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Not till luncheon was nearly finished did Mary brace herself for the further ordeal, and in a steady, unmoved voice tell Colonel and Mrs. Clibborn what had happened. The faded beauty merely smiled, and lifted her eyes to the chandelier with the expression that had melted the hearts of a thousand and one impressionable subalterns.
"I knew it," she murmured; "I knew it! You can't deceive a woman and a mother."
But the Colonel for a moment was speechless. His face grew red, and his dyed eyebrows stood up in a fury of indignation.
"Impossible!" he spluttered at last.
"You'd better drink a little water, Reggie dear," said his wife. "You look as if you were going to have a fit."
"I won't have it," he shouted, bringing his fist down on the table so that the cheese-plates clattered and the biscuits danced a rapid jig. "I'll make him marry you. He forgets he has me to deal with! I disapproved of the match from the beginning, didn't I, Clara? I said I would never allow my daughter to marry beneath her."
"Don't talk to me, Mary! Do you mean to deny that James Parsons is infantry, or that his father was infantry before him? But he shall marry you now. By George! he shall marry you if I have to lead him to the altar by the scruff of his neck!"
Neglecting his cheese, the Colonel sprang to his feet and walked to and fro, vehemently giving his opinion of James, his father, and all his ancestors; of the regiments to which they had belonged, and all else that was theirs. He traced their origin from a pork butcher's shop, and prophesied their end, ignominiously, in hell. Every now and then he assured Mary that she need have no fear; the rascal should marry her, or die a violent death.
"But there's nothing more to be said now, papa. We've agreed quite amicably to separate. All I want you to do is to treat him as if nothing had happened."
"I'll horsewhip him," said Colonel Clibborn. "He's insulted you, and I'll make him beg your pardon on his bended knees. Clara, where's my horsewhip?"
"Papa, do be reasonable!"
"I am reasonable, Mary," roared the gallant soldier, becoming a rich purple. "I know my duty, thank God! and I'm going to do it. When a man insults my daughter, it's my duty, as a gentleman and an officer, to give him a jolly good thrashing. When that twopenny sawbones of a doctor was rude to you, I licked him within an inch of his life. I kicked him till he begged for mercy; and if more men had the courage to take the law into their own hands, there'd be fewer damned blackguards in the world."
As a matter of fact, the Colonel had neither thrashed nor kicked the doctor, but it pleased him to think he had. Moralists teach us that the intention is praiseworthy, rather than the brutal act; consequently, there could be no objection if the fearless cavalryman took credit for things which he had thought of doing, but, from circumstances beyond his control, had not actually done.
Mary felt no great alarm at her father's horrid threats, for she knew him well, but still was doubtful about her mother.
"You will treat James as you did before, won't you, mamma?"
Mrs. Clibborn smiled, a portly seraph.
"My dear, I trust I am a gentlewoman."
"He shall never darken my doors again!" cried the Colonel. "I tell you, Clara, keep him out of my way. If I meet him I won't be responsible for my actions; I shall knock him down."
"Reggie dear, you'll have such dreadful indigestion if you don't calm down. You know it always upsets you to get excited immediately after meals."
"It's disgraceful! I suppose he forgets all those half-crowns I gave him when he was a boy, and the cigars, and the port wine he's had since. I opened a special bottle for him only the night before last. I'll never sit down to dinner with him again--don't ask me to, Clara.... It's the confounded impertinence of it which gets over me. But he shall marry you, my dear; or I'll know the reason why."
"You can't have him up for breach of promise, Reggie," cooed Mrs. Clibborn.
"A gentleman takes the law in his own hands in these matters. Ah, it's a pity the good old days have gone when they settled such things with cold steel!"
And the Colonel, to emphasise his words, flung himself into the appropriate attitude, throwing his left hand up behind his head, and lunging fiercely with the right.
"Go and look for my pince-nez, my dear," said Mrs. Clibborn, turning to Mary. "I think they're in my work-basket or in your father's study."
