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MRS PANSEY'S FESTIVAL
Once a year the archdeacon's widow discharged her social obligations by throwing open the gaol in which she dwelt. Her festival, to which all that Beorminster could boast of in the way of society was invited, usually took the form of an out-of-door party, as Mrs Pansey found that she could receive more people, and trouble herself less about their entertainment, by filling her grounds than by crushing them into the rather small reception-rooms of her house. Besides, the gardens were really charming, and the wide-spreading green of the lawns, surrounded by ample flower-beds, now brilliant with rainbow blossoms, looked most picturesque when thronged with well-dressed, well-bred, well-pleased guests. Nearly all the invitations had been accepted; firstly, because Mrs Pansey made things unpleasant afterwards for such defiant spirits as stayed away; secondly, for the very attractive reason that the meat and drink provided by the hostess were of the best. Thus Mrs Pansey's entertainments were usually the most successful of the Beorminster season.
On this auspicious occasion the clerk of the weather had granted the hostess an especially fine day. Sunshine filled the cloudless arch of the blue sky; the air was warm, but tempered by a softly-blowing breeze; and the guests, to do honour at once to Mrs Pansey and the delightful weather, wore their most becoming and coolest costumes. Pretty girls laughed in the sunshine; matrons gossiped beneath the rustling trees; and the sober black coats of the clerical element subdued the too vivid tints of the feminine frippery. The scene was animated and full of colour and movement, so that even Mrs Pansey's grim countenance expanded into an unusual smile when greeting fresh arrivals. At intervals a band played lively dance music; there was croquet and lawn-tennis for the young; iced coffee and scandal for the old. Altogether, the company, being mostly youthful and unthinking, was enjoying itself immensely, as the chatter and laughter, and smiling and bowing amply testified.
'Altogether, I may regard it as a distinct success,' said Mrs Pansey, as, attired in her most Hamlet-like weeds, she received her guests under the shade of a many-coloured Japanese umbrella. 'And the gardens really look nice.'
'The gardens of Paradise!' observed the complimentary Cargrim, who was smirking at the elbow of his hostess.
'Don't distort Holy Writ, if--you--please!' snapped Mrs Pansey, who still reserved the right of being disagreeable even at her own entertainment; 'but if you do call this the Garden of Eden, I daresay there are plenty of serpents about.'
'And many Adams and Eves!' said Dr Graham, surveying the company with his usual cynicism; 'but I don't see Lilith, Mrs Pansey.'
'Lilith, doctor! what an improper name!'
'And what an improper person, my dear lady. Lilith was the other wife of Father Adam.'
'How dare you, Dr Graham! the first man a bigamist! Ridiculous! Profane! Only one rib was taken out of Adam!'
'Lilith wasn't manufactured out of a rib, Mrs Pansey. The devil created her to deceive Adam. At least, so the Rabbinists tell us!'
'Oh, those Jewish creatures!' said the lady, with a sniff. 'I don't think much of their opinion. What do Jews know about the Bible?'
'As much as authors generally know about their own books, I suppose,' said Graham, drily.
'We are becoming theological,' observed Cargrim, smoothly.
'Not to say blasphemous,' growled Mrs Pansey; 'at least, the doctor is, like all sceptics of his infidel profession. Remember Ananias and his lies, sir.' 'I shall rather remember Eve and her curiosity,' laughed Graham, 'and to follow so good an example let me inquire what yonder very pretty tent contains, Mrs Pansey?'
'That is a piece of Daisy's foolishness, doctor. It contains a gipsy, whom she induced me to hire for some fortune-telling rubbish.'
'Oh, how sweet! how jolly!' cried a mixed chorus of young voices. 'A real gipsy, Mrs Pansey?' and the good lady was besieged with questions.
'She is cunning and dirty enough to be genuine, my dears. Some of you may know her. Mother Jael!'
'Aroint thee, witch!' cried Dr Graham, 'that old beldam; oh, she can "pen dukherin" to some purpose. I have heard of her; so have the police.'
