A TALE OF A LONELY PARISH
F. MARION CRAWFORD
TO My MOTHER
I DEDICATE THIS TALE A MEAN TOKEN OF A LIFELONG AFFECTION
SORRENTO, Christmas Day, 1885
The Reverend Augustin Ambrose would gladly have given up taking pupils. He was growing old and his sight was beginning to trouble him; he was very weary of Thucydides, of Homer, of the works of Mr. Todhunter of which the green bindings expressed a hope still unrealised, of conic sections—even of his beloved Horace. He was tired of the stupidities of the dull young men who were sent to him because they could not "keep up", and he had long ceased to be surprised or interested by the remarks of the clever ones who were sent to him because their education had not prepared them for an English University. The dull ones could never be made to understand anything, though Mr. Ambrose generally succeeded in making them remember enough to matriculate, by dint of ceaseless repetition and a system of memoria technica which embraced most things necessary to the salvation of dull youth. The clever ones, on the other hand, generally lacked altogether the solid foundation of learning; they could construe fluently but did not know a long syllable from a short one; they had vague notions of elemental algebra and no notion at all of arithmetic, but did very well in conic sections; they knew nothing of prosody, but dabbled perpetually in English blank verse; altogether they knew most of those things which they need not have known and they knew none of those things thoroughly which they ought to have known. After twenty years of experience Mr. Ambrose ascertained that it was easier to teach a stupid boy than a clever one, but that he would prefer not to teach at all.
Unfortunately the small tithes of a small country parish in Essex did not furnish a sufficient income for his needs. He had been a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, within a few years of taking his degree, wherein he had obtained high honours. But he had married and had found himself obliged to accept the first living offered to him, to wit, the vicarage of Billingsfield, whereof his college held the rectory and received the great tithes. The entire income he obtained from his cure never at any time exceeded three hundred and forty-seven pounds, and in the year when it reached that high figure there had been an unusually large number of marriages. It was not surprising that the vicar should desire to improve his circumstances by receiving one or two pupils. He had married young, as has been said, and there had been children born to him, a son and a daughter. Mrs. Ambrose was a good manager and a good mother, and her husband had worked hard. Between them they had brought up their children exceedingly well. The son had in his turn entered the church, had exhibited a faculty of pushing his way which had not characterised his father, had got a curacy in a fashionable Yorkshire watering-place, and was thought to be on the way to obtain a first-rate living. In the course of time, too, the daughter had lost her heart to a young physician who had brilliant prospects and some personal fortune, and the Reverend Augustin Ambrose had given his consent to the union. Nor had he been disappointed. The young physician had risen rapidly in his profession, had been elected a member of the London College, had transferred himself to the capital and now enjoyed a rising practice in Chelsea. So great was his success that it was thought he would before long purchase the goodwill of an old practitioner who dwelt in the neighbourhood of Brompton Crescent, and who, it was said, might shortly be expected to retire.
It will be seen, therefore, that if Mr. Ambrose's life had not been very brilliant, his efforts had on the whole been attended with success. His children were both happy and independent and no longer needed his assistance or support; his wife, the excellent Mrs. Ambrose, enjoyed unfailing health and good spirits; he himself was still vigorous and active, and as yet found no difficulty in obtaining a couple of pupils at two hundred pounds a year each, for he had early got a reputation for successfully preparing young gentlemen with whom no other private tutor could do anything, and he had established the scale of his prices accordingly. It is true that he had sacrificed other things for the sake of imparting tuition, and more than once he had hesitated and asked himself whether he should go on. Indeed, when he graduated, it was thought that he would soon make himself remarkable by the publication of some scholarly work; it was foretold that he might become a famous preacher; it was asserted that he was a general favourite with the Fellows of Trinity and would get a proportionately fat living—but he had committed the unpardonable sin of allowing his chances of fortune to slip from him. He had given up his fellowship, had married and had accepted an insignificant country living. He asked nothing, and he got nothing. He never attracted the notice of his bishop by doing anything extraordinary, nor the notice of the public by appearing in print. He baptized, married and buried the people of Billingsfield, Essex, and he took private pupils. He wrote a sermon once a fortnight, and revised old ones for the other three occasions out of four. His sermons were good in their way, but were intended for simple folk and did no justice to the powers he had certainly possessed in his youth. Indeed, as years went on, the dry routine of his life produced its inevitable effect upon his mind, and the productions of Mr. Ambrose grew to be exceedingly commonplace; and the more commonplace he became, the more he regretted having done so little with the faculties he enjoyed, and the more weary he became of the daily task of galvanising the dull minds of his pupils into a spasmodic activity, just sufficient to leap the ditch that separates the schoolboy from the undergraduate. He had not only educated his children and seen them provided for in the world; he had also saved a little money, and he had insured his life for five hundred pounds. There was no longer any positive necessity for continuing to teach, as there had been thirty years ago, when he first married.
So much for the circumstances of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose. Personally he was a man of good presence, five feet ten inches in height, active and strong, of a ruddy complexion with smooth, thick grey hair and a plentiful grey beard. He shaved his upper lip however, greatly to the detriment of his appearance, for the said upper lip was very long and the absence of the hirsute appendage showed a very large mouth with very thin lips, generally compressed into an expression of remarkable obstinacy. His nose was both broad and long and his grey eyes were bright and aggressive in their glance. As a matter of fact Mr. Ambrose was combative by nature, but his fighting instincts seem to have been generally employed in the protection of rights he already possessed, rather than in pushing on in search of fresh fields of activity. He was an active man, fond of walking alone and able to walk any distance he pleased; a charitable man with the charity peculiar to people of exceedingly economical tendencies and possessing small fixed incomes. He would give himself vast personal trouble to assist distress, as though aware that since he could not give much money to the poor he was bound to give the best of himself. The good Mrs. Ambrose seconded him in this as in all his works; labouring hard when hard work could do any good, but giving material assistance with a sparing hand. It sufficiently defines the two to say that although many a surly labourer in the parish grumbled that the vicar and his wife were "oncommon near", when money was concerned, there was nevertheless no trouble in which their aid was not invoked and their advice asked. But the indigent labourer not uncommonly retrieved his position by asking a shilling of one of the young gentlemen at the vicarage, who were generally open-handed, good-looking boys, blessed with a great deal more money than brains.
At the time when this tale opens, however, it chanced that one of the two young gentlemen at the vicarage was by no means in the position peculiar to the majority of youths who sought the good offices of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose. John Short, aged eighteen, was in all respects a remarkable contrast to his companion the Honourable Cornelius Angleside. John Short was apparently very poor; the Honourable Cornelius on the other hand had plenty of money. Short was undeniably clever; Angleside was uncommonly dull. Short was the son of a decayed literary man; Angleside was the son of a nobleman. Short was by nature a hard worker; Angleside was amazingly idle. Short meant to do something in the world; Angleside had early determined to do nothing.
It would not be easy to define the reasons which induced Mr. Ambrose to receive John Short under his roof. He had never before taken a pupil on any but his usual terms, and at his time of life it was strange that he should break through the rule. But here his peculiar views of charity came into play. Short's father had been his own chum at school, and his friend at college, but had failed to reap any substantial benefits from his education. He had been a scholar in his way, but his way had not been the way of other scholars, and when he had gone up for honours he had got a bad third in classics. He would not enter the church, he could not enter the law, he had no interest whatever, and he found himself naturally thrust into the profession of literature. For a time he had nearly starved; then he had met with some success and had, of course, married without hesitation; after this he had had more misfortunes. His wife had died leaving him an only son, whom in course of time he had sent to school. But school was too expensive and he had reluctantly taken the boy home again. It was in a fit of despair that he wrote to his old friend Augustin Ambrose, asking his advice. The Reverend Augustin considered the matter with the assistance of his wife, and being charitable souls, they determined that they must help Short to educate his son. Accordingly the vicar of Billingsfield wrote to his old friend to say that if he could manage to pay a small sum for the lad's board, he, the vicar, would complete the boy's education, so that he might at least have a chance in the world. Short accepted the offer with boundless gratitude and had hitherto not failed to pay the vicar the small sum agreed upon. The result of all this was that Mr. Ambrose had grown very fond of John, and John had derived great advantage from his position. He possessed precisely what his father had lacked, namely a strong bent in one direction, and there was no doubt that he would distinguish himself if he had a chance. That chance the vicar had determined to give him. He had made up his mind that his old friend's son should go to college and show what he was able to do. It was not an easy thing to manage, but the vicar had friends in Cambridge and John had brains; moreover the vicar and John were both very obstinate people and had both determined upon the same plan, so that there was a strong probability of their succeeding.
