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There are few truer sayings than the one which cautions us that evil is wrought by want of thought as well as want of heart. When you are unlucky enough to get a combination of the two, the evil accomplished is liable to assume considerably increased proportions.
On the morning following Eliot's visit to the Cottage, want of thought, in addition to a very natural semi-maternal pride, led Maria Coombe into confiding jubilantly into the ear of Mrs. Thorowgood--laundress and purveyor of local gossip--the fact that her Miss Ann and "the Squire up to Heronsmere" were going to make a match of it. Mrs. Thorowgood, not to be outdone, responded to the effect that she had "suspicioned" all along that this was going to be the case, and that when she had heard in the village yesterday that Mr. Coventry had gone straight to the Cottage upon his return that afternoon to Silverquay--with Mr. Lovell away in Ferribridge, too, and all!--she felt sure of it. "So I'm not surprised at your news, Mrs. Coombe," she concluded triumphantly. "Not surprised at all."
Having thus successfully taken the wind out of Maria's sails, she proceeded on her way delivering the clean laundry at various houses in the district, and in the course of a few hours the news of Mr. Coventry's engagement to Miss Lovell was being glibly discussed in more than one servants' hall as an accomplished fact. By the afternoon, conveyed thither by the various butchers, bakers, and greengrocers who had acquired the news in the course of their morning rounds, the information had spread to the village.
Meanwhile, during the progress of Brett Forrester's visit to Heronsmere in search of the puppy his aunt so ardently desired, a prying servant had chanced to pause outside Eliot's study door, inspired by a fleeting inquisitiveness to learn with whom her master was closeted. A single sentence she overheard sufficed to convert that idle curiosity into a burning thirst for knowledge. So she remained at the key-hole listening post until it was satisfied, and later on, armed with a fine fat piece of gossip, the like of which did not often come her way, she sallied forth to spend her "afternoon out" in the village.
Thus it came about that the two streams of gossip--one emanating in all innocence from Maria Coombe, the other having its origin in the conversation overheard between Eliot and Brett--met and mingled together and were ultimately poured into the ears of Miss Caroline, busily engaged in parochial visitation. An evil fatality appointed that the first person she subsequently encountered should be Mrs. Carberry, the M.F.H.'s wife, with whom, in a flutter of shocked excitement, she promptly shared the dreadful story she had heard. This, of course, carried then gossip into another stratum of society altogether.
"I can hardly believe it's true! I'm surprised!" twittered Miss Caroline. "Although, of course, Miss Lovell is certainly rather unconventional, I've always looked upon her as quite nice. But to spend a night--like that--at a hotel--" Words failed her, and she had to rely upon an unusual pinkness of her complexion to convey adequately to Mrs. Carberry the scandalised depth of her feelings.
"Perhaps I'm not so surprised as you are," returned the M.F.H.'s wife. "I never cared for the girl. After all, she was merely a companion-help."
"Companion-chauffeuse," corrected Miss Caroline diffidently.
"Companion-help," repeated Mrs. Carberry, unmoved. "And no one would have taken her up at all if Lady Susan hadn't made such a silly fuss of her. It's absurd, when her brother's nothing more than Mr. Coventry's estate agent. I always think it's a great mistake to take people like that out of their position. One generally regrets it afterwards."
"Still, I believe the Lovells were quite a good family--West Country people--lost money, you know." Miss Caroline's conscience drove her into making this admission. Also, she wanted very much to know how Mrs. Carberry would meet it. Mrs. Carberry took it in her stride.
"That's just it. They've lost money--mixed with the wrong sort of people. Losing money so often involves losing caste, too. If this story proves to be true, I shall be very glad indeed that I never allowed my daughter Muriel to make friends of these Lovells. We shall soon know," she added, a note of hungry anticipation in her voice. "The part about the engagement is true, without doubt, since it came direct from the Oldstone Cottage cook. Besides, one could see that this Lovell girl was angling to catch Mr. Coventry. If the engagement is broken off, we may feel pretty sure, I think, that the rest of the story's true, too."
