MARY E. MANN
TAKE my advice, and get rid of it now we have the chance. We shall never have such a good offer again.”
“But have I not said I have no desire to get rid of it? As my father left the estate to me, so I wish to leave it when I die.”
“Why should you wish to do that?” the agent asked. “Why should not you wish to improve the estate? With the money from the sale of these outlying acres — bad, unremunerative land, a loss to you every year, as I can prove if you will take the trouble to look into the accounts — you can buy the Ovary Farm, joining on to your own land ; a property your father would
have jumped at, had it been in the market.”
“I have said I will not do it.”
“Very well. I’ve only got the offer of it until to-night. Time enough for you to think better of it.”
“Write at once, please, and decline.”
“I don’t think I will do that. Not quite yet.”
He picked up his hat, and, abruptly bowing, walked to the door.
“You are at home all day, Mr. Alexander, I suppose?”
“Somewhere hereabout, Miss Traill. A message to the cottage will fetch me.”
“I shall not have anything to say.
I like to know you are near. That’s a!l.”
“I’m never very far away.”
A few signs of feminine occupation showed in the formal but pleasant room in which Miss Traill’s father had carried on the business connected with his estate. The wide lattice windows stood freely open to the scented air of the summer morning: a bunch of roses, freshly gathered, lay on the writing-table at which the present owner of the property sat. In a deeply padded wicker chair beside her, her aunt, Mrs. March, reclined.
Of aunts and female cousins, Winifred Traill had a liberal supply, all of them ready to come at a moment’s notice and stay for ever, if need be, to supply the place of father and mother to the orphaned young woman. But Winifred had early arranged to ring the changes among these devoted relatives rather than to put one in permanent residence. As it happened Aunt Sophy had not stayed at Swankey Court since her brother’s death.
“Did you see the neck of him—how stiff it was?” Miss Traill asked, looking up from the letter she was writing.
“I thought he had a pugnacious face—distinctly pugnacious. And a most masterful way of comporting himself.”
“Considering that he is your— what shall we call it?—hardly servant, perhaps?”
“Underling,” supplied Winifred, writing on.
“That’s it. He ought not to assume that air with you.”
“I thought he’d put your back up, auntie.” Miss Traill signed her letter and threw down her pen. “I shall have to give way about selling these wretched acres, you know. For three weeks I have told him I would not sell. For three weeks he has turned a deaf ear, and W
hammered away. I can’t do anything with him, as a matter of fact. He is master of the situation.”
“My dear Winnie, show him that he is not.”
Miss Traill gave a scornful laugh. “How?”
“Stand out about this matter. Make it a test question between you.”
“Didn’t you see me stand out? Didn’t you hear him order me to change my mind?”
“No; I did not hear that, dear Winnie.”
“I did,” Winnie said. “Do you know what his name is, Aunt Sophy? Hector Alexander. I wonder it is not Caesar, Wellington, Napoleon, Hannibal, and all the rest of them, as well. How can you expect me to have strength to stand up against such a concentrated Force as he represents?”
“It does not require so much strength as dignity, dear Winnie ; tact, gentle firmness—qualities I believe you to possess conspicuously.” “They seem to fail me here. You see ; he’s managed all my affairs for two years, and now I can’t manage him—that’s the truth of it. Hector Alexander’s a strong man, Aunt Sophy.” f 1
“I thought there was something forbidding in his face.”
Miss Traill laughed. “He is forbidding,” she said. “He forbids me to have my own way in any single, small, trifling thing. I think I’m badly used, auntie.”
“Get married, my dear, and let your husband take all your worries.” “Ah ! and take the estate — and take me!”
She pulled forward an envelope, directed it, slipped within it the letter she had written. “This is to ask Gerald Herring to come in to dinner to-night, auntie.”
“The Reverend Gerald Herring I have heard so much of? And how
many times has he asked you to marry him, Winnie?”
“Only twice. Seeing there’s only the park between Swankey Court and Gerry’s vicarage, I call that moderate, auntie.”
“Don’t they say the third time is fatal, my dear?”
“Then, never leave me alone with him for two minutes, Aunt Sophy, lest the third time comes off.”
The young man from the vicarage answered his invitation in person that afternoon. “I’ve just looked in to say I’ll come,” he announced, finding the two ladies with their books beneath the beech trees in the garden.
