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result of your labours," she said ; " yours and Sir Joseph's.
He has reason to be."

" Oh, he's pleased enough," said Browne.

" And have you got a new tenant for the Abbey yet ? "
asked Hilda. " It will be rather an excitement to us, but we
shall be very hard to please after dear old Sir Joseph."

The maid had now left the room. Browne gave vent to
a premonitory cough, and said, " Well, the fact is that Lady
Wrotham is coming to live here herself."

There was a general exclamation from all except Turner.
Browne leaned back in his chair and enjoyed the commotion
he had raised. It was at this moment that recollection came
to Turner. Three pairs of feminine eyes were bent upon
Browne's rubicund visage. Turner's turned with some curi-
osity on Mrs. Redcliffe. Her face was as interested as that
of her daughter, or Mrs. O'Keefe. There was no trace of
any other expression on it. Like his friend, Turner dis-
missed from his mind once and for all any suspicions that
there was anything Lady Wrotham could know about Mrs.
Redcliffe that she would wish to be hidden.

" Now that we have heard that important piece of news,"
said Norah O'Keefe, when the first expression of surprise had
died down, " we, want to hear more about Lady Wrotham
herself. None of us know her. If she is going to be our
new neighbour, we want to know what she is like."

" You'll like her," said Browne loyally. The disturbance
of mind he had admitted to Turner was not to be disclosed
to any one else, not even to these three ladies with whom he
lived on terms of considerable intimacy. " You'll like her.
She is a wonderful woman. Full of energy — and of good
works. She'll take the lead."

Mrs. O'Keefe made a slight grimace. " Will she take the
lead of all of us ? " she asked. " That looks rather as if our



At the White House 25

pleasant little society will be altered. None of us take the
lead now. We are a small and very contented republic/'

" Even old Sir Joseph was one of us," said Hilda. " He
would come in and out just as he liked, and if we wanted to
see him we went to the Abbey, and were always sure of a
welcome. I suppose that will be altered now, and we shall
have to wait till we're sent for."

" There is one among us," said Turner dryly, " who is quite
ready to take the lead."

Mrs. Redcliffe turned a reproving face on him. " Now
you know that is not allowed," she said. "We all get on
very well together, and there is not one of our neighbours
that we are not always pleased to see — all of us."

" Please make an exception in my case," said Turner,
unabashed.

" As long as we behave ourselves we are treated with
favour," said No rah O'Keefe.

" And gracious condescension," added Hilda.

Browne's broad face showed some bewilderment. He was
not at his ease with ellipsis. " I suppose you mean Mrs.
Prentice," he said. " To tell you the truth, I'm afraid there
may be a little friction between Lady Wrotham and Mrs.
Prentice at first, though I shouldn't like it to be known that I
said so. Her ladyship asked me a lot about the condition of
the villagers. She means to take an active interest in them
as she does in the property at Hurstbury. Yes ; I'm half
afraid there may be a little friction."

" There'll be no friction," said Turner. " The lady in
question will drop milk and honey in her talk, and all will be
sweetness and submission."

" Now I can't have any more of this," said Mrs. Redcliffe
decisively. " At this table we criticise nobody."

" Dear Mrs. Redcliffe," said Norah affectionately, " if all
the world were as charitable as you, it would be a pleasanter
place to live in."

" It would be a much worse place if we w r ere all to give
rein to our tongues in criticising our neighbours," said
Mrs. Redcliffe. " But tell us more about Lady Wrotham.
Mr. Browne. We have not heard half enough yet."

But the entrance of the maid put a stop to further con-
fidences for the time being, and, although the subject was
returned to and discussed in all its bearings at intervals during



26 Exton Manor

the progress of the meal and later on in the evening, the con-
versation need not be further recorded.

The four elders played a rubber of Bridge after dinner, over
which Turner was didactic, Browne sleepy and rather stupid,
Mrs. O'Keefe erratic but charmingly apologetic, and Mrs.
Redcliffe quietly capable. It was not a very rigorous game,
and there was more general conversation in its intervals than
would be looked upon with favour at the Portland Club, but
it was enjoyed by those who took part in it and were accus-
tomed to fill up their sociable evenings in this manner. Hilda
amused herself with the piano, and occasionally came to the
table to look over her mother's hand, or that of Norah
O'Keefe, and to give her opinion of the play when the hand
was over.

