The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter IX. A Change of Scene
The Reverend Hugh Woodgate, Vicar of Marley-in-Delverton--a benefice for generations in the gift of the Dukes of Normanthorpe, but latterly in that of one John Buchanan Steel--was writing his sermon on a Friday afternoon just six months after the foregoing events. The month was therefore May, and, at either end of the long, low room in which Mr. Woodgate sat at work, the windows were filled with a flutter of summer curtains against a brilliant background of waving greenery. But a fire burned in one of the two fireplaces in the old-fashioned funnel of a room, for a treacherous east wind skimmed the sunlit earth outside, and whistled and sang through one window as the birds did through the other.
Mr. Woodgate was a tall, broad-shouldered, mild-eyed man, with a blot of whisker under each ear, and the cleanest of clerical collars encompassing his throat. It was a kindly face that pored over the unpretentious periods, as they grew by degrees upon the blue-lined paper, in the peculiar but not uncommon hand which is the hall-mark of a certain sort of education upon a certain order of mind. The present specimen was perhaps more methodical than most; therein it was characteristic of the man. From May to September, Mr. Woodgate never failed to finish his sermon on the Friday, that on the Saturday he might be free to play cricket with his men and lads. He was a poor preacher and no cricketer at all; but in both branches he did his best, with the simple zeal and the unconscious sincerity which redeemed not a few of his deficiencies.
So intent was the vicar upon his task, so engrossed in the expression of that which had already been expressed many a million times, that he did not hear wheels in his drive, on the side where the wind sang loudest; he heard nothing until the door opened, and a girl in her twenties, trim, slim, and brown with health, came hurriedly in.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, dear, but who do you think is here?"
Hugh Woodgate turned round in his chair, and his honest ox-eyes filled with open admiration of the wife who was so many years younger than himself, and who had seen in him Heaven knew what! He never could look at her without that look first; and only now, after some years of marriage, was he beginning sometimes to do so without this thought next. But he had not the gift of expression, even in the perpetual matter of his devotion; and perhaps its perpetuity owed something to that very want; at least there was none of the verbal evaporation which comes of too much lovers' talk.
"Who is it?" he asked.
Woodgate groaned. Was he obliged to appear? His jaw fell, and his wife's eyes sparkled.
"Dear, I wouldn't even have let you know she was here--you shouldn't have been interrupted for a single instant--if Mrs. Venables wasn't clamoring to see you. And really I begin to clamor too; for she is full of some mysterious news, which she won't tell me till you are there to hear it also. Be an angel, for five minutes!"
Woodgate wiped his pen in his deliberate way.
"Probably one of the girls is engaged," said he; "if so I hope it's Sybil."
"No, Sybil is here too; she doesn't look a bit engaged, but rather bored, as though she had heard the story several times already, whatever it may be. They have certainly paid several calls. Now you look quite nice, so in you come."
Mrs. Venables, a stout but comely lady, with a bright brown eye, and a face full of character and ability, opened fire upon the vicar as soon as they had shaken hands, while her daughter looked wistfully at the nearest books.
"He is married!" cried Mrs. Venables, beginning in the middle like a modern novelist.
"Indeed?" returned the matter-of-fact clergyman, with equal directness--"and who is he?"
"Your neighbor and your patron--Mr. Steel!"
"Married?" repeated Mrs. Woodgate, with tremendous emphasis. "Mr. Steel?"
"This is news!" declared her husband, as though he had expected none worthy of the name. And they both demanded further particulars, at which Mrs. Venables shook her expensive bonnet with great relish.
"Do you know Mr. Steel so well--so much better than we do--and can you ask for particulars about anything he ever does? His marriage," continued Mrs. Venables, "like everything else about him, is 'wrop in mystery,' as one of those vulgar creatures says in Dickens, but I really forget which. It was never announced in the Times; for that I can vouch myself. Was ever anything more like him, or less like anybody else? To disappear for six months, and then turn up with a wife!"
"But has he turned up?" cried the vicar's young wife, forgetting for a moment a certain preoccupation caused by the arrival of the tea-tray, and by a rapid resignation to the thickness of the bread and butter and the distressing absence of such hot things as would have been in readiness if Mrs. Venables had been expected for a single moment. It showed the youth of Morna Woodgate that she should harbor a wish to compete with the wealthiest woman in the neighborhood, even in the matter of afternoon tea, and her breeding that no such thought was legible in her clear-cut open-air face.
"I have heard nothing about it," said the vicar, in a tone indicative of much honest doubt in the matter.
"Nor is it the case, to my knowledge," rejoined Mrs. Venables; "but from all we hear it may become the case any moment. They were married in Italy last autumn--so he says--and are on their way home at this minute."
"If he says so," observed the vicar, with mild humor, "it is probably true. He ought to know."
