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Chapter VI

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« on: November 25, 2022, 08:10:00 am »


THE village or rather small town of Great Maumsey took its origin in a clearing of that royal forest which had now receded from it a couple of miles to the south. But it was still a rural and woodland spot. The trees in the fields round it had still a look of wildness, as survivors from the primӕval chase, and were grouped more freely and romantically than in other places; while from the hill north of the church, one could see the New Forest stretching away, blue beyond blue, purple beyond purple, till it met the shining of the sea.

Great Maumsey had a vast belief in itself, and was reckoned exclusive and clannish by other places. It was proud of its old Georgian houses, with their white fronts, their pillared porches, and the pediment gables in their low roofs. The owners of these houses, of which there were many, charmingly varied, in the long main street, were well aware that they had once been old-fashioned, and were now as much admired, in their degree, as the pictures of the great English artists, Hogarth, Reynolds, Romney, with which they were contemporary. There were earlier houses, too, of brick and timber, with overhanging top stories and moss-grown roofs. There was a green surrounded with posts and rails, on which a veritable stocks still survived, kept in careful repair as a memento of our barbarous forbears, by the parish Council. The church, dating from that wonderful fourteenth century when all the world must have gone mad for church-building, stood back from the main street, with the rectory beside it, in a modest seclusion of their own.

It was all very English, very spick and span, and apparently very well-to-do. That the youth of the village was steadily leaving it for the Colonies---that the constant marrying in and in which had gone on for generations had produced an ugly crop of mental deficiency and physical deformity among the inhabitants---that the standard of morals was too low, and the standard of drink too high---were matters well known to the Rector and the Doctor. But there were no insanitary cottages, and no obvious scandals of any sort. The Maumsey estate had always been well managed; there were a good many small gentlefolk who lived in the Georgian houses, and owing to the competition of the railways, agricultural wages were rather better than elsewhere.

About a mile from the eastern end of the village was the small modernised manor-house of Bridge End, which belonged to Mark Winnington, and where his sister Alice, Mrs. Matheson, kept him company for the greater part of the year. The gates leading to Maumsey lay on the other side of the village, while on the hill to the north rose, conspicuous against its background of wood, the famous old house of Monk Lawrence. It looked down upon Maumsey to the west and Bridge End to the east. It was generally believed that the owner of it, Sir Wilfrid Lang, had exhausted his resources in restoring it, and that it was the pressure of debt rather than his wife's health which had led to its being shut up so long.

The dwellers in the village regarded it as the jewel in their landscape, their common heritage and pride. Lady Tonbridge, whose little drawing-room and garden to the back looked out on the hill and the old house, was specially envied because she possessed so good a view of it. She herself inhabited one of the very smallest of the Georgian houses, in the main street of Maumsey. She paid a rent of no more than forty pounds a year for it, and Maumsey people, who liked her, felt affectionately concerned that a duke's grand-daughter should be reduced to a rent and quarters so insignificant.

Lady Tonbridge however was not at all concerned for the smallness of her house. She regarded it as the outward and visible sign of the most creditable action of her life---the action which would---or should---bring her most marks when the Recording Angel came to make up her account. Every time she surveyed its modest proportions the spirit of freedom danced within her, and she envied none of the noble halls in which she had formerly lived, and to some of which she still paid occasional visits.

At tea-time, on the day following Winnington's first interview with his ward, Madeleine Tonbridge came into her little drawing-room, in her outdoor things, and carrying a bundle of books under the arm.

As far as such words could ever apply to her, she was tired and dusty. But her little figure was so alert and trim, her grey linen dress and its appointments so dainty, and the apple-red in her small cheeks so bright, that one might have conceived her as just fresh from a maid's hands, and stepping out to amuse herself, instead of as just returning from a tedious afternoon's work, by which she had earned the large sum of five shillings. A woman of forty-five, she looked her age, and she had never possessed any positive beauty, unless it were the beauty of delicate and harmonious proportion. Yet she had been pestered with suitors as a girl, and unfortunately had married the least desirable of them all. And now in middle life, no one had more devoted men-friends; and that without exciting a breath of scandal, even in a situation where one might have thought it inevitable.

She looked round her as she entered. "Nora!--where are you?"

A girl, apparently about seventeen, put her head in through the French window that opened to the garden.

"Ready for tea, Mummy?"

"Rather!" said Lady Tonbridge, with energy, as she put a match to the little spirit kettle on the tea-table where everything stood ready. "Come in, darling."

And, throwing off her hat and jacket, she sank into a comfortable arm-chair with a sigh of fatigue. Her daughter quietly loosened her mother's walking-shoes and took them away. Then they kissed each other, and Nora went to look after the tea. She was a slim, pale-faced school-girl, with yellow-brown eyes, and yellow-brown hair, not as yet very attractive in looks, but her mother was convinced that it was only the plainness of the cygnet, and that the swan was only a few years off. Nora, who at seventeen had no illusions, was grateful to her mother for the belief, but did not share it in the least.

