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Chapter XIV

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« on: November 28, 2022, 08:56:42 pm »

LADY TONBRIDGE was sitting in the window-seat of a little sitting-room adjoining her bedroom at Maumsey Abbey. That the young mistress of Maumsey had done her best to make her guest comfortable, that guest most handsomely acknowledged. Some of the few pretty things which the house contained had been gathered there. The chintz-covered sofa and chairs, even though the chintz was ugly, had the pleasant country-house look which suggests afternoon tea and chatting friends; a bright fire, flowers and a lavish strewing of books completed the hospitable impression.

Yet Madeleine Tonbridge had by no means come to Maumsey Abbey, at Winnington's bidding, as to a Land of Cockaigne. She at all events regarded Delia as a "handful," and was on the watch day by day for things outrageous. She could not help liking the beautiful creature---almost loving her! But Delia was still a "Daughter of Revolt"---apparently unrepentant; that dangerous fanatic, her pretended chaperon, was still in constant correspondence with her; the papers teemed with news of militant outrages, north, south, east and west; and riotous doings were threatened for the meeting of Parliament by Delia's Society. On all these matters Delia shut her proud lips. Indeed her new reticence with regard to militant doings and beliefs struck Lady Tonbridge as more alarming than the young and arrogant defiance with which on her first arrival she had been wont to throw them at the world. Madeleine could not rid herself of the impression during these weeks that Delia had some secret cause of anxiety connected with the militant propaganda. She was often depressed, and there were moments when she shewed a nervousness not easily accounted for. She scarcely ever mentioned Gertrude Marvell; and she never wrote her letters in public; while those she received, she would carry away to the gun room---which she had now made her own particular den---before she opened them.

At the same time, if Weston recovered from the operation, in three weeks or so it would be possible for Delia to leave Maumsey; and it was generally understood that she would then join her friend in London, just in time for the opening of Parliament. For the moment, it was plain she was not engaged in any violent doings. But who could answer for the future?

And meanwhile, what was Mark Winnington about? It was all very well to sit there trifling with the pages of the Quarterly Review! In her moments of solitude by night or day, during the five days she had already spent at Maumsey, Madeleine had never really given her mind to anything else but the engrossing question: "Is he in love with her---or is he not?"

Of course she had foreseen---had feared---the possibility of it, from that very first moment, almost---when Winnington had written to her describing the terms of Bob Blanchflower's will, and his own acceptance of the guardianship.

Yet why "feared"? Had she not for years desired few things so sincerely as to see Winnington happily married? As to that old tragedy, with its romantic effect upon his life, her first acquiescence in that effect, as something irrevocable, had worn away with time. It now seemed to her an intolerable thing that Agnes Clay's death should for ever stand between Winnington and love. It was positively anti-social---bad citizenship---that such a man as Mark Winnington should not produce sons and daughters for the State, when all the wastrels and cheats in creation were so active in the business.

All the same, she had but rarely ventured to attack him on the subject, and the results had not been encouraging. She was certain that he had entered upon the guardianship of Delia Blanchflower in complete single-mindedness---confident, disdainfully confident, in his own immunity; and after that first outburst into which friendship had betrayed her, she had not dared to return to the subject. But she had watched him---with the lynx eyes of a best friend; and that best friend, a woman to whom love affairs were the most interesting things in existence. In which, of course, she knew she was old-fashioned, and behind the mass of the sex, now racing toward what she understood was called the "economic independence of women"---i.e. a life without man.

But in spite of watching, she was much perplexed as to both the persons concerned. She had now been nearly a week at Maumsey, in obedience to Delia's invitation and Winnington's urging. The opportunity indeed of getting to know Mark's beautiful and troublesome ward more intimately was extremely welcome to her curiosity. Hitherto Gertrude Marvell had served as an effective barrier between Delia and her neighbours. The neighbours did not want to know Miss Marvell, and Miss Marvell, Madeleine Tonbridge was certain, had never intended that the neighbours should rob her of Delia.

But now Gertrude Marvell had in some strange sudden way vacated her post; and the fortress lay open to attack and capture, were anyone strong enough to seize it. Moreover Delia's visitor had not been twenty-four hours in the house before she had perceived that Delia's attitude to her guardian was new, and full of suggestion to the shrewd bystander. Winnington had clearly begun to interest the girl profoundly---both in himself, and in his relation to her. She now wished to please him, and was nervously anxious to avoid hurting or offending him. She was always conscious of his neighbourhood or his mood; she was eager---though she tried to conceal it---for information about him; and three nights already had Lady Tonbridge lingered over Delia's bedroom fire, the girl on the rug at her feet, while the elder woman poured out her recollections of Mark Winnington, from the days when she and he had been young together.

