Copyright
Archibald Marshall.

Exton manor online

. (page 34 of 36)
Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 34 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of pounds which he had no means of repaying. And further
than this, he had launched out, in anticipation of wealth, into
an extravagant way of living which had already involved him
in debt to the extent of over a thousand pounds more. He
was penniless, without prospects or even the means of making
a living, and he owed something like two thousand pounds.

What was to be done ? Mr. Prentice could pay the debts,
but they would swallow up every penny of his small savings,
and he would have to sell nearly everything he possessed be-
sides. Then he w r ould start life again at the age of fifty-five
with about a hundred pounds a year of his own and the remote
chance of being presented to an incumbency which would pro-

388



The Substance of the Shadow 889

vide him with a living. He could not see that he was justified
in doing this. If he had been remaining at Exton he would
have paid his son's debts in full and still been able to live on
his income. But now his income would be of the smallest.
He intended to take a curacy in London and wait until a liv-
ing was offered him, not minding very much if he never got
another living, for, after all, his work in the Church was the
chief thing that occupied his thoughts. But for him and his
wife to live on an income of perhaps four hundred a year and
make some provision for old age was one thing, and to throw
themselves on the world, and support a son until he could sup-
port himself, on about half that income, or less, was quite an-
other. And yet he had such a horror of debt that he could
not reconcile it with his conscience to keep his stored-up
money while his son's creditors went unpaid. Fred, in his help-
less dejection, had mentioned the bankruptcy court, but such a
way of escaping the burden of debt seemed to the Vicar noth-
ing less than dishonourable. Try as he would, he could see
no way out of the difficulty, and as the train rushed on through
the gathering darkness, the closing night seemed to be one
with the black perplexity to which his thoughts tended.

He thought, without anger, of his son. Fred had been
broken up with helpless regret at what he had done. He had
offered no justification of his folly to his father's strictures.
No blame could deepen the state of remorse in which he had
found him. But, on the other hand, the Vicar knew that this
crisis in his affairs once over his spirits would rebound, and he
would put his troubles away from him. It was difficult to deal
with such a character. He could only hope that this last les-
son would be such a severe one that he would not run the risk
of having it repeated. Fred's weakness, disastrous as it had
been, could only arouse the desire to protect him in the heart
of his father, and if he could see his way in the present break-
ing-up of his own life to help, he would do so, and hope for
the best. But how to help ! No light came to him, although
his thoughts were busy with the problem during the whole of
the two hours' journey to Greathampton.

He got out of the fast train to wait for the slow one which
should presently take him on to the station for Exton, but as
he walked up the platform he was hailed from the window of a
first-class carriage by Mrs. Firmin of Standon House, who was
going on to Woodhurst, and offered him a lift thence in her



390 Extern Manor

motor-car. So he arranged for a telegram to send back his own
conveyance, and bundled back into the train again.

Mrs. Firmin's car was a big new one, with a ciosed-in body.
The Vicar asked if he might sit in front. He wanted the re-
freshment of the mild night air of the forest, and he could not
support the idea of a desultory conversation during the six-mile
drive, so he took his place by the chauffeur, and Mrs. Firmin
and her maid were r hut in behind.

They rolled away from the station and through the outskirts
of the village into the country lanes, and then into the broad
forest road and the mysterious darkness of the great trees.
There was no moon and no stars, but the strong light of the
two great lamps illumined the road before them with a misty
radiance. The car swung on at a high speed, with a musical
note of power in its engines. The light fell on tree trunks
and shadowy masses of foliage, slipping by and immediately
swallowed up again in the darkness. They sped over a bridge
and up a steep slope without change of gear, and round a sharp
corner guarded by white posts. A rabbit jumped across the
road immediately in front of them, and another one ran along
by their side, confused by the glare of the lamps, and darted
again into the fern. The air was mild and fragrant with the
breath of the forest, and the Vicar's brain cleared as if by
magic, and everything became plain to him.

He would do his duty. He would take his son's folly upon
his own shoulders and denude himself of all that he pos-
sessed to straighten cut the tangles of his life. He would
trust in God for the future. What was the poor provision
he had made for his own comfort beside the inexhaustible
stores he had to draw on ? He would not be forsaken, even
though all his worldly possessions were taken from him.