Aunt Sonhy, who had heard family talk of this rector of Winnie’s— to be the Reverend Sir Gerald when his uncle died, and to whom Mr. Traill had presented the living, it was believed, not without a view to eventualities—was ready to fall in love with the young cleric’s personal beauty and charm, as she was already impassioned of his aristocratic lineage.
“Well, how any girl can resist you, I don’t know!” she said, apostrophising his slender back as the visitor, having at length been told by Winifred to go, retreated across the lawn. “I have rarely seen a handsomer man.”
“Isn’t he rather a dear? I thought you’d admire him,” Winifred said, “for my taste, his neck is just a little too long.”
“My dear! You don’t admire a bull neck, like that creature’s who was here this morning?”
“Poor Hector Alexander! Has he a bull neck? And I think Gerry’s head a wee bit too small on the top of the too long neck. I like a man’s head to look as though it held brains, even though there’s only water in it.”
“But Mr. Herring is certainly clever! Plenty of conversation. When the third time of asking
comes, my dear girl, you’ll have to consent; and my blessing!”
“Everybody’s consent, everybody’s blessing ! I don’t suppose there’ll be a dissentient voice. Except — perhaps — Hector Alexander’s.”
“He surely is not impertinent enough to expect a voice in the matter?”
“Before I do it I shall have to ask him.”
“Of course, you’re laughing”
“I do assure you it won’t be any laughing matter.”
“My dear Winnie” cried Mrs. March, aroused. “You must not let this agent dominate you in such a pronounced fashion Something will have to be done. The man is evidentlv a tyrant.”
“Will no one rid me of him?” Winnie asked.
“I will try, dear. Let me and this nice young Mr. Herring try. I am sure we would both do anything to serve you.”
“Yes, do try. I give both of you leave to try—with pleasure,” Winnie said.
When the ladies met in the drawing-room before dinner that night Mrs. March learnt that Mr. Hector Alexander was also to make one of the party.
“Three is such an uncomfortable number,” Winnie explained. “And Hector expects to be asked to dinner every now and then.”
“He might expect! He wants to be put in his place, my dear.”
“You do it, Aunt Sophy. T confess the feat is beyond me.”
“I think I shall be able to do it with very little trouble,” the elder lady said.
She entered on her task with great satisfaction to herself in the minute it took her to traverse the hall from drawing-room to dining-room, the tips of her distinguished fingers resting on the plebeian agent’s arm.
“This is the first visit I have paid
to Swankey since mv dear brother’s death,” she said. “What an interesting sight to see this young lady at the head of the estate. Squire of the parish. All her affairs so well in hand. She so capable of managing and directing. She might have been chosen from all the world to fill such a post, Mr. Alexander. Beautiful in person, of commanding intellect, and strong business capacity——•”
“Pardon me, I don’t think she has any business capacity whatever,” the agent said. “In fact, she knows no more about her own affairs than a babe. She is at the mercy of any unscrupulous person ; an idiot could cheat her.”
“I entirely disagree with you, I am happy to say. In fact. I think, with her, that not enough is left to her unassisted judgment. No one should attempt to bias her decisions. Her authority should be unquestioned.”
“Do you and Miss Traill really think ail that?”
“We do; emphatically. However, it is to be hoped that when she marries—and I greatly hope it will be before long—her husband, while assisting her with the fatiguing part
of her duties, will—will-” She
floundered here, not knowing exactly what it was she wanted the husband to do.
The agent, listening with imperturable face, did not help her out.
“It will be very satisfactory,” she concluded as she reached the dinner table.
“You think so?” Alexander asked, and took his seat with an air of stolid indifference.
Aunt Sophy, placed opposite her niece, gazed at the men on either side the table. “What a contrast!” she mentally ejaculated. “Bourgeois et gentilhomme !”
She was pleased with the phrase ; she would use it to Winnie later on, «he thought.
“Bourgeois” had much less height than his aristocratic-looking fellow-
guest, was of much heavier build, his shoulders very broad, his chest very deep. His stiff, high collar must have been three sizes larger than that which encircled the young parson’s elegant throat, Mrs. March disgustedly decided.
“Dear me ! Pie looks as if he would knock anybody down for sixpence!” Aunt Sophy said. “I shall certainly not rest till Winnie has wined her hands of him.”
