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Chapter III

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« on: November 24, 2022, 03:44:29 am »


"WE ought soon to see the house."

The speaker bent forward, as the train, sweeping round a curve, emerged from some thick woods into a space of open country. It was early September, and a sleepy autumnal sunshine lay upon the fields. The stubbles just reaped ran over the undulations of the land in silky purples and gold; the blue smoke from the cottages and farms hung poised in mid air; the eye could hardly perceive any movement in the clear stream beside the line, as it slipped noiselessly by, over its sandy bed: it seemed a world where "it was always afternoon"; and the only breaks in its sunny silence came from the occasional coveys of partridges that rose whirring from the harvest-fields, as the train passed.

Delia Blanchflower looked keenly at the English scene, so strange to her after many years of Colonial and foreign wandering. She thought, but did not say---"Those must be my fields---and my woods, that we have just passed through. Probably I rode about them with Grandpapa. I remember the pony---and the horrid groom I hated!" Quick the memory returned of a tiny child on a rearing pony, along with a sulky groom, who, out of his master's sight, could not restrain his temper, and struck the pony savagely and repeatedly over the head, to an accompaniment of oaths; frightening out of her wits the little girl who sat clinging to the creature's neck. And next she saw herself marching in erect---a pale-faced thing of six, with a heart of fury,---to her grandfather, to demand justice on the offender. And Grandpapa had done her bidding, then as always; the groom was dismissed that day. It was only Grandmamma who had ever tried to manage or thwart her; result, perpetual war, decided often for the time by the brute force at command of the elder, but ever renewed. Delia's face flamed again as she thought of the most humiliating incident of her childhood; when Grandmamma, unable to do anything with her screaming and stamping self, had sent in despair for a stalwart young footman, and ordered him to "carry Miss Delia up to the nursery." Delia could still feel herself held, wriggling and shrieking face downwards, under the young man's strong arm, unable either to kick or to scratch, while Grandmamma, half fearful, half laughing, watched the dire ascent from the bottom of the stairs.

"Male tyranny--my first taste of it!" thought Delia, smiling at herself. "It was fated then that I should be a militant."

She looked across at her friend and travelling companion, half inclined to tell the story; but the sight of Gertrude Marvell's attitude and expression checked the trivial reminiscence on her lips.

"Are you tired?" she said, laying her hand on the other's knee.

"Oh no. Only thinking."

"Thinking of what?"

"Of all there is to do."

A kind of flash passed from one face to the other, Delia's eyes darkly answering. They looked at each other for a little, as though in silent conversation, and then Delia turned again to the landscape outside.

Yes, there was the house, its long, irregular line, with the village behind it. She could not restrain a slight exclamation as she caught sight of it, and her friend opposite turned interrogatively.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing---only there's the Abbey. I don't suppose I've seen it since I was twelve."

The other lady put up an eye-glass and looked where Miss Blanchflower pointed; but languidly, as though it were an effort to shake herself free from pre-occupying ideas. She was a woman of about thirty-five, slenderly made, with a sallow, regular face, and good though short-sighted eyes. The eyes were dark, so was the hair, the features delicate. Under the black shady hat, the hair was very closely and neatly coiled. The high collar of the white blouse, fitting tightly to the slender neck, the coat and skirt of blue serge without ornament of any kind, but well cut, emphasised the thinness, almost emaciation, of the form. Her attitude, dress, and expression conveyed the idea of something amazingly taut and ready---like a ship cleared for action. The body with its clothing seemed to have been simplified as much as possible, so as to become the mere instrument of the will which governed it. No superfluity whatever, whether of flesh on her small bones, or of a single unnecessary button, fold, or trimming on her dress, had Gertrude Marvell ever allowed herself for many years. The general effect was in some way formidable; though why the neat precision of the little lady should convey any notion of this sort, it would not at first sight have been easy to say.

"How old did you say it is?"---she asked, after examining the distant building, which could be now plainly seen from the train across a stretch of green park.

