of
view of the Pharisee, there is nothing to be done. There is
no advice to be given or taken."

" Mrs. Prentice advised you to repent, mother," said Hilda,
her young voice full of scorn.

The Vicar grew red. M May we not put aside for the pres-
ent what Mrs. Prentice said ? " he asked.

" Yes, I wish to do so," said Mrs. Redcliffe. " And I do
recognize the friendliness of your action in coming here, Mr.
Prentice. It is what I should have expected of you. Perhaps,
under the circumstances, we cannot go on seeing so much of
each other as we have done in the past, but our friendship, I
believe, is founded on what we know of each other. That is
sure ground, and even now, though you may feel — I don't
know — that what you have heard alters your opinion of me
in some degree, still there may be kindly feeling between us."

" What I have heard does not alter my opinion of you,
Mrs. Redcliffe," said the Vicar. " How could it ? "

" Well," she said, " I know what the views of Churchmen
are on this question. I have read them when it has come up,
and I have even heard them preached about. I have heard
you preach on the subject, Mr. Prentice."

Thd Vicar grew red. He remembered, though he had
previously forgotten, that on one of the occasions on which a
Deceased Wife's Sister Bill had been before Parliament he
had delivered himself in the pulpit of Exton Abbey of a
collection of the usual clerical objections to it.
v " If I had known " he began.

"I know you would not willingly have hurt me," said
Mrs. Redcliffe. " You needn't tell me that. And I don't
know that you did hurt me. You were simply expressing
views that I was quite familiar with, and I should have
expected you to hold them. I do not expect you to alter
them because of me."

" I think they are very narrow-minded views," said Hilda
uncompromisingly. " But if Mr. Prentice holds them I
suppose he is bound to be like Mrs. Prentice, and look upon
us as people he can't possibly associate with."

" You are quite wrong, Hilda," said the Vicar. " To act
in that way would not even be the logical outcome of my



The Vicar 189

views. I must be honest with you, Mrs. Redciiffe. I should
resist, as far as I had any power, any new legislation on the
subject, and — I am not quite sure, I have not thought the
matter out — I think I should not become intimate with —
with a couple, an English couple, who had gone through
the ceremony abroad, and were living in my parish. But
3'our case is very different. Even if you had not married, as
my wife told me was the case, in ignorance of the Church's
rule, you — it would be wrong, un-Christian to — to — I don't
know how to put it — it would amount to taking it upon one's
self to ostracize you for what cannot now be altered, even if
3'ou wished to have it altered, and to holding one's self aloof
from one from whom one has only been helped and encouraged
in every good work."

u Then you do not insist upon mother's repenting before
you can treat her as worthy to live at all ? asked Hilda,
unsoftened by his tribute.

The Vicar was silent. If the case had been submitted to
him on paper, he would certainly have decreed that repentance
must precede a complete forgiveness of the offence to the
Church's law, even though that offence were committed in
innocence. But the deceased wife's sister had projected
herself from an impersonal ecclesiastical bogie into the form
of Mrs. Redciiffe, charitable, high-minded, calm in judgment,
untiring in good works, a woman whom it was a privilege to
know, and an inspiration to all patient goodness to count as
a friend. Do circumstances alter cases ? Surely, in this
case of a woman so patently producing the fruits of righteous-
ness, it was impossible to judge of her as living apart from
grace — in a state of sin !

" I don't say that ; I say nothing more than I have said,"
he replied after a short pause, during which these thoughts
had passed through his mind.

But the pause had been too long for Hilda. She made a
movement of impatience. " The idea," she exclaimed,
indignantly, " of saying such a thing about my mother !
You know how good she is, and her goodness seems to go for
nothing beside a stupid law that ought never to have been
made."

" Do not speak in that way, Hilda," said Mrs. Redciiffe.
" Mr. Prentice has said just what I could have wished him to
say, and said it with true kindness."



190 Exton Manor

"He has said pretty well what Mrs. Prentice said/' replied
Hilda. " Only she wanted to say yes, and he would have
liked to say no if he could. I am not satisfied, mother, if
you are. You are too good and patient. I cannot listen to
any more. It makes me angry to think that any good man
or woman should not take your side as a matter of course,
without weighing this or that. I shall go now, and if you can
make Mr. Prentice see what harm he is doing to himself and
his religion by putting rules before goodness it will be all
the better for him." And she left the room with her head in
the air.

