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hand clasped in Hilda's, and returned home at eleven o'clock,
leaving behind her the solace of her warm Irish heart.



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CHAPTER XXI

TWO VISITS

The embargo which the Vicar had set upon his wife's visit
to Mrs. O'Keefe was considered by Mrs. Prentice to have re-
moved itself automatically by the next morning. It was really
of very great importance that she should see Mrs. O'Keefe at
once, for there was no telling what might happen if Mrs. Red-
cliffe and Hilda were to pounce down and get their talons into
her. She would at any rate be put into quite a false position,
and Mrs. Prentice, apart from a natural desire to get the
better of her opponents, would be sorry from altruistic
motives that this should happen to one whom she honoured
with her friendship, and quite intended, as a reward for good
behaviour, that Lady Wrotham should also honour with as
much friendship as was desirable. This was how the matter
presented iflself to her, and she resolved to visit Mrs. O'Keefe
directly her husband should have shut himself up in his study,
which on Saturday morning he was accustomed to do at half-
past nine o'clock. Not that she wished to hide her intention
from him ; she hoped she knew what was due to him better
than that. But these constant bickerings and this unmanly
violence were painful, and to be avoided if possible.

She had not intended, cither, to disclose her purpose to
her son, but Fred lay in wait for her after breakfast and asked
her with something rather sheepish in his expression if
she was thinking of calling on Mrs. O'Keefe, and, when
she hesitated, said, " I may as well stroll down with you if
you are going." So it was arranged that they should go
together in half-an-hour's time, and Mrs. Prentice retired to
set on foot the domestic enterprises of the day with some-
thing to think about in the intervals of her " ordering."

230

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Two Visits 231

Could it be possible that there was more in Fred's desire
to accompany her on a visit to Mrs. O'Keefe than the mere
pleasure of his mother's society ? Experience reminded her
that he was not as a rule over-anxious to accompany her on
her expeditions, and more frequently than not excused him-
self from so doing when invited. The entrance of a grati-
fying idea into her mind took away discomfort from that
reminder. He certainly seemed very desirous of seeing Mrs.
O'Keefe. Was it possible that he had already fallen a victim
to her charms, which even Mrs. Prentice admitted to be of
no mean order ? Odd, that such a possibility had never yet
entered her mind ! possibly because of Mrs. O'Keefe's
widowhood. But after all she was quite young still, a year
or two younger than Fred himself. She must be well off,
from the way in which she lived. She was beautiful and
well-born. The Honourable Mrs. Frederick Prentice ! It
would certainly sound well. By the bye, would she still be
the Honourable, if she married again ? Mrs. Prentice was
not sure, but could easily find out. A pity if it were not so,
but even if not the advantages would be great. Truly this
was a gratifying subject for reflection, where reflection on
other developments of the moment were beginning to be
somewhat depressing, in spite of apparent success. So Mrs.
Prentice got through her ordering as quickly as possible, and
turned these thoughts over in her mind as she put on her hat
and coat in her bedroom, and then went down into the hall
where Fred was impatiently waiting, determined to use her
eyes and ears to advantage.

Nothing of course was further from her intention at
present than to let Fred see that her eyes were opened. She
talked in quite an ordinary manner of Mrs. O'Keefe as they
walked together the few yards that divided the gate of the
Vicarage from the front door of the Street House on the
other side of the road, but from Fred's mode of answering
her, offhand as it was, gathered enough even in that short
space to confirm her suspicions. " I think we will ask Mrs.
O'Keefe to dine with us to-night," she said, as they stood
waiting for admission, and Fred's " Yes, do, mother ! " was
quite what she had expected.

The door was opened by Bridget, Mrs. O'Keefe's elderly
Irish cook-housekeeper. She gazed at Mrs. PiShtice with a
broad wooden face, and did not respond to that lady's affable

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232 Exton Manor

smile as she said, " Good-morning, Bridget. Is your mistress
at home ? "

" Not at home/' replied Bridget.

Mrs. Prentice was a little taken aback. The unpleasant
thought crossed her mind that Mrs. O'Keefe might even now
be on her way to the White House, and that her early visit
ought to have been still earlier.

" Gone out already ? " she said. " Dear me ! I particu-
larly wanted to see her. Will she be long, Bridget ? I

might wait "

Not at home/' repeated Bridget, with the same expression,
or lack of it.