"Oh, the present building is nothing---a pseudo-Gothic monstrosity, built about 1830," laughed Delia; "but there are some old remains and foundations of the abbey. It is a big, rambling old place, and I should think dreadfully in want of doing up. My grandfather was a bit of a miser, and though he was quite rich, he never spent a penny he could help."

"All the better. He left the more for other people to spend." Miss Marvell smiled---a slight, and rather tired smile, which hardly altered the face.

"Yes, if they are allowed to spend it!" said Delia, with a shrug. "Oh well, anyway the house must be done up---painted and papered and that kind of thing. A trustee has got to see that things of that sort are kept in order, I suppose. But it won't have anything to do with me, except that, for decency's sake, no doubt he'll consult me. I shall be allowed to choose the wall-papers, I suppose!"

"If you want to," said the other drily.

Delia's brow puckered. "We shall have to spend some time here, you know, Gertrude! We may as well have something to do."

"Nothing that might entangle us, or take too much of our thoughts," said Miss Marvell, gently, but decidedly.

"I'm afraid I like furnishing," said Delia, not without a shade of defiance.

"And I object---because I know you do. After all---you understand as well as I do that every day now is important. There are not so many of us, Delia! If you're going to do real work, you can't afford to spend your time or thoughts on doing up a shabby house."

There was silence a moment. Then Delia said abruptly---"I wonder when that man will turn up? What a fool he is to take it on!"

"The guardianship? Yes, he hardly knows what he's in for." A touch of grim amusement shewed itself for a moment in Miss Marvell's quiet face.

"Oh, I dare say he knows. Perhaps he relies on what everyone calls his 'influence.' Nasty, sloppy word---nasty, sloppy thing! Whenever I'm 'influenced,' I'm degraded!" The young shoulders straightened themselves fiercely.

"I don't know. It has its uses," said the other tranquilly.

Delia laughed radiantly. "Oh well---if one can make the kind of weapon of it you do. I don't mean of course that one shouldn't be rationally persuaded. But that's a different thing. 'Influence' makes me think of canting clergymen, and stout pompous women, who don't know what they're talking about, and can't argue---who think they've settled everything by a stale quotation---or an appeal to 'your better self' or St. Paul. If Mr. Winnington tries it on with 'influence'---we'll have some fun."

Delia returned to her window. The look her companion bent upon her was not visible to her. It was curiously detached---perhaps slightly ironical.
   
"I'm wondering what part I shall play in the first interview!" said Miss Marvell, after a pause. "I represent the first stone in Mr. Winnington's path. He will of course do his best to put me out of it."

"How can he?" cried Delia ardently. "What can he do? He can't send for the police and turn you out of the house. At least I suppose he could, but he certainly won't. The last thing a gentleman of his sort wants is to make a scandal. Everyone says, after all, that he is a nice fellow!"---the tone was unconsciously patronising---"It isn't his fault if he's been placed in this false position. But the great question for me is---how are we going to manage him for the best?" She leant forward, her chin on her hands, her sparkling eyes fixed on her friend's face.

"The awkward thing is"---mused Miss Marvell---"that there is so little time in which to manage him. If the movement were going on at its old slow pace, one might lie low, try diplomacy, avoid alarming him, and so forth. But we've no time for that. It is a case of blow on blow---action on action---and the publicity is half the battle."

"Still, a little management there must be, to begin with!---because I---we---want money, and he holds the purse-strings. Hullo, here's the station!"

She jumped up, and looked eagerly out of the window. "They've sent a fly for us. And there's the station-master on the look-out. How it all comes back to me!"

Her flushed cheek shewed a natural excitement. She was coming back as its mistress to a house where she had been happy as a child, which she had not seen for years. Thoughts of her father, as he had been in the old days before any trouble had arisen between them, came rushing through her mind---tender, regretful thoughts--as the train came slowly to a standstill.

But the entire indifference or passivity of her companion restrained her from any further expression. The train stopped, and she descended to the platform of a small country station, alive apparently with traffic and passengers.

