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She looked down at the book on her knee and turned over
some of its pages. Then she looked up with a smile.

'• Well, wouldn't you ? " she asked. " Isn't that what you
want to see me for ? "

He took heart at the smile and gave her one in return,
rather rueful. " I wouldn't worry you," he said. " At any
rate until I knew you — till you knew me better. But you
can't tell me to go away now, like this, with nothing to look
forward to — nothing to hope for."

She grew serious again. " There is nothing to hope for
in the way you mean," she said. " Nothing at all. No, I
don't want you to come here and I must ask you not to, Mr.
Prentice. You know how I stand with your mother. I don't
want to go into it all again with you. But I won't be friends
with her, I won't see her, while she is behaving as she
does now, and it would be unpleasant to me, and, I think,
to her, if you were to come here while she doesn't. T don't
want you to. And besides, I haven't said much about the
Redcliffes, but I feel now that they do not want you any

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264 Exton Manor

more than they want Mrs. Prentice. And it is they who are
my friends here. You haven't behaved well to Hilda — you
know you haven't ; you must feel it in your heart of hearts.
And to think that I — oh, no, Mr. Prentice, I won't say a
word about what you have told me, but it must end there.
Indeed it must, once and for all."

" I can't take that answer," he said doggedly ; " I am in
earnest, and I couldn't leave off loving you now if I wanted to."

Her eyes flashed. " You can leave off telling me about it,"
she said, " and you must do so. I've heard enough, and per-
haps I have been too patient with you."

He sat still gloomy and dej-ected. She looked at him with
a frown. " I have nothing more to say," she said sharply.
" I hope you will go away now, and not come again."

Her tone stung him. He raised his eyes to hers. " I think
you might put some value on my feelings towards you," he
said, V even if you can't return them."

Her Irish temper flamed forth. She sprang from her seat.
" Return them ! " she cried. " What nonsense you are talk-
ing ! I wish you would go away. You annoy me deeply*
I don't want you. I know nothing of you, and what I do
know I don't like. I think Hilda Redcliffe is quite right not
to have anything more to do with you at all. And you come
straight to me, almost a complete stranger, and tell me that
it is owing to me you have behaved to her as you have. It
is absurd, and it is impertinent." She moved towards the bell.
" If you won't go," she said, " I shall ring and ask my maid
to show you out. I never want to see you again."

" I'll go," he said. " But I think you will be sorry for the
way you have spoken to me when you come to think of it."

" That is just the sort of thing Mrs. Prentice would say,"
she said. " I have nothing to be sorry for. I shall try and
forget this very unpleasant visit as soon as I can. No, I
won't shake hands. We are not friends, and I don't want
to be."

He left her without another word, rejected finally, and not
without ignominy. " What a fool I was ! " he said to him-
self bitterly as he walked back to the vicarage ; and during
the walk with his father, when he tried his best to talk and
hide his unhappiness, these words repeated themselves again
and again in his mind as a refrain to everything that was said.
" What a fool I was ! " And the train dinned them into his



Church, and after 265

ears as he travelled up to London the next morning, for he
had cut short his visit, and resolved that he would not repeat
it for many months. " What a fool I was ! "

But perhaps it was as well for him that he had put his
fortune to the test and lost it. For when the door had closed
behind him, and Norah O'Keefe was left alone, she burst into
angry tears. Then she went and stood before the picture of
her gallant young husband and cried, "As if I would ! As
if I could ! And a man like that ! I hate him for asking
me, but I should have hated him just as much if he hadn't
spoken now and given me the chance of getting rid of him
once for all. I am glad, after all, that he did."

Then she dried her eyes and went back to her book, but
found that its interest had departed. She kept looking out of
the window into the garden and her face was at first stormy
and then sad. By and bye she smiled, and finally laughed.
Then she sprang up from her chair. " I should like to tell
Hilda," she said. " It would clear away any feeling she may
have kept for that young man. But, of course, I can't. But
I'll go and have tea with the dear people. If I stay by my-
self I shall get melancholy."