His heart leapt with gratitude and faith. He would lose all,
but he would gain all. He had a moment of intense spiritual
joy, and as the tide of emotion ebbed it left behind it a deep
happiness and a clear outlook into the future. Surely now,
if he made this sacrifice, his son would take counsel of
himself, and put away his follies. He loved him and he
would have confidence in him. His wife ! She would be
one with him in this. She loved the boy too, and would
be willing to make sacrifices for him. The necessity for doing
so would bring them together again. They would begin a
new life. All the confusion and misery of the past few



The Substance of tfie Shadow 391

months would be swept away. He would no longer seek to
bring home her faults to her by severity and disapproval. She
would respond to his love, and she would weep for her faults,
brought home to her by her own conscience, when they should
begin together their new life of high self-denying endeavour.
Poor Agatha ! So hardly driven by her bitter nature ! He
would shield and protect her against her own lower impulses.
He would be strong in love and patience. Never again would
they be parted, but go down the vale of life together, bear-
ing all things, hoping all things.

The car had come up a long straight slope bordered by
conifers and banks of rhododendron, and now swung round
into a road that rose and dipped between low oaks and
cleared ground, carpeted with withered bracken, on its way
to a high-lying open heath. " Nearly ran into some forest
ponies here as I came down," said the chauffeur, and the car
went forward at a slower rate.

The Vicar drew in a breath of the sweet fresh air, rarer
now, as it filtered through the trees from the high wide spaces
of the heath. It was redolent to him of familiar memories.
He felt a gentle regret for this beautiful country in which
he had made his home, and which he was so soon to leave.
But his exalted spiritual state forbade painful repining. He
was at peace with all men. Yes, even with Lady Wrotham,
who had spoilt his work and driven him out. Her motives
were good. She was sincere, if mistaken. God grant that
when he had gone, and the disputes and friction had died
down, religion would come once more to be a real thing in
Exton. It would not be, in all respects, the religion he had
laboured earnestly to teach, but he saw clearly now that
form w T as a small matter, if the spirit was present, and the
spirit was a wide thing embracing the universe, blowing
where it listed and confined to no creed. He had put his
trust in the sacraments of the Church, and his faith in his
creed was unshaken. But God's grace could not be confined.
It would work among the souls of men, though the Church
itself should be annihilated. He raised his eyes to the cloudy
vault of darkness, and saw above it the power and glory of
the God in whom he believed.

Suddenly there was a muttered exclamation from the
chauffeur, a confused noise of galloping hoofs, a great swerve
of the car, a downward lurch, a shock and a breaking. The



392 Exton Manor

car recoiled and stood still for a moment, its engines racing.
The chauffeur was thrown violently against the steering wheel
but fell back into his seat with a groan as it jerked forward
again, and managed to guide it into the road and bring it to
a standstill in a few yards. Just behind it the Vicar was
lying senseless, huddled up against a tree on to which he had
been thrown as the fore part of the car had struck the pony
full in the fl£nk, after the sudden turn which had taken him
unawares and dislodged him from his seat.

There were shrieks from the inside of the carriage. The
chauffeur sat still a moment to regain his breath, and then
extricated himself and, bent with pain, opened the door.
" Oh, what is it ! What is it ? " cried Mrs. Firmin.

The car was standing still, half across the road, one of its
lamps shattered, but otherwise uninjured. " Three or four
ponies ran across me/' gasped the chauffeur. " I'd just turned
to escape them when another come and we run right into him.
The gentleman was thrown out. I'm afraid he's hurt."

He took the small lamp from behind the car and turned
back, still groaning. He had broken a rib against the steer-
ing wheel, which had saved him from being thrown over the
bonnet of the car. Mrs. Firmin and the maid, shaken only
by the shock, alighted and went back too. The Vicar was
lying where he had fallen, and from his head trickled a thin
stream of blood and soaked into the damp soil. There was
no sign of the pony, which had been knocked over by the
impact, but had risen and hobbled away after its fellows into
the forest.