"I'm sure you gave that girl half an hour over time," she said reprovingly, as she handed Lady Tonbridge her cup of tea---"I can't think why you do it." She referred to the solicitor's daughter whom Lady Tonbridge had been that afternoon instructing in the uses of the French participle.

"Nor can I. A kind of ridiculous esprit de métier, I suppose. I undertook to teach her French, and when after all these weeks she don't seem to know a thing more than when she began, I feel as if I were picking her dear papa's pockets."

"Which is absurd," said Nora, buttering her mother's toast, "and I can't let you do it. Half a crown an hour is silly enough already, and for you to throw in half an hour extra for nothing, can't be stood."

"I wish I could get it up to four hours a day," sighed the mother, munching happily at her toast, while she held out her small stockinged feet to the fire which Nora had just lit. "Just think. Ten shillings a day---six days a week---ten months in the year. Why, it would pay the rent, we could have another servant, and I could give you twenty pounds a year more for your clothes."

"Much obliged---but I prefer a live Mummy---and no clothes---to a dead one. More tea?"

"Thanks. No chance, of course. Where could one find four persons a day, in Maumsey, or near Maumsey, who want to learn French? The notion's absurd. I shouldn't get the lessons I do, if it weren't for the 'Honourable.'"

"Snobs!"

"Not at all! Not a single family out of the people I go to deserve to be called snobs. It's the natural dramatic instinct in us all. You don't expect an 'Honourable' to be giving French lessons at half a crown an hour, and when she does, you say---'Hullo! Some screw loose, somewhere!'---and you at once feel a new interest in the French tongue, and ask her to come along. I don't mind it a bit. I sit and spin yarns about Drawing-rooms and Court balls, and it all helps.---When did you get home?"

For Nora attended a High School in a neighbouring town, some five miles away, journeying there and back by train.

"Half-past four. I met Mr. Winnington in his car, and he said he'd be here about six."

"Good. I'm dying to talk to him. I have written to the Abbey to say we will call to-morrow. Of course, I ought to be her nursing mother in these parts"---said Lady Tonbridge reflectively---"I knew Sir Robert first when I was a chit in short frocks, and we were always pals. But, my dear, it was I who hatched the cockatrice!"

Nora nodded gravely.

"It was I," pursued Lady Tonbridge penitentially,---"who saddled him with that woman---and I know he never forgave me. He as good as told me so when we last met---for those few hours---at Basle. But how could I tell---how could anybody tell---she would turn out such a creature? I only knew that she had taken all kinds of honours. I thought I was sending him a treasure."

"All the same, you did it, Mummy. And it won't do to give yourself airs now! That's what Mr. Winnington says. You've got to help him out."

"I say, don't talk secrets!" said a voice just outside the room. "For I can't help hearing 'em. May I come in?"

And, pushing the half-open door, Mark Winnington stood smiling on the threshold.

"I apologise. But your little maid let me in---and then vanished somewhere, like greased lightning---after a dog."

"Oh, come in," said Lady Tonbridge, with resignation, extending at the same time a hand of welcome---"the little maid, as you call her, only came from your workhouse yesterday, and I haven't yet discovered a grain of sense in her. But she gets plenty of exercise. If she isn't chasing dogs, it's cats."

"Don't you attack my schools," said Winnington, seating himself at the tea-table. "They're A1, and you're very lucky to get one of my girls."

Madeleine Tonbridge replied tartly, that if he was a poor-law guardian, and responsible for a barrack school, it was no cause for boasting. She had not long parted with another of his girls, who had tried on her blouses, and gone out in her boots. She thought of offering the new girl a free and open choice of her wardrobe to begin with, so as to avoid unpleasantness.

"We all know that every mistress has the maid she deserves," said Winnington, deep in gingerbread cake. "I leave it there----"

"Yes, jolly well do!" cried Nora, who had come to sit on a stool in front of her mother and Winnington, her eager eyes glancing from one to the other---"Don't start Mummy on servants, Mr. Winnington. If you do, I shall go to bed. There's only one thing worth talking about---and that's----"

"Maumsey!" he said, laughing at her.

"Have you accomplished anything?" asked Lady Tonbridge. "Don't tell me you've dislodged the Fury!"

Winnington shook his head.

"J'y suis---j'y reste!"

"I thought so. There is no civilised way by which men can eject a woman. Tell me all about it."

Winnington, however, instead of expatiating on the Maumsey household, turned the conversation at once to something else---especially to Nora's first attempts at golf, in which he had been her teacher. Nora, whose reasonableness was abnormal, very soon took the hint, and after five minutes' "chaff" with Winnington, to whom she was devoted, she took up her work and went back to the garden.

