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the place and the people. As the wife of the Vicar, you will
no doubt be able to help me to become acquainted with my
new surroundings. As I have said, I am very glad you have
called, because here I am now. and here I shall stay, God

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Lady Wrotham 103

willing, for the rest of my life, and I may as well begin at
once to know my way. You will be kind enough, I am sure,
to assist me."

How gladly ! Mrs. Prentice's heart warmed towards her.
" Indeed I will," she said. " You cannot think, Lady
Wrotham, what a pleasure it is to me to have you here, to
advise and control. Everything has been on my shoulders,
so far ; everything, that is, that some woman must take the
lead in, and I so gladly deliver up my charge into your
hands. "

" H'm ! " grunted Lady Wrotham, with a sharp glance at
her. " Sir Joseph Chapman, I suppose, had no lady living
here ? "

" His sister lived with him until she died, two years ago.
But she was an invalid, and not of much account. She was
a Swcdenborgian, but it did not matter so very much, as she
was hardly ever able to leave the house."

" Sir Joseph, I believe, kept up what charities were
necessary ? "

" Yes ; he was most generous — never appealed to in vain."

" I must go into that question with the Vicar. I shall, of
course, do what is necessary, but I do not believe in pauperiz-
ing. I make it a rule to devote the utmost care to my bene-
factions. I believe far more in personal talk and advice
than in money and help, although that I give ungrudgingly
when it is required. There are others, I suppose, who visit
the poor. You do, I know." Mrs. O'Keefe ? '

" Mrs. O'Keefe would do anything that was desired of her,
I am sure. But we have no regular system of district visit-
ing. I have not encouraged it, as it is not necessary ; not
necessary, that is, from the point of view of charity, for there
are very few really poor people in the parish, and what there
are the Vicar and I have looked after, with Sir Joseph's help."

" But it is a good thing, I think, for ladies in a country
village to visit the poor, and to — to see that they are
behaving themselves. The clergyman can da much, but I
believe strongly in the influence of good women."

" Of course you are so very right, Lady Wrotham. My
own labours in that way are sometimes actually exhausting ;
but, to tell you the truth, there are no other women in the
place who — er — well, I don't quite know how to put it — who
would be capable of helping them spiritually."

(S0>



104 Extern Manor

" Oh, indeed ! That is rather a grave state of things/ '
"Pray do not think that I mean to imply anything serious
— against anybody. But Mrs. O'Keefe, you see, is so very
young — hardly more than a girl/'

" She is a widow, and quite old enough to do her duty/'
" Oh, yes, and she would, I am sure. She is very kind-
hearted, and the people like her. But, as I say — perhaps I
have been wrong — I have not encouraged her to go about

among them. Still, if you wish it, Lady Wrotham "

" I think she must be set to work. It will do herself as
much good as the poor — perhaps more. But there is Mra.
Redcliffe. She is an older woman, with a grown-up daughter,
is she not ? "

Mrs. Prentice pursed her thin lips. " I think," she said
stiffly, " you would probably find Mrs. Redcliffe more than
ready to undertake whatever you require of her, Lady
Wrotham."

u H'm ! But you mean something more than you say."
" It is the most disagreeable thing in the world to me even
to appear to be running people down. And as for saying
things behind their backs that I wouldn't say to their faces —
well, I wouldn't do it. But Mrs. Redcliffe — you must under-
stand that she is, I was going to say, a nobody. And if she
has a fault — which her daughter shares — she would be in-
clined, I am sadly afraid, to pay court to — to-



" IV



To a title. I quite understand. Many people do. I am
quite used to that little failing, and if it is not too blatant I
can put up with it."

" Well, I need say no more upon that score then. It is
very distasteful tome to have to say anything at all. But it
was really so very marked. When Lord Wrotham came
down, here for the day, they — Mrs. Redcliffe and her daughter
— made what I can only describe as a dead set at him."

" Did they ? " said Lady Wrotham grimly.

" Oh, it was most marked. I thought that Lord Wrotham
might perhaps like to have some conversation with my hus-
band, and took the liberty of asking him to luncheon. But
Mrs. Redcliffe had already got hold of him, if I may use the
expression, and by the time he got away from the White
House, he had no leisure left to do more than drive round the
Manor with Mr. Browne before going back to town."

" Probably Miss Redcliffe is a good-looking girl."



