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CHAPTER X.
"OF THE WEAK MY HEART IS WEAKEST."

"You had better send cards to Mrs. Crowther, Isola," said Martin Disney, two days afterwards, when his wife was sitting at her Davenport writing her family letters.

"Cards! Oh, Martin, she would think that so very formal. I can call upon her. She is always at home on Thursday afternoons, and she likes me to go."

"I am sorry for that, since I had rather you should never enter her house again."

"Martin!"

"I have nothing to say against Mrs. Crowther, my dear Isola. But the man is more detestable than I could have believed low birth and unlimited money could make any man. Guileless and inexperienced as you are, I think you must have felt that his manner to you the other night was familiar to the point of being insulting."

Isola had felt both embarrassed and distressed by her host's attentions—the insinuating inflections of his fat, pompous voice; his air of being upon a confidential footing with her.[Pg 125] It had seemed to her on that evening as if for the first time in her life, before the eyes of men and women, she drank the cup of shame. She had said no word to her husband of Mr. Crowther's oppressive familiarity, and she had fondly hoped that the matter had escaped his notice.

She sat before him now, flushed and agitated, with lowered eyelids, and one hand restlessly moving about the papers on her blotting-pad.

"My dearest, there is nothing in all this to distress you," said Disney, with infinite gentleness. "It is not your fault that the man is a cad; but it would be my fault if I were to allow you or Allegra to go to his house again."

"He was not rude to Allegra."

"No; it would be her turn next, perhaps. He did not mean to be rude to you. He only wanted to be especially polite in his own odious fashion. There are men in that class who cannot behave decently to a pretty woman, or civilly to a plain one. He meant no doubt to gratify you by his compliments. What a stress he laid upon Lostwithiel's attention to you at the ball. Were his attentions so very marked?"

"Oh no; not more to me than to others," Isola answered quickly. "He danced a good many times—twice or three times—with Belinda Crowther. Everybody noticed them as the handsomest couple in the room; not that he is handsome, of course—only tall and distinguished-looking."

Allegra came running in from the garden, and broke the thread of the conversation. Isola put the visiting-cards into an envelope and addressed it to Mrs. Vansittart Crowther. She felt that the kindly matron would be puzzled and vexed at this ceremony, from a young person towards whom she had assumed so motherly a tone, urging her to run over to Glenaveril at any hour of the day—asking her to lunch or to tea at least once a week—wanting to take her for drives to Lostwithiel, or railway jaunts to Plymouth.

Isola was not mistaken, for Mrs. Crowther called three or four days afterwards and upbraided her for sending the cards.

[Pg 126]

"You might have all come to tea on Thursday, if you had been good-natured," she said. "Mr. Colfox read us a poem by Swinburne, out of one of the new magazines—there are so many nowadays that I never remember which is which. Belinda was delighted with it—but Alicia and I can't rise to her height. Mr. Colfox reads poetry beautifully. You can't judge of his powers by only hearing him read the lessons," added Mrs. Crowther, as if the English Bible were a poor thing.

She stopped an hour, praised Isola's tea-making and the new cook's tea-cakes, asked a great many questions about Allegra's ideas and occupations, and was as hearty, and simple, and friendly, and natural as if she had been a duchess.

It grieved Isola to be obliged to refuse an invitation to luncheon, most cordially pressed upon her and Allegra.

"I would drive you both to Lostwithiel after lunch, and we could do our little bit of shopping and then have a cup of tea at the Talbot while the horses had their mouths washed out, and I'd show you the room where your brother's wife was so much admired last year, Miss Leland, and where I hope you'll have many a good dance next winter. Now the ice is broken we mean to go on with our balls, I can tell you. Indeed, my girls are thinking of trying to get up a tennis-club ball about the end of September."

This was the last time Mrs. Vansittart Crowther appeared in a friendly manner at the Angler's Nest, for after two or three further invitations—to a picnic—to tea—to lunch—had been declined, in most gracious little notes from Isola, that good lady perceived that there was some kind of barrier to friendly intercourse between her and Colonel Disney's wife, and she told herself with some touch of honest middle-class dignity that if Martin Disney was proud she could be proud too, and that she would make no further offer of friendship which was undesired.

