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"Are they improper?" cried Mrs. Roughsedge, much distressed. Captain Roughsedge threw an angry look first at his mother and then at the Vicar.
"Not in the usual sense," said the Vicar, stiffly--"but highly improper for the reading of Christian people. One is by a Unitarian, and the other reproduces some of the worst speculations of an infidel German theology. I pointed out the nature of the books to Miss Mallory. She replied that they were both by authors whom her father liked. I regretted it. Then she fired up, refused to withdraw the names, and offered to resign. Miss Mallory's subscription to the Club is, however, much larger than mine. _I_ shall therefore resign--protesting, of course, against the reason which induces me to take this course."
"What's wrong with the books?" asked Hugh Roughsedge.
The Vicar drew himself up.
"I have given my reasons."
"Why, you see that kind of thing in every newspaper," said Roughsedge, bluntly.
"All the more reason why I should endeavor to keep my parish free from it," was the Vicar's resolute reply. "However, there is no more to be said. I wished Mrs. Roughsedge to understand what had happened--that is all."
He paused, and offered a limp hand in good-bye.
"Let me speak to Miss Mallory," said Mrs. Roughsedge, soothingly.
The Vicar shook his head.
"She is a young lady of strong will." And with a hasty nod of farewell to the Captain, whose hostility he divined, he walked away.
"And what about obstinate and pig-headed parsons!" said Roughsedge, hotly, addressing his remark, however, safely to the Vicar's back, and to his mother. "Who makes him a judge of what we shall read! I shall make a point of asking for both the books!"
"Oh, my dear Hugh!" cried his mother, in rather troubled protest. Then she happily reflected that if he asked for them, he was not in the least likely to read them. "I hope Miss Mallory is not really an unbeliever."
"Mother! Of course, what that poker in a wide-awake did was to say something uncivil about her father, and she wasn't going to stand that.
Quite right, too."
"She did come to church on Christmas Day," said Mrs. Roughsedge, reflecting. "But, then, a great many people do that who don't believe anything. Anyway, she has always been quite charming to your father and me. And I think, besides, the Vicar might have been satisfied with your father's opinion--_he_ made no complaint about the books. Oh, now the Miss Bertrams are going to stop us! They'll of course know all about it!"
If Captain Roughsedge growled ugly words into his mustache, his mother was able to pretend not to hear them, in the gentle excitement of shaking hands with the Miss Bertrams. These middle-aged ladies, the daughters of a deceased doctor from the neighboring county town of Duns...o...b.., were, if possible, more plainly dressed than usual, and their manners more forbidding.
"You will have heard of this disagreeable incident which has occurred,"
said Miss Maria to Mrs. Roughsedge, with a pinched mouth. "My sister and I shall, of course, remove our names from the Club."
"I say--don't your subscribers order the books they like?" asked Roughsedge, half wroth and half laughing, surveying the lady with his hand on his side.
"There is a very clear understanding among us," said Miss Maria, sharply, "as to the character of the books to be ordered. No member of the Club has yet transgressed it."
"There must be give and take, mustn't there?" said Miss Elizabeth, in a deprecatory voice. She was the more amiable and the weaker of the two sisters. "_We_ should _never_ order books that would be offensive to Miss Mallory."
"But if you haven't read the books?"
"The Vicar's word is quite enough," said Miss Maria, with her most determined air.
They all moved on together, Captain Roughsedge smoothing or tugging at his mustache with a restless hand.
But Miss Bertram, presently, dropping a little behind, drew Mrs.
Roughsedge with her.
"There are all sorts of changes at the house," she said, confidentially.
"The laundry maids are allowed to go out every evening, if they like--and Miss Mallory makes no attempt to influence the servants to come to church. The Vicar says the seats for the Beechcote servants have never been so empty."
"Dear, dear!" murmured Mrs. Roughsedge.
"And money is improperly given away. Several people whom the Vicar thinks most unfit objects of charity have been a.s.sisted. And in a conversation with her last week Miss Mallory expressed herself in a very sad way about foreign missions. Her father's idea, again, no doubt--but it is all very distressing. The Vicar doubts"--Miss Maria spoke warily, bringing her face very close to the gray curls--"whether she has ever been confirmed."
This final stroke, however, fell flat. Mrs. Roughsedge showed no emotion. "Most of my aunts," she said, stoutly, "were never confirmed, and they were good Christians and communicants all their lives."
Miss Maria's expression showed that this reference to a preceding barbaric age of the Church had no relevance to the existing order of things.
"Of course," she added, hastily, "I do not wish to make myself troublesome or conspicuous in any way. I merely mention these things as explaining why the Vicar felt bound to make a stand. The Church feeling in this parish has been so strong it would, indeed, be a pity if anything occurred to weaken it."