Privately, she hoped it would prove true, since a man is very often caught at the rebound, and, judiciously managed, it seemed quite possible that Coventry, shocked and disgusted at Ann Lovell's flightiness of character, might turn with relief and admiration to so modest and well-brought-up a girl as her own daughter. To see dear Muriel installed as mistress of Heronsmere had been her ambition from the first moment of its new owner's coming to live at Silverquay, and when Miss Caroline had volunteered the news of Ann's supposed engagement to him, it had come as a rude shock to her plans. But this had been so swiftly followed by the story of Ann's scandalous behaviour in Switzerland that she had speedily reacted from the shock, and was already briskly weaving fresh schemes to bring about the desirable consummation of a marriage between her daughter and Eliot Coventry. Decidedly, Mrs. Carberry was not likely to help stem the tide of gossip setting against Ann!
The day following, the news that Eliot had left England for an indefinite stay abroad flew like wildfire through the neighbourhood, and, in consequence, substance was immediately given to the stories already circulating. There could be no longer any further doubt as to what had happened--Coventry had asked Miss Lovell to marry him, and then, discovering how she had forfeited her reputation somewhere on the Continent, had broken off the engagement between them the very next day.
Silverquay fairly buzzed with the tale. Everybody jumped to the same conclusion and told each other so with varying degrees of censure and disapprobation. Miss Caroline, eager as a ferret, even paid a special visit to Oldstone Cottage, to obtain confirmation of the dreadful truth. Having previously assured herself that Robin and Ann were both out, she darted into the Cottage on the plea of delivering the monthly parish magazine and, naturally, lingered on the doorstep to chat a little with Maria.
"Surely there's no truth in this story I hear, Maria?" she opened fire after a few minutes devoted to generalities.
"What story may you be meaning, ma'am?" inquired Maria blandly. She had heard the tale, of course, from half a dozen different sources, and was inwardly fuming with loyal wrath and indignation--the more so in that she dared not mention the matter to her young mistress whose still, pale composure had seemed to fence her round with a barrier which it was beyond Maria's powers to surmount.
"Why--why--" Miss Caroline fluttered. "The story that she stayed the night at a hotel in the mountains with young Mr. Brabazon when she was on the Continent."
"And did you suppose 'twas true?" demanded Maria scornfully, her arms akimbo, her blue eyes gimleting Miss Caroline's face.
"I--I don't know what to think," began Miss Caroline feebly.
Maria looked her up and down--a look beneath which Miss Caroline wilted visibly.
"Well, 'tis certain sure no one would pass the night with you, miss, on any mountain top," she observed grimly. "And 'tis just as sure they wouldn't with Miss Ann--though there'd be a main diff'rence in the reason why!" And with a snort of defiance she had flounced back into the house, slamming the door in Miss Caroline's astonished face.
To Ann herself, the sudden cloud of obloquy in which she found herself enveloped heaped an added weight to the burden she already had to bear, and compelled her to take Robin fully into her confidence. It was a mystery to her how the story of the Dents de Loup episode had leaked out in the neighbourhood. She utterly declined to believe that Coventry himself would have shared his knowledge of the incident with any one. But that it had leaked out was cruelly self-evident, and the worst part of it was that the malicious gossip was founded on so much actual fact that it was difficult--almost impossible, in fact--to combat or refute it. She felt helpless in the face of the detestable scandal which had reared itself upon a foundation of such innocent truth.
"I wish Coventry had accepted my resignation," fulminated Robin fiercely. "This is a perfectly beastly business. That vile scandal's all over the place."
"I know," assented Ann indifferently. It hurt her that certain people should think ill of her as they did, but after all, the ache in her heart hurt much more. A man stretched on the rack would probably take little notice if you ran a pin into him. The lesser pain would be overwhelmed by the great agony. And although the first realisation of the gossip that had fastened on her name filled Ann with bitter indignation and disgust, it became a relatively small matter in comparison with the total shipwreck of her love and happiness. It did not really matter very much that Mrs. Carberry had cut her pointedly in the middle of Silverquay, or that some of the village girls whispered and pointed at her surreptitiously as she passed. These were all external things, which could be fought down. But the wound that Eliot himself had dealt her had pierced to the very core of her being.
"Well," Robin resumed thoughtfully after a brief silence. "I've got to stay here till the six months are run out. But you needn't, Ann. You had better look for a post of some kind till I'm free--"
"A post!" She laughed rather bitterly. "I've a good recommendation for any post, haven't I? A story like this would be sure to follow me up somehow, and I should probably be politely requested by my employer to leave.'
