Chapter XVII. Friends in Need
 

That afternoon the Vicar of Marley was paying house-to-house visits among his humbler parishioners. Though his conversation was the weak point to which attention has been drawn, Hugh Woodgate nevertheless possessed the not too common knack of chatting with the poor. He had the simplicity which made them kin, and his sympathy, unlike that of so many persons who consider themselves sympathetic, was not exclusively reserved for the death-bed and the ruined home. He wrote letters for the illiterate, found places for the unemployed, knew one baby from another as soon as their own mothers, and with his own hand sent to the local papers full reports of the village matches in which he rarely scored a run. Until this August afternoon he was not aware that he had made an actual enemy in all the years that he had spent in Delverton, first as an overworked Northborough curate, and latterly as one of the busiest country vicars in the diocese. But towards five o'clock, as Mr. Woodgate was returning to the Vicarage, a carriage and pair, sweeping past him in a cloud of dust, left the clergyman quite petrified on the roadside, his soft felt hat still in his hand; the carriage contained Mrs. Venables, who had simply stared him in the face when he took it off.

Woodgate was quite excited when he reached the Vicarage. Morna met him in the garden.

"Mrs. Venables cut me dead!" he cried while they were still yards apart.

"I am not surprised," replied Morna, who was in a state of suppressed excitement herself.

"But what on earth is the meaning of it?"

"She has just been here."

"Well?"

"She is not likely to come again. Oh, Hugh, I don't know how to tell you! If you agree with her for a moment, if you see any possible excuse for the woman, it will break my heart!"

Morna's fine eyes were filled with tears; the sight of them put out the flame that had leapt for once from stolid Hugh, and he took her hand in his own great soothing grasp.

"Come and sit down," he said, "and tell me all about it. Have I ever taken anybody's part against you, Morna, that you should think me likely to begin now?"

"No; but you would if you thought they were right and I was wrong."

Hugh reflected until they reached the garden-seat upon the lawn.

"Well, not openly, at all events," said he; "and not under any circumstances I can conceive in which Mrs. Venables was the other person."

"But she isn't the only other person; that is just it. Oh, Hugh, you do like Rachel, don't you?"

"I do," he said emphatically. "But surely you haven't been quarrelling with her?"

"No, indeed! And that is exactly why I have quarrelled with Mrs. Venables, because I wouldn't refuse to go to the dinner-party at Normanthorpe to-night!"

Woodgate was naturally nonplussed.

"Wouldn't refuse?" he echoed.

"Yes. She actually asked me not to go; and now I do believe she has gone driving round to ask everybody else!"

Woodgate's amazement ended in a guffaw.

"And that is what you quarrelled about!" he roared. "The woman must be mad. What reason did she give?"

"She had a reason, dear."

"But not a good one! There can be no excuse for such an action, let alone a good reason!"

Morna looked at her husband with sidelong anxiety, wondering whether he would say as much when he had heard all. She was sure enough of him. But as yet they had never differed on a point that mattered, and the one which was coming mattered infinitely to Morna.

"Hugh," she began, "do you remember being with Rachel yesterday at Hornby, when she was introduced to Sir Baldwin Gibson?"

"Perfectly," said Hugh.

"He is the judge, you know."

"Yes, yes."

"Did you think they looked as though they had ever seen each other before?"

The vicar revolved where he sat, looking his wife suddenly in the face, while a light broke over his own.

"Now you speak of it," he cried, "they did! It didn't strike me at the time. I was rather surprised at her being so nervous, but that never occurred to me as the explanation. Yet now I have no doubt about it. You don't mean to say he knows something against Mrs. Steel, and has been giving her away?"

"No, dear, the judge has not; but you were not the only one who saw the meeting; and other eyes are more suspicious than yours, Hugh. Darling, you would not think the worse of Rachel for keeping her past life to herself, would you, especially if it had been a very unhappy one?"

"Of course not; it is no business of ours."

"So you told Mrs. Venables the day she came to tell us Mr. Steel was married, and so I told her again this afternoon. However, that is not her main point, and there is another thing I am still surer you would never do. If a person had been put upon her trial, and found not guilty in open court, you would not treat her as though she had been found guilty, would you--even though the verdict had come as a surprise?"