" It has been a great blow to her," said Mrs. Redcliffe,
when the door had closed behind Hilda. " It has upset all
her standards ; and the way it will affect her causes me more
distress than anything else. You must forgive her if she
speaks harshly. Youth always takes a harsh view when its
affections are wounded."

" Oh, indeed, I honour her for her championship," said the
Vicar. " And I do not feel that her blame is undeserved. It
is a terrible thing, as she says, to prefer rules to goodness.
But, my dear friend, it is not easy to adjust one's thoughts to
a disturbance of belief. If I were to throw over at once and
completely all I had held and taught on the subject, it might
satisfy Hilda for the moment, but it would not satisfy you.
There is no real antagonism between my views on the general
question and my continued respect for you personally, and, if
I appear to hesitate over answering any particular question it
is only because I must make clear to my own mind where
truth and the right lies."

" I know," said Mrs. Redcliffe. " I do not misunderstand
you. You have lifted a weight from my mind, for I must
tell you, that although I do not resent the views held by the
more strict of your Church, my own marriage has taught me
that they are wrong. To do what I did cannot be a sin, for
a sin, committed and persisted in, must cut you off from God,
and my marriage while it lasted, and the memory of it ever
since, has only brought me nearer to Him. That is as deeply
my experience as any lesson the years can teach us about the
pursuit of righteousness. ' Perhaps it is too much to ask that
you should accept my experience as if it were your own, but
to treat me now as one who has something on her conscience
that unfits her to live amongst professing Christians, is an



The Vicar 191

offence that I cannot lightly ignore. I did not think that
you could commit it, and you have not."

" My wife, I am afraid, has done so/' returned the Vicar
ruefully. " I am very sorry for it. But, Mrs. Redcliffe you
will not judge her harshly. You know what her faults are.
But she is good at heart. She will be sorry herself for what
she has said and done — and I hope before very long."

He made this appeal with the full belief that it would be
responded to. He knew Mrs. Redcliffe as a woman more
than others ready to make allowances. He had heard her
put in a quiet word of excuse for some one palpably in the
wrong many times. He had never in all his experiences of her
heard her impute blame to a single living creature. And he
had known her make ample allowances for his wife, who, with
out such allowances, would have made mischief before this
between the vicarage and the White House, for she had
always been jealous of Mrs. Redcliffe and her placid influence.

But there was to be no further exoneration from clear
obliquity of purpose. Mrs. Redcliffe's face grew sterner.
" I think," she said, " that there are sins which no one can
commit and expect their neighbours to live with them as
before. And I think Mrs. Prentice has committed one of
them. What Hilda said is true. She wanted, as earnestly as
she could want anything, to find wickedness in me, and she
used the opinions she had acquired on this question as an
excuse, and not as a reason for finding me guilty. I do regard
such an attitude as a sin against the light, and I should say
the same — that is the test of whether my own attitude to her
now is dictated by resentment — I should say the same if
it were another woman towards whom I knew she felt as she
does to me, and I were not directly concerned. I would have
nothing to do with one woman who persecuted another with
those motives."

The Vicar was at a loss. Her rigidity surprised and dis-
concerted him.

" I know how deeply she must have offended you," he said,
" for you to speak like that."

" She did offend me — deeply. But she has offended me
before and I have made light of it. I cannot do so now. If
it were only for Hilda's sake, I must be known to abhor the
spirit she has shown. There is no good in it, only malice
and evil. And with one woman to another, to whom she



192 Exton Manor

should have shown — perhaps pity, though I do not want pity,
but certainly kindness and sympathy, for I told her every-
thing. No, there is no excuse. She is jubilant at what she
has discovered about me, and if trouble comes of it to me and
to Hilda, it is to her I shall owe it."

The Vicar had nothing to say. He recognized the truth
of Mrs. Redcliffe's accusation, ail the more forceful as coming
from her. A feeling of deep anger, such as he had never felt
against her before, held him as he thought of his wife, an
echo of the impersonal anger that Mrs. Redcliffe had ex-
pressed against the wrong-doer, stronger than it was in her
to feel on account of the wrong done to her. The world must
go awry, and the claims of religion be brought into contempt,
if such a spirit were to be allowed to walk abroad unlaid.