"Then go away for a bit. I'll find the money somehow. I won't have you baited by all the old tabby-cats in the neighbourhood."
Ann stood up, her head thrown back proudly on its slim young throat.
"No," she said with decision. "No, Robin. I'm not going to run away from village gossip. I'm going to face it out."
Robin sprang up.
"Well done, little sister!" he exclaimed, a ring of wholehearted admiration in his voice. "We'll stick it out together--stay here and live it down." He held out his hand and, Ann laying hers within it, they shook hands soberly, just as in earlier days they had so often shaken hands over some childish pact.
The loyalty of Ann's friends, of Lady Susan and of Cara and the rector, was a very real consolation. Lady Susan had descended on the Cottage the moment the story came to her ears--which happened to be on the very day following Coventry's departure from Silverquay. Brett, she vouchsafed, had run up to town unexpectedly for a few days. "And he's just as well out of the way," she added briskly, "till we've got this tangle straight"--little dreaming that her nephew was responsible for the whole knotting of the tangled skein. By kindly probing she elicited the real, grim tragedy which lay behind all the gossip, and her anger against Eliot knew no bounds. But once she had given characteristic expression to her opinion of men in general, and of Eliot in particular, she promptly set to work to try and mend matters.
"I can explain to Eliot how you came to be at the Hotel de Loup that night," she asserted. "He won't presume to doubt me!"
"No. But he has presumed to doubt me," replied Ann bitterly. "So it wouldn't help in the least if you explained all day."
"How do you mean--wouldn't help?"
"Because what matters is whether Eliot himself trusts me--not whether he has everything explained to him," said Ann. "He must trust me because I'm trustworthy--not because you guarantee me."
"My dear--that's the ideal attitude. But"--Lady Susan sighed and smiled in the same breath--"we've got to make allowances for poor human nature. We're all so very far from being ideal in this sinful old world. Be sensible, Ann darling," she coaxed, "and let me assure Eliot you were up at the Hotel de Loup alone."
Ann shook her head.
"You can't, dear Lady Susan. Because--I wasn't alone. Tony and I were there together."
Lady Susan turned on her a face of blank astonishment.
"You weren't alone?" she exclaimed. "But--I don't understand. Philip told me that Tony ran over to Geneva that day and stayed the night there!"
"Did he?" Ann's heart grew very soft at the thought of Tony's boyishly crude effort to protect her from the possible consequence of their night's sojourn at the hotel. "I'm afraid Tony let him think that on my account--in order to shield me.... I should have told you all about it at the time," she went on, "only--don't you remember--you had sprained your ankle, and you were in so much, pain that I just didn't want to bother you with the matter."
Lady Susan looked distressed.
"But, my dear, what possessed you to stay the night up there--with Tony? You must have known people would talk if it ever became known."
"Well, it was just a sheer bit of bad luck," explained Ann, and forthwith proceeded to recount the whole adventure which had befallen her and Tony at the Dents de Loup. "We had to stay there," she wound up. "We'd absolutely no choice. But we met no one. Not a soul. And I can't conceive how the story has got out."
"And now there's all this wretched tittle-tattle about you!" chafed Lady Susan. "My poor little Ann, it really is a stroke of the most fiendish ill-luck."
"Yes. Don't you see how impossible it is for me to clear myself? We were there. It's true."
"I do see," replied Lady Susan in a worried tone. "It's just the kind of coil that's hardest of all to straighten out. A lot of untrue gossip founded upon actual fact--and there's nothing more difficult to combat than a half-truth."
"Oh, well"--Ann jumped up restlessly out of her chair. "It's smashed up everything for me. And when you've crashed I don't suppose a little ill-natured gossip more or less matters very much. Did you know Mrs. Carberry cut me this morning in the village high-street?" she added with a smile.
