E. M. Delafield
This story follows one man's interactions with the family of an English Canon following World War I and the way the children in the family negotiate their relationships with their father, with his strong personality and religious beliefs.
The ship swung slowly away from the side of the wharf. Several people on board then said, “Well, we’re off at last!” to several other people who had only been thinking of saying it.
Owen Quentillian remembered another, longer, sea-voyage taken by himself at an early age. Far more clearly he remembered his arrival at St. Gwenllian.
It was that which he wanted to recall, aware as he was of the necessity for resuming a connection that had almost insensibly lapsed for several years.
He deliberately let his mind travel backwards, visualizing himself, a disconsolate, shivering morsel, being taken away from Papa and Mamma at the very station itself, and put into an open pony-cart beside Miss Lucilla Morchard.
The conversation between them, as far as he could recollect it, had run upon strangely categorical lines.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Canon Morchard’s daughter. You can call me Lucilla.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m fifteen, but you shouldn’t ask grown-up persons their age.”
“Oh, are you a grown-up person?”
“Of course I am. My mother is dead, and I look after the house and the children, and now I’m going to look after you as well.”
Lucilla had smiled very nicely as she said this.
“How many children are there?”
“Three, at home. My eldest brother is at school.”
“What are the names of the other ones?”
“Valeria and Flora and Adrian. Valeria and Flora are sometimes called Val and Flossie.”
He had discovered afterwards that they were seldom called anything else, except by their father.
“Why don’t Papa and Mamma come in this little carriage too?”
“Because there wouldn’t have been room. They will come in the brougham, later on.”
“They won’t go back to India without saying good-bye first, will they?” he asked wistfully.
He had known for a long time that Papa and Mamma were going back to India and leaving him at St. Gwenllian.
“No, I promise you they won’t do that,” had said Lucilla seriously.
Owen had felt entirely that her word was one to be relied upon. Very few grown-up persons gave him that feeling.
He remembered extraordinarily little about the house at St. Gwenllian. It was large, and cold, and there were a good many pictures on the walls, but the only two rooms of which he retained a mental photograph were the schoolroom, and the Canon’s library.
He saw the latter room first.
Lucilla had taken him there at once.
He remembered the books against the wall—numbers and numbers of books—and the big black writing table, with a small bowl of violets next to a pile of papers, and above the writing-table a finely-carved ivory figure, crucified upon a wooden cross, set in a long plaque of pale-green velvet.
Lucilla had seemed to be disappointed because her father was out.
“He said he did so want to be here to welcome you himself, but he is always very busy. Some one sent for him, I think.”
The youthful Owen Quentillian had cared less than nothing for the non-appearance of his future host and tutor. The prospect of the schoolroom tea had touched him more nearly.
But the schoolroom tea had turned out to be a sort of nightmare.
Even now, he could hardly smile at the recollection of that dreadful meal.
Eventually Val and Flossie had resolved themselves into good-natured, cheerful little girls, and Adrian into a slightly spoilt and rather precocious little boy, addicted to remarks of the type hailed as “wonderful” in the drawing-room and “affected humbug” in the schoolroom.
But on that first evening, Val and Flossie had been two monsters with enormous eyes that stared disapprovingly, all the time, straight at Owen Quentillian and nobody else. Adrian had been an utterly incomprehensible, rather malignant little creature, who had asked questions.
“Can you see colours for each day of the week?”
Quentillian wondered whether he had looked as much alarmed as he had felt, in his utter bewilderment.
“I think Monday is blue, and Tuesday light green, and Wednesday dark green,” Adrian had then proclaimed, triumphantly, and casting his big brown eyes about as though to make sure that his three sisters had heard the enunciation of his strange creed.
“Adrian is not a bit like other little boys,” one of them had then said, with calm pride.
Owen Quentillian, unconscious of irony, had ardently hoped that she spoke truly.
Adrian had pinched him surreptitiously during tea, and had laughed in a way that made Owen flush when they had asked him what India was like and he had answered “I don’t know.”
He had thought the thick bread-and-butter nasty, and wondered if there was never any cake. A vista of past teas, with sugared cakes from the drawing-room, especially selected by himself, and brought to his own little table on the back veranda by the Ayah, made him choke.
There had been a dreadful moment when he had snatched at the horrid mug they had given him and held it before his face for a long, long time, desperately pretending to drink, and not daring to show his face.
Lucilla, seated at the head of the table, had offered the others more tea, but she had said nothing to the little strange boy, and he still felt grateful to her.
The miserable, chaotic jumble that was all that his mind retained, of interminable slices of bread-and-butter that tasted like sawdust, of thick, ugly white china, of hostile or mocking gazes, of jokes and allusions in which he had no share, all came to a sudden end when he had given up any hope of ever being happy again so long as he lived.
Canon Morchard had come into the room.
And, magically, Val and Flossie had turned into quiet, insignificant little girls, looking gently and trustfully at their father, and no longer staring curiously at Owen Quentillian, and Adrian had become a wide-eyed, guileless baby, and the thick bread-and-butter and the ugly china no longer existed at all.
Only Lucilla had undergone no transformation.
She said “This is Owen Quentillian, Father,” in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.
“I know, my child, I know.”
His hand, large and protecting, had grasped the boy’s hand, and after a moment he stooped and put his lips gently to Owen’s forehead.
Quentillian remembered a presence of general benignity, a strangely sweet smile that came, however, very rarely, a deep voice, and an effect of commanding height and size.
Memory could not recapture any set form of words, but Quentillian endeavoured, whimsically, to recast certain speeches which he felt to be permeated with the spirit of the Canon.
“My dear little boy, I hope you may come to feel this as home. We shall all of us endeavour to make it so. Lucilla here is my little housekeeper—ask her for anything that you want. Valeria—my tomboy. She and you will have some grand romps together. Flora is younger; nearer your own age, perhaps. Flora plays the piano, and we hope that she may show great feeling for Art, by and bye. Little Adrian, I am sure, has already made friends with you. I call him the Little Friend of all the World. There are some very quaint fancies under this brown mop, but we shall make something out of them one of these days—one of these days.”
Some such introduction there had certainly been. The Canon had been nothing if not categorical, and Quentillian could fancifully surmise in him a bewilderment not untinged with resentment had his Valeria one day tired of being a tomboy, and elected to patronize the piano, or Flora suddenly become imbued with a romping spirit, to the detriment of her artistic propensities.
But the Canon’s children had always refrained from any volte-face calculated to disconcert their parent. Quentillian was almost sure that all of them, except Lucilla, had been afraid of him—even Adrian, on whom his father had lavished a peculiar cherishing tenderness.
Quentillian could remember certain sharp, stern rebukes, called forth by Valeria’s tendency to untimely giggles, or Flora’s infantile tears, or his own occasional sulks and obstinacy under the new régime. But he could only once remember Adrian in disgrace, and so abysmal had been the catastrophe, that imagination was unneeded for recalling it clearly.
Adrian had told a lie.
Quentillian re-lived the terrible episode.
“Which of you children took a message for me from Radly yesterday? Not you, Lucilla?”
“Mrs. Radly died last night.” The Canon’s face was suffused. “She asked for me all yesterday, and Radly actually left her in order to find some way of sending me a message. I hear now that he met ‘one of the St. Gwenllian children’ and sent an urgent summons which was never delivered. Which was never delivered! Good Heavens, children, think of it! I was here, in our own home-circle, enjoying a pleasant evening reading aloud, when that woman was dying there in the farm, craving for the help and comfort that I, her shepherd and pastor, could and should have given her.”
He covered his face with his hand and groaned aloud.
“In all the years of my ministry,” he said slowly, “I have never had a more bitter blow. And dealt me by one of my own household! Children,” his voice boomed suddenly terrible, “which of you received Radly’s message yesterday?”
Quentillian, in the retrospect, felt no surprise at the absence of any competition in laying claim to the implied responsibility.
At last Lucilla said tentatively:
“I never saw Radly at all, yesterday, nor any other day,” said Val, her brown eyes wide open and fixed straight upon her father.
Flora’s little, pretty face was pale and scared.
“It wasn’t me. No one ever gave me any message.”
Her voice trembled as though she feared to be disbelieved.
“Owen?” said the Canon sternly.
“Adrian?” his voice softened.
The Canon hardly appeared to listen to Adrian’s answer. His hand was on the little boy’s brown curls, in the fond, half-absent, gesture habitual to him.
He faced the children, and his eye rested upon Owen Quentillian.
“If any one of you,” he said sternly and slowly, “has been betrayed into telling me a lie, understand that it is not yet too late for full confession. Selfish heedlessness cannot be judged by its terrible consequences, and if I spoke too strongly just now, it was out of the depths of my own grief and shame. The forgetfulness was bad—very bad—but that I can forgive. A lie, I can not forgive. It is not too late.”
His face was white and terrible as he gazed with strained eyes at the children.
Little Flora began to cry, and Lucilla put her arm round her.
“Understand me, children, denial is perfectly useless. I know that message was given to one of you, and that it was not delivered, and it is simply a question of hours before I see Radly and obtain from him the name of the child to whom the message was given. I accuse no one of you, but I implore the culprit to speak out. Otherwise,” he hit the table with his clenched fist, and it seemed as though lightning shot from his blazing eyes, “otherwise I shall know that there dwells under my roof a liar and a coward.”
Quentillian could hear still the scorn that rang in that deep, vibrant voice, terrifying the children.
Not one of them spoke.
And the Canon had gone out of the room with anguish in his eyes.
The nursery court-martial that followed was held by Lucilla.
“Flossie, it couldn’t have been you, because you stayed in all yesterday with your cold. Owen and Val were out in the afternoon?”
“We went to see the woman with the new twins,” said Val, indignantly. “We never met anyone the whole way, did we, Owen?”
Owen Quentillian had known all the time what was coming. He knew, with the terrible, intimate knowledge of the nursery, that Adrian was the only one of the Canon’s children who did not always speak the truth.
Apparently Lucilla, also, knew.
She said “Oh, Adrian,” in a troubled, imploring voice.
“I didn’t,” said Adrian, and burst into tears.
“I knew it was Adrian,” said little Flora. “I saw Radly coming up the lane very fast, I saw him out of the night-nursery window, and I saw Adrian, too. I knew it was Adrian, all the time.”
None of the children was surprised.
Adrian, confronted with their take-it-for-granted attitude, ceased his mechanical denials.
The preoccupation of them all, was Canon Morchard.
“It’ll be less bad if you tell him yourself than if Radly does,” Owen Quentillian pointed out.
“Of course, it makes it much worse having told him a lie,” Val said crudely, “but perhaps he didn’t much notice what you said. I’m sure he thought it was Owen, all the time.”
How much better if it had been Owen, if it had been any one of them, save the Canon’s best-loved child, his youngest son!
“You must come and tell him at once,” Lucilla decreed—but not hopefully.
“I can’t. You know what he said about a liar and a coward under his roof.”
Adrian cried and shivered.
“He wasn’t angry the time I broke the clock,” said Flora. “He took me on his knee and only just talked to me. I didn’t mind a bit.”
“But you hadn’t told a story,” said the inexorable Val.
They all knew that there lay the crux of the matter.
Quentillian could see the circle of scared, perplexed faces still—Lucilla, troubled, but unastonished, keeping a vigilant hold on Adrian all the time, Val, frankly horrified and full of outspoken predictions of the direst description, Flossie in tears, stroking and fondling Adrian’s hand with the tenderest compassion. He even visualized the pale, squarely built, little flaxen-haired boy that had been himself.
They could not persuade Adrian to confess.
At last Lucilla said: “If you don’t tell him, Adrian, then I shall.”
And so it had been, because Canon Morchard, re-entering the schoolroom, had, with a penetration to which his children were accustomed, instantly perceived the tears and the terror on Adrian’s face.
“What is it, little lad? Have you hurt yourself?”
The kind, unsuspicious concern in his voice, as he held out his hand!
Quentillian was certain that a pause had followed the enquiry—Adrian’s opportunity, conceded by Lucilla, even while she knew, as they all did, that he would take no advantage of it.
Then Lucilla had told.
Quentillian’s thoughts went off at a tangent, dwelling for the first time, with a certain surprised admiration, upon Lucilla’s resolute, almost matter-of-fact performance of her painful and alarming task.