It was a scene that would have pleased an observer — the
little group of friends, so dissimilar, and yet at ease and con-
tented with one another ; the play of face and gesture over
the game, and the little spurts of talk between whiles ; the
bright, comfortable room set in the warm heart of the
country, now dead still in the quiet night, but homely in the
sense of its closeness to the human dwellings it enwrapped.
Nowhere is there to be found so complete a feeling of pro-
tection and neighbourliness as about a house in the country
within reach of a village, even if no other human dwelling
can be seen from its windows. The crowded proximity of
a town affords little to compare with it. The lives of the
town dweller's nearest neighbours are of no interest to him ;
perhaps their very faces are unknown. Scattered about the
great city he has many friends, but they are divided from
him by more than mere distance. He finds delight in his
own hearthstone, but it is isolated. Let him shut the door
on its warmth, and he is cut off from it completely ; he is
in another world. Its rays strike no further than the walls of
his house. But if you shut the door for a moment on such
a room as the parlour in the White House, and stand outside
under the stars, the very silence of the night brings com-
panionable thoughts. The brain is soothed by the stillness,
and you know that not very far off are the houses, not of
strangers, but of your neighbours, whose lives are near to
you, although you may know very few of them. And your
own house has a personality, partly its own, partly the echo
of yours. It is familiar to every one of those who are living



At the White House 27

near you. It has its place in the picture of their surround-
ings, which exists as a background to all their thoughts.
Some of them have had it before them to-night as they
have sat and talked round their own fires. Some of them
have it before them now as you stand there. It is a con-
stant and living part of their experience. And so there is
both the grateful retirement and the sense of being close
to the heart of human life. What is there to compare with
this about a house in a terrace, or a street, surrounded by alien
life, completely negligible to the thoughts of those dwelling
near it, or passing to and fro ?

Mrs. O'Keefe's Irish maid arrived at half-past ten, and
Turner's groom a quarter of an hour later. There was a
little bustle of departure, and Turner drove off down to the
village with No rah sitting beside him, and Bridget and
Robert Kitcher in company on the back seat. Nothing much
was said between the lady and gentleman during the short
drive to the house in the village street at which the lady
and her maid alighted, nothing at all that provided any
interest for the pair who overheard it, but Turner's mind
was full of a sardonic triumph. As he drove back again
past the inn and the mill, across the bridge, past the Abbey
gate and buildings, and across the little stretch of park which
lay between them and the wood in which his own house lay,
two miles distant from the village, he chuckled at intervals to
himself as he thought of Browne trudging up the hill to
Upper Heath House in his pumps, and pictured the muttered
wrath of his rival at his own success in manoeuvring a five
minutes' tete-a-tete with the lady. " That's one to you,
Thomas," he said aloud to the birds of night and to Robert
Kitcher, sitting in respectful sympathy behind him ; and
again, " Poor old Maximilian, he hasn't got a look in.
Thought he was very smart putting himself next to her at
dinner. But she didn't look at him once. Ha, ha ! You
may put up your shutters, Mr. Browne."

When he had passed through the gate which enclosed the
Abbey precincts, and that which gave entrance to the wood-
land road which he now had to follow, he fell silent for a
time, and when he spoke again the current of his thoughts
had changed. " I wonder if there's a good lot in this box, :>
he said. "The last was poor." And then, "There's one
of Anthony Hope's, anyhow. I saw it announced."



28 Exton Manor

Presently they came out of the wood into a clearing, in
which stood a white verandahed house, looking down a
gently sloping valley. The wind had dropped, and the night
was full of the tinkle of running water. Stretching down
the valley was Turner's chain of fish tanks, with streams,
ditches, sluices, gates, and everything ingeniously ordered for
the benefit of the industry to which he devoted his attention.
The moon now rode high, and, as he turned for a moment
to survey his little kingdom before entering the house, shone
on the roofs of the huts scattered about at the head of the
valley, on squares and oblongs v and lines of water, dwindling
in size until they were lost in the gloom of the surrounding
trees. The scene had something strange in it; It might
have reminded a traveller of something he had seen in out-of-
the-way parts of the world, where men carry on unfamiliar
operations in the depths of bush, or scrub, or jungle. But
there was nothing strange in it to Turner, and, with a mere
turn of the head, he passed into the house, while Kitcher,
with no glance at all, led his horse round to the stable.

