Mr. Pendyce's head, seen from behind at his library bureau, where it was his practice to spend most mornings from half-past nine to eleven or even twelve, was observed to be of a shape to throw no small light upon his class and character. Its contour was almost national. Bulging at the back, and sloping rapidly to a thin and wiry neck, narrow between the ears and across the brow, prominent in the jaw, the length of a line drawn from the back headland to the promontory at the chin would have been extreme. Upon the observer there was impressed the conviction that here was a skull denoting, by surplusage of length, great precision of character and disposition to action, and, by deficiency of breadth, a narrow tenacity which might at times amount to wrong-headedness. The thin cantankerous neck, on which little hairs grew low, and the intelligent ears, confirmed this impression; and when his face, with its clipped hair, dry rosiness, into which the east wind had driven a shade of yellow and the sun a shade of brown, and grey, rather discontented eyes, came into view, the observer had no longer any hesitation in saying that he was in the presence of an Englishman, a landed proprietor, and, but for Mr. Pendyce's rooted belief to the contrary, an individualist. His head, indeed, was like nothing so much as the Admiralty Pier at Dover--that strange long narrow thing, with a slight twist or bend at the end, which first disturbs the comfort of foreigners arriving on these shores, and strikes them with a sense of wonder and dismay.
He sat very motionless at his bureau, leaning a little over his papers like a man to whom things do not come too easily; and every now and then he stopped to refer to the calendar at his left hand, or to a paper in one of the many pigeonholes. Open, and almost out of reach, was a back volume of Punch, of which periodical, as a landed proprietor, he had an almost professional knowledge. In leisure moments it was one of his chief recreations to peruse lovingly those aged pictures, and at the image of John Bull he never failed to think: 'Fancy making an Englishman out a fat fellow like that!'
It was as though the artist had offered an insult to himself, passing him over as the type, and conferring that distinction on someone fast going out of fashion. The Rector, whenever he heard Mr. Pendyce say this, strenuously opposed him, for he was himself of a square, stout build, and getting stouter.
With all their aspirations to the character of typical Englishmen, Mr. Pendyce and Mr. Barter thought themselves far from the old beef and beer, port and pigskin types of the Georgian and early Victorian era. They were men of the world, abreast of the times, who by virtue of a public school and 'Varsity training had acquired a manner, a knowledge of men and affairs, a standard of thought on which it had really never been needful to improve. Both of them, but especially Mr. Pendyce, kept up with all that was going forward by visiting the Metropolis six or seven or even eight times a year. On these occasions they rarely took their wives, having almost always important business in hand--old College, Church, or Conservative dinners, cricket-matches, Church Congress, the Gaiety Theatre, and for Mr. Barter the Lyceum. Both, too, belonged to clubs--the Rector to a comfortable, old-fashioned place where he could get a rubber without gambling, and Mr. Pendyce to the Temple of things as they had been, as became a man who, having turned all social problems over in his mind, had decided that there was no real safety but in the past.
They always went up to London grumbling, but this was necessary, and indeed salutary, because of their wives; and they always came back grumbling, because of their livers, which a good country rest always fortunately reduced in time for the next visit. In this way they kept themselves free from the taint of provincialism.
In the silence of his master's study the spaniel John, whose head, too, was long and narrow, had placed it over his paw, as though suffering from that silence, and when his master cleared his throat he guttered his tail and turned up an eye with a little moon of white, without stirring his chin.
The clock ticked at the end of the long, narrow room; the sunlight through the long, narrow windows fell on the long, narrow backs of books in the glassed book-case that took up the whole of one wall; and this room, with its slightly leathery smell, seemed a fitting place for some long, narrow ideal to be worked out to its long and narrow ending.
But Mr. Pendyce would have scouted the notion of an ending to ideals having their basis in the hereditary principle.
"Let me do my duty and carry on the estate as my dear old father did, and hand it down to my son enlarged if possible," was sometimes his saying, very, very often his thought, not seldom his prayer. "I want to do no more than that."