Having bidden her agent to her dinner table, it seemed that Miss Traill took little further notice of him. He sat, for the most part, silent, listening, or not listening, to the talk among the rest. But his silence was evidently more the effect of imperturbability and an absolute confidence in himself, making him superior to the usual anxiety of the ordinary man not to be a nonentity than the outcome of awkwardness or shyness.
Miss Traill and her clerical guest had apparently an endless flow of conversation. They had the same friends, had read the same books, been to the same places; from Winifred’s talk to-night, it appeared, enjoyed the same tastes. Each evinced an undisguised pleasure in the society of the other.
“There is not much doubt how this is going to end !” Aunt Sophy smiled to herself, looking across at her charming niece.
The Squire, as they called her in Swankey, was beautifully dressed— more beautifully than Mrs. March thought the informal dinner warranted ; but it was natural, the lady reflected, that the girl should wish to show herself at her best to the man she was expecting to marry. Brown-haired, and softly tinted, she looked her sweetest in pink; and pink of a ten 1er shade she wore, in soft folds crossing upon her white breast, in transparent gauziness veiling her white arms. A pearl pendant was at the base of her round throat,
and a pearl comb in her soft cloudy hair.
“Small wonder that he is madly in love with her!” her aunt thought, and turned from the contemplation of the happy couple to that of the silent agent, patiently eating his dinner, his mind one could divine, fixed on nothing more interesting than the means he would adopt to coerce his employer into taking the course he desired.
“By the way, Mr. Alexander, you were speaking of my niece selling an outlying property. Where is it, exactly? I knew the estate veil in my brother’s time.”
Winifred was enjoying some joke the Reverend Gerry was telling her, but she heard, and turned at once to the agent.
“You wrote about it, as I suggested, Mr. Alexander?”
“And declined the offer, of course?’ Aunt Sophy supplied brightly. “Come, dear Winnie, I felt sure Mr. Alexander would follow your wishes exactly in the matter.”
“Not exactly, either,” Alexander explained slowly. “I wrote and asked them to give us another day’s grace. They said they would, till to-morrow. It will give you a few hours longer to think about it,” he said, looking directly at the lady in pink.
She turned from his gaze to the clergyman, with a lip that twitched for a moment. “What would you do?” she asked him; and she, her aunt eagerly joining in, explained the matter in dispute. “Now, Gerry, shall I do as Mr. Alexander wishes, or as I wish ?”
“As you wish,” the young parson said without a moment’s hesitation, and with a smiling look in her eyes.
The ladies had risen. “Mr. Alexander is never beaten, are you?” Miss Traill said, glancing at him as she passed him at the door.
“I like to be quite sure I am before I give in,” Hector Alexander said.
“My dear, send him about his business,” Aunt Sophy repeated, the pair being alone.
“There, you see, Mr. Alexander!” Mrs. March cried, briskly. “Two to one. And that, to my thinking, must conclude the matter. You must acknowledge yourself beaten.”
“I really must,” said Winifred looking down into her coffee cup. “It is the only thing to be done, isn’t it, auntie?”
“Dismiss him. Do it at once. Strike while the iron is hot,” the elder lady encouraged. (“You are perfectly lovely in that frock, Winifred.) He had the impertinence to tell me to-night you had no head for business.”
“I know he thinks that. He must be punished, auntie.”
“Show him that, at any rate, you have determination.”
“I will. You must be sure to back me up, Aunt Sophy!”
They drank their coffee' on the terrace. Presently the men, having little to say to each other, came out to them there, with their cigars. And the four sat and watched the summer’s dusk creep up through the park and settle slowly, like a gently disposed veil, on the roses in the garden at their feet. The great while owl came out from its nest in the elm tree and floated heavily on silent wing across the empty night. Ere long a star smiled in the dark blue of the sky.
The sweet influences of the night hushed the word and laughter on Miss Traill’s lips. From being very gay she had grown very quiet, and lay in her chair with upturned face and dreaming eyes, out of which all the mischief had gone.
The Reverend Gerald Herring was a man who dreaded a silence in a social gathering as a reproach to his own conversational prowess. He talked on, therefore, gaily and unre-
mittingly, to Mrs. March, leaving the other unresponsive pair to their own thoughts.