As to that vanished betrothed, Agnes Clay,--the heroine of Winnington's brief engagement---Delia's thirst for knowledge, in a restless, suppressed way, had been insatiable. Was she jealous of that poor ghost, and of all those delicate, domestic qualities with which her biographer could not but invest her? The daughter of a Dean of Wanchester---retiring, spiritual, tender,---suggesting a cloistered atmosphere, and The Christian Year---she was still sharp in Madeleine's recollection, and that lady felt a certain secret and mischievous zest in drawing her portrait, while Delia, her black brows drawn together, her full red mouth compressed, sat silent.

Then---Winnington as a friend!---upon that theme indeed Madeleine had used her brightest colours. And to make this passive listener understand what friendship meant in Winnington's soul, it had been necessary for the speaker to tell her own story, as much at least as it was possible for her to tell, and Delia to hear. A hasty marriage---"my own fault, my dear, as much as my parents'!"---twelve years of torment and humiliation at the hands of a bad man, descending rapidly to the pit, and quite willing to drag his wife and child with him, ending in a separation largely arranged by Winnington---and then---"We retired, Nora and I, on a decent allowance---my own money really---only, like a fool, I had let it all get into Alfred's hands. We took a house at Richmond. Nora was fifteen. For two years my husband paid the money. Then he wrote to say he was tired of doing without his daughter, and he required her to live with him for six months in the year, as a condition of continuing the allowance. I refused. We would sooner both of us have thrown ourselves into the Thames. Alfred blustered and threatened---but he could do nothing---except cut off the allowance, which he did, at once. Then Mark Winnington found me the cottage here, and made everything smooth for us. I wouldn't take any money from him, though he was abominably ready to give it us! But he got me lessons---he got me friends. He's made everybody here feel for us, and respect us. He's managed the little bits of property we've got left---he's watched over Nora---he's been our earthly Providence---and we both adore him!"

On which the speaker, with a flickering smile and tear-dashed eyes, had taken Delia's face in her two slender hands---"And don't be such a fool, dear, as to imagine there's been anything in it, ever, but the purest friendship and good-heartedness that ever bound three people together! My greatest joy would be to see him married---to a woman worthy of him---if there is one! And he, I suppose, will find his reward in marrying Nora---to some nice fellow. He begins to match-make for her already."

Delia slowly withdrew herself. "And he himself doesn't intend to marry?" She asked the question, clasping her long arms round her knees, as she sat on the floor, her dark eyes defiantly steady on her guest's face.

Lady Tonbridge could hear her own answer. "L'homme propose! Let the right woman try!"

Whereupon Delia, a delicious figure in a white dressing-gown, a flood of curly brown hair falling about her neck and shoulders, had sprung up, and bidden her guest a hasty Good Night.

One other small incident she recalled. A propos of some anxious calculation made by Winnington's sister, Alice Matheson, one day in talk with Lady Tonbridge---Delia being present---as to whether Mark could possibly afford a better motor than the "ramshackle little horror" he was at present dependent on, Delia had said abruptly, on the departure of Mrs. Matheson---"But surely the legacy my father left Mr. Winnington would get a new motor?"

"But he hasn't taken it, and never will!" Lady Tonbridge had cried, amazed at the girl's ignorance.

"Why not?" Delia had demanded, almost fiercely, looking very tall, and oddly resentful.

Why not? "Because one doesn't take payment for that sort of thing!" had been Mark's laughing explanation, and the only explanation that she, Madeleine, had been able to get out of him. She handed it on---to Delia's evident discomfort. So, all along, this very annoying---though attaching---young woman had imagined that Winnington was being handsomely paid for putting up with her!

---

And Winnington?

Here, again, it was plain there was a change of attitude, though what it meant Madeleine could not satisfactorily settle with herself. In the early days of his guardianship he had been ready enough to come to her, his most intimate woman-friend, and talk about his ward, though always with that chivalrous delicacy which was his gift among men. Of late he had been much less ready to talk: a good sign! And now, since Gertrude Marvell's blessed departure, he was more at Maumsey than he had ever been before. He seemed indeed to be pitting his own influence against Miss Marvell's, and in his modest way, yet consciously, to be taking Delia in hand, and endeavouring to alter her outlook on life; clearing away, so far as he could, the atmosphere of angry, hearsay propaganda in which she had spent her recent years, and trying to bring her face to face with the deeper loves and duties and sorrows which she in her headstrong youth knew so little about, while they entered so profoundly into his own upright and humane character.

