NONE of us is perfect; even the best and most strictly disciplined amongst us have somewhere hidden away the secret failing, the little ewe-lamb of guilt which, in spite of our strong resolutions, we know we cherish and admire above all our fleecy flock of virtues. Such is our poor human nature; and so it was with the Rev. Peter Pomeroy Prendergast.
Peter Pomeroy was assistant-curate at the Parish Church of Gessingham, and he was exceedingly and deservedly popular. Gessingham is a small town in a secluded district of the south of England, and its society is the most sternly respectable and resolutely select to be found on this side eternity, I am tempted to think. As is usually the case, man being by nature a timorous biped, by far the greater proportion of people who mattered—certainly the dominating element of Gessingham society—were ladies. Moreover, they were ladies who prided themselves on their tone; none of the corrupting ideas of modern fashion were permitted to find a home in the untainted drawing-rooms of Gessingham. London and kindred cities might sink to the level of Nineveh and Babylon of old with their short skirts and their cigarette-smoking viragos; but here, thank Heaven! they knew what became a lady and what did not. True it is that Mrs. Fenton, whose husband was an architect and whose second cousin had tried to write a play, once began a novel by Ouida, but she had not finished it. No, she had burned it at the third chapter. Without exaggeration it may be said that the primrose paths of folly did not lead to the carriage drives of Gessingham.
“Nonsense!” you may say. “All that is done with long ago—it vanished with the last decade and the coming of rag-time and the tango, those final demolishers of the Victorian tradition; there are no places left now like the one you describe.” To which I merely reply: “Are there not?”
HITHER, aged twenty-five, came the Rev. Peter Pomeroy Prendergast, and Gessingham took him to its bosom and fed him on China tea and toasted scone. He became the pet of Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, the rector’s wife and uncrowned queen of Gessingham; the two Misses Gardiner, antique, almost grotesque, but so lady-like, doted upon him; homely maidens approaching the still waters of forty regarded their fair selves in the flattering mirrors of hope, and dreamed wild dreams. Peter Pomeroy was the acknowledged darling of the drawing-room, the idol of the at-home.
For one thing, men were scarce in Gessingham—young ones, that is. Of course there were a certain number of husbands about, but a real untamed man, unbranded by the matrimonial iron, was something of an event. The rising male generation of Gessingham had a lamentable habit of quitting the calm security of its confines as they came to manhood and going forth after the fleshpots of the world. One supposes it was the call of the wild. But Peter Pomeroy was a charming young man; he had a handsome boyish face, with frank laughing eyes and a smile that would have captivated a cab-driver, and his manner was irresistible. Gessingham never put up a fight at all.
By the time that he had worn the cloth a year, Peter had become so imbued with the ideas and the Puritan spirit of Gessingham that he almost forgot that he had ever known any others. His was an impressionable nature, quick to absorb the particular atmosphere in which he found himself, and it was very easy to fall in with and gradually assume the opinions of the community. There was a time—and that not long past— when he would have considered the prejudices of Gessingham as more than absurd; but, after all, he was ordained now, and it made a difference. Perhaps the austere views held by the ladies of the town were the views he really ought to hold. Perhaps that mode of life which he bad formally deemed harmless and attractive was unfit for decent people. At least, he persuaded himself, this was the view that as a clergyman he ought to adopt. It was certainly the view that he allowed Gessingham to credit him with.
“But,” exclaims the shrewd and experienced reader, “what about that little ewe-lamb of guilt or whatever you called it? What about that, pray?"
I was just coming to that.
To look too penetratingly into the past of a human being, even a young clergyman, is a performance as indecent as it, is hazardous. Why should the mists of the morning be suffered to mar the cloudless serenity of the noon? And again, why?
Thus you must pardon me if, to gratify the improper curiosity of the above-mentioned reader, and also to make more clear what follows hereafter, I disclose one little flaw, if such it can be called, in the otherwise faultless demeanour of the Rev. Peter Pomeroy. Briefly, it was a fatal susceptibility to the charms of feminine beauty. There was something in the eye of a pretty girl that could shatter in an instant the solid Shield of his self-content and set his heart a-dancing to the delicious music of romance. In his younger days it had enticed him into many a fond flirtation, and though for the past year the restless little demon had slumbered within him, lulled by the somnolent atmosphere of Gessingham, he knew that it was not dead; more than once he had felt it stir in its sleep. The chance sight of a soft curving cheek glimpsed beneath a passing hat-brim, the swift vision of two warm red lips parted in an eager smile, was enough even now to set his pulses tingling and recall, deep within him, the echo of that old seductive music. If he had been born in the Middle Ages, Peter would not have sought the cloister; he would have been a troubadour. That is the truth of the matter.
Of course he knew that all this was wrong now, and that he ought to trample it ruthlessly underfoot, grind it without remorse into the dull gray powder of the past; but somehow he couldn’t. While realizing that, what had been harmless, if at times embarrassing, in an under-graduate was a distinct falling from grace in a cleric, he had not the heart to exterminate utterly this lawless (but withal so fragrant) little wild-flower of romance. At the bottom of his heart he loved it, and he knew it.
BUT it was with a mind untroubled by thoughts of this kind that Peter entered the rose-burdened porch of Gessingham Rectory and knocked robustly at the door. The rector’s wife was giving a tea-party, with croquet on the lawn for the more athletic of the guests, and everyone who counted at all in the Gessingham hierarchy was to be present. The Misses Gardiner, in large stiff lace collars which gave them a startling resemblance to Tenniel’s illustration of the Unicorn in Through the Looking-Glass ; Mrs. Stanton, the bank-manager’s wife; the Misses Tree, whom the coming of Peter had roused from the lethargy of maiden despair; and many another worshipper at the shrine of good manners whom it is unnecessary to name, were already being entertained in the drawing-room when Peter entered.
