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James had been away from England for five years; and in that time a curious change, long silently proceeding, had made itself openly felt--becoming manifest, like an insidious disease, only when every limb and every organ were infected. A new spirit had been in action, eating into the foundations of the national character; it worked through the masses of the great cities, unnerved by the three poisons of drink, the Salvation Army, and popular journalism. A mighty force of hysteria and sensationalism was created, seething, ready to burst its bonds ... The canker spread through the country-side; the boundaries of class and class are now so vague that quickly the whole population was affected; the current literature of the day flourished upon it; the people of England, neurotic from the stress of the last sixty years, became unstable as water. And with the petty reverses of the beginning of the war, the last barriers of shame were broken down; their arrogance was dissipated, and suddenly the English became timorous as a conquered nation, deprecating, apologetic; like frightened women, they ran to and fro, wringing their hands. Reserve, restraint, self-possession, were swept away ... And now we are frankly emotional; reeds tottering in the wind, our boast is that we are not even reeds that think; we cry out for idols. Who is there that will set up a golden ass that we may fall down and worship? We glory in our shame, in our swelling hearts, in our eyes heavy with tears. We want sympathy at all costs; we run about showing our bleeding vitals, asking one another whether they are not indeed a horrible sight. Englishmen now are proud of being womanish, and nothing is more manly than to weep. To be a man of feeling is better than to be a gentleman--it is certainly much easier. The halt of mind, the maim, the blind of wit, have come by their own; and the poor in spirit have inherited the earth.
James had left England when this emotional state was contemptible. Found chiefly in the dregs of the populace, it was ascribed to ignorance and to the abuse of stimulants. When he returned, it had the public conscience behind it. He could not understand the change. The persons he had known sober, equal-minded, and restrained, now seemed violently hysterical. James still shuddered, remembering the curate's allusions to his engagement; and he wondered that Mary, far from thinking them impertinent, had been vastly gratified. She seemed to take pleasure in publicly advertising her connection, in giving her private affairs to the inspection of all and sundry. The whole ceremony had been revolting; he loathed the adulation and the fulsome sentiment. His own emotions seemed vulgar now that he had been forced to display them to the gaping crowd.
But the function of the previous day had the effect also of sealing his engagement. Everyone knew of it. Jamie's name was indissolubly joined with Mary's; he could not break the tie now without exposing her to the utmost humiliation. And how could he offer her such an affront when she loved him devotedly? It was not vanity that made him think so, his mother had told him outright; and he saw it in every look of Mary's eyes, in the least inflection of her voice. James asked himself desperately why Mary should care for him. He was not good-looking; he was silent; he was not amusing; he had no particular attraction.
James was sitting in his room, and presently heard Mary's voice calling from the hall.
He got up and came downstairs.
"Why, Jamie," said his father, "you ought to have gone to fetch Mary, instead of waiting here for her to come to you."
"You certainly ought, Jamie," said Mary, laughing; and then, looking at him, with sudden feeling: "But how seedy you look!"
James had hardly slept, troubling over his perplexity, and he looked haggard and tired.
"I'm all right," he said; "I'm not very strong yet, and I was rather exhausted yesterday."
"Mary thought you would like to go with her this morning, while she does her district visiting."
"It's a beautiful morning, Jamie; it will do you good!" cried Mary.
"I should like it very much."
They started out. Mary wore her every-day costume--a serge gown, a sailor hat, and solid, square-toed boots. She walked fast, with long steps and firm carriage. James set himself to talk, asking her insignificant questions about the people she visited. Mary answered with feeling and at length, but was interrupted by arriving at a cottage.
"You'd better not come in here," she said, blushing slightly; "although I want to take you in to some of the people. I think it will be a lesson to them."
"A lesson in what?"
"Oh, I can't tell you to your face, I don't want to make you conceited; but you can guess while you're waiting for me."
Mary's patient was about to be confined, and thinking her condition rather indecent, quite rightly, Mary had left James outside. But the good lady, since it was all in the way of nature, was not so ashamed of herself as she should have been, and insisted on coming to the door to show Miss Clibborn out.
