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The Duchess walked with Letitia in the high-walled garden at Mandeleys, on the morning after her arrival. She appeared to be in a remarkably good temper.
"I have not the least intention of boring myself, my dear Letitia," she said, in reply to some conventional remark of her niece's. "So long as I get plenty of fresh air during the day, good plain food, and my bridge between tea and dinner, I am always contented. Let me see," she went on, coming to a standstill and pointing with her stick to the little belt of tall elm trees and the fir plantation behind, "Broomleys is that way, isn't it? Yes, I can see the house."
Letitia nodded, but only glanced in the direction her aunt indicated.
"And Mr. Thain? Do you find him a pleasant neighbour?"
Letitia looked deliberately the other way. It was just as well that her aunt should not see the flash in her eyes.
"We do not see much of him," she replied. "He gallops round the park every day like a lunatic, and he spends a great deal of time, I think, in his car."
"My dear," the Duchess said impressively, "David Thain may have his peculiarities, but he is really a most simple and sincere person. I was attracted to him upon the steamer simply because of his shyness, and a good thing for you, dear, that I was. It must make quite a difference to have Broomleys properly let to a man who can pay a good rent for it."
"We have never denied that," Letitia admitted drily. "We are keeping house now upon the first quarter's rent."
"Is it my fancy," her aunt continued, stooping to pick herself a sprig of lavender, "or do you really dislike Mr. Thain?"
"Intensely!" Letitia confessed with emphasis.
The Duchess was surprised.
"Well, really!" she exclaimed. "And to me he seems such a harmless, inoffensive person, absolutely without self-consciousness and not in the least bumptious."
"What on earth has he to be bumptious about?" Letitia scoffed. "He has simply made a lot of money out of other people."
"That shows brains, at least," her aunt reminded her.
"Cunning!" Letitia retorted.
The Duchess twirled the sprig of lavender between her fingers. She could not remember ever to have heard her niece so much in earnest.
"Well, I hope you don't feel too strongly about him," she said. "I must have him asked to dinner while I am here."
"We have anticipated your wishes," Letitia remarked. "He is coming to-night."
"I am very glad to hear it," was the satisfied reply. "I shall do my best to persuade him to come up to Scotland later on. There is nothing that Henry enjoys more than a little flutter in American railways. Perhaps he will help us to make some money."
"Personally," Letitia said slowly, "I should be very careful how I trusted Mr. Thain."
The Duchess was shocked.
"You carry your aversions too far, my dear," she remonstrated.
"Perhaps, I only know that he sold father a lot of shares which it is my profound conviction are entirely worthless."
"Sold your father shares?" the Duchess repeated. "I don't understand. How on earth could Reginald pay for any shares!"
"He gave what is called an acceptance," Letitia explained. "It falls due in about six weeks."
The Duchess smiled. She had a great idea of her own capacity for business.
"My dear," she said, "if between now and then the shares have not improved sufficiently for your father to make a profitable sale, Mr. Thain can extend the time of payment by renewing the bill."
"You have more confidence in Mr. Thain than I have," Letitia remarked drily.
Her aunt was a little puzzled. She decided to change the conversation.
"Where is Charles this morning?" she enquired.
"In the library with father. They are discussing possible settlements. I thought that sort of thing was always left to lawyers."
"I hope you are happier about your marriage than you seem," her aunt observed. "Charles is quite a parti, in a way, you know, although he is not rich."
"Oh, I suppose it may as well be Charles as any one else," Letitia assented, a little drearily.
The Duchess shook her head.
"You need a change, my dear," she declared. "I hate to hear you talk like that, especially as you are by way of being one of those single-minded young persons who must find everything in marriage or else be profoundly unhappy. I am not at all sure that you ought to have considered the question of marriage until you were in love."
"Thank you," Letitia retorted, "I have a horror of being an old maid."
Her aunt sighed.
"Now I come to think of it," she went on reminiscently, "there is a curious streak of fidelity, isn't there, in your father's character. You must take after him. It ought to make you very careful, Letitia. I don't want to say a word against Charles, but he doesn't carry his head quite so high as you do, you know. When are you going to announce your engagement?"
"As soon as he leaves here, I think."
"Hm! Is Charlie very much in love with you?"
"If he is, he hasn't mentioned it," Letitia observed. "Nowadays, men seem to reserve that sort of protestation for their musical comedy friends, and suggest a joint establishment, as a matter of mutual convenience, to us."
"Bitter, my dear—very bitter for your years!" her aunt sighed.
"What would you like to do this morning?" Letitia asked, abruptly changing the subject.
"I shall amuse myself," was the prompt reply. "First of all, I am going to undertake a little mission on Reginald's account. I am going over to talk to that ridiculous old man Vont. Afterwards, I shall walk across to Broomleys."
"Most improper!" Letitia remarked.
"My dear," her aunt reminded her, "I am nearly forty years old, although no one in the world would guess it if it were not for those wretched Court Guides. I look upon Mr. Thain as a sort of protégé of mine, and I have an idea that you are not being so nice to him as you might be."
"I do my best," Letitia replied, "and I really don't think he has anything to complain of."
The Duchess parted from her niece as they neared the house and proceeded to pay her first visit. She crossed the moat by the little handbridge, walked briskly across the intervening strip of park, and approached the little enclosure in which the cottage was situated. Richard Vont, seated in his usual corner of the garden, remained motionless at her approach. He neither rose nor offered any sort of greeting.
"Good morning, Vont," she said briskly, as she reached the paling.
