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" And so have I," said Browne. " We're old friends, Mrs.
Redcliffe, and we'll be better ones still."

11 Then Mrs. Prentice has already begun to talk," said
Hilda. " And I suppose Lady Wrotham too. To think that
there should be such women in the world ! When did you
hear of it — and where ? "

" Just been calling on the old lady," said Turner, " and
Mrs. Prentice was there. Never again. You're right, Miss
Hilda, Mrs. Prentice ought to be put out of the way. She's
not fit to live. But why worry about anything she says or
does ? We've got something else to talk about, I should
hope."

" Then you are on our side," said Hilda, " absolutely,
without any reservations ? "

" 'Course I am. You ought to have known it. And so's
Browne, though he's too lazy to say so."

" It doesn't want saying," said Browne. " Mrs. Redcliffe
knows us and we know her."

" You are two very kind friends," said Mrs. Redcliffe softly.
" And I have never thought that you would say anything else.
I am glad that you know. I am sorry that it was not known
to my real friends long ago."

" And Lady Wrotham actually told you what she has
against mother ? " said Hilda. " Told two men, one of them
a stranger to her, and before another woman ! I wish I could
tell her what I think of her."

" No, she didn't," said Browne. " To do her justice, she
was annoyed with Mrs. Prentice for saying anything."

" She wasn't," said Turner. " They were both as bad as
one another."



Turner and Browne take sides 207

f Then Mrs. Prentice told you ? " .

" She would have done if Lady Wrotham hadn't stopped
her," said Browne.

" Then you were not told ? You don't know ? " said Mrs.
Redcliffe.

" We didn't want to listen to her lies," said Turner.
" Neither of us." *

'• 'Course not," Browne chimed in.

Mrs. Redcliffe was silent for a moment. Then she said in
a low. voice, " It is well to know what loyal friends one has.
But if you do not know what Lady Wrotham has discovered
about me, I will tell you myself."

" We don't want to know," said Turner. " What's it got
to do with us ? "

And Browne repeated his former remark, " You know us,
Mrs. Redcliffe, and we know you."

" You will hear it from somebody," she said, " and I would
rather you heard it from me. Lady Wrotham knew what
others in England have not known, that I was my husband's
second wife, and his first, who died within a year of her mar-
riage, was my elder sister."

There was a pause. " Well," said Turner, " now Browne's
curiosity is satisfied. And what on earth is there in that to
make a fuss about ? Ton my word, Mrs. Redcliffe, that
woman ought to be lynched. She's got a tongue that would
blacken an archangel."

" I don't know whether you have quite gathered the signifi-
cance of what I have told you, "said Mrs. Redcliffe. Browne,
it was clear, had not at first done so, but apparently his
brain had now brought him to a conclusion, for his face
cleared.

" Oh, yes," he said. " But, hang it all, you know ! Well,
thank you for telling us, Mrs. Redcliffe, though it wouldn't
have made any difference if you hadn't. You know us and
we know you."

" Browne has gone through a good deal this afternoon,"
said Turner. " You mustn't mind his repeating himself.
Well, I must be off, Mrs. Redcliffe. I'm dining at Oakhurst
to-night and I must get home. Then I shall see you all to-
morrow evening — usual time. Good-bye."

He shook hands with a warm grasp and departed. Hilda
went with him to the outer door. " You're very kind,



208 Exton Manor

Captain Turner," she said; " I was sure you and Mr.
Browne would be, but I am very pleased all the same."

He turned to her with a chuckle. " You gave her a piece
of your mind, didn't you ? " he said. " Told her to tell the
old woman to go to the deuce, eh ? "

" Well, not that exactly," said Hilda, smiling at him.
" But whatever I said she deserved — both of them deserved."

" Deserve ! They deserve hanging. You keep it up,
Hilda. Don't you let 'em worry your mother. She's the
best mother you'll ever have, or anyone else either. Good-
bye."

He disappeared along the garden path as if he had been shot
out of a catapult, and Hilda returned to the parlour.

She found Browne and her mother in deep talk. " I assure
you, Mrs. Redcliffe," Browne was saying, " that it was pretty
nearly all Mrs. Prentice's fault. I don't want to defend Lady
Wrotham. She annoyed me infernally this afternoon, and she
ought not to have let it out, to Mrs. Prentice of all people.
But to do her justice she did prevent the other woman blurt-
ing it out when she wanted to, and said she shouldn't have
told anybody if she'd known it was — not gen'ly known."

