To understand and sympathise with the feelings and action of the Rector of Worsted Skeynes, one must consider his origin and the circumstances of his life.
The second son of an old Suffolk family, he had followed the routine of his house, and having passed at Oxford through certain examinations, had been certificated at the age of twenty-four as a man fitted to impart to persons of both sexes rules of life and conduct after which they had been groping for twice or thrice that number of years. His character, never at any time undecided, was by this fortunate circumstance crystallised and rendered immune from the necessity for self-search and spiritual struggle incidental to his neighbours. Since he was a man neither below nor above the average, it did not occur to him to criticise or place himself in opposition to a system which had gone on so long and was about to do him so much good. Like all average men, he was a believer in authority, and none the less because authority placed a large portion of itself in his hands. It would, indeed, have been unwarrantable to expect a man of his birth, breeding, and education to question the machine of which he was himself a wheel.
He had dropped, therefore, at the age of twenty-six, insensibly, on the death of an uncle, into the family living at Worsted Skeynes. He had been there ever since. It was a constant and natural grief to him that on his death the living would go neither to his eldest nor his second son, but to the second son of his elder brother, the Squire. At the age of twenty-seven he had married Miss Rose Twining, the fifth daughter of a Huntingdonshire parson, and in less than eighteen years begotten ten children, and was expecting the eleventh, all healthy and hearty like him self. A family group hung over the fireplace in the study, under the framed and illuminated text, "Judge not, that ye be not judged," which he had chosen as his motto in the first year of his cure, and never seen any reason to change. In that family group Mr. Barter sat in the centre with his dog between his legs; his wife stood behind him, and on both sides the children spread out like the wings of a fan or butterfly. The bills of their schooling were beginning to weigh rather heavily, and he complained a good deal; but in principle he still approved of the habit into which he had got, and his wife never complained of anything.
The study was furnished with studious simplicity; many a boy had been, not unkindly, caned there, and in one place the old Turkey carpet was rotted away, but whether by their tears or by their knees, not even Mr. Barter knew. In a cabinet on one side of the fire he kept all his religious books, many of them well worn; in a cabinet on the other side he kept his bats, to which he was constantly attending; a fshingrod and a gun-case stood modestly in a corner. The archway between the drawers of his writing-table held a mat for his bulldog, a prize animal, wont to lie there and guard his master's legs when he was writing his sermons. Like those of his dog, the Rector's good points were the old English virtues of obstinacy, courage, intolerance, and humour; his bad points, owing to the circumstances of his life, had never been brought to his notice.
When, therefore, he found himself alone with Gregory Vigil, he approached him as one dog will approach another, and came at once to the matter in hand.
"It's some time since I had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Vigil," he said. "Mrs. Pendyce has been giving me in confidence the news you've brought down. I'm bound to tell you at once that I'm surprised."
Gregory made a little movement of recoil, as though his delicacy had received a shock.
"Indeed!" he said, with a sort of quivering coldness.
The Rector, quick to note opposition, repeated emphatically:
"More than surprised; in fact, I think there must be some mistake."
"Indeed?" said Gregory again.
A change came over Mr. Barter's face. It had been grave, but was now heavy and threatening.
"I have to say to you," he said, "that somehow--somehow, this divorce must be put a stop to."
Gregory flushed painfully.
"On what grounds? I am not aware that my ward is a parishioner of yours, Mr. Barter, or that if she were----"
The Rector closed in on him, his head thrust forward, his lower lip projecting.
"If she were doing her duty," he said, "she would be. I'm not considering her--I'm considering her husband; he is a parishioner of mine, and I say this divorce must be stopped."
Gregory retreated no longer.
"On what grounds?" he said again, trembling all over.
"I've no wish to enter into particulars," said Mr. Barter, "but if you force me to, I shall not hesitate."
"I regret that I must," answered Gregory.
"Without mentioning names, then, I say that she is not a fit person to bring a suit for divorce!"
"You say that?" said Gregory. "You----"
He could not go on.
"You will not move me, Mr. Vigil," said the Rector, with a grim little smile. "I have my duty to do."
Gregory recovered possession of himself with an effort.
"You have said that which no one but a clergyman could say with impunity," he said freezingly. "Be so good as to explain yourself."
"My explanation," said Mr. Barter, "is what I have seen with my own eyes."
He raised those eyes to Gregory. Their pupils were contracted to pin-points, the light-grey irises around had a sort of swimming glitter, and round these again the whites were injected with blood.
"If you must know, with my own eyes I've seen her in that very conservatory over there kissing a man."
Gregory threw up his hand.
"How dare you!" he whispered.
Again Mr. Barter's humorous under-lip shot out.
"I dare a good deal more than that, Mr. Vigil," he said, "as you will find; and I say this to you--stop this divorce, or I'll stop it myself!"
Gregory turned to the window. When he came back he was outwardly calm.
"You have been guilty of indelicacy," he said. "Continue in your delusion, think what you like, do what you like. The matter will go on. Good-evening, sir."