Canon Morchard had been incredulous at first, and Lucilla had steadily repeated, and reiterated again and again, the dreadful truth.
A black time had followed.
It assumed the proportions of a twelve-month, in the retrospect. Could it have extended over a week? Strangely enough, Quentillian could not recall the exact fate of Adrian, but he knew that the Canon first fulminated words of wrath and scorn, and at last had actually broken down, tears streaming down his furrowed face, and that the sight of this unrestrained display of suffering had caused the boy Owen to creep from the room, with the strange, sick feeling of one who had witnessed an indecency.
All the children except Lucilla, who indeed scarcely counted as one of them, had avoided Canon Morchard in the ensuing days. They had crept about the house silently, and at meals no one spoke until the Canon had left the room. Owen Quentillian, playing with a ball in the passage and inadvertently bouncing it against the closed study door, had been suddenly confronted by the Canon, and the look of grief and horror fixed upon that handsome face had rendered any spoken rebuke for levity unnecessary.
After all, they had left an impression, those Morchards, all of them, Quentillian reflected.
Lucilla had been calm, matter-of-fact, competent—perhaps a little inhuman. Val, impetuous, noisy, inclined to defiance, yet frankly terrified of her father. Flossie—impossible to think of her as Flora, unless the name was uttered in the Canon’s full, deep tones—surely the prettiest of the three, gentler than Val, less self-assured than Lucilla, timid only with her father. Adrian, of course, did not speak the truth. His contemporaries had known it, although Canon Morchard had not realized the little boy’s habitual weakness. But then he had never realized that the children were afraid of him.
Why had they all been afraid of him?
Quentillian decided that it must have been because of his own phenomenal rectitude, his high standard of honour, and above all and especially, his deep, fundamental sense of religion.
Canon Morchard, undoubtedly, lived “in the presence of God.” Even the little boy Owen had known that, and, thinking backwards, Quentillian was convinced of it still.
He felt curious to see the Canon again. David Morchard had said to him in Mesopotamia: “Go and see him. They’ve none of them forgotten you, and they’ll be glad of first-hand news. I’ve only been home once in five years.”
The shrug of his shoulders had seemed to Quentillian expressive.
But evidently David had judged his family correctly. The Canon had written and invited his old pupil to stay with him.
“It will not only be joy untold to receive news of our dear lad, David, but a real pleasure to us all to welcome you amongst us once more. I have not forgotten my pupil of long-ago days, nor my daughters their erstwhile playfellow. You will find all at home, including Adrian. Dear fellow, I had hoped it was to be the Church for him, but he has been so open, so anxious to decide the whole important question rightly, that one can only leave the decision to him in all confidence. I would not hurry him in any way, but his brief Army days are over, thank God, and we have the untold pleasure of having him with us now, so full of fun and high spirits, dear boy. You, with your pre-war experience of Oxford, will perhaps be able to talk things over with him and help him to a right and wise decision.
“You will remember my eldest daughter, Lucilla. She is still my right hand, mothering the younger ones, and yet finding time for all sorts of wider interests than those afforded by her secretarial work for me. I think that you will agree with me that Lucilla’s intellectual abilities, had she been less of a home-bird, must have made their mark in the world.
“Valeria is still something of the madcap that perhaps you remember. Her energy and enthusiasm keep us all in the best of spirits, even though we are sometimes a little startled at the new ideas sprung upon us. Both she and Flora worked valiantly during the terrible war years, though I could spare neither of my darlings to leave home for very long at a time. Valeria, however, was six months in France at a Canteen, and I believe rendered really valuable service. Little Flora, as I still call her, gives pleasure to us all with her music, and our men in hospital were sharers in her gift as far as we could manage it.”
Quentillian took up yet another sheet of notepaper covered with small, legible writing. It came back to him with a sense of familiarity, that the Canon had always been an expansive and prolific writer of letters.
“Make us a long visit, my dear boy. There are no near ones to claim you, alas, and I should like you to remember that it was to us that your dear father and mother first confided you when they left you for what we then hoped was to be only a short term of years. God saw otherwise, my dear lad, and called them unto Himself. How incomprehensible are His ways, and how, through it all, one must feel that mysterious certainty ‘all things work together for good, to those that love Him!’ Those words have been more present to me than I can well tell you, during the years of storm and stress. David’s long, weary time in Mesopotamia tried one high, but when Adrian, my Benjamin, buckled on his armour and went forth, my heart must have failed me, but for that wonderful strength that seems to bear one up in the day of tribulation. How often have I not said to myself: ‘He hath given His angels charge over thee ... in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone!’
“Perhaps you will smile at this rambling letter of an almost-old man, but I fancy that as one grows older, the need to bear testimony becomes ever a stronger and more personal thing. His ways are so wonderful! It seems to me, for instance, a direct gift from His hand that the Owen Quentillian to whom I gave his first Latin prose should be returning to us once more, a distinguished young writer. I wonder if we shall recognize you? I have so vivid a recollection of the white hair and eyelashes that made the village boys call out, ‘Go it, Snowball!’ as they watched your prowess on the football field!
“Well, dear fellow, I must close this. You have only to let us know the day and hour of your arrival, and the warmest of welcomes awaits you.
“I must sign myself, in memory of old happy times,
“Yours ever affectionately,
Quentillian, with great precision, folded the sheets together again.
“So Lucilla is a home-bird, Valeria is still something of a madcap, Flora is still ‘little Flora,’ and Adrian is a dear lad who is anxious to decide rightly about his future career.”
He wondered doubtfully whether he himself would come to endorse the Canon’s opinion of the Canon’s progeny.
And what was the Canon himself, if labels were to be thus distributed?
The sensation of doubt in Quentillian’s mind was accentuated, but he concluded his reflections by reminding himself, half tolerantly, and half with a certain grimness, that the Canon was at least, according to himself, Quentillian’s ever affectionate Fenwick Morchard.
“This is like old times,” said Quentillian.
Lucilla Morchard smiled, shook hands with him, and made no answer, and Quentillian immediately, and with annoyance, became conscious that the occasion was not in the least like old times.
Apparently Miss Morchard did not accept clichés uncritically.
Her face, indeed, expressed a spirit both critical and perceptive. Quentillian could still trace the schoolgirl Lucilla in the clearly-cut, unbeautiful oval, with the jaw slightly underhung, grey, short-sighted eyes, and straight black brows. Her dark hair was folded plainly beneath her purple straw hat, but he could discern that there was all the old abundance of it. Her figure was tall and youthful, but her face made her look fully her age. He surmised that Lucilla must be thirty-five, now.
“This time, my father is here to welcome you.”
She turned round, and Quentillian saw the Canon.
“Ah, dear fellow! Welcome—welcome you be, indeed!”
A hand grasped Quentillian’s hand, an arm was laid across his shoulders, and the Canon’s full, hearty voice, very deep and musical, rang in his ears.
Quentillian felt inadequate.
With all the acute self-consciousness of the modern, he was perfectly aware that Canon Morchard’s warmth of feeling and ardour of demonstration awoke in himself nothing but a slight, distinctly unpleasant, sensation of gratitude, and a feeble fear of appearing as unresponsive as he felt.
“I think it’s the same Owen Quentillian, isn’t it?”
The steady pressure of the Canon’s arm compelled his unwilling returned prodigal to remain still, facing him, and submit to a scrutiny from kind, narrowed eyes.
“Just the same. All is well—well, indeed.”
The Canon’s hand smote Quentillian gently between the shoulders, as they walked down the platform.
“The trap is waiting, dear boy. They are eager for your arrival, at home. I have my whole goodly company awaiting you, thank God—Lucilla here, and my merry Valeria, and little Flora with her incurably shy ways, and my Benjamin—the youngest of the flock—Adrian. You and Adrian must have many talks, dear lad. I want just such a friend for him as yourself—full of youth, and fun, and merriment, as he is himself, and yet able to help him when it comes to facing the deeper issues—the deeper issues. You young people must have many wise, deep talks, together, such as youth loves. I remember my University days so well and how ‘we tired the sun with talking’—aye, Owen, your father and I were famous philosophers, once upon a time! How does that strike you, eh?”
It struck Quentillian principally that his father’s contemporary reminded him oddly of a book of late Victorian memoirs, but he did not voice the impression aloud.
Instead, it was a relief to him to be able to make an obvious, and yet perfectly sincere, comment upon the unchanged aspect of the old red-brick house, standing well away from the small town.
“Valeria is our gardener,” said Canon Morchard. “You will be consulted about various borders and the like, no doubt. But we have all of us an interest in botany. You must remember that from the old days, eh? There was a collecting craze, if I remember rightly, that led to a great deal of friendly rivalry amongst you children.”
Quentillian’s recollection of the collecting craze differed so drastically from that of the Canon, that he glanced involuntarily at Lucilla. She met his eye calmly, but he fancied a little latent hostility in her unconsciousness.
It rather served to confirm his impression of the extreme lack of spontaneity that had characterized those bygone excursions into the realms of Nature. They had been undertaken, at least by himself and his ally and contemporary, Valeria, with one eye, as it were, upon the Canon’s study window. Even Adrian, if Quentillian remembered rightly, had relaxed the normal enthusiasm of boyhood in the pursuit of bird’s eggs, after the wondrous eye for detail of the bird’s Creator had been sufficiently often pointed out to him.
“Welcome home,” said the Canon happily. “You remember the old garden? I seem to recollect some capital fun going on amongst the old rhododendron bushes at hide-and-seek, eh? We play lawn-tennis, nowadays. I see a sett is going on now. Who is here this afternoon, Lucilla?”
“Captain Cuscaden is playing with Flora, and I suppose it’s Mr. Clover in the far court.”
“To be sure. Clover is my excellent curate, who has been one of ourselves for several years now. Sit ye down, young people, sit ye down. Tea will be out here directly, and the players will no doubt come for refreshment.”
The Canon settled himself with the deliberation of a heavily-built man, and leant back in his wicker chair, with finger-tips joined together, the breeze stirring the thick grey hair upon his temples.
It was a cameo-like head, with something of the ivory colouring of a cameo, but the cameo’s blank orbs were replaced by deeply-set, brilliant hazel eyes of which the flashing, ardent outlook recalled at once the child and the fanatic. Innumerable fine lines were crossed and recrossed at the corners of either socket, but the broad forehead was singularly open and unlined.
Quentillian noted the feminine sweetness of the closed mouth, contrasting with the masculine jut of the strong, prominent jaw. His mind registered simultaneously the recollection of the Canon’s violent and terrifying outbursts of anger, and his astonishing capabilities of tenderness.
The latter expression was altogether predominant, as the tennis players came to join the group under the cedars.
“Valeria—Flora—you need no introductions here, dear lad. Clover, let me present my old pupil—one of whom you have very often heard us speak—Owen Quentillian. This is my very good friend and helper. And.... Ah, Captain Cuscaden—Mr. Quentillian.”
Quentillian fancied less enthusiasm in this last introduction, and it seemed to him significant that no descriptive phrase followed the name. Either Captain Cuscaden was not worth classifying, or he could not satisfactorily be relegated into any class, and Quentillian suspected that Canon Morchard would resent the latter state of affairs more than the former.
At all events, Cuscaden was good-looking, of bold allure and sunburnt face, revealing the most perfect of teeth in a pleasant smile.
Mr. Clover was sandy and pale and seemed to be talkative.
“I believe I should have known you anywhere,” Valeria Morchard told Quentillian, frankly gazing at him. He was not sorry to have the opportunity of gazing back as frankly at her.
As children, the handsome or unhandsome looks of Val, his inseparable playmate, had naturally interested him not at all. He had vaguely acquiesced in the universal nursery dictum that Flora, with her fair curls and wide, innocent eyes, was pretty, but he now found her blond slenderness insignificant in the extreme compared to Valeria, with her tall and perfectly balanced figure, ripe-apricot bloom, and brown laughing eyes. No longer a very young girl, she somehow combined the poise of her twenty-seven years with a shy, semi-abruptness of diction reminiscent of seventeen.
Quentillian thought her charming.
So, apparently, did the other men.
“And who bore off the palm of victory?”
Canon Morchard indicated the tennis court.
“We won, at five games all. A very good sett,” Clover replied. “My partner’s service is almost invincible.”
Canon Morchard smiled.