“My dear Winnie, warm as it is, you should have something over your shoulders,” the aunt said at length. “Which of these gentlemen will fetch you a wrap?”
“Bourgeois et gentilhomme,” the good lady said again to herself as one man only rose, alert to do her bidding.
Alexander got slowly to his feet as the other went indoors.
“There is a matter of business on which I have to speak to you tonight. Could you spare me five minutes?” he asked of Miss Traill
“Surely my poor niece may be free of business bothers to-night,” the indignant aunt protested.
But the “poor niece” got up docilely and led the way indoors.
In the office it was nearly quite dark. “Do you need a lamp?” she asked him.
“Oh no. I have, after all, very little to say. From a word or two Mrs. March said to-night, and from —other things—I derived the impression you are going soon to be married. I wish to ask you if this is true.”
“I shall not continue as your agent when you are married to Mr. Herring.”
“I suppose not.”
“Are you going to be married to him?”
“Not to-morrow, Mr. Alexander;
nor next week; nor-You may
be quite sure I shall not forget to mention to you when I am going to be married to Mr. Herring.”
They stood by the open window. There was light enough to show that she held her head high, that his face was pale.
“It is a matter of importance to me, I wish to remind you.”
“To me also my marriage will be a matter of some importance.”
Then she turned her eyes from the garden into which they had been gazing and set them on his face.
“We have worked together for a couple of years,” she said, and her voice was suddenly very winning, “seeing each other every day. I should feel—something—in parting
from you ; and you-”
“I shall have to look out for another place,” he said shortly. “That is why I want to be warned in time-•”
“I see. But I am so accustomed to your — rule, Mr. Alexander ; so used to—to doing exactly what you tell me, that even in taking this step—this step of my marriage—I should like to be sure you approved.” “That is quite out of my province, Miss Traill. It is not in the bargain. You have not paid me to advise you in your matrimonial choice, and I decline the responsibility.”
He turned on his heel and walked to the door, but after a minute came back to her.
“Nevertheless, I would prevent your marriage with this nincompoop parson, if I could,” he said.
“You would, Mr. Alexander?”
“He has asked you twice before, and you didn’t take him !”
“It is the third time which is always fatal. He has begged me to see him alone to-morrow morning.” “You could have told him that your mornings are always given up to business with me.”
“That would hardly have been true—or polite, Mr. Alexander.”
“In short, you wish to give him the opportunity?”
“I think it will be a good thing over—and settled.”
“Then my connection with your affairs must cease at once. You understand?”
“It is you who will it so. I shall miss you, Mr. Alexander, for my part ; rather.”
“I am afraid not for long. Can I see you to-morrow morning to
decide finally about the sale of that property I advise.
“Certainly. Get here before Mr. Herring, will you? or I might not be able to spare you any time.”
“ I will endeavor to do so. Goodnight, Miss Traill.”
“Good-night, Mr. Alexander.” Winifred, left in the office alone, stood for some minutes in the window, looking up at the stars. When about to cross the brightly lit hall ori her way to the drawing-room, she saw the agent standing, solitary, under the great central lamp, putting on his light top-coat over his dressclothes. She drew back into the doorway and watched him, as slowly he thrust in his arms, slowly picked up and adjusted his cap. She waited, while with an abstracted air he chose a cigarette from his case, stood with cigarette in one hand and match in the other, forgetting that he held either, his heavy jaw advanced, his eyes fixed on a spot a yard beyond his own feet, evidently lost in thought.
Miss Traill moved, with her softly rustling draperies, across the hall : “Mr. Alexander,” she said, and her voice was very low and sweet, “I should like you to sell the property you were speaking of ; and to buy the farm you recommend me to acquire. Will you attend to it, please?”
“Certainly, Miss Traill.” He had removed his cap, but he did not look at her.
“And you will see me about it in the morning, before Mr. Herring comes?”
“As you wish it. Certainly.” “You will be sure to be here before Mr. Herring?”
“You may depend on me.” “Good-night again.”
“That young Mr. Herring is the most liberal-minded young man,” Mrs. March said when the ladies were alone. “He has been telling 66
me that as a business man your agent is quite unrivalled in the county.”