“Ah, here is Mr. Prendergast!” cried Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, swishing forward to greet him. “And how do you do? What a glorious afternoon! And did you get the strawberries safely? I do hope they were not squashed—the maids are so careless nowadays, one cannot trust them an instant out of one’s sight.”
Peter gave the required assurances, and plunged with zest into the pleasures of the afternoon. He was immediately captured by the Misses Tree.
“And how are the guinea-pigs, Miss Theodora?” he inquired of the younger of the twain.
“Oh, the little dears,” exclaimed the damsel, “they are so charming! They squeak and run around in the prettiest manner. Do they not, Ursula?”
“Yes, and jump up and down, too,” added the elder Miss Tree. “Why, the little one with the pink spot on its nose took a piece of groundsel out of my hand this morning!”
Above the chatter of the two maidens Peter heard the voice of Mrs. Burrage-Gracey declaiming to Mrs. Fenton: “Such terrible people, my dear,,,, at ‘The Walnuts’.... Perfectly impossible.... My husband called.... said they did not usually attend church.... probably agnostics.... or artists.... I shall not think of calling.” ....
“We have named the brown-and-white one Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. Ursula thought it was irreverent, perhaps; but he is such a sweet little thing, I am sure St. Francis wouldn’t mind. And he squeaks so prettily,” said Miss Theodora; and Peter lost the remainder of Mrs. Burrage-Gracey’s harangue.
LATER in the afternoon, while recuperating after an energetic bout of croquet, Peter Pomeroy had an opportunity of speaking to the rector’s wife. “Did I hear you say that some new people are come to ‘The Walnuts’?” he inquired.
“Oh yes; have you not heard?” replied Mrs. Burrage-Gracey eagerly; “some really terrible people from London, named Gordon, I believe. A mother and son and two daughters; and I hear that all three of the women smoke, though I cannot believe it possible. But it is perfectly true that one of the daughters rode up the High Street on horseback sitting astride, like a jockey. Simply outrageous!"
“Dear me,” observed Peter, “ how very distressing! Have you called yet?”
“No, decidedly not,” snorted Mrs. Burrage-Gracey; “nor do I intend to do so. The rector has been, of course, but they practically told him that they never went inside a church. I trust Gessingham will entirely ignore them. Fancy dear Miss Gardiner going to such a house—they would probably offer her a cigar! There will be no need for you to call, Mr. Prendergast; they are obviously people who have no respect for the clergy. I should not be surprised if they turn out to be actors, or something like that.”
“Most unfortunate,” said the Rev. Peter. “Perhaps they will not stay long when they discover how little we approve of them.”
“I sincerely hope not,” declared Mrs. Burrage-Gracey. “I shall feel most uneasy whilst such a corrupting influence is in our midst. The rector and I have always endeavored to maintain the moral tone of Gessingham at a high level, and I am sure a family of this type can do nothing but harm in the parish.”
“To be sure,” agreed Peter, rising to renew the conflict.
“Quite an amusing situation,” he said to himself as he walked home after the company had dispersed. But exactly how amusing he had yet to learn.
The subject was again brought to Peter’s notice the following morning, when Mrs. Blessing, his landlady, waxed indignant over the behavior of Gessingham’s new residents. According to reliable reports, the “goings-on” at “The Walnuts” were of a truly shocking description.
“If poor old Mr. Green, as ‘The Walnuts’ used to belong to, could but hear the dancin’ and shoutin’ and pianner playin’ that goes on of a night-time, he’d get up out of his grave and give ’em notice.” Mrs. Blessing departed, brandishing the marmalade pot.
ON his way back from the daily service Peter walked through the High Street, and here it was that the bolt descended from the blue. He was standing a moment to examine some second-hand books in a shop window when a robust and strangely familiar voice smote his ears.
“By all that’s unholy,” it roared, “if it isn’t old P. P. P. !” and the next moment something in the nature of a sledge-hammer struck him upon the shoulders, propelling him forward almost to his knees. “How are you, you old buccaneer?” added the voice enthusiastically.
Recovering himself, the Rev. Peter Pomeroy Prendergast turned and faced his assailant. Regarding him delightedly through a pair of large spectacles was a huge young man of about his own age. He was bareheaded, and wore an old brown velvet jacket of the type frequently affected by artists with a Bohemian tendency; on his feet were a pair of ancient red carpet slippers, the heels of which flapped dismally at every step.
“Good Heavens, Dick Gordon!” gasped Peter, and the world was chaos.
The young man beamed madly. “Well,” he cried, “fancy meeting you here of all places! Thank Heaven, then, we are still in the twentieth century! I began to think we’d slipped back into the Middle Ages, or the Oid Testament, or somewhere equally morbid. By Jove, and a parson, too! I say, you don’t half look a sight—ha-ha-ha!”
Peter colored. “Don’t be an ass, Gordon,” he said; “you always knew I was going to be ordained.”
“Sorry, old man,” replied the other heartily, “only my joke; but I can’t imagine you like this yet. Come on—which way are you going? Let’s have a talk about old Cambridge days. Remember when we kept together in Fitzbilly Street? What? I say, it’s fine meeting you again, you old toreador.” He seized the Rev. Peter by the arm and marched him energetically down the High Street, talking volubly the while in his rich resonant voice.
TOO dazed to resist, Peter kept pace with his loquacious friend, striving meanwhile to grasp fully the situation and its probable consequences. Here was Dick Gordon, his old varsity companion, reappearing into his new Gessingham life. That in itself was nothing terrible, had it not been for Dick’s reputation. Already, as one might say, he and his were proscribed in the town as notorious evil-livers. “I trust,” Mrs. Burrage-Gracey had said, “Gessingham will entirely ignore them.” How could he possibly ignore old Dick Gordon? Could he possibly intimate to Dick that he was no longer a desirable person to associate with? Must he be frigidly polite and let it go at that? Did he want to let it go at that? Who was Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, after all, to declare people impossible? It was a beastly predicament, though.