"Miss Blanchflower?" said a smiling station-master, whose countenance seemed to be trying to preserve the due mean between welcome to the living and condolence for the dead, as, hat in hand, he approached the newcomers, and guided by her deep mourning addressed himself to Delia.

"Why, Mr. Stebbing, I remember you quite well," said Delia, holding out her hand. "There's my maid---and I hope there's a cart for the luggage. We've got a lot."

A fair-haired man in spectacles, who had also just left the train, turned abruptly and looked hard at the group as he passed them. He hesitated a moment, then passed on, with a curious swinging gait, a long and shabby overcoat floating behind him---to speak to the porter who was collecting tickets at the gate opening on the road beyond.

Meanwhile Delia had been accosted by another gentleman, who had been sitting reading his Morning Post on the sunny platform, as the train drew up. He too had examined the new arrivals with interest, and while Delia was still talking to the station-master, he walked up to her.

"I think you are Miss Blanchflower; but you won't remember me." He lifted his hat, smiling.

Delia looked at him, puzzled.

"Don't you remember that Christmas dance at the Rectory, when you were ten, and I was home from Sandhurst?"

"Perfectly!---and I quarrelled with you because you wouldn't give me champagne, when I'd danced with you, instead of lemonade. You said what was good for big boys wasn't good for little girls---and I called you a bully----"

"You kicked me!---you had the sharpest little toes!"

"Did I?" said Delia composedly. "I was rather good at kicking. So you are Billy Andrews?"

"Right. I'm Captain now, and they've just made me adjutant down here for the Yeomanry. My mother keeps house for me. You're coming here to live? Please let me say how sorry I was to see your sad news." The condolence was a little clumsy but sincere.

"Thank you. I must go and see to the luggage. Let me introduce you to Miss Marvell---Captain Andrews---Miss Marvell."

That lady bowed coldly as Delia departed. The tall, soldierly man, whose pleasant looks were somewhat spoilt by a slightly underhung mouth and prominent chin, disguised, however, by a fine moustache, offered assistance with the luggage.

"There is no need, thank you," said Miss Marvell. "Miss Blanchflower and her maid will see to it."

And the Captain noticed that the speaker remained entirely passive while the luggage was being collected and piled into a fly by the porters, directed by Miss Blanchflower and her maid. She stood quietly on the platform, till all was ready, and Delia beckoned to her. In the interval the soldier tried to make conversation, but with very small success. He dwelt upon some of the changes Miss Blanchflower would find on the estate; how the old head-keeper, who used to make a pet of her, was dead, and the new agent her father had put in was thought to be doing well, how the village had lost markedly in population in the last few years---this emigration to Canada was really getting beyond a joke!---and so forth. Miss Marvell made no replies. But she suddenly asked him a question.

"What's that house over there?" She pointed to a grey fašade on a wooded hill some two miles off.

"That's our show place---Monk Lawrence! We're awfully proud of it---Elizabethan, and that kind of thing. But of course you've heard of Monk Lawrence! It's one of the finest things in England."

"It belongs to Sir Wilfrid Lang?"

"Certainly. Do you know him? He's scarcely been there at all, since he became a Cabinet Minister; and yet he spent a lot of money in repairing it a few years ago. They say it's his wife's health---that it's too damp for her. Anyway it's quite shut up,---except that they let tourists see it once a month."

"Does anybody live in the house?"

"Oh---a caretaker, of course,---one of the keepers. They let the shooting. Ah! there's Miss Blanchflower calling you."

Miss Marvell---as the gallant Captain afterwards remembered---took a long look at the distant house and then went to join Miss Blanchflower. The Captain accompanied her, and helped her to stow away the remaining bags into the fly, while a small concourse of rustics, sprung from nowhere, stolidly watched the doings of the heiress and her friend. Delia suddenly bent forward to him, as he was about to shut the door, with an animated look---"Can you tell me who that gentleman is who has just walked off towards the village?"---she pointed.