John Short was eighteen years of age, neither particularly good-looking nor by any means the reverse. He had what bankers commonly call a lucky face; that is to say he had a certain very prepossessing look of honesty in his blue eyes, and a certain look of energetic goodwill in his features. When he was much older and wore a beard he passed for a handsome man, but at eighteen he could only boast the smallest of fair whiskers, and when anybody took the trouble to look long at him, which was not often, the verdict was that his jaw was too heavy and his mouth too obstinate. In complexion he was fair, and healthy to look at, generally sunburned in the summer, for he had a habit of reading out of doors; his laugh was very pleasant, though it was rarely heard; his eyes were honest but generally thoughtful; his frame was sturdy and already inclined rather to strength than to graceful proportion; his head matched his body well, being broad and well-shaped with plenty of prominence over the brows and plenty of fulness above the temples. He had a way of standing as though it would not be easy to move him, and a way of expressing his opinion which seemed to challenge contradiction. But he was not a combative boy. If any one argued with him, it soon appeared that he was not really argumentative, but merely enthusiastic. It was not necessary to agree with him, and there was small use in contradicting him. The more he talked the more enthusiastic he grew as he developed his own views; until seeing that he was not understood or that he was merely laughed at, he would end his discourse with a merry laugh at himself, or a shy apology for having talked so much. But the vicar assured his wife that the boy's Greek and Latin verses were something very extraordinary indeed, and much better than his own in his best days. For John was passionately fond of the classics and did not propose to acquire any more mathematical knowledge than was strictly necessary for his matriculation and "little-go." He meant to be a famous scholar and he meant to get a fellowship at his college in order to be perfectly independent and to help his father.
John was a constant source of wonder to his companion the Honourable Cornelius Angleside, who remembered to have seen fellows of that sort at Eton but had never got near enough to them to know what they were really like. Cornelius had a vague idea that there was some trick about appearing to know so much and that those reading chaps were awful humbugs. How the trick was performed he did not venture to explain, but he was as firmly persuaded that it was managed by some species of conjuring as that Messrs. Maskelyne and Cook performed their wonders by sleight of hand. That one human brain should actually contain the amount of knowledge John Short appeared to possess was not credible to the Honourable Cornelius, and the latter spent more of his time in trying to discover how John "did it" than in trying to "do it" himself. Nevertheless, young Angleside liked Short after his own fashion, and Short did not dislike Angleside. John's father had given him to understand that as a general rule persons of wealth and good birth were a set of overbearing, purse-proud bullies, who considered men of genius to be little better than a set of learned monkeys, certainly not good enough to black their boots. For John's father in his misfortunes had imbibed sundry radical notions formerly peculiar to poor literary men, and not yet altogether extinct, and he had accordingly warned his son that all mammon was the mammon of unrighteousness, and that the people who possessed it were the natural enemies of people who had to live by their brains. But John had very soon discovered that though Cornelius Angleside possessed the three qualifications for perdition, in the shape of birth, wealth and ignorance, against which his poor father railed unceasingly, he succeeded nevertheless in making himself very good company. Angleside was not overbearing, he was not purse-proud and he was not a bully. On the contrary he was unobtrusive and sufficiently simple in manner, and he certainly never mentioned the subject of his family or fortune; John rather pitied him, on the whole, until he began to discover that Angleside looked up to him on account of his mental superiority, and then John, being very human, began to like him.
The life at the vicarage of Billingsfield, Essex, was not remarkable for anything but its extreme regularity. Prayers, breakfast, work, lunch, a walk, work, dinner, work, prayers, bed. The programme never varied, save as the seasons introduced some change in the hours of the establishment. The vicar, who was fond of a little gardening and amused himself with a variety of experiments in the laying of asparagus beds, found occasional excitement in the pursuit of a stray cat which had managed to climb his wire netting and get at the heads of his favourite vegetable, in which thrilling chase he was usually aided by an old brown retriever answering, when he answered at all, to the name of Carlo, and by the Honourable Cornelius, whose skill in throwing stones was as phenomenal as his ignorance of Latin quantities. The play was invariably opened by old Reynolds, the ancient and bow-legged gardener, groom and man of all work at the vicarage.
"Please sir, there's Simon Gunn's cat in the sparrergrass." The information was accompanied by a sort of chuckle of evil satisfaction which at once roused the sleeping passions of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose.
"Dear me, Reynolds, then why don't you turn her out?" and without waiting for an answer, the excellent vicar would spring from his seat and rush down the lawn in the direction of the beds, closely followed by the Honourable Cornelius, who picked up stones from the gravel path as he ran, and whose long legs made short work of the iron fence at the bottom of the garden. Meanwhile the aged Reynolds let Carlo loose from the yard and the hunt was prosecuted with great boldness and ingenuity. The vicar's object was to get the cat out of the asparagus bed as soon as possible without hurting her, for he was a humane man and would not have hurt a fly. Cornelius, on the other hand, desired the game to last as long as possible, and endeavoured to prevent the cat's escape by always hitting the wire netting at the precise spot where she was trying to get over it. In this way he would often succeed in getting as much as half an hour's respite from Horace. At last the vicar, panting with his exertions and bathed in perspiration, would protest against the form of assault.
"Really, Angleside", he would say, "I believe I could throw straighter myself. I'm quite sure Carlo can get her out if you leave him alone".
Whereupon Cornelius would put his hands in his pockets and look on, and in a few minutes, when the cat had been driven out and the vicar's back was turned, he would slip a sixpence into old Reynold's hand, and follow his tutor reluctantly back to the study. Whether there was any connection between the cat and the sixpence is uncertain, but during the last months of Angleside's stay at the vicarage the ingenuity of Simon Gunn's yellow cat in getting over the wire netting reached such a pitch that the vicar began to prepare a letter to the Bishop Stortford Chronicle on the relations generally existing between cats and asparagus beds.
Another event in the life of the vicarage was the periodical lameness of the vicar's strawberry mare, followed by the invariable discovery that George Horsnell the village blacksmith had run a nail into her foot when he shoed her last. Invariably, also, the vicar threatened that in future the mare should be shod by Hawkins the rival blacksmith, who was a dissenter and had consequently never been employed by the vicarage. Moreover it was generally rumoured once every year that old Nat Barker, the octogenarian cripple who had not been able to stand upon his feet for twenty years, was at the point of death. He invariably recovered, however, in time to put in an appearance by proxy at the distribution of a certain dole of a loaf and a shilling on boxing day. It was told also that in remote times the Puckeridge hounds had once come that way and that the fox had got into the churchyard. A repetition of this stirring event was anxiously looked for during many years, every time that the said pack met within ten miles of Billingsfield, but hitherto it had been looked for in vain. On the whole the life at the vicarage was not eventful, and the studies of the two young men who imbibed learning at the feet of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose were rarely interrupted.
Mrs. Ambrose herself represented the feminine element in the society of the little place. The new doctor was a strange man, suspected of being a free-thinker, and he was not married. The Hall, for there was a Hall at Billingsfield, was uninhabited, and had been uninhabited for years. The estate which belonged to it was unimportant and moreover was in Chancery and seemed likely to stay there, for reasons no one ever mentioned at Billingsfield, because no one knew anything about them. From time to time a legal looking personage drove up to the Duke's Head, which was kept by Mr. Abraham Boosey, who was also undertaker to the parish, and which was thought to be a very good inn. The legal personage stayed a day or two, spending most of his time at the Hall and in driving about to the scattered farms which represented the estate, but he never came to the vicarage, nor did the vicar ever seem to know what he was doing nor why he came. "He came on business"—that was all that anybody knew. His business was to collect rents, of course; but what he did with them, no one was bold enough to surmise. The estate was in Chancery, it was said, and the definition conveyed about as much to the mind of the average inhabitant of Billingsfield, as if he had been informed that the moon was in perigee or the sun in Scorpio. The practical result of its being in Chancery was that no one lived there.
John Short liked Mrs. Ambrose and the Honourable Cornelius behaved to her with well bred affability. She always said Cornelius had very nice manners, as indeed he had and had need to have. Occasionally, perhaps four or five times in the year, the Reverend Edward Pewlay, who had what he called a tenor voice, and his wife, who played the pianoforte very fairly, came over to assist at a Penny Reading. He lived "over Harlow way," as the natives expressed it; he was what was called in those parts a rabid Anglican, because he preached in his surplice and had services on the Saints' days, and the vicar of Billingsfield did not sympathise in his views. Nevertheless he was very useful at Penny Readings, and on one of these occasions produced a very ingenious ghost for the delectation of the rustics, by means of a piece of plate glass and a couple of lamps.