“Whatever made you come to a place like this?” he inquired as they progressed down the High Street, where the unaccustomed garb of his friend was attracting no small amount of attention. Several small boys were following them at a respectful distance.
“Had to,” replied the other disjointedly. “My mother.... doctor’s orders.... London killing her.... quiet neighborhood.... relaxing air.... usual rigmarole, you know. Of course I won’t live here—just down for a month or so to see things all square for the girls. By the way, were you going anywhere just now?”
“No, no. I’ve finished for the day,” replied Peter a little breathlessly.
“Good. You must come along”—
He was interrupted by Peter suddenly clutching his arm in a frenzied grasp. Just ahead, and approaching them, Peter had descried the majestic figure of the rector’s lady. What was he to do? How dare he introduce Dick in his remarkable get-up as his friend—Gordon of "The Walnuts”? Panic seized him, and with an excited cry he dragged his companion into the nearest shop, which was a greengrocer’s.
“Hello! something stung you?” exclaimed Gordon in surprise; “or are you after the brussels sprouts?”
“Mrs. Burrage-Gracey,” gasped Peter wildly, “the rector’s wife.”
“Well, what about her?” replied the other mystified by this strange behavior. “Has she got her muzzle off, or do you owe her some money?”
“No, no, nothing like that; but I particularly want her not to see me—it’s a whim of mine, that’s all.”
“You’d better lie down in the corner and cover yourself up with cabbages,” suggested his friend. “She’ll never think of looking for a curate under a cabbage-heap."
“Thank goodness, she’s gone by!” said Peter with a gasp of relief. “Lucky thing she’s near-sighted. My word, it was a close shave.”
AT that moment the shopkeeper entered from the rear of his premises. "Ah, good-morning, Mr.. Prendergast,” he exclaimed, with a glance at the curate’s strange companion; “what a beautiful morning! What may I have the pleasure of getting you?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing; we just popped in to shelter—er—that is, my friend—er —have you any Brazilian nuts, Mr. Higgs?”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” replied the greengrocer; “they’re out of season just now, Brazils is.”
“Dear, dear, I wanted some for a sick child,” exclaimed the now thoroughly perturbed Peter. “I must try elsewhere. Good-morning, Mr. Higgs”; and he hurried his companion out of the shop.
“Look here, P. P. P.,” said Gordon when they were once more outside, “if you were not an ecclesiastic, I should ask you very sternly where you’ve been spending the morning.”
“Don’t be absurd, Dick,” said Peter, wiping his streaming forehead. “I had a particular reason for not wanting to see Mrs. Burrage-Gracey this morning. You don’t understand.”
“I certainly don’t,” replied Dick. “Anyway, I'm deuced glad to see you again, you old brigand”—he beamed affectionately through his glasses. “Come on, you must see the mater and the girls; they’ll be no end braced to meet a real live individual again after a week among the natives.”
“I really can’t now,” said Peter hastily. “I'm in a terrible hurry.”
“But I thought you said”—
“I know—I've just remembered an important engagement—vestry meeting, you know—forgot all about it.” He consulted his watch with a feverish air.
“Come this afternoon, then. You know where our wigwam is. Don’t forget; we’ll be expecting you—fatted calf and all that sort of thing.”
“I’ll be delighted,” said Peter; “good-bye, good-bye.”
“Cheerio, old sportsman. Come as early as you can; we don’t worry about polite hours or any rot like that.”
Peter hurried away and fled for the blessed seclusion of his lodgings. He wanted to think.
PETER did not eat a hearty lunch; he was feeling upset. He wanted to get firmly astride the dilemma that had suddenly presented itself before him, to settle definitely his course of future action. On the one hand there was Dick Gordon—Dick, the dancer of irresponsible jigs upon the tin-roof of life, the most generous of friends and best of good fellows, but hopelessly incapable of realizing what was and what was not a fit line of conduct for a clergyman to follow; on the other was Mrs. Burrage-Gracey and all she stood for—the esteem of the parishioners, the austere outlook on life which for the past twelve months he had made his own, even the dignity of his calling. Conscience bade him pay merely a formal visit to the Gordons and privately intimate to Dick that he couldn’t expect him to be quite the same as in the good old past—that there were the prejudices of the town to consider, that he himself indeed had come to look on things in a somewhat more sober light than Cambridge had been wont to shed. Would Dick be hurt, he wondered, or would he merely roar with laughter and throw a cushion at him? He would certainly not understand. And again, was he sure of his own attitude? Did he truly in his inmost self disapprove of Dick, or was he being blinded by the absurdly conventional atmosphere through which he had lately been viewing the world? There was no harm in Dick Gordon; he was as good as Mrs. Burrage-Gracey any day. But in the present situation for him, a clergyman, openly to identify himself with the discredited “Walnuts” meant not only social ruin but, probably, public disgrace as well. If the rector himself did not take drastic action, people would write to the bishop. It was horrible.
Peter at length set out to pay his promised visit to “The Walnuts” with a strong determination to maintain that dignified attitude which Gessingham required of its spiritual pastors, and for the rest to trust to fate. Unhappily, fate was to prove unworthy of his trust.
As he entered the gate of “The Walnuts” he beheld Dick Gordon in his shirt-sleeves on the lawn, apparently engaged in a desperate struggle with a girl of about sixteen, whose pigtail had come unfurled and flew disorderly in the breeze. On seeing him approach they disentangled themselves, and Dick hurried to meet him, beaming joyously.
“Here you are at last,” he boomed. “We’ve been expecting you this last hour. This is my kid sister. Madge. Just teaching her ju-jitsu—frightfully handy thing to know. Ought to take it up yourself—jolly useful if you had an obstreperous baby to christen! What?”