" He is badly hurt," said Mrs. Firmin. " Oh, what shall
we do ? He cannot lie here. Are you hurt too, John ? "

" I think I've broke something, ma'am, but I'm feeling a
bit better."

" Can you help me lift him into the car ? " Mrs. Firmin
was kneeling beside the senseless form on the ground, regard-
less of her velvets and furs, supporting his head. " We
could do it, all three of us. Can the car go on, or is it dam-
aged ? "

" It's only the lamp broke, ma'am. But there's a house a
few yards on."

" Yes, of course there is. Wallace, you had better run
there and get help. John, can you get my dressing-bag ?
There is a little brandy there. Take some. We must not



The Substance of the Shadow 393

give it to Mr. Prentice, but there is eau de Cologne. Brine it
to me,"

She did what she could, but the Vicar never stirred or
opened his eyes, lying there helpless until a man who lived
in a cottage on the borders of the heath and the wood came
running back with the maid. Then they got him on to the
floor of the car between them and she supported his head
on her lap as they drove on to Exton, and to the vicarage.

And so the Vicar was brought back to his wife whom he
had left in the freshness of the morning without her having
so much as come to the door to bid him farewell.

She sat by his bedside, with dry eyes and a startled in-
credulous look in them, some hours later. Everything had
been done that could have been done. Mrs. Firmin had
gone off to fetch the doctor who lived five miles away. Her
man was suffering considerable pain but he declared himself
able to drive so far out of his way. The doctor had come
over on his own motor bicycle, and w r hen he had seen what
was necessary had ridden to the Forest Lodge, and Mr.
Ferraby had sent off a car to Greathampton to bring back a
surgeon. There had been a wait of two hours during which
Mrs. Prentice strove to bring home to herself what had
taken place and to fight off the awful feeling of dread that
hammered for admission to her brain. Neither she nor the
doctor could do anything but wait, and though she plied
him with entreaties, he would not say anything more hopeful
than that he hoped the Greathampton surgeon would be able
to do something. It was plain, if she had allowed herself to
accept it, that he himself had little hope.

A little comfort had come with the surgeon ; the bustle
of his arrival, his self-reliant bearing and direct confident
speech had eased the tension. She had been shut out of
the room while the two doctors had performed the operation
which might save her husband's life — she had come to admit
that, that his very life hung on the success of this operation
— but when it was over something very like despair had
settled down on her heart again. The doctors had come
out of the room with grave faces. Neither of them had
given her a word , of hope. There was nothing new to look
forward to, nothing that could be done to stem the current
flowing out to the waters of death, and turn it back to the
bright fields of life. There was nothing to do but to wait



894 Exton Manor

and watch, with the numbing consciousness that life was
ebbing away, slowly and surety, and the dark waters would -
presently swallow it up.

The Greathampton surgeon had motored back to the hos-
pitalities of the Forest Lodge, which were somewhat over-
clouded by this sudden terrible occurrence, but not so much
as to be quite extinguished, and the local doctor was lying
down in another room. Mrs. Prentice was alone with her
husband.

He was lying with his eyes open, their pupils widely dilated,
but no consciousness in them. His head was bandaged and
he was breathing heavily. With the outside of her brain she
knew that he was dying, but she had not yet admitted it to
herself ; only that he was in grave peril, and beyond the reach
of her most anxious care. Once or twice she bent over him
and looked into his eyes. It seemed impossible that he should
not be aware of her, and answer, or at least show that he
heard if she spoke to him. But the eyes showed no sign of
the brain behind them, and the noisy breathing went on
monotonously, the knell of hope.

She was full of terror and compunction. She could not
command her thoughts ; they v/ere in a whirl of confusion.
But one little fact kept rising like a bit of wreckage
in a whirlpool, to show what was beneath the surface.
She had let him go away this morning without a farewell.
The custom of many years had nearly brought her to the
door, but pride had risen up and held her back, and he
had driven away unsped. She could hear the wheels of the
carriage now on the soft gravel. He had driven away to
this, and this was her punishment for not bidding him good-
bve. It was monstrous. Why should she be punished like
this?