Mary was glad to leave the room, about which the Colonel stamped in an ever-increasing rage, pausing now and then to take a mouthful of bread and cheese. The request for the glasses was Mrs. Clibborn's usual way of getting rid of Mary, a typical subterfuge of a woman who never, except by chance, put anything straightforwardly.... When the door was closed, the buxom lady clasped her hands, and cried:
"Reginald! Reginald! I have a confession to make."
"What's the matter with you?" said the Colonel, stopping short.
"I am to blame for this, Reginald." Mrs. Clibborn threw her head on one side, and looked at the ceiling as the only substitute for heaven. "James Parsons has jilted Mary--on my account."
"What the devil have you been doing now?"
"Oh, forgive me, Reginald!" she cried, sliding off the chair and falling heavily on her knees. "It's not my fault: he loves me."
"Fiddlesticks!" said her husband angrily, walking on again.
"It isn't, Reginald. How unjust you are to me!"
The facile tears began to flow down Mrs. Clibborn's well-powdered cheeks.
"I know he loves me. You can't deceive a woman and a mother."
"You're double his age!"
"These boys always fall in love with women older than themselves; I've noticed it so often. And he's almost told me in so many words, though I'm sure I've given him no encouragement."
"You wouldn't believe me when I told you that poor Algy Turner loved me, and he killed himself."
"Nothing of the kind; he died of cholera."
"Reginald," retorted Mrs. Clibborn, with asperity, "his death was most mysterious. None of the doctors understood it. If he didn't poison himself, he died of a broken heart. And I think you're very unkind to me."
With some difficulty, being a heavy woman, she lifted herself from the floor; and by the time she was safely on her feet, Mrs. Clibborn was blowing and puffing like a grampus.
The Colonel, whose mind had wandered to other things, suddenly bethought himself that he had a duty to perform.
"Where's my horsewhip, Clara? I command you to give it me."
"Reginald, if you have the smallest remnant of affection for me, you will not hurt this unfortunate young man. Remember that Algy Turner killed himself. You can't blame him for not wanting to marry poor Mary. My dear, she has absolutely no figure. And men are so susceptible to those things."
The Colonel stalked out of the room, and Mrs. Clibborn sat down to meditate.
"I thought my day for such things was past," she murmured. "I knew it all along. The way he looked at me was enough--we women have such quick perceptions! Poor boy, how he must suffer!"
She promised herself that no harsh word of hers should drive James into the early grave where lay the love-lorn Algy Turner. And she sighed, thinking what a curse it was to possess that fatal gift of beauty!
* * * * * * *
When Little Primpton heard the news, Little Primpton was agitated. Certainly it was distressed, and even virtuously indignant, but at the same time completely unable to divest itself of that little flutter of excitement which was so rare, yet so enchanting, a variation from the monotony of its daily course. The well-informed walked with a lighter step, and held their heads more jauntily, for life had suddenly acquired a novel interest. With something new to talk about, something fresh to think over, with a legitimate object of sympathy and resentment, the torpid blood raced through their veins as might that of statesmen during some crisis in national affairs. Let us thank God, who has made our neighbours frail, and in His infinite mercy caused husband and wife to quarrel; Tom, Dick, and Harry to fall more or less discreditably in love; this dear friend of ours to lose his money, and that her reputation. In all humility, let us be grateful for the scandal which falls at our feet like ripe fruit, for the Divorce Court and for the newspapers that, with a witty semblance of horror, report for us the spicy details. If at certain intervals propriety obliges us to confess that we are miserable sinners, has not the Lord sought to comfort us in the recollection that we are not half so bad as most people?
Mr. Dryland went to the Vicarage to enter certificates in the parish books. The Vicar was in his study, and gave his curate the keys of the iron safe.
"Sophie Bunch came last night to put up her banns," he said.
"She's going to marry out of the parish, isn't she?"