Peter shook hands with Madge, a pleasant, though at present rather dishevelled, schoolgirl with a smile that was a diminutive feminine edition of her brother’s colossal grin.
“And what do you think of Gessingham?” he asked in his best parochial manner.
“Well, nothing spesh,” answered the girl, endeavoring to capture an elusive coil of hair; “rather a dull hole, don’t you think?”
“You certainly can’t compare it with the West End of London for gaiety,” admitted Peter with a smile.
“Come on,” broke in Dick, “let’s go and find the mater and Di;” and he led the way towards the house, flinging inconsequent remarks over his shoulder as he went.
AS they approached the front door a girl came out to meet them. She was perhaps twenty years of age and of medium height, with a small oval face and a largesse of gold-brown curls clustering about her forehead. At the first glance Peter saw she was exceedingly pretty.
“Here we are, Di," called out Dick Gordon. “Here’s P.P.P. at last—My sister Diana,” he added over his shoulder for Peter’s benefit.
The moment their eyes met, Peter knew he was lost—utterly, irrevocably. Blue eyes they were, blue as the waters of a northern sea, and in their lurking depths he read his fate more clearly than ever did clairvoyant in limpid crystal. That detestable weed of romance blossomed forthright in his heart, and its intoxicating sweetness filled him with sudden joy.
“How do you do?” he said.
“Good-afternoon, Mr. Prendergast,” replied his destroyer. “Dick told us he had met you in the town this morning. We are so glad—we know scarcely anyone here. To tell the truth, I think the people are afraid of us; and you cannot wonder at it, the way my brother goes about—Dick, why can’t you put your boots on?”
“Too tired,” murmured Dick.
“Yes, I am afraid you will find Gessingham rather quiet after London,” said Peter; “but the people are really very likeable when one gets to know them. They are a little old-world, that is all.”
“Old-world be damned!” ejaculated Dick; “absolute barbarians, you mean. Why”—
“Dick!” exclaimed his sister with a swift glance at Peter.
“What’s wrong, Di?” said he in surprise. “Oh—ha, ha, don’t be absurd! P.P. isn’t one of that sort. Why, I’ve heard him pass remarks that you could toast muffins on, before now.”
“Yes; but you forget Mr. Prendergast is a clergyman now, and probably doesn’t approve of your disgraceful ways. You will have to be on your best behavior unless you want to drive him away from ‘The Walnuts’ altogether. We all shall.”
Was it Peter’s overstrained imagination, or did he actually detect a subtle note of provocation in the girl’s tone?
“I’m afraid I gave your brother up for lost long ago, Miss Gordon,” he remarked. “But perhaps I may have one more try to reclaim him, if you’ll promise to help
“I don’t think I should be of very much help,” said Diana. “I’m so deep in the toils of sin myself.”
THEY entered the house, and Peter was introduced to Mrs. Gordon, a genial but somewhat worn-looking old lady, who was seated in an arm-chair smoking a cigarette.
“Excuse me for not rising, Mr. Prendergast,” she said, “but I’m in the hands of the doctor—my terrible children are steadily driving me to an early grave. I hope you won’t be too shocked at my smoking; it is the one solace a poor lone widow woman has left.”
A fleeting vision of Mrs. Burrage-Gracey flashed through Peter’s mind as he replied with suitable gallantry. Could she but see him now—his feet of clay all bare.....
“May I have one of your cigarettes, mother?” remarked Diana, helping herself. “Mine are all upstairs. Mr. Prendergast, will it drive you right away from ‘The Walnuts’ if I smoke too. Will you dash out at the first puff and never come near us again? I’ll throw it into the fireplace if you only say the word.”
For reply Peter struck a match.
“Come into the studio,” said Dick. “I want to show you a drawing of mine—rather great, I think, but nobody else does.”
They adjourned to the studio, a room where confusion reigned in triumphant disorder, and viewed the work of the artist.
“The apotheosis of beauty in form,” cried he, holding up a pencil drawing of a female figure standing on tip-toe; “‘Eve Plucking the Apple.’ And that little beast Madge had the audacity to say it looked like a Congo native hanging to a tram strap! It’s always that way with genius.” He skimmed the apotheosis of beauty in form gracefully into a distant corner of the studio. “Phew,” he went on, “it’s abominably hot. Did they send that case of sodawater I ordered, Di? I could mop up a brewery. What is it, P.P.—Scotch or Irish?”
For twelve long months no intoxicating liquor had passed Peter’s lips; he was secretary of the Gessingham Temperance Society and Band of Hope.
“I don’t know—I—er—in fact”—
“Perhaps Mr. Prendergast doesn’t like whisky,” said Diana quickly.
“Oh, doesn’t he just?” bellowed Dick. “I know Peter better than that.”
“But you don’t realize Mr. Prendergast is a clergyman now”—
“Scotch, please,” interposed Peter decisively.
Dick departed, and Peter and Diana were left together.
“So you don’t care for Gessingham, Miss Gordon?” said he,
“Do you mean the Maddeston road?” inquired Peter.
“Not for the town itself,” she answered. “I’m afraid it is too respectable for such a disgraceful family as ours. But the country around is delightful. There is a little wood just off the main road, perfectly wild and wonderful. I go there nearly every morning to paint—I’m doing a water-color of the church and town as you see them through the trees. I love the country, although it disapproves of me.”
“I believe it is—the one with the oak-trees on each side.”
“Yes, that’s it,” said Peter. “But are you not nervous about going out into the country alone—with all the bulls and things about?”
Diana laughed. “Gracious, no!” she said. “Why, I don’t believe the wildest of Gessingham bulls would risk its respectability by venturing into the same field as any one from ‘The Walnuts.’ You have no idea what the neighborhood thinks of us. I quite expect you will shun us like the plague when you hear what fearful people we are.”