"I suppose he thinks because he comes of a good old family, while we have made our money in trade, that we are not quite good enough to associate with his wife and sister,"[Pg 127] she said to her daughters. "I thought he was too much of a gentleman to have such a petty feeling."

"How innocent you are, mother," cried Alicia, contemptuously; "can't you see that they are all bursting with envy? That was what made the colonel so gloomy and disagreeable the night of our little dinner. He was vexed to see things done with as good taste as in a nobleman's house. It cuts these poor gentilities to the quick to see that. They don't much mind our being rich, if we will only be vulgar and uneducated. But when we have the impertinence to be as well up in the ways of good society as they are themselves, they can't forgive us. Good taste in a parvenu is the unforgivable sin."

"Well, I don't know," mused Mrs. Crowther, sadly. "I'm sure there's neither pride nor envy in Isola, and Miss Leland looks a frank, straightforward girl, above all foolish nonsense; so it must be the colonel's fault that they've cut us."

"Cut us!" echoed Belinda; "the Angler's Nest cutting Glenaveril is rather too absurd an idea."

"My dear, you don't know the importance Cornish people attach to old family—and the Disneys are a very old family—and no one can deny that he is a gentleman, though we don't like him."

"Oh, no doubt he considers that he belongs to the landed gentry. He has bought Rowe's farm, two hundred and sixty acres. He had forty to begin with, so he is now lord of three hundred acres, just half our home farm."

"His cousin, Sir Luke Disney, has a large estate near Marazion," said Mrs. Crowther, meekly.

"Yes, but we don't reckon a man's importance by his cousin's estate. Colonel Disney is only a squatter in this part of the country."

Alicia pronounced the word with gusto. It had been whispered to her that the squire of Fowey had spoken of her father—who counted his acres by thousands—as a squatter. That unimpeachable importance, founded upon[Pg 128] the established respectability of bygone centuries—centuries in which men wore armour and women breakfasted on beef and ale—was not to be bought with gold and silver, and the want of it often made the Miss Crowthers angry. Diamonds they could have, and land, art, and beauty, even the ways and manners of good society, but they could not buy themselves a history. Everybody knew that their splendours had all come out of a cloth mill, that their ingots had been in some part transmuted from pestiferous woollen rags gathered in the Jewish quarters of far-off cities, ground into shoddy, and anon issued to the world as sleek superfine cloth. The more shoddy the higher interest upon capital; and Vansittart Crowther's daughters knew too many of the secrets of the mills to be proud of the source of their prosperity.

Mrs. Crowther was sorry to lose Isola as a friend and protégée. Her daughters were furious at the slight implied in this gradual dropping away. They passed Mrs. Disney and her sister-in-law with their noses in the air, as they went from the church-porch to their carriage. They cut them ostentatiously if they met on the quiet country roads. Mrs. Crowther would still stop to speak and shake hands, albeit she urged no further invitations.

And while the gulf widened between the great house and the small one the glorious Cornish summer waned, and slowly, slowly, melted away, lingering very late in that fair western land, which was full of flowers even when the home counties were being withered and blackened by the first frosts. At last came winter, and the gradual turn of the year; short days slowly lengthening out by leisurely sunsets; pale snowdrops glimmering in the borders; and then the gold of crocuses and the bright blue of the Siberian bell-flower in patches of vivid colour; and then hyacinths and tulips, primroses on every bank, narcissus and jonquil in every garden; and by-and-by the full glory of bluebell and hawthorn blossom. And anon in the middle of May came an event in which all the interests of Colonel Disney's life seemed to culminate. In that balmy Maytime Isola's firstborn son[Pg 129] came into the world, and Isola's young life hovered at the gate of death, in so terrible an uncertainty that Martin Disney's hair grew grey while he awaited the issue of the contest between youth and weakness.

For more than a week after the birth of her baby Isola's condition had satisfied the trained nurse and the kindly doctor. She was very white and weak, and she showed less interest in her baby than most young mothers—a fact which Mr. Baynham ascribed to over-education.