"Yes, a Tunbridge Wells man."
The curate carefully blotted the entries he had made, and returned the heavy books to their place.
"Will you come into the dining-room, Dryland?" said the Vicar, with a certain solemnity. "Mrs Jackson would like to speak to you."
Mrs. Jackson was reading the Church Times. Her thin, sharp face wore an expression of strong disapproval; her tightly-closed mouth, her sharp nose, even the angular lines of her body, signified clearly that her moral sense was outraged. She put her hand quickly to her massive fringe to see that it was straight, and rose to shake hands with Mr. Dryland. His heavy red face assumed at once a grave look; his moral sense was outraged, too.
"Isn't this dreadful news, Mr. Dryland?"
"Oh, very sad! Very sad!"
In both their voices, hidden below an intense sobriety, there was discernible a slight ring of exultation.
"The moment I saw him I felt he would give trouble," said Mrs. Jackson, shaking her head. "I told you, Archibald, that I didn't like the look of him."
"I'm bound to say you did," admitted her lord and master.
"Mary Clibborn is much too good for him," added Mrs. Jackson, decisively. "She's a saint."
"The fact is, that he's suffering from a swollen head," remarked the curate, who used slang as a proof of manliness.
"There, Archibald!" cried the lady, triumphantly. "What did I tell you?"
"Mrs. Jackson thought he was conceited."
"I don't think it; I'm sure of it. He's odiously conceited. All the time I was talking to him I felt he considered himself superior to me. No nice-minded man would have refused our offer to say a short prayer on his behalf during morning service."
"Those army men always have a very good opinion of themselves," said Mr. Dryland, taking advantage of his seat opposite a looking-glass to arrange his hair.
He spoke in such a round, full voice that his shortest words carried a sort of polysyllabic weight.
"I can't see what he has done to be so proud of," said Mrs. Jackson. "Anyone would have done the same in his position. I'm sure it's no more heroic than what clergymen do every day of their lives, without making the least fuss about it."
"They say that true courage is always modest," answered Mr. Dryland.
The remark was not very apposite, but sounded damaging.
"I didn't like the way he had when he came to tea here--as if he were dreadfully bored. I'm sure he's not so clever as all that."
"No clever man would act in an ungentlemanly way," said the curate, and then smiled, for he thought he had unconsciously made an epigram.
"I couldn't express in words what I feel with regard to his treatment of Mary!" cried Mrs. Jackson; and then proceeded to do so--and in many, to boot.
They had all been a little oppressed by the greatness which, much against his will, they had thrust upon the unfortunate James. They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.
Little Primpton was conscious of its virtue, and did not hesitate to condemn.
"He has lowered himself dreadfully."
"Yes, it's very sad. It only shows how necessary it is to preserve a meek and contrite spirit in prosperity. Pride always goes before a fall."
The Jacksons and Mr. Dryland discussed the various accounts which had reached them. Mary and Mrs. Parsons were determinedly silent, but Mrs. Clibborn was loquacious, and it needed little artifice to extract the whole story from Colonel Parsons.
"One thing is unfortunately certain," said Mrs. Jackson, with a sort of pious vindictiveness, "Captain Parsons has behaved abominably, and it's our duty to do something."
"Colonel Clibborn threatens to horsewhip him."
"It would do him good," cried Mrs. Jackson; "and I should like to be there to see it!"
They paused a moment to gloat over the imaginary scene of Jamie's chastisement.
"He's a wicked man. Fancy throwing the poor girl over when she's waited five years. I think he ought to be made to marry her."
"I'm bound to say that no gentleman would have acted like that," said the Vicar.
"I wanted Archibald to go and speak seriously to Captain Parsons. He ought to know what we think of him, and it's obviously our duty to tell him."
"His parents are very much distressed. One can see that, although they say so little."
"It's not enough to be distressed. They ought to have the strength of mind to insist upon his marrying Mary Clibborn. But they stick up for everything he does. They think he's perfect. I'm sure it's not respectful to God to worship a human being as they do their son."