“On the contrary,” smiled Peter, “my duty will compel me to take you all under my especial care.”
Dick returned, bearing a whisky bottle and a syphon of soda. “Well, P.P.,” he roared jovially, “and how do you like parsonical life? Bit odd at first, wasn’t it?”
“I get on very well, thanks,” replied Peter. “The people here are very kind to me, all of them.”
“You poor old devil!” groaned Dick. “Don’t they drive you into a positive delirium tremens of boredom? Do you never have a mad impulse to rush out into the night and sow a wild oat?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Dick,” said Peter. “You don’t realize the position.”
“Never mind,” cried the burly artist; “things are going to be changed in Gessingham. We’ll wake ’em up somewhat, you and I. We’ll cause a regular ethical earthquake. By Jove”—
“Dick," declared Peter solemnly as he drained his glass, “if you don’t shut up I’ll punch your great idiotic head.”
It was several hours later that Peter at length left “The Walnuts”; and as he came out of the gate with Dick, still in, his slippers, gripping him affectionately by the arm, the elder Miss Gardiner was passing by on the other side.
Peter fell back to earth with a hard uncomfqrtable bump.
GESSINGHAM was pained—pained and grieved. At first it had been merely surprised, and perhaps just a trifle shocked, that the Rev. Peter Prendergast should be seen arm-in-arm. with that awful young man from “The Walnuts,” who appeared in the town in carpet slippers, and an alarming brown, velvet jacket that seemed somehow on itself to diffuse a vague halo of immorality. When it was learned that they had been acquainted at college, Gessingham breathed freely again. Naturally he had been obliged to call, and no doubt he had not wished to walk arm-in-arm down the road with that impossible youth in carpet slippers. But the relief was short-lived. It was observed with astonishment and horror that the Rev. Peter frequented “The Walnuts,” and the young man of the indecent attire was seen entering his rooms at all hours of the day and night. Worst of all, Peter had declined an afternoon croquet party at Mrs. Fenton’s, and was afterwards reported to have been seen rushing wildly round the lawn at ‘The Walnuts’ in pursuit of one of its cigarette-smoking women, who was wearing his clerical hat, and emitting loud shrieks of disgraceful laughter. This, in the elegant phrase of our stylists, put the tin hat on it.
“It is a very shocking thing,” said Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, when she called on the Misses Gardiner the day following this outrage. “Of course one cannot exonerate Mr. Prendergast, but I really think he is more to be pitied than blamed. Those fearful people have dragged the poor lad down.”
“Indeed, how wicked!” exclaimed Miss Gardiner. “I feel truly sorry for poor Mr. Prendergast; he was such a dear, nice boy.”
“I wonder if ever he thinks of that beautiful sermon he once preached about Satan, invisible as the winds.... whispering his temptations into our ears?” added her sister. “Alas, that such ungodly folk should come to disturb our happy parish!”
“Have you spoken to him about it?" inquired Miss Gardiner.
“Yes; both the rector and myself have spoken as strongly as possible on the subject, but his attitude is most strange. When I pointed out the improper character of these people he seemed unable or unwilling to accept my meaning. He almost went so far as to suggest that I had been at fault in condemning them from the very first as I did, and refusing to call upon Mrs. Gordon. Of course, it is those girls that have turned his head. Only think of it—a curate of Gessingham running round a lawn in pursuit of a shrieking young woman! However is it going to end?”
Miss Julia Gardiner leaned forward. “Did—did he catch her?” she asked in a tremulous whisper.
“She would see to that,” snapped Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, “shameless minx! And a mere child, too, I am told. Imagine dear Miss Theodora Tree allowing herself to be pursued over lawns by a man! Oh, my dear, it is a most painful situation.”
“What depravity!” sighed Miss Gardiner.
THE change in the attitude of his Gessingham friends was quickly felt by Peter, and it touched him acutely. It was as if a biting frost had of a sudden chilled the warm glow of a July afternoon, and he was cold to the hone. He knew they were disappointed in him; that they had been fond of him, and were grieved at what they believed to be his danger. This hurt him more than their disapproval. Once again he began to have doubts as to whether they were not right after all: was he indeed blindly treading the path to destruction? Facilis descensus Averni—easy indeed, and oh! most sweet. For Peter was in the toils. Had it been only Dick, and a choice between Dick’s ideas of existence and Mrs. Burrage-Gracey’s, he would have closed the door on his folly and returned repentant to the fold of grace and the smiles of the Misses Tree. But there was Diana—Diana’s eyes of blue, Diana’s gold-brown hair, Diana’s soft-toned, madly provocative voice. At times he fancied that while the rest of the Gordon family were blissfully ignorant of his predicament, she was watching him all the time; luring him on, away from safety, away from the calm haven of Mrs. Burrage-Gracey’s drawing-room, out into the sparkling open seas of unknown hazard. Yet he followed her; against his better judgment, perhaps, but with a song in nis heart for all that.
A more attractive morning for a country walk could not have been desired than that on which Peter left his lodgings and sought the oak-embowered pleasance of the Maddeston road; and it was a very charming direction to choose for a morning stroll. But it was neither bright sun nor leafy shade that tempted Peter forth—you know the real reason as well as I do. It was Diana, painting in the quiet seclusion of her “wild and wonderful” wood—Diana, as fair as her chaste namesake of the skies, whom Gessingham regarded as a veritable agent of the devil.
Climbing the gate that led off from the road, Peter entered the little coppice. He soon saw her, seated on a camp-stool before her easel, intent on her work. Her hat was thrown off, and the sun, piercing the chequered shade of a silver birch, danced over her hair and smooth curving cheek. Truly the devil employs comely agents for his unholy enterprises.
“Good-morning,” said Peter, pushing aside the branches that had shielded his approach, and stepping out into the little clearing where she sat.