The room which Turner entered when he had hung up his
coat and hat was attractive enough, although furnished with-
out any regard to modern notions of aesthetics. It was
attractive because of its extreme air of comfort. The easy-
chairs in front of the fire were of the deepest, the Turkey
carpet was as thick a one as could be bought for money, and
its somewhat crude colours, rinding nothing in the room to
clash with, only added to its brightness. The room was
lighted by a bay window, which was now thickly curtained
by warm-coloured hangings. A table stood in this window,
on which was a spirit tantalus, glasses, mineral water, and
a lemon squeezer containing a lemon ready to be operated
upon. A copper kettle buzzed on the hob of the hearth, in
which the fire glowed invitingly. By the side of one of the
great, old easy-chairs stood another table, upon which was
a green-shaded reading lamp, a paper-knife, a large tobacco
jar, and half-a-dozen seasoned briar pipes. A black spaniel
lay on the hearthrug, and wagged a welcoming stump as his
master entered the room, watching out of the corner of a
liquid brown eye for a sign as to whether it would be ex-
pected of him to disturb his ease to the extent of rising to offer
a greeting.

But a stranger coming into the room would have looked



At the White House 29

first at none of these things. His eye would have been caught
by the rows and rows of books which lined two of the walls
from floor to ceiling. Many books are not an unusual ap-
panage to a room of this sort, and the best way to house them
is in fixed, open shelves. But these books and shelves were
decidedly unusual. The shelves were all of one size, and the
books were nearly of a size too, and most of them in bright
bindings. A closer inspection, of the most cursory, would
have revealed the fact that they were all novels, of the sort
that is issued in great numbers every }^ear, and sold at the
price of six shillings, or four and sixpence with the usual dis-
count. The total number on Turner's shelves must have
reached four figures, and very curious they looked in their
long, unbroken ranks, not at all like the books of an ordinary
library. In the middle of the floor stood a good-sized box,
from which the lid had been removed. This, also, was full
of books. Turner took them out and arranged them on an-
other table which stood by the door, reading the lettering on
the cover of each one as he did so. They had not come from
a circulating library, but from a bookseller, and all of them
were new, as they had left the binders. There were between
twenty and thirty of them, and their owner looked at them
with satisfaction. " It's a good week," he said, as he put the
last in its place by the others. " We're getting into the thick
of the season now."

He went upstairs to his bedroom, and returned a few
minutes later. He had taken off his collar and tie, and his
tall form looked odd and old-fashioned in an ancient Paisley
shawl dressing-gown, with a pair of worked slippers just as
ancient beneath it. He went up to the line of books on the
table and selected one, which he put by the reading-lamp.
" Don't care about anything hot to-night," he said, as he went
to the other table, and mixed whisky and soda in a long glass.
The old dog in front of the fire wagged his stump of a tail
sleepily, thinking himself addressed.

Turner stood in front of the fire while he carefully filled
a pipe out of the big tobacco jar, and surveyed his orderly
book-shelves with a look of gratification. Then his face be-
came reflective. " No, it would never do," he burst out at
last. " Never do. First thing that would happen — this
would be knocked off. You're very well off, Thomas Tur-
ner. Don't make a fool of yourself." Then he lit his pipe,



30 Exton Manor

and said between the puffs, " Maximilian — Browne — very
lucky — fellow."

Turner was now prepared for his night's debauch. He put
some logs of wood and a shovelful of coal on to the fire, took
a large, fat cushion from the easy-chair, settled himself in it,
with his legs on another chair, placed the cushion on his
stomach, and on the cushion the book which he had selected
from his supply, and began to read.' After that there was
silence in the room for something like tfiree hours, broken
only by the regular turning of the leaves, the fall of a coal,
or the stirring of the old dog in his dreams. At intervals
Turner would lay down the book, and fill another pipe, or
get himself up out of the chair to replenish the fire. Then
he would return to his reading with renewed zest, and so the
hours crept on until it was getting on for three o'clock in the
morning. At last he came to the final page, and rising,
stretched himself with a yawn. " That's a capital one," he
said. " Couldn't tell what was coming till half-way through.
I haven't got many more like that, I'm afraid. Come along,
Caesar ; time we went to bed." He lit a candle, turned out
the lamp, and went upstairs, followed slowly by the old dog.

