An emissary from Tottenham Court Road sped down to Polterham, surveyed the vacant house, returned with professional computations. Quarrier and Lilian abode at the old home until everything should be ready for them, and Mrs. Liversedge represented her brother on the spot--solving the doubts of workmen, hiring servants, making minor purchases. She invited Denzil to bring his wife, and dwell for the present under the Liversedge roof, but her brother preferred to wait. "I don't like makeshifts; we must go straight into our own house; the dignity of the Radical candidate requires it." So the work glowed, and as little time as possible was spent over its completion.
It was midway in January when the day and hour of arrival were at last appointed. No one was to be in the house but the servants. At four in the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Quarrier would receive Mr. and Mrs. Liversedge, and thus make formal declaration of their readiness to welcome friends. Since her return to England, Lilian had seen no one. She begged Denzil not to invite Glazzard to Clapham.
They reached Polterham at one o'clock, in the tumult of a snowstorm; ten minutes more, and the whitened cab deposited them at their doorway. Quarrier knew, of course, what the general appearance of the interior would be, and he was well satisfied with the way in which his directions had been carried out. His companion was at first overawed rather than pleased. He led her from room to room, saying frequently, "Do you like it? Will it do?"
"It frightens me!" murmured Lilian, at length. "How shall I manage such a house?"
She was pale, and inclined to tearfulness, for the situation tired her fortitude in a degree Denzil could not estimate. Fears which were all but terrors, self-reproach which had the poignancy of remorse, tormented her gentle, timid nature. For a week and more she had not known unbroken sleep; dreams of fantastic misery awakened her to worse distress in the calculating of her perils and conflict with insidious doubts. At the dead hour before dawn, faiths of childhood revived before her conscience, upbraiding, menacing. The common rules of every-day honour spoke to her with stern reproval. Denzil's arguments, when she tried to muster them in her defence, answered with hollow, meaningless sound. Love alone would stead her; she could but shut her eyes, and breathe, as if in prayer, the declaration that her love was a sacred thing, cancelling verbal untruth.
She changed her dress, and went down to luncheon. The large dining-room seemed to oppress her insignificance; to eat was impossible, and with difficulty she conversed before the servants. Fortunately, Denzil was in his best spirits; he enjoyed the wintery atmosphere, talked of skating on the ice which had known him as a boy, laughed over an old story about a snowball with a stone in it which had stunned him in one of the fights between town and Grammar School.
"Pity the election can't come on just now!--we should have lively times. A snowball is preferable to an addled egg any day. The Poltram folks"--this was the common pronunciation of the town's name--"have a liking for missiles at seasons of excitement."
From table, they went to the library--as yet unfurnished with volumes--and made themselves comfortable by the fireside. Through the windows nothing could be seen but a tempestuous whirl of flakes. Lilian's cat, which had accompanied her in a basket, could not as yet make itself at home on the hearthrug, and was glad of a welcome to its mistress's lap. Denzil lit a pipe and studied the political news of the day.
At four o'clock he waited impatiently the call of his relatives. Lilian, unable to command her agitation, had gone into another room, and was there counting the minutes as if each cost her a drop of heart's blood. If this first meeting were but over! All else seemed easy, could she but face Denzil's sister without betrayal of her shame and dread. At length she heard wheels roll up to the door; there were voices in the hall; Denzil came forth with loud and joyous greeting; he led his visitors into the library. Five minutes more of anguish, and the voices were again audible, approaching, at the door.
"Well, Lily, here is my sister and Mr. Liversedge," said Denzil. "No very formidable persons, either of them," he added merrily, as the best way of making apology for Lilian's too obvious tremor.
But she conquered her weakness. The man was of no account to her; upon the woman only her eyes were fixed, for there was the piercing scrutiny, the quick divination, the merciless censure-- there, if anywhere, in one of her own sex. From men she might expect tolerance, justice; from women only a swift choice between the bowl and the dagger. Pride prompted her to hardihood, and when she had wall looked upon Mrs. Liversedge's face a soothing confidence came to the support of desperation. She saw the frank fairness of Denzil's lineaments softened with the kindest of female smiles; a gaze keen indeed, but ingenuous as that of a child; an expression impossible to be interpreted save as that of heartfelt welcome, absolutely unsuspecting, touched even with admiring homage.
They kissed each other, and Lilian's face glowed. After that, she could turn almost joyously for Mr. Liversedge's hearty hand-shake.
"You have come like a sort of snow-queen," said Tobias, with unusual imaginativeness, pointing to the windows. "It must have begun just as you got here."
Perhaps the chill of her fingers prompted him to this poetical flight. His wife, who had noticed the same thing, added, with practical fervour:
"I only hope the house is thoroughly dry. We have had great fires everywhere for more than a fortnight. As for the snow and frost, you are pretty well used to that, no doubt."