'What language is that?' asked Miss Whichello, who came up at this moment with a smile and a word for all; 'it sounds like swearing.'
'I'd like to see anyone swear here,' said Mrs Pansey, grimly.
'Set your mind at rest, dear lady, I was speaking Romany--the black language--the calo jib which the gipsies brought from the East when they came to plunder the hen-coops of Europe.'
'Do you mean to tell me that those creatures have a language of their own?' asked Miss Whichello, disbelievingly.
'Why not? I daresay their ancestors made bricks on the plain of Shinar, and were lucky enough to gain a language without the trouble of learning it.'
'You allude to the Tower of Babel, sir!' said Mrs Pansey, with a scowl.
'Rather to the Tower of Fable, dear lady, since the whole story is a myth.'
Not caring to hear this duel of words, and rather surprised to learn that Mother Jael was present, Cargrim slipped away at the first opportunity to ponder over the information and consider what use he could make of it. So the old woman still followed the bishop?--had followed him even into society, and had made herself Mrs Pansey's professional fortune-teller so that she might still continue to vex the eyes of her victim with the sight of her eternal red cloak. Dr Pendle was at that very moment walking amongst the guests, with his youngest son by his side, and appeared to be more cheerful and more like his former self than he had been for some time. Apparently he was as yet ignorant that Mother Jael was in his immediate vicinity; but Cargrim determined that he should be warned of her presence as speedily as possible, and be lured into having an interview with her so that his scheming chaplain might see what would come of the meeting. Also Cargrim resolved to see the old gipsy himself and renew the conversation which she had broken off when she had thieved his gold. In one way or another he foresaw that it would be absolutely necessary to force the woman into making some definite statement either inculpating or exonerating the bishop in respect of Jentham's death. Therefore, having come to this conclusion, Cargrim strolled watchfully through the merry crowd. It was his purpose to inform Dr Pendle that Mother Jael was telling fortunes in the gaily-striped tent, and his determination to bring--if possible--the prelate into contact with the old hag. From such a meeting artful Mr Cargrim hoped to gather some useful information from the conversation and behaviour of the pair.
Unfortunately Cargrim was impeded in the execution of this scheme from the fact of his remarkable popularity. He could not take two steps without being addressed by one or more of his lady admirers; and although he saw the bishop no great distance away, he could not reach him by reason of the detaining sirens. As gracefully as possible he eluded their snares, but when confronted by Daisy Norsham hanging on the arm of Dean Alder, he almost gave up hope of reaching his goal. There was but little chance of escape from Daisy and her small talk. Moreover, she was rather bored by the instructive conversation of the ancient parson, and wanted to attach herself to some younger and more frivolous man. Cupid in cap and gown and spectacles is a decidedly prosy divinity.
'Oh, dear Mr Cargrim!' cried the gushing Daisy, 'is it really you? Oh, how very sweet of you to come to-day! And what is the very latest news of poor, dear Mrs Pendle?'
'I believe the Nauheim baths are doing her a great deal of good, Miss Norsham. If you will excuse--'
'Nauheim!' croaked the dean, with a dry cough, 'is unknown to me save as a geographical expression, but the town of Baden-Baden, formally called Aurelia Aquensis, was much frequented by the Romans on account of its salubrious and health-giving springs. I may also instance Aachen, vulgarly termed Aix-la-Chapelle, but known to the Latins as Aquisgranum or--'
'How interesting!' interrupted Daisy, cutting short this Stream of information. 'You do seem to know everything, Mr Dean. The only German watering-place I have been to is Wiesbaden, where the doctors made me get up at five o'clock to drink the waters. And fancy, Mr Cargrim, a band played at the Kochbrunnen at seven in the morning. Did you ever hear anything so horrid?'
'Music at so early an hour would be trying, Miss Norsham!'
'Aqua Mattiacę was the Roman appellation of Wiesbaden,' murmured Dr Alder, twiddling his eye-glass. 'I hear on good medical authority that the waters are most beneficial to renovate health and arrest decay. I should advise his lordship, the bishop, to visit the springs, for of late I have noticed that he appears to be sadly out of sorts.'