Oh, but it could not be. He would get well, and every-
thing would be as it had been before. No, not as it had been
before. She had done wrong. Without a vestige of exact
thought, either of self-defence or self-accusation, on the events
of the past months and what had led up to them, she yet ac-
knowledged that she had done wrong. He had blamed her,
but not harshly, not undeservedly, and he had been right to
blame her. But he was a good man and a kind husband.
He would forgive her, and they would be friends again, and
happy together She had only to ask his forgiveness and turn



The Substance of the Shadow 395

to him, and all would be as it had been throughout the years
of their married life ; better than it had been, for she would
be careful not to offend him again. If only this breathing
would stop, and he would close his eyes and sleep ! When
he awoke again he might forget that she had not said good-
bye to him in the morning. At any rate he would forgive her
that, and other things.

Her thoughts chattered lightly. This was the husband of
whom she had been so proud. She remembered little details
of his wooing of her, a handsome young man, rather sought
after by the ladies of his congregation, full of energy and high
ideals. He had had eyes only for her. In the early days of
his priesthood his views had been considered advanced, but
hers had been just the same as his, and when at last they had
been married and settled down to a life of very happy poverty
and hard work, they had seen eye to eye in everything. How
proud he had been of his little son, and how ready to give up
his personal comfort on behalf of the baby in their narrow
quarters. They had been very happy in those early days be-
fore promotion had come, living strictly and rather meagrely,
but with nothing to cause them anxiety in their own home,
however ready to burden themselves with the griefs of their
poorer neighbours. Her thoughts roamed idly over the years
in London. Somehow there was a barrier to keep them behind
the point at which the London work had been exchanged for
the more spacious and comfortable life of the country vicarage.
But as they wandered from one point to another, idly, almost
pleasantly, the background of gloom and dread deepened, un-
til at last the black consciousness of loss broke through them
and flooded all her brain. Her husband was dying. He would
never speak to her again, never look on her to know her face.
With a cry of anguish, she threw herself on to the bed, and
wept and wailed for her iosr .

The doctor came hurrying into the room, and would have
removed her forcibly, but she held back her grief and des-
pair, and stood up to face him. " You can leave me with
him now/' she said. " I know the worst, and I won't give
way again.' '

He paused irresolutely. The dying man lay quiet, deai
to that agonized cry and to everything around him. The
breath came and went in his throat, his eyes stared unseeing
in front of him. Nothing she could do would hasten or re-



396 Exton Manor

tard his passing. But, for her own sake, he would have stayed
with her till the end.

" I must be alone with him," she repeated. " I won't give
way again. I have so little time to be with him. Please leave
me." And he went out again.

Now the deeps were broken up and the waters flowed. She
wept bitterly, but without noise. Everything was plain to
her, all her unworthiness and the sorrow which she had brought
to him during these months which, had she but known it,
were to be his last on earth. The memory of that bitter time
would never pass away from her as long as she lived. He was
a good man, and she had never valued him as he deserved, had
given him much cause for sorrow, and had latterly grieved him
to the point of death. She could not put away from her the
thought that this accident, coming just at the time of the
climax in affairs, was somehow the outcome of them, and
that she was partly responsible for it. More than once her
despair threatened to overwhelm her again, but she always
beat it down, and her tears flowed afresh to wash it back.
Presently one thought held her to the exclusion of every-
thing else. He was still alive, still with her, and she must
make the most of the time until death tore him from her
altogether. With a heart almost suffocating with pain, she
gazed on him, holding his cold hand. His harsh drawing
of breath became music in her ears, because it still meant
life ; his meaningless stare held no terror for her, because
she saw herself reflected in still living eyes. She embraced
his rigid form, smoothed his bandaged brow, murmured words
of love. She felt a kind of fierce joy in the thought that he
still lived and was still hers. She had projected herself into
the dreadful future, and held him as if he had been given
back to her from the dead.

Presently she lay quite still beside him, her eyes closed. It
might have been thought that she was asleep.

The grey dawn filled the window panes. The birds under
the eaves twittered a welcome to a new day. And with the
dawn the heavy breathing lessened and died away, and the
Vicar entered upon another life's work.



CHAPTER XXXVII

RECONCILIATION

" I must go to her," Mrs. Redcliffe said.