“We think Valeria’s service is her strong point,” he explained to Quentillian. “She was coached by our dear David, and David is no mean player, I assure you. Little Flora needs to stand up to the ball better—stand up to the ball better. Flora has the feminine tendency to hit out too soon—eh, Flora? Our champion is Adrian, however. You and he will have some great contests, I foresee.”
The more the Canon foresaw, the more did Quentillian’s own aspirations turn in search of contrary directions. The only diversion of those predicted by his host, of which he felt able to tolerate the thought, was that of being consulted by Valeria upon the herbaceous borders.
“Clover, there, has a particularly good stroke on to the back line, but you’ll get to know it. Have you played at all since you left the ’Varsity?”
“I got a good deal of tennis when I was home on leave in nineteen-sixteen, but nothing after that, when I was in Mesopotamia.”
“Were you not in Flanders, dear boy?”
“In ’fifteen and ’sixteen,” said Quentillian briefly.
He wished to remember neither his two years on the Western front, nor his many months in Hospital with shell-shock.
“Where did you and David meet, in Mesopotamia?” inquired Lucilla.
Quentillian had forgotten her presence, if not her existence, but he felt grateful to her for sparing him the tentative category of his soldiering capabilities which he suspected the Canon of having in readiness.
He was not, however, given time to answer Lucilla’s question.
The Canon’s hand was uplifted.
“Ah, Lucilla my dear—please! My little talk with Owen there, is to come later. There is so much that I want to hear about our David—much, indeed. And you shall have your share of news about your brother, my child, but wait—at least wait—until we have had our little private talk together.”
Lucilla bent her head a little under the rebuke either in acquiescence or to conceal some slight confusion; but Valeria blushed hotly and unmistakably, and everyone looked constrained except the Canon, who looked rather severe, rather grieved, and at the same time perfectly serene. When he spoke again, it was with marked suavity.
“Tell us something of your literary work, dear fellow,” he requested Quentillian. “I am ashamed to say that I have read nothing of yours, as yet. My time is so little my own. Lucilla here is our literary critic.”
He placed his thin, beautiful hand, for a fleeting moment upon his eldest daughter’s hand.
“Lucilla tells me that she knows your work. Critical essays, is it?”
Quentillian gravely acknowledged the truth of the assertion. His self-consciousness rather enhanced than diminished in him a keen appraisement, perhaps rather less detached than he would have liked it to be, of his own literary value.
“I published a small volume of essays before the war, but since then I have only been a very occasional contributor to one or two of the reviews.”
“Ah, yes. You must let me see what you have done, some day. This is the era of youth. Indeed, some of the things I see in print today strike me as not only crude and immature, but absolutely mischievous—false, foolish, shallow teaching from those who have never submitted to be taught themselves. I am not afraid of that in your case, Owen. But remember this, all you young people: Nothing can be of real or lasting value that is not founded upon the broad principles of Christianity—charity, self-sacrifice, humility, loving-kindness. One feels that, more than ever, nowadays, when cynicism is so much in fashion.”
The Canon leant back in his chair again with his eyes closed, as though momentarily exhausted by the extraordinary passion with which he had spoken.
So profoundly did Owen Quentillian disagree with his host, that he remained absolutely silent. He reminded himself that since his majority he had sought, voluntarily, only the companionship of those whose views were at least as progressive as his own. He had almost forgotten that those other, older, views existed, were held with a passion of sincerity contrasting oddly with the cool, detached, carefully impersonal logic that was the only attitude contemplated by himself and his kind for the consideration of all problems of ethics, morals, or of Life itself.
No doubt the Canon did not admit the normal evolution of the art of self-sacrifice to be self-advertisement, and held the officious pelican to be the best of birds.
Quentillian, horribly aware of his own priggishness, wanted to reform the whole of the Canon’s philosophy at once.
Nevertheless he retained enough humour to hope that the preposterous desire had not been apparent in his silence.
His eyes met those of Valeria Morchard, and read there amusement, and something not unlike protest.
Lucilla, in her level voice, offered him tea.
“The cup that cheers,” said Mr. Clover in a nervous way.
The ineptitude roused in Quentillian a disproportionate sense of irritation and renewed his old conviction that his nerves were not even yet under his complete control.
As though the Canon, too, were mildly averse from such trivialities, he began to speak again.
“What one feels in the cleverness of the day is the note of ugliness that prevails. Do you not feel that? The sordid, the grotesque, the painful—all, all sought out and dwelt upon. That, we are told, is the new realism. We know, indeed, that there is a sad side to life, but is it realism to dwell only upon one side of the picture? Surely, surely, a sane optimism were the better outlook—the truer realism.”
“You don’t think, then, that the optimism of England is responsible for her present plight, sir?”
Quentillian’s tone was one of respectful suggestion, but he was aware that Val, beside him, had suddenly caught her breath as though at an audacity, and that Flora and Mr. Clover were both gazing anxiously at the Canon.
A flash of lightning shot from those ardent eyes straight into the passionless irony of the younger man’s.
“But for England’s optimism, there would be no England today. It was the spirit of optimism that won the war, Owen.”
A sick recollection of men, armed and disciplined, taking steady aim at other men, standing against a wall to be shot for cowardice or treason, of grey-faced commanders leading those who followed them into certain death, all surged into Quentillian’s rebellious mind. They, the men who had been there, had known better than to prate of optimism.
They had faced facts, had anticipated disaster, had envisaged the worst possibilities, and their pessimism had won the war.
“Are you, too, bitten with the folly of the day?”
The Canon’s voice was gentle again, his arm once more laid across Quentillian’s shoulders.
“Did I not hear something about shell-shock, dear fellow? We must have no talk of the war here. Thank God for that He hath brought it to an end. Tell me, dear lad, will you play tennis?”
Bewildered, almost affronted, Quentillian yet agreed to play tennis, feeling himself more like a forward boy, being treated with forbearance, than like a modern intellect illuminating the way of thought for the older generation.
He played with Valeria as his partner, and found the Canon’s eulogy of her service to be entirely justified.
He found an opportunity at the end of the game of expressing his admiration for her play, and she replied, conventionally enough, that she had a great deal of practice.
“There isn’t much else to do,” she added, with a slight grimace.
Under pretext of looking for a distant ball, they continued the conversation.
“If you remember this place at all,” Val said, “you know how dull it is. Just tennis in the summer, and horrible bazaars and jumble sales, and never a new person or a new idea from year’s end to year’s end.”
“It sounds appalling. But, after all, you’re not bound, in the old, antiquated way. You can go away.”
“No I can’t,” she said bluntly. “I did get to France, for six months, during the war, but it was only because it was the war. And even then—oh, well, the sort of letters I got were enough to make me feel that Father really hated my being there.”
Quentillian was genuinely aghast.
“But I thought that sort of attitude had gone out with all the other Victorian traditions. I thought women did what they liked—were as free as men.”
“That’s what it says in the books I read, and what some of the girls I met in France told me. But it isn’t like that here. And one can’t hurt Father. You know what he’s like—so good, and so sensitive, and—and so noble, somehow. He makes modern things seem trivial—vulgar, even.”
“Your father is a reactionary,” said Quentillian kindly, rather as one might say: “Your father is a Hottentot.”
“You mustn’t think that he just wants us to stay at home and arrange the flowers,” Val said. “You know how he always wanted us to have intellectual interests. Oh, Owen, don’t you remember the collections?”
She broke off, and blushed and laughed.
“It seems so very natural—I’ve so often thought of you as Owen.”
“That was very nice of you, Val,” said Quentillian calmly.
He had every intention of retaining his early privileges, where Val was concerned.
“I should like to read some of the things you’ve written,” she said abruptly. “Lucilla reads your articles, and has always admired them.”
It seemed to Quentillian so extremely natural that anybody who read his articles should admire them, that he was conscious of receiving a slight shock when Valeria added:
“I gather that Father wouldn’t like them at all. Lucilla always kept them out of his way.”
“She is devoted to him, I can see that.”
“Yes, of course.”
Something in her voice made him look at her, and she exclaimed, half laughing and half petulant: “We’re all devoted to him, Lucilla and Flossie and I! I didn’t mean the least shadow of a criticism of him. Only that it’s a little difficult, sometimes, to keep up to his level.”
It seemed to Quentillian so monstrous a state of affairs that the Canon’s three daughters should have no worthier aim in life than the one implied, that something of his feeling was reflected in his face, and Valeria on the instant applied herself to looking for the missing ball, found it, and returned to the tea-table and the group there.
The Canon was again speaking, this time to young Cuscaden.
“If it is to be Canada, I believe I could give you one or two introductions that might be of service to you. The Government people, for instance.... I have one or two very good friends amongst them. You are really anxious to leave the Army and try colonization?”
“Quite determined to, sir.”
“Ah, you young fellows, you young fellows! It seems to me that there is none of the spirit of stability that existed in our day! But perhaps the wish to see further afield is a natural one. Certainly, my own greatest regret is that I have had so little time for travelling.”
He turned to Lucilla.
“Your dearest mother and I had planned a visit to Italy the very year that she was taken from us. Well, well! It was not to be. I shall never see the Eternal City now, I imagine, except with the eyes of the mind. Clover, you are amongst those who have seen Rome. Think of it! Seen Rome, where Peter healed and Paul preached the Gospel, where Laurence and Agnes and Cyprian and countless others were martyred! Tell us something of the Coliseum.”
Mr. Clover did not give the effect of being an eloquent person, but he had evidently been called upon before by the Canon, and he gave a not unilluminating little description, punctuated, and indeed supplemented, by Canon Morchard’s exhaustive comments.
Quentillian listened in a sort of amazement, not at all untinged by a rather uncertain wonder as to how he should ever sustain his own part in these ingenuous conversations....
The others, he saw, listened, with the possible exception of Lucilla, whose eyes were fixed upon a distant flower-bed.
Captain Cuscaden kept his gaze upon Valeria, but he put in an occasional question, generally upon a subject of architecture. Flora played with a leaf and said nothing at all, and Val, unconsciously, Quentillian felt sure, repeated everything her father said in more colloquial English.
“It amazes me to realize that with a lack of all our modern appliances, such veritable giants of architecture should yet have been raised,” mused the Canon.
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful to think they had none of our machines and things, and yet made those enormous statues and gates and things?” said Val.
“Well for us, indeed, that they did so, my child. Every fresh excavation proves to be a new link with the past.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mr. Clover.
“Yes, all the new things they dig up seem to make a fresh link with those old Roman days,” echoed Val faithfully.
“Yes, indeed,” said Mr. Clover.
“If any of you young people followed the accounts of the recent Egyptian excavations—Valeria, I think you are our keenest antiquarian—were you not struck by the extraordinary confirmation of Scripture narrative afforded by each fresh discovery?”
This time Mr. Clover only said “Indeed?” and Valeria repeated:
“Yes, it all carried out the things one reads in the Bible, didn’t it?”
“We required no such confirmation, certainly, but it comes to one as a fresh joy, and brings these things home with full force.”
And Mr. Clover, with what Quentillian perversely chose to regard as misplaced ingenuity, once more found a variation of his formula, and remarked, “Indeed, yes.”
On these lines they talked about Egypt.
Then they talked about Rome again.
Then they went back to Egypt.
Quentillian looked at the rebellious profile beneath Val’s shady hat, and came to the conclusion that, whether she fully realized it or not, she was as profoundly bored as himself.
It was Captain Cuscaden who released them from the strain, by rising to take his leave.
“I’m sorry you have not seen Adrian. He will be disappointed to have missed you,” Canon Morchard said courteously. “Another day, when Adrian is at home, you must come over again. He is spending the afternoon with friends at a distance, and will hardly be home before dinner-time. You must come over again.”
“Thank you, sir. I should like to very much.”
Something in the Captain’s prompt reply convinced Quentillian that his acceptance was not merely a conventional one.
“Your motor-bicycle is round by the hall door,” said Valeria, and she and Captain Cuscaden left the garden together.
“And now, dear lad, you and I must have some talk together.”
Rather to Quentillian’s dismay, the firm and genial pronouncement of his host seemed to have been anticipated. Lucilla could be discerned bending over the distant flower-bed which had been the object of her solicitation during the talk about Rome, and Flora had disappeared. Mr. Clover now turned and hastened towards the house.