"The young women of the present day aren't half such good mothers as those I used to attend when I began practice," he said discontentedly. "Their heads are stuffed with poetry, and such-like. They're nervous and fanciful—and the upshot of it all is that babies have to be wet-nursed or brought up by hand. If I had the government of a model state I wouldn't allow any married woman the run of a library until she had reared the last of her babies. What does a young married woman want with book-learning? She ought to have enough to do to look after her husband and her nursery."

Before the baby son was a fortnight old, fever supervened, and Isola's state gave poor Mr. Baynham the keenest anxiety. A hospital nurse was sent for to assist the established custodian; and a great authority was brought over from Plymouth to approve the village doctor's treatment, and to make a trifling alteration in a prescription, substituting bromide of sodium for bromide of potassium.

Many days and nights of delirium followed the physician's visit, a period in which the patient was watched at every hour of the day and night; and one of the most constant watchers through all that dreary time was Martin Disney. It was in vain that Allegra and the nurses urged him to consider his own health. He would consent only to leave the sick-room for briefest intervals of rest. Day after day, night after night, he sat in the same chair—an old-fashioned armchair, with projecting sides, which almost hid him from the patient—beside the bed. He was never in the way of the[Pg 130] nurse. He was always helpful when a man's help was needed. He was so quiet that it was impossible to object to his presence. He sat there like a statue of patience. No moan escaped his pallid lips; no tear stole down his haggard cheek. He sat and watched and waited for the issue, which was to make him happy, or desolate for ever.

All his future was involved in that issue. He looked with a faint smile upon the pink little baby face, when they brought his son to him. No one would have dared to suggest that he should take care of himself and be comforted for that little one's sake. They all knew that his firstborn was as nothing to him. All his hopes and all his fears were centred in the wife who lay upon yonder bed, with glassy eyes and babbling lips, a wanderer in a world full of torturing images—fountains of bubbling water which she longed to drink—great black serpents, which came crawling in at the window, and creeping nearer, nearer to her bed—wriggling, hideous forms that hemmed her in on every side—giant staircases that she was always trying to climb—mammoth caves in which she lost herself, fifty times bigger and more awful than those serpentine caverns near the Lizard, which she and Allegra had explored in the previous autumn—steeper, stonier than the tall cliffs and pinnacled rocks above Bedruthan sands.

Day after day, night after night, Martin Disney sat in his place and listened to those ravings of a mind distraught. He could not keep himself from trying to follow her in that labyrinth of disconnected fancies—visions of shapeless horror, trouble, confusion—a wild babbling of numbers, prattling of millions, billions, trillions—as if her days of health and sense had been spent in the calculations of a Rothschild, she who could scarcely reckon the simplest account in a tradesman's book.

What had she to do with this torturing recital of thousands and millions, this everlasting heaping up of figures?

Then at another period of that long struggle between life and death, reason and unreason, she had a ghastly vision of two[Pg 131] children, squatting on each side of her bed, one living, the other dead, a grisly child with throat cut from ear to ear. Again and again she implored them to take away those babies—the dead child whose horrid aspect froze her blood—the living child that grinned and made faces at her.

Once and once only during that season of delirium the elder of her nurses carried the baby to her bedside, the tiny form in snowy cambric and lace, a little roseate face, on which the first glimmer of intelligence was already dawning, sweet blue eyes that smiled at the light, rosebud lips that invited kisses. The nurse took the infant to the side of the bed, and asked the young mother to look at him. Those fever-bright eyes stared at the sweet small face with a gaze of ever-growing horror, and then with a wild shriek Isola clasped her hands before her eyes, and drew herself cowering to the further side of the bed.

"The dead child!" she cried. "Why do you show me that dead child? Don't you see his throat streaming with blood?"

It was a case in which the nurses had no easy duty by day or night; and there were times when Disney insisted that the night-nurse should have extra rest, while he kept guard.

"But if she should be very bad, sir, you might not be able to manage."

"Oh yes, I should. My sister is a very light sleeper. She would come to me in a moment, and she has a great deal of influence with my wife."

This was true. From the beginning of evil Allegra's presence had exercised a soothing power. She had been able to lull the patient to sleep sometimes, when opiates had failed to produce even fitful slumber. Isola was calmer and less restless when her sister-in-law was by her side.