"Take care he doesn't see you!" cried Mary in alarm, pushing her back.
"Well, there's no harm in it. I'm a married woman. You'll have to go through it yourself one day, miss."
Mary rejoined her lover, suffused in blushes, hoping he had seen nothing.
"It's very difficult to teach these people propriety. Somehow the lower classes seem to have no sense of decency."
"What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing I can tell you," replied Mary, modestly. Then, to turn the conversation: "She asked after my young man, and was very anxious to see you."
"Was she? How did she know you had a young man?" asked James, grimly.
"Oh, everyone knows that! You can't keep secrets in Primpton. And besides, I'm not ashamed of it. Are you?"
"I haven't got a young man."
They walked on. The morning was crisp and bright, sending a healthy colour through Mary's cheeks. The blue sky and the bracing air made her feel more self-reliant, better assured than ever of her upright purpose and her candid heart. The road, firm underfoot and delightful to walk upon, stretched before them in a sinuous line. A pleasant odour came from the adjoining fields, from the farm-yards, as they passed them; the larks soared singing with happy heart, while the sparrows chirruped in the hedges. The hawthorn was bursting into leaf, all bright and green, and here and there the wild flowers were showing themselves, the buttercup and the speedwell. But while the charm of Nature made James anxious to linger, to lean on a gate and look for a while at the cows lazily grazing, Mary had too sound a constitution to find in it anything but a stimulus to renewed activity.
"We mustn't dawdle, you lazy creature!" she cried merrily. "I shall never get through my round before one o'clock if we don't put our best foot foremost."
"Can't you see them some other time?"
The limpid air softened his heart; he thought for a moment that if he could wander aimlessly with Mary, gossiping without purpose, they might end by understanding one another. The sun, the wild flowers, the inconstant breeze, might help to create a new feeling.
But Mary turned to him with grave tenderness.
"You know I'd do anything to please you, Jamie. But even for you I cannot neglect my duty."
"Of course, you're quite right," he said. "It really doesn't matter."
They came to another cottage, and this time Mary took James in.
"It's a poor old man," she said. "I'm so sorry for him; he's always so grateful for what I do."
They found him lying in bed, writhing with pain, his head supported by a pillow.
"Oh, how uncomfortable you look!" cried Mary. "You poor thing! Who on earth arranged your pillows like that?"
"My daughter, miss."
"I must talk to her; she ought to know better."
Miss Clibborn drew away the pillows very gently, smoothed them out, and replaced them.
"I can't bear 'em like that, miss. The other is the only way I'm comfortable."
"Nonsense, John!" cried Mary, brightly. "You couldn't be comfortable with your head all on one side; you're much better as you are."
James saw the look of pain in the man's face, and ventured to expostulate.
"Don't you think you'd better put them back in the old way? He seemed much easier."
"Nonsense, Jamie. You must know that the head ought to be higher than the body."
"Please, miss, I can't bear the pillow like this."
"Oh, yes, you can. You must show more forbearance and fortitude. Remember that God sends you pain in order to try you. Think of Our Lord suffering silently on the Cross."
"You're putting him to quite unnecessary torture, Mary," said James. "He must know best how he's comfortable."
"It's only because he's obstinate. Those people are always complaining. Really, you must permit me to know more about nursing than you do, Jamie."
Jamie's face grew dark and grim, but he made no answer.
"I shall send you some soup, John," said Mary, as they went out, "You know, one can never get these people to do anything in a rational way," she added to James. "It's perfectly heartrending trying to teach them even such a natural thing as making themselves comfortable."
James was silent.
They walked a few yards farther, and passed a man in a dog-cart Mary turned very red, staring in front of her with the fixed awkwardness of one not adept in the useful art of cutting.
"Oh," she said, with vexation, "he's going to John."
"Who is it?"
"It's Dr. Higgins--a horrid, vulgar man. He's been dreadfully rude to me, and I make a point of cutting him."