" Are you trying to excuse Lady Wrotham ? " asked
Hilda.

" Mr. Browne is quite right to excuse her if there is an
excuse," said Mrs. Redcliffe. " And I am glad to hear what he
says."

" It's only just on that one point I'd excuse her," said
Browne. " I put most of the trouble down to Mrs. Prentice.
I don't deny that her ladyship was — well, annoyed with you,
because, of course, Mrs. Prentice had been making all the
mischief she could. She repeated something that Hilda had
said about Lady Wrotham to her yesterday and made the
most of it."

Hilda laughed. " I'm glad of that at any rate," she said.
" But it was I who said it, and not mother. Why Lady
Wrotham should have the impertinence to be annoyed with
her I don't know."

" Well, Mrs. Prentice I don't defend at all," said Browne.
" But Lady Wrotham I do, up to a certain point. She said
herself that she was glad to hear she had been mistaken about
you, and said when you went to see her, she — she "

" She should judge for herself. Was that it, Mr. Browne ? "



Turner and Browne take sides 209

Browne hesitated, and Hilda broke in. " Go to see her
indeed ! That is a nice thing to suggest.' '

" I cannot go to see Lady Wrotham, Mr. Browne,' ' said
Mrs. Redcliffe; and Hilda, " I should think not, indeed ! "

" Well, you know best," said Browne. " I only thought —
however, you'll do what you like, of course."

Soon afterwards he took his leave. Hilda did not accom-
pany him to the door. " Fancy suggesting that you should
call on Lady Wrotham ! " she said. " It seems to me that
Mr. Browne is trying to be your friend and Lady Wrotham 's
at the same time. He's not like Captain Turner."

"He is an honest and loyal gentleman," said Mrs. Red-
cliffe. " You must remember, Hilda, that it is not possible
for him to break off from Lady Wrotham altogether, and I
don't see at all why he should. We must not be too exacting
to our friends. I think w r e are very fortunate in having two
such generous ones as Captain Turner and Mr. Browne."



CHAPTER XIX

RUMOUR, AND A MEETING

Rumour, with its thousand tongues, soon spread the news
about Mrs. Redcliffe that Lady Wrotham had brought down
to Exton. It is not necessary to suppose that Mrs. Prentice
took the lead in setting it flying, although, when she was
addressed on the subject, she made no secret of her opinions
— opinions, she said, which it grieved her to have to hold
but which hold she must if she was to keep her self-respect
as a religious woman. The village had got hold of it some-
how ; possibly the first thin thread of fact had been drawn by
a servant, either at the Abbey or the vicarage, through a key-
hole,- but this was never known. The village gossiped and
talked scandal, and a few of the more virtuous matrons sniffed
at Mrs. Redcliffe in the open street. But there being not the
slightest genuine feeling against marriage with a deceased
wife's sister in the abstract, there could be none against a
lady, otherwise much respected and liked, who had contracted
such a marriage years before. And Mrs. Redcliffe had her
warm champions among the villagers, as well as among
those in higher places, who expressed themselves strongly
against Mrs. Prentice's known attitude towards her. Finally,
when it became known that in Australia, where Mrs. Red-
cliffe had married, the law was as it was, popular opinion set
strongly against Mrs. Prentice for stirring up a fuss about
nothing, and Mrs. Redcliffe's position with her humbler neigh-
bours was put on a firmer basis of liking than ever. Until
this state of feeling settled down there was very little that
could disturb her, but a good deal of unobtrusive sympathy
which showed the general respect and liking in which she was
held.

210



Rumour, and a Meeting 211

But with the surrounding gentry she had to go through a
good deal. There were very few who took the view that Mrs.
Prentice's strict code had imposed upon her, none indeed with
whom she was at all intimate. But curiosity and gossip
fluttered about her like ugly birds. It was the first subject
to be introduced by those who now came flocking to give Lady
Wrotham a welcome to Exton Abbey, but Lady Wrotham
would have none of it. She was very sorry that she had put
it about, she said. At least she had not put it about, as she
had had no idea that it was not known. She would prefer not
to discuss it. Everyone seemed to speak well of Mrs. Red-
cliffe, and she for her part had nothing to say against her.
Mrs. Redcliffe had not yet done her the honour of calling on her
and it was not her habit to talk over the affairs of people she
did not know. .