The shadow of another unpleasant thought just crossed
Mrs. Prentice's mind. But that was impossible.

" Where has she gone and how long will she be ? " she
asked, more peremptorily.

Bridget's face broke into meaning. " She's gone no-
where," she said ; " but she's not at home. Shure, in high
society that's understood well enough, and I'd have nothing
else to say if you were to keep me here all day, Mrs. Pren-
tice, ma'am."

Then the impossible had happened. But no, it must be
the woman's stupidity. Mrs. Prentice summoned another
smile. " I see," she said. " Your mistress is tired after her
journey and does not wish to see visitors. You are quite
right, Bridget, to shield her from intrusion. But just go
and tell her, my good woman, that Mrs. Prentice would like
to see her for a few minutes — and Mr. Frederick Prentice.
I am sure your orders do not extend to me."

Bridget still stood immovable at the door. " Shure,
nothing was said about young Mr. Prentice," she said.
" He's welcome to come in if he likes. But ' I'm not at
home to Mrs. Prentice if she calls, Bridget, and tell the
other maids so,' was the orders I received, and the orders I'll
follow, sugar or vinegar."

The exact meaning of the final qualification escaped Mrs.
Prentice in the consternation produced by what had preceded
it. " There must be some mistake," she said, after draw-
ing herself up in offended dignity, and glaring at Bridget.
" I shall write to Mrs. O'Keefe," and she turned on her
heel.

Bridget was not in the least subdued by her manner.

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Two Visits 233

" Won't you come in now ? " she said to Fred. " The
mistress is in the garden/'

Mrs. Prentice turned round. " You had better go in, I
think, Fred," she said, " and just explain what has happened.
It is of no use my doing anything more in face of this woman's
stupidity. I shall certainly complain to Mrs. O'Keefe of it."

" Thank you for nothing, ma'am," said Bridget cheer-
fully, as she stood aside to give entrance to Fred. " Cats
must scratch and moles burrow. Step in here, yer honour,
and I'll tell the mistress."

Fred was left alone for five minutes or so in the little
room just off the hall into which he had been shown. His
mind was somewhat disturbed, but it was more with annoy-
ance against his mother than anything. Of course Mrs.
O'Keefe, as the intimate friend of the Redcliffes that she
had acknowledged herself to him, would take their side in
the present crisis, and he could well believe, both from what
he knew of her and from what she had told him, that his
mother had so behaved that it was impossible for anyone
who did sympathize with Mrs. Redcliffe to do anything but
refuse parley with her altogether. It was very annoying
that it should have happened thus just at this particular time,
but it was fortunate, at any rate, that the refusal did not at
present extend to him. He would have to be very careful
to use this rather questionable opportunity to advantage, for
if he failed to do so it might be difficult to secure another.

He gave himself up, so far as the fluttering of expectation
in his heart would allow him, to an eager inspection of the
room. He was in one of the chapels of the goddess's temple,
a chapel sacred to her more homely occupations. It was the
cosiest of little chapels. A basket of needlework stood by an
easy-chair, on one side of the bright fire, and another easy-
chair stood on the other side, the two together suggesting a
delightful picture of intimacy, in which the lady was repre-
sented at her sewing and a friend, happily ensconced, talking
to her and watching her face bent over her work. Here were
her books, many of them beautifully bound — she read poetry
— good poetry — her writing-table, crowded with silver knick-
knacks. A useful little room, not furnished in the main with
an eye to effect, but pretty all the same, and with evidences
not only of taste but of some wealth. It was crowded with
photographs, photographs of the sort of people with whom Bred



234 Exton Manor

liked best to be associated and with whom he considered him-
self most at home, some of the women in Court finery, many
of the men — the photographs of men were a little too numer-
ous to please him altogether — in uniform. The one in a big
tortoise-shell and silver frame on the writing-table of a young
man in the frock coat and undress cap of the Guards must be
her husband. A very smart and good-looking young man,
with fair hair, and eyes that could only have been blue, he
looked out into the world as if nothing could have been
further removed from him than a grave on the lonely veldt,
and, within a few paces, the great darkness standing like a
wall across the sunny road of his life.