Diana looked round with a little start. “Good gracious, Peter!” she exclaimed; “however did you get here?”
They had quickly fallen into the more familiar mode of address—formalities of any kind did not survive long in the Gordon family circle.
“You’d never guess,” he replied, smiling. “I walked. As a matter of fact, I was just taking a stroll along the road there, and I remembered your saying you sometimes came here to work—so I just hopped across to see if you were here this morning. I hope I’m not interrupting you?”
“No, rather not,” replied Diana, laying aside her brush and palette; “as a matter of fact, I was just wishing I had some one to talk to—can't get going at all to-day. And how is the parish progressing?”
“Much as usual,” quoth Peter. “Hang the parish, anyway!” He threw himself down on the long grass and took out his cigarette case. “Smoke?” he inquired, extending it.
“Thanks,” said Diana, accepting. “You know, Peter, it is very, very wrong of you to encourage me in vice like this. How can we frail creatures hope to conform to the standards of Gessingham propriety if the very people who ought to guide us aright tempt us to evil-doing?” She glanced at him in mock reproof.
“You know perfectly well that there is not the slightest harm in you or anybody else smoking,” replied Peter with almost unnecessary warmth. “You are always teasing me about that kind of thing, as though I were a Mrs. Grundy, and you know quite well I’m nothing of the sort.”
“I don’t, Peter,” she answered, regarding him intently through the wreaths of smoke; “and you are not certain of it yourself—now confess.”
“Rubbish!” spluttered Peter uncomfortably. “Of course, I have to remember I’m a clergyman. I can’t be quite as careless of propriety as—as Dick, for example; but I’m not a fool with it—at least I hope not.”
“Listen,” said Diana. “You are in an awkward position—no, don’t interrupt, and don’t get angry—you ought not to have anything to do with us, and you know it. We’re social and moral outlaws here, and you are one of the pillars of respectable society. It is only your loyalty to Dick, because you were old friends at Cambridge, and your fear of hurting his feelings, that prevents you from cutting us altogether, as you should. And then-—perhaps the bit hasn’t quite ceased to chafe yet.”
“So you think it is only my friendship for—Dick, do you?” said Peter slowly.
Diana avoided his gaze with some hesitation. “You admit I’m right, don’t you?” she replied.
“No,” said Peter; “at least not entirely. I admit I am in rather a difficult position because the people here are so extremely narrow and prejudiced in their old-fashioned ideas; but I don’t like what you said about the bit chafing. If you mean that I’m sorry I became a parson, you’re wrong altogether.” He spoke with some heat.
“I didn’t mean that,” she answered; “I only meant—oh. I don’t know what I meant. Anyhow, I think it is very nice of you to come and see us, Peter, and not leave us all alone. I would like you to know I think that.”
“Very self-sacrificing on my part, isn’t it?” exclaimed Peter. “I come because—because I want to. I—I hoped you might have guessed that, Di.”
“Oh!” said Diana uneasily.
FOR some reason Diana Gordon hastened to change the subject. “I say, we had a terrible affair on Sunday; nearly a riot. Madge and Dick were practising that screw service on the lawn in the afternoon and kicking up a bit of a row, and the old fellow who lives opposite came across and asked to see mother. Mother turned him over to Dick, who promptly asked him to make a four. That did it, of course. He called Dick an unprincipled young blackguard; and Dick told him that no gentleman would stand on a tennis court with hard-heeled boots the size of his. It was awful; we thought he was going to have a fit!”
Peter’s heart sank. “It will cause a terrible scandal in Gessingham,” he said gravely. “It would be Mr. Wilton; he’s vicar’s warden, and frightfully strict about Sabbath observance. Why couldn’t Dick have apologized and tried to soothe him down? He’s quite a harmless old chap, really; I get on very well with him.”
“Yes; but you know what Dick is,” said Diana, rising and gathering her belongings. “I must be going home now. I’m going across the fields—No, you can’t carry anything, thank you. You must go and finish your walk. I’m not in the least nervous of bulls. Why, I killed a spider last night with quite a short stick! I'm a bit of an Amazon, you know. Good-bye.” She plunged through the trees, turning to wave her hand as she climbed the stile leading to the footpath through the fields. Peter raised his clerical hat.
He returned home slowly by the road, thinking. He had to confess to himself that he was horribly in love with Diana—“over both ears and then some,” as Dick would have put it. But she would never, never marry him—a parson. He allowed himself no illusion on that point. It was not the sort of life for a girl like her. She liked him perhaps—probably he amused her.... “I won’t make an ass of myself, anyway,” he muttered grimly. He felt very desolate.
In his rooms he found a note awaiting him from Mrs. Burrage-Gracey. “Dear Mr. Prendergast,” it said, “will you please come and see me immediately? I have a matter of great importance to talk over with you.—Your sincere well-wisher,
“‘Your sincere well-wisher!”’ repeated Peter, dropping into an armchair. “Now for it!”
"YES,” said Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, "the rector has been called away suddenly, and he has left the matter in my hands—he felt that delay was impossible; I think you will see that yourself, Mr. Prendergast. I do not wish to censure your conduct; I will not lay stress on the amount of anxiety and, in my own case at least, of grief you have caused to us who have thought of you so highly. Nor will I discuss the tenants of ‘The Walnuts,’ since you have chosen to make them your friends. I think the position is clear. It is enough to say that they have openly and publicly defied every sense of decency and proper conduct by playing tennis on Sunday—I will not inquire whether you were aware of this before—I sincerely trust not—and the rector has decided that it is impossible for a curate of the Parish Church to associate with them further. The matter was brought to his notice by the churchwardens, who expressed very strong views on the subject. It remains then for you, Mr. Prendergast, to decide whether you shall relinquish your position here amongst us or refrain in future from any relations with the Gordons at ‘The Walnuts.’ I think you yourself will agree that no middle course is possible.” Mrs. Burrage-Gracey ceased and toyed nervously with a knitting-needle.