Well, but did all this mean love?--the desire of the man for the woman?

Madeleine Tonbridge pondered it. She recollected a number of little acts and sayings, throwing light upon his profound feeling for the girl, his sympathy with her convictions, her difficulties, her wild revolts against existing abuses and tyrannies. "I learn from her"---he had said once, in conversation,---"she teaches me many things." Madeleine could have laughed in his face---but for the passionate sincerity in his look.

One thing she perceived---that he was abundantly roused on the subject of that man Lathrop's acquaintance with his ward. Lathrop's name had not been mentioned since Lady Tonbridge's arrival, but she received the impression of a constant vigilance on Winnington's part, and a certain mystery and unhappiness on Delia's. As to the notion that such a man as Paul Lathrop could have any attraction for such a girl as Delia Blanchflower, the idea was simply preposterous,---except on the general theory that no one is really sane, and every woman "is at heart a rake." But of course there was the common interest, or what appeared to be a common interest, in this militant society to which Delia was still so intolerably committed! And an unscrupulous man might easily make capital out of it.

At this stage in the rambling reverie which possessed her, Lady Tonbridge was aware of footsteps on the gravel outside. Winnington? He had proposed to take Delia for a ride that afternoon, to distract her mind from Weston's state, and from the operation which was to take place early the following morning. She drew the curtain aside.

Paul Lathrop!

Madeleine felt herself flushing with surprise and indignation. The visitor was let in immediately. It surely was her duty to go down and play watchdog!

She firmly rose. But as she did so, there was a knock at her door, and Delia hurriedly entered. "I---I thought I'd better say---Mr. Lathrop's just come to see me---on business. I'm so sorry, but you won't mind my coming to say so?"

Lady Tonbridge raised her eyebrows. "You mean---you want to see him alone? All right. I'll come down presently."

Delia disappeared.

---

For more than half an hour did that "disreputable creature," as Lady Tonbridge roundly dubbed him, remain closeted with Delia, in Delia's drawing-room. Towards the end of the time the visitor overhead was walking to and fro impatiently, vowing to herself that she was bound---positively bound to Winnington---to go down and dislodge the man. But just as she was about to leave her room, she again heard the front door open and close. She ran to the window just in time to see Lathrop departing---and Winnington arriving!---on foot and alone. She watched the two men pass each other in the drive---Winnington's start of haughty surprise---and Lathrop's smiling and, as she thought, insolent greeting. It seemed to her that Winnington hesitated---was about to stop and address the intruder. But he finally passed him by with the slightest and coldest recognition. Lathrop's fair hair and slouching shoulders disappeared round a corner of the drive. Winnington hurried to the front door and entered.

Lady Tonbridge resolutely threw herself into an arm-chair and took up a novel. "Now let them have it out! I don't interfere."

---

Meanwhile Delia, with a red spot of agitation on either cheek, was sitting at the old satin-wood bureau in the drawing-room, writing a cheque. A knock at the door disturbed her. She half rose, to see Winnington open and close it.

A look at his face startled her. She sank back into her chair, in evident confusion. But her troubled eyes met his appealingly.

Winnington's disturbance was plain. "I had ventured to think---to hope"---he began abruptly---"that although you refused to give me your promise when I asked it, yet that you would not again---or so soon again---receive Mr. Lathrop---privately."

Delia rose and came towards him. "I told Lady Tonbridge not to come down. Was that very wrong of me?" She looked at him, half smiling, half hanging her head.

"It was unwise---and, I think, unkind!" said Winnington, with energy.

"Unkind to you?" She lifted her beautiful eyes. There was something touching in their strained expression, and in her tone.

"Unkind to yourself, first of all," he said firmly. "I must repeat, Miss Delia, that this man is not a fit associate for you or any young girl. You do yourself harm by admitting him---by allowing him to see you alone---and you hurt your friends."

Delia paused a moment. "Then you don't trust me at all?" she said at last, slowly.

Winnington melted. How pale she looked! He came forward and took her hand---

"Of course I trust you! But you don't know---you are too young. You confess you have some business with Mr. Lathrop that you can't tell me---your guardian; and you have no idea to what misrepresentations you expose yourself, or with what kind of a man you have to deal!"

Delia withdrew her hand, and dropped into a chair---her eyes on the carpet. "I meant"---she said, and her tone trembled---"I did mean to have told you everything to-day."

"And now---now you can't?"