"Oh, he behaved scandalously. I can't bear doctors, they're so dreadfully interfering. And they seem to think no one can know anything about doctoring but themselves! He was attending one of my patients; it was a woman, and of course I knew what she wanted. She was ill and weak, and needed strengthening; so I sent her down a bottle of port. Well, Dr. Higgins came to the house, and asked to see me. He's not a gentleman, you know, and he was so rude! 'I've come to see you about Mrs. Gandy,' he said. 'I particularly ordered her not to take stimulants, and I find you've sent her down port.' 'I thought she wanted it,' I said. 'She told me that you had said she wasn't to touch anything, but I thought a little port would do her good.' Then he said, 'I wish to goodness you wouldn't interfere with what you know nothing about.' 'I should like you to remember that you're speaking to a gentlewoman,' I said. 'I don't care twopence,' he answered, in the rudest way. 'I'm not going to allow you to interfere with my patients. I took the port away, and I wish you to understand that you're not to send any more.'
"Then I confess I lost my temper. 'I suppose you took it away to drink yourself?' I said. Then what d'you think he did? He burst out laughing, and said: 'A bottle of port that cost two bob at the local grocer's! The saints preserve us!'"
James repressed a smile.
"'You impertinent man!' I said. 'You ought to be ashamed to talk to a woman like that. I shall at once send Mrs. Gandy another bottle of port, and it's no business of yours how much it cost.' 'If you do,' he said, 'and anything happens, by God, I'll have you up for manslaughter.' I rang the bell. 'Leave the house,' I said, 'and never dare come here again!' Now don't you think I was right, Jamie?"
"My dear Mary, you always are!"
James looked back at the doctor entering the cottage. It was some comfort to think that he would put the old man into a comfortable position.
"When I told papa," added Mary, "he got in a most fearful rage. He insisted on going out with a horsewhip, and said he meant to thrash Dr. Higgins. He looked for him all the morning, but couldn't find him; and then your mother and I persuaded him it was better to treat such a vulgar man with silent contempt."
James had noticed that the doctor was a burly, broad-shouldered fellow, and he could not help thinking Colonel Clibborn's resolution distinctly wise. How sad it is that in this world right is so often subordinate to brute force!
"But he's not received anywhere. We all cut him; and I get everyone I can not to employ him."
"Ah!" murmured James.
Mary's next patient was feminine, and James was again left to cool his heels in the road; but not alone, for Mr. Dryland came out of the cottage. The curate was a big, stout man, with reddish hair, and a complexion like squashed strawberries and cream; his large, heavy face, hairless except for scanty red eyebrows, gave a disconcerting impression of nakedness. His eyes were blue and his mouth small, with the expression which young ladies, eighty years back, strove to acquire by repeating the words prune and prism. He had a fat, full voice, with unctuous modulations not entirely under his control, so that sometimes, unintentionally, he would utter the most commonplace remark in a tone fitted for a benediction. Mr. Dryland was possessed by the laudable ambition to be all things to all men; and he tried, without conspicuous success, always to suit his conversation to his hearers. With old ladies he was bland; with sportsmen slangy; with yokels he was broadly humorous; and with young people aggressively juvenile. But above all, he wished to be manly, and cultivated a boisterous laugh and a jovial manner.
"I don't know if you remember me," he cried, with a ripple of fat laughter, going up to James, "I had the pleasure of addressing a few words to you yesterday in my official capacity. Miss Clibborn told me you were waiting, and I thought I would introduce myself. My name is Dryland."
"I remember quite well."
"I'm the Vicar's bottle-washer, you know," added the curate, with a guffaw. "Change for you--going round to the sick and needy of the parish--after fighting the good fight. I hear you were wounded."
"I was, rather badly."
"I wish I could have gone out and had a smack at the Boers. Nothing I should have liked better. But, of course, I'm only a parson, you know. It wouldn't have been thought the correct thing." Mr. Dryland, from his superior height, beamed down on James. "I don't know whether you remember the few words which I was privileged to address to you yesterday--"
"Perfectly," put in James.
"Impromptu, you know; but they expressed my feelings. That is one of the best things the war has done for us. It has permitted us to express our emotions more openly. I thought it a beautiful sight to see the noble tears coursing down your father's furrowed cheeks. Those few words of yours have won all our hearts. I may say that our little endeavours were nothing beside that short, unstudied speech. I hope there will be a full report in the Tunbridge Wells papers."