Nearly four hours before, Maximilian Browne had stumped
up the hill from the White House to Upper Heath in his
pumps, as Turner had pictured him. He had also sworn
lustily and aloud as he walked, his good-humoured face dis-
torted with annoyance. By the time he reached his house he
was in a rather more equable mood. There were few books
in the room which he entered, but it was as comfortable a
bachelor's den, in its way, as Turner's. He was welcomed
by three fox-terriers, in whose company he smoked a pipe
before retiring to rest, and read an article in the Field t with
most of which he found himself in substantial agreement.
He was in bed and snoring by half-past eleven. The last
words he said to himself as he laid his head on the pillow
were, " Well, I don't know why I should make such a fuss.
After all, he's welcome."



CHAPTER III

THE VICARAGE

Tpie Reverend William Prentice sat at one end of the vicarage
breakfast-table, and his wife, behind the tea-cups, at the
other. The Vicar was a man of about fifty years of age.
His clean-shaven face was not unattractive. There was a
hint of obstinacy about the set of the jaw, which was heavier
than the thinness of brow and cheekbone seemed to demand,
but the mouth was amiable. Mr. Prentice, perhaps, would
have liked to hear it said that he had the face of an ascetic.
It had some slight indications that way, but stopped short at
the half-way house of clericalism.

Mr. Prentice undoubtedly succeeded in conveying the idea
of being clerical, and the shape of his collar and waistcoat,
and the various metal tokens he displayed on his watch-chain
would no doubt have informed an observer, skilled in reading
such signs, exactly what his views were likely to be upon any
question of ecclesiastical interest that might be discussed be-
fore him. He did not look as if any considerable trouble had
ever befallen him, and his lines now certainly seemed to have
fallen in pleasant places.

Mrs. Prentice was not more than forty-five. She too was
thin ; thin in her upright, active body ; thin in her face, with
a thin, straight nose, and thin, tight lips ; and, her critics
would probably have added, with a thin, but rigid, intelligence.

" Bacon, my dear ? " said her husband, uncovering the dish
in front of him.

" No, thank you," said Mrs. Prentice, in a tone which
meant more than her words. It was the season of Lent, a.nd
Mrs. Prentice was fasting, on a principle of her own, and
liked it to be known that she was doing so.

31



32 Exton Manor

Mr. Prentice helped himself apologetically from the dish.
He, also, was fasting, on a principle of his own, which did not
involve the loss of his morning bacon. He had to keep up
his strength.

" I have heard from Freddy," said Mrs. Prentice, putting
down a letter she had been reading by the side of her plate.
" He will be down for Easter." Frederick Prentice was
the only child of the Vicar of Exton, and there was an ex-
pression on his mother's face, as she mentioned his name,
which seemed to show that he filled a large proportion of
any tender place which might exist in her heart. The Vicar's
face grew no softer at her statement ; perhaps it became a
trifle more severe.

" I shall be glad to see Fred," he said. " He honours us
very little with his presence, and there are things that I wish
to say to him."

The look of pleasure disappeared from Mrs. Prentice's face.
" How can you expect him to be always running down here,
William ? " she said, rather sharply. " He has his work to do,
and the journey is expensive."

" He does no work on Sunday," retorted the Vicar, " and
I expect very little on Saturday. I very much doubt whether
he is doing as much as he ought on the other days of the
week. And we know that he does pay visits, and makes
longer journeys to do so than he would have to if he came
home."

" You are talking of when he went into Devonshire to
shoot with Sir George Sheepshanks. I think it was wise of
him to do that. It is not every young man reading for the
bar who is asked to the country house of a judge."

" I dare say not," returned the Vicar, relinquishing the
point. " But, at an}^ rate, his extravagant habits still con-
tinue. I received a bill from his tailor for quite a large
amount only two days ago, and "

" Why did you not tell me of it ? "

•-' I did not wish to trouble you until I had thought over
what could be done. It is absurd to send in the bill to me,
and I am certainly not going to make myself responsible any
further for Fred's debts. He has a good allowance, but he is
evidently greatly exceeding it. Before we know where we
are we shall have another financial crisis."