Peter sat silent, his gaze fixed steadily on the carpet.
“I suppose you are right,” he said at length. “I suppose I have been a fool.”
“I am very pleased to hear you say that,” observed Mrs. Burrage-Gracey. “I think you will make the right, the only possible decision.”
Peter clasped and unclasped his hands. “I should like a few moments to consider the matter,” he said.
“I have no desire to hurry you, Mr. Prendergast,” she replied, “but I cannot see that much consideration is necessary. The issue is quite clear—the old, old issue of right and wrong, of good and evil. I will return in a short while.” She rose and left Peter alone.
He saw that he must give in: there was no alternative. It was not as though there was any hope of his winning Diana; with that hope he would have laughed to scorn all the rectors in Great Britain and all their wives. But he had to lose Diana either way. Yes, he would give in—crush for ever under the hobnail of duty that cherished little flower of romance which had even now opened to glorious bloom in the heart of him. This should be the last rose of summer in all verity; henceforth the strait and narrow way.
“When does the rector return?” he asked as Mrs. Burrage-Gracey re-entered the room.
“To-morrow evening,” she replied.
“I will write to him,” said Peter, “and I think I can promise that in future Gessingham shall have no occasion to find my conduct at fault. To-morrow morning I will call at ‘The Walnuts’ and acquaint the Gordons of my resolve—I should go this afternoon, but I am due at Mrs. Tomlin’s for tennis.”
“I shall be there myself,” said Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, smiling joyfully. “I am so glad you have at last seen the folly of your recent actions, Mr. Prendergast—I have been very anxious on your account. However, that is all of the past; we will mention it no more.”
As Peter left the Rectory and retraced his steps homeward, it seemed as though the lamp of all joy had been extinguished within him. Ahead all was dull, colorless, uninspiring; and behind him stood Diana, in whose eyes he had glimpsed for a moment the meaning of life. “I was bound to lose her anyway,” he murmured to himself; “it is just as well to happen now.”
THE Tomlins’ tennis-party was in full swing. It was a gathering of well-contented folk, and there was a touch almost of gaiety in the air. Mrs. Burrage-Gracey had lost no time in whispering abroad the news of Peter’s redemption, and it came as a great relief to all. Miss Ursula Tree was twice heard to laugh with almost girlish abandon, and the Misses Gardiner smiled from their wicker chairs in the shade. Everyone greeted Peter most effusively; it was impossible for them to hide their delight at welcoming him back to the fold. “Quite like the prodigal son of old, is it not?” whispered the elder Miss Gardiner to her neighbor. “I am so glad!”
Peter did not share this general circumfluenee of high spirits. He smiled and chatted mechanically, but his heart was heavy. His returns lacked their accustomed sting, and it was only by an effort that he kept his mind sufficiently with the game to be able to tell his partner from which court she ought to serve. At the conclusion of the set he found himself between the Misses Tree, who began eagerly to discourse of the amiable nature and intriguing deportment of Francis and Catharine, their guinea-pigs.
The tennis-court at “Yew House” was situated at the end of the garden and surrounded by a thick yew hedge. Beyond this on two sides lay a meadow, for the Tomlins lived some little distance out of the town. It was just as Miss Theodora was in the middle of an ecstatic account of how Francis had stood on his hindfeet and pawed the air that Fate, Chance, Destiny, or what you will, of a sudden seized the racket of Mr. Fenton and in the course of a hot rally smote the resilient white sphere far over the encircling wire-netting and the yew hedge into the distance and the meadow beyond.
“I’ll get it,” cried Peter, glad of an excuse to escape from the babbling damsels. “Play on, play on.”
He passed through the little iron gate that led into the field and was hidden from view. The players continued their game.
Peter had not reappeared when a few moments later the set came to an end.
“It must have rolled into the long grass,” said Miss Tree nervously. “Had not some one better go and help him?”
“Oh, Prendergast will find it all right,” said Mr. Fenton hastily. He was tired and hot after his exertions, and did not relish the prospect of trampling about among nettles and thorns in search of a lost tennis-ball. “I’ll go presently if he doesn’t turn up.”
He didn’t turn up.
“Wherever can Mr. Prendergast have got to?” exclaimed Mrs. Tomlin when yet another set had terminated. “Mr. Prendergast,” she shouted loudly. But only a derisive echo mocked her from afar.
“What can have happened?” said Miss Gardiner.
“Oh dear, I hope he has not fallen down any old well or pit,” exclaimed Miss Theodora Tree, turning pale at her own tragic thought.
“Were there any cows in the field?” inquired her sister anxiously.
Mrs. Tomlin went to the gate in the yew hedge and looked out. “I don’t see him anywhere in the meadow,” she said.
“Dear me, ought we to communicate with the police?” wailed Miss Theodora.
“We must go and look for him,” declared Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, and, followed in breathless silence by the rest, she led the way in search of the missing Peter.
THE field narrowed to a thin corner where it joined the Tomlins' garden, and beyond the hedge that bordered it ran a country lane leading off the main Maddeston road. Inside the field in the corner a haystack had been newly erected. Peter could see nothing of the lost ball on the freshly-cut grass, and he concluded that it must have rolled into the nettles by the hedge. Without enthusiasm he was kicking them down and peering into the hedge-bottom when a voice from the lane fell on his dulled senses, rousing him with the sudden force of an electric shock.
“Goodness, Peter,” it said, “what are you doing?”
He sprang upright in astonishment. In the lane, watching him with an amused smile, stood Diana. She was wearing a loose blue jacket and short skirt, and carried a walking-stick. Peter thought he had never seen her look so beautiful, so eminently desirable above all else in earth or heaven.
“I—I’m looking for a ball,” he answered. His heart was pounding against his ribs with sledge-hammer strokes; in the sudden emotion he could with difficulty control his voice.