"I hope not!" cried James.
"You're too modest, Captain Parsons. That is what I said to Miss Clibborn yesterday; true courage is always modest. But it is our duty to see that it does not hide its light under a bushel. I hope you won't think it a liberty, but I myself gave the reporter a few notes."
"Will Miss Clibborn be long?" asked James, looking at the cottage.
"Ah, what a good woman she is, Captain Parsons. My dear sir, I assure you she's an angel of mercy."
"It's very kind of you to say so."
"Not at all! It's a pleasure. The good she does is beyond praise. She's a wonderful help in the parish. She has at heart the spiritual welfare of the people, and I may say that she is a moral force of the first magnitude."
"I'm sure that's a very delightful thing to be."
"You know I can't help thinking," laughed Mr. Dryland fatly, "that she ought to be the wife of a clergyman, rather than of a military man."
Mary came out.
"I've been telling Mrs. Gray that I don't approve of the things her daughter wears in church," she said. "I don't think it's nice for people of that class to wear such bright colours."
"I don't know what we should do in the parish without you," replied the curate, unctuously. "It's so rare to find someone who knows what is right, and isn't afraid of speaking out."
Mary said that she and James were walking home, and asked Mr. Dryland whether he would not accompany them.
"I shall be delighted, if I'm not de trop."
He looked with laughing significance from one to the other.
"I wanted to talk to you about my girls," said Mary.
She had a class of village maidens, to whom she taught sewing, respect for their betters, and other useful things.
"I was just telling Captain Parsons that you were an angel of mercy, Miss Clibborn."
"I'm afraid I'm not that," replied Mary, gravely. "But I try to do my duty."
"Ah!" cried Mr. Dryland, raising his eyes so that he looked exactly like a codfish, "how few of us can say that!"
"I'm seriously distressed about my girls. They live in nasty little cottages, and eat filthy things; they pass their whole lives under the most disgusting conditions, and yet they're happy. I can't get them to see that they ought to be utterly miserable."
"Oh, I know," sighed the curate; "it makes me sad to think of it."
"Surely, if they're happy, you can want nothing better," said James, rather impatiently.
"But I do. They have no right to be happy under such circumstances. I want to make them feel their wretchedness."
"What a brutal thing to do!" cried James.
"It's the only way to improve them. I want them to see things as I see them."
"And how d'you know that you see them any more correctly than they do?"
"My dear Jamie!" cried Mary; and then as the humour of such a suggestion dawned upon her, she burst into a little shout of laughter.
"What d'you think is the good of making them dissatisfied?" asked James, grimly.
"I want to make them better, nobler, worthier; I want to make their lives more beautiful and holy."
"If you saw a man happily wearing a tinsel crown, would you go to him and say, 'My good friend, you're making a fool of yourself. Your crown isn't of real gold, and you must throw it away. I haven't a golden crown to give you instead, but you're wicked to take pleasure in that sham thing.' They're just as comfortable, after their fashion, in a hovel as you in your fine house; they enjoy the snack of fat pork they have on Sunday just as much as you enjoy your boiled chickens and blanc-manges. They're happy, and that's the chief thing."
"Happiness is not the chief thing in this world, James," said Mary, gravely.
"Isn't it? I thought it was."
"Captain Parsons is a cynic," said Mr. Dryland, with a slightly supercilious smile.
"Because I say it's idiotic to apply your standards to people who have nothing in common with you? I hate all this interfering. For God's sake let us go our way; and if we can get a little pleasure out of dross and tinsel, let us keep it."
"I want to give the poor high ideals," said Mary.
"I should have thought bread and cheese would be more useful."
"My dear Jamie," said Mary, good-naturedly, "I think you're talking of things you know nothing about."
"You must remember that Miss Clibborn has worked nobly among the poor for many years."
"My own conscience tells me I'm right," pursued Mary, "and you see Mr. Dryland agrees with me. I know you mean well, Jamie; but I don't think you quite understand the matter, and I fancy we had better change the conversation."
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