“You and I have had our heart-to-heart talks before now, Owen,” said the Canon affectionately. “We must have many more of them, dear fellow—many more.”
The natural instinct of Quentillian, as of everybody else, was to suppose that a heart-to-heart talk must necessarily be upon the subject of himself.
He was therefore slightly disconcerted, though also undoubtedly relieved, when he perceived that the Canon’s thoughts were only preoccupied with his own two sons.
They disposed of David with a rapidity that was partly due to Quentillian’s own determined uncommunicativeness, and partly to the Canon’s evident anxiety to get on to the topic of Adrian.
“I wish David had been able to come home before returning to India, but no doubt these things are ordered for us. He writes fondly and affectionately, dear boy—fondly and affectionately. Not as often as I could wish, perhaps, but the young are thoughtless. It costs so little to send one line to those who are anxiously waiting and watching at home! Well, well—it has been a great joy to hear that the dear fellow is his own bright self. And his faith, Owen? Is all well there? Did he say anything to you of that?”
The Canon sighed.
“Perhaps it was not to be expected. You of the present generation do not discuss these things as we did. Even at Oxford, I am told, the men no longer preoccupy themselves with such questions in the same way.”
“Some do, sir,” said Quentillian, beginning to feel rather sorry for the Canon.
The Canon, however, received Quentillian’s consolatory effort very much at its true worth.
“Some do, perhaps, as you say, but they are not those from whom any very valuable contribution to the problems of the times is to be expected. The tone of Oxford is not what it was, Owen—not what it was. It lessens my disappointment at not sending Adrian there, to find an Alma Mater indeed, as his father before him. One had always thought of the Church for him, dear boy, but these things cannot be forced. His soldiering seems to have put an end to any leanings that way. Adrian is one reason, amongst many others, why I am glad to welcome you amongst us, Owen. He may find it easier to discuss things with a contemporary,” said the Canon wistfully. “Your own destiny, I imagine, is sealed?”
Quentillian assented, although he had thought of the very small property recently inherited by himself in no such grandiloquent terms.
“When do you take possession of your kingdom?”
“In a few months, sir. The place was let during my uncle’s lifetime, and there are repairs to be done before I go there. I intend to live there, and try my hand at farming.”
He purposely omitted any mention of his writing.
“Good—good—excellent indeed. And we shall not be very distant neighbours, eh?”
“Just the other side of the county, sir. I should like to go over there from here, if you’re kind enough to put up with me for two or three days.”
“By all means, of course—but let there be no talk of two or three days, Owen, between you and me. Make this your headquarters; come and go quite freely, as one of ourselves. We have always thought of you as one of ourselves,” said the Canon warmly. “I think you have no very close ties, this side of the Great Division?”
“Thank you very much indeed,” said Quentillian, feeling unable to accept the Great Division even by implication, but sincerely grateful for the Canon’s most genuine and spontaneous kindness.
“It’s more than good of you to receive me so kindly, and I shall be only too glad to take you at your word.”
He wished that his self-consciousness had allowed him to make this speech without a perfectly clear realization that he only did so because the normal economy of expression habitual to him would have left the elder man dissatisfied.
As it was, the Canon’s arm was, for the second time that day, affectionately laid across Quentillian’s shoulders, and thus they paced the garden and eventually entered the house, to the extreme relief of the Canon’s unresponsive prop.
“Your room, dear Owen. Lucilla is my housekeeper. Ask her for anything you want,” said the Canon, carrying Quentillian back to his ninth year, and almost making him expect to hear next that Valeria was the Canon’s tomboy.
No such inapposite piece of information followed, and Quentillian expressed his pleasure at the very charming room in which he found himself.
“Make it your own, dear lad, for as long as you will,” and, as though irrepressibly, the Canon added as he closed the door: “Bless you.”
At dinner, Quentillian saw Adrian Morchard. He thought him very like his sister Val, and also very like the little boy who had rehearsed aloud colours for each day of the week.
Adrian spoke of Quentillian’s writings, said that he had read some of them, and was instantly and silently disbelieved by the author. The subject was not pursued.
In the drawing-room, later on in the evening, Flora played the piano, and although Quentillian was no musician, he had sufficient knowledge to understand that Flora was one. She played Bach, at the Canon’s request, and Debussy at Adrian’s. The Canon admitted, with a slight, grave smile, that he did not admire Debussy.
Valeria occupied herself with needlework, but Lucilla sat with her hands folded until her father said gently:
“Are we to see none of your great tomes tonight, my dear?”
Lucilla rose, and her father explained to the guest:
“There are certain references for a small compilation that I may one day attempt, which Lucilla is kindly looking out for me. You remember her as a very scholarly little girl, no doubt.”
The nearest thing Quentillian could compass to this was a very distinct remembrance of having listened to several of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, read aloud by Lucilla, and the Canon looked very much pleased at the reminiscence.
“We are not without our literary evenings now,” he declared. “There have been some very pleasant readings and discussions round the lamp on winter evenings. Lucilla provides me with some absorbing book, and Valeria has her strip of embroidery there, and Flora is busy with her pencil. I enjoy a pleasant evening of reading aloud.”
The present occasion was not, however, one of reading aloud; nevertheless, Quentillian had none of the talk with Valeria that he had half-hoped to have.
The Canon’s attitude towards his family circle was patriarchal. He sat in an armchair and talked a great deal to Quentillian, and his eyes rested with grave satisfaction upon his children, grouped round him.
They remained there until half-past nine, when the Canon read prayers to the assembled household.
“We break up early,” he said afterwards to Quentillian. “Lucilla and I have work to do—she is always my right hand. Valeria and Flora, I believe, discuss mysterious questions of chiffons upstairs. Don’t prolong the conference too late, though, my dears. I heard voices last night as I came upstairs, which was not as it should be—not as it should be. Owen, dear boy, Adrian will look after you. Good-night to you all.”
The Canon kissed Val and Flora each on the forehead and laid his hand for an instant upon either head with a murmur that was evidently an habitual nightly blessing.
Then he went into his study with Lucilla, and Adrian and Quentillian sat in the smoking-room making desultory conversation that bore not the slightest resemblance to the wise, deep talks of the Canon’s forecastings.
The forecastings of the Canon, in fact, like those of many other dominating personalities, were scrupulously carried out in his presence, and thankfully allowed to lapse in his absence.
As of old, it was only Lucilla who was completely at ease in her father’s company, and Quentillian presently came to the conclusion that her silence, her unemotional acquiescences, denoted a mind that was merely a reflection of his.
Flora, remote, gentle, preoccupied with her music, gave him the odd illusion of being slightly withdrawn from them all.
Only in Valeria were to be discerned suppressed, but unmistakable, flashes of rebellion, and with Valeria, Quentillian, as usual scrutinizing his own impressions under a microscope, presently suspected himself of falling quietly in love.
In common with most young men of his day, Quentillian considered himself to have outlived passion. In effect, the absorbing episode of his young manhood was in fact over, and Val, ingenuous and beautiful, was provocative of the normal reaction.
One night she joined Adrian and Quentillian in the smoking-room, after the Canon’s usual disappearance into his study.
With a look half-frightened and half-mischievous, she lit a cigarette.
“Don’t look so guilty, Val. It isn’t a crime, and besides, no one will know.”
Val coloured in a childish way, and said to Quentillian:
“My father knows that I smoke—at least, I think he knows, in a sort of way. He doesn’t like it, and that’s why I don’t do it in front of him,” she concluded naïvely.
“You’re wrong, Val,” said Adrian. “You and Flossie ought to assert yourselves more. It would make it much easier for me, if you did. Father’s ideas about women are so old-fashioned, one can’t introduce him to any of one’s friends.”
Quentillian exchanged a glance with Valeria. It required small acumen to translate the plurality of Adrian’s “friends” into the singular, and the feminine singular at that.
“Father is very broad-minded,” said Valeria conscientiously. “He never says that smoking is wrong; only that it’s unfeminine.”
“It isn’t anything of the sort,” Adrian declared with the most astonishing violence. “Some people—girls—require it for their nerves. It soothes them. It doesn’t make them in the least unfeminine. I met a girl the other day—you’d have liked her awfully, Val—and she simply smoked perfectly naturally, the whole time, just like a man.”
“Who was she?” inquired Val smoothly.
“Let me see—what was her name now?”
This time Quentillian avoided Valeria’s eyes, positively abashed by the extreme hollowness of Adrian’s pretence at forgetfulness.
“Oh, yes—Olga Duffle—Miss Olga Duffle. She is staying with the Admastons—the people I was with the day you arrived, Owen. Don’t you think you girls might ask them all over to tennis, one of these days?”
“I suppose so—yes, of course we will. Would Father like Miss Duffle? He doesn’t much care for the Admastons, does he?”
“Absolute prejudice, my dear girl. You’ve got into a rut, all you people down here—that’s what you’ve done. You’d like Olga most awfully—everybody does. She’s the most popular girl in London, and not a bit spoilt, although she’s an only child and her people adore her. Mrs. Duffle told me herself that Olga was just like a ray of sunshine at home.”
“What an original woman Mrs. Duffle must be,” murmured Val.
“I always think there must be something remarkable about any girl, if her own nearest relations speak well of her,” Quentillian said in detached accents.
Adrian looked suspiciously at his audience.
“You’d like Olga awfully,” he repeated rather pathetically. “And I can tell you this, Val, she’d give you and Flossie no end of hints about clothes and things. She dresses better than any girl I’ve ever seen.”
Valeria was roused to no display of enthusiasm by this culminating claim of Miss Duffle on her regard.
“What sort of age is she?”
“She looks about eighteen, but I believe she’s twenty-four and a bit,” said Adrian with some precision. “She plays tennis, too, rippingly. You’d better ask the Admastons to bring her over, I can tell you. It isn’t everyone who gets the chance of playing with a girl like that.”
“We might have a tennis party next week,” Val considered. “I shall only ask one Admaston girl; we’ve too many girls as it is. One Admaston, and this Olga person, and Lucilla and I—Flossie won’t play if anybody very good is there. That’s four, and then you and Owen and Mr. Clover—and we could have Captain Cuscaden. I’ll talk to Lucilla about it, if you like, Adrian.”
“Oh, I don’t care about it. It’s for your own sake, really, that I suggested it,” Adrian explained.
His forefinger carefully traced out the pattern stamped upon the leather arm of his chair, and he contemplated it earnestly with his head upon one side, even murmuring a sub-audible—“One—two—three—and a corner”—before clearing his throat.
“H’m. No, my dear Val, don’t run away with the idea that I’m wildly keen on this tennis stunt for my own amusement. In fact, I may say I’ve been a bit off tennis lately, simply from seeing how extraordinarily good some amateurs can be. It discourages one, in a way. But I thought you girls might like to know Olga, I must say. She’d be an awfully nice friend for you to have, you know.”
There was a pleading note discernible in the tone of Adrian’s philanthropic suggestions that might have been partly accountable for the tolerance with which his sister received them.
Nevertheless, she said to Quentillian next day, with a certain hint of apology:
“We’ve spoilt Adrian, I’m afraid. You remember what a dear little boy he was?”
Quentillian remembered better still what a tiresome little boy Adrian had been, but this recollection, as so many others connected with the house of Morchard, he did not insist upon.
“I suppose he must have his Olga if he wants to, but I hope she’s a nice girl. You know how very particular Father is, and I think he’s especially sensitive where Adrian is concerned.”
“It struck me that perhaps he was almost inclined to take Adrian’s affairs too seriously,” Quentillian suggested, with great moderation. “Adrian, after all, is very young, isn’t he, both in years and in character, in spite of his soldiering?”
“I suppose he is. He’s very susceptible, too. I sometimes think that Father doesn’t altogether make allowance for that.”
Even the very negative criticism implied was so contrary to the spirit of the house that it gave Quentillian the agreeable illusion of partnering Valeria in a mild domestic conspiracy, and pleased him inordinately.
The sense of conspiracy was deepened on the day of the tennis party, when a Miss Admaston, gawky and unimpressive, duly escorted Miss Olga Duffle to St. Gwenllian.
She was less pretty, and possessed of more personality, than Quentillian had expected. Very small and slight, her face was of the squirrel type, her eyes very large and dark, her black crêpe hair brushed childishly away from her little round forehead, her nose unmistakably retroussé. Two very white front teeth were just visible, resting upon an habitually indrawn under-lip.