And turning on his heel, he left the room.
Mr. Barter stepped forward. The words, "You have been guilty of indelicacy," whirled round his brain till every blood vessel in his face and neck was swollen to bursting, and with a hoarse sound like that of an animal in pain he pursued Gregory to the door. It was shut in his face. And since on taking Orders he had abandoned for ever the use of bad language, he was very near an apoplectic fit. Suddenly he became aware that Mrs. Pendyce was looking at him from the conservatory door. Her face was painfully white, her eyebrows lifted, and before that look Mr. Barter recovered a measure of self- possession.
"Is anything the matter, Mr. Barter?"
The Rector smiled grimly.
"Nothing, nothing," he said. "I must ask you to excuse me, that's all. I've a parish matter to attend to."
When he found himself in the drive, the feeling of vertigo and suffocation passed, but left him unrelieved. He had, in fact, happened on one of those psychological moments which enable a man's true nature to show itself. Accustomed to say of himself bluffly, "Yes, yes; I've a hot temper, soon over," he had never, owing to the autocracy of his position, had a chance of knowing the tenacity of his soul. So accustomed and so able for many years to vent displeasure at once, he did not himself know the wealth of his old English spirit, did not know of what an ugly grip he was capable. He did not even know it at this minute, conscious only of a sort of black wonder at this monstrous conduct to a man in his position, doing his simple duty. The more he reflected, the more intolerable did it seem that a woman like this Mrs. Bellew should have the impudence to invoke the law of the land in her favour a woman who was no better than a common baggage--a woman he had seen kissing George Pendyce. To have suggested to Mr. Barter that there was something pathetic in this black wonder of his, pathetic in the spectacle of his little soul delivering its little judgments, stumbling its little way along with such blind certainty under the huge heavens, amongst millions of organisms as important as itself, would have astounded him; and with every step he took the blacker became his wonder, the more fixed his determination to permit no such abuse of morality, no such disregard of Hussell Barter.
"You have been guilty of indelicacy!" This indictment had a wriggling sting, and lost no venom from the fact that he could in no wise have perceived where the indelicacy of his conduct lay. But he did not try to perceive it. Against himself, clergyman and gentleman, the monstrosity of the charge was clear. This was a point of morality. He felt no anger against George; it was the woman that excited his just wrath. For so long he had been absolute among women, with the power, as it were, over them of life and death. This was flat immorality! He had never approved of her leaving her husband; he had never approved of her at all! He turned his steps towards the Firs.
From above the hedges the sleepy cows looked down; a yaffle laughed a field or two away; in the sycamores, which had come out before their time, the bees hummed. Under the smile of the spring the innumerable life of the fields went carelessly on around that square black figure ploughing along the lane with head bent down under a wide-brimmed hat.
George Pendyce, in a fly drawn by an old grey horse, the only vehicle that frequented the station at Worsted Skeynes, passed him in the lane, and leaned back to avoid observation. He had not forgotten the tone of the Rector's voice in the smoking-room on the night of the dance. George was a man who could remember as well as another. In the corner of the old fly, that rattled and smelled of stables and stale tobacco, he fixed his moody eyes on the driver's back and the ears of the old grey horse, and never stirred till they set him down at the hall door.
He went at once to his room, sending word that he had come for the night. His mother heard the news with feelings of joy and dread, and she dressed quickly for dinner, that she might see him the sooner. The Squire came into her room just as she was going down. He had been engaged all day at Sessions, and was in one of the moods of apprehension as to the future which but seldom came over him.
"Why didn't you keep Vigil to dinner?" he said. "I could have given him things for the night. I wanted to talk to him about insuring my life; he knows, about that. There'll be a lot of money wanted, to pay my death-duties. And if the Radicals get in I shouldn't be surprised if they put them up fifty per cent."
"I wanted to keep him," said Mrs. Pendyce, "but he went away without saying good-bye."
"He's an odd fellow!"
For some moments Mr. Pendyce made reflections on this breach of manners. He had a nice standard of conduct in all social affairs.
"I'm having trouble with that man Peacock again. He's the most pig- headed---- What are you in such a hurry for, Margery?"
"George is here!"
"George? Well, I suppose he can wait till dinner. I have a lot of things I want to tell you about. We had a case of arson to-day. Old Quarryman was away, and I was in the chair. It was that fellow Woodford that we convicted for poaching--a very gross case. And this is what he does when he comes out. They tried to prove insanity. It's the rankest case of revenge that ever came before me. We committed him, of course. He'll get a swinging sentence. Of all dreadful crimes, arson is the most----"
Mr. Pendyce could find no word to characterise his opinion of this offence, and drawing his breath between his teeth, passed into his dressing-room. Mrs. Pendyce hastened quietly out, and went to her son's room. She found George in his shirtsleeves, inserting the links of his cuffs.
"Let me do that for you, my dear boy! How dreadfully they starch your cuffs! It is so nice to do something for you sometimes!"
George answered her:
"Well, Mother, and how have you been?"