"Nobody ever snubs me so efficiently as Nora," said Madeleine Tonbridge, with resignation, "though you come a good second. Discreet I shall never be. Don't tell me anything if you don't want to."

"But of course I want to! And there is nobody in the world so absolutely bound to help me as you."

"I knew you'd say that. Don't pile it on. Give me the kitten---and describe your proceedings."

Winnington handed her the grey Persian kitten reposing on a distant chair, and Lady Tonbridge, who always found the process conducive to clear thinking, stroked and combed the creature's beautiful fur, while the man talked,---with entire freedom now that they were tête-à-tête.

She was his good friend indeed, and she had also been the good friend of Sir Robert Blanchflower. It was natural that to her he should lay his perplexities bare.

------

But after she had heard his story and given her best mind to his position, she could not refrain from expressing the wonder she had felt from the beginning that he should ever have accepted it at all.

"What on earth made you do it? Bobby Blanchflower had no more real claim on you than this kitten!"

Winnington's grey eyes fixed on the trees outside shewed a man trying to retrace his own course.

"He wrote me a very touching letter. And I have always thought that men---and women---ought to be ready to do this kind of service for each other. I should have felt a beast if I had said No, at once. But I confess, now that I have seen Miss Delia, I don't know whether I can do the slightest good."

"Hold on!" said Lady Tonbridge, sharply,---"You can't give it up---now."

Winnington laughed. "I have no intention of giving it up. Only I warn you that I shall probably make a mess of it."

"Well"---the tone was coolly reflective---"that may do you good---whatever happens to the girl. You have never made a mess of anything yet in your life. It will be a new experience."

Winnington protested hotly that her remark only shewed how little even intimate friends know of each other's messes, and that his were already legion. Lady Tonbridge threw him an incredulous look. As he sat there in his bronzed and vigorous manhood, the first crowsfeet just beginning to shew round the eyes, and the first streaks of grey in the brown curls, she said to herself that none of her young men acquaintance possessed half the physical attractiveness of Mark Winnington; while none---old or young---could rival him at all in the humane and winning spell he carried about with him. To see Mark Winnington aux prises with an adventure in which not even his tact, his knowledge of men and women, his candour, or his sweetness, might be sufficient to win success, piqued her curiosity; perhaps even flattered that slight inevitable malice, wherewith ordinary mortals protect themselves against the favourites of the gods.

She was determined however to help him if she could, and she put him through a number of questions. The girl then was as handsome as she promised to be? A beauty, said Winnington---and of the heroic or poetic type. And the Fury? Winnington described the neat little lady, fashionably dressed and quiet-mannered, who had embittered the last years of Sir Robert Blanchflower, and firmly possessed herself of his daughter.

"You will see her to-morrow, at my house, when you come to tea. I carefully didn't ask her, but I am certain she will come, and Alice and I shall of course have to receive her."

"She is not thin-skinned then?"

"What fanatic is? It is one of the secrets of their strength."

"She probably regards us all as the dust under her feet," said Lady Tonbridge. "I wonder what game she will be up to here? Have you seen the Times this morning?"

Winnington nodded. It contained three serious cases of arson, in which Suffragette literature and messages had been discovered among the ruins, besides a number of minor outrages. An energetic leading article breathed the exasperation of the public, and pointed out the spread of the campaign of violence.

By this time Lady Tonbridge had carried her visitor into the garden, and they were walking up and down among the late September flowers. Beyond the garden lay green fields and hedgerows; beyond the fields rose the line of wooded hill, and, embedded in trees, the grey and gabled front of Monk Lawrence.

Winnington reported the very meagre promise he had been able to get out of his ward and her companion.

"The comfort is," said Lady Tonbridge, "that this is a sane neighbourhood---comparatively. They won't get much support. Oh, I don't know, though---" she added quickly. "There's that man---Mr. Lathrop, Paul Lathrop---who took Wood Cottage last year---a queer fish, by all accounts. I'm told he's written the most violent things backing up the militants generally. However, his own story has put him out of court."

"His own story?" said Winnington, with a puzzled look.

"Don't be so innocent!" laughed Lady Tonbridge, rather impatiently. "I always tell you, you don't give half place enough in life to gossip---'human nature's daily food.' I knew all about him a week after he arrived. However, I don't propose to save you trouble, Mr. Guardian! Go and look up a certain divorce case, with Mr. Lathrop's name in it, some time last year---if you want to know. That's enough for that."

But Winnington interrupted her, with a disturbed look. "I happened to meet that very man you are speaking of---yesterday---in the Abbey drive, going to call."

Lady Tonbridge shrugged her shoulders.

"There you see their freemasonry. I don't suppose they approve his morals---but he supports their politics. You won't be able to banish him!---Well, so the child is lovely? and interesting?"

Winnington assented warmly.