Quentillian, quite irrationally, immediately felt certain that she spoke with a lisp. She did not, but she certainly pronounced the name of Captain George Cuscaden, with whom she appeared to be upon intimate terms, as though it were spelt “Dzorze.”
She also called Adrian by his first name, but gave no other startling signs of modernity. Indeed, a very pretty, and most unmodern, deference marked her manner towards Canon Morchard.
“Father likes her,” Valeria murmured to Quentillian, who was more concerned with her charming air of imparting to him a secret than with Miss Duffle’s conquest of the Canon.
It was only at tea-time that the Canon joined the tennis party. Immediately afterwards he made courteous apologies and returned to the house.
It was undeniable that the absence of the Canon caused the conversation, which had circled uneasily round cathedral subjects, to lapse into triviality. The super-critical Quentillian could not decide which form of social intercourse he found least to his taste.
“Jam?” said Adrian.
The Canon had said, a few minutes earlier:
“You must try some of our strawberry jam, Miss Duffle. My daughter Flora is responsible for it, I believe. Lucilla there is our housekeeper, but I am given to understand that her younger sisters are allowed to try experiments. I will not quote: Fiat experimentum.”
“Jam?” repeated Adrian.
“Oh, there’s a wasp in the jam! Oh, save me!”
Olga laughed as she uttered little cries of alarm, and her laughter really suggested the adjective “merry.”
“Save the women and children!”
There was much ineffectual slapping of teaspoons against the air, the tablecloth, the jam pot, and many exclamations.
“Yonder he goes! Passed to you for necessary action, Miss Admaston!”
“Be a man, Cuscaden; he’s right under your nose.”
“Dzorze, do be careful—you’ll get stung!” Olga cried across the table.
Captain Cuscaden neatly captured the wasp beneath an empty plate.
“That’s got him. He’ll never lift up his head again.”
“Oh, then may I have my jam?”
Olga, with her head on one side, might have been imitating a little girl, but Quentillian could not decide whether or no the imitation was an unconscious one.
“The wasp has eaten all the jam,” Adrian rejoined in the same tone as Olga’s.
“Oh! he hasn’t eaten all of it.”
“No, he hasn’t eaten it all.”
“Oh! the wasp didn’t eat all the jam, did he?”
“Not quite all.”
“There are still a few spoonfuls left that the wasp didn’t eat, Miss Duffle.”
Neither Olga, Adrian, Captain Cuscaden, Flora nor Miss Admaston appeared to regard themselves as being amongst the extremest examples of brainless fatuity produced by a fatuous century. Yet thus it was that Owen Quentillian was regarding them, whilst at the same time another section of his brain passionlessly registered the conviction that his nerves were still on edge and his tendency to irrational irritability passing almost beyond his own control.
After tea he remained idly in a long chair beside Valeria, while they watched Olga’s little nimble figure on the tennis court, where Adrian was her partner. Lucilla played against them with George Cuscaden, and Olga several times called out gaily: “Dzorze, I hate you!”
When Lucilla sent an unplayable stroke across the net, she only cried: “Oh, well played!”
“I don’t like her voice, do you?” Val murmured confidentially.
“Hideous,” said Quentillian, briefly and candidly.
“I wonder if Adrian thinks he’s in earnest. Of course, I don’t suppose she’d look at him. And of course he couldn’t think of marrying anybody for ages. He’s too young, and he’d have to get a job.”
“He’ll have to do that anyway, won’t he? He says he doesn’t dislike the idea of business, and I could give him an introduction to a man who might be useful.”
“It’s very kind of you. I know Father wants to get him settled. Dear Father, he was so disappointed that Adrian isn’t going into the Church after all, and he’s taken it so beautifully.”
Quentillian regarded the Canon’s disappointment with so much more astonishment than sympathy that he wished only to avoid a discussion on the beauty of its manifestation.
“Curiously enough, I have a living in my gift, belonging to my very small property at Stear. The old man there wishes to retire, and I want to consult your father as to a new appointment. No one could be less fitted than myself,” said Quentillian with an emphasis not altogether devoid of satisfaction, “to nominate a candidate for that sort of thing.”
Val looked at him with all her peculiar directness of gaze.
“Sometimes you talk as though you rather despised the Church,” she said bluntly.
There was a pause.
“If I have given you such an impression, I must apologize. It was most discourteous of me,” said Quentillian stiffly.
He was fully prepared to acknowledge and to defend his own purely rationalistic views, but the implication of a lack of taste in his behaviour as guest in an orthodox household offended him.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Val, calmly and gravely. “I know that a great many very clever people are not believers in the sense that my father is one, for instance; but they do respect the Christian ideal, all the same. I only wondered whether you were one of them. Do you mind my talking like this?”
The relentless voice of Quentillian’s inner monitor assured him that he was, on the contrary, ready to welcome any intimate discussion of himself and his views, on whatever subject.
Val looked at him expectantly.
“Where I differ from, for instance, your father, is in separating Christian morality from what might be called the miraculous element of Christianity. Frankly, I can’t accept the latter.”
“You don’t believe in the divinity of Christ?”
Her voice was a very much shocked one, and Quentillian replied only by a gesture. Val kept silence, and presently he glanced at her face and saw that tears stood in her eyes.
He was half touched and half impatient.
“Surely that point of view isn’t altogether a new one to you. You must know that the trend of modern thought is all very much in that direction.”
“I suppose I knew it, certainly. But it has never come very near me before. Father has sheltered us from everything, in the most beautiful way.”
She spoke very simply and sincerely.
The time-honoured cliché as to never wishing to deprive anyone of his or her faith—Valeria least of all—hung unspoken on his lips.
If the spiritual intimacy of which Owen Quentillian was beginning to dream should come to pass between them, he was quite clearly and definitely convinced that Valeria’s early beliefs must go.
“Have you really never felt any doubt at all—any inclination to question?”
Valeria looked troubled.
“I suppose I’ve never thought it out very clearly. One doesn’t, you know, brought up as we were.”
Her eyes were full of thought.
“Tell me,” said Quentillian gently, after a silence.
“I was hoping,” said Val, with innocent eyes turned full upon him, “that Father would never know about you. It would make him so unhappy.”
Val, in accordance with time-honoured tradition, nightly brushed out her long brown hair in her sister Flora’s bedroom.
They talked desultorily.
“Choir practice tomorrow. I wish we could have Plain Chant instead of those things....”
“Father doesn’t care for Plain Chant.”
“Give me a piece of ribbon, Flossie. I’ve lost all mine.”
“Val—here, will blue do?—Val, do you think Owen is falling in love with you?”
“I don’t know. Well, to be honest, I think he is.”
“So do I.”
“That’s Lucilla going up to bed. How early they are tonight.”
They heard the Canon’s voice upon the stairs outside.
“Good-night to you, my dear daughter. May God have you in His keeping!”
Then came a gentle tap upon the bedroom door.
“Not too prolonged a conference, little girls! I have sent Lucilla to seek her bed.”
“Good-night, father,” they chorused.
“Good-night to you, my dear children. Good-night, and may God bless you.”
“Father would be pleased.”
Flora reverted, unmistakably, to the topic of Owen Quentillian.
“I suppose so,” said Val doubtfully.
“But you know he would! He is delighted with Owen, and it would be so close to us—only an hour’s journey. I think it would be very nice, Val,” said Flora wistfully, “and it’s time one of us got married. Lucilla won’t, now, and nobody ever asks me, so it had better be you.”
They both laughed.
“Nobody has ever asked me, except that curate we had before Mr. Clover, and I always thought he was more or less weak-minded,” Valeria remarked candidly.
“They may not have asked you, but they’ve wanted to,” said Flora shrewdly. “Don’t answer if you’d rather not, but didn’t Captain Cuscaden ever...?”
Val crimsoned suddenly.
“No. That was all nonsense. I believe he’s in love with that Olga girl.”
“After you? Oh, Val!”
“I don’t suppose it was ever me at all,” said Val with averted head. “I can’t think why we’ve ever imagined such nonsense. Anyway, it’s all over now, and I—I think I rather hate him, now.”
“Oh!” Flora’s tone was both highly dissatisfied and rather incredulous.
“One can’t hate a person and—and like them, at one and the same time,” Valeria exclaimed, with all the vehemence of those who affirm that of which they are not convinced.
“I suppose not. See if you can untie me, Val—I’ve got into a knot.”
There was silence, and then Valeria, without looking at her sister, suddenly said:
“Sometimes I wish we’d been brought up more like other people, Flossie. I know Father’s care for us has been beautiful—dear Father!—but somehow the girls I was with in France seemed more alive, in a way. They knew about things....”
“Isn’t that rather like Eve wanting the knowledge of good and evil? Father always says that one should only seek the beautiful side—‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are holy,’ like St. Paul says.”
“Owen wouldn’t agree to that. He believes that one ought to know everything, good and bad alike.”
“Perhaps it’s different for a man.”
“Perhaps. We don’t know much about men, after all, do we, Flossie?”
Flossie raised her eyebrows with an indescribable effect of fastidious distaste, and closed her lips.
“I don’t think I want to, particularly. Father is the most wonderful man that anyone could ever want to know, I should imagine.”
“Oh, yes,” said Valeria.
She was perfectly conscious of speaking anything but whole-heartedly.
She did indeed think her father wonderful, but she could not, like Flora, feel herself to be forever satisfied by the contemplation of parental wonderfulness.
“You’re different since you came back from France, Val. I think you’d better marry Owen,” said Flora calmly.
“He hasn’t asked me, yet.”
There was a sound from the floor below.
“That was Father! He hates us to sit up late. I’d better go before he comes up again. Good-night, Flossie.”
Flora looked at her sister, and once more murmured: “Father would like it, you know,” half pleadingly and half as though in rebuke.
“Father doesn’t know everything about Owen. He has been very much affected by the tone of the day, as Father calls it. His faith....”
“Oh, Val! Isn’t that one reason the more? You might do so much to help him.”
Flora spoke with humourless and absolute earnestness.
The Canon’s voice, subdued but distinct, came to them from without.
“My dear, go to your room. This is not right. You are acting in defiance of my known wishes, although, no doubt, thoughtlessly. Bid your sister good-night and go.”
Val did not even wait to carry out the first half of the Canon’s injunction. She caught up her brush and comb and left the room.
“Are my wishes so little to you, Valeria?” said her father, standing on the stairs. “It costs so small an act of self-sacrifice to be faithful in that which is least!”
“I’m sorry, Father. We both forgot the time.”
“Thoughtless Valeria! Are you always to be my madcap daughter?”
His tone was very fond, and he kissed her and blessed her once more.
Valeria went to her own room.
She sat upon the side of her bed and cried a little.
Everything seemed to be vaguely disappointing and unsatisfactory. What if Owen Quentillian was in love with her? He was very clever, and Val was tired of cleverness. Father was clever—even Flora, in her austere, musical way, was clever. Val supposed grimly that she herself must be clever, if imposed intellectual interests, a wide range of reading, a habit of abstract discussion, could make her so. Nevertheless she was guiltily conscious of desires within herself other than purely academic ones.
Flora was right. Those six months in France had made her different.
She had worked in a canteen, where the preoccupation of everyone had been the procuring and dispensing of primitive things—food, and drink, and warmth. Women had worked with their hands for men who had been fighting, and were going to fight again.
Valeria had been the quickest worker there, one of the most efficient. The manual work, the close contact with material things, had satisfied some craving within herself of which she had not before been actively conscious.
She had learnt to cook and had become proficient with astonishing ease. Scrambled eggs interested her more than herbaceous borders, more than choir practises, more, to her own surprise and shame, than evening readings-aloud at home.
The canteen jokes, elementary, beer-and-tobacco-flavoured, had amused her whole-heartedly. She had laughed, foolishly and mirthfully, for sheer enjoyment, knowing all the time that, judged by the criterion of St. Gwenllian, the jests were pointless, the wit undeserving of the name.
Very soon she had ceased to dwell upon any remembrance of the criterion of St. Gwenllian. She had let herself go.
There had been brief, giggling intimacies with girls and young women whom Valeria could certainly not visualize as intimates in her own home, allusions and catchwords shared with the men or the orderlies, childish, undignified escapades which she was aware that the Canon would have regarded and apostrophised as vulgar. Those days now seemed like a dream.