She made no reply, and in the silence he watched her closely. What could account for such an eclipse of all her young vivacity? It was clear to him that that fellow was entangling her in some monstrous way---part and parcel no doubt of this militant propaganda---and calculating on developments. Winnington's blood boiled. But while he stood uncertain, Delia rose, went to the bureau where she had been writing, brought thence a cheque, and mutely offered it.

"What is this?" he asked.

"The money you lent me."

And to his astonishment he saw that the cheque was for 500, and was signed "Delia Blanchflower."

"You will of course explain?" he said, looking at her keenly. Suddenly Delia's embarrassed smile broke through.

"It's---it's only that I've been trying to pay my debts!"

His patience gave way.

"I'm afraid I must tell you---very plainly---that unless you can account to me for this cheque, I must entirely refuse to take it!"

Delia put her hands behind her, like a scolded child. "It is my very own," she protested mildly. "I had some ugly jewels that my grandmother left me, and I have sold them---that's all."

Winnington's grey eyes held her. "H'm---and---has Mr. Lathrop had anything to do with the sale?"

"Yes!" She looked up frankly, still smiling. "He has managed it for me."

"And it never occurred to you to apply to your guardian in such a matter? Or to your lawyer?"

She laughed---with what he admitted was a very natural scorn. "Ask my guardian to provide me with the means of helping the 'Daughters'---when he regards us all as criminals? On the contrary, I wanted to relieve your conscience, Mr. Winnington!"

"I can't say you have succeeded," he said grimly, as he began to pace the drawing-room, with slow steps, his hands in his pockets.

"Why not? Now---everything you give me can go to the right things---what you consider the right things. And what is my own---my very own---I can use as I please."

Yet neither tone nor gesture were defiant, as they would have been a few weeks before. Rather her look was wistful---appealing---as she stood there, a perplexing but most charming figure, in her plain black dress, with its Quakerish collar of white lawn.

He turned on her impetuously. "And Mr. Lathrop has arranged it all for you?"

"Yes. He said he knew a good deal about jewellers. I gave him some diamonds. He took them to London, and he has sold them."

"How do you know he has even treated you honestly?"

"I am certain he has done it honestly!" she cried indignantly. "There are the letters---from the jewellers---" And running to the bureau, she took thence a packet of letters and thrust them into Winnington's hands.

He looked them through in silence,---turning to her, as he put them down.

"I see. It is of course possible that this firm of jewellers have paid Mr. Lathrop a heavy commission behind the scenes, of which you know nothing. But I don't press that. Indeed I will assume exactly the contrary. I will suppose that Mr. Lathrop has acted without any profit to himself. If so, in my eyes it only makes the matter worse---for it establishes a claim on you. Miss Delia!"---his resolute gaze held her---"I do not take a farthing of this money unless you allow me to write to Mr. Lathrop, and offer him a reasonable commission for his services!"

"No---no! Impossible!" She turned away from him, towards the window, biting her lip---in sharp distress.

"Then I return you this cheque"---he laid it down beside her. "And I shall replace the money,---the 500---which I ought never to have allowed you to spend as you have done, out of my own private pocket."

She stood silent, looking into the garden, her chest heaving. She thought of what Lady Tonbridge had told her of his modest means---and those generous hidden uses of them, of which even his most intimate friends only got an occasional glimpse. Suddenly she went up to him---"Will you---will you promise me to write civilly?" she said, in a wavering voice.

"Certainly."

"You won't offend---insult him?"

"I will remember that you have allowed him to come into this drawing-room, and treated him as a guest," said Winnington coldly. "But why, Miss Delia, are you so careful about this man's feelings? And is it still impossible that you should meet my wishes---and refuse to see him again?"

She shook her head---mutely.

"You intend---to see him again?"

"You forget---that we have---business together."

Winnington paused a moment, then came nearer to the chair on which she had dropped. "This last week---we have been very good friends---haven't we, Miss Delia?"

"Call me Delia, please!"

"Delia, then!---we have come to understand each other much better---haven't we?"

She made a drooping sign of assent.

"Can't I persuade you---to be guided by me---as your father wished---during these next years of your life? I don't ask you to give up your convictions---your ideals. We should all be poor creatures without them! But I do ask you to give up these violent and illegal methods---this violent and illegal Society---with which you have become entangled. It will ruin your life, and poison your whole nature!---unless you can shake yourself free. Work for the Suffrage as much as you like---but work for it honourably---and lawfully. I ask you---I beg of you!---to give up these associates---and these methods."

The tenderness and gravity of his tone touched the girl's quivering senses almost unbearably. It was like the tenderness of a woman. She felt a wild impulse to throw herself into his arms, and weep. But instead she grew very white and still.