There had indeed been festivities at the vicarage to which as many as three clergymen's wives had been invited, but these were rare indeed. For months at a time Mrs. Ambrose reigned in undisputed possession of the woman's social rights in Billingsfield. She was an excellent person in every way. She had once been handsome and even now she was fine-looking, of goodly stature, if also of goodly weight; rosy, even rubicund, in complexion, and rotund of feature; looking at you rather severely out of her large grey eyes, but able to smile very cheerfully and to show an uncommonly good set of teeth; twisting her thick grey hair into a small knot at the back of her head and then covering it with a neatly made cap which she considered becoming to her time of life; dressed always with extreme simplicity and neatness, glorying in her good sense and in her stout shoes; speaking of things which she called "neat" with a devotional admiration and expressing the extremest height of her disapprobation when she said anything was "very untidy." A motherly woman, a practical woman, a good housekeeper and a good wife, careful of small things because generally only small things came in her way, devotedly attached to her husband, whom she regarded with perfect justice as the best man of her acquaintance, adding, however, with somewhat precipitous rashness that he was the best man in the world. She took also a great interest in his pupils and busied herself mightily with their welfare. Since the arrival of the new doctor who was suspected of free-thinking, she had shown a strong leaning towards homoeopathy, and prescribed small pellets of belladonna for the Honourable Cornelius's cold and infinitesimal drops of aconite for John Short's headaches, until she observed that John never had a headache unless he had worked too much, and Angleside always had a cold when he did not want to work at all. Especially in the department of the commissariat she showed great activity, and the reputation the vicar had acquired for feeding his pupils well had perhaps more to do with his success than he imagined. She was never tired of repeating that Englishmen needed plenty of good food, and she had no principles which she did not practise. She even thought it right to lecture young Angleside upon his idleness at stated intervals. He always replied with great gentleness that he was awfully stupid, you know, and Mr. Ambrose was awfully good about it and he hoped he should not be pulled when he went up. And strange to relate he actually passed his examination and matriculated, to his own immense astonishment and to the no small honour and glory of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose, vicar of Billingsfield, Essex. But when that great day arrived certain events occurred which are worthy to be chronicled and remembered.
In the warm June weather young Angleside went up to pass his examination for entrance at Trinity. There is nothing particularly interesting or worthy of note in that simple process, though at that time the custom of imposing an examination had only been recently imported from Oxford. For one whole day forty or fifty young fellows from all parts of the country sat at the long dining-tables in the beautiful old hall and wrote as busily as they could, answering the printed questions before them, and eyeing each other curiously from time to time. The weather was warm and sultry, the trees were all in full leaf and Cambridge was deserted. Only a few hard-reading men, who stayed up during the Long, wandered out with books at the backs of the colleges or strayed slowly through the empty courts, objects of considerable interest to the youths who had come up for the entrance examination—chiefly pale men in rather shabby clothes with old gowns and battered caps, and a general appearance of being the worse for wear.
Angleside had been in Cambridge before and consequently lost no time in returning to Billingsfield when the examination was over. Short was to spend the summer at the vicarage, reading hard until the term began, when he was to go up and compete for a minor scholarship; Angleside was to wait until he heard whether he had passed, and was then going abroad to meet his father and to rest from the extreme exertion of mastering the "Apology" and the first books of the "Memorabilia." John drove over to meet the Honourable Cornelius, who was in a terrible state of anxiety and left him no peace on the way asking him again and again to repeat the answers to the questions which had been proposed, reckoning up the ones he had answered wrong and the ones he thought he might have answered right, and coming each time to a different conclusion, finally lighting a huge brierwood pipe and swearing "that it was a beastly shame to subject human beings to such awful torture." John calmed him by saying he fancied Cornelius had "got through"; for John's words were a species of gospel to Cornelius. By the time they reached the vicarage Angleside felt sanguine of his success.
The vicar was not visible. It was a strange and unheard of thing—there were visitors in the drawing-room. This doubtless accounted for the fact that the fly from the Duke's Head was standing on the opposite side of the road. The two young men went into their study, which was on the ground floor and opened upon the passage which led to the drawing-room from the little hall. Angleside remarked that by leaving the door open they would catch a glimpse of the visitor when he went out. But the visitor stayed long. The curiosity of the two was wrought up to a high pitch; it was many months since there had been a real visitor at the vicarage. Angleside suggested going out and finding old Reynolds—he always knew everything that was going on.
"If we only wait long enough," said Short philosophically, "they are sure to come out."
"Perhaps," returned Cornelius rather doubtfully.
"They" did come out. The drawing-room door opened and there was a sound of voices. It was a woman's voice, and a particularly sweet voice, too. Still no one came down the passage. The lady seemed to be lingering in taking her leave. Then there was a sound of small feet and suddenly a little girl stood before the open door of the study, looking wonderingly at the two young men. Short thought he had never seen such a beautiful child. She could not have been more than seven or eight years old, and was not tall for her age; a delicate little figure, all in black, with long brown curls upon her shoulders, flowing abundantly from beneath a round black sailor's hat that was set far back upon her head. The child's face was rather pale than very fair, of a beautiful transparent paleness, with the least tinge of colour in the cheeks; her great violet eyes gazed wonderingly into the study, and her lips parted in childlike uncertainty, while her little gloved hand rested on the door-post as though to get a sense of security from something so solid.
It was only for a moment. Both the young fellows smiled at the child unconsciously. Perhaps she thought they were laughing at her; she turned and ran away again; then passed a second time, stealing a long glance at the two strangers, but followed immediately by the lady, who was probably her mother, and whose voice had been heard for the last few moments. The lady, too, glanced in as she went by, and John Short lost his heart then and there; not that the lady was beautiful as the little girl was, but because there was something in her face, in her figure, in her whole carriage, that moved the boy suddenly as she looked at him and sent the blood rushing to his cheeks and forehead.
She seemed young, but he never thought of her age. In reality she was nine-and-twenty years old but looked younger. She was pale, far paler than the little girl, but she had those same violet eyes, large, deep and sorrowful, beneath dark, smooth eyebrows that arched high and rose a little in the middle. Her mouth was perhaps large for her face but her full lips curved gently and seemed able to smile, though she was not smiling. Her nose was perhaps too small—her face was far from faultless—and it had the slightest tendency to turn up instead of down, but it was so delicately modelled that an artist would have pardoned it that deviation from the classic. Thick brown hair waved across her white forehead and was hidden under the black bonnet and the veil thrown back over it. She was dressed in black and the close-fitting gown showed off with unconscious vanity the lines of a perfectly moulded and perfectly supple figure. But it was especially her eyes which attracted John's sudden attention at that first glance, her violet eyes, tender, sad, almost pathetic, seeming to ask sympathy and marvellously able to command it.
It was but for a moment that she paused. Then came the vicar, following her from the drawing-room, and all three went on. Presently Short heard the front door open and Mr. Ambrose shouted to the fly.
No one had ever been able to say why Abraham Boosey, the publican, had christened his henchman with an appellation so vulgar, to say the least of it—so amazingly cacophonous. The man's real name was plain Charles Bird; but Abraham Boosey had christened him Muggins and Muggins he remained. Muggins had had some beer and was asleep, for the afternoon was hot and he had anticipated his "fours."
Short saw his opportunity and darted out of the study to the hall where the lady and her little girl were waiting while the vicar tried to rouse the driver of the fly by shouting at him. John blushed again as he passed close to the woman with the sad eyes; he could not tell why, but the blood mounted to the very roots of his hair, and for a moment he felt very foolish.
"I'll wake him up, Mr. Ambrose," he said, running out hatless into the summer's sun.
"Wake up, you lazy beggar!" he shouted in the ear of the sleeping Muggins, shaking him violently by the arm as he stood upon the wheel. Muggins grunted something and smiled rather idiotically. "It was only the young gentleman's play," he would have said. Bless you! he did not mind being shaken and screamed at! He slowly turned his horses and brought the fly up to the door. John walked back and stood waiting.
"Thank you," said the lady in a voice that made his heart jump, as she came out from under the porch and the vicar helped her to get in. Then it was the turn of the little girl.
"Good-bye, my dear," said the vicar kindly as he took her hand.
"Good-bye," said the child. Then she hesitated and looked at John, who was standing beside the clergyman. "Good-bye," she repeated, holding out her little hand shyly towards him. John took it and grew redder than ever as he felt that the lady was watching him. Then the little girl blushed and laughed in her small embarrassment, and climbed into the carriage.
"You will write, then?" asked Mr. Ambrose as he shut the door.
"Yes—and thank you again. You are very, very kind to me," answered the lady, and John thought that as she spoke there were tears in her voice. She seemed very unhappy and to John she seemed very beautiful. Muggins cracked his whip and the fly moved off, leaving the vicar and his pupil standing together at the iron wicket gate before the house.
"Well? Do you think Angleside got through?" asked Mr. Ambrose, rather anxiously.
Short said he thought Angleside was safe. He hoped the vicar would say something about the lady, but to his annoyance, he said nothing at all. John could not ask questions, seeing it was none of his business and was fain to content himself with thinking of the lady's face and voice. He felt very uncomfortable at dinner. He thought the excellent Mrs. Ambrose eyed him with unusual severity, as though suspecting what he was thinking about, and he thought the vicar's grey eye twinkled occasionally with the pleasant sense of possessing a secret he had no intention of imparting. As a matter of fact Mrs. Ambrose was supremely unconscious of the fact that John had seen the lady, and looked at him with some curiosity, observing that he seemed nervous and blushed from time to time and was more silent than usual. She came to the conclusion that he had been working too hard, as usual, and that night requested him to take two little pellets of aconite, and to repeat the dose in the morning. Whether it was the result of the homoeopathic medicine or of the lapse of a few hours and a good night's rest, it is impossible to say; John, however, was himself again the next morning and showed no further signs of nervousness. But he kept his eyes and ears open, hoping for some news of the exquisite creature who had made so profound an impression on his heart.