Even the girl with whom she had shared a room for six months no longer wrote to her.
She, the bobbed-haired, twenty-two-year-old Pollie Gordon, had had love-affairs. Valeria remembered certain confidences made by Pollie, and still blushed. Pollie had been strangely outspoken, to Miss Morchard’s way of thinking, but she had been interesting—revealing even.
Valeria ruefully realized perfectly that Pollie Gordon, whether one’s taste approved of her or not, had lived every moment of her short life to the full. She was acutely aware of contrast.
“And I’m twenty-seven!” thought Val. “I’d better go and be a cook somewhere. If only I could! Or marry Owen—supposing he asks me. Anyway, one might have children.”
A humourous wonder crossed her mind as to her ability to cope with the intelligent, eclectically-minded children that Owen Quentillian might be expected to father.
“It’s a pity he isn’t poor. I believe I should be better as a poor man’s wife, having to do everything for him, and for the babies, if there were babies.... The Colonies, for instance....”
Although she was alone, Val coloured again and tears stood in her eyes.
“What a fool I am!”
It was this painfully sincere conviction that sent her to seek the oblivion of sleep, rather than any recollection of the fidelity in that which is least, enjoined upon her by her father.
For the next few days Valeria was zealous in gardening and tennis playing. She also, on two occasions, fetched volumes of Lamartine and asked her father to read aloud after dinner.
Her physical exertions sent her to bed tired out, and made her sleep soundly.
It surprised her very much when Lucilla, who never made personal remarks, said to her:
“Why don’t you go away for a time, Val? You don’t look well.”
“I’m perfectly all right. I only wish I had rather more to do, sometimes.”
Valeria looked at her elder sister. She was less intimate with her than with Flora. No one, in fact, was intimate with Lucilla. She spoke seldom, and almost always impersonally. At least, one knew that she was discreet....
Val, on impulse, spoke.
“Do you suppose—don’t be horrified, Lucilla—do you suppose Father would ever think of letting me go away and work?”
Lucilla gave no sign of being horrified.
She appeared to weigh her answer before she replied.
“I don’t think it would occur to him, of his own accord.”
“Oh, no. But if one asked him? Would it make him dreadfully unhappy?”
“Yes,” said Lucilla matter-of-factly.
Valeria, disappointed and rather angry, shrugged her shoulders.
“Then, of course, that puts an end to the whole thing.”
Lucilla finished stamping a small pile of the Canon’s letters, laid them on the table, and placed a paper-weight upon the heap before turning round to face her sister.
“But why, Val?”
“Why need it put an end to the whole thing? You know as well as I do that it would make Father unhappy for any one of us to suggest leaving home. But if you really mean to do it, you must make up your mind to his being unhappy about it.”
Lucilla did not elaborate her astounding theses, but her gaze, sustained and level, met Valeria’s astonished eyes calmly.
“You don’t suppose I’m as hideously selfish as that, do you?”
“I don’t know what you are. But you’ve a right to your own life.”
“Not at anyone else’s expense.”
Lucilla began to stamp postcards.
“Lucilla, you didn’t mean that, did you?”
“Of course I did, Val.”
“That I should hurt Father, and go away just to satisfy my own restlessness, knowing that he disapproved and was unhappy? I should never know a moment’s peace again.”
“Well, if you feel like that, I suppose you won’t do it.”
“Wouldn’t you feel like that, in my place?”
“No, I shouldn’t; but that’s neither here nor there. It’s for you to decide whether a practical consideration or a sentimental one weighs most in your own particular case.”
Val’s indignant tone gave the word its least agreeable meaning.
“It is a question of sentiment, isn’t it? Father likes to have you at home, but he’s not dependent upon you in any way.”
“But wouldn’t he say that my place was at home—that it was only restlessness and love of independence...?” Valeria stammered.
She suddenly felt very young beneath the remote, passionless gaze of her sister. For the first time in her life she saw Lucilla as a human being and not as an elder sister, and she was struck with Lucilla’s strange effect of spiritual aloofness. It would be very easy to speak freely to anyone so impersonal as Lucilla.
“It’s ever since I got back from France,” said Val suddenly. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, exactly, but I’ve ... wanted things. I’ve wanted to work quite hard, at things like cooking, or sweeping—and I’ve been sick of books, and music, and botany. I don’t feel any of it is one scrap worth while. And, oh, Lucilla, it’s such nonsense, because no one wants me to cook or sweep, so I’m just ‘seeking vocations to which I am not called,’ as Father always says. Perhaps it’s just that I want change.”
Lucilla was silent.
“Do say what you think,” Val besought her with some impatience.
“I will if you like, but it isn’t really what I think, or what Father thinks, that matters. It’s what you think yourself.”
Valeria stamped her foot.
“I don’t know what I think.”
“Better go away,” Lucilla then said briefly.
“Yes, if that’s what you feel like. Of course, marriage would be better.”
“You asked me to say what I thought,” her sister pointed out.
“I suppose you mean Owen Quentillian,” Val said at last. “But even if I did that—and he hasn’t asked me to, so far—it would only mean just the same sort of thing, only in another house. There’d be servants to do the real work, and a gardener to do the garden, and a nurse for the babies, if there were babies. Owen talks about farming Stear, but he’d do it all out of books, I feel certain. We should be frightfully—frightfully civilized.”
“Owen is frightfully civilized.”
“Well, I don’t think I am,” said Val contentiously.
“Lucilla, do you like Owen?”
“Yes. I’m very sorry for him, too.”
“Why?” Valeria could not believe that Owen would be in the least grateful for Lucilla’s sorrow. It might even be difficult to induce him to believe that anyone could be sufficiently officious to indulge in such an emotion on his behalf.
“I think his shell-shock has affected him much more than he realizes,” Lucilla said. “I think his nerves are on edge, very often. He’d be a difficult person to live with, Val.”
Valeria remained thoughtful.
She knew that Lucilla’s judgments, if rarely put into words, were extraordinarily clear-cut and definite, and as such they carried conviction to her own intuitive, emotional impulses of like and dislike.
“Father likes Owen so much. Wouldn’t he be pleased if one ever did?” Val said elliptically.
“Very pleased, I should think.”
“Of course, that isn’t really a reason for doing it.”
Lucilla apparently found the wisdom of her sister’s observation too obvious for reply.
“Not the only reason, anyway.”
Lucilla’s silence was again an assent.
“Gossiping in the morning, my daughters?”
The Canon’s deep, pleasant voice preceded him as he paused outside the open window.
“Is that as it should be? Lucilla, my dear love, at your desk again? You look pale—you should be in the open air. Is not the day a glorious one? When this world about us is so unutterably fair, does it not make one think of ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, what things He hath prepared for them that love him’?”
The Canon’s uplifted gaze was as joyful as it was earnest.
“Heaven seems very near, on such a day,” he said softly.
Val, always outspoken, and struggling with the unease of her own discontent, joined him at the window and said wistfully:
“I can’t feel it like you do, Father. I wish I could.”
“Little Valeria! It will come, my dear; it will all come. These things become more real and vivid to us as life goes on. So many of those I love have gone to swell the ranks of the Church Triumphant, now—such a goodly company of friends! How can I feel it to be a strange or far-away country, when your mother awaits me there, and my own dear father and mother, and such a host of friends? What a meeting that will be, with no shadow of parting any more!”
Valeria was conscious of foolish, utterly unexplained tears, rising to her throat at the tender, trustful voice in which her father spoke.
How she loved him! Never could she do anything that would hurt or disappoint him. The resolution, impulsive and emotional, gave her a certain sense of stability, welcome after all her chaotic self-questionings and contradictory determinations.
“Will you give Owen and myself the pleasure of your company this afternoon, Valeria? We meditate an expedition to Stear—an expedition to Stear.”
She said that she would go with them.
None of the Canon’s children had ever refused an invitation to go out with the Canon since the days when the Sunday afternoons of their childhood had been marked by the recurrent honour of a walk with Father. An honour and a pleasure, even if rather a breathless one, and one that moreover was occasionally liable to end in shattering disaster, as when Flora had been sent home in disgrace by herself for the misguided sense of humour that had led her, aged five, to put out her tongue at the curate. Or that other unforgettable episode when Val herself, teased by the boys, had vigorously boxed Adrian’s ears.
She smiled as she recollected it, and wondered if Owen remembered too, and yet there was a sort of disloyalty in recalling the affair too closely.
The Canon had been so very angry! His anger, as intense as it was memorable, had been succeeded by such a prolonged period of the blackest depression!
Val realized thankfully that it was a long time since any of them had seen the Canon angry.
She turned aimlessly down the garden.
The Canon had already gone indoors. He was never other than occupied, and Valeria had never seen him impatient of an interruption.
“The man who wants me is the man I want,” the Canon sometimes quoted, with his wonderfully attractive smile.
“Father is wonderful. Never could I disappoint or grieve him,” thought Val vehemently.
She suddenly wheeled round and returned to the open window, determined that Lucilla, the astonishing Lucilla, should know of her resolution.
“You know what we were talking about just now?” she demanded abruptly.
Lucilla looked up.
“I’ve quite made up my mind that your advice was wrong,” said Val firmly. “I know you said what you thought was best, and it’s nice of you to want me to be independent, but, after all, one’s duty comes first. I don’t believe it’s my duty to dash away from home and make Father unhappy.”
Lucilla looked down again.
“Of course, if anything happened of itself to make me leave home, it would be quite different. If I married, or anything like that. But just to go away for a purely selfish whim——”
She paused expressively.
“I couldn’t do it, you know.”
“Well—” Lucilla’s tone conceded, apparently, that Val had every right to judge for herself. Further than that, it did not go.
“Lucilla, if you really think like that, about living one’s own life, and I suppose from the aggravating way in which you won’t say anything, that you do—why don’t you do it yourself?”
“But I haven’t any wish to,” said Lucilla, looking surprised.
“Haven’t you ever had any wish to?”
“Oh, yes, once. But not now.”
“Then why didn’t you?” Val pursued desperately. She felt as though she was coming really to know her sister for the first time.
“I suppose because I thought, like you, that it wouldn’t do to leave Father.”
“But you don’t think that any more?”
“Did anyone advise you?”
“Oh, no. There wasn’t anything to advise about. One has to think things out for oneself, after all.”
“Oh!” Val was conscious of her own perpetual craving for approval from everyone, for any course that she might adopt.
“Did you ever ask anyone’s advice, Lucilla?”
“I don’t think so. If I did, it would be because I meant to take it, and I can’t imagine wanting to let anyone else decide things for me. Just talking about one’s own affairs isn’t taking advice, though people like to call it so.”
“I think it’s a very good thing you’re not married,” said Val crossly. “You’re too superior.”
“Perhaps that’s why no one has ever asked me,” said Miss Morchard with calm.
Valeria, in spite of her momentary elevation of spirits in resolving never to grieve her father, prepared for the visit to Stear in a discontented frame of mind.
At the last moment Adrian suddenly announced a wish to accompany them.
“My dear! But of course—” The Canon’s pleasure was very evident. “Owen, you will welcome this lad of mine as part of our little excursion, eh? Why not make one of the old-time family parties? Why not let us all go and explore this future home of Owen’s? It’s not very often that I have a free afternoon nowadays—and to have all my dear ones to make holiday with me would be indeed a rare joy.”
He looked round him expectantly.
“The caretaker won’t be able to manage tea for so many,” said Lucilla, looking at Quentillian.
“There speaks my practical housekeeper!
For though on pleasure she was bent,
She had a frugal mind.
“Eh, Lucilla? Could you not contrive a basket for us, my dear, picnic fashion? Come, come, let’s have an impromptu picnic. What say you, young people?”
They said what the Canon wanted them to say. No one, Val felt, could have done otherwise, in the face of his eagerness. She was partly disappointed, and partly relieved. There had been a certain romance in going with Owen to see Owen’s home, with the barely acknowledged wonder whether it might not one day also be hers.
But there was no hint of romance in the solidly packed basket presently produced by Lucilla, and reluctantly carried by Adrian, nor in Flora’s tardiness that nearly caused them to miss the train, nor in her Father’s gentle, humourously worded rebuke to her.