Yes, certainly, her visitors, or most of them, would say.
Nothing could really be said against Mrs. Redcliffe. She
lived very quietly and did not go about much, but those w T ho
did know her liked her, and the girl was a delightful creature.

Lady Wrotham had nothing to say about the girl. She
rather fancied her manners were not of the best, but she
did not know her, and — perhaps the subject might be changed.

At the bottom of her heart a feeling of deep annoyance was
growing against Mrs. Prentice, who, she was fully assured,
was responsible for spreading the report, although that lady
had vehemently denied it. It was intolerable that she should
be forced to take part in this petty local gossip, and be con-
sidered, besides, to be the origin of it. And it annoyed her to
have to keep this resentment to herself, for, although she dis-
believed the assurances that were given her, she was not yet
prepared to say so, and Mrs. Prentice was now proving herself
a. valuable go-between in the designs she had for converting
the inhabitants of Exton to the views of the Women's Refor-
mation League. She had quite made up her mind, however,
that if the day came when Mrs. Prentice played her false in
those matters which she had so much at heart, she would
speak her mind in a way that would surprise that
lady.

Foiled at the fountain head, the country neighbours as a
rule made their way on leaving the Abbey, those who wished
to treat the disclosure as an agreeable scandal to Mrs. Pren-
tice, and the better disposed to Mrs. Redcliffe herself. The



212 Exton Manor

former gained more for their trouble, for they had a more or
less detailed and not entirely colourless account of Mrs. Pren-
tice's memorable interview with Mrs. Redcliffe, and, as a
wind up, Hilda's defiance of Lady Wrotham, which lost
nothing in the telling. The latter got small satisfaction.
They found Mrs. Redcliffe serene but uncommunicative, and
Hilda watchful and ready to take offence at the smallest hint
of what was in their minds. There were one or two who
were sincerely sorry for what had happened. These made
no fishing references, but were more than usually cordial, as
Turner and Browne had been, and they came away with the
conviction that Mrs. Redcliffe was a woman in & thousand
and shamefully used by malicious tongues. So that even in
this series of visitations there were bright spots, and Hilda
was not able to feel that all the world was against them, as
in her more fiery moods she would perhaps have liked to
feel.

In the middle of these happenings, the first of Lady Wro-
tham's private religious services, which were to form the
antidote to the poison of the Vicar's teaching, took place in
the dining-hall of the Abbey. As a start off she invited a
clerical friend of her own persuasion from London to stay
with her and conduct the proceedings. He was a good man
and a gentleman, but Mrs. Prentice's gorge rose at him, for
he was everything that she had hitherto despised. He wore
a moustache and a layman's collar, and he spoke with a sort
of pious bleat which she found it hard to bear. But she had
compensations. Lady Wrotham was particularly friendly
to her that afternoon, and called her "-my dear " in face of
the assembly.

Mrs. Capper was there, dressed very smartly, and anxious
to assist in guiding the worshippers to such seats as should
best indicate their respective importance in the social scale ;
but her ladyship's servants were so used to these gatherings,
and managed things in such a cold-blooded efficient way,
that there was no occasion for her efforts, and she had to
content herself with a seat in the front row, to which she
was shown by Virtue of her smart clothes. There was a con-
siderable gathering of women, but no men, Mrs. Prentice
having found a difficulty in persuading them to come, and
Lady Wrotham having decided after all that they were not
wanted. Most of the women were there out of curiosity,



Rumour, and a Meeting 213

and treated the occasion as a mild sort of entertainment, of
which the tea was the crowning point and the service a not
unreasonable form of payment. The clerical leader moved
them somewhat, and there was nothing controversial in his
address, except by implication. The meeting would have
been innocuous and something better, if it had not been
announced — chiefly by Mrs. Capper, taking her cue from the
great lady's original statement to her — that it was intended
as a counterblast to the orthodox church services. As it was,
signs of cleavage began to show themselves immediately on
the dispersal of the congregation. There was not wanting
a party, led by Mrs. Capper, who declared themselves on
Lady Wrotham's side against the goings on of the Vicar,
although few of them had had any quarrel with him hitherto ;
and there were others who took his part warmly, many of
them out of antagonism to Mrs. Prentice, whose going over
to the enemy was commented on in no mild terms.

