Cadover was not a large house. But it is the largest house with which this story has dealings, and must always be thought of with respect. It was built about the year 1800, and favoured the architecture of ancient Rome--chiefly by means of five lank pilasters, which stretched from the top of it to the bottom. Between the pilasters was the glass front door, to the right of them the drawing room windows, to the left of them the windows of the dining-room, above them a triangular area, which the better-class servants knew as a "pendiment," and which had in its middle a small round hole, according to the usage of Palladio. The classical note was also sustained by eight grey steps which led from the building down into the drive, and by an attempt at a formal garden on the adjoining lawn. The lawn ended in a Ha-ha ("Ha! ha! who shall regard it?"), and thence the bare land sloped down into the village. The main garden (walled) was to the left as one faced the house, while to the right was that laurel avenue, leading up to Mrs. Failing's arbour.
It was a comfortable but not very attractive place, and, to a certain type of mind, its situation was not attractive either. From the distance it showed as a grey box, huddled against evergreens. There was no mystery about it. You saw it for miles. Its hill had none of the beetling romance of Devonshire, none of the subtle contours that prelude a cottage in Kent, but profferred its burden crudely, on a huge bare palm. "There's Cadover," visitors would say. "How small it still looks. We shall be late for lunch." And the view from the windows, though extensive, would not have been accepted by the Royal Academy. A valley, containing a stream, a road, a railway; over the valley fields of barley and wurzel, divided by no pretty hedges, and passing into a great and formless down--this was the outlook, desolate at all times, and almost terrifying beneath a cloudy sky. The down was called "Cadbury Range" ("Cocoa Squares" if you were young and funny), because high upon it--one cannot say "on the top," there being scarcely any tops in Wiltshire--because high upon it there stood a double circle of entrenchments. A bank of grass enclosed a ring of turnips, which enclosed a second bank of grass, which enclosed more turnips, and in the middle of the pattern grew one small tree. British? Roman? Saxon? Danish? The competent reader will decide. The Thompson family knew it to be far older than the Franco-German war. It was the property of Government. It was full of gold and dead soldiers who had fought with the soldiers on Castle Rings and been beaten. The road to Londinium, having forded the stream and crossed the valley road and the railway, passed up by these entrenchments. The road to London lay half a mile to the right of them.
To complete this survey one must mention the church and the farm, both of which lay over the stream in Cadford. Between them they ruled the village, one claiming the souls of the labourers, the other their bodies. If a man desired other religion or other employment he must leave. The church lay up by the railway, the farm was down by the water meadows. The vicar, a gentle charitable man scarcely realized his power, and never tried to abuse it. Mr. Wilbraham, the agent, was of another mould. He knew his place, and kept others to theirs: all society seemed spread before him like a map. The line between the county and the local, the line between the labourer and the artisan--he knew them all, and strengthened them with no uncertain touch. Everything with him was graduated--carefully graduated civility towards his superior, towards his inferiors carefully graduated incivility. So--for he was a thoughtful person--so alone, declared he, could things be kept together.
Perhaps the Comic Muse, to whom so much is now attributed, had caused his estate to be left to Mr. Failing. Mr. Failing was the author of some brilliant books on socialism,--that was why his wife married him--and for twenty-five years he reigned up at Cadover and tried to put his theories into practice. He believed that things could be kept together by accenting the similarities, not the differences of men. "We are all much more alike than we confess," was one of his favourite speeches. As a speech it sounded very well, and his wife had applauded; but when it resulted in hard work, evenings in the reading-rooms, mixed-parties, and long unobtrusive talks with dull people, she got bored. In her piquant way she declared that she was not going to love her husband, and succeeded. He took it quietly, but his brilliancy decreased. His health grew worse, and he knew that when he died there was no one to carry on his work. He felt, besides, that he had done very little. Toil as he would, he had not a practical mind, and could never dispense with Mr. Wilbraham. For all his tact, he would often stretch out the hand of brotherhood too soon, or withhold it when it would have been accepted. Most people misunderstood him, or only understood him when he was dead. In after years his reign became a golden age; but he counted a few disciples in his life-time, a few young labourers and tenant farmers, who swore tempestuously that he was not really a fool. This, he told himself, was as much as he deserved.