If Valeria was slightly discomposed by the tribal nature of the expedition to Stear, Quentillian was seriously annoyed by it. He had figured to himself a grave and gentle readjustment of values, when he should see the place that he had known since boyhood transformed into a setting for the figure of Valeria.
He did not suppose himself to be tempestuously in love, but he had made up his mind that he greatly wished to marry Valeria.
A wistful uncertainty possessed him as to whether Valeria would wish to marry him.
Stear looked forlorn and uninhabited, and the repairs were even less advanced than Quentillian had expected them to be.
He reflected that he ought to be upon the spot, and shuddered involuntarily, and to his disgust, at the lonely prospect.
Since his shell-shock, he had very often been afraid of his own company, and the knowledge was peculiarly galling to him.
“Your lines have fallen to you in pleasant places, Owen,” said the Canon genially.
“You are optimistic, sir,” said Quentillian rather dryly. “It will be months before these men are out of the place.”
“You should move in yourself,” Lucilla suggested.
“I believe I should.”
“Thoughtless Lucilla! Why should Owen leave his present quarters, if he is happy with us, as I trust he is? Aye, dear Owen, you are very welcome at St. Gwenllian whilst your own nest is being prepared for you.”
The Canon’s ready hand sought Quentillian’s arm.
Owen glanced at Lucilla half apologetically, but her gaze, impervious to subtleties, and mildly cheerful, met his very readily.
“Please stay on with us, if you should care to.”
“Thank you,” said Quentillian non-committally.
Later, at the Canon’s suggestion, he took them to visit the church.
“You will one day have the responsibility of finding a new shepherd for the flock here, I understand, Owen.”
“I shall hope for some advice from you, sir.”
“Aye, indeed? It’s a very good living, is it not? Though that is very far from being the first consideration—very far, indeed.”
“What’s it worth?” Adrian inquired.
“I believe it’s considered worth about £700 a year.”
“A job for a married man,” said Adrian casually.
An involuntary flash of amused comprehension passed between Quentillian and Valeria. He understood it to be in reference to this when she said to him in a low voice on leaving the church:
“I don’t think Olga Duffle would make a clergyman’s wife, do you?”
“I should doubt it.”
“But Adrian couldn’t really be thinking of it.”
“I thought he’d decided against the Church.”
“So he has. I think it was one of the greatest disappointments Father has ever had.”
“Your father would only have wished it if Adrian had wished it.”
“Oh, yes,” said Val emphatically. “Naturally, he looks upon it as a question of vocation. Father is the last person to ignore that.”
She hesitated, and then said: “Owen, do you believe that everyone has a vocation?”
The question, to him so oddly reminiscent of the perplexities of a bygone age, nearly made him laugh, but his amusement was wholly tender.
“I don’t believe in a special vocation straight from Heaven for each one of us,” he admitted. “You know, I never can believe that Heaven takes that acute personal interest in individuals that religious people always emphasize when they’re talking about themselves. But, of course, there are certain lines of development——”
“I think,” Val said seriously, “that I should like to feel I had a definite job in life, that no one but myself could do. I feel so—indefinite.”
“I believe I might enlighten you on that subject,” Owen replied in measured accents.
“I don’t mean Sales of Work or a botanical collection, Owen.”
“I know you don’t. The sales of work and the collections were never a means of self-expression, were they?”
“They did stand for something, though.”
“For your wish to please somebody else?”
“The wish is still there, Owen.”
“Val, you know I think self-abnegation is all wrong.”
He was half laughing, but the flushed face that she turned towards him was altogether earnest.
“Don’t think me arrogant, Val, but I do so wish I could make you see it as I do. Don’t you see that the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice was only the swing of the pendulum, from the brutal old days when men rejoiced in seeing their fellow-creatures tortured and killed? Feelings had to be developed, and so the Sermon on the Mount was preached. The pendulum has swung too far the other way now—charity has come to mean self-advertisement or sentimentality.”
Quentillian, deeply interested in his own exposition of views that were by no means new to him, was brought up short by a call from behind him.
“Hi, Owen! Are you walking for a wager? I want to ask you something.”
Quentillian, not at all disposed to welcome Adrian and his interrogations, was obliged to slacken his steps as Valeria did hers.
Adrian was swishing at the long grasses on either side of the road with a slender length of ash.
“Look here, old man, have you got anybody in your eye for that living?”
Adrian’s head was studiously turned towards his depredations with the ash-stick.
“Because if you haven’t—not that it matters to me, particularly, you understand, but I’ve got a friend, who might be the man you want.”
“Who is he?”
“I should have to sound him first,” Adrian explained. “I suppose you’d want a youngish fellow and—and I suppose you’d rather he was married?”
“Not in the least.”
Adrian looked disturbed.
“I thought a parson’s wife was useful in a large, straggling sort of place like this. Not that it matters to me.”
“Is your friend married, Adrian?” Val enquired.
Quentillian could not decide whether the simplicity of her manner was ironical or no.
“He isn’t married at present. I think he’s engaged. You see, a living like this would justify a man in getting married, wouldn’t it?”
“It would depend on the sort of person he wished to marry.”
“Supposing she had a little money of her own?”
“The sort of girls who marry clergymen never do have money of their own,” said Quentillian, firmly.
On this discouraging pronouncement, they were rejoined by the rest of the party.
Nevertheless Valeria contrived to enquire of Quentillian, in a disturbed murmur:
“What can Adrian be thinking of?”
It was not at all difficult to guess what Adrian could be thinking of, and became still less so as the days slipped by and his infatuation for Miss Olga Duffle led to her inclusion in innumerable games of tennis and impromptu tea-parties at St. Gwenllian.
“What can he see in her?” Valeria demanded, after the fashion of sisters.
Quentillian was unable to provide any adequate explanation of the phenomenon, but he was fully prepared to discuss it, and prolong thereby the sense of intimacy with Valeria.
It seemed to Quentillian that a new, slight, tinge of gravity shadowed Valeria’s frankness.
With all the logic and consistency of most persons so situated, Quentillian alternately viewed this as being hopeful or unhopeful, in the extreme, for the fulfilment of his wishes.
He was slightly amused at finding himself in the extremely conventional position in which he had so often viewed, with dispassionate distaste, the spectacle presented by other men, and this amusement was not without its share in determining him to submit his proposal to Valeria in writing.
A tendency, real, or fancied by Quentillian’s self-consciousness, on the parts of Flora and Adrian at least, to vacate any room in which he and Valeria might be, upon excuses of a shadow-like transparency, finally brought Quentillian to the point of leaving St. Gwenllian, under promise of an early return.
“You must come back, to us, dear Owen—you must come back,” the Canon repeated. “I want many a talk with you yet, and Adrian here will miss the evening confabulations in the smoking-room—eh, Adrian? Stear will hardly be ready for you yet awhile, to our advantage be it spoken, so you must make your home with us in the meanwhile. Come and go quite freely, dear lad.”
“Thank you very much.”
Quentillian felt that he had already said these words all too often, and conscientiously sought to vary the formula.
“It’s been a delightful time altogether, and I’m more than grateful. It’s been wonderful to get such a kind welcome after these years abroad.”
“Ah, dear fellow!”
The Canon’s fine face softened as he laid his arm across the younger man’s shoulders.
“Never doubt your welcome here, Owen,” he said.
Owen suspected significance in the words, and then derided himself.
Whatever his certainties as regarded the Canon, it was with Valeria that Quentillian was concerned, and he could augur nothing from her frank and cordial regret at his departure.
“I shall write to you, Val.”
“Yes, do. And I’ll tell you what happens with Adrian and that Olga.”
“I hope nothing will happen.”
“Oh, no—but it’s amusing.”
She did not look amused. Something of her ripe-apricot bloom had faded, and there were shadows beneath her brown eyes. Before he left St. Gwenllian, Owen said rather earnestly to Lucilla that he thought Valeria looked tired.
“So do I.”
“Is she ill?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I should hate to think of her being ill.”
“I don’t think she’s ill, Owen.”
Lucilla evidently accepted his solicitude as a natural thing.
“I’ve always thought that Val needed a greater outlet for her energies than she gets here. She’s very strong, really, and she did splendidly in France when she was working so hard at her Canteen. I wish she could go away and work again.”
“Don’t you think so yourself?”
“Perhaps—if she wished it very much. There are other things besides work, though,” said Owen Quentillian.
“Well—” Lucilla’s favourite monosyllable held, as usual, a sound of concession.
“Couldn’t one do anything for her—take care of her, somehow?”
“I will order a cup of beef-tea for her at eleven o’clock,” said Lucilla with seriousness, but with amusement lurking in her eyes.
They parted upon a mutual smile of excellent understanding.
Quentillian thought that he liked Lucilla, with her impersonal calm, and her unquestioning acceptances.
He wrote to Valeria from London, letters that he felt to be self-conscious, and received uneloquent replies. He had left St. Gwenllian a fortnight when he finally composed an epistle that left him a little—a very little—less than profoundly dissatisfied with his own powers of composition. He received her reply by return of post.
“Owen, dear, I’ve got your letter. I can’t answer it in the way I should like to, making you understand everything that I mean. But do understand first of all that your thinking of me like that makes me very proud, and I wish I was more worth it all.
“I’m glad you loved someone else before, and thank you for telling me. The reason I’m glad is because I used to like someone very much myself once, but it wasn’t like yours, it was only my own foolishness, and never came to anything. But I think perhaps it’s prevented my falling really in love, because, dear Owen, I am not in love with you. If I married you, it would be because you are, as you say, very lonely, and because I am very, very fond of you, and also perhaps, a little, because it would make Father so happy. But none of those reasons are the real, true reason for marrying, are they?
“We have known one another so long, and understand one another. Can’t we discuss it honestly together, before settling anything? Either way, we are always friends, so I will sign myself your friend.
Quentillian read the letter with a strange mingling of disappointment, relief, and mortification.
Nevertheless it was in all sincerity that he wrote to Val of his admiration for her candour.
“You and I are moderns, my dear. Let us, as you wish, discuss the future impersonally, but let me first of all say that when—or if—ever you should come to the decision which I want you to come to, then so far as I am concerned, philosophical discussion will go for nothing. I shall wait for your sign, Val, and if it comes, there shall be no more pen and ink between us, but a meeting for which I long with all my heart.”
“Academic,” said Owen’s inner monitor, relentless as ever.
He posted his letter in spite of it.
It was with relief, and yet with a happiness less defined than he had expected it to be, that Quentillian found himself engaged to Valeria.
He regretted his own absence of ardour, and was all the time aware of a faint, lurking gratification at having so early outlived the illusions of passionate emotion.
He returned to St. Gwenllian.
This time it was Valeria who met him. Something in the simplicity with which she accepted their new relationship touched him profoundly, and rendered of no account his own temperamental subtleties.
It was with a deepening sense of sincerity that Quentillian said to her:
“You have made me very happy, dearest.”
“I’m glad, Owen. I’m happy too.”
Her hand lay trustfully in his.
“They want to see you so much, at home, Owen. I’ve told them. They’re all so pleased.”
It evidently added to Valeria’s content, that it should be so.
“You know that Father has always really looked upon you as another son, even in the days when you and I got into trouble for playing at Greek sacrificial processions with the guinea pigs on silver salvers.”
They laughed together at the recollection.
The Canon had not been hard upon the classically-minded delinquents.
Quentillian believed himself to have realized fully the adjuncts, necessary and fitting in the eyes of the Morchard family, but to himself distasteful in the extreme, of his engagement to Valeria.
He was prepared for conventional congratulations, for the abhorrent necessity of discussing his personal affairs, for an emotional absence of reticence that would differ as widely from his own impersonal, dissecting-room outspokenness as would the Canon’s effusive periods from Quentillian’s cultivated terseness of expression.
Nevertheless, he was less well-armoured, or more severely tried, than he had expected to be.
Canon Morchard seemed to shower welcome, blessings, congratulations upon him. He said:
“Dear lad, you and I must have a long talk together, at no distant date.”
They had many.
It seemed to Quentillian that he saw more of the Canon than of Valeria, in the days that ensued.
“Val, when will you marry me? I’m quite selfish enough to want you to myself,” Quentillian said to her with firmness after a week at St. Gwenllian that seemed to him to have been mainly differentiated from his last visit there by the increased number of one-sided talks with the Canon to which he had been subjected.
Val said tentatively: “The end of January?”