" I am afraid that you have justification for what you say,"
he replied. " I shall not shrink from my duty in rebuking
the fault. But no fault — no sin — is beyond forgiveness. You
will not shut your heart against her when she comes to see
that she has been wrong ? "

" When I know that she comes to see it— when she tells
me so unreservedly — I v/ill wipe it out of my mind. The
offence against me shall be as nothing. But until that time
comes there will be no drawing back, Mr. Prentice. M37 dis-
pleasure against her will be as strong as hers against me, and
I shall not hesitate to express it where I see the necessity/'

There was no more to say. The Vicar left her and walked
back to his house sad at heart. He had been impressed by
Mrs. Redcliffe's calm sensible view of her own position, her
views of what was due to herself from the world and of what
was due from herself to the prejudices of the world. He
always expected Mrs. Redcliffe to be sensible, sensible almost
with inspiration, and he had even been willing in some re-
spects to accept her view as against his own, at any rate as
far as her case w r as concerned. But he would never have
seen deeper than the surface — more than the unfortunate
falling out of two women, both of whom had something to say-
in their own excuse, although the one more than the other, if
it had not been for the quite unsuspected capacity for uncom-
promising wrath that Mrs. Redcliffe had displayed. Here
was no angry sense of injustice that could be soothed by a
lightly spoken word of sympathy. It came welling out of
the woman's heart, fortified by all her experience of goodness



The Vicar 193

and all the self-disciplined motives of her life. It burned
with a spiritual flame. Woe betide him if he did not guide
his course by its heat. Yes, the girl was right. This was a
transparently good woman, and those who were not for her
in the crisis of her life were ranging themselves on the side
of evil. He, at any rate, would from henceforward be on her
side, and he would fight for her even against his nearest.

The interview which he immediately sought with his wife
need not be reported in detail. He spoke as strongly as he
felt, and Mrs. Prentice was ultimately brought to tears. But
they were not the tears of penitence, but of revolt. The fact
that her original dislike of Mrs. Redcliffe arose from the
feeling that she was a better woman than herself, and was
recognized as such, did not dispose her to softness when she
heard Mrs. Redcliffe extolled as a saint and herself con-
demned as a sinner by her own husband. Her mind was
honestly unable to grasp that a woman who had married her
deceased sister's husband* might move on a higher plane of
conduct than one who had escaped that temptation, and a
good deal of the Vicar's diatribe she rejected indignantly,
thereby supporting in comparative comfort those parts of it
which would otherwise have found their way to her conscience.

" It is you who are un-Christian," she cried out at length,
furious with anger and jealousy. " Lady Wrotham is quite
right. You are not fit to be in your present position. And I
shall tell her I think so."

And that was all that the Vicar got for the present by his
championship of Mrs, Redcliffe.



(S)



CHAPTER XVIII

TURNER AND BROWNE TAKE SIDES

Browne, in pursuance of his promise to Lady Wrotham,
presented himself at the Fisheries that same afternoon, and
found Captain Thomas Turner seated in front of his fire, deep
in the perusal of a new novel from a box that had just reached
him.

" Well, you're a nice fellow," he said. " Fancy frousting
indoors over a book at this time of day ! "

Turner looked slightly apologetic. " Been out all the
morning and afternoon/' he said, " and it's infernally chilly.
Don't mean to go out again."

" Oh, yes, you do," returned Browne. " You've got to
drive down to the Abbey and call on her ladyship with me."

" That's the last thing I intend to do. Stop and have some
tea. I'm ready for a little company. You can sit down and
read a book — plenty of good ones here — or we'll have a game
of picquet, which ever you like."

Look here, Turner," said Browne earnestly. " Do come
down. She expects you, and it'll make it infernally hard for
me if you don't."

Turner bent a look of demure consideration on him. " Poor
devil ! " he said slowly. " Poor, poor devil ! "

" What do you mean ? " asked Browne.

" You're a parasite, Browne, a blooming old parasite."

" I'm nothing of the sort," said Browne indignantly. " I'm
out in the open air all day long, and as healthy a fellow as
you'll see anywhere."

' You follow one of the parasitical occupations. You're
not your own master. You've got to kow-tow to an old
woman if you want to keep your place. I wouldn't be you

194

(24)



Turner and Browne take sides 195

for anything in the world. Give me freedom ; freedom with
a crust if you like, but still freedom."



Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 16 of 36)