CHAPTER XXIV

BROWNE IS PRECIPITATE

Sophia Riddell, who took brevet rank as Mrs. Riddell in
Lady Wrotham's household, was a very important member
of that society. Her religious views were such as to ensure
the full confidence of her mistress, or she would not have
been where she was, and her discretion was perfect. It is
doubtful whether the great lady quite realized what this elderly
spinster, who understood her ways so completely that she
forestalled all her wishes and seldom had to be told to
do a tiling once, and never twice, meant to her, and what a
blank there would be in her life if the invaluable Riddell
for any reason should go out of it. Lady Wrotham liked
gossip, although it would have shocked her to hear it as much
as if she had been told that she liked drink ; and Riddell was
an inveterate gossip. But what a gossip ! She was as far
above the habits of the ordinary tongue-wagging prying and
peering village matron as the imperial financier who thinks in
continents, and only incidentally in gold and diamond mines,
is above the shady company promoter who collects the odds
and ends of savings, no matter from where. The odds and
ends came to her, but they came because it was considered an
honour to bring them. She would not have moved a foot or
turned an ear to collect them, nor would she have expressed a
hint of interest in them for the world. But they came never-
theless, and to all appearances were lost in the secret caverns
of her discretion and lost for ever, nevermore to flow forth in
refreshing rills and trickles to water the thirsty soil of curio-
sity, and spread their beneficent influence in widening circles.
Nor did they so flow forth ; but there was an outlet all the
same. Every drop of gossip that filtered through the surface

266



Browne is precipitate 267

of that impassive, but none the less receptive, demeanour went
to swell one rich, deep stream, which was poured out night and
morning for the refreshment of her mistress, and none other.
It welled forth copiously but quietly, as is the way with deep
waters, with never a ripple or a splash of eagerness to betray
its quality, and it was absorbed again in other discretionary
caverns, where it either slept undisturbed, or rose up in fruit-
ful springs to water the higher levels.

All of which means nothing more than that Mrs. Riddell
performed for the great lady the part of reader, and gave her
night and morning selections from the book of servants' and
village gossip, the pages of which she would not and could not
have turned over for herself.

And so it came to pass that Lady Wrotham knew that
Turner had gone down to propose to Mrs. O'Keefe the day
after he had done so, that he had not succeeded in his
object, and had since relinquished it ; and that Browne
would probably some day do the same ; and that Fred Prentice
had also fallen a victim to the same overpowering attraction,
having left a former pursuit with surprising suddenness ; and
that he had probably been dismissed, but this was not yet quite
certain ; also of Mrs. Prentice's ignominious repulse at the door
of Street House, and of that warm evening flitting to the nest
of injured friends, and the freshly-riveted chain of affection
that bound them.

To these things Lady Wrotham listened, making what
comments were suitable for the ears of her informant, and
others, quite different from them, in her own mind. One of
these latter was that she hoped it would not be long before she
should have an opportunity of inspecting this Mrs. O'Keefe,
and another that it should not be long before she came to
an understanding with Mr. Browne on these and sundry
matters. It was not, and she acknowledged to herself
that it was not, strictly speaking, her business to interfere in
matters of this sort among those upon whom she looked as
her subjects. But the fact was that she felt she should like to
take z hand in them, a friendly, helpful hand, it might very
well be, if she saw reason to approve of developments pro-
gressing so far without her assistance. She wanted to be a
friend to her subjects, as well as a ruler, but so far she had
not been very fortunate in drawing them into the net of her
patronage. Of all the better class inhabitants of her new



268 Exton Manor

kingdom, only Mrs. Prentice had shown the least desire to
respond to her influence, and, to tell the truth, she was getting
rather tired of Mrs. Prentice, as one gets tired of any dish if
it is the only one set before one. She had only been at Exton
a month, and she had already quarrelled with the Vicar, quar-
relled by proxy with Mrs. Redcliffe and her daughter, quar-
relled with Captain Turner, and gone very near to quarrelling
with Mr. Browne. Or perhaps it would be more correct to
say that all these several people had in the most unaccountable
way gone to work to pick quarrels with her, who wished them
nothing but well, if only they would behave themselves and
take their proper places in the scheme of things. It was
absurd, though, to suppose that she should allow Mr. Browne
to pick a quarrel with her. His position did not permit him
to indulge in such luxuries, and if he was under the impression
that it did, his mind must be disabused of that tendenc}'.