Fred turned away from the picture, and just then Norah
O'Keefe came into the room. She shook hands with him,
smiling, but it was plain that she was embarrassed. " Here
is the sovereign you so kindly lent me," she said. " And I
am so very much obliged to you. I should have sent it up
this morning/'

" I hope you don't think I came here for that," said Fred,
smiling at her in return.

She became grave. " I hope Bridget was not rude to Mrs.
Prentice," she said. " I should be sorry for that ; but I dare
say you have heard something of what has been happening
here. I only did last night, or I should have warned you
yesterday that I could not possibly remain friends with Mrs.
Prentice. I could not even have her in my house."

She stood in front of him, looking into his eyes. He
dropped his own. " I'm afraid," he said, " that my mother
feels rather strongly about the Redcliffes," and would have
said more but she broke in —

" Oh, it is much more than that. She has behaved abomin-
ably. I must say it, even to you. If it had not been for
her, no one would have thought anything of this at all. She
is doing her best to set everybody against Mrs. Redcliffe ; and
the only thing left for that dear woman's friends — those who
stand by her, and they wouldn't be worth calling friends if
they didn't show now how much they love and respect her — •
is to have nothing at all to do with Mrs. Prentice till she
comes to her senses. That is what I am going to do any-
how. I will not even bow to her when I meet her. I feel hot
with indignation when I think of what she is doing."

Fred stole a look at her face. It seemed to him more



Two Visits 235

beautiful than ever in its earnestness. But he felt very
uncomfortable, not knowing how far she intended to include
him in her sentence of enmity, for she had been so carried
away by her indignation that it had seemed as if he had been
standing there to receive it.

" I'm very sorry about it all," he said. " Of course, I
think mother is very wrong ; and my father thinks so, too,
you know, only he doesn't seem to be able to do anything
with her at present. She'll come round, 3'ou know. She
always does in time."

" And in the meantime, dear Mrs. Redcliffe and Hilda too
are to be run down and their lives made miserable to them.
Oh, it is dreadful ! I wouldn't have believed that any nice
woman could have behaved in that way."

" At any rate, Mrs. O'Keefe, neither my father nor I take
the line that my mother does."

" I believe Mr. Prentice has been kind about it. I haven't
heard anything from Mrs. Redcliffe herself, though I did go
up to see her last night. I shouldn't care to discuss it with
her unless she wanted to ; I would much rather show her that
it is all nothing to me, that I love her all the more because
she is passing through trouble and anxiety. I don't want the
horrible unkindness to throw its shadow over our friendship.
But Bridget, my maid, has told me a great deal. She is trust-
worthy and keeps her eyes and ears open. She said that the
Vicar had been up to see Mrs. Redcliffe, and that he had
talked to her as they were going into church on Sunday, while
Mrs. Prentice walked on with her head in the air. I ought
not to be talking to you like this about your mother, I sup-
pose, but I am not going to try and hide my feelings. I feel
very angry with her, and indeed I will not hide it."

" I hope you don't feel angry with me," Fred ventured to
say. They had been standing opposite to one another during
the foregoing conversation, and it was not even now clear
whether she regarded him as a friend or an enemy.

She looked at him with eyes in which for the first time there
was a sign of interest. " We may as well sit down," she
said. " No, I don't feel angry with you. But I should if I
thought you agreed with Mrs. Prentice in what she is doing.
But I am sure you can't. I won't do you that injustice.
They are friends of yours, are they not ? The most intimate
friends you have here."



236 Exton Manor

" Yes, I suppose they are." He turned his cap In his hands
and bent his eyes on the carpet uneasily.

Norah O'Keefe looked at him with eyes that were question-
ing and a trifle impatient. " Then whaj: are you going to
do ? " she asked.

He looked up at her. " Do ? " he repeated. " What can
I do ? "

' ■ What I should have thought any sincere friend would
have done in a case like this. That would be to take the
very first opportunity of going to the White House and show-
ing that he was a friend. That is what Mr. Browne and
Captain Turner both did directly they heard of it, and I
honour them for it."

An unpleasant remembrance came to Fred's mind of Browne
and Turner sparring together over this lady, who was now
singing their praises in return. The impudence of the self-
satisfied middle-aged male ! At any rate he was not going to
be behind them in a matter of generosity, if it was generosity
she wanted for the moment.

