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Wilton Gleed owed his success in life to a natural bent for the politic virtues, and to the quality of energy unalloyed by enterprise. He was a man of much shrewdness and extraordinary tenacity, but absolutely no initiative; so he had taken his opportunities and held his ground without running a risk that he could remember. Not a self-made man, he was, however, the son of one who had made himself by dint of that very enterprise which was lacking in Wilton Gleed. The father had seen a certain want and filled it to the satisfaction of the wide world; the son had extended the business without meddling with the product of the firm. Monopolies die hard. Gleed & Son did nothing to deserve a swift demise. They just stalked behind the times, and appeared to thrive on a sublime contempt of competition. And those who knew him best were the most surprised when Wilton Gleed turned the great concern into a limited liability company, and made a fortune out of the transaction alone; it was the most daring thing that he had ever done.
The reason for the step may be related as characteristic of the man. Age had given the firm a certain aristocracy of degree—not of kind—even age could not soften the fact that Gleed & Son sold things in tins. And the tins it was that turned plain Gleed & Son into Gleed & Son, Limited. Some innovator was making tins with cunning openers attached; the lesser firms jumped at the improvement. The lesser firms were already doing Gleeds' some slight damage in their go-ahead little way; but the worst they could all do together was as nothing compared with the extra expenditure of an appreciable fraction of a farthing per tin on an output of millions in the year. Wilton Gleed could not face the immediate hole in his profits. He had never taken a risk in his life, and was not going to begin. He had increased his expenses by going into Parliament, and he was not such a fool as to play tricks with his income. He faced the situation as though it were ruin staring him in the face, and lost a discernible measure of flesh before his big resolve. It was all he did lose over the ultimate operation. He retired into private and public life with more money than he knew how to spend.
The average man is at his best as host, and in that capacity Wilton Gleed was popular among his friends. He was an excellent sportsman of the selfish sort; cherished a contempt for the various games which involve playing for one's side; but was a first-rate shot, a fine fisherman, and a good rider spoilt by his great principle of refusing the risks. To shoot and dine with him was to see Gleed at his very best. He was a bald little man, with silver-sandy moustache and close-cropped whiskers; but his full-blooded face was still pink with health, his fixed eye unerring as ever, his step elastic as the heather he loved to tread. Gun in hand, in his tweeds and gaiters, and with his cap pulled well over his head, Wilton Gleed never passed the prime of life; it was late in the evening before he collected the years blown away on the moor; and in its way the evening was as delectable as the day. The dinner was a good one, and the host abandoned himself to its joys with a schoolboy's ardour. Irreproachable champagne flowed like water, more especially at the head of the table. Gleed carried it like a gentleman, also the port that followed, though a little inclined to be garrulous about the latter. As he sipped and gossiped, and settled the Eastern Question in two words, and Mr. Gladstone's hash in one, the skin would shine as it tightened on the bald head, and the always intent eye would fix the listener beyond the needs of the conversation. It was very seldom, however, that a syllable slid out of place, or that Wilton Gleed went to bed looking quite his age.
For some years he had leased various shootings in the autumn, spending the other seasons at a lordly but suburban retreat inherited from his father, with an occasional swoop abroad—the correct place at the correct time—less for enjoyment than for other reasons. Gun, rod, and cellar were what he did enjoy, and of these delights he vowed to have his fill after getting out of Gleeds with unexpected spoils. A sporting estate was in the market within two hours and a half of town; and for forty thousand pounds Wilton Gleed became squire of Long Stow, patron of an excellent living, and a large landowner in a country where he had a nucleus of friends and soon made more. As Member of Parliament for that division of London in which Gleeds had employed hundreds of hands for half a hundred years, he at the same time bought a house in town, and let the place outside. Subtler investments followed. The man was becoming a gambler in his old age; but he played his own game with ineradicable care and foresight, and rose Sir Wilton Gleed when his side lost in the General Election of 1880. It was only a knighthood, and Sir Wilton might have entertained justifiable hopes of his baronetcy; but one or the other had been a moral certainty for some time.
It was in Hyde Park Place that Sir Wilton first heard of the Long Stow scandal and its immediate sequel. The news came in a few dry lines from Sidney, by the first post on the Monday morning, June 26, 1882. It fell like a firebrand in a keg of gunpowder. Sir Wilton, however, had even better reasons than were obvious for his paroxysm of rage and indignation; personal mortification was not the least of his emotions. He would have gone down by the next train to "horsewhip the hound within an inch of his life," but the cur had taken refuge in Lakenhall Infirmary, "with very little the matter with him," in Sidney's words. And just then the House was an Aceldama which no good soldier could desert for a night, with the Government satisfactorily on the spit between Phœnix Park and Alexandria, and the Opposition creeping up vote by vote. Sir Wilton decided to run down on the Wednesday for twenty-four hours, and talked of having the rectory furniture thrown into the street if the rector was not there to take it and himself away for good. Sir Wilton had his own impression as to his powers as patron of the living, and he very naturally swore that he would "have that blackguard out of it" within the week. A friend at the Carlton put him right on the point.