“That is sweet of Gerry. Did he tell you anything else about him, auntie? That he is also the best whip in the county, has the best seat on a horse, rides the straightest to hounds, is a crack shot?”
“Is that so? But these things are not of much importance in an agent, dear.”
“They are of importance in my agent, Aunt Sophy. You see, if he hadn’t the sense to have things better than other men, and to do them better, I would not have had him for mine.”
“Well, dear—if you look at it so! And there is something to be said for everyone, no doubt. But I think you would be happier with a person less autocratic in his place, Winnie. I still think we should try to be rid of him.”
“Oh, we must certainly try, auntie,” Winnie said. “In fact, when he comes to see me to-morrow morning I think I shall tell him to go, Aunt Sophy.”
“Do, my dear; and when Mr. Herring comes, Winnie?”
“Why, I suppose I shall take Mr. Herring on instead, auntie.”
Driving his dogcart on his way to hold his business interview with Miss Traill on the next morning, Mr. Hector Alexander must pass the vicarage. From its gate the Reverend Gerald was emerging, and he hailed the agent and asked him for a lift on his way. With a sullen face its driver stopped the spirited horse, and the young vicar climbed to the seat beside him.
“There is no particular hurry,” Herring said, for it seemed to him they were rushing on their way somewhat recklessly.
“I beg your pardon ; I am in a hurry,” Alexander announced, and the horse flew along the road which divided the park. “Fact is, I pro-
mised Miss Traill to see her before you,” he added.
“And now we shall both arrive together,” the vicar said.
“We aren’t there yet,” the agent reminded him.
“Ever been turned out of a trap?” he was asking the vicar presently.
“Only twice in my life,” the other said, his eyes fixed rather nervously upon the horse’s ears.
“Like to go a third time?” the driver questioned.
“What do you mean? Lookout, man! We shall be on the bank!”
Miss Traill and her aunt were sauntering through the garden ways in the sunshine, when Winifred, suddenly stopping short, lifted a head to listen.
“Hark! Did you hear that?” she asked. “Someone called out. And there was a crashing sound. Look! Mrs. Peck is running from the lodge. There is an accident, Aunt Sophy !”
She started running towards the lodge gates, Mrs. March, less fleet of foot, hurrying after her. Halfway down the drive she was met by an excited Mrs. Peck on her way to the stable for help.
“It is Mr. Alexander’s trap,” she gasped. “Two of ’em in it. One of ’em’s lying like death, miss.”
“Oh, I don’t know—don’t ask me !”
But Winifred went, running with shaking knees and an ashen face. Presently Peck and a couple of stable-helps passed her, also running. “One of ’em’s badly hurt, if he ain’t dead. Best ride for a doctor,” the woman screamed after them.
“Which?” Winifred called to her in vain. “Which?” she kept sobbing to herself as she ran on.
And when at last she reached the lodge gates, and in a few minutes, by gaining the road, could have known, her courage failed, and she turned off into the park, going heavily, with feet catching in the long grass beneath the trees, which
bordered the road. Perhaps when she reached the spot she would know without seeing—perhaps she might force herself to look over the fence—
She heard voices—Peck’s hoarse tones, and—whose was that? Gerry’s —Gerry’s, sounding more shrill and excited than its wont. He was there, then ! She had felt that he was one of the two. And it was not Gerry who was hurt ! After all, she dared not look—she dared not know.
She turned her back on the road, and began making her way into the more deeply wooded part of the park. Someone who had seen her from the road, and had leapt the hedge, ran after her, ran past her, turned to meet her with arms extended to stop her.
She held him, with both hands clutching the collar of his coat, her eyes straining at his face, breathless, too moved for speech.
“Oh, are you hurt?” she gasped at last. “They said—they said you were hurt !”
“I am not hurt. No one is hurt.”
“You aren’t telling me truth. Oh! there is blood on your face, Hector!”
“You did it on purpose,” she was saying to him presently.
“What makes you think such a thing?”
“You dare not look at me and say you did not do it on purpose ! You might have broken his neck; poor Gerry ! Aren’t you a very wicked, wicked man?”
“I can’t have such a wicked man for my agent, Hector.”
“My husband is going for the future to be my agent, let me tell you.”
“I always meant he should be.”
“Hector Wellington Napoleon Hannibal Caesar Alexander?”