In those long night watches, sometimes in solitude, Martin Disney had ample leisure in which to ponder upon his wedded life, and to consider how far the hopes with which he had entered upon that life had been realized. The retrospect left him melancholy, and with a latent sense of loss and dis[Pg 132]appointment; and yet he told himself again and again that he did ill to be dissatisfied, that Providence had dealt kindly with him.

At five and forty years of age, he, Martin Disney, of modest fortune and social status, and of no especial claim to be admired, intellectual or physical, had won the hand of a lovely and interesting girl. He had been so bewildered and overcome by the delight of his conquest, that he had entered upon no laborious process of self-examination before he took to himself this fair and winning partner. It had been enough for him that she came to him willingly, lovingly, in all truth and girlish simplicity, loyal as she was pure. He had never asked himself could such an attachment last—on her side? It had been enough for him that the love existed. It would be his duty and his delight to strengthen the bond, to draw that fair spirit into closer union with his own. He had felt no shadow of fear for the future. Once having won her, it must be easy to keep his treasure—easy for him who would so faithfully guard and cherish this priceless gift of a benign Providence. He was a man of deep religious feeling—a man who recognized in good and evil, in joy and in sorrow, the dealings of an Almighty God with His short-sighted creatures. He accepted his happiness in fear and trembling, knowing the instability of all mortal joys; but he had never feared the loss of Isola's love.

Yet now, sitting in the deep of night beside that bed which might be the bed of death, he told himself that his wife's love was lost to him, had been lost from the hour of his return to Trelasco, when he went back to her with all the enthusiasm of a lover, forgetful of his mature years, of his long experience of life—hard fighting, hard knocks of all kinds in the great life-battle.

He had gone back to her as Leander to Hero, a boy in heart and hopefulness; and what had he found in her? A placid, obedient wife, gentle almost to apathy, but with a strain of melancholy underlying all their relations which his devoted love could not conquer.

[Pg 133]

To all his interrogations her answer had been the same. She was not unhappy. She had everything in life that she desired. There was nothing that he could give her, no possible change in their existence which could add to her content. All this should mean domestic peace, a heart at ease; yet all this was unsatisfying to Martin Disney; for his instinct told him that his wife was not happy—that the element of gladness was, for some inscrutable reason, banished from her life.

She had seemed happier, or at least the little home had been brighter and gayer after Allegra's coming; but as the time wore on it became clear to him that the life and gaiety were all in Allegra herself, and that Isola was spiritless and depressed. It was as if the spring of her life had snapped suddenly, and left her nerveless and joyless, a submissive, unhopeful creature. That sense of disappointment and loss which he had dimly felt, even when his home-coming had been a new thing, had grown and deepened with the passage of time. He had bought his land; he had added to the space and comfort of his house; he had enlarged the stables, and bought a couple of hunters, and a cob for harness; and while these things had been doing, the activity of his days, the fuss and labour of arrangement and supervision, had occupied his mind so pleasantly as to stifle those growing doubts for the time being. But when all was done; when the vine and the figtree had been planted, and he sat down to take his ease in their shade, then he began to feel very keenly that his wife's part in all that he had done was the part of submission only. She liked this or that because he liked it. She was content, and that was all. And the line between contentment and resignation is so faint a demarcation that it seemed to him sometimes as if she were only resigned, as if she suffered life rather than lived—suffered life as holy women suffer some slow, wasting disease, in meek subjection to a mysterious decree.

He sat beside her bed, while she battled with all the demons of delirium; and he wondered whether—when she had been[Pg 134] at her best, when her mind had been brightest and clearest—she had been any nearer to him than she was now in her madness; whether he had known any more of her inner self—the mystery of her heart and conscience—than he knew now, while those wild eyes stared at him without sight or knowledge.

One summer morning, as he sat alone in his watch in that dull interval between darkness and dawn, the visions of the wandering mind took a more consecutive form than usual. She fancied herself in a storm at sea. The waves were rolling mountains high—were bearing down upon her with threatenings of instant death. She feared, and yet she courted the danger. In one minute she was recoiling from the wild rush of waters, clinging distractedly to the brass rail at the head of her bed, crouching against the wall as if to save herself from an advancing wave; and in the next minute she sprang out of bed, and rushed to the open window, wanting to throw herself out of it. Disney was only just quick enough to seize her in his arms, and carry her back to bed. He held her there, battling with him in a vehement effort to escape from his restraining arms.