Behold, then, our Maximilian Browne, summoned from his
office at eleven o'clock on Monday morning when he was just
in the thick of mapping out his week's work and that of his
subordinates, perspiring pinkly on a low chair opposite to
that of the great lady and devoutly wishing himself back
whence he had come.

She had opened up on him with the subject of the new
tenants for the Lodge, and had expressed her surprise that
they, or at all events a sample of them, had not been
submitted to her, prior to acceptance.

" I certainly think," she said, " that considering the Lodge is
the most important house in the place next to this, or the most
important in the immediate surroundings, I ought to have been
consulted on the matter before anything was finally decided."

" The references " began Browne, but she took him up.

" Oh, the references ! " she exclaimed impatiently. " I
have no doubt that Mr. Dale has got plenty of money, or, at
any rate, enough money. That is not the point, Mr. Browne.
With people living practically on one's door-step, one wants
more than that. What do you know of these people — socially
I mean ? He was a friend of Sir Joseph Chapman and comes
from Manchester. I have nothing against Sir Joseph Chap-
man, except that — no, I have nothing against him. But this
man, he may be a Radical or a Dissenter, for all you know."

Browne had a horrible suspicion, undivulged as ye^ to any-
body, that he was both. He had been over to Woadhurst to






Browne is precipitate 269

lunch with Mr. Dale, and from certain things that Mr. Dale
had let drop in the course of conversation this dark suspicion
had arisen. He had comforted himself by saying that these
things were not much in his line, and that he might have been
mistaken ; but he might rather have said that if the suspicion
had occurred to him in spite of his lack of knowledge, it was
probably justified.

" Is it too late to stop it ? " asked Lady Wrotham ; "at any
rate until I have had an opportunity of judging what sort of
people they are ? "

"I'm afraid it is," replied Browne. " The lease is signed
and everything, and the work is nearly finished. They are
coming in next week."

" Well, I cannot help feeling that you have not behaved
well about this, Mr. Browne. Of course you will tell me
that everything has been submitted to Lord Wrotham and he
has approved. But you ought to feel, knowing the circum-
stances as you do, that something is owing to me in such
matters as these. He will not consider it, and I should not
go out of my way to beg him to do so. Certainly not. But
because my son is careless of my wishes that is no reason
why others should be. I ought to have been consulted."

" Well, I felt that," said Browne desperately. He could
not very well tell the indignant dame that he had warned his
employer that there might arise this very difficulty that had
now arisen, and his employer had said, " If you are going to
refuse every good tenant that comes along unless my mother
approves of him, we'd better shut up shop and go into bank-
ruptcy at once. Make out the lease, my stout friend, and
don't be a fool."

" I felt that, Lady Wrotham," he said. " But Mr. Dale is
such a good tenant, and is doing much more than we'd any
right to ask, that we couldn't very well refuse him, and Lord
Wrotham told me to put the matter through."

" Very well, then," she said. " There is nothing more to
be said, and we must make the best of things. But, you will
oblige me, Mr. Browne, by consulting me in the future on
these matters before anything is finally settled."

Browne promised to do so, all the more readily as all the
houses on the Manor were now let on substantial leases, and
the first part of his ordeal was over.

" There is another matter I wished to speak to you about



270 Exton Manor

Mr. Browne," said Lady Wrotham. " I hear that — that Mrs.
O'Keefe, whose acquaintance I have not yet had the pleasure
of making, has — I don't quite know how to put it — has such
great personal attractions, that the whole village is talking
about the way in which she is being run after."

Browne sat and stared at her with his mouth open. It was
the only. way in which he could express the devastating sense
of surprise produced by her words.

" You will say," she proceeded, " that this has nothing to
do with me, and that you are surprised that I should have the
courage to mention it."

This was about what Browne would have said if he could
have found his tongue and dared to use it freely. Except that
he would have substituted the word " cheek " for " courage."
As it was he said nothing.

" I do so in no spirit of interference," she went on, " but I
should just like to say this, and I shall not object if my words
are repeated to Captain Turner and young Mr. Prentice. I
think it is a pity that the name of a young widow of Mrs.
O'Keefe's position should be bandied about in this fashion. I
venture to say it, because I am the only woman who is in a
position to say it, and these things must be said by a woman or
not at all — unless, of course, the lady in question had a rela-
tion in the place or near it who could look after her reputation."