"His name is Lathrop. He lives in a place just the other side of yours. He's got some trout-hatching ponds---will stock anybody's stream for them. Rather a queer customer!"---The good-natured Captain dropped his voice. "Well, good-bye, my train's just coming. I hope I may come and see you soon?"

Delia nodded assent, and they drove off.

"By George, she's a beauty!" said the Captain to himself as he turned away. "Nothing wrong with her that I can see. But there are some strange tales going about. I wonder who that other woman is. Marvell?---Gertrude Marvell?---I seem to have heard the name somewhere.---Hullo, Masham, how are you?" He greeted the leading local solicitor who had just entered the station, a man with a fine ascetic face, and singularly blue eyes. Masham looked like a starved poet or preacher, and was in reality one of the hardest and shrewdest men of business in the southern counties.

"Well, did you see Miss Blanchflower?" said the Captain, as Masham joined him on the platform, and they entered the up train together.

"I did. A handsome young lady! Have you heard the news?"

"No."

"Your neighbour, Mr. Winnington---Mark Winnington---is named as her guardian under her father's will---until she is twenty-five. He is also trustee, with absolute power over the property."

The Captain shewed a face of astonishment. "Gracious! What had Winnington to do with Sir Robert Blanchflower?"

"An old friend, apparently. But it is a curious will."

The solicitor's abstracted look shewed a busy mind. The Captain had never felt a livelier desire for information. "Isn't there something strange about the girl?" he said, lowering his voice, although there was no one else in the railway carriage. "I never saw a more beautiful creature! But my mother came home from London the other day with some very queer stories, from a woman who had met them abroad. She said Miss Blanchflower was awfully clever, but as wild as a hawk---mad about women's rights and that kind of thing. In the hotel where she met them, people fought very shy of her."

"Oh, she's a militant suffragist," said the solicitor quietly---"though she's not had time yet since her father's death to do any mischief. That---in confidence---is the meaning of the will."

The adjutant whistled. "Goodness!---Winnington will have his work cut out for him. But he needn't accept."

"He has accepted. I heard this morning from the London solicitor."

"Your firm does the estate business down here?"

"For many years. I hope to see Mr. Winnington to-morrow or next day. He is evidently hurrying home---because of this."

There was silence for a few minutes; then the Captain said bluntly: "It's an awful pity, you know, that kind of thing cropping up down here. We've escaped it so far."

"With such a lot of wild women about, what can you expect?" said the solicitor briskly. "Like the measles---sure to come our way sooner or later."

"Do you think they'll get what they want?"

"What---the vote? No---not unless the men are fools." The refined, apostolic face set like iron.

"None of the womanly women want it," said the Captain with conviction. "You should hear my mother on it."

The solicitor did not reply. The adjutant's mother was not in his eyes a model of wisdom. Nor did his own opinion want any fortifying from outside.

Captain Andrews was not quite in the same position. He was conscious of a strong male instinct which disavowed Miss Blanchflower and all her kind; but at the same time he was exceedingly susceptible to female beauty, and it troubled his reasoning processes that anybody so wrong-headed should be so good-looking. His heart was soft, and his brain all that was wanted for his own purposes. But it did not enable him---it never had enabled him---to understand these extraordinary "goings-on," which the newspapers were every day reporting, on the part of well-to-do, educated women, who were ready---it seemed---to do anything outrageous---just for a vote! "Of course nobody would mind if the rich women---the tax-paying women---had a vote---help us Tories famously. But the women of the working-classes---why, good Lord, look at them when there's any disturbance on---any big strike---look at Tonypandy!---a deal sight worse than the men! Give them the vote and they'd take us to the devil, even quicker than Lloyd George!"

Aloud he said---"Do you know anything about that lady Miss Blanchflower had with her? She introduced me. Miss Marvell---I think that was the name. I thought I had heard it somewhere."

The solicitor lifted his eyebrows. "I dare say. She was in the stone-throwing raid last August. Fined 20s. or a month, for damage in Pall Mall. She was in prison a week; then somebody paid her fine. She professed great annoyance, but one of the police told me it was privately paid by her own society. She's too important to them---they can't do without her. An extremely clever woman."