Lady Wrotham 105

" Well — some people might consider her so, I suppose."

" I think she must be good-looking, or Lord Wrotham
would certainly not have put himself out to visit at the house.
You need give yourself no anxiety on the score of his actions,
Mrs. Prentice. They will certainly not be followed by
me."

Mrs. Prentice was pleased to hear this ; she felt that she
was getting on well. But she was not quite as elated as
might have been expected. She had received nothing but
kindness from Mrs. Redcliffe, and must have known in her
heart of hearts that she did not deserve the things that she
had said of her. But the grudges of a spiteful woman are
greedy, and clamour to be satisfied. She hastened to discount
the charges which her conscience would presently bring against
her. " Of course," she said, " Mrs. Redcliffe, with all her
faults, is a good woman. She would only be too pleased to
go about among the poor, if there were any necessity for it.
Still, her views on religion are not quite such as might be ex-
pected from a good Churchwoman, and I have felt that if she
were to interfere to any extent in the parish work, she might
only undo the influence that my husband and I strive to
create."

" She does well, perhaps," said Lady Wrotham, " to keep
quiet, in her particular situation."

" Oh, yes. It would not do to encourage her to take a
leading part."

" Do you find that there is any disagreeableness — any
scandal — in connection with her story ? I suppose every one
about here knows of it ? "

" Scandal ! Story ! " exclaimed Mrs. Prentice, pricking up
her ears.

" Is it not known, then ? "

" I — I — don't quite know to what you refer, Lady Wro-
tham."

Lady Wrotham was silent for a moment. " Perhaps I have
made a mistake in mentioning it," she said. " Like you, I
am very averse to creating mischief. But as I have gone so
far, I suppose I must go farther. Only, I beg of you not to
make the matter public, if she has really succeeded in keep-
ing it secret, which I confess I should not have thought
possible."

" Oh, indeed, you may rely on my discretion," said Mrs.



106 Exton Manor

Prentice, hiding as far as possible the state of eager excitement
in which she now found herself.

" Well, Mrs. Redcliffe married her sister's husband. Of
course, in Australia such a marriage is quite regular. When
I was out there with Lord Wrotham I heard of it. Mrs.
Redcliffe is not exactly a — a ' nobody/ as you have thought,
though no doubt she is wise under the circumstances to draw
as little attention as possible to whatever claims of birth she
might put forward. Her father was a son of the Dean of
Carchester, who was one of the Stuarts of Dornasheen. He
emigrated to Australia in his youth, and became a wealthy
squatter. Captain Redcliffe, one of the Worcestershire Red-
cliffes, went out on Lord Chippenham's staff, and married and
settled there. His wife died within a year, and then he mar-
ried her sister, Mrs. Redcliffe, who lives here. He did not
live very long after that himself. I did not realize, until after
Mrs. Redcliffe had come to live here, who she was ; I was not
in the way of hearing much about the Exton tenantry, or per-
haps I might have However, that is Mrs. Redcliffe's

history."

Mrs. Prentice was shrewd enough not to betray the acute
enjoyment which the recital had caused her. She was anxious
now to get away and consider how best she might deal with
the information.

" Thank you for telling it to me, Lady Wrotham," she
said. " You will have no objection, I suppose, to my disclos-
ing it to my husband."

" N-o. But I do not wish it put about all over the county."

" Oh, indeed, I should not think of doing such a thing. I
am so grateful for your confidence, Lady Wrotham. You
may rely upon me as a willing helper in all your exertions for
the welfare of the place. I hope you will look upon me as
your lieutenant. It is such a joy to welcome you here."

" Thank you, Mrs. Prentice. I do not intend to live idly.
The years that remain to me will be employed to the best of
my ability, and I hope they will be employed in Exton. I
wish to make friends with the people. Perhaps you will
kindly let it be known that I shall be glad if they will call on
me in the ordinary way. I must not be supposed to give my-
self airs over them, you know."

This was said with the hint of a smile. Mrs. Prentice's
somewhat confused reply conveyed her appreciation of the



Lady Wrotham 107

pleasantry, together with her opinion that airs from such a
quarter could only be looked upon as a gratifying condescen-
sion.

" And perhaps you and }'our husband will give me the
pleasure of your company at dinner to-morrow night at a
quarter-past eight. The evening service is at half-past six,
is it not ? "

Mrs. Prentice said that it was, accepted the invitation for
herself and her husband, and then took her leave.