"Why do you stop me?" she cried, looking at him fiercely with her distracted eyes. "What else is there for me? What other refuge? what other hope? Let me go! let me go! Cruel! cruel! cruel! Let me throw myself into the sea! Don't you understand? Oh, cruel! cruel! Cold and wicked, shameless and cruel! There is nothing else—only that refuge left! Let me hide myself in death! let me hide—hide!"

Her voice rose to a shriek; and both the nurse and Allegra came hurrying in. The faint white dawn shone upon her livid face and on the scarlet spot upon each hollow cheek. Her eyes stared wildly, starting from their sockets in that paroxysm of her madness.

Only a few days after that night of terror Isola was lying calm as a child. The fever had gone down—the enfeebled constitution had at last answered to the influence of medicine;[Pg 135] and gradually, like the slow lifting of the darkness after a long night of cloud and fog, consciousness and reason came back. Sleep soothed the strained and weary nerves, and the exhausted frame, which a few days before had seemed endowed with a superhuman strength, lay like a log upon the bed of sickness.

Recovery was slow, but there was no relapse. Slow as the dawning of day to the tired watcher, after the long, blank night, there came the dawn of maternal love. The young mother began to take delight in her child; and it was rapture to Martin Disney to see her sitting opposite him under the tulip-tree, in the low Madeira chair, with her baby in her lap. Allegra vied with her in her devotion to that over-praised infant; while the Shah and Tim, of the same opinion for the first time in their lives, were almost rabid with jealousy.

They all lived in the garden in that happy summer season, as they had done the year before, when Allegra first came among them. It was in the garden they received their visitors, and it was there that Mr. Colfox came at least thrice a week, upon the flimsiest pretexts of parish business, to drink tea poured out for him by Allegra's helpful hands, while Isola sat quietly by, listening to their talk, and watching every change in her child's face; from smiles to frowns, from slumber to waking.

Allegra had taken kindly to parish work, and, in Mr. Colfox's own phraseology, was a tower of strength to him in his labours among the poor of Trelasco. She had started a series of mothers' meetings in the winter afternoons, and had read to the women and girls while they worked, helping them a good deal with their work into the bargain. She had done wonders at penny readings, singing, reciting, drawing lightning caricatures of local celebrities with bits of coloured chalk on rough white paper. Her portrait of Vansittart Crowther had been applauded to the echo, although it was not a flattering portrait. She had visited the sick; she had taught in the night school. The curate[Pg 136] had been enthusiastic in his appreciation of her, and his praises had been listened to contemptuously by the two Miss Crowthers, each of whom at different periods had taken up these good works, only to drop them again after the briefest effort.

"She will get tired as soon as we did," said Alicia, "when she finds out how impossible these creatures are—unless she has an ulterior motive."

"What ulterior motive should she have?" asked Colfox, bluntly.

"Who can tell? She may want to get herself talked about. As Miss Leland, of the Angler's Nest, a sort of useful companion to her brother's wife, she is a nobody. If she can get a reputation for piety and philanthropy, that will be better than nothing. Or she may be only angling for a husband."

"If you knew her as well as I do you would know that she is above all trivial and selfish motives, and that she is good to these people because her heart has gone out to them."

"Ah, but you see we don't know her. Her brother has chosen to hold himself aloof from Glenaveril; and I must say I am very glad he has taken that line—for more than one reason."

"If any of your reasons concern Miss Leland you are very much mistaken in under-rating her. You could not have had a more delightful companion," said Mr. Colfox, with some warmth.

"Oh, we all know that you have exalted her into a heroine—a St. John's Wood St. Helena. But she is a little too unconventional for my taste; though I certainly would rather be intimate with her than with her sister-in-law."

"Surely you have no fault to find with that most gentle creature?"