"They certainly have a very exaggerated opinion of him," assented Mr. Dryland.
"And I should like to know why. He's not good-looking."
"Very ordinary," agreed Mr. Dryland, with a rapid glance at the convenient mirror. "I don't think his appearance is manly."
Whatever the curate's defects of person--and he flattered himself that he was modest enough to know his bad points--no one, he fancied, could deny him manliness. It is possible that he was not deceived. Put him in a bowler-hat and a bell-bottomed coat, and few could have distinguished him from a cab-driver.
"I don't see anything particular in his eyes or hair," pursued Mrs. Jackson.
"His features are fairly regular. But that always strikes me as insipid in a man."
"And he's not a good conversationalist."
"I'm bound to confess I've never heard him say anything clever," remarked the Vicar.
"No," smiled the curate; "one could hardly call him a brilliant epigrammatist."
"I don't think he's well informed."
"Oh, well, you know, one doesn't expect knowledge from army men," said the curate, with a contemptuous smile and a shrug of the shoulders. "I must say I was rather amused when he confessed he hadn't read Marie Corelli."
"I can hardly believe that. I think it was only pose."
"I'm sorry to say that my experience of young officers is that there are absolutely no bounds to their ignorance."
They had satisfactorily stripped James of every quality, mental and physical, which could have made him attractive in Mary's eyes; and the curate's next remark was quite natural.
"I'm afraid it sounds a conceited thing to say, but I can't help asking myself what Miss Clibborn saw in him."
"Love is blind," replied Mrs. Jackson. "She could have done much better for herself."
They paused to consider the vagaries of the tender passion, and the matches which Mary might have made, had she been so inclined.
"Archibald," said Mrs. Jackson at last, with the decision characteristic of her, "I've made up my mind. As vicar of the parish, you must go to Captain Parsons."
"I, my dear?"
"Yes, Archibald. You must insist upon him fulfilling his engagement with Mary. Say that you are shocked and grieved; and ask him if his own conscience does not tell him that he has done wrong."
"I'm not sure that he'd listen to reason," nervously remarked the Vicar.
"It's your duty to try, Archibald. We're so afraid of being called busybodies that even when we ought to step in we hesitate. No motives of delicacy should stop one when a wicked action is to be prevented. It's often the clergy's duty to interfere with other people's affairs. For my part, I will never shrink from doing my duty. People may call me a busybody if they like; hard words break no bones."
"Captain Parsons is very reserved. He might think it an impertinence if I went to him."
"How could he? Isn't it our business if he breaks his word with a parishioner of ours? If you don't talk to him, I shall. So there, Archibald!"
"Why don't you, Mrs. Jackson?"
"Nothing would please me better, I should thoroughly enjoy giving him a piece of my mind. It would do him good to be told frankly that he's not quite so great as he thinks himself. I will never shrink from doing my duty."
"My dear," remonstrated the Vicar, "if you really think I ought to speak--"
"Perhaps Mrs. Jackson would do better. A women can say many things that a man can't."
This was a grateful suggestion to the Vicar, who could not rid himself of the discomforting thought that James, incensed and hot-tempered, might use the strength of his arms--or legs--in lieu of argument. Mr. Jackson would have affronted horrid tortures for his faith, but shrank timidly before the least suspicion of ridicule. His wife was braver, or less imaginative.
"Very well, I'll go," she said. "It's true he might be rude to Archibald, and he couldn't be rude to a lady. And what's more, I shall go at once."
Mrs. Jackson kept her hat on a peg in the hall, and was quickly ready. She put on her black kid gloves; determination sat upon her mouth, and Christian virtue rested between her brows. Setting out with a brisk step, the conviction was obvious in every movement that duty called, and to that clarion note Maria Jackson would never turn a deaf ear. She went like a Hebrew prophet, conscious that the voice of the Lord was in her.
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