"And who was she?" his young wife asked with immense interest, the cups having gone round, and the bread and butter been accepted in spite of its proportions.
"My dear Mrs. Woodgate," said Mrs. Venables, cordially, "you may well ask! Who was she, indeed! It was the first question I asked my own informant, who, by the way, was your friend, Mr. Langholm; but he knew no more than the man in the moon."
"And who told Mr. Langholm, of all people?" pursued Morna Woodgate. "It is not often that we get news of the real world from him!"
"Birds of a feather," remarked her caller: "it was Mr. Steel himself who wrote to your other eccentric friend, and told him neither more nor less than I have told you. He was married in Italy last autumn; not even the town--not even the month--let alone the lady's name--if, indeed--"
And Mrs. Venables concluded with a sufficiently eloquent hiatus.
"I imagine she is a lady," said the vicar to his tea.
"You are so charitable, dear Mr. Woodgate!"
"I hope I am," he said simply. "In this case I see no reason to be anything else."
"What--when you know really nothing about Mr. Steel himself?"
And the bright brown eyes of Mrs. Venables grew smaller and harder as they pinned Hugh Woodgate to his chair.
"I beg your pardon," said that downright person; "I know a great deal about Mr. Steel. He has done an immense amount for the parish; there are our new schoolrooms to speak for themselves. There are very few who would do the half of what Mr. Steel has done for us during the short time he has been at Normanthorpe."
"That may be," said the lady, with the ample smile of conscious condescension; "for he has certainly not omitted to let his light shine before men. But that is not telling us who or what he was before he came here, or how he made his money."
Then Hugh Woodgate gave the half boyish, half bashful laugh with which he was wont to preface his most candid sayings.
"And I don't think it's any business of ours," he said.
Morna went a trifle browner than she naturally was; her husband said so little that what he did say was often almost painfully to the point; and now Mrs. Venables had turned from him to her, with a smile which the young wife disliked, for it called attention to the vicar's discourtesy while it appealed to herself for prettier manners and better sense. It was a moment requiring some little tact, but Mrs. Woodgate was just equal to it.
"Hugh, how rude of you!" she exclaimed, with only the suspicion of a smile. "You forget that it's your duty to be friendly with everybody; there's no such obligation on anybody else."
"I should be friendly with Mr. Steel," said Hugh, "duty or no duty, after what he has done for the parish."
And his pleasant honest face and smile did away with the necessity for a set apology.
"I must say," added his wife to her visitor, "that it's the same with me, you know."
There was a pause.
"Then you intend to call upon her?" said Mrs. Venables, coming with directness to an obviously premeditated point.
"I do--I must--it is so different with us," said the vicar's young wife, with her pretty brown blush.
"Certainly," added the vicar himself, with dogmatic emphasis.
Mrs. Venables did not look at him, but she looked the harder at Morna instead.
"Well," said she, "I suppose you are right. In your position--yes--your position is quite different!" And the sudden, half accidental turn of her sentence put Mrs. Venables on good terms with herself once more; and so she rose all smiles and velvet. "No, not even half a cup; but it was really quite delicious; and I hope you'll come and see me soon, and tell me all about her. At his age!" she whispered as she went. "At sixty-five--if he's a day!"
A stranger would have imagined that this lady had quite decided not to call upon the newcomer herself; even Mrs. Woodgate was uncertain of her neighbor's intention as the latter's wheels ground the Vicarage drive once more, and she and her husband were left alone.
"It will depend upon the county," said she; "and Mrs. Venables is not the county pure and simple, she's half Northborough still, and she'll take her cue from the Invernesses and the Uniackes. But I do believe she's been round the whole country-side, getting people to say they won't call; as if it mattered to a man like Mr. Steel, or any woman he is likely to have chosen. Still, it is mysterious, isn't it? But what business of ours, as you say? Only, dear, you needn't have said it quite so pointedly. Of course I'll call as soon as I can in decency; she may let me be of use to her. Oh, bother Mrs. Venables! If she doesn't call, no doubt many others won't; you must remember that he has never entertained as yet. Oh, what a dance they could give! And did you hear what she said about his age? He is sixty-five, now!"
The vicar laughed. It was his habit to let his young wife rattle on when they were alone, and even lay down the law for him to her heart's content; but, though fifteen years her senior, and never a vivacious man himself, there was much in their life that he saw in the same light as she did, though never quite so soon.
"Sixty-five!" he suddenly repeated, with a fresh chuckle; "and last year, when Sybil was thought to be in the running--poor Sybil, how well she took it!--last year her mother told me she knew for a fact he was not a day more than five-and-forty! Poor Steel, too! He has done for them both in that quarter, I am afraid. And now," added Hugh, in his matter-of-fact way, as though they had been discussing theology all this time, "I must go back to my sermon if I am to get it done to-night."