Painfully on the alert, Lilian of course understood this allusion to the Northern land she was supposed to have quitted recently.
"Even at Stockholm," she replied, with a smile, "there is summer, you know."
"And in Russia, too, I have heard," laughed Mr. Liversedge. "But one doesn't put much faith in such reports. Denzil tries to persuade us now and then that the North Cape has quite a balmy atmosphere, especially from December to March. He is quite safe. We sha'n't go to test his statements."
Instead of a time of misery, this first half-hour proved so pleasant that Lilian all but forgot the shadow standing behind her. When tea was brought in, she felt none of the nervousness which had seemed to her inevitable amid such luxurious appliances. These relatives of Denzil's, henceforth her own, were people such as she had not dared to picture them--so unaffected, genial, easy to talk with; nor did she suffer from a necessity of uttering direct falsehoods; conversation dealt with the present and the future--partly, no doubt, owing to Quarrier's initiative. Mr. Liversedge made a report of local affairs as they concerned the political outlook; he saw every reason for hope.
"Welwyn-Baker," he said, "is quite set up again, and I am told he has no inclination to retire in favour of his son, or any one else. An obstinate old fellow--and may his obstinacy increase! The Tories are beginning to see that they ought to set up a new man; they are quarrelling among themselves. That bazaar at the opening of the new Society's rooms--the Constitutional Literary, you know-- seems to have been a failure. No one was satisfied. The Mercury printed savage letters from a lot of people--blaming this, that, and the other person in authority. The Examiner, chuckled, and hasn't done referring to the matter yet."
Apart with Lilian, Mrs. Liversedge had begun to talk of the society of Polterham. She did not try to be witty at the expense of her neighbours, but confessed with a sly smile that literature and the arts were not quite so well appreciated as might be wished.
"You are a serious student, I know--very learned in languages. I wish I had had more time for reading, and a better head. But seven children, you know--oh dear! Even my little bit of French has got so ragged that I am really ashamed of it. But there is one woman who studies. Has Denzil spoken to you of Mrs. Wade?"
"I don't remember."
"She is no great favourite of his, I believe. You will soon hear of her, and no doubt see her. Denzil admits that she is very clever-- even a Creek scholar!"
"Really! And what fault does he find with her?"
"She is a great supporter of woman's rights, and occasionally makes speeches. It's only of late that I have seen much of her; for some reason she seems to have taken a liking to me, and I feel rather honoured. I'm sure her intentions are very good indeed, and it must be trying to live among people who have no sympathy with you. They make sad fun of her, and altogether misunderstand her--at least I think so."
The snowstorm still raged. To spare their own horses, the Liversedges had come in a cab, and at half-past five the same vehicle returned to take them home.. Lilian was sorry to see them go.
"Where are all your apprehensions now?" cried Denzil, coming back to her from the hall. "It's over, you see. Not another minute's uneasiness need you have!"
"They were kindness itself. I like them very much."
"As I knew and said you would. Now, no more chalky faces and frightened looks! Be jolly, and forget everything. Let us try your piano."
"Your sister was telling me about Mrs. Wade. Is she one of the people you would like me to be friends with?"
"Oh yes!" he answered, laughing, "Mrs. Wade will interest you, no doubt. Make a friend of her by all means. Did Mary whisper mysterious warnings?"
"Anything but that; she spoke very favourably."
"And she said Mrs. Wade seemed to have taken a liking to her lately."
"Oh! How's that, I wonder? She goes about seeking whom she may secure for the women's-vote movement; I suppose it's Molly's turn to be attacked Oh, we shall have many a lively half-hour when Mrs. Wade calls!"
"What is her husband?"
"Husband! She's a widow. I never thought of such a person as Mr. Wade, to this moment. To be sure, he must have existed. Perhaps she will confide in you, and then----By-the-bye, is it right for women to tell their husbands what they learn from female friends?"
He asked it jokingly, but Lilian seemed to reflect in earnest.
"I'm not sure"----
"Oh, you lily of the valley!" he cried, interrupting her. "Do cultivate a sense of humour. Don't take things with such desperate seriousness! Come and try your instrument. It ought to be a good one, if price-lists mean anything."
The next morning was clear and cold. Assuredly there would be good skating, and the prospect of this enjoyment seemed to engross Denzil's thoughts. After breakfast he barely glanced at the newspapers, then leaving Lilian to enter upon her domestic rule, set forth for an examination of the localities which offered scope to Polterham skaters. Such youthful zeal proved his thorough harmony with the English spirit; it promised far more for his success as a politician than if he had spent the morning over blue-books and statistical treatises.