"She is just a little too gentle for my taste," replied Alicia, who usually took upon herself all expression of opinion, while Belinda fanned herself languidly, in an ?sthetic[Pg 137] attitude, feeling that her chief mission in this life was to sit still and look like la belle dame sans merci. "She is just as much too quiet as Miss Leland is too boisterous. I have no liking for pensive young women who cast down their eyelids at the slightest provocation, and are only animated when they are flirting."

"The tongue is a little member," quoted Mr. Colfox, taking up his hat, and holding out his hand in adieu.

He was very unceremonious to these fair parishioners of his, and talked to them as freely as if he had been an old French Abbé in a country village. It is needless to say that they valued his opinion so much the more because he was entirely unaffected by their wealth or their good looks. They were naturally aggrieved at his marked admiration for Miss Leland.

Those ripe months of harvest and vintage, July, August, and September, passed like a blissful dream for Martin Disney. He had snatched his darling from the jaws of death. He had her once more—fair to look upon, with sweet, smiling mouth and pensive eyes; and she was so tender and so loving to him, in fond gratitude for his devotion during her illness, so seemingly happy in their mutual love for their child, that he forgot all those aching fears which had gnawed his heart while he sat by her pillow through the long anxious nights—forgot that he had ever doubted her, or remembered his doubts only to scorn himself as a morbid, jealous fool. Could he doubt her, who was candour and innocence personified? Could he think for an instant that all those sweet, loving ways and looks of hers which beautified his commonplace existence, were so much acting—and that her heart was not his? No! True love has an unmistakable language; and true love spoke to him in every word and tone of his wife's.

The child made so close a bond between them. Both lives were seemingly bound and entwined about this fragile life of Isola's firstborn. Mr. Baynham had no reason now to complain of his patient's want of the maternal instinct.[Pg 138] He had rather to restrain her in her devotion to the child. He had to reprove her for her sleepless nights and morbid anxieties.

"Do you think your baby will grow any the faster or stronger for your lying awake half the night worrying yourself about him?" said the doctor, with his cheery bluntness. "He has a capital nurse—one of those excellent cow-women, who are specially created to rear other people's babies; and he has a doctor who is not quite a fool about infant maladies. Read your novels, Mrs. Disney, and keep up your good looks; or else twenty years hence you will see your son blushing when he hears his mother mistaken for his grandmother."

After giving his patient this advice, Mr. Baynham told his wife, in confidence, that were anything to happen to the little one, Isola Disney would go off her head.

"I'm afraid she is sadly hysterical," replied Mrs. Baynham. "I am very fond of her, you know, Tom; but I have never been able to understand her. I can't make out a young woman who has a pretty house and an indulgent husband, and who never seems quite happy."

"Every woman can't have your genial disposition, Belle," answered the doctor, admiringly. "Perpetual sunshine is the rarest thing in Nature."

The early western harvest had been gathered in. Upland and valley in that undulating land were clothed with the tawny hue of the stubble. Here and there the plough horses were moving slowly along the red ridges on the steep hillside. No touch of frost had dulled the rich hues of the autumnal flowers, and the red carnations still glowed in every cottage garden, while the pale pink trusses of hydrangea filled all the shrubberies with beauty. A keener breath came up at eventide from the salt sea beyond Point Neptune, and wilder winds crept across the inland valleys with the on-coming of night. Summer and the swallows were gone. October, a balmy season for the most part, was at hand;[Pg 139] and there were no more tea-drinkings and afternoon gossipings in the garden at the Angler's Nest. The lamps were lighted before dinner. The evenings were spent in the old library and the new drawing-room, the new room communicating with the old one by a curtained archway, so that of a night the curtains could be drawn back and Martin Disney could sit among his books by the fireplace in the library, and yet be within conversational reach of Isola and Allegra in the drawing-room, where they had piano and table-easel, work-baskets, and occupations of all kinds.

Mr. Colfox sometimes dropped in of an evening, on parish business of course, took a cup of coffee, listened while Allegra played one of Mozart's sonatas or sang a song by Gluck or Haydn or Handel. Mr. Colfox was not one of the advanced people who despise Mozart or Handel. Nor did he look down upon Haydn. Indeed, he sat and stroked his thin legs with a sheepish appreciation, wrinkling up his loose trousers, and showing a large amount of stocking, while Allegra sang "My mother bids me bind my hair," in her clear, strong mezzo-soprano, which was of infinite use to him in his choir.