" After all, William, you have not had to pay his debts.



The Vicarage 33

I know he was very extravagant at Oxford, but the punish-
ment has fallen on his own shoulders."

" That is not the right way to put it, Agatha. His god-
father left him two thousand pounds, with the object of help-
ing him through his education, and so forth. His trustees,
of whom I am one, have absolute discretion as to how it
should be used for his benefit ; but he was not to have it, or
any portion of it, for his own use until he is twenty- five."

" I know all that." *

" I don't think you know the meaning of it. I was very
anxious to keep the sum, with the interest that had accrued to
it, intact until he should really need it for some definite pur-
pose. As you know, I paid for his education entirety myself,
and am prepared to make him an adequate allowance until he
is able to make a living. He piled up tremendous debts at
Oxford, and more than half his legacy has gone to pay them
off. And it looks to me as if he were beginning again in the
. same way. The fact is that he looks upon this money as a
margin up to which he can spend. It is nothing to him that
he will exhaust it in this foolish way. It is not honest, and it
seems nonsense to talk about the punishment falling on his
own shoulders."

Mrs. Prentice bridled. " I hope you will not talk of what
[ say being nonsense," she said. " It does not appear to be
nonsense to me. I do not defend Fred for his extravagance
at Oxford ; although, of course, as he said at the time, two
hundred and fifty pounds a year is a small allowance at a col-
lege like Magdalen. But the money that paid his debts is his
own, and if he has already spent it, or part of it, he will lose
the benefit of it in the future. You can't have your cake and
eat it too."

A dull flash of annoyance mounted the Vicar's cheeks. " I
am quite aware of that fact, Agatha," he said, with voice
slightly raised. " But you forget entirely what I have done
for Fred. It would have been quite within my powers as
trustee — indeed, it is what Mr. Goldsmith intended — to have
paid for his Oxford career out of his legacy, and also for his
expenses while reading for the bar. I took a pride in not
doing so, but I might just as well have kept the money in my
pocket. And as for two hundred and fifty pounds a year being
a poor allowance for an undergraduate, let me tell you that
it is a very good allowance. I did very well myself on two

B (15)



34 Exton Manor

hundred, and left the university without a pennyworth of
debt."

" But you were not at Magdalen," persisted Mrs, Prentice.
" The standard of living there is higher, and Fred was pop-
ular. As I say, I don't defend his extravagance, but I should
have been sorry if he had not been able to live on equal terms
with his fellow undergraduates."

• " Who for the most part are a good deal above him in social
status," interrupted the Vicar. " I am aware that that gives
you considerable satisfaction. I must say that it gives me
very little. I should have thought more highly of Fred if he
had lived with the men of his own standing, and kept within
his quite ample allowance. There is an old proverb about
« brass and earthenware pots which you may remember."

" I hope I am very far from being a snob, as you seem to
imply, William," said Mrs. Prentice ; " but I cannot forget
that rny family is an old and distinguished one, and "

" And that you came down in the world when you married
me," interrupted her husband. " I know you can't. And I
can't forget that your assumptions of high ancestry rest on
very slight evidence. However, I am not going into that
question now. I have received a bill from Fred's tailors of
no less than eighty pounds odd. I say it is nothing less than
scandalous that such a bill should be forthcoming a year after
he was freed of debt and started clear again. What is to be
done about it ? "

The magnitude of the sum surprised Mrs. Prentice enough
to turn her thoughts from the side-issue into which the con-
versation had been directed. " Is it as much as that ? " she
asked. " There must be some mistake."

" I am afraid that I have very little hope of it ; but if it is
so, Fred will no doubt let me know. I shall write to the tailors
and tell them that I am not the person to whom my son's
accounts should be sent. He is of age, and I am not respon-
sible for them. And there I suppose I must leave it till Fred
comes home. I shall talk to him very seriously, and I hope I
may rely upon your doing the same, Agatha."

Mrs. Prentice replied that he might so rely on her, but with-
out exhibiting any great amount of indignation, and there was
silence for a time at the vicarage breakfast-table.

Presently Mrs. Prentice said, " I hear that Mrs. Redcliffe
had a dinner party last night. I do think, William, that after

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The Vicarage 35



Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 2 of 36)