“Been having a little game?” inquired Diana teasingly. But Peter did not heed the jest in her tones.
“Tennis,” he exclaimed, “over there”—indicating the direction of the Tomlins vaguely with his thumb. “That fat fool Fenton hit a ball over here somewhere, and I was looking for it.”
Diana approached on the other side of the hedge and clambered a little way up the bank. “I say, will they see me if I come over and help you?” she inquired adventurously.
“I don’t know—I don’t care,” replied Peter recklessly. This was too cruel, this meeting, he felt. Was he to be tortured beyond human endurance?
“Give me a hand,” said Diana. She was already half over a rather difficult stile; Peter helped her down. The touch of her warm fingers almost overcame him.
“Oh Diana,” he gulped.
“What’s the matter, Peter?” she said quickly. “You look awfully cut up.”
“I’ve something I must say, Di,” cried Peter with a rush of words. “I can’t talk to you here, in sight of the lawn.” He glanced round. “Come behind the corner of this haystack, will you? I must tell you all about it. I’ve had an awful interview with Mrs. Burrage-Gracey,” he went on when they were hidden from sight, “simply awful—just after I left you this morning.”
“About me—us?” asked Diana.
“Yes; they’ve heard about Dick and Madge playing tennis last Sunday—it was the last straw. They gave me the alternative of resigning my curacy here or breaking off all intercourse with ‘The Walnuts.’ I—I gave way; it was no good.”
“Oh, Peter,” cried Diana, catching her breath, “what beasts we’ve been, getting you into trouble like this! Of course you must not resign—you must simply stop coming to see us; it will be just as it was before we came.”
“It won’t—it won’t ever—Di,” Peter's voice trembled. “Oh, Diana, I’m awfully in love with you, awfully; but I won’t make a fool of myself by asking you to marry me. I know you could never be happy as a parson’s wife—I’ve seen that always.”
Diana’s lips quivered and she kept her eyes from him. “I’ve been an awful beast, Peter,” she said, “a rotten cad. It’s been all my fault. I’m going now— home—altogether. Good-bye, Peter.” She held out her hand and her eyes met his.
Peter lost his head. “Di!” he cried incoherently, and with a quick movement he caught her in his arms and kissed her on the lips.
And it was at that untimely moment that the search-party, headed by Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, with Mrs. Tomlin, Mr. Fenton, Mr. Tomlin, and the Misses Tree in strong support, appeared round the comer of the haystack and stopped dead—stricken to silence.
SEVERAL aeons of time slipped by before any one moved or spoke. Then Peter stepped back and passed his hand over his brow. “I—I’m very sorry, Mrs. Tomlin,” he said dazedly, “I couldn’t find the tennis-ball anywhere; I can’t think where it can have got to.”
Mrs. Burrage-Gracey found her voice. “Mr. Prendergast,” she said in an awful tone, “how could you?”
Peter seemed to recover his wits. “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Burrage-Gracey,’ he said quietly, “and yours also, Mrs. Tomlin. I have been guilty of great rudeness in leaving you so long. But I was—er—detained. I have nothing more to say now. I do not think I will play any more tennis, Mrs. Tomlin. Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon, and pardon my informal manner of leaving.” He paused. “Er—I don’t think this situation need be prolonged further.”
“No,” said Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, “it certainly need not. To you, Mr. Prendergast, I have nothing to say—now. I am disappointed in you. But as to you,” she added fiercely to Diana, who had stood in silence, “you shameless young woman, I hope I may see you hounded out of the parish, back to the dissolute city where you belong. Perhaps you will leave us now—since you have succeeded in dragging this young man to ruin and disgrace—wretched creature that you are!”
Diana, scarlet to the temples, opened her lips to speak, but Peter stepped quickly before her.
“You will pardon me, Mrs. Burrage-Gracey,” he said with a forced calm, “but your words are not prompted by that courtesy and good-breeding which I have always associated with you. I beg you to be more moderate in your choice of epithets when addressing the lady who has consented to be my wife. I bid you good-afternoon.”
Something in the nature of a wail of despair rose from the ranks of the successful searchers at this announcement.
“Then you are more hopelessly lost than ever,” cried Mrs. Burrage-Gracey, and turning like a stately galleon, she sailed majestically away in the direction of the tennis-lawn, the others following her in dumbfounded silence. Last to turn away were the Misses Tree; they were as white as ghosts.
AT last Peter and Diana were alone: once more.
“Will you ever forgive me, Di?” asked Peter. “I simply had to silence that awful woman. It was you, not myself, I wanted to shield.”
“Oh, Peter,” she replied, “I’m so, so sorry. I’ve ruined everything for you—she was quite right. It was my fault—my fault. Oh, why did I make you kiss me?”
“Make me!” exclaimed Peter.
“Of course. You don’t think it was your doing, do you?” she answered almost jealously. “But I’ll go away—back to London; they won’t send you away if I’m gone.”
“I will not stay at Gessingham,” said Peter; “I shall go—I don’t know where. Oh, if only I had you with me, Di, nothing would matter, nothing. But I must tread that down. I’ve kissed you once—now it’s past—over, done with, ancient history. Here endeth the diverting history of Peter Prendergast’s folly. I must start a new history now, I suppose.” He laughed bitterly.
“Oh, Peter,” whispered Diana.
“I will go now,” said he. “My dear, I shall always remember you; if only—But I know you could never marry a parson—it would kill you.”
“No, Peter,” replied Diana very softly, “I don’t think I’d like to marry a parson; but—I believe—I’d rather like to marry you, Peter, if you don’t think I’m too impossible.” She glanced up at him from beneath her dark lashes.
“Di!” cried Peter with a gasp. He stepped towards her, and as the song of life swelled to a mad crescendo of triumph in his heart, history repeated itself.