"Of course I would not, Morna; no decent Christian would, I should hope! But do you mean to tell me that Mrs. Steel has been tried for something?"

"Yes; and by Justice Gibson!"

"Poor thing," said Hugh Woodgate, after a pause.

Morna took his hand.

"My dear, she is, or rather she was, Mrs. Minchin!"

"What! The woman who was tried for murdering her husband?"

"Yes--and acquitted."

"Good heavens!" exclaimed the vicar, and for a minute that was all. "Well," he continued, "I didn't read the case, and I am glad that I didn't, but I remember, of course, what was said about it at the time. But what does it matter what is said? I imagine the jury knew what they were about; they listened to the evidence for a week, I believe, which other people read in a few minutes. Of course they knew best! But how long have you known this, Morna?"

"Never until this afternoon; there was no reason why I should."

"Of course there was not."

"Then you agree with me, Hugh?"

And Morna was transfigured.

"Of course I agree with you! But I want to know more. Do you mean to tell me that a woman of education and ability, who calls herself a Christian, like Mrs. Venables, has actually backed out of this dinner-party on this account, and asked others to do the same?"

"She certainly asked me, point-blank," said Morna. "And when I refused, and persisted in my refusal, she flounced out in a rage, and must have cut you dead next minute."

"Incredible!" exclaimed Woodgate. "I mean, she must have had some further reason."

"Oh, but she had! I forgot to tell you in my anxiety to know what you thought. She came to me straight from Normanthorpe, where they had insulted her as she had never been insulted in her life before!"

"Who? Steel or his wife?"

"Mr. Steel, I fancy. Mrs. Venables had no name bad enough for him, but she brought it on herself, and I think more of him than I ever did before. You know that Mrs. Vinson, the Invernesses' new agent's wife?"

"I do. Langholm took her into dinner the night we dined at Upthorpe, and she was in the offing yesterday when Mrs. Steel was talking to the judge."

"Exactly! It appears that it was Mrs. Vinson who first suspected something, the very night you mention; and yesterday her suspicions were confirmed to her own satisfaction. At all events she felt justified in mentioning them to Mrs. Venables, who instantly drove over to ask Rachel to her face if there was any truth in the rumor that she was or had been Mrs. Minchin."

"Well?"

"Rachel told her it was perfectly true."

"Good!"

"And then the fat was in the fire; but what happened exactly it was impossible to gather from Mrs. Venables. I never saw a woman so beside herself with rage. She came in incoherent, and went out inarticulate! From the things she said of him, I could only guess that Mr. Steel had come upon the scene and insulted her as she deserved to be insulted. But I would give a good deal to know what did happen."

"Would you really?"

Morna started to her feet. The vicar rose more slowly, after sitting for some moments in mute confusion. It was Mrs. Steel who stood before them on their lawn, pale as death, and ten years older since the day before, yet with a smile upon her bloodless lips, which appeared indeed to express some faint irresistible amusement.

"Would you really like to know?" she repeated, standing at a distance from them, her great eyes travelling from one to the other. "It is strange, because I had come on purpose to tell you both that and all the rest--but especially all the rest--in which it seems Mrs. Venables has been before me." She paused an instant, and the corners of her sad mouth twitched just once. "What my husband did," said Rachel, "was to lock the doors and refuse to let her out until she had begged my pardon."

"I hope she did so," said Hugh Woodgate, with the emphasis which often atoned for the inadequacy of his remarks.

"In about three minutes," replied Rachel, dryly, with some pride, but no triumph in her tone.

Morna had not spoken. Now she took a quick step forward, her eyes brimming. But Rachel held up her hand.

"You are sure you realize who I am?"

"Yes, Rachel."

"Rachel Minchin!" added Rachel, harshly. "The notorious Mrs. Minchin--the Mrs. Minchin whom Mr. Venables would have come to see hanged!"

"Hush, Rachel, hush!"

"Then be honest with me--mind, honest--not kind! You would not have said what Mrs. Venables said to me; she said that all the world believed me guilty. You would not have said that, Morna; but are you sure you would not have said it in your heart? Can you look me in the face and tell me you don't believe it, like all the rest of the world?"

There was no faltering of the firm, sweet voice; it was only unutterably sad.

And Morna answered it only with a sob, as she flung her arms round Rachel's neck, while her husband waited with outstretched hand.