" Her reputation I " echoed Browne, with a sunset flush of
indignation and self-consciousness mantling his features.

" Yes, her reputation. Here is a young widow, a very
young widow, beautiful, so I am told and can well believe, and
of high birth. She settles down after her sad loss in a quiet
country place, away from her relations and connections, and
she ought to be treated with the utmost respect. She ought
not to be talked about all over the place as a lady to whom
every bachelor in the neighbourhood is paying his attentions.
There is Captain Turner pursuing her, whose birth and up-
bringing, by his own confession, are in no way equal to hers ;
there is young Mr. Prentice, who cannot be much more than a
boy, and has his way to make entirely, and from what I can
hear is likely to make a great mess in doing it ; and, Mr.
Browne, there is yourself — you will excuse me for speaking
quite plainly — — "

" Oh, certainly, Lady Wrotham," said Browne, who had by
this time collected his scattered brains and was nerving himself



Browne is precipitate 271

to exercise them to the best of his ability ; " and what about
me ? "

" Well ! Do you think your position here justifies you in
— in "

" Do you mean in getting married if I want to ? "

" Certainly not. You know I do not mean that. I should
be pleased to see you happily married, very pleased indeed, and
hope that some day you will be, to a suitable partner in life."

" And you don't think Mrs. O'Keefe would be suitable,
supposing I wanted to marry her."

4 Do you think she would yourself ! Is your position here
good enough to allow you to offer it to a lady of Mrs. O'Keefe's
standing ? "

" If it isn't good enough to allow me to marry anybody I
want to marry, Lady Wrotham, if I do want to marry, which
I don't, I'll throw it up at once. Captain Turner did tell me
the other day that a man couldn't hold the position I do with-
out losing his independence . I told him it was nonsense, but he
says that sort of thing without meaning it ; it's his way. If
you think the same, if you think that a land agent can't be a
gentleman

" Oh, Mr. Browne, you are talking absurdly. Who could
say such a thing ? "

" Well, then is it that / can't be a gentleman ? I've
always hoped I was. I don't boast about my family, but
it's a good deal better than most people's, although my
father was a country clergyman and a good way off the
head of it. And as for money, I've got enough to marry on
if I want to."

" Are you one of the ? "

" Yes, I am, Lady Wrotham. You'll find me in the books
if you like to look for me."

" Well, of course that does make a difference."

M I don't see that it makes any difference. I'm either a
gentleman or I'm not a gentleman. If I am I oughtn't to be
treated like a sort of upper servant and told to keep my place
and who I'm to make friends with and who I'm not to make
friends with. If that's the kind of land agent wanted on this
property, Lady W r rotham, I'll send in my resignation to-
morrow."

The honest gentleman was so outraged by what he con-
sidered an impertinent piece of interference that his eloquence



272 Exton Manor

would have carried him still farther if Lady Wrotham had not
raised her hand and stopped him.

" You quite misunderstand me," she said, although he had
not in the least misunderstood her, and if the unsuspected fact
of his descent from a noble family had not been made plain to
her she would have treated his other claims with scant cere-
mony. " And if you really have in your mind a direct
proposal of marriage "

" I don't say whether I have or whether I haven't, Lady
Wrotham/' said Browne, " but if I'm to submit my private
intentions of that sort to you before taking any steps, as I'm
to submit the tenants on the Manor, as I say, I'll send in my
resignation at once and go somewhere where such things as
that aren't expected of an agent by his employers."

" I hope you won't say any more about that, Mr. Browne.
Lord Wrotham would be very sorry to lose }^ou, and I needn't
say that I should be very sorry to lose you too You need not
fear that as long as you remain here you will not be treated
in every way as you ought to be treated."

"I'm sorry to say that I don't think I have been, Lady
Wrotham," said Browne, rising. " If there is nothing more
in the way of business that you want to speak to me about, if
you'll excuse me, I'll get back to my work. Monday's a busy
morning."