"Then what on earth does she come and bury herself down here for?" cried the Captain.

Masham shewed a meditative twist of the lip. "Can't say, I'm sure. But they want money. And Miss Blanchflower is an important capture."

"I hope that girl will soon have the sense to shake them off!" said the Captain with energy. "She's a deal too beautiful for that kind of thing. I shall get my mother to come and talk to her."

The solicitor concealed his smile behind his Daily Telegraph. He had a real liking and respect for the Captain, but the family affection of the Andrews household was a trifle too idyllic to convince a gentleman so well acquainted with the seamy side of life. What about that hunted-looking girl, the Captain's sister? He didn't believe, he never had believed, that Mrs. Andrews was quite so much of an angel as she pretended to be.

Meanwhile, no sooner had the fly left the station than Delia turned to her companion---"Gertrude!---did you see what that man was reading who passed just now? Our paper!---the Tocsin."

Gertrude Marvell lifted her eyebrows slightly. "No doubt he bought it at Waterloo---out of curiosity."

"Why not out of sympathy? I thought he looked at us rather closely. Of course, if he reads the Tocsin he knows something about you! What fun it would be to discover a comrade and a brother down here!"

"It depends entirely upon what use we could make of him," said Miss Marvell. Then she turned suddenly on her companion---"Tell me really, Delia---how long do you want to stay here?"

"Well, a couple of months at least," said Delia, with a rather perplexed expression. "After all, Gertrude, it's my property now, and all the people on it, I suppose, will expect to see me and make friends. I don't want them to think that because I'm a suffragist I'm going to shirk. It wouldn't be good policy, would it?"

"It's all a question of the relative importance of things," said the other quietly. "London is our headquarters, and things are moving very rapidly."

"I know. But, dear, you did promise! for a time"---pleaded Delia. "Though of course I know how dull it must be for you, when you are the life and soul of so many things in London. But you must remember that I haven't a penny at this moment but what Mr. Winnington chooses to allow me! We must come to some understanding with him, mustn't we, before we can do anything? It is all so difficult!"---the girl's voice took a deep, passionate note---"horribly difficult, when I long to be standing beside you---and the others---in the open---fighting---for all I'm worth. But how can I, just yet? I ought to have eight thousand a year, and Mr. Winnington can cut me down to anything he pleases. It's just as important that I should get hold of my money---at this particular moment---as that I should be joining raids in London,---more important, surely---because we want money badly!---you say so yourself. I don't want it for myself; I want it all---for the cause! But the question is, how to get it---with this will in our way. I----"

"Ah, there's that house again!" exclaimed Miss Marvell, but in the same low restrained tone that was habitual to her. She bent forward to look at the stately building on the hill-side, which, according to Captain Andrews' information, was the untenanted property of Sir Wilfrid Lang, whom a shuffle of offices had just admitted to the Cabinet.

"What house?"---said Delia, not without a vague smart under the sudden change of subject. She had a natural turn for declamation; a girlish liking to hear herself talk; and Gertrude, her tutor in the first place, and now her counsellor and friend, had a quiet way of snubbing such inclinations, except when they could be practically useful. "You have the gifts of a speaker---we shall want you to speak more and more," she would say. But in private she rarely failed to interrupt an harangue, even the first beginnings of one.

However, the smart soon passed, and Delia too turned her eyes towards the house among the trees, She gave a little cry of pleasure.

"Oh, that's Monk Lawrence!---such a lovely---lovely old place! I used often to go there as a child---I adored it. But I can't remember who lives there now."

Gertrude Marvell handed on the few facts learned from the Captain. "I knew"---she added---"that Sir Wilfrid Lang lived somewhere near here. That they told me at the office."

"And the house is empty?" Delia, flushing suddenly and vividly, turned to her companion.

"Except for the caretaker---who no doubt lives somewhere on the ground-floor."