"I can't!"---was all she said, her eyes on the ground. Winnington turned away.

Suddenly---a sound of hasty steps in the hall outside---and the door was opened by a nurse, in uniform.

"Miss Blanchflower!---can you come?" Delia sprang up. She and the nurse disappeared together.

---

Winnington guessed what had happened. Weston, who was to face a frightful operation on the morrow as the only chance of saving her life, had on the whole gone through the fortnight of preparatory treatment with wonderful courage. But during the last forty-eight hours, there had been attacks of crying and excitement, connected with the making of her will, which she had insisted on doing, being herself convinced that she would die under the knife. Medically, all such agitation was disastrous. But the only person who could calm her at these moments was Delia, whom she loved. And the girl had shewn in dealing with her a marvellous patience and strength.

Presently Madeleine Tonbridge came downstairs---with red eyes. She described the scene of which she had just been a witness in Weston's room. Delia, she said, choking again at the thought of it, had been "wonderful." Then she looked enquiringly at Winnington--

"You met that man going away?"

He sat down beside her, unable to disguise his trouble of mind, or to resist the temptation of her sympathy and their old friendship. "I am certain there is some plot afoot---some desperate business---and they are trying to draw her into it! What can we do?"

Lady Tonbridge shook her head despondently. What indeed could they do, with a young lady of full age,---bent on her own way? Then she noticed the cheque lying open on the table, and asked what it meant.

"Miss Delia wishes to repay me some money I lent her," said Winnington, after a pause. "As matters stand at present, I prefer to wait. Would you kindly take charge of the cheque for her? No need to worry her about it again, to-night."

---

Delia came down at tea-time, pale and quiet, like one from whom virtue has gone out. By tacit consent Winnington and Lady Tonbridge devoted themselves to her. It seemed as though in both minds there had arisen the same thought of her as orphaned and motherless, the same pity, the same resentment that anything so lovely should be unhappy---as she clearly was; and not only, so both were convinced, on account of her poor maid.
 
Winnington stayed on into the lamplight, and presently began to read aloud. The scene became intimate and domestic. Delia, very silent, sat in a deep arm-chair, some pretence at needlework on her knee, but in reality doing nothing but look into the fire, and listen to Winnington's voice. She had changed while upstairs into a white dress, and the brilliance of her hair, and wide, absent eyes above the delicate folds of white, seemed to burn in Winnington's consciousness as he read. Presently, however, Lady Tonbridge, looking up, was startled to see that the girl had imperceptibly fallen asleep. The childish sadness and sweetness of the face in its utter repose seemed to present another Delia, with another history. Madeleine hoped that Winnington had not observed the girl's sleep; and he certainly gave no sign of it. He went on reading; and presently his companion, noticing the clock, rose very quietly, and went out to give a letter to the parlour-maid for post.

As she entered the room again, however, she saw that Winnington had laid down his book. His eyes were now on Delia---his lips parted. All the weather-beaten countenance of the man, its deep lines graven by strenuous living, glowed as from an inward light---marvellously intense and pure.  Madeleine's pulse leapt. She had her answer to her speculations of the afternoon.

Meanwhile through Delia's sleeping mind there swept scenes and images of fear. She grew restless, and as Lady Tonbridge slipped again into her chair by the fire, the girl woke suddenly with a long quivering sigh, a sound of pain, which provoked a quick movement of alarm in Winnington.

But she very soon recovered her usual manner; and Winnington said Good Night. He went away carrying his anxieties with him through the dark, carrying also a tumult of soul that would not be stilled. Whither was he drifting? Of late he had felt sure of himself again. Her best friend and guide---it was that he was rapidly becoming---with that, day by day, he bade himself be content. And now, once more, self-control was uprooted and tottering. It was the touch of this new softness, this note of innocent appeal, even of bewildered distress, in her, which was kindling all his manhood, and breaking down his determination.

He raged at the thought of Lathrop. As to any danger of a love-affair, like Lady Tonbridge he scouted the notion. It would be an insult to Delia to suppose such a thing. But it was simply intolerable in his eyes that she should have any dealings with the fellow---that he should have the audacity to call at her house, to put her under an obligation.

And he was persuaded there was more than appeared in it; more than Delia's devices for getting money, wherewith to feed the League of Revolt. She was clearly anxious, afraid. Some shadow was brooding over her, some terror that she could not disclose---of that Winnington was certain. And this man, whom she had already accepted as her colleague in a public campaign, was evidently in the secret; might be even the cause of her fears.

He began hotly to con the terms of his letter to Lathrop; and then had to pull himself up, remembering unwillingly what he had promised Delia.

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