In due time the joyful news arrived from Cambridge that the Honourable Cornelius had passed his examination and was at liberty to matriculate at the beginning of the term. The intelligence was duly telegraphed to his father, and in a few hours came a despatch in answer, full of affectionate congratulation and requesting that Cornelius should proceed at once to Paris, where his father was waiting for him. The young man took an affectionate leave of the vicar, of Mrs. Ambrose and especially of John Short, for whom he had conceived an almost superstitious admiration; old Reynolds was not forgotten in the farewell, and for several days after Angleside's departure the aged gardener was observed to walk somewhat unsteadily and to wear a peculiarly thoughtful expression; while the vicar observed with annoyance that Strawberry, the old mare, was less carefully groomed than usual. Strangely coincident with these phenomena was the fact that Simon Gunn's yellow cat seemed to have entirely repented of her evil practices, renouncing from the day when Cornelius left for Paris her periodical invasion of the asparagus beds at the foot of the garden. But the vicar was too practical a man to waste time in speculating upon the occult relations of seemingly disconnected facts. He applied himself with diligence to the work of preparing John Short to compete for the minor scholarship. The labour was congenial. He had never taken a pupil so far before, and it was a genuine delight to him to bring his own real powers into play at last. As the summer wore on, he predicted all manner of success for John Short, and his predictions were destined before long to be realised, for John did all he promised to do and more also. To have succeeded in pushing the Honourable Cornelius through his entrance examination was a triumph indeed, but an uninteresting one at best, and one which had no further consequences. But to be the means of turning out the senior classic of the University was an honour which would not only greatly increase the good vicar's reputation but would be to him a source of the keenest satisfaction during the remainder of his life; moreover the prospects which would be immediately opened to John in case he obtained such a brilliant success would be a very material benefit to his unlucky father, whose talents yielded him but a precarious livelihood and whose pitiable condition had induced his old schoolfellow to undertake the education of his son.
Much depended upon John's obtaining one or more scholarships during his career at college. To a man of inferior talents the vicar would have suggested that it would be wiser to go to a smaller college than Trinity where he would have less competition to expect; but as soon as he realised John's powers, he made up his mind that it would be precisely where competition was hottest that his pupil would have the greatest success. He would get something—perhaps his father would make a little more money—the vicar even dreamed of lending John a small sum—something would turn up; at all events he must go to the largest college and do everything in the best possible way. Meanwhile he must work as hard as he could during the few months remaining before the beginning of his first term.
Whether the lady ever wrote to Mr. Ambrose, John could not ascertain; she was never mentioned at the vicarage, and it seemed as though the mystery were never to be solved. But the impression she had made upon the young man's mind remained and even gained strength by the working of his imagination; for he thought of her night and day, treasuring up every memory of her that he could recall, building romances in his mind, conceiving the most ingenious reasons for the solitary visit she had made to the vicarage, and inwardly vowing that if ever he should be at liberty to follow his own inclinations he would go out into the world and search for her. He was only eighteen then, and of a strongly susceptible temperament. He had seen nothing of the world, for even when living in London, in a dingy lodging, with his father, he had been perpetually occupied with books, reading much and seeing little. Then he had been at school, but he had seen the dark side of school life—the side which boys who are known to be very poor generally see; and more than ever he had resorted to study for comfort and relief from outward ills. Then at last he had been transferred to a serener state in the vicarage of Billingsfield and had grown up rapidly from a schoolboy to a young man; but, as has been said, the feminine element at the vicarage was solely represented by Mrs. Ambrose and the monotony of her maternal society was varied only by the occasional visits of the mild young Mrs. Edward Pewlay. John Short had indeed a powerful and aspiring imagination, but it would have been impossible even by straining that faculty to its utmost activity to think in the same breath of romance and of Mrs. Ambrose, for even in her youth Mrs. Ambrose had not been precisely a romantic character. John's fancy was not stimulated by his surroundings, but it fed upon itself and grew fast enough to acquire an influence over everything he did. It was not surprising that, when at last chance threw in his way a being who seemed instantly to realise and fulfil his wildest dreams of beauty and feminine fascination, he should have yielded without a struggle to the delicious influence, feeling that henceforth his ideal had taken shape and substance, and had thereby become more than ever the ideal in which he delighted.
He gave her names, a dozen of them every day, christening her after every heroine in fiction and history of whom he had ever read. But no name seemed to suit her well enough; whereupon he wrote a Greek ode and a Latin epistle to the fair unknown, but omitted to show them to the Reverend Augustin Ambrose, though he was quite certain that they were the best he had ever produced. Then he began to write a novel, but suddenly recollected that a famous author had written one entitled "No Name," and as that was the only title he could possibly give to the work he contemplated he of course had no choice but to abandon the work itself. He wrote more verses, and he dreamed more dreams, and he meanwhile acquired much learning and in process of time realised that he had but a few days longer to stay at Billingsfield. The Michaelmas term was about to open and he must bid farewell to the hospitable roof and the learned conversation of the good vicar. But when those last days came he realised that he was leaving the scene of his only dream, and his heart grew sad.
Indeed he loved the old red brick vicarage with its low porch, overgrown with creepers, its fragrant old flower garden, surrounding it on three sides, its gabled roof, its south wall whereon the vicar constantly attempted to train fig trees, maintaining that the climate of England had grown warmer and that he would prove it—John loved it all, and especially he loved the little study, lined with the books grown familiar to him, and the study door, the door through which he had seen that lovely face which he firmly believed was to inspire him to do great things and to influence his whole life for ever after. He would leave the door open and place himself just where he had sat that day, and then he would look suddenly up with beating heart, almost fancying he could again see those violet eyes gazing at him from the dusky passage—blushing then to himself, like any girl, and burying himself in his book till the fancy was grown too strong and he looked up again. He had attempted to sketch her face on a bit of paper; but he had no skill and he thrust the drawing into the paper basket, horrified at having made anything so hideous in the effort to represent anything so beautiful, and returned to making odes upon her, and Latin epistles, in which he succeeded much better.
And now the time had come when he must leave all this dreaming, or at least the scene of it, and go to college and win scholarships and renown. It was hard to go and he showed his regret so plainly that Mrs. Ambrose was touched at what she took for his affection for the place and for herself and for the vicar. John Short was indeed very grateful to her for all the kindness she had shown him, and to Mr. Ambrose for the learning he had acquired; for John was a fine fellow and never forgot an obligation nor undervalued one. But when we are very young our hearts are far more easily touched to joy and sadness by the chords and discords of our own dreaming, than by the material doings of the world around us, or by the strong and benevolent interest our elders are good enough to take in us. We feel grateful to those same elders if we have any good in us, but we are far from feeling a similar interest in them. We see in our imaginations wonderful pictures, and we hear wonderful words, for everything we dream of partakes of an unknown perfection and completely throws into the shade the inartistic commonplaces of daily life. As John Short grew older, he often regretted the society of his old tutor and in the frequent absence of important buttons from his raiment he bitterly realised that there was no longer a motherly Mrs. Ambrose to inspect his linen; but when he took leave of them what hurt him most was to turn his back upon the beloved old study, upon the very door through which he had once, and only once, beheld the ideal of his first love dream.
Though the vicar was glad to see the boy started upon what he already regarded as a career of certain victory, he was sorry to lose him, not knowing when he should see him again. John intended to read through all the vacations until he got his degree. He might indeed have come down for a day or two at Christmas, but with his very slender resources even so short a pleasure trip was not to be thought of lightly. It was therefore to be a long separation, so long to look forward to that when John saw the shabby little box which contained, all his worldly goods put up into the back of the vicar's dogcart, and stood at last in the hall, saying good-bye, he felt as though he was being thrust out into the world never to return again; his heart seemed to rise in his throat, the tears stood in his eyes and he could hardly speak a word. Even then he thought of that day when he had waked up the sleepy Muggins to take away the beautiful unknown lady. He felt he must be quick about his leave-taking, or he would break down.
"You have been very good to me. I—I shall never forget it," he murmured as he shook hands with Mrs. Ambrose. "And you, too, sir—" he added turning to the vicar. But the old clergyman cut him short, being himself rather uncertain about the throat.
"Good-bye, my lad. God bless you. We shall hear of you soon—showing them what you can do with your Alcaics—Good-bye."