Lady Wrotham did not detain him. " I really think," she
said to herself when he had left, " that I have come amongst
the most cantankerous and opinionated set of people it would
be possible to find anywhere. One cannot say the least little
thing to any one of them without their flying in one's face.
At the same time, Mr. Browne, in spite of his birth, which is
news to me and I should not have expected, is not a suitable
match for a young woman in Mrs. O'Keefe's position, and I
hope she will not be so foolish as to accept him. By the bye,
I wonder "

She took down from a shelf the ponderous red and gold
bound volume in which are set forth the pedigrees of those
who can lay claim to blue blood, even to the last pale in-
fusion, so be it that it is inherited in the male line, and looked
up the records of a certain Marquisate. Yes, there it was,
Maximilian Philip, son of the Reverend Philip Maximilian,
son of Colonel Orlando Maximilian, C.B., son of the Very
Reverend the Dean of Ballymalone, son of the Honourable



Browne is precipitate 273

Maximilian Philip Orlando, brother of the First Marquess,
and in remainder to the Earldom and sundry ancient Baronies ;
a long way off the fountain head, it was true, and unlikely ever
to wade through the ocean of Maximilians and Philips and
Orlandos that lay between, but filling its little niche of distinc-
tion all the same. Lady Wrotham shut the book and put it
back on its shelf. " If I had known/' she said, " that M. P.
stood for Maximilian Philip, I should not have been likely to
make that little mistake," which for Lady Wrotham was a
serious admission of error. She took down the book again and
looked up the Earldom of Ballyshannon.

" Sons of the Fifth Earl. Michael John, present peer,
Patrick Ernest, Captain Grenadier Guards, married Norah,
daughter of John O'Malley, M.D."

" H'm ! "

Honest Browne, as much put out by what had occurred as
his equable nature permitted, left the Abbey and marched
straight up the village past his office, where both people and
papers were awaiting his attention and knocked at the door of
Street House. Mrs. O'Keefe was writing in the little room
off the hall, and he was shown in to her.

" Mrs. O'Keefe," he said, shaking hands with her earnestly,
" I have come to ask you a question. I've just been infernally
insulted by Lady Wrotham, and — will you marry me?"

He ought to have added the word " There ! " to make his
question completely expressive of his feelings, but perhaps
they were plainly evident without it.

A mischievous light shone in Norah's eyes. " Let us sit
down first," she said, and did so as far from the chair to which
she had motioned Browne as the dimensions of the room
would permit.

" I'm in dead earnest," said Browne. " I'm not as young
as I was, but very few of us are. Anyhow, I'm not much
over forty, and I don't suppose I shall be much different from
what I am now for another twenty years. A lot of fellows
couldn't say the same, but I live a healthy life. I'm very easy j
to get on with, and you wouldn't have any trouble with me at
all. I'm not rich, but I've got a decent income and a good j
house, and if I have to give up the one I've got now I should
not have any difficulty in finding just as good a job somewhere
else, and perhaps a better one. Now what do you think
of it ? '!



274 Exton Manor

" I think it is very kind of you to offer me the chance, Mr.
Browne," replied Norah. " But aren't you very comfortable
as you are now ? "

" Yes, I am. But I don't think I should be any less com-
fortable if I got married, perhaps more so. I should like it.
Upon my word I should, and I hope you'll say yes."

" I'm afraid I can't quite do that, Mr. Browne. But of
course we are real friends, and I hope always shall be, and if
there is any other way in which you can score off Lady Wro-
tham, I'll do my best to help you. I suppose she told you
that she couldn't hear of your — asking me, and you have
asked me so as to show her that you are not going to take
your orders from her."

" Well, it wasn't exactly like that. And, of course, I
shouldn't have thought of asking you unless I really wanted
to. But I've wanted to a good long time, only I haven't quite
seen my way. Don't you think you could manage it, Mrs.
O'Keefe ? "

" I'm afraid not, Mr. Browne. But tell me more about
Lady Wrotham. How was it that my name came up ? "

" Well, she had the cheek to tackle me about the way in
which I— and others she mentioned, but I needn't go into
that — were what she called running after you."

Norah's manner underwent a change. " I think that was
quite uncalled for," she said. " She seems to be a very inter-
fering old lady."

" She is. There's not a doubt about it. I stuck up for
her as long as I could, but — she is interfering. You're quite
right. I'm sure if I've done anything in the way of — of what
she says, that I ought not to have done, I'm very sorry for it."

" My dear Mr. Browne, if you had it would be no affair
of Lady Wrotham's. It would be my affair and mine only.



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