Cadover was inherited by his widow. She tried to sell it; she tried to let it; but she asked too much, and as it was neither a pretty place nor fertile, it was left on her hands. With many a groan she settled down to banishment. Wiltshire people, she declared, were the stupidest in England. She told them so to their faces, which made them no brighter. And their county was worthy of them: no distinction in it--no style--simply land.
But her wrath passed, or remained only as a graceful fretfulness. She made the house comfortable, and abandoned the farm to Mr. Wilbraham. With a good deal of care she selected a small circle of acquaintances, and had them to stop in the summer months. In the winter she would go to town and frequent the salons of the literary. As her lameness increased she moved about less, and at the time of her nephew's visit seldom left the place that had been forced upon her as a home. Just now she was busy. A prominent politician had quoted her husband. The young generation asked, "Who is this Mr. Failing?" and the publishers wrote, "Now is the time." She was collecting some essays and penning an introductory memoir.
Rickie admired his aunt, but did not care for her. She reminded him too much of his father. She had the same affliction, the same heartlessness, the same habit of taking life with a laugh--as if life is a pill! He also felt that she had neglected him. He would not have asked much: as for "prospects," they never entered his head, but she was his only near relative, and a little kindness and hospitality during the lonely years would have made incalculable difference. Now that he was happier and could bring her Agnes, she had asked him to stop at once. The sun as it rose next morning spoke to him of a new life. He too had a purpose and a value in the world at last. Leaning out of the window, he gazed at the earth washed clean and heard through the pure air the distant noises of the farm.
But that day nothing was to remain divine but the weather. His aunt, for reasons of her own, decreed that he should go for a ride with the Wonham boy. They were to look at Old Sarum, proceed thence to Salisbury, lunch there, see the sights, call on a certain canon for tea, and return to Cadover in the evening. The arrangement suited no one. He did not want to ride, but to be with Agnes; nor did Agnes want to be parted from him, nor Stephen to go with him. But the clearer the wishes of her guests became, the more determined was Mrs. Failing to disregard them. She smoothed away every difficulty, she converted every objection into a reason, and she ordered the horses for half-past nine.
"It is a bore," he grumbled as he sat in their little private sitting-room, breaking his finger-nails upon the coachman's gaiters. "I can't ride. I shall fall off. We should have been so happy here. It's just like Aunt Emily. Can't you imagine her saying afterwards, 'Lovers are absurd. I made a point of keeping them apart,' and then everybody laughing."
With a pretty foretaste of the future, Agnes knelt before him and did the gaiters up. "Who is this Mr. Wonham, by the bye?"
"I don't know. Some connection of Mr. Failing's, I think."
"Does he live here?"
"He used to be at school or something. He seems to have grown into a tiresome person."
"I suppose that Mrs. Failing has adopted him."
"I suppose so. I believe that she has been quite kind. I do hope she'll be kind to you this morning. I hate leaving you with her."
"Why, you say she likes me."
"Yes, but that wouldn't prevent--you see she doesn't mind what she says or what she repeats if it amuses her. If she thought it really funny, for instance, to break off our engagement, she'd try."
"Dear boy, what a frightful remark! But it would be funnier for us to see her trying. Whatever could she do?"
He kissed the hands that were still busy with the fastenings. "Nothing. I can't see one thing. We simply lie open to each other, you and I. There isn't one new corner in either of us that she could reveal. It's only that I always have in this house the most awful feeling of insecurity."
"If any one says or does a foolish thing it's always here. All the family breezes have started here. It's a kind of focus for aimed and aimless scandal. You know, when my father and mother had their special quarrel, my aunt was mixed up in it,--I never knew how or how much--but you may be sure she didn't calm things down, unless she found things more entertaining calm."
"Rickie! Rickie!" cried the lady from the garden, "Your riding-master's impatient."