"Did she indeed?" said Lady Susan, a grim note in her usually pleasant voice. "Of course, the whole business is nuts to her--she's aching to plant that prunes-and-prisms daughter of hers on Eliot Coventry. Well, I think I carry weight enough in the neighbourhood to put a stop to that kind of insolence." She paused reflectively. "I shall open my campaign with a big dinner-party--and you and Robin will come to it. I'll shoot off the invitations to-morrow. Don't worry, Ann. If, between us, your friends can't manage to scotch this kind of dead-set some people are making at you, my name's not Susan Hallett." She rose and slipped her arm round Ann's shoulders in a gesture of unwonted tenderness. "And for the rest, my dear--try and believe things will come straight in the end. You're in the long lane, now--but you'll find the turning some day, I feel sure."
The following morning Brian Tempest arrived at the Cottage. Ann greeted him with a smile, half sad, half bitter.
"Have you come to call down fulminations of wrath on my devoted head?" she asked.
The rector's kind eyes were puckered round with little creases of distress.
"Did you think that?" he asked.
She smiled--and there was less of bitterness in the smile this time.
"No," she answered frankly. "I didn't. I thought you'd come to pay a kindly visit to the outcast."
"I came," he said simply, "to tell you--if you need telling--that I don't believe one word of this ridiculous story which is flying round, and that I'm going to fight it with every bit of influence I can bring to bear."
"You dear!" replied Ann softly. A wan gleam of amusement flitted across her face. "But it's true, you know--Tony and I did stay at the Hotel de Loup together."
No remotest glimmer of doubt, or even of astonishment, showed itself in the steady glance of Tempest's "heather mixture" eyes.
"Did you?" he returned placidly. "Well, I suppose neither of you has the sole monopoly of any hotel in Europe."
"Then you're not shocked?"
"Not in the least. I conjecture that some accidental happening drove you both into an awkward predicament. Feel like telling me about it all?"--with a friendly smile.
Ann felt exactly like it. There was something in Brian Tempest--in his absolute sincerity and his broad, tolerant, humorous outlook on things--which attracted confidence as a magnet attracts steel, and before long he was in possession of the skeleton facts of the story, and had himself, out of his own gifts of observation and sympathetic intuition, clothed those bare bones with tissue.
"And what do you propose to do?" he asked, when Ann ceased speaking.
"Stick it out," she returned briefly.
Tempest watched the brave fire gather and glow in the golden-brown eyes. He nodded contentedly.
"I was sure you would," he said. "And don't worry overmuch. Think that it will come right. Even"--with a kindly significance--"the part that hurts you most--and I know that's not the general gossip. Don't let your thoughts waver. There's no limit to the force of thought, you know."
"You believe that, too, then?" said Ann quickly.
"I'm sure of it," he answered quietly. "Thought is the one great miracle-worker. Why"--with a laugh--"if you want immediate proof, it was a bad thought, some one thinking wrongly, that started all this present trouble. So that the right thought--the thought that it will all work out straight, held by you and by all of us who are your friends--is the obvious antidote. God never made a law that only works one-sidedly. If thought forces can work evil, they can assuredly work infinite good."
"You're an excellent 'cheerer-up,'" said Ann, later on, when he was going. "You have cheered me, you know," she added gratefully.
"Have I? I'm glad. And now, I want you to cheer me."
"You?" Her voice held surprise.
"Yes, me." He hesitated a moment. "Ann, I'm going to throw myself on your mercy. I know--to my deep shame I know that my sister has been one of the people who have helped to circulate this unfounded story about you. I want you, if you can, to try and forgive her--and me."
"There's nothing to forgive you for," protested Ann.
"She's my sister. Part of her burden must be mine. Nor have I any excuse to offer for her. Some people look through a window and see God's sunshine, while others see only the spots on the window-pane. We are as we're made, they say--but some of us have got a deal of re-making to do before we're perfected."
"Don't worry." Unconsciously Ann sought to comfort him in the same familiar, everyday language which he himself had used to her. "Don't worry one bit. I've no feeling of ill-will towards Miss Caroline. It's just her way--one can't help one's way of looking at things, you know"--quaintly. "And I'm quite, quite sure she never meant any harm."
"So that's the way you look at things?" He smiled down at her, his eyes very luminous and tender. "Thank you, Ann, for the way you look at things--the plucky, generous, splendid way."
And when he had gone Ann was conscious of a warm glow round about her heart--that gladdening glow of comfort and thanksgiving which the spontaneous, ardent loyalty of real friends can bring even to the heaviest heart.
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