So John got into the dogcart and was driven off by the ancient Reynolds—past the "Duke's Head," past the "Feathers," past the churchyard and the croft—the "croat," they called it in Billingsfield—and on by the windmill on the heath, a hideous bit of grassless common euphemistically so named, and so out to the high-road towards the railway station, feeling very miserable indeed. It is a curious fact, too, in the history of his psychology that in proportion as he got farther from the vicarage he thought more and more of his old tutor and less and less of his unfinished dream, and he realised painfully that the vicar was nearly the only friend he had in the world. He would of course find Cornelius Angleside at Cambridge, but he suspected that Cornelius, turned loose among a merry band of undergraduates of his own position would be a very different person from the idle youth he had known at Billingsfield, trembling in the intervals of his idleness at the awful prospect of the entrance examination, and frantically attempting to master some bit of stray knowledge which might possibly be useful to him. Cornelius would hunt, would gamble, would go to the races and would give wines at college; John was to be a reading man who must avoid such things as he would avoid the devil himself, not only because he was too wretchedly poor to have any share whatever in the amusements of Cornelius and his set, but because every minute was important, every hour meant not only learning but meant, most emphatically, money. He thought of his poor father, grinding out the life of a literary hack in a wretched London lodging, dining Heaven knew where and generally supping not at all, saving every penny to help his son's education, hard working, honest, lacking no virtue except the virtue of all virtues—success. Then he thought how he himself had been favoured by fortune during these last years, living under the vicar's roof, treated with the same consideration as the high-born young gentlemen who had been his companions, living well, sleeping well and getting the best education in England for nothing or next to nothing, while that same father of his had never ceased to slave day and night with his pen, honestly doing his best and yet enjoying none of the good things of life. John thought of all this and set his teeth boldly to face the world. A few months, he thought, and he might have earned a scholarship—he might be independent. Then a little longer—less than three years—and he might, nay, he would, take high honours in the university and come back crowned with glory, with the prospect of a fellowship, with every profession open to him, with the world at his feet and with money in his hand to help his father out of all his troubles.
That was how John Short went to Trinity. It was a hard struggle at first, for he found himself much poorer than he had imagined, and it seemed as though the ends could not possibly meet. There was no question of denying himself luxuries; that would have been easy enough. In those first months it was the necessities that he lacked, the coals for his little grate, the oil for his one small lamp. But he fought bravely through it, having, like many another young fellow who has weathered the storms of poverty in pursuit of learning, an iron constitution, and an even stronger will. He used to say long afterwards that feeling cold was a mere habit and that when one thoroughly understood the construction of Greek verses, some stimulus of physical discomfort was necessary to make the imagination work well; in support of which assertion he said that he had never done such good things by the comfortable fire in the study at Billingsfield vicarage as he did afterwards on winter nights by the light of a tallow candle, high up in Neville's Court. Moreover, if any one argued that it was better for an extremely poor man not to go to Trinity, but to some much smaller college, he answered that as far as he himself was concerned he could not have done better, which was quite true and therefore perfectly unanswerable. Where the competition was less, he would have been satisfied with less, he said; where it was greatest a man could only be contented when he had reached the highest point possible. But before he attained his end he suffered more than any one knew, especially during those first months. For when he had got his first scholarship, he insisted upon sending back the little sums of hard-earned money his father sent him from time to time, and he consequently had nearly as hard work as before to keep himself warm and to keep oil in his lamp during the long winter's evenings. But he succeeded, nevertheless.
In the month of October of that year, a short time after John had taken up his abode in Trinity College, an event occurred which shook Billingsfield to its foundations; no less an event than the occupation of the dwelling known as the "cottage." What the cottage was will appear hereafter. The arrival of the new tenants occurred in the following manner.
The Reverend Augustin Ambrose received a letter, which he immediately showed to his wife, as he showed most of his correspondence; for he was of the disposition which may be termed wife-consulting. Married men are generally of two kinds; those who tell their wives everything and those who tell them nothing. It is evident that the relative merits of the two systems depend chiefly upon the relative merits of the wives in question. Mr. Ambrose had no doubt of the advantages of his own method and he carried it to its furthest expression, for he never did anything whatever without consulting his better half. On the whole the plan worked well, for the vicar had learning and his wife had common sense. He therefore showed the letter to her and she read it, and read it again, and finally put it away, writing across the envelope in her own large, clear hand the words—Goddard, Cottage—indicative of the contents.
* * * * *
"MY DEAR SIR—It is now nearly five months since I saw you last. Need I tell you that the sense of your kindness is still fresh in my memory? You do not know, indeed you cannot know, what an impression your goodness made upon me. You showed me that I was acting rightly. It has been so hard to act rightly. Of course you quite understand what I mean. I cannot refer to the great sorrow which has overtaken me and my dear innocent little Nellie. There is no use in referring to it, for I have told you all. You allowed me to unburden my heart to you during my brief visit, and ever since that day I have felt very much, I may say infinitely, relieved.
"I am again about to ask you a favour; I trust indeed that I am not asking too much, but I know by experience how kind you are and so I am not afraid to ask this too. Do you remember speaking to me of the little cottage? The picture you drew of it quite charmed me, and I have determined to take it, that is, if it is still to be let and if it is not asking quite too much of you. I mean, if you will take it for me. You cannot think how grateful I shall be and I enclose a cheque. I am almost sure you said thirty-six pounds. It was thirty-six, was it not? The reason I venture to enclose the money is because you are so very kind, but of course you do not know anything certain about me. But I am sure you will understand. You said you were sure I could live with my little girl in Billingsfield for three hundred a year. I find I have a little more, in fact nearly five hundred. If you tell me that I can have the cottage, I will come down at once, for town is very dreary and we have been here all summer except a week at Margate. Let me thank you again, you have been so very kind, and believe me, my dear sir, very sincerely yours,
* * * * *
"Augustin, my dear, this is very exciting," said Mrs. Ambrose, as she handed the cheque to her husband for inspection and returned the letter to its envelope, preparatory to marking it for future reference; and when, as has been said, she had written upon the outside the words—Goddard, Cottage, and had put it away she turned upon her husband with an inquiring manner peculiar to her. Mr. Ambrose was standing before the window, looking out at the rain and occasionally glancing at the cheque he still held in his hand.
"Just like a woman to send a cheque to 'bearer' through the post," he remarked, severely. "However since I have got it, it is all right."
"I don't think it is all right, Augustin," said his wife. "We are taking a great responsibility in bringing her into the parish. I am quite sure she is a dissenter or a Romanist or something dreadful, to begin with."
"My dear," answered the vicar, mildly, "you make very uncharitable suppositions. It seems to me that the most one can say of her is that she is very unhappy and that she does not write very good English."
"Oh, I have no doubt she is very unhappy. But as you say we must not be uncharitable. I suppose you will have to write about the cottage."
"I suppose so," said Mr. Ambrose doubtfully. "I cannot send her back the money, and the cottage is certainly to let."
He deposited the cheque in the drawer of his writing-table and began to walk up and down the room, glancing up from time to time at his wife who was lifting one after another the ornaments which stood upon the chimney-piece, in order to ascertain whether Susan had dusted underneath them. She had many ways of assuring herself that people did their work properly.
"No," said she, "you cannot send her back the money. But it is a very solemn responsibility. I hope we are doing quite right."
"I certainly would not hesitate to return the cheque, my dear, if I thought any harm would come of Mrs. Goddard's living here. But I don't think there is any reason to doubt her story."
"Of course not. It was in the Standard, so there is no doubt about it. I only hope no one else reads the papers here."
"They read them in the kitchen," added Mrs. Ambrose presently, "and they probably take a paper at the Duke's Head. Mr. Boosey is rather a literary character."
"Nobody will suppose it was that Goddard, my dear," said the vicar in a reassuring tone of voice.
"No—you had better write about the cottage."
"I will," said the vicar; and he forthwith did. And moreover, with his usual willingness to give himself trouble for other people, he took a vast deal of pains to see that the cottage was really habitable. It turned out to be in very good condition. It was a pretty place enough, standing ten yards back from the road, beyond the village, just opposite the gates of the park; a little square house of red brick with a high pointed roof and a little garden. The walls were overgrown with creepers which had once been trained with considerable care, but which during the last two years had thriven in untrimmed luxuriance and now covered the whole of the side of the house which faced the road. So thickly did they grow that it was with difficulty that the windows could at first be opened. The vicar sighed as he entered the darkened rooms. His daughter had lived in the cottage when she first married the young doctor who had now gone to London, and the vicar had been, and was, very fond of his daughter. He had almost despaired of ever seeing her again in Billingsfield; the only glimpses of her he could obtain were got by going himself to town, for the doctor was so busy that he always put off the projected visit to the country and his wife was so fond of him that she refused to go alone. The vicar sighed as he forced open the windows upon the lower floor and let the light into the bare and empty rooms which had once been so bright and full of happiness. He wondered what sort of person Mrs. Goddard would turn out to be upon nearer acquaintance, and made vague, unconscious conjectures about her furniture as he stumbled up the dark stairs to the upper story.
He was not left long in doubt. The arrangements were easily concluded, for the cottage belonged to the estate in Chancery and the lawyer in charge was very busy with other matters. The guarantee afforded by the vicar's personal application, together with the payment of a year's rent in advance so far facilitated matters that four days after she had written to Mr. Ambrose the latter informed Mrs. Goddard that she was at liberty to take possession. The vicar suggested that the Billingsfield carrier, who drove his cart to London once a week, could bring her furniture down in two trips and save her a considerable expense; Mrs. Goddard accepted this advice and in the course of a fortnight was installed with all her goods in the cottage. Having completed her arrangements at last, she came to call upon the vicar's wife.