“Why not before Christmas? Stear should be quite ready for us by then.”
It relieved him with a strange intensity to know that he would not, after all, go alone to Stear.
Valeria looked at him, and although her voice when she spoke was serious, a certain mischievous amusement lurked in her eyes.
“Before Christmas, it’s Advent,” she said.
“I don’t think Father would like my wedding to be during Advent, at all.”
“Oh, don’t be vexed, Owen. It’s only a month’s difference after all.”
“It isn’t that,” began Quentillian candidly, and then shared in her slight, unoffended laughter at his lack of gallantry.
“I only mean, my dear, that I don’t like to see you bound by that sort of convention. Do you really think it can make any difference if we’re married on one particular date rather than another?”
“I’m thinking entirely of Father,” gently said Val, thus altogether evading the real point at issue.
Quentillian was again and again made aware of this capacity in Val for the avoidance of any discussion between them on the subject of religion.
It was as though the faint rebellion that he had discerned in her at her own way of life had been extinguished by the mere prospect of its coming to an end. Nor, when he finally forced an issue, did Val appear to possess his own capacities for impartial, essentially impersonal, discussion.
“Can’t we leave it alone, Owen? You told me what your views were—and you know what mine are. We’ve been honest with one another—isn’t that all that matters?”
“In a sense, of course it is. You don’t think that perhaps it’s a pity to know there’s one subject we must tacitly avoid—that we can’t discuss freely?”
He spoke without emphasis of any kind.
“It is a pity, of course,” said Val literally. “But how can we help it? I can hardly listen to you without disloyalty of the worst kind. If you look at it from my point of view for a moment, you do see that, don’t you, Owen?”
“Yes, I suppose I do see that,” he said heavily.
He felt strangely disappointed and disillusioned.
“Do you wish me to say anything to your father about that?”
Val blushed deeply, but spoke quite resolutely.
“No, I don’t. I’ve thought it over, and I can’t see that it concerns anyone but you and me. Lucilla says so, too. I asked her what she thought. It’s not as though I were eighteen, and it’s not as though I didn’t trust you, absolutely, not to interfere with my beliefs, any more than I with your—unbeliefs.”
Confronted with her grave trustfulness, no less than with the obvious justice of her words, Quentillian could only agree with her.
His rather arrogant conviction of earlier days, that Val’s beliefs must go, gave place to an unescapable certainty that they would not even be modified. Rather would Valeria, enforced by tradition and by the inherited faith that was in her, expect with the course of years to influence her husband’s views.
Owen felt strongly the hopelessness of such expectation, and still more strongly the inexpediency, not to say the impossibility, of urging that hopelessness upon Valeria.
It was decided that the wedding should take place in January, and the engagement be made public just before Christmas.
“You do not want to let the world in upon your joy too soon, young people,” the Canon told them with a grave smile.
Val’s answering smile acquiesced in the assumption, as indeed the smiles and silences, no less than the spoken words, of his entire family were always apt to acquiesce in any assumption made by Canon Morchard, whether the facts warranted such acquiescence or not.
The days slipped by, very much as they had slipped by before Quentillian and Valeria had become engaged. If Quentillian had expected a greater difference, a more profound element, he was destined to be disappointed.
Val was charming and—he would not have to face loneliness at Stear.
Indeed at one moment, it almost appeared as though Valeria would not be alone in accomplishing the destruction of the spirit of solitude at Stear.
Adrian Morchard sought his prospective brother-in-law, and said, with singularly ill-chosen colloquialism:
“Tell me, old thing, have you had any talk with the governor about that living at Stear?”
“Not yet. The present incumbent hasn’t even resigned.”
“I suppose—ha-ha—you’ll laugh—in fact I shouldn’t be surprised if you thought it dashed funny—it makes me smile myself, in a way—you’ll roar when I tell you what I’m thinking of.”
Quentillian felt as melancholy as do the majority of people thus apostrophised, and was aware that his melancholy was reflected on his face in a forbidding expression.
Adrian had turned rather pale.
“You know the old man’s always been desperately keen on my going into the Church? Well—I say, you can laugh as much as you want to, I shan’t be offended—I’m not at all sure I shan’t do it.”
Quentillian felt no inclination whatever to indulge in the prescribed orgy of merriment.
“You coming into the family like this, with a good living going begging, makes it a pretty obvious move in a way, doesn’t it—and then it’d please the old man frightfully—and really there are precious few openings for a man who hasn’t been brought up to anything special, nowadays.”
“Yes. And what is the real reason?”
Adrian laughed uncomfortably.
“Sherlock Holmes! Well, between ourselves, I don’t mind telling you that I want to see some prospect of being able to marry, and if I had a definite thing in view, like Stear, I might be able to bring it off.”
“You can’t be ordained in five minutes. Don’t be absurd.”
“I’ve got to wait, anyhow,” said Adrian gloomily. “She won’t even be engaged, yet. I thought I might as well fill in the time at Cambridge or somewhere, if it’s going to lead to something. I’m quite willing to wait if I must, and of course I shall never change.”
“It’s Miss Duffle, I suppose. I can’t say I should have thought she’d enjoy the life of a country parson’s wife.”
“You haven’t the least idea of what she’s really like.”
“Perhaps not.” Owen’s voice implied the contrary. “What about yourself? Do you really suppose you could stand it?”
“Of course I could, if it meant her. My dear fellow, my mind’s absolutely made up, I may tell you, and has been for—for days. But, of course,” he added ingenuously, “it does depend a good deal on whether you’ll promise me Stear or not at the end of it all.”
“What about your father?”
“Oh, he’ll jump at it, of course. It’s been the one wish of his heart, all along,” said Adrian easily.
Quentillian wondered how it was possible that any youth, brought up in the intellectual atmosphere of St. Gwenllian, could be so entirely devoid of insight. To his own way of thinking, it was utterly incredible that Canon Morchard, ardent Christian and idealist, should contemplate with any degree of equanimity, his son’s proposed flippant adoption of a vocation which he regarded as sacred.
Owen committed himself to no promises.
“I should like to talk it over with Val.”
“I suppose if you must you must,” said Adrian, grudgingly. “But don’t let her tell anyone else.”
Valeria’s views were not far removed from Quentillian’s own.
It sometimes, indeed, seemed to Owen that the identity of their points of view on every other subject only rendered more evident the deep gulf dividing them on the topic that Valeria had decreed should be a barred one—that of religion.
Spoken, their very difference might have brought them closer together. Unspoken, it seemed to Owen to pervade all their intercourse since their engagement as it had never done before.
Valeria had been engaged for nearly a month when she wrote a letter.
“Dear Captain Cuscaden,
“I thought I would like to tell you myself that I am engaged to be married. It is to Owen Quentillian, whom I have known all my life, almost, and we hope to be married in January.
“I hope you will have very good luck in Canada, and that you will sometimes let us know how you get on. We are expecting you on Saturday, to come and say good-bye.
Val spent a long while over the composition of her brief letter, re-read it a great number of times, and finally tore it up very carefully into small pieces.
“What’s the use?” she said.
Captain Cuscaden, however, did not seem to have been dependent upon Valeria for news of Valeria’s engagement. He congratulated her formally on the Saturday afternoon when he came to pay his farewell visit to St. Gwenllian.
Olga Duffle was there, too, and Miss Admaston.
“No more tennis this year. It’s going to rain again,” said Flora.
“Here it comes,” Mr. Clover pointed out.
“It may clear up later—let’s have tea.”
After tea the rain was still falling heavily.
“How are all you young folks going to amuse yourselves?” genially enquired the Canon. “Lucilla, can you not organize some of our old jeux d’esprit, with pencil and paper?”
There was an inarticulate protest from the Captain, to which no one paid any attention except Valeria, who heard it, and Olga, who replied to it: “I’ll help you, Dzorze, if you’re very good.”
Mr. Clover was zealous in finding paper and pencils.
“I can’t resist this,” said the Canon boyishly. “I must give some of my old favourites a turn before going to more serious affairs. Now what is it to be?”
No one appeared to be very ready with suggestions. Captain Cuscaden was gloomily gazing out of the window. Olga and Adrian were talking in undertones, and Miss Admaston was telling Quentillian how very much she dreaded and disliked any games that required the use of brains.
“Are we all ready?” said Mr. Clover joyously.
“I suppose we’re as ready as we ever shall be,” said Captain Cuscaden.
Thus encouraged, they began.
Canon Morchard, Lucilla, and Owen Quentillian outmatched the rest of the players with ease. Each seemed to think with promptitude of great men whose names started with A, battles that began with M, or quotations—English—of which the initial letter was W.
They challenged one another’s references, and verified one another’s dates. They capped quotations, and they provided original bouts rimés.
The entertainment gradually resolved itself into one animated trio, with a faithful but halting chorus, in the persons of Mr. Clover and Flora, and a rapid and low-toned aside between Adrian and Miss Duffle.
Captain Cuscaden played a listless game of noughts and crosses with Miss Admaston, and Valeria leant back in her chair and ceased to pretend that she was occupied.
She looked at the sapphire and diamond ring on her finger, and thought about Owen’s cleverness. She remembered that Lucilla had said he would be a difficult person to live with. She remembered her own secret desires for a life of work, and her assurance to herself that such ambitions were out of place. She reminded herself that her father had been, in his own parlance, glad beyond words to welcome Owen Quentillian as a son. And she looked at Owen himself, and saw him intent, over his little slips of paper, and a sudden rush of tenderness came over her. His absorption in the game seemed to make him younger, and in more need of her. She could remember Owen as a flaxen-haired, solemn, rather priggish little boy, and she suddenly felt that perhaps he had not changed a very great deal since those days, after all.
Val felt happier, in a subdued and wistful way. She woke to the realization that the games were ended.
The Canon had arisen.
“Look up that derivation, Clover, dear man, and let me have it. I shall be curious.... Fare ye well, young people, I recommend Lucilla here as a veritable dictionary of dates, if you wish to continue your amusement.”
Nothing could have been more evident, the moment the Canon had left the room, than that no one wished to pursue amusement on the lines indicated.
Even Mr. Clover joined in the general movement that thankfully relinquished paper and pencil, and sent everyone to the piano, flung open by Olga Duffle.
“Do play something,” Adrian pleaded.
“Oh, not me. Make your sister play. She plays so much better than I do.”
It was indubitably true that Flora played a great deal better than did Olga, yet nobody seemed to want Flora to play the piano, and Olga, even as she protested, slipped on to the music stool and ran her small fingers over the keys.
“I say, how well you do everything!” Adrian murmured ecstatically above her.
She looked up at him and smiled, showing all her little pointed teeth.
They clustered round her.
“Do you know ‘Oh, Kiss Me and I’ll Never Tell,’ that comes in that revue—I forget it’s name—the new one? It’s lovely.”
To the perceptions of Valeria Morchard, trained in the eclectic school of the Canon’s taste, the musical inspiration in question was not only undeserving of being called lovely, but was vulgar to the point of blatancy, ringing through the St. Gwenllian drawing-room in Olga’s little, high, soprano voice.
She was not at all surprised that Owen should look at her through his pince-nez with eyebrows expressively elevated, nor that Mr. Clover, presumably in a futile endeavour to spare the Canon’s ears, should unobtrusively go and shut the door.
Val looked at Lucilla.
There was something not at all unlike amusement on Miss Morchard’s face, but Val did not think that it was caused by the humour of “Oh, Kiss Me and I’ll Never Tell.” Rather it might have been born of a gentle irony, embracing alike the puzzled distaste of Flora, the obvious terror of the curate lest he should be supposed to be enjoying the entertainment, the absorption with which Captain Cuscaden, Adrian, and even Miss Admaston stood and listened, the supercilious detachment of Owen Quentillian, the complacent unconsciousness of the small, pert singer at the piano. No doubt Lucilla could have detected, had she cared to do so, the unspecified emotions that Val suspected of being written upon her own unsmiling face.
She felt suddenly impatient.
“We’re all intolerable. Lucilla is superior, and Flossie takes this rubbish au grand serieux, like a crime, and Owen is thinking how deplorable it is that idiotic words should be set to inferior music, and put before the British public for its education.... I can hear exactly what he’ll say about it afterwards.”
It struck her that the anticipation scarcely boded well for a life that was in future to be spent in Quentillian’s company.