The times were bad and dangerous. There was every chance of a Radical Government being returned, and the country going to the dogs. It was but natural and human that he should pray for the survival of the form of things which he believed in and knew, the form of things bequeathed to him, and embodied in the salutary words "Horace Pendyce." It was not his habit to welcome new ideas. A new idea invading the country of the Squire's mind was at once met with a rising of the whole population, and either prevented from landing, or if already on shore instantly taken prisoner. In course of time the unhappy creature, causing its squeaks and groans to penetrate the prison walls, would be released from sheer humaneness and love of a quiet life, and even allowed certain privileges, remaining, however, "that poor, queer devil of a foreigner." One day, in an inattentive moment, the natives would suffer it to marry, or find that in some disgraceful way it had caused the birth of children unrecognised by law; and their respect for the accomplished fact, for something that already lay in the past, would then prevent their trying to unmarry it, or restoring the children to an unborn state, and very gradually they would tolerate this intrusive brood. Such was the process of Mr. Pendyce's mind. Indeed, like the spaniel John, a dog of conservative instincts, at the approach of any strange thing he placed himself in the way, barking and showing his teeth; and sometimes truly he suffered at the thought that one day Horace Pendyce would no longer be there to bark. But not often, for he had not much imagination.
All the morning he had been working at that old vexed subject of Common Rights on Worsted Scotton, which his father had fenced in and taught him once for all to believe was part integral of Worsted Skeynes. The matter was almost beyond doubt, for the cottagers--in a poor way at the time of the fencing, owing to the price of bread--had looked on apathetically till the very last year required by law to give the old Squire squatter's rights, when all of a sudden that man, Peacock's father, had made a gap in the fence and driven in beasts, which had reopened the whole unfortunate question. This had been in '65, and ever since there had been continual friction bordering on a law suit. Mr. Pendyce never for a moment allowed it to escape his mind that the man Peacock was at the bottom of it all; for it was his way to discredit all principles as ground of action, and to refer everything to facts and persons; except, indeed, when he acted himself, when he would somewhat proudly admit that it was on principle. He never thought or spoke on an abstract question; partly because his father had avoided them before him, partly because he had been discouraged from doing so at school, but mainly because he temperamentally took no interest in such unpractical things.
It was, therefore, a source of wonder to him that tenants of his own should be ungrateful. He did his duty by them, as the Rector, in whose keeping were their souls, would have been the first to affirm; the books of his estate showed this, recording year by year an average gross profit of some sixteen hundred pounds, and (deducting raw material incidental to the upkeep of Worsted Skeynes) a net loss of three.
In less earthly matters, too, such as non-attendance at church, a predisposition to poaching, or any inclination to moral laxity, he could say with a clear conscience that the Rector was sure of his support. A striking instance had occurred within the last month, when, discovering that his under-keeper, an excellent man at his work, had got into a scrape with the postman's wife, he had given the young fellow notice, and cancelled the lease of his cottage.
He rose and went to the plan of the estate fastened to the wall, which he unrolled by pulling a green silk cord, and stood there scrutinising it carefully and placing his finger here and there. His spaniel rose too, and settled himself unobtrusively on his master's foot. Mr. Pendyce moved and trod on him. The spaniel yelped.
"D--n the dog! Oh, poor fellow, John!" said Mr. Pendyce. He went back to his seat, but since he had identified the wrong spot he was obliged in a minute to return again to the plan. The spaniel John, cherishing the hope that he had been justly treated, approached in a half circle, fluttering his tail; he had scarcely reached Mr. Pendyce's foot when the door was opened, and the first footman brought in a letter on a silver salver.
Mr. Pendyce took the note, read it, turned to his bureau, and said: "No answer."
He sat staring at this document in the silent room, and over his face in turn passed anger, alarm, distrust, bewilderment. He had not the power of making very clear his thought, except by speaking aloud, and he muttered to himself. The spaniel John, who still nurtured a belief that he had sinned, came and lay down very close against his leg.
Mr. Pendyce, never having reflected profoundly on the working morality of his times, had the less difficulty in accepting it. Of violating it he had practically no opportunity, and this rendered his position stronger. It was from habit and tradition rather than from principle and conviction that he was a man of good moral character.
And as he sat reading this note over and over, he suffered from a sense of nausea.