'He is looking much better to-day,' observed the chaplain, with a glance at the bishop, who was now conversing with Miss Whichello.
'Oh, the poor, dear bishop should have his fortune told by Mother Jael.'
'That would hardly be in keeping with his exalted position, Miss Norsham.'
'Oh, really, I don't see that it is so very dreadful,' cried Daisy, with one of her silvery peals of artificial laughter, 'and it's only fun. Mother Jael might tell him if he was going to be ill or not, you know, and he could take medicine if he was. Besides, she does tell the truth; oh, really, it's too awful what she knew about me. But I'm glad to say she prophesied a lovely future.'
'Marriage and money, I presume.'
'Well, you are clever, Mr Cargrim; that is just the fortune she told me. How did you guess? I'm to meet my future husband here; he is to be rich and adore me, and I'm to be very, very happy.' 'I am sure so charming a young lady deserves to be,' said Cargrim, bowing.
'Siderum regina bicornis audi, Luna puellas,' quoted Mr Dean, with a side glance at the radiant Daisy; and if that confident lady had understood Latin, she would have judged from this satirical quotation that Dr Alder was not so subjugated by her charms as to contemplate matrimony. But being ignorant, she was--in accordance with the proverb--blissful, and babbled on with a never-failing stream of small talk, which was at times momentarily obstructed by the heavy masses of information cast into it by the dean.
Leaving this would-be May and wary old December to their unequal flirtation, Cargrim again attempted to reach the bishop, but was captured by Miss Tancred, much to his disgust. She entertained him with a long and minute account of her rheumatic pains and the means by which she hoped to cure them. Held thus as firmly as the wedding guest was by the Ancient Mariner, Cargrim lost the chance of hearing a very interesting conversation between Miss Whichello and the bishop; but, from the clouded brow of Dr Pendle, he saw that something was wrong, and chafed at his enforced detention. Nevertheless, Miss Tancred kept him beside her until she exhausted her trickle of small talk. It took all Cargrim's tact and politeness and Christianity to endure patiently her gabble.
'Yes, bishop,' Miss Whichello was saying, with some annoyance, 'your son has admired my niece for some considerable time. Lately they became engaged, but I refused to give my consent until your sanction and approval had been obtained.'
'George has said nothing to me on the subject,' replied Dr Pendle, in a vexed tone. 'Yet he should certainly have done so before speaking to your niece.'
'No doubt! but unfortunately young men's heads do not always guide their hearts. Still, Captain Pendle promised me to tell you all during his present visit to Beorminster. And, of course, both Mrs Pendle and your daughter Lucy know of his love for Mab.'
'It would appear that I am the sole person ignorant of the engagement, Miss Whichello.'
'It was not with my consent that you were kept in ignorance, bishop. But I really do not see why you should discourage the match. You can see for yourself that they make a handsome pair.'
Dr Pendle cast an angry look towards the end of the lawn, where George and Mab were talking earnestly together.
'I don't deny their physical suitability,' he said severely, 'but more than good looks are needed to make a happy marriage.'
'Am I to understand that you disapprove of my niece?' cried the little old lady, drawing herself up.
'By no means; by no means; how can you think me so wanting in courtesy? But I must confess that I desire my son to make a good match.'
'You should rather wish him to get a good wife,' retorted Miss Whichello, who was becoming annoyed. 'But if it is fortune you desire, I can set your mind at rest on that point. Mab will inherit my money when I die; and should she marry Captain Pendle during my lifetime, I shall allow the young couple a thousand a year.'
'A thousand a year, Miss Whichello!'
'Yes! and more if necessary. Let me tell you, bishop, I am much better off than people think.'
The bishop, rather nonplussed, looked down at his neat boots and very becoming gaiters. 'I am not so worldly-minded as you infer, Miss Whichello,' said he, mildly; 'and did George desire to marry a poor girl, I have enough money of my own to humour his whim. But if his heart is set on making Miss Arden his wife, I should like--if you will pardon my candour--to know more about the young lady.'