If only the snow were cleared away, the best skating near at hand was on a piece of water near the road to Rickstead. The origin of this pond or lakelet had caused discussion among local antiquaries; for tradition said that it occupied the site of a meadow which many years ago mysteriously sank, owing perhaps to the unsuspected existence of an ancient mine. It connected with a little tributary of the River Bale, and was believed to be very deep, especially at one point, where the tree-shadowed bank overhung the water at a height of some ten feet. The way thither was by a field-path, starting from the high road within sight of Pear-tree Cottage. At a rapid walk Quarrier soon reached his goal, and saw with satisfaction that men and boys were sweeping the snowy surface, whilst a few people had already begun to disport themselves where the black ice came to view. In the afternoon he would come with Lilian; for the present, a second purpose occupied his thoughts. Standing on the bank of Bale Water (thus was it named), he could see the topmost branches of that pear-tree which grew in the garden behind Mrs. Wade's cottage; two meadows lay between--a stretch of about a quarter of a mile. It was scarcely the hour for calling upon ladies, but he knew that Mrs. Wade sat among her books through the morning, and he wished especially to see her as soon as possible.
Polterham clocks were counting eleven as he presented himself at the door of the cottage. Once already he had paid a call here, not many days after his meeting with the widow in Mr. Hornibrook's library; he came at three in the afternoon, and sat talking till nearly six. Not a few Polterham matrons would have considered that proceeding highly improper, but such a thought never occurred to Denzil; and Mrs. Wade would have spoken her mind very distinctly to any one who wished to circumscribe female freedom in such respects. They had conversed on a great variety of subjects with unflagging animation. Since then he had not seen his acquaintance.
A young girl opened to him, and left him standing in the porch for a minute or two. She returned, and asked him to walk into the sitting-room, where Mrs. Wade was studying with her feet on the fender.
"Do I come unseasonably?" he asked, offering his hand.
"Not if you have anything interesting to say," was the curious reply.
The widow was not accounted for reception of visitors. She wore an old though quite presentable dress, with a light shawl about her shoulders, and had evidently postponed the arrangement of her hair until the time of going abroad. Yet her appearance could hardly be called disconcerting, for it had nothing of slovenliness. She looked a student, that was all. For some reason, however, she gave Quarrier a less cordial welcome than he had anticipated. Her eyes avoided his, she shook hands in a perfunctory way.
"It depends what you call interesting," was his rejoinder to the unconventional reply. "I got here yesterday, and brought a wife with me--there, at all events, is a statement of fact."
"You have done me the honour to hasten here with the announcement?"
"I came out to see if Bale Water was skateable, and I thought I might venture to make a friendly call whilst I was so near. But I'm afraid I disturb you?"
"Not a bit Pray sit down and talk. Of course I have heard of your marriage. Why didn't you let me know it was impending?"
"Because I told nobody. I chose to get married in my own way. You, Mrs. Wade, are not likely to find fault with me for that."
"Oh dear no!" she answered, with friendly indifference.
"I am told you see a good deal of the Liversedges?"
"Does my sister give any promise of reaching higher levels? Or is she a hopeless groveller?"
"Mrs. Liversedge is the kind of woman I can respect, independently of her views."
"I like to hear you say that, because I know you don't deal in complimentary phrases. The respect, I am sure, is reciprocated."
Mrs. Wade seemed to give slight attention; she was looking at a picture above the fireplace.
"You will count my wife among your friends, I hope?" he continued.
"I hope so. Do you think we shall understand each other?"
"If not, it won't be for lack of good will on her side. I mustn't begin to praise her, but I think you will find she has a very fair portion of brains."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Do you imply that you had fears?"
"Men are occasionally odd in their choice of wives."
"Yes," Denzil replied, with a laugh; "I have seen remarkable illustrations of it."
"I didn't feel sure that you regarded brains as an essential."
"Indeed! Then you were a long way from understanding me. How can you say that, after my lecture, and our talks?"
"Oh, theory doesn't go for much. May I call shortly?"
"If you will be so good."
"She's very young, I think?"
"Not much more than one-and-twenty. I have known her for about three years."
There was a short silence, then Mrs. Wade said with some abruptness:
"I think of leaving Polterham before long. It was Mr. and Mrs. Hornibrook who decided me to come here, and now that they are gone I feel as if I too had better stir. I want books that are out of my reach."
"That will be a loss to us, Mrs. Wade. Society in Polterham has its limitations"----
"I'm aware of it. But you, of course, will have a home in London as well?"
"Well, yes--if I get sent to Parliament."
"I suppose we shall meet there some day."
Her voice grew careless and dreamy. She folded her hands upon her lap, and assumed a look which seemed to Denzil a hint that he might now depart. He stood up.
"So you are going to skate?" murmured Mrs. Wade. "I won't keep you. Thank you very much for looking in."
Denzil tried once more to read her countenance, and went away with a puzzled feeling. He could not conjecture the meaning of her changed tone.
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