"You can't do that, Gleed. A living's like nothing else. My lord gives, but my lord can't take away."
"Then what on earth am I to do?"
"Get him inhibited and make him resign. It will come to the same thing."
The fire was in all the newspapers, with the hint of a scandal at the end of the paragraph. Among those who spoke to Sir Wilton on the subject was a jaunty politician who had never yet recognised him at the club.
"Sir Wilton Gleed, I think? I fancy we have met before?"
"Indeed, my lord?"
It was the noble who had chosen to forget the circumstance hitherto; to-day he was all courtesy and confidential concern. What was this about the church that had been burnt down? He had heard it was on the other's estate. Sir Wilton professed to know no more as yet than the papers told him.
"I ask because it reads to me——don't you know? Some scandal——what? And I'm sorry to say—fellow Carlton—sort of connection of mine."
"To be sure," said Sir Wilton. "I remember hearing it."
"Odd fish, I'm afraid. Here in town for years, at that ritualistic shop across the park—forget my own name next. Might have had a good time if he'd liked. Never went out. Preferred the mews. Made a specialty of footmen and fellows. Had a night club somewhere, where he taught 'em to box, and brought my own man home himself one night with an eye like your boot. It was about the only time we met. Remember hearing he could preach, though; only hope he hasn't been making a fool of himself down there!"
"I hope not also," said the discreet knight; "but I am going down to-morrow, so I shall hear."
He went down very grim: for Robert Carlton had not only been a thorn in his side that twelve-month past; he actually stood for the one false move, of importance, which Sir Wilton Gleed was conscious of having made in all his life. Yet he had taken no step with more complete confidence and self-approval. A gentleman and man of brain, reported by Lady Gleed and their daughter, and duly admitted by himself, to be the best preacher they had ever heard; a man of family into the bargain, and not such a distant cadet as the head of that family implied; could any combination have promised a more suitable successor to the venerable sportsman who had scorned white ties and caught his death coursing in mid-winter with Dr. Marigold? And yet the fellow had proved a perfect pest from the beginning. He had gone his own gait with a quiet independence only less exasperating than his personal courtesy and deference in every quarrel. In fact there had been no regular quarrel: the squire had only been rather rude to the rector's face, and very abusive behind his back. Nor was Sir Wilton's annoyance in the least surprising. Devoid himself of a single religious conviction, but the natural enemy of change, he viewed the inevitable, but too immediate, innovations in the light of a personal affront; but when his own expostulations were met with polite argument on a subject which he had never studied, and he found himself at issue with a cleverer and a stronger man, who put him in the illogical position of objecting in the country to what his family approved in town, then there was no alternative for the squire but to withdraw from the unequal field and wait upon revenge. Too politic to break with one who after all had more followers than foes, and who speedily made himself the first person in the parish, Sir Wilton very naturally hated his man the more for those very considerations which induced him to curb his tongue. But his disappointment was manifold. It was not as if the fellow had proved personally congenial to himself. He preferred teaching the lads cricket to shooting with the squire, and he was a poor diner-out. His predecessor had shot almost (but not quite) as well as Sir Wilton himself, and had the harder head of the two for port. Carlton was not even in touch with his own people. There was no advantage in the man at all.
But now the end was in sight—the incredibly premature and disgraceful end. Sir Wilton went down grim enough, but much less angry and indignant than he supposed. Most of his wrath was the accumulation of months, free for expression at last. He was, however, a good and clean citizen according to his lights, and he did undoubtedly feel the rightful indignation with which the story from Long Stow was calculated to inspire many a worse man. Arrived at Lakenhall, where the stanhope was waiting for him, he asked but one question on the way to Long Stow, and then drove straight past the hall to the church. Here he got down, and examined the black ruins with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders very square and a fixed glare of mingled rage and exultation. Then he walked past the broken windows, and the stanhope met him at the rectory gate. He drove home without a word. His one question had elicited the fact that the rector was still in the infirmary.
The village street cut clean through the high-walled hall garden, and the brown-brick hall itself stood as near the road as the mansion in Hyde Park Place, and was the uglier building of the two, from the dormer windows in the steep slates to the portico with the painted pillars. Within was the depressing atmosphere of a great house all but empty. Sir Wilton hurried through a twilit drawing-room in deadly order, and forth by a French window into a pleasaunce of elms and plane-trees whose shadows lay sharp as themselves upon the shaven sward. A girl was coming across the grass to meet him, a girl at the awkward age, with her dark hair in a plait and her black dress neither long nor short. Sir Wilton brushed her cheek with his bleached moustache.