" I don't see how they could have done less," he said, " and
of course, I'm going to do the same. But, you know, my
position is a little different to theirs. I think my mother is
wrong, but I can't very well say so to Mrs. Redcliffe."

" Why not, Mr. Prentice ? You have said it to me. You
are quite right to say it."

" Well, that's rather different."

" I really don't see it. It isn't of much importance what
you say to me, but it is of great importance what you say to
them. And you knew them so well. Why, Hilda and you
are the greatest friends, aren't you ? "

There was a challenge in her question. He answered it as
best he could. " Yes, we have always been good friends," he
said. " Of course, she is a good deal younger than I am. I
have known her ever since she was in short frocks."

" I don't think any man — any young man, could have a
better friend than Hilda Redcliffe. She is true to the very
bottom of her heart. She is a splendid girl. Oh, Mr. Pren-
tice, surely you'll go now, at once, and make them feel that
nothing is altered because of this. Every minute you delay
takes away from the effect of your going ; and they do want
their friends around them now."

" Yes, I'll go," he said. He paused a moment and then



Two Visits 237

rose. " I'll go now ; and may I come back and tell you how
I have got on ? "

She rose too, and looked at him hesitatingly, almost dis-
trustfully. " I think — wouldn't it be better," she said
slowly, " if you didn't come to see me until — well, until I
am able to be friends with your mother again ? I should be
glad to see you, of course, but "

" Then, if you would be glad to see me, I shall come," he
said boldly. " And as for my mother, I shall be able to turn
her. I believe I have more influence over her than anybody."

" I hope you will succeed. It is terrible that there should
be this division amongst us. We have always got on well
together here. But things seem to have changed altogether
while I have been away. Well, good-bye, Mr. Prentice. I
am sure your going up to the White House now will give
them both a great deal of pleasure. I am glad you are
going."

She accompanied him to the door, talking all the time, and
shut it with a final good-bye, before he had time to say again
that he was coming back.* He walked down the village and
up to the White House in no very equable frame of mind.
What a confounded nuisance it was, that while under ordinary
circumstances he would have been able to see a great deal of
her in the most friendly and natural way, this disturbance had
come to cut her off from him, and make her approachable only
by efforts on his part which it would require some pains to
make. And he had made no headway towards further inti-
macy at all. She had been taken up with the affairs of her
friends, and had treated him only as a means of helping on
their interests. Bother the Redcliffes !

But how beautiful she had been in her outspoken loyalty
and indignation ! He might have travelled alone with her as
he had done yesterday every day for a week, and she would
not have shown him so much of her character as she had done
during the short interview he had just had with her. He' was
not the ordinary young fool who was content to chatter aim-
lessly with a pretty woman, basking in the warmth of her
beauty and charm, without wanting to go deeper. Beauty of
character, he told himself, was even more to him than beauty
of face and form, and quite believed that if Norah O'Keefe
had been far less beautiful than she was, he would yet have
fallen deeply in love with her. She was inspiring. She would



238 Exton Manor

help a lover to climb to higher altitudes than he was capable
of mounting by himself. Oh, that he and she might scale the
dizzy crags of life, walking hand in hand along the easier
slopes, cutting steps together up the frozen walls, and bound
always to one another by the strong rope of love ! He would
make himself worthy of her. It would be easy work with
such an inspiration. In fact there would be nothing to do but
just to think of her. Once more he trod on air, and so tread-
ing came to the White House and went in.

Hilda was in the smaller sitting-room, arranging flower-
vases. She could not have escaped him if she would, for there
was no way out of the inner room but through the larger par-
lour into which he was shown, and the door was open between
the two rooms. But she had no special wish to escape him,
although his visit gave her no pleasure. Neither he nor his
affairs had been much in her mind of late, and he was too
closely allied to the enemy to be received without suspicion.
But he must be given a chance, like the rest of the world, to
clear himself of that suspicion, so she left her flower table in
the inner room and came out to him, with the question in her
eyes that was always there now when she met those who had
not yet declared themselves.

" Oh, how do you do ? " she said. " I won't shake hands,
because mine are wet and rather dirty."

It was a pity that he could not shake hands. He might
have put some warmth into that simple act. For the life of
him he could put none into his spoken greeting, although he
tried hard. " I only came down last night," he said. " I
hope you and Mrs. Redcliffe are all right, Hilda."