It was couched in these terms:
"You may or may not have heard that I have made your son, Mr. George Pendyce, correspondent in a divorce suit against my wife. Neither for your sake nor your son's, but for the sake of Mrs. Pendyce, who is the only woman in these parts that I respect, I will withdraw the suit if your son will give his word not to see my wife again.
"Please send me an early answer.
"Your obedient servant,
The acceptance of tradition (and to accept it was suitable to the Squire's temperament) is occasionally marred by the impingement of tradition on private life and comfort. It was legendary in his class that young men's peccadilloes must be accepted with a certain indulgence. They would, he said, be young men. They must, he would remark, sow their wild oats. Such was his theory. The only difficulty he now had was in applying it to his own particular case, a difficulty felt by others in times past, and to be felt again in times to come. But, since he was not a philosopher, he did not perceive the inconsistency between his theory and his dismay. He saw his universe reeling before that note, and he was not a man to suffer tamely; he felt that others ought to suffer too. It was monstrous that a fellow like this Bellew, a loose fish, a drunkard, a man who had nearly run over him, should have it in his power to trouble the serenity of Worsted Skeynes. It was like his impudence to bring such a charge against his son. It was like his d----d impudence! And going abruptly to the bell, he trod on his spaniel's ear.
"D---n the dog! Oh, poor fellow, John!" But the spaniel John, convinced at last that he had sinned, hid himself in a far corner whence he could see nothing, and pressed his chin closely to the ground.
"Ask your mistress to come here."
Standing by the hearth, waiting for his wife, the Squire displayed to greater advantage than ever the shape of his long and narrow head; his neck had grown conspicuously redder; his eyes, like those of an offended swan, stabbed, as it were, at everything they saw.
It was not seldom that Mrs. Pendyce was summoned to the study to hear him say: "I want to ask your advice. So-and-so has done such and such.... I have made up my mind."
She came, therefore, in a few minutes. In compliance with his "Look at that, Margery," she read the note, and gazed at him with distress in her eyes, and he looked back at her with wrath in his. For this was tragedy.
Not to everyone is it given to take a wide view of things--to look over the far, pale streams, the purple heather, and moonlit pools of the wild marches, where reeds stand black against the sundown, and from long distance comes the cry of a curlew--nor to everyone to gaze from steep cliffs over the wine-dark, shadowy sea--or from high mountainsides to see crowned chaos, smoking with mist, or gold-bright in the sun.
To most it is given to watch assiduously a row of houses, a back- yard, or, like Mrs. and Mr. Pendyce, the green fields, trim coverts, and Scotch garden of Worsted Skeynes. And on that horizon the citation of their eldest son to appear in the Divorce Court loomed like a cloud, heavy with destruction.
So far as such an event could be realised imagination at Worsted Skeynes was not too vivid--it spelled ruin to an harmonious edifice of ideas and prejudice and aspiration. It would be no use to say of that event, "What does it matter? Let people think what they like, talk as they like." At Worsted Skeynes (and Worsted Skeynes was every country house) there was but one set of people, one church, one pack of hounds, one everything. The importance of a clear escutcheon was too great. And they who had lived together for thirty-four years looked at each other with a new expression in their eyes; their feelings were for once the same. But since it is always the man who has the nicer sense of honour, their thoughts were not the same, for Mr. Pendyce was thinking: 'I won't believe it--disgracing us all!' and Mrs. Pendyce was thinking: 'My boy!'
It was she who spoke first.
The sound of her voice restored the Squire's fortitude.
"There you go, Margery! D'you mean to say you believe what this fellow says? He ought to be horsewhipped. He knows my opinion of him.
It's a piece of his confounded impudence! He nearly ran over me, and now----"
Mrs. Pendyce broke in:
"But, Horace, I'm afraid it's true! Ellen Maiden----"
"Ellen Maiden?" said Mr. Pendyce. "What business has she----" He was silent, staring gloomily at the plan of Worsted Skeynes, still unrolled, like an emblem of all there was at stake. "If George has really," he burst out, "he's a greater fool than I took him for! A fool? He's a knave!"
Again he was silent.
Mrs. Pendyce flushed at that word, and bit her lips.