Mrs. Goddard had not changed since she had first visited Billingsfield, five months earlier, though little Eleanor had grown taller and was if possible prettier than ever. Something of the character of the lady in black may have been gathered from the style of her letter to Mr. Ambrose; that communication had impressed the vicar's wife unfavourably and had drawn from her husband a somewhat compassionate remark about the bad English it contained. Nevertheless when Mrs. Goddard came to live in Billingsfield the Ambroses soon discovered that she was a very well-educated woman, that she appeared to have read much and to have read intelligently, and that she was on the whole decidedly interesting. It was long, however, before Mrs. Ambrose entirely conquered a certain antipathy she felt for her, and which she explained after her own fashion. Mrs. Goddard was not a dissenter and she was not a Romanist; on the contrary she appeared to be a very good churchwoman. She paid her bills regularly and never gave anybody any trouble. She visited the vicarage at stated intervals, and the vicarage graciously returned her visits. The vicar himself even went to the cottage more often than Mrs. Ambrose thought strictly necessary, for the vicar was strongly prejudiced in her favour. But Mrs. Ambrose did not share that prejudice. Mrs. Goddard, she said, was too effusive, talked too much about herself and her troubles, did not look thoroughly straightforward, probably had foreign blood. Ay, there was the rub—Mrs. Ambrose suspected that Mrs. Goddard was not quite English. If she was not, why did she not say so, and be done with it?
Mrs. Goddard was English, nevertheless, and would have been very much surprised could she have guessed the secret cause of the slight coldness she sometimes observed in the manner of the clergyman's wife towards her. She herself, poor thing, believed it was because she was in trouble, and considering the nature of the disaster which had befallen her, she was not surprised. She was rather a weak woman, rather timid, and if she talked a little too much sometimes it was because she felt embarrassed; there were times, too, when she was very silent and sad. She had been very happy and the great catastrophe had overtaken her suddenly, leaving her absolutely without friends. She wanted to be hidden from the world, and by one of those strange contrasts often found in weak people she had suddenly made a very bold resolution and had successfully carried it out. She had come straight to a man she had never seen, but whom she knew very well by reputation, and had told him her story and asked him to help her; and she had not come in vain. The person who advised her to go to the Reverend Augustin Ambrose knew that there was not a better man to whom she could apply. She had found what she wanted, a sort of deserted village where she would never be obliged to meet any one, since there was absolutely no society; she had found a good man upon whom she felt she could rely in case of further difficulty; and she had not come upon false pretences, for she had told her whole story quite frankly. For a woman who was naturally timid she had done a thing requiring considerable courage, and she was astonished at her own boldness after she had done it. But in her peaceful retreat, she reflected that she could not possibly have left England, as many women in her position would have done, simply because the idea of exile was intolerable to her; she reflected also that if she had settled in any place where there was any sort of society her story would one day have become known, and that if she had spent years in studying her situation she could not have done better than in going boldly to the vicar of Billingsfield and explaining her sad position to him. She had found a haven of rest after many months of terrible anxiety and she hoped that she might end her days in peace and in the spot she had chosen. But she was very young—not thirty years of age yet—and her little girl would soon grow up—and then? Evidently her dream of peace was likely to be of limited duration; but she resigned herself to the unpleasant possibilities of the future with a good grace, in consideration of the advantages she enjoyed in the present.
Mrs. Ambrose was at home when Mrs. Goddard and little Eleanor came to the vicarage. Indeed Mrs. Ambrose was rarely out in the afternoon, unless something very unusual called her away. She received her visitor with the stern hospitality she exercised towards strangers. The strangers she saw were generally the near relations of the young gentlemen whom her husband received for educational purposes. She stood in the front drawing-room, that is to say, in the most impressive chamber of that fortress which is an Englishman's house. It was a formal room, arranged by a fixed rule and the order of it was maintained inflexibly; no event could be imagined of such terrible power as to have caused the displacement of one of those chairs, of one of those ornaments upon the chimney-piece, of one of those engravings upon the walls. The walls were papered with one shade of green, the furniture was covered with material of another shade of green and the well-spared carpet exhibited still a third variety of the same colour. Mrs. Ambrose's sense of order did not extend to the simplest forms of artistic harmony, but when it had an opportunity of impressing itself upon inanimate objects which were liable to be moved, washed or dusted, its effects were formidable indeed. She worshipped neatness and cleanliness; she left the question of taste to others. And now she stood in the keep of her stronghold, the impersonation of moral rectitude and of practical housekeeping.
Mrs. Goddard entered rather timidly, followed by little Eleanor whose ideas had been so much disturbed by the recent change in her existence, that she had grown unusually silent and her great violet eyes were unceasingly opened wide to take in the growing wonders of her situation. Mrs. Goddard was still dressed in black, as when John Short had seen her five months earlier. There was something a little peculiar in her mourning, though Mrs. Ambrose would have found it hard to define the peculiarity. Some people would have said that if she was really a widow her gown fitted a little too well, her bonnet was a little too small, her veil a little too short. Mrs. Ambrose supposed that those points were suggested by the latest fashions in London and summed up the difficulty by surmising that Mrs. Goddard had foreign blood.
"I should have called before," said the latter, deeply impressed by the severe appearance of the vicar's wife, "but I have been so busy putting my things into the cottage—"
"Pray don't think of it," answered Mrs. Ambrose. Then she added after a pause, "I am very glad to see you." She appeared to have been weighing in her conscience the question whether she could truthfully say so or not. But Mrs. Goddard was grateful for the smallest advances.
"Thank you," she said, "you are so very kind. Will you tell Mr. Ambrose how thankful I am for his kind assistance? Yes, Nellie and I have had hard work in moving, have not we, dear?" She drew the beautiful child close to her and gazed lovingly into her eyes. But Nellie was shy; she hid her face on her mother's shoulder, and then looked doubtfully at Mrs. Ambrose, and then hid herself again.
"How old is your little girl?" asked Mrs. Ambrose more kindly. She was fond of children, and actually pitied any child whose mother perhaps had foreign blood.
"Eleanor—I call her Nellie—is eight years old. She will be nine in January. She is tall for her age," added Mrs. Goddard with affectionate pride. As a matter of fact Nellie was small for her years, and Mrs. Ambrose, who was the most truthful of women, felt that she could not conscientiously agree in calling hex tall. She changed the subject.
"I am afraid you will find it very quiet in Billingsfield," she said presently.
"Oh, I am used—that is, I prefer a very quiet place. I want to live very quietly for some years, indeed I hope for the rest of my life. Besides it will be so good for Nellie to live in the country—she will grow so strong."
"She looks very well, I am sure," answered Mrs. Ambrose rather bluntly, looking at the child's clear complexion and bright eyes. "And have you always lived in town until now, Mrs. Goddard?" she asked.
"Oh no, not always, but most of the year, perhaps. Indeed I think so." Mrs. Goddard felt nervous before the searching glance of the elder woman. Mrs. Ambrose concluded that she was not absolutely straightforward.
"Do you think you can make the cottage comfortable?" asked the vicar's wife, seeing that the conversation languished.
"Oh, I think so," answered her visitor, glad to change the subject, and suddenly becoming very voluble as she had previously been very shy. "It is really a charming little place. Of course it is not very large, but as we have not got very many belongings that is all the better; and the garden is small but extremely pretty and wild, and the kitchen is very convenient; really I quite wonder how the people who built it could have made it all so comfortable. You see there are one—two—the pantry, the kitchen and two rooms on the ground floor and plenty of room upstairs for everybody, and as for the sun! it streams into all the windows at once from morning till night. And such a pretty view, too, of that old gate opposite—where does it lead to, Mrs. Ambrose? It is so very pretty."
"It leads to the park and the Hall," answered Mrs. Ambrose.
"Oh—" Mrs. Goddard's tone changed. "But nobody lives there?" she asked suddenly.
"Oh no—it is in Chancery, you know."
"What—what is that, exactly?" asked Mrs. Goddard, timidly. "Is there a young heir waiting to grow up—I mean waiting to take possession?"
"No. There is a suit about it. It has been going on for forty years my husband says, and they cannot decide to whom it belongs."
"I see," answered Mrs. Goddard. "I suppose they will never decide now."
"Probably not for some time."
"It must be a very pretty place. Can one go in, do you think? I am so fond of trees—what a beautiful garden you have yourself, Mrs. Ambrose."
"Would you like to see it?" asked the vicar's wife, anxious to bring the visit to a conclusion.
"Oh, thank you—of all things!" exclaimed Mrs. Goddard. "Would not you like to run about the garden, Nellie?"
The little girl nodded slowly and stared at Mrs. Ambrose.
"My husband is a very good gardener," said the latter, leading the way out to the hall. "And so was John Short, but he has left us, you know."
"Who was John Short?" asked Mrs. Goddard rather absently, as she watched Mrs. Ambrose who was wrapping herself in a huge blue waterproof cloak and tying a sort of worsted hood over her head.
"He was one of the boys Mr. Ambrose prepared for college—such a good fellow. You may have seen him when you came last June, Mrs. Goddard?"
"Had he very bright blue eyes—a nice face?"
"Yes—that is, it might have been Mr. Angleside—Lord Scatterbeigh's son—he was here, too."
"Oh," said Mrs. Goddard, "perhaps it was."
"Mamma," asked little Nellie, "what is Laws Catterbay?"
"A peer, darling."