"We really oughtn't to talk of her like this here," whispered Agnes. "It's a horrible habit."
"The habit of the country, Agnes. Ugh, this gossip!" Suddenly he flung his arms over her. "Dear--dear--let's beware of I don't know what--of nothing at all perhaps."
"Oh, buck up!" yelled the irritable Stephen. "Which am I to shorten--left stirrup or right?"
"Left!" shouted Agnes.
"How many holes?"
They hurried down. On the way she said: "I'm glad of the warning. Now I'm prepared. Your aunt will get nothing out of me."
Her betrothed tried to mount with the wrong foot according to his invariable custom. She also had to pick up his whip. At last they started, the boy showing off pretty consistently, and she was left alone with her hostess.
"Dido is quiet as a lamb," said Mrs. Failing, "and Stephen is a good fielder. What a blessing it is to have cleared out the men. What shall you and I do this heavenly morning?"
"I'm game for anything."
"Have you quite unpacked?"
"Any letters to write?" No.
"Then let's go to my arbour. No, we won't. It gets the morning sun, and it'll be too hot today." Already she regretted clearing out the men. On such a morning she would have liked to drive, but her third animal had gone lame. She feared, too, that Miss Pembroke was going to bore her. However, they did go to the arbour. In languid tones she pointed out the various objects of interest.
"There's the Cad, which goes into the something, which goes into the Avon. Cadbury Rings opposite, Cadchurch to the extreme left: you can't see it. You were there last night. It is famous for the drunken parson and the railway-station. Then Cad Dauntsey. Then Cadford, that side of the stream, connected with Cadover, this. Observe the fertility of the Wiltshire mind."
"A terrible lot of Cads," said Agnes brightly.
Mrs. Failing divided her guests into those who made this joke and those who did not. The latter class was very small.
"The vicar of Cadford--not the nice drunkard--declares the name is really 'Chadford,' and he worried on till I put up a window to St. Chad in our church. His Cambridge wife pronounces it 'Hyadford.' I could smack them both. How do you like Podge? Ah! you jump; I meant you to. How do you like Podge Wonham?"
"Very nice," said Agnes, laughing.
"Nice! He is a hero."
There was a long interval of silence. Each lady looked, without much interest, at the view. Mrs. Failing's attitude towards Nature was severely aesthetic--an attitude more sterile than the severely practical. She applied the test of beauty to shadow and odour and sound; they never filled her with reverence or excitement; she never knew them as a resistless trinity that may intoxicate the worshipper with joy. If she liked a ploughed field, it was only as a spot of colour--not also as a hint of the endless strength of the earth. And today she could approve of one cloud, but object to its fellow. As for Miss Pembroke, she was not approving or objecting at all. "A hero?" she queried, when the interval had passed. Her voice was indifferent, as if she had been thinking of other things.
"A hero? Yes. Didn't you notice how heroic he was?"
"I don't think I did."
"Not at dinner? Ah, Agnes, always look out for heroism at dinner. It is their great time. They live up to the stiffness of their shirt fronts. Do you mean to say that you never noticed how he set down Rickie?"
"Oh, that about poetry!" said Agnes, laughing. "Rickie would not mind it for a moment. But why do you single out that as heroic?"
"To snub people! to set them down! to be rude to them! to make them feel small! Surely that's the lifework of a hero?"
"I shouldn't have said that. And as a matter of fact Mr. Wonham was wrong over the poetry. I made Rickie look it up afterwards."
"But of course. A hero always is wrong."
"To me," she persisted, rather gently, "a hero has always been a strong wonderful being, who champions--"
"Ah, wait till you are the dragon! I have been a dragon most of my life, I think. A dragon that wants nothing but a peaceful cave. Then in comes the strong, wonderful, delightful being, and gains a princess by piercing my hide. No, seriously, my dear Agnes, the chief characteristics of a hero are infinite disregard for the feelings of others, plus general inability to understand them."
"But surely Mr. Wonham--"
"Yes; aren't we being unkind to the poor boy. Ought we to go on talking?"