He told everybody that Martin Disney's was an ideal household—a home into which it was a privilege to be admitted.

"I feel as if I never knew the beauty of domestic life till I knew the Angler's Nest," he said one evening after dinner at Glenaveril, when he and the village doctor had accepted one of Mr. Crowther's pressing invitations to what he called "pot-luck," the pot-luck of the man whose spirit burns within him at the thought of his hundred-guinea cook, and whose pride is most intolerable when it apes humility.

"Really, now," said Mr. Crowther, "you surprise me, for I have always fancied there was a screw loose there."

"What does that expression imply, Mr. Crowther?" asked the curate, coldly.

"Oh, I don't know! Nothing specific: only one's notion of an ideal home doesn't generally take the shape of a beautiful girl of twenty married to a man of forty-five. The disparity is just twice as much as it ought to be."

[Pg 140]

"Upon my soul," cried the curate, "I don't believe that wedded love is affected by any difference of years. Desdemona loved Othello, who was a man of mature age——"

"And black," interrupted Mr. Crowther, with a coarse laugh. "Well, let us be thankful that Colonel Disney is not a nigger; and that there is so much the less danger of a burst-up at the Angler's Nest. And now, Baynham, with regard to this footpath across the wood, who the deuce will be injured if I shut it up?"

"A good many people, and the people I think you would least like to injure," answered the doctor, sturdily. "Old people, and feeble, ailing people, who find the walk to church quite far enough even with the help of that short cut."

"Short cut be hanged!" cried Mr. Crowther, helping himself to a bumper of port, and passing on the decanter with hospitable emphasis. "It can't make a difference of a hundred yards."

"It does make a difference of over a quarter of a mile—and the proof is that everybody uses it, and that it goes by the name of the Church path. I wouldn't try to stop it, if I were you, Mr. Crowther. You are a popular man in the parish, for you—well, you have spent a heap of money in this place, and you subscribe liberally to all our charities and what not; but, I don't mind telling you, if you were to try and shut off that old footpath across your wood, you'd be about the most unpopular man within a radius of ten miles."

"Don't talk about trying to shut it off, man," said Mr. Crowther, arrogantly. "If I choose to lock the gates to-morrow, I shall do it, and ask nobody's leave. The wood is my wood, and there's no clause in my title-deeds as to any right of way through it; and I don't see why I am to have my hazel bushes pulled about, and my chestnut trees damaged by a pack of idle boys, under the pretence of church-going. There's the Queen's highway for 'em, d—n 'em!" cried Mr. Crowther, growing more insolent, as he gulped his fifth glass of Sandemann. "If that ain't good[Pg 141] enough, let 'em go to the Ranters' Chapel at the other end of the village."

"I thought you were a staunch Conservative, Mr. Crowther, and an upholder of Church and State," said Mr. Colfox. "Am I to believe my ears when I hear you advocating the Ranters' Chapel?"

"It's good enough for such rabble as that, sir. What does it matter where they go?"

"Prosecute the boys for trespass, if you like," said the doctor; "though I doubt if you'll get a magistrate to impose more than a nominal fine for the offence of taking a handful of nuts in a wood that has been open ever since I began to walk, and heaven knows how many years before; but let the old gaffers and goodies creep to church by the shortest path that can take them there. They'll have to travel by the Queen's highway later, when they go to the churchyard—but then they'll be carried. Don't interfere with the privileges of the poor, Mr. Crowther. No one ever did that yet and went scot free. There's always somebody to take up the cudgels for them."

"I don't care a doit for anybody's cudgels, Baynham. I shall have a look at my title-deeds to-morrow; and if there's no stipulation about the right of way, you'll find the gates locked next Sunday morning."

Sunday morning came, and the gates at each end of the old footpath were still open, and nothing had come of Mr. Crowther's threat. Tho gates had stood open so long, and were so old and rotten, their lower timbers so embedded in the soft, oozy soil, so entangled and overgrown with foxglove and fern, so encrusted with moss and lichen, that it is doubtful if anybody could have closed them. They seemed as much rooted in the ground as the great brown fir trunks which rose in rugged majesty beside them.



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