There was silence a moment. Then Delia laughed uncomfortably. "Look here, Gertrude, we can't attempt anything of that kind there: I remember now---it was Sir Wilfrid's brother who had the house when I used to go there. He was a great friend of father's; and his little girls and I were great chums. The house is just wonderful---full of treasures! I am sorry it belongs to Sir Wilfrid---but nobody could lift a finger against Monk Lawrence!"

Miss Marvell's eyes sparkled. "He is the most formidable enemy we have," she said softly, between her closed lips. A tremor seemed to run through her slight frame.

Then she smiled, and her tone changed. "Dear Delia, of course I shan't run you into any---avoidable---trouble, down here, apart from the things we have agreed on."

"What have we agreed on? Remind me!"

"In the first place, that we won't hide our opinions---or stop our propaganda---to please anybody."

"Certainly!" said Delia. "I shall have a drawing-room meeting as soon as possible. You seem to have fixed up a number of speaking engagements for us both. And we told the office to send us down tons of literature." Then her face broke into laughter---"Poor Mr. Winnington!"

------

"A rather nice old place, isn't it?" said Delia, an hour later, when the elderly housekeeper, who had received them with what had seemed to Delia's companion a quite unnecessary amount of fuss and family feeling, had at last left them alone in the drawing-room, after taking them over the house.

The girl spoke in a softened voice. She was standing thoughtfully by the open window looking out, her hands clasping a chair behind her. Her thin black dress, made short and plain, with a white frill at the open neck and sleeves, by its very meagreness emphasised the young beauty of the wearer---a beauty full of significance, charged---over-charged---with character. The attitude should have been one of repose; it was on the contrary one of tension, suggesting a momentary balance only, of impetuous forces. Delia was indeed suffering the onset of a wave of feeling which had come upon her unexpectedly; for which she had not prepared herself. This rambling old house, with its quiet garden and Early-Victorian furniture, had appealed to her in some profound and touching way. Her childhood stirred again in her, and deep inherited things. How well she remembered the low spacious room, with its oak wainscotting, its book-cases and its pictures! That crayon over the writing-table, of her grandmother in her white cap and shawl; her grandfather's chair, and the old Bible and Prayer-book beside it, from which he used to read evening prayers; the stiff arm-chairs with their faded chintz covers; the writing-table with its presentation inkstand; the groups of silhouettes on the walls, her forebears of long ago; the needlework on the fire screen, in which, at nine years old, she had been proud to embroider the white rose-bud still so lackadaisically prominent; the stool on which she used to sit and knit beside her grandmother; the place on the rug where the old collie used to lie---she saw his ghost there still!---all these familiar and even ugly objects seemed to be putting out spiritual hands to her, playing on nerves once eagerly responsive. She had never stayed for long in the house; but she had always been happy there. The moral atmosphere of it came back to her, and with a sense of the old rest and protection. Her grandfather might have been miserly to others; he had been always kind to her. But it was her grandmother who had been supreme in that room. A woman of clear sense and high character; narrow and prejudiced in many respects, but sorely missed by many when her turn came to die; a Christian in more than name; sincerely devoted to her teasing little granddaughter. A woman who had ordered her household justly and kindly; a personality not soon forgotten.

"There is something of her in me still," thought Delia--"at least, I hope there is. And where---is the rest of me going?"

"I think I'll take off my things, dear," said Gertrude Marvell, breaking in on the girl's reverie. "Don't trouble. I know my room."

The door closed. Delia was now looking out into the garden, where on the old grass-slopes the September shadows lay---still and slumbrous. The peace of it, the breath of its old-world tradition, came upon her, relaxing the struggle of mind and soul in which she had been living for months, and that ceaseless memory which weighed upon her of her dying father,---his bitter and increasing recoil from all that, for a while, he had indulgently permitted---his final estrangement from her, her own obstinacy and suffering.

"Yes!"---she cried suddenly, out loud, to the rosebushes beyond the open window---"but it had a reason---it had a reason!" She clasped her hands fiercely to her breast. "And there is no birth without pain."

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