Over Mrs. Pendyce's face came a look half sorrowful, half arch, but wholly pathetic. 'What! is it beginning already? Oh, don't put me away from you!' she seemed to say.
"Very well, thank you, dear. And you?"
George did not meet her eyes.
"So-so," he said. "I took rather a nasty knock over the 'City' last week."
"Is that a race?" asked Mrs. Pendyce.
And by some secret process she knew that he had hurried out that piece of bad news to divert her attention from another subject, for George had never been a "crybaby."
She sat down on the edge of the sofa, and though the gong was about to sound, incited him to dawdle and stay with her.
"And have you any other news, dear? It seems such an age since we've seen you. I think I've told you all our budget in my letters. You know there's going to be another event at the Rectory?"
"Another? I passed Barter on the way up. I thought he looked a bit blue."
A look of pain shot into Mrs. Pendyce's eyes.
"Oh, I'm afraid that couldn't have been the reason, dear." And she stopped, but to still her own fears hurried on again. "If I'd known you'd been coming, I'd have kept Cecil Tharp. Vic has had such dear little puppies. Would you like one? They've all got that nice black smudge round the eye."
She was watching him as only a mother can watch-stealthily, minutely, longingly, every little movement, every little change of his face, and more than all, that fixed something behind which showed the abiding temper and condition of his heart.
'Something is making him unhappy,' she thought. 'He is changed since I saw him last, and I can't get at it. I seem to be so far from him --so far!'
And somehow she knew he had come down this evening because he was lonely and unhappy, and instinct had made him turn to her.
But she knew that trying to get nearer would only make him put her farther off, and she could not bear this, so she asked him nothing, and bent all her strength on hiding from him the pain she felt.
She went downstairs with her arm in his, and leaned very heavily on it, as though again trying to get close to him, and forget the feeling she had had all that winter--the feeling of being barred away, the feeling of secrecy and restraint.
Mr. Pendyce and the two girls were in the drawing-room.
"Well, George," said the Squire dryly, "I'm glad you've come. How you can stick in London at this time of year! Now you're down you'd better stay a couple of days. I want to take you round the estate; you know nothing about anything. I might die at any moment, for all you can tell. Just make up your mind to stay."
George gave him a moody look.
"Sorry," he said; "I've got an engagement in town."
Mr. Pendyce rose and stood with his back to the fire.
"That's it," he said: "I ask you to do a simple thing for your own good--and--you've got an engagement. It's always like that, and your mother backs you up. Bee, go and play me something."
The Squire could not bear being played to, but it was the only command likely to be obeyed that came into his head.
The absence of guests made little difference to a ceremony esteemed at Worsted Skeynes the crowning blessing of the day. The courses, however, were limited to seven, and champagne was not drunk. The Squire drank a glass or so of claret, for, as he said, "My dear old father took his bottle of port every night of his life, and it never gave him a twinge. If I were to go on at that rate it would kill me in a year."
His daughters drank water. Mrs. Pendyce, cherishing a secret preference for champagne, drank sparingly of a Spanish burgundy, procured for her by Mr. Pendyce at a very reasonable price, and corked between meals with a special cork. She offered it to George.
"Try some of my burgundy, dear; it's so nice.
But George refused and asked for whisky-and-soda, glancing at the butler, who brought it in a very yellow state.
Under the influence of dinner the Squire recovered equanimity, though he still dwelt somewhat sadly on the future.
"You young fellows," he said, with a friendly look at George, "are such individualists. You make a business of enjoying yourselves. With your piquet and your racing and your billiards and what not, you'll be used up before you're fifty. You don't let your imaginations work. A green old age ought to be your ideal, instead of which it seems to be a green youth. Ha!" Mr. Pendyce looked at his daughters till they said:
"Oh, Father, how can you!"
Norah, who had the more character of the two, added:
"Isn't Father rather dreadful, Mother?"
But Mrs. Pendyce was looking at her son. She had longed so many evenings to see him sitting there.
"We'll have a game of piquet to-night, George."
George looked up and nodded with a glum smile.
On the thick, soft carpet round the table the butler and second footman moved. The light of the wax candles fell lustrous and subdued on the silver and fruit and flowers, on the girls' white necks, on George's well-coloured face and glossy shirt-front, gleamed in the jewels on his mother's long white fingers, showed off the Squire's erect and still spruce figure; the air was languorously sweet with the perfume of azaleas and narcissus bloom. Bee, with soft eyes, was thinking of young Tharp, who to-day had told her that he loved her, and wondering if father would object. Her mother was thinking of George, stealing timid glances at his moody face. There was no sound save the tinkle of forks and the voices of Norah and the Squire, talking of little things. Outside, through the long opened windows, was the still, wide country; the full moon, tinted apricot and figured like a coin, hung above the cedar-trees, and by her light the whispering stretches of the silent fields lay half enchanted, half asleep, and all beyond that little ring of moonshine, unfathomed and unknown, was darkness--a great darkness wrapping from their eyes the restless world.
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