"Like the one at Brighton, mamma, with a band?"
"No, child," answered the mother laughing. "P, double E, R, peer—a rich gentleman."
"Like poor papa then?" inquired the irrepressible Eleanor.
Mrs. Goddard turned pale and pressed the little girl close to her side, leaning down to whisper in her ear.
"You must not ask foolish questions, darling—I will tell you by and by."
"Papa was a rich gentleman," objected the child.
Mrs. Goddard looked at Mrs. Ambrose, and the ready tears came into her eyes. The vicar's wife smiled kindly and took little Nellie by the hand.
"Come, dear," she said in the motherly tone that was natural to her when she was not receiving visitors. "Come and see the garden and you can play with Carlo."
"Can't I see Laws Catterbay, too?" asked the little girl rather wistfully.
"Carlo is a great, big, brown dog," said Mrs. Ambrose, leading the child out into the garden, while Mrs. Goddard followed close behind. Before they had gone far they came upon the vicar, arrayed in an old coat, his hands thrust into a pair of gigantic gardening gloves and a battered old felt hat upon his head. Mrs. Goddard had felt rather uncomfortable in the impressive society of Mrs. Ambrose and the sight of the vicar's genial face was reassuring in the extreme. She was not disappointed, for he immediately relieved the situation by asking all manner of kindly questions, interspersed with remarks upon his garden, while Mrs. Ambrose introduced little Nellie to the acquaintance of Carlo who had not seen so pretty a little girl for many a day, and capered and wagged his feathery tail in a manner most unseemly for so clerical a dog.
So it came about that Mrs. Goddard established herself at Billingsfield and made her first visit to the vicarage. After that the ice was broken and things went on smoothly enough. Mrs. Ambrose's hints concerning foreign blood, and her husband's invariable remonstrance to the effect that she ought to be more charitable, grew more and more rare as time went on, and finally ceased altogether. Mrs. Goddard became a regular institution, and ceased to astonish the inhabitants. Mr. Thomas Reid, the sexton, was heard to remark from time to time that he "didn't hold with th'm newfangle fashins in dress;" but he was a regular old conservative, and most people agreed with Mr. Abraham Boosey of the Duke's Head, who had often been to London, and who said she did "look just A one, slap up, she did!"
Mrs. Goddard became an institution, and in the course of the first year of her residence in the cottage it came to be expected that she should dine at the vicarage at least once a week; and once a week, also, Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose went up and had tea with her and little Eleanor at the cottage. It came to pass also that Mrs. Goddard heard a vast deal of talk about John Short and his successes at Trinity, and she actually developed a lively interest in his career, and asked for news of him almost as eagerly as though he had been already a friend of her own. In very quiet places people easily get into the sympathetic habit of regarding their neighbours' interests as very closely allied to their own. The constant talk about John Short, the vicar's sanguine hopes for his brilliant future, and Mrs. Ambrose's unlimited praise of his moral qualities, repeated day by day and week by week produced a vivid impression on Mrs. Goddard's mind. It would have surprised her and even amused her beyond measure had she had any idea that she herself had for a long time absorbed the interest of this same John Short, that he had written hundreds of Greek and Latin verses in her praise, while wholly ignorant of her name, and that at the very time when without knowing him, she was constantly mentioning him as though she knew him intimately well, he himself was looking back to the one glimpse he had had of her, as to a dream of unspeakable bliss.
It never occurred to Mr. Ambrose's mind to tell John in the occasional letters he wrote that Mrs. Goddard had settled in Billingsfield. John, he thought, could take no possible interest in knowing about her, and moreover, Mrs. Goddard herself was most anxious never to be mentioned abroad. She had come to Billingsfield to live in complete obscurity, and the good vicar had promised that as far as he and his wife were concerned she should have her wish. To tell even John Short, his own beloved pupil, would be to some extent a breach of faith, and there was assuredly no earthly reason why John should be told. It might do harm, for of course the young fellow had made acquaintances at Cambridge; he had probably read about the Goddard case in the papers, and might talk about it. If he should happen to come down for a day or two he would probably meet her; but that could not be avoided. It was not likely that he would come for some time. The vicar himself intended to go up to Cambridge for a day or two after Christmas to see him; but the winter flew by and Mr. Ambrose did not go. Then came Easter, then the summer and the Long vacation. John wrote that he could not leave his books for a day, but that he hoped to run down next Christmas. Again he did not come, but there came the news of his having won another and a more important scholarship; the news also that he was already regarded as the most promising man in the university, all of which exceedingly delighted the heart of the Reverend Augustin Ambrose, and being told with eulogistic comments to Mrs. Goddard, tended to increase the interest she felt in the existence of John Short, so that she began to long for a sight of him, without exactly knowing why.
Gradually, too, as she and her little girl passed many peaceful days in the quiet cottage, the sad woman's face grew less sorrowful. She spoke of herself more cheerfully and dwelt less upon the subject of her grief. She had at first been so miserable that she could hardly talk at all without referring to her unhappy situation though, after her first interview with Mrs. Ambrose, no one had ever heard her mention any details connected with her trouble. But now she never approached the subject at all. Her face lost none of its pathetic beauty, it is true, but it seemed to express sorrow past rather than present. Meanwhile little Nellie grew daily more lovely, and absorbed more and more of her mother's attention.
Events of such stirring interest as the establishment of Mrs. Goddard in Billingsfield rarely come alone; for it seems to be in the nature of great changes to bring other changes with them, even when there is no apparent connection whatever between them. It took nearly two years for Billingsfield to recover from its astonishment at Mrs. Goddard's arrival, and before the excitement had completely worn off the village was again taken off its feet by unexpected news of stupendous import, even as of old Pompeii was overthrown by a second earthquake before it had wholly recovered from the devastation caused by the first. The shock was indeed a severe one. The Juxon estate was reported to be out of Chancery, and a new squire was coming to take up his residence at the Hall.
It is not known exactly how the thing first became known, but there was soon no doubt whatever that it was true. Thomas Reid, the sexton, who remembered that the old squire died forty years ago come Michaelmas, and had been buried in a "wonderful heavy" coffin, Thomas Reid the stern censor of the vicar's sermons, a melancholic and sober man, so far lost his head over the news as to ask Mr. Ambrose's leave to ring the bells, Mr. Abraham Boosey having promised beer for the ringers. Even to the vicar's enlightened mind it seemed fitting that there should be some festivity over so great an event and the bells were accordingly rung during one whole afternoon. Thomas Reid's ringers never got beyond the first "bob" of a peal, for with the exception of the sexton himself and old William Speller the wheelwright, who pulled the treble bell, they were chiefly dull youths who with infinite difficulty had been taught what changes they knew by rote and had very little idea of ringing by scientific rule. Moreover Mr. Boosey was liberal in the matter of beer that day and the effect of each successive can that was taken up the stairs of the old tower was immediately apparent to every one within hearing, that is to say as far as five miles around.
The estate was out of Chancery at last. For forty years, ever since the death of the old squire, no one had rightfully called the Hall his own. The heir had lived abroad, and had lived in such an exceedingly eccentric manner as to give ground for a suit de lunatico inquirendo, brought by another heir. With the consistency of judicial purpose which characterises such proceedings the courts appeared to have decided that though the natural possessor, the eccentric individual who lived abroad, was too mad to be left in actual possession, he was not mad enough to justify actual possession in the person of the next of kin. Proceedings continued, fees were paid, a certain legal personage already mentioned came down from time to time and looked over the estate, but the matter was not finally settled until the eccentric individual died, after forty years of eccentricity, to the infinite relief and satisfaction of all parties and especially of his lawful successor Charles James Juxon now, at last, "of Billingsfield Hall, in the county of Essex, Esquire."
In due time also Mr. Juxon appeared. It was natural that he should come to see the vicar, and as it happened that he called late in the afternoon upon the day when Mrs. Goddard and little Eleanor were accustomed to dine at the vicarage, he at once had an opportunity of making the acquaintance of his tenant; thus, if we except the free-thinking doctor, it will be seen that Mr. Juxon was in the course of five minutes introduced to the whole of the Billingsfield society.
He was a man inclining towards middle age, of an active and vigorous body, of a moderate intelligence and of decidedly prepossessing appearance. His features were of the strong, square type, common to men whose fathers for many generations have lived in the country. His eyes were small, blue and very bright, and to judge from the lines in his sunburned face he was a man who laughed often and heartily. He had an abundance of short brown hair, parted very far upon one side and brushed to a phenomenal smoothness, and he wore a full brown beard, cut rather short and carefully trimmed. He immediately won the heart of Mrs. Ambrose on account of his extremely neat appearance. There was no foreign blood in him, she was sure. He had large clean hands with large and polished nails. He wore very well made clothes, and he spoke like a gentleman. The vicar, too, was at once prepossessed in his favour, and even little Eleanor, who was generally very shy before strangers, looked at him admiringly and showed little of her usual bashfulness. But Mrs. Goddard seemed ill at ease and tried to keep out of the conversation as much as possible.