Agnes waited, remembering the warnings of Rickie, and thinking that anything she said might perhaps be repeated.
"Though even if he was here he wouldn't understand what we are saying."
Mrs. Failing gave the least flicker of an eye towards her companion. "Did you take him for clever?"
"I don't think I took him for anything." She smiled. "I have been thinking of other things, and another boy."
"But do think for a moment of Stephen. I will describe how he spent yesterday. He rose at eight. From eight to eleven he sang. The song was called, 'Father's boots will soon fit Willie.' He stopped once to say to the footman, 'She'll never finish her book. She idles: 'She' being I. At eleven he went out, and stood in the rain till four, but had the luck to see a child run over at the level-crossing. By half-past four he had knocked the bottom out of Christianity."
Agnes looked bewildered.
"Aren't you impressed? I was. I told him that he was on no account to unsettle the vicar. Open that cupboard, one of those sixpenny books tells Podge that he's made of hard little black things, another that he's made of brown things, larger and squashy. There seems a discrepancy, but anything is better for a thoughtful youth than to be made in the Garden of Eden. Let us eliminate the poetic, at whatever cost to the probable." When for a moment she spoke more gravely. "Here he is at twenty, with nothing to hold on by. I don't know what's to be done. I suppose it's my fault. But I've never had any bother over the Church of England; have you?"
"Of course I go with my Church," said Miss Pembroke, who hated this style of conversation. "I don't know, I'm sure. I think you should consult a man."
"Would Rickie help me?"
"Rickie would do anything he can." And Mrs. Failing noted the half official way in which she vouched for her lover. "But of course Rickie is a little--complicated. I doubt whether Mr. Wonham would understand him. He wants--doesn't he?--some one who's a little more assertive and more accustomed to boys. Some one more like my brother."
"Agnes!" she seized her by the arm. "Do you suppose that Mr. Pembroke would undertake my Podge?"
She shook her head. "His time is so filled up. He gets a boarding-house next term. Besides--after all I don't know what Herbert would do."
"Morality. He would teach him morality. The Thirty-Nine Articles may come of themselves, but if you have no morals you come to grief. Morality is all I demand from Mr. Herbert Pembroke. He shall be excused the use of the globes. You know, of course, that Stephen's expelled from a public school? He stole."
The school was not a public one, and the expulsion, or rather request for removal, had taken place when Stephen was fourteen. A violent spasm of dishonesty--such as often heralds the approach of manhood--had overcome him. He stole everything, especially what was difficult to steal, and hid the plunder beneath a loose plank in the passage. He was betrayed by the inclusion of a ham. This was the crisis of his career. His benefactress was just then rather bored with him. He had stopped being a pretty boy, and she rather doubted whether she would see him through. But she was so raged with the letters of the schoolmaster, and so delighted with those of the criminal, that she had him back and gave him a prize.
"No," said Agnes, "I didn't know. I should be happy to speak to Herbert, but, as I said, his time will be very full. But I know he has friends who make a speciality of weakly or--or unusual boys."
"My dear, I've tried it. Stephen kicked the weakly boys and robbed apples with the unusual ones. He was expelled again."
Agnes began to find Mrs. Failing rather tiresome. Wherever you trod on her, she seemed to slip away from beneath your feet. Agnes liked to know where she was and where other people were as well. She said: "My brother thinks a great deal of home life. I daresay he'd think that Mr. Wonham is best where he is--with you. You have been so kind to him. You"--she paused--"have been to him both father and mother."
"I'm too hot," was Mrs. Failing's reply. It seemed that Miss Pembroke had at last touched a topic on which she was reticent. She rang the electric bell,--it was only to tell the footman to take the reprints to Mr. Wonham's room,--and then murmuring something about work, proceeded herself to the house.
"Mrs. Failing--" said Agnes, who had not expected such a speedy end to their chat.
"Call me Aunt Emily. My dear?"
"Aunt Emily, what did you think of that story Rickie sent you?"
"It is bad," said Mrs. Failing. "But. But. But." Then she escaped, having told the truth, and yet leaving a pleasurable impression behind her.
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