Hilda looked at her. There was concern in her face, but
some indecision too. " Poor woman ! " she said. " But do
you think she will sec you, mother ? ■'

Mrs. Redcliffe rose from the table. " I don't know," she
said. " But I must go."

There was no feeling in her mind, as she walked down
from the White House to the village, but one of deep compas-
sion. Mrs. Prentice's behaviour to her was forgotten. Her
mind did not even dwell on the possibility of her having to
face some awkwardness in going to the vicarage. She went
as she would have gone a year before, when she and Mrs.
Prentice were on friendly terms. She went because her sor-
row and pity might soothe the shocked spirit of a woman who
had received a deep wound, and there was no room in her
mind for the least degree of selfish consideration.

She was shown into the dining-room, the only sitting-room
in the house which remained habitable, and here there were
everywhere signs of the coming change, which had been
merged in a change of so much more terrible an import.
She was thrilled with a fresh pang of sorrow as she realized
how this arrested demolition of her home must add to the
distress of the bereaved woman.

The door opened, and Mrs. Prentice entered. She had
mastered her grief for the time, and, though her eyes were
red and her face was pale, she was not otherwise altered in
appearance. She shut the door behind her and came towards
Mrs. Redcliffe with an air of offence. She opened her mouth
to speak, and it was plain that her intention was to ask the
reason of an intrusion ; or it would have been plain if there

397



393 Exton Manor

had been anyone in the room to take notice of her man-
ner. Mrs. Redcliffe saw nothing of it. She saw only a
woman who had suffered a cruel and stunning blow, and she
say/ her only dimly, through her tears. She came forward
with an inarticulate cry of grief and sympathy, and the next
moment Mrs. Prentice was clinging to her and weeping on
her shoulder.

They sat together, and the poor broken v/oman sobbed out
her grief and her contrition. " He was so good," she said.
"I see it all now ; and how right he v/as in everything and
how wicked I have been. And for months I have hardly
spoken a kind word to him. How can I go on living with
that to remember ? I did not even say good-bye to him when
he went away yesterday morning. I never spoke to him, and
he was brought back to me to die. Oh, how can I bear the
thought of it ? "

She rocked herself to and fro in an agony of grief. Truly
here was occasion for sorrow beyond human power to console.
Mrs. Redcliffe comforted her as well as she was able, and
presently she grew a little calmer.

" You are very good to me," she said. " I have behaved
badly to you too."

But Mrs. Redcliffe stopped her at once. " My dear/'
she said, " that is all over and done with. I have put it
quite away from me. Anything that I had to forgive I have
forgiven fully and freely. It shall never come between us
again."

The poor woman wept again, and talked of her dead,
lying oblivious of her remorseful sorrow. But she was
calmer.

" I can't tell you what a comfort it is to have you with
me," she said. " I have no friends now, and it is my own
fault. Oh, that I could have the past months back again ! "

They talked of the future. " Poor Fred is on his way
here," she said. " He has been in sad trouble — about money
— and it was on his account he went up to London yesterday.
I don't know what was settled. But I know that he would
only have been kind and helpful. Oh, the loss of his wisdom
and love I I don't know what will happen now. We shall
be very poor. But why do I talk of that ? Nothing matters
except his loss."

Neither of them had heard a ring at the bell and voices



Reconciliation 399

outside the room. The door was opened and Lady Wrotham
was announced.

She came into the room slowly, leaning on her stick. Her
face showed deep concern.

Mrs. Prentice sprang to her feet. " Why do you come
here ? " she cried. Her eyes blazed and her hands were tight
clenched.

Lady Wrotham stood still, but she showed no surprise at
her reception, nor did her face change its expression. " I
came," she said quietly, " to tell you how shocked and grieved
I am to hear of your loss, and to ask if I could do anything to
help you."

To help me ! " echoed Mrs. Prentice, " you to help me !
You who did all you could to make his life wretched — the last
months he had on earth. You who had driven him out of the
place and turned everybody who loved him against him ! I
wouldn't accept help from you if I were starving. And you
haven't come to offer help. You've come here to triumph
over me. You've had your way. The good man you've
persecuted is lying upstairs dead. He won't trouble you any



Online LibraryArchibald MarshallExton manor → online text (page 34 of 36)