"There have been great rejoicings at the prospect of your arrival," said the vicar when the new-comer had been introduced to both the ladies. "I fancy that if you had let it be known that you were coming down to-day the people would have turned out to meet you at the station."
"The truth is, I rather avoid that sort of thing," said the squire, smiling. "I would rather enter upon my dominions as quietly as possible."
"It is much better for the people, too," remarked Mrs. Ambrose. "Their idea of a holiday is to do no work and have too much beer."
"I daresay that would not hurt them much," answered Mr. Juxon cheerfully. "By the bye, I know nothing about them. I have never been here before. My man of business wanted to come down and show me over the estate, and introduce me to the farmers and all that, but I thought it would be such a bore that I would not have him."
"There is not much to tell, really," said Mr. Ambrose. "The society of Billingsfield is all here," he added with a smile, "including one of your tenants."
"Are you my tenant?" asked Mr. Juxon pleasantly, and he looked at Mrs. Goddard.
"Yes," said she, "I have taken the cottage."
"The cottage? Excuse me, but you know I am a stranger here—what is the cottage?"
"Such a pretty place," answered Mrs. Ambrose, "just opposite the park gate. You must have seen it as you came down."
"Oh, is that it?" said the squire. "Yes, I saw it, and I wished I lived there instead of in the Hall. It looks so comfortable and small. The Hall is a perfect wilderness."
Mrs. Goddard felt a sudden fear lest her new landlord should take it into his head to give her notice. She only took the cottage by the year and her present lease ended in October. The arrival of a squire in possession at the Hall was a catastrophe to which she had not looked forward. The idea troubled her. She had accidentally made Mr. Juxon's acquaintance, and she knew enough of the world to understand that in such a place he would regard her as a valuable addition to the society of the vicar and the vicar's wife. She would meet him constantly; there would be visitors at the Hall—she would have to meet them, too. Her dream of solitude was at an end. For a moment she seemed so nervous that Mr. Juxon observed her embarrassment and supposed it was due to his remark about living in the cottage himself.
"Do not be afraid, Mrs. Goddard," he said quickly, "I am not going to do anything so uncivil as to ask you to give up the cottage. Besides, it would be too small, you know."
"Have you any family, Mr. Juxon?" inquired Mrs. Ambrose with a severity which startled the squire. Mrs. Ambrose thought that if there was a Mrs. Juxon, she had been unpardonably deceived. Of course Mr. Juxon should have said that he was married as soon as he entered the room.
"I have a very large family," answered the squire, and after enjoying for a moment the surprise he saw in Mrs. Ambrose's face, he added with a laugh, "I have a library of ten thousand volumes—a very large family indeed. Otherwise I have no encumbrances, thank heaven."
"You are a scholar?" asked Mr. Ambrose eagerly.
"A book fancier, only a book fancier," returned the squire modestly. "But I am very fond of the fancy."
"What is a book fancier, mamma?" asked little Eleanor in a whisper. But Mr. Juxon heard the child's question.
"If your mamma will bring you up to the Hall one of these days, Miss Goddard, I will show you. A book fancier is a terrible fellow who has lots of books, and is pursued by a large evil genius telling him he must buy every book he sees, and that he will never by any possibility read half of them before he dies."
Little Eleanor stared for a moment with her great violet eyes, and then turning again to her mother, whispered in her ear.
"Mamma, he called me Miss Goddard!"
"Run out and play in the garden, darling," said her mother with a smile. But the child would not go and sat down on a stool and stared at the squire, who was immensely delighted.
"So you are going to bring all your library, Mr. Juxon?" asked the vicar returning to the charge.
"Yes—and I beg you will make any use of it you please," answered the visitor. "I have a great fondness for books and I think I have some valuable volumes. But I am no great scholar, as you are, though I read a great deal. I have always noticed that the men who accumulate great libraries do not know much, and the men who know a great deal have very few books. Now I will wager that you have not a thousand volumes in your house, Mr. Ambrose."
"Five hundred would be nearer the mark," said the vicar.
"The fewer one has the nearer one approaches to Aquinas's homo unius libri," returned the squire. "You are nine thousand five hundred degrees nearer to ideal wisdom than I am."
Mr. Ambrose laughed.
"Nevertheless," he said, "you may be sure that if you give me leave to use your books, I will take advantage of the permission. It is in writing sermons that one feels the want of a good library."
"I should think it would be an awful bore to write sermons," remarked the squire with such perfect innocence that both the vicar and Mrs. Goddard laughed loudly. But Mrs. Ambrose eyed Mr. Juxon with renewed severity.
"I should fancy it would be a much greater bore, as you call it, to the congregation if my husband never wrote any new ones," she said stiffly. Whereat the squire looked rather puzzled, and coloured a little. But Mr. Ambrose came to the rescue.
"Yes, indeed, my wife is quite right. There are no people with such terrible memories as churchwardens. They remember a sermon twenty years old. But as you say, the writing of sermons is not an easy task when a man has been at it for thirty years and more. A man begins by being enthusiastic, then his mind gets into a groove and for some time, if he happens to like the groove, he writes very well. But by and by he has written all there is to be said in the particular line he has chosen and he does not know how to choose another. That is the time when a man needs a library to help him."
"I really don't think you have reached that point, Mr. Ambrose," remarked Mrs. Goddard. She admired the vicar and liked his sermons.
"You are fortunately not in the position of my churchwardens," answered Mr. Ambrose. "You have not been listening to me for thirty years."
"How long have you been my tenant, Mrs. Goddard?" asked the squire.
"Nearly two years," she answered thoughtfully, and her sad eyes rested a moment upon Mr. Juxon's face with an expression he remembered. Indeed he looked at her very often and as he looked his admiration increased, so that when he rose to take his leave the predominant impression of the vicarage which remained in his mind was that of her face. Something of the same fascination took hold of him which had seized upon John Short when he caught sight of Mrs. Goddard through the open door of the study, something of that unexpected interest which in Mrs. Ambrose had at first aroused a half suspicious dislike, now long forgotten.
Before the squire left he invited the whole party to come and dine with him at the Hall on the following Saturday. He must have some kind of a house warming, he said, for he was altogether too lonely up there. Mrs. Goddard would bring Eleanor, of course; they would dine early—it would not be late for the little girl. If they all liked they could call it tea instead of dinner. Of course everything was topsy-turvy in the Hall, but they would excuse that. He hoped to establish friendly relations with his vicar and with his tenant—his fair tenant. Might he call soon and see whether there was anything that could be done to improve the cottage? Before the day when they were all coming to dine? He would call to-morrow, then. Anything that needed doing should be done, Mrs. Goddard might be sure. When the books arrived he would let Mr. Ambrose know, of course, and they would have a day together.
So he went away, leaving the impression that he was a very good-natured and agreeable man. Even Mrs. Ambrose was mollified. He had shocked her by his remark about sermon writing, but he had of course not meant it, and he appeared to mean to be very civil. It was curious to see how all severity vanished from Mrs. Ambrose's manner so soon as the stranger who aroused it was out of sight and hearing. She appeared as a formidably stern type of the British matron to the chance visitors who came to the vicarage; but they were no sooner gone than her natural temper was restored and she was kindness and geniality itself.
But Mrs. Goddard was very thoughtful. She was not pleased at the fact of an addition to the Billingsfield community, and yet she liked the appearance of the squire. He had declared his intention of calling upon her on the following day, and she would be bound to receive him. She was young, she had been shut off from the world for two years, and the prospect of Mr. Juxon's acquaintance was in itself not unpleasant; but the idea that he was to be permanently established in the Hall frightened her. She had felt since she came to Billingsfield that from the very first she had put herself upon a footing of safety by telling her story to the vicar. But the vicar would, not without her permission repeat that story to Mr. Juxon. Was she herself called upon to do so? She was a very sensitive woman, and her impressionable nature had been strongly affected by what she had suffered. An almost morbid fear of seeming to make false pretences possessed her. She was more than thirty years of age, it is true, but she saw plainly enough in her glass that she was more than passably good-looking still. There were one or two grey threads in her brown waving hair and she took no trouble to remove them; no one ever noticed them. There were one or two lines, very faint lines, in her forehead; no one ever saw them. She could hardly see them herself. Supposing—why should she not suppose it?—supposing Mr. Juxon were to take a fancy to her, as a lone bachelor of forty and odd might easily take a fancy to a pretty woman who was his tenant and lived at his gate, what should she do? He was an honest man, and she was a conscientious woman; she could not deceive him, if it came to that. She would have to tell him the whole truth. As she thought of it, she turned pale and trembled. And yet she had liked his face, she had told him he might call at the cottage, and her woman's instinct foresaw that she was to see him often. It was not vanity which made her think that the squire might grow to like her too much. She had had experiences in her life and she knew that she was attractive; the very fear she had felt for the last two years lest she should be thrown into the society of men who might be attracted by her, increased her apprehension tenfold. She could not look forward with indifference to the expected visit, for the novelty of seeing any one besides the vicar and his wife was too great; she could not refuse to see the squire, for he would come again and again until she received him; and yet, she could not get rid of the idea that there was danger in seeing him. Call it as one may, that woman's instinct of peril is rarely at fault.