Those whom she met on her way from the Abbey to the
vicarage received scant notice from her. Her mind was full
of the revelation she had received which even obliterated the
memory of the success she conceived herself to have obtained
in initiating an intimacy with her patroness. To think of it !
A woman of that sort ! And she had allowed her to claim an
equality with herself, the virtuous wife and mother, who shud-
dered* yes, actually shuddered at the very idea of looseness in
the marriage tie. As she said these words to herself her
muscles, obedient to her mind, did produce a quite creditable
contraction, and her outraged virtue rose to heights still more
sublime. No wonder such a woman gave dinner parties on a
Friday, and had shirked the holy fatigue of the three hours'
service ! It was surprising that she had the face to go to
church at all. By the time Mrs. Prentice reached her own
hitherto undefiled home, she had attained a level of indignation
from which she threw the name Messalina at Mrs. Redcliffe.
She had the vaguest ideas as to the character and pursuits of
Messalina, but felt she had produced something epigrammatic
in doing so.

She found the Vicar seated in front of his study fire, perus-
ing the Church Times. He looked up at her as she entered
with a shade of apology. " Just finished all my work/' he
said. " Well, how did you get on with Lady Wrotham ? ?'

" Oh, very well," replied Mrs. Prentice. " William, I
have just heard a thing that has made my blood boil."

" Not a bad thing this cold w r eather," returned the Vicar
pleasantly. " Sit down and tell me about it."

Mrs. Prentice sat down. " It is not a matter to jest about,"
she said. " If you found you had been nursing a viper to
your bosom — a viper sheltering under a reputation for kindness
and goodness from the charge of being an indifferent Church-
woman, what should you do ? "



108 Exton Manor

■■* I should send it to the Natural History Museum. It
would be a most unusual viper."

Mrs. Prentice rose. " I will tell you what I have discov-
ered when you are in a fit state to receive it/' she said. " I
come to you with a most serious piece of news, and you make
foolish jokes."

" Well, tell me your news, Agatha/'

Mrs. Prentice sat down again. " Do you know," she said,
" that there is a woman living among us, respected by all — ex-
cept me — who, before she came here, was living in adultery ? "

" What woman ? "

" Mrs. Redcliffe."

" Oh, come now, Agatha. You know such a thing cannot
be true."

" It is true, William. I had it from Lady Wrotham her-
self. You would not accuse her, I suppose, of lying, what-
ever you may choose to say of your own wife. She has just
told me the whole story."

" What did she tell you ? What is the story ? "

" First of all, what do you think of this ? Mrs. Redcliffe
is not the obscure woman she is supposed to be. Everybody
knows her own people — I forget their name ; and her hus-
band — although he was not her husband — w r as an officer of a
distinguished family who went out to Australia with Lord
Somebody. Has she ever mentioned these facts ? "

" I cannot say she has ; but why should she ? Women of
good birth are not always poking their ancestry down the
throats of their neighbours."

" That is a mere quibble. Of course, one would have
known these things of anybody who had no reason to hide a
tale of shame. However, that is a small point, compared to
the great sin of which she is guilty. Captain Redcliffe was
married to her sister, who died shortly afterwards. < And this
woman then formed a connection with him. Think of it !
It positively makes me shudder." Here Mrs. Prentice made
another call on the muscles of her neck and shoulders, which
responded to it as before.

" How do you mean — a connection ? What sort of con-
nection ? "

"She actually went through a form of marriage with'
him. Strictly speaking, you might say she had committed
bigamy with him."



Lady Wrotham loo

" Don't talk nonsense. Wait a minute. She was the
deceased wife's sister. Well, such a marriage is, unfortu-
nately, valid in the colonies."

" Valid, William ! And you, a priest, are willing to shelter
yourself behind a wicked civil evasion of the Church's law of
that sort ! "

" I don't say that I am. I think the law is a most un-
fortunate one, as I said. And in any case such a marriage
is still irregular as far as this country is concerned, and I
trust always will be. I deprecate the breaking down of these
safeguards against morality as much as you do. At the same
time, it is extravagant to talk of Mrs. Redcliffe as having
lived in adultery, and all that sort of thing."

" And pray why ? Does the Church recognize such a
marriage ? Answer me that."

" Of course the church does not recognize it ; although
I have no doubt that Mrs. Redcliffe was married in a church."