His eyes dropped, and her face hardened. " We are all
right in health, thank yau," she said ; " otherwise, we* are not
all right. I suppose you know that ? "

" I have heard something/' he stammered, without meeting
her gaze. " And I am very sorry for it."

" Sorry for what ? " she demanded.

He had an impulse of irritation and looked up. " Sorry for
the fuss that is being made about nothing," he said.

She was not appeased, although there was nothing she could
take hold of in his actual words. But could he have spoken
like that if he had really been on their side — hers and her
mother's ? Turner had not spoken like that, nor even Browne.
And Norah O'Keefe — she had just come into the room and



Two Visits 239

thrown her arms around their necks. There had been nj
need to ask her for what she was sorry.

" It isn't exactly nothing to us/' she said ; " and as for the
fuss that is being made — a better word would be wicked-
ness."

1 Again he felt annoyed. Why should he stand still to be
addressed in this way when he had only come with good
intentions, and out of pure generosity of heart ?

" You can hardly expect me to take quite that view, Hilda,"
he said, u considering that it is my mother who "

" Then, if you don't take that view," she flamed out at
him, " why do you come here at all ? It is an insult that you
should come near us."

" I came because I wanted you to know that — that I don't
agree with my mother, in — in what she says. I came out of

friendship. But if you think my coming is an insult "

' You would have kept away. I wish you had kept away.
Everything you say makes it worse. You don't agree with
your mother ! How very kind of you ! We are still to be
allowed to bask in your patronage then, as long as we behave
ourselves ! "

The concentrated scorn and bitterness in her young voice
and on her face might have moved him to some feeling other
than resentment, if his conscience had been clearer. Bui:
this was the girl whom he had last parted from as her all but
confessed lover, and his desertion of her, although she did
not yet know of it, lay between them, and must have pre-
vented his saying anything that could satisfy her, whatever he
had said.

Mrs. Redcliffe came into the room before he could reply.
" Here is Fred, mother," said Hilda contemptuously, " come
to say that he doesn't .quite agree with everything that Mrs.
Prentice is saying and doing at present."

" Hilda has flown at me like a tiger," said Fred, " for
having the impudence, as she calls it, to come here at all. I
only came to see you, as soon as ever I could, Mrs. Redcliffe,
to tell you how sorry I am about this, and — and I hope it will
make no difference in our friendship."

Mrs. Redcliffe sat down on the sofa. She was beginning
to feel the effect of these constantly recurring discussions,
and this one did not promise to yield much satisfaction.

" I am afraid it is bound to make some difference, Fred,"



240 Exton Manor

she said, " though it is kind of you to come. Your mother
would not care for you to be here so often as you used to be,
and I should be sorry to give her occasion for further hostilit}^.
!So I am afraid we must be content not to see much of each
other at present/'

Fred was afraid, too, that it must be so. Of course, he
thought his mother was in the wrong, but Mrs. Redcliffe
would see that he could not go against her altogether ; that is
he would do what he could to bring about a better under-
standing, but — but he could not do what Mrs. O'Keefe, for
instance, had done and— well, send her to Coventry.

Thus, stammeringly and ending with a sort of shame-
faced jocularity, Mr. Frederick Prentice, altogether relieved
in his mind that it should be understood that he was not to
come to the White House again, but anxious to avoid all
blame in keeping away. Mrs. Redcliffe listened to him, not
without some signs of mild surprise, her eyes on his face ;
and Hilda also kept her eyes on his face, her brows bent and
the little vertical line between them becoming more pronounced
as he stumbled through his speech. Then she spoke.

" How do you know/' she said sharply, " that Mrs. O'Keefe
has sent Mrs. Prentice to Coventry, as you call it ? "

" Because we went to see her this morning and she had
given orders that she was not at home to my mother. It was
explained to her by the servant without any hesitation."

A gleam of satisfaction passed across Hilda's face, but it
was quickly overshadowed. " There is no doubt about our
real friends," she said. " Then Mrs. Prentice took the very
first opportunity after Mrs. O'Keefe's coming home, to go
and poison her mind against us, or to try to, for she wouldn't
have succeeded. How like her ! And you went with her,
knowing what she was going to do."



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