"But determined to make herself a nuisance to you? H'm! Mr. Mark---dear Mr. Mark--don't fall in love with her!"

Winnington's expression altered. He did not answer for a moment. Then he said, looking away---"Do you think you need have said that?"

"No!"---cried Madeleine Tonbridge remorsefully. "I am a wretch. But don't---don't!"

This time he smiled at her, though not without vexation. "Do you forget that I am nearly old enough to be her father?"

"Oh, that's nonsense!" she said hastily. "However---I'm not going to flatter you---or tease you. Forgive me. I put it out of my head. I wonder if there is anybody in the field already?"

"Not that I am aware of."

"Of course you know this kind of thing spoils a girl's prospects of marriage enormously. Men won't run the risk."

Winnington laughed. "And all the time, you're a Suffragist yourself!"

"Yes, indeed I am," was the stout reply. "Here am I, with a house and a daughter, a house-parlourmaid, a boot-boy, and rates to pay. Why shouldn't I vote as well as you? But the difference between me and the Fury is that she wants the vote this year---this month---this minute---and I don't care whether it comes in my time---or Nora's time---or my grand-children's time. I say we ought to have it---that it is our right---and you men are dolts not to give it us. But I sit and wait peaceably till you do---till the apple is ripe and drops. And meanwhile these wild women prevent its ripening at all. So long as they rage, there it hangs---out of our reach. So that I'm not only ashamed of them as a woman---but out of all patience with them as a Suffragist! However, for heaven's sake don't let's discuss the horrid subject. I'll do all I can for Delia---both for your sake and Bob's---I'll keep my best eye on the Fury---I feel myself of course most abominably responsible for her---and I hope for the best. Who's coming to your tea-party?"

Winnington enumerated. At the name of Susy Amberley, his hostess threw him a sudden look, but said nothing.

"The Andrews---Captain, Mrs. and Miss----"

Lady Tonbridge exclaimed.

"Why did you ask that horrid woman?"

"We didn't! Alice indiscreetly mentioned that Miss Blanchflower was coming to tea, and she asked herself."

"She's enough to make any one militant! If I hear her quote 'the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world' once more, I shall have to smite her. The girl's down-trodden, I tell you! Well, well---if you gossip too little, I gossip too much. Heavens!---what a light!"

Winnington turned to see the glow of a lovely afternoon fusing all the hill-side in a glory of gold and amethyst, and the windows in the long front of Monk Lawrence taking fire under the last rays of a fast-dropping sun.

"Do you know---I sometimes feel anxious about that house!" said Madeleine Tonbridge abruptly. "It's empty---it's famous---it belongs to a member of the Government. What is to prevent the women from attacking it?"

"In the first place, it isn't empty. The keeper, Daunt, from the South Lodge, has now moved into the house. I know, because Susy Amberley told me. She goes up there to teach one of my cripples---Daunt's second girl. In the next, the police are on the alert. And last---who on earth would dare to attack Monk Lawrence? The odium of it would be too great. A house bound up with English history and English poetry---No! They are not such fools!"

Lady Tonbridge shook her head. "Don't be so sure. Anyway, you as a magistrate can keep the police up to the mark."

------

Winnington departed, and his old friend was left to meditate on his predicament. It was strange to see Mark Winnington, with his traditional, English ways and feelings---carried, as she always felt, to their highest---thus face to face with the new feminist forces, as embodied in Delia Blanchflower. He had resented, clearly resented, the introduction---by her, Madeleine---of the sex element into the problem. But how difficult to keep it out! "He will see her constantly---he will have to exercise his will against hers---he will get his way---and then hate himself for conquering---he will disapprove, and yet admire,---will offend her, yet want to please her---a creature all fire, and beauty, and heroisms out of place! And she---could she, could I, could any woman I know, fight Mark Winnington---and not love him all the time? Men are men, and women are women---in spite of all these 'isms,' and 'causes.' I bet---but I don't know what I bet!----"

Then her thoughts gradually veered away from Mark to quite another person.

How would Susan Amberley be affected by this new interest in Mark Winnington's life? Madeleine's thoughts recalled a gentle face, a pair of honest eyes, a bearing timid and yet dignified. So she was teaching one of Mark's crippled children? And Mark thought no doubt she would have done the like for anyone else with a charitable hobby! Perhaps she would, for her heart was a fount of pity. All the same, the man---blind bat!---understood nothing. No fault of his, perhaps; but Lady Tonbridge felt a woman's angry sympathy with a form of waste so common and so costly.

And now the modest worshipper must see her hero absorbed day by day, and hour by hour, in the doings of a dazzling and magnificent creature like Delia Blanchflower. What food for torment, even in the meekest spirit!

So that the last word the vivacious woman said to herself was a soft "Poor Susy!" dropped into the heart of a September rose as she stooped to gather it.

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