" Pah ! Another quibble. The Church does not recognize
it, whatever some disloyal priests may do in out-of-the-way
parts of the world. And anybody who defies the Church
by entering upon such a travesty of the marriage tie lives in
adultery. Have the courage of your convictions, William,
and acknowledge that it is so."

"I do not say that you are not right. But we are no
longer a Christian society. We must resist a further inva-
sion of Christian law to the utmost, but we must also exercise
charity, and recognize that those whose eyes have not been
opened to their full privileges are not guilty in the same sense
that we should be if we acted in the same way."

" Oh, I have no patience with that sort of argument.
Right is right. Mrs. Redcliffe — I don't know what the
woman's real name is, though Lady Wrotham did tell me —
and would you believe it ? — her grandfather was actually a
dignitary of the English Church — but I suppose I must go
on calling her Mrs. Redcliffe — has been living in sin, and it
is only the fact that her — the word sticks in my throat —
her husband died prevents her from living in sin now. I
shall certainly refuse to have anything more to do with her,
and I hardly see how you, as a priest, can do otherwise. I
suppose you will, at any rate, refuse to admit her any longer
to the altar."

" Really, Agatha ! " exclaimed the Vicar with some heat.



no Exton Manor

" Your attitude seems to me a shocking one. If this poor
lady, of whom we have known nothing but good since she
has lived amongst us — if she has made a mistake in her life,
surely we ought to be sorry for her. You talk as if you were
actually elated by your discover}^ about her."

" I am not elated ; I am seriously disturbed. But it does
make me angry to think that she, being what she is, has set
up her opinion on matters of religion — and on other matters —
against me, and I have allowed it. Things will be very
different in the future/ '

The Vicar turned away and sat down at his writing-table.
" Your news distresses me," he said. " I must think it
over." He turned round in his seat towards her. " But it
distresses me still more," he added in a firm tone, " to find
you using it as a handle for vindictiveness. I will say
deliberately that I think you ought to be ashamed of taking
up the attitude you do. It is not Christian, and it is not
womanfy."

Mrs. Prentice's face showed a dull flush. Her husband's
words had been spoken with such directness that they could
not fail to make an impression. She burst into tears. " I
am sure I try to do what is right," she said. " It is very
hard to be spoken to in that way. I am only following out
the rule of the Church in thinking a thing that the Church
forbids is sinful."

" Then you should take very good care not to fall into
a different kind of sin yourself," said the Vicar. " Un-
doubtedly you have a vindictive spirit. It is constantly
showing itself and 3^011 make no effort to subdue it."

" I shall go to my room," said Mrs. Prentice. " You
have no business to talk to your wife in that way."



CHAPTER X

A SERVICE AND A DINNER

The storm of wind and rain that had blown throughout
the day of Lady Wrot ham's arrival at Exton died down
during the night, and Sunday morning dawned bright and
clear. Either for this reason, or because of the general
anxiety to take an early opportunity of seeing the great
lady in the flesh, Exton Abbey church was unusually full
at the morning service. Mrs. Redcliffe and Hilda walked
down the road from the White House shortly before eleven
o'clock, accompanied by Browne, who caught them up at
their gate.

Browne, for a man of nerves so comfortably encased in
flesh, was in a state of marked excitement. He walked faster
than was quite convenient to the ladies, and repeatedly
mopped his forehead with a large bandana kerchief.

" 1 do hope she'll be satisfied with Prentice's behaviour,"
he said. " We're all used to his little goings on, and don't
mind 'cm. But she takes such an interest in Church matters
that she's bound to notice everything, and if she isn't satisfied
she'll let it be known."

" I don't think she will find much to object to," said Mrs.
Redcliffe. " The service is short, and quite simple."

" It isn't as if we were going to the choral mass," said
Hilda.

Browne slowed down, standing almost still in the road,
with a look of consternation on his moon-like face. " By
Jove ! " he exclaimed. " This is the second Sunday in the
month. He's hard at work on his choral mass at this very
minute. Then we're done."

" The service will be over by eleven o'clock," said Mrs.

hi



112 Exton Manor

Redcliffe. " And after all, Lady Wrotham is bound to
know some time that the service is held. It is just as well
that she should know at once. And I hardly think that she
could object to it. It is only a very bigoted person who
would do so."