"George could never be a knave!" she said.
Mr. Pendyce answered heavily:
"Disgracing his name!"
Mrs. Pendyce bit deeper into her lips.
"Whatever he has done," she said, "George is sure to have behaved like a gentleman!"
An angry smile twisted the Squire's mouth.
"Just like a woman!" he said.
But the smile died away, and on both their faces came a helpless look. Like people who have lived together without real sympathy-- though, indeed, they had long ceased to be conscious of that--now that something had occurred in which their interests were actually at one, they were filled with a sort of surprise. It was no good to differ. Differing, even silent differing, would not help their son.
"I shall write to George," said Mr. Pendyce at last. "I shall believe nothing till I've heard from him. He'll tell us the truth, I suppose."
There was a quaver in his voice.
Mrs. Pendyce answered quickly:
"Oh, Horace, be careful what you say! I'm sure he is suffering!"
Her gentle soul, disposed to pleasure, was suffering, too, and the tears stole up in her eyes. Mr. Pendyce's sight was too long to see them. The infirmity had been growing on him ever since his marriage.
"I shall say what I think right," he said. "I shall take time to consider what I shall say; I won't be hurried by this ruffian."
Mrs. Pendyce wiped her lips with her lace-edged handkerchief.
"I hope you will show me the letter," she said.
The Squire looked at her, and he realised that she was trembling and very white, and, though this irritated him, he answered almost kindly:
"It's not a matter for you, my dear."
Mrs. Pendyce took a step towards him; her gentle face expressed a strange determination.
"He is my son, Horace, as well as yours."
Mr. Pendyce turned round uneasily.
"It's no use your getting nervous, Margery. I shall do what's best. You women lose your heads. That d----d fellow's lying! If he isn't----"
At these words the spaniel John rose from his corner and advanced to the middle of the floor. He stood there curved in a half-circle, and looked darkly at his master.
"Confound it!" said Mr. Pendyce. "It's--it's damnable!"
And as if answering for all that depended on Worsted Skeynes, the spaniel John deeply wagged that which had been left him of his tail.
Mrs. Pendyce came nearer still.
"If George refuses to give you that promise, what will you do, Horace?"
Mr. Pendyce stared.
"Promise? What promise?"
Mrs. Pendyce thrust forward the note.
"This promise not to see her again."
Mr. Pendyce motioned it aside.
"I'll not be dictated to by that fellow Bellew," he said. Then, by an afterthought: "It won't do to give him a chance. George must promise me that in any case."
Mrs. Pendyce pressed her lips together.
"But do you think he will?"
"Think--think who will? Think he will what? Why can't you express yourself, Margery? If George has really got us into this mess he must get us out again."
Mrs. Pendyce flushed.
"He would never leave her in the lurch!"
The Squire said angrily:
"Lurch! Who said anything about lurch? He owes it to her. Not that she deserves any consideration, if she's been---- You don't mean to say you think he'll refuse? He'd never be such a donkey?"
Mrs. Pendyce raised her hands and made what for her was a passionate gesture.
"Oh, Horace!" she said, "you don't understand. He's in love with her!"
Mr. Pendyce's lower lip trembled, a sign with him of excitement or emotion. All the conservative strength of his nature, all the immense dumb force of belief in established things, all that stubborn hatred and dread of change, that incalculable power of imagining nothing, which, since the beginning of time, had made Horace Pendyce the arbiter of his land, rose up within his sorely tried soul.
"What on earth's that to do with it?" he cried in a rage. "You women! You've no sense of anything! Romantic, idiotic, immoral--I don't know what you're at. For God's sake don't go putting ideas into his head!"
At this outburst Mrs. Pendyce's face became rigid; only the flicker of her eyelids betrayed how her nerves were quivering. Suddenly she threw her hands up to her ears.
"Horace!" she cried, "do---- Oh, poor John!"
The Squire had stepped hastily and heavily on to his dog's paw. The creature gave a grievous howl. Mr. Pendyce went down on his knees and raised the limb.
"Damn the dog!" he stuttered. "Oh, poor fellow, John!"
And the two long and narrow heads for a moment were close together.
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