"Where's Fraulein?" he said.
"In the schoolroom, I think, uncle."
"I want to speak to her. I'm only down for the night and shall be busy. I'll be looking round the garden, tell her."
And he walked away from the house, treading vigorously on the cropped grass; and presently a little middle-aged lady, with a plain, shrewd face, flitted over it in her turn. She found Sir Wilton between the four yew hedges and the mathematical parterres of the Italian garden at the further end of the lawn. He shook hands with her, but gave free rein, for the second time in five minutes, to his idiosyncrasy of hard staring.
Fraulein Hentig had been many years in the family, and had taken many parts; at present she was permanent housekeeper in the country, but had lately also recommenced old schoolroom duties on the adoption by Sir Wilton of his only brother's only child. There was no nonsense about Fraulein Hentig. She told Sir William all that she had heard and all that she believed was true, without mincing facts or wincing at the expletives which more than once interrupted her tale. As it proceeded the fixed eyes lightened with a vindictive glitter; but the end found Sir Wilton scowling.
"I wish I'd been here! I wouldn't have let them break his windows; no, I should have claimed the privilege of horsewhipping him with my own hands. I'd do it still if he were here; but he'll never show his nose in Long Stow again. I suppose there's no doubt the church was wilfully set fire to?"
"None at all from what I hear, Sir Wilton."
"Is nobody suspected?"
"George Mellis was. They say he was in love with the girl, and he disappeared on Saturday night. However, it turns out that he was already in Lakenhall hours before the fire, and he never came back. It appears he went straight to the rectory when he heard the scandal, and almost as straight out of Long Stow when Mr. Carlton admitted everything. Already I hear that he has enlisted in London."
"You don't mean it! That's another thing at that blackguard's door; it's a nice list! But it's enough to send the whole parish to the dogs. By the way, you would get Lady Gleed's letter?"
"Yes, Sir Wilton. I wrote last night to tell her ladyship that she might make her mind easy about her niece. She is very innocent, and when I told her the windows had been broken because Mr. Carlton had done something dishonourable, she was amazed of course, but she asked no more questions. I spoke at once to the servants, and I made Gwynneth promise not to go among the people at present; they have already typhoid fever in one of the cottages, and that was my excuse."
"Excellent!" said Sir Wilton. "I won't have her in and out of the cottages in any case, and I shall tell her so before I go. She's much too young for that kind of nonsense. And she mustn't read just exactly what she likes. She had a book in her hand just now—I couldn't see what—but she seems inclined to fill her head with any folly. We must find a school for her, and meanwhile bring her up as we've brought up our own child."
Fraulein Hentig smiled judiciously.
"They are already rather different characters," she said. "But I will do my best, Sir Wilton."
When the pair quitted the Italian garden, the gentleman hurrying to make other inquiries before dinner, while the German gentlewoman dropped behind, two brown eyes saw them from an upper window, whither the girl had carried her book in vain. Her attention had been intermittent before, but now she could not even try to read. The air was full of mystery, and the mystery was more absorbing than that in any book. It was also absolute and unfathomable in the girl's mind. Yet her brain teemed with questions and surmises. She had come upstairs because she felt that they wanted her out of the way, her uncle and the good, slow, serious Fraulein. Yet that was not enough for them: they also must retire as far as possible for their talk. Of course Gwynneth knew what they had to talk about; but what was the dishonourable action that a clergyman could commit and that could not be so much as mentioned in her hearing? She was not thinking of "a clergyman" in the abstract. She was thinking of the man with the beautiful, sad face; of the passionate preacher with the voice that thrilled the senses and the words that filled the mind. She had heard him preach of sin and suffering with equal sympathy. Phrases came back to her. Now she understood. But what could he have done, that he should suffer so, and that a perfectly kind person like Fraulein Hentig should exult in his suffering?
Gwynneth was splendidly and terribly innocent, but all the more inquisitive on that account. She was unacquainted with the facts, yet not with the tragedy of life. In a tragic atmosphere she had been born and bred. Quentin Gleed had been fatally lacking in the politic virtues cultivated by his brother. He had deserted his wife and drunk himself to death within the memory of Gwynneth. The young girl recalled dim years of bitter scenes in a luxurious home, and vivid years of peace and poverty in a tiny cottage. And now her mother was gone also; the dear, independent, wilful little mother, who had taught her child all but the wickedness that was in the world! And that child sat at her bedroom window in the new home that never could be home to her; and the drooping sun could find no bottom to her dark and limpid eyes, no flaw upon her pure warm skin; and neither the cuckoo in the poplar, nor the thrush in the elm, nor the sparrows in the eaves just overhead, could tell her anything of the wickedness that was in even her small world.
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