" It relieves me immensely to hear you say so," said
Browne. " I don't know much about these things ; but, of
course, it's all a good deal more elevated than I've been
used to, and I'm rather at sea with it. Still, I'm not at all
sure that she isn't a bigoted person, and I shan't be satisfied*
until they've had it all out. Lor', how I do hope we shall
have peace."

" I think it will be better fun if we don't have peace all at
once," said Hilda. " Have you seen her yet, Mr. Browne ? "

" No ; I'm dining there to-night, and so are the Prentices.
It'll be a terrible thing if there's a row over the dinner-table."

" There will hardly be that," Mrs. Redcliffe said. " And
I think the Vicar has enough tact to get his own way over
matters that are of importance to him without giving offence."

" Well, he may have," said Browne. " But what about
Mrs. Prentice ? "

" It will be a terrible grief to Mrs. Prentice if she has to go
against dear Lady Wrotham," said Hilda.

" Mrs. Prentice will not go against her honest convictions,"
said Mrs. Redcliffe. " But we need not to go out of our way
to anticipate disagreement. Mr. Browne, will you tell me
whether people living in the place — people like ourselves, for
instance — will Lady Wrotham expect us to call on her, or
will she prefer that we should be introduced to her, and take
the initiative herself ? "

" I don't know, Mrs. Redcliffe," said Browne. " I sup-
pose you'll call. But I'll find out if you like."

" Yes, do, please. I have not been on visiting terms with
great ladies before, in England, and I should like to do what
will please her best."

" Mrs. Prentice will know," said Hilda. " And I am sure
she will not be backward in giving us full instructions."

They came to the gate of the churchyard. There was a
collection of twenty or thirty people standing on the path
between it and the church door, and from within the church
came the drone of the organ and voices singing. The Vicar
had instituted some time before a choral communion service,



A Service and a Dinner 113

held once a month, at an hour which enabled him to dismiss
his congregation in time for the church to be refilled by those
who still preferred to attend" the more usual Morning Prayer
at eleven o'clock. These were, perhaps naturally, the majority
of his parishioners ; but nobody had objected to the innova-
tion, Exton being unusually free from ecclesiastical contro-
versy, except such as was imported by Mrs. Prentice, and
there being no obligation on anybody to change the ways to
which they had grown accustomed. So, on the few occasions
on which the earlier service had encroached on the time sacred
to the more conservative, the later churchgoers had waited
patiently, as on this occasion, until they were free to enter.

It was five minutes before eleven, and the organ and the
voices were still to be heard from within, when the slowly
augmenting group of eleven o'clock churchgoers was pleas-
antly excited by the arrival at the church gate of an open
carriage drawn by two horses, with coachman and footman
on the box. From this stately equipage alighted a short, but
erect, old lady in black, w r ho walked slowly up the church-
yard path With every mark of surprise, and some of dis-
pleasure, depicted on her face, as she made her way through
two lines of onlookers. The churchyard was divided from a
gate leading into the garden of the Abbey only by the width
of a road, but Lady Wrotham had always been accustomed to
drive to church, and had preferred to have her carriage out
and come round the longer way, rather than to walk unat-
tended the few yards that divided her house from the church.
She was followed from the carriage by a footman carrying a*
large Prayer-book, who looked as if he could have wished 1
himself in some less prominent position.

She must have thought that the people through whom she
passed were gathered there for the express purpose of watch-
ing her arrival, which was an attention she could have dis-
pensed with, for she inquired of Browne in an audible tone
why on earth they were all, waiting there to stare at her.
Browne replied to her inquiry in an anxious whisper. Her
expression changed when she took in the purport of his reply.
She gave one look at the attendant throng, and another at the
wall of the church, then, without another word, continued her
progress, and, followed by her Prayer-book and its bearer,
disappeared into the porch, and thence into the church itself.
It was not until some two minutes later that the music ceased,



114 Exton Manor

and a thin trickle of humanity emerged to meet the larger
stream that now found its way in through the open door.
The great lady's narrow, but determined, back could be seen
bolt upright in a pew immediately in front of the chancel
rails, and the Vicar, arrayed in eucharistic vestments, followed
by his server, walked down the aisle with a flush on his face.

Every one who was alive to the situation felt that battle
had been already joined.

Mr. Prentice soon came back to his reading-desk at the tail
of his choir, preceded by the post-office telegraph operator



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