'Mab is the best and most charming girl in the world,' said the little Jennie Wren, pale, and a trifle nervous.
'I can see that for myself. You misunderstand me, Miss Whichello, so I must speak more explicitly. Who is Miss Arden?'
'She is my niece,' replied Miss Whichello, with trembling dignity. 'The only child of my poor sister, who died when Mab was an infant in arms.'
'Quite so!' assented the bishop, with a nod. 'I have always understood such to be the case. But--er--Mr Arden?'
'Mr Arden!' faltered the old lady, turning her face from the company, that its pallor and anxiety might not be seen.
'Her father! is he alive?'
'No!' cried Miss Whichello, shaking her head. 'He died long, long ago.'
'Who was he?'
'A--a--a gentleman!--a gentleman of independent fortune.'
Dr Pendle bit his nether lip and looked embarrassed. 'Miss Whichello,' he said at length, in a hesitating tone, 'your niece is a charming young lady, and, so far as she herself is concerned, is quite fit to become the wife of my son George.'
'I should think so indeed!' cried the little lady, with buckram civility.
'But,' continued the bishop, with emphasis, 'I have heard rumours about her parentage which do not satisfy me. Whether these are true or not is best known to yourself, Miss Whichello; but before consenting to the engagement you speak of, I should like to be fully informed on the point.'
'To what rumours does your lordship refer?' asked Miss Whichello, very pale-faced, but very quiet.
'This is neither the time nor place to inform you,' said the bishop, hastily; 'I see Mr Cargrim advancing. On another occasion, Miss Whichello, we shall talk about the matter.'
As the chaplain, with three of four young ladies, including Miss Norsham, was bearing down on the bishop, Miss Whichello recognised the justice of his speech, and not feeling equal to talk frivolity, she hastily retreated and ran into the house to fight down her emotion. What the poor little woman felt was known only to herself; but she foresaw that the course of true love, so far as it concerned George and Mab, was not likely to run smooth. Still, she put a brave face on it and hoped for the best.
In the meantime, Bishop Pendle was enveloped in a whirl of petticoats, as Cargrim's Amazonian escort, prompted by the chaplain, was insisting that he should have his fortune told by Mother Jael. The bishop looked perturbed on hearing that his red-cloaked phantom was so close at hand, but he managed to keep his countenance, and laughingly refused to comply with the demand of the ladies.
'Think of what the newspapers would say,' he urged, 'if a bishop were to consult this Witch of Endor.'
'Oh, but really, it is only a joke!'
'A dignitary of the Church shouldn't joke, Miss Norsham.'
'Why not, your lordship?' put in Cargrim, amiably. 'I have heard that Richelieu played with a kitten.'
'I am not Richelieu,' replied Dr Pendle, drily, 'nor is Mother Jael a kitten.'
'It's for a charity, bishop,' said Daisy, imploringly. 'I pay Mother Jael for the day, and give the rest to Mrs Pansey's Home for servants out of work.'
'Oh, for a charity,' repeated Dr Pendle, smiling; 'that puts quite a different complexion on the question. What do you say, Mr Cargrim?'
'I don't think that your lordship can refuse the prayer of these charming young ladies,' replied the chaplain, obsequiously.
Now, the bishop really wished to see Mother Jael in order to learn why she haunted him so persistently; and as she had always vanished heretofore, he thought that the present would be a very good time to catch her. He therefore humoured the joke of fortune-telling for his own satisfaction, and explained as much to the expectant company.
'Well, well, young ladies,' said he, good-naturedly, 'I suppose I must consent to be victimised if only to further the charitable purposes of Mrs Pansey. Where dwells the sybil?'
'In this tent! This way, your lordship!'
Dr Pendle advanced towards the gaily-striped tent, smiling broadly, and with a playful shake of the head at the laughing nymphs around, he invaded the privacy of Mother Jael. With a sigh of relief at having accomplished his purpose, Cargrim let fall the flap which he had held up for the bishop's entry, and turned away, rubbing his hands. His aim was attained. It now remained to be seen what would come of the meeting between bishop and gipsy.
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