For it was, of course, noticeable that the Vicar had not
been present at the meeting, was indeed, at the time it was
being held, equably pursuing his pastoral duties at the further
end of the Manor. He had been asked as a matter of form,
but, as it had been made clear to him that his acceptance
would be considered as a definite act of resignation of the
position he was known to hold, he had naturally not accepted
the invitation. But this did not prevent Lady Wrotham
from describing him to her intimate correspondents as a
minister who held sullenly aloof from every Christian effort
not set on foot by himself. An invitation to dine on the
evening of the meeting, to meet Lady Wrotham's clerical
friend, he did accept, somewhat to her surprise. She had
not yet given up all hopes that he would be moved by his
wife to a realization of his errors, and was unwilling as yet
to enter into an open quarrel in which the mildest social truce
would become impossible, but she would have preferred that
he should refuse her invitation.

The Vicar and his wife walked down to the Abbey together
at eight o'clock. They were chatting on unimportant sub-
jects — a country clergyman and his wife going out peaceably
to dine at the great house of the parish, the lady with her
prim finery bunched up under a waterproof, her husband in
soft felt hat and black overcoat, carrying her evening shoes
in his pocket — to all appearance good friends, one in the



214 Exton Manor

pursuit of duty and the enjoyment of the simple pleasures
that lighten such a lot as theirs. Who could have told that
there was a black cloud between them, growing ever bigger
and threatening to destroy the comfort of a companionship
that had afforded for five and twenty years, if not unruffled
peace, as high an average of contentment as falls to the lot of
most people ?

Mrs. Prentice was certainly not tasting contentment at
this time. It is true that she possessed, as far as she knew,
the approval of Lady Wrotham, and was on terms, as she
hoped, of permanent intimacy with the great lady, closer
than anyone around her enjoyed. And it looked as if she
were in a fair way of paying out Mrs. Redcliffe for her mon-
strous behaviour, for rumour was now busy with that lady's
name, and opinion had not yet settled down in her favour,
as it did later. But the question was whether these two grati-
fying facts, taken together/balanced the loss of her husband's
confidence, which had been for the last few days entirely
withdrawn from her.

William was behaving to her in a way he had never done
before. There had been an angry scene between them when
he had come home from his interview with Mrs. Redcliffe.
He had been whole-hearted in his defence of that lady and
most violent in his condemnation of her, his wedded wife.
Fortified by her alliance with Lady Wrotham and the purity
of her own motives, she had retorted on him angrily, and in-
formed him in a counterblast that she had been reconsidering
her religious position, and discovered that in many things,
although in none for which he could blame her, she had
been in error ; and that, since his beliefs led him to behave
no better than a savage, she had had enough of them, and
proposed to try a simpler and, as far as she could judge, a
more efficacious form of Christianity. He had left her with-
out a word, and she had congratulated herself on having
gained a complete victory over^im.

But her satisfaction had been short-lived. When they had
next met he had treated her as if nothing had passed between
them, with a measure of coldness certainly, but not with
displeasure. This had gone on ever since, and it had not
suited her. He had peremptorily declined to discuss an}'
question with her which had to do either with his own work
or her new activities. " You are taking your own line,"



Rumour, and a Meeting 215

he had said on the first occasion on which she had endeav-
oured to do so, " and it is a line of which I heartily dis-
approve. I will not talk to you about it. As long as you
are doing all you can to wreck my work here and give the
lie to all your previous convictions, that is the only condition
on which we can go on living under the same roof." This
was the only time on which he had broken through his
aloofness to speak directly, and he had spoken so contemp-
tuously that his words had unpleasantly affected Mrs. Pren-
tice's vanity. Since then there had been no communication
between them except on merely surface subjects.