He was looking at her fixedly from underneath his bushy grey eyebrows. He sat bolt upright in his chair, and he kept his hat upon his head.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"My good man," she remonstrated, "you might as well be civil. Why don't you stand up and take off your hat? You know who I am."
"Yes, I know who you are," he replied, without moving. "You are Caroline, Duchess of Winchester. I keep my hat upon my head because I owe you no respect and I feel none. As to asking you in, no one of your family will ever, of my will, step inside these palings."
"You are a very obstinate old man, Vont," she said severely.
"I am what the Lord made me."
"Well," she continued, leaning slightly against the paling and looking down at him, "I came down here to say a few words to you, and I shall say them, unless you run away. You are one of those simple, ignorant men, Vont, who love to nurse an imaginary injustice until the idea that you have been wronged becomes so fixed in your brain that you haven't room for anything else there. This behaviour of yours, you know, is perfectly ridiculous."
Vont made no sign even of having heard her. She continued.
"You haven't even a grievance. My brother took your daughter away from her home. Under some conditions, that would have been a very reprehensible thing. As things turned out, it has been the making of the young woman. She has received a wonderful education, has been taken abroad, and has been treated with respect and consideration by every one. My brother has devoted a considerable portion of his lifetime to ensuring her happiness. She is now a contented, clever, talented and respected woman. If she had remained here, she would probably have become the wife-drudge of a farmer or a local tradesman. You are listening, Richard Vont?"
"Yes, I am listening!"
"If the Marquis had betrayed your daughter, taken her away and deserted her," she continued, "there might have been some justification for this theatrical attitude of yours. Under the present circumstances, there is none at all. Why don't you rid yourself of the idea, once for all, that you or your daughter have suffered any wrong? You've only a few years to live. Take up your work again. There is plenty to be done here. Go and mix with your old friends and live like a reasonable man. This brooding attitude of yours is all out of date. Put your Bible away, light a pipe, and set to work and kill some of the rabbits. The farmers are always complaining."
"You have a niece up yonder," Vont said, knitting his shaggy grey eyebrows and gazing steadfastly at his visitor, "a well-looking young woman, they say—Lady Letitia Thursford. Would you like her to live with a man and not be married to him?"
"Of course," the Duchess replied, "that is simply impertinent. If you are going to compare the doings of your very excellent yeomen stock with the doings of the Thursfords, you are talking and thinking like a fool. A few hundred years ago, it would have been your duty to have offered your womenkind to your master when you paid your rent. We have changed all that, quite properly, but not all the socialists who ever breathed, or all the democratic teachings you may have imbibed in America, can entitle you to talk of the Vonts and the Thursfords in the same breath."
The old man rose slowly to his feet. He leaned a little upon his stick, and pointed to Mandeleys.
"You are an ignorant, shameless woman," he said. "Get you home and read your Bible. If you want a last word to carry away with you, here it is. My daughter was just as much to me as the young woman who walked yonder with you in the garden is to her father. Let him remember that."
"But, you foolish person," she expostulated, "Lady Letitia enjoys all the advantages to which her station entitles her. Your daughter, with a mind and intelligence very much superior to her position, was employed in the miserable drudgery of teaching village children."
"Honest work," he replied, "hurts no one, unless they are full of sickly fancies. It's idleness that brings sin. They tell me you've new creeds amongst those in your walk of life, and a new manner of living. Live as you will, then, but let others do the same. I stand by the Book, and maybe, when your last days come, you will be sorry you cast it aside."
"So far as I remember," she reminded him, "the chief teaching of that Book is forgiveness."
"Your memory fails you, then," he answered grimly, "for what the Book preaches is justice to poor and rich alike."
The Duchess sighed. She was a good-hearted woman and full of confidence, but she recognised her limitations.
"My good man," she said, "I shall not argue with you any more. You won't believe it, but you are simply narrow and pig-headed and obstinate, and you won't believe that there may be a grain of reason in anybody else's point of view but your own. Just look at yourself! You can't be more than sixty-five or so, and you might be a hundred! You sit there nursing your grievance and thinking about it, while your whole life is running to seed. Why don't you get up and be a human being? Send for your daughter to come down and look after you—she'd come—and choke it all down. Put the Book away for a time, or read a little more of the New Testament and a little less of the Old. Come, will you be sensible, and I'll come in and shake hands with you, and we'll write your daughter together."
Vont was still leaning on his stick. Save that his eyebrows were drawn a little closer together, his expression was unchanged. Yet his visitor, though the sunshine was all around them, shivered.
"Did he send you here?"
"Of course not," she replied. "I came of my own accord. I remembered the days when you used to take me rabbiting and let me shoot a pheasant if there was no one about. You were a sensible, well-balanced man then. I came, hoping to find that there was a little of the old Richard Vont left in you."
"There is just enough of the old Richard Vont left," he said, "to send you back to where you came from, with a message, if you care to carry it. Tell him—your brother, the Lord of Mandeleys—that I am not sitting here of idle purpose, that I don't hear the voices around me for nothing, that I don't look day and night at Mandeleys for nothing. Tell him to make the most of the sun that shines to-day and the soft bed he lies on to-night and the woman he kisses to-morrow, for he is very close to the end. I am an old man, but I'm here to see the end. It has been promised."
The Duchess, brimful of common sense and good humour, brave as a lion and ready of tongue as she was, felt a little giddy, and clung to the rail as she crossed the little bridge over the moat. She looked back only once. Richard Vont remained standing just as she had left him—grim, motionless, menacing.
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