Mrs. Roughsedge gave a doubtful a.s.sent. As to the Church feeling, she was not so clear as Miss Bertram. One of her chief friends was a secularist cobbler who lived under the very shadow of the church. The Miss Bertrams shuddered at his conversation. Mrs. Roughsedge found him racy company, and he presented to her aspects of village life and opinion with which the Miss Bertrams were not at all acquainted.
As the mother and son approached the old house in the sunset light, its aspect of mellow and intimate congruity with the woods and fields about it had never been more winning. The red, gray, and orange of its old brickwork played into the brown and purples of its engirdling trees, into the lilacs and golds and crimsons of the western sky behind it, into the cool and quiet tones of the meadows from which it rose. A spirit of beauty had been at work fusing man's perishable and pa.s.sing work with Nature's eternal masterpiece; so that the old house had in it something immortal, and the light which played upon it something gently personal, relative, and fleeting. Winter was still dominant; a northeast wind blew. But on the gra.s.s under the spreading oaks which sheltered the eastern front a few snow-drops were out. And Diana was gathering them.
She came toward her visitors with alacrity. "Oh! what a long time since you have been to see me!"
Mrs. Roughsedge explained that she had been entertaining some relations, and Hugh had been in London. She hoped that Miss Mallory had enjoyed her stay at Tallyn. It certainly seemed to both mother and son that the ingenuous young face colored a little as its owner replied--"Thank you--it was very amusing"--and then added, with a little hesitation--"Mr. Marsham has been kindly advising me since, about the gardens--and the Vavasours. _They_ were to keep up the gardens, you know--and now they practically leave it to me--which isn't fair."
Mrs. Roughsedge secretly wondered whether this statement was meant to account for the frequent presence of Oliver Marsham at Beechcote. She had herself met him in the lane riding away from Beechcote no less than three times during the past fortnight.
"Please come in to tea!" said Diana; "I am just expecting my cousin--Miss Merton. Mrs. Colwood and I are so excited!--we have never had a visitor here before. I came out to try and find some snow-drops for her room. There is really nothing in the greenhouses--and I can't make the house look nice."
Certainly as they entered and pa.s.sed through the panelled hall to the drawing-room Hugh Roughsedge saw no need for apology. Amid the warm dimness of the house he was aware of a few starry flowers, a few gleaming and beautiful stuffs, the white and black of an engraving, or the blurred golds and reds of an old Italian picture, humble school-work perhaps, collected at small cost by Diana's father, yet still breathing the magic of the Enchanted Land. The house was refined, pleading, eager--like its mistress. It made no display--but it admitted no vulgarity. "These things are not here for mere decoration's sake," it seemed to say. "Dear kind hands have touched them; dear silent voices have spoken of them. Love them a little, you also!--and be at home."
Not that Hugh Roughsedge made any such conscious a.n.a.lysis of his impressions. Yet the house appealed to him strangely. He thought Miss Mallory's taste marvellous; and it is one of the superiorities in women to which men submit most readily.
The drawing-room had especially a festive air. Mrs. Colwood was keeping tea-cakes hot, and building up a blazing fire with logs of beech-wood.
When she had seated her guests, Diana put the snow-drops she had gathered into an empty vase, and looked round her happily, as though now she had put the last touch to all her preparations. She talked readily of her cousin's coming to Mrs. Roughsedge; and she inquired minutely of Hugh when the next meet was to be, that she might take her guest to see it.
"f.a.n.n.y will be just as new to it all as I!" she said. "That's so nice, isn't it?" Then she offered Mrs. Roughsedge cake, and looked at her askance with a hanging head. "Have you heard--about the Vicar?"
Mrs. Roughsedge admitted it.
"I did lose my temper," said Diana, repentantly. "But _really!_--papa used to tell me it was a sign of weakness to say violent things you couldn't prove. Wasn't it Lord Shaftesbury that said some book he didn't like was 'vomited out of the jaws of h.e.l.l'? Well, the Vicar said things very like that. He did indeed!"
"Oh no, my dear, no!" cried Mrs. Roughsedge, disturbed by the quotation, even, of such a remark. Hugh Roughsedge grinned. Diana, however, insisted.
"Of course, I would have given them up. Only I just happened to say that papa always read everything he could by those two men--and then"--she flushed--"Well, I don't exactly remember what Mr. Lavery said. But I know that when he'd said it I wouldn't have given up either of those books for the world!"
"I hope, Miss Mallory, you won't think of giving them up," said Hugh, with vigor. "It will be an excellent thing for Lavery."
Mrs. Roughsedge, as the habitual peacemaker of the village, said hastily that Dr. Roughsedge should talk to the Vicar. Of course, he must not be allowed to do anything so foolish as to withdraw from the Club, or the Miss Bertrams either."