But for a husband and wife, who had hitherto worked
together with constant give and take and frequent wordy
adjustments of harness, to live on such terms as these was
not possible without mutually antagonistic developments
going on beneath the surface. They were existing as on
a slope, and not a plane. The Vicar knew that a struggle
w r as before him, of which he could not yet foresee the end,
and it disturbed him greatly to have to shut up in his own
mind the thoughts and fears that exercised him concerning
it, disturbed him greatly, too, that she with whom he had
been accustomed to talk over such problems as these, with
the certainty, at any rate, of community of aim, and the
advantage • that came from self-expression, should nowj
actually be working apart from and against him. It is true
that he had taken up his present attitude to her, knowing!
what she was, with the conviction that it would finally bring
her back to her proper allegiance ; but the days went on and
she still acted perversely, and he was beginning to take a dark
view of the future. At present, and until Lady Wrotham
should fulfil her threat of taking action, his wife was alone
responsible for the disturbance of his life and work, and it is
not surprising that an ever increasing sense of bitterness
should have been growing up against her in his mind, or
that she, pursuing her course, should have gained no happi-
ness from it.

Lady Wrotham's dinner party of four was hardly likely,
under the existing circumstances, to afford more than refresh-
ment of the body. She herself, with the traditions of hospi-
tality with which she had been brought up, would, if she
had had her own way, have kept the conversation clear of
subjects in which a possibility of disagreement existed. And



216 Exton Manor

the Reverend Mr. Dacre, to do him justice, had no intention
of promoting discord. But his mind was full of the message
he conceived it his life's work to spread, and if he were to
talk at all he must talk on that subject and.no other. The
advice of St. Paul, sublimely tactless, if it is to be inter-
preted as those who chiefly apply it believe, was his warrant
for treating the differences of Christians as if they did not
exist. He must be instant in season, out of season, and
the only difference he could make between those who were
outside the truth and those who presumably accepted it, was
in exhorting the former as from pope-like authority, and
assuming that the latter held his own interpretation of dogma
and no other. The Vicar, agreeing where he could, silent
where he could not, unwilling to oppose his own views to
statements and aspirations implicitly denying them, held
his own as well as he could in a conversation having to do
with the missionary zeal of Mr. Dacre and his associates,
of v/hom Mr. Dacre assumed him to be one. " Surely," said
the harassed Vicar to himself, " there is some hypocrisy
here ! The man must know that I do not agree with his
views. He has been brought here into my parish for that
very reason." And he wished the evening over.

The two clergymen remained in the dining-room only a
few minutes after the ladies had left them. Mr. Prentice
refused wine and the cigarette offered to him by the butler,
for fear of drawing upon himself a rebuke from the Low
Churchman, and his nerves were not soothed by his abstinence.
He had nothing to say, and sat silent until the other, awaking
from a reverie, looked at him across the table with a happy
smile, and said, " I think we were blessed in our little service
this afternoon. It seemed to be a time of refreshment to
many."

" I hope it was," replied the Vicar, " but of course you
know that it was held to a great exent as a protest against
my own services, and you were asked to conduct it, Mr.
Dacre, because the doctrines I teach, as the Vicar of the
parish, are not acceptable to Lady Wrotham ? "

Mr. Dacre looked shocked. " But surely," he said, " the
simple Bible reading and prayer and the singing of gospel
hymns which we enjoyed this afternoon can only help in the
work of grace ! You cannot feel, as some parish ministers
unfortunately do, that a fellow-labourer in the same vineyard



Rumour, and a Meeting 217

is interfering in your godly work, by seeking simply to
strengthen your own exhortations ? "

" I am afraid I am one of the parish ministers who do
think so," replied the Vicar. " And I should like to ask
you candidly, Mr. Dacre, whether you would not feel the
same if our positions were reversed. Supposing you were
the vicar of this parish and were teaching to the best of your
ability the doctrines in which you believe, and I were to be
brought in to explain to your parishioners that those doc-
trines were false, that the change from a state of sin to a
state of grace comes not at conversion but at baptism, and
that the appointed and only safe spiritual food for Christians
is given through the sacraments of the Church, would you not
feel that I was interfering with your work and doing anything
rather than strengthen your own influence ? V

" Oh, but those doctrines are unscriptural. There is no
warrant for them."

" But you must be well aware that they are held by many
thousands, and are to be found everywhere in the Church of
England. You must know that I for one hold them, and that
it is to put my people in the way of thinking them unscrip-
tural that you are here."

" If that is so "

" But, Mr. Dacre, don't you know that it is so ? I would
willingly have met you on friendly terms, and even been glad
to talk over religious matters with you, if it had been recog-
nized by both of us, as it ought to have been, that there are
differences of opinion between us, although we have so much
fundamentally in common. But all through dinner you have
chosen to assume with regard to me what you must know



Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 18 of 36)