Priscilla’s father had a piece of news for her when they met at supper that night—the menage at the farm involved tea at six and supper at half-past nine.

“That young Wingfield, the grandson of the old man, has come to live at the Manor,” he said. “I heard all about it from Mr. Hickman to-day. Hickman is not his solicitor, but he knows all about it. A young scamp who will simply walk through that fine property which has been nursed for him by the trustees all these years.”

“I think you told us that the old man hoped that by preventing him from inheriting the property until he was twenty-seven he would give him a chance of gaining some sense to enable him to work it properly,” remarked Priscilla.

“That was the old man’s notion; but I don’t suppose it will prove to have been worth anything. It’s usually the case that an ill-conditioned puppy turns out an ill-conditioned dog. The young man is a wild young ass, kicking up his heels at all authority. He was turned out of Oxford in his third year. They couldn’t stand his ways any longer.”

“That must have happened several years ago if he is twenty-seven now. I wonder what he has been doing in the meantime.”

“Wild—he has been very wild, I hear; knocking about the world—India, Australia, the South Sea Islands, with America to follow. He has been doing no good anywhere. He has no head, you see; his father had no head either—allowed himself to be imposed on right and left. The old man had to pay his debts half-a-dozen times over before he died. The boy seems ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. It’s very sad. Twelve thousand a year at the least.”

“But are there not some farms still unlet?”

“There are three; but that would only make a difference of a thousand a year. I’m not sure that Dunning did his best in the matter of the big farm—Birchknowle. But the trustees thought no end of Dunning, and you may be sure that when they couldn’t see through him the young man won’t either. Dunning is a muddler if ever there was one. Wouldn’t allow Brigstock the year’s rent that he wanted when he was going in for market gardening. A man could make a fortune off a market garden at Birchknowle, since they brought the branch line there—a fortune. I told Dunning so; and I told Brigstock the same. And so they’ve lost a couple of thousand pounds to the estate when the year’s rent that Brigstock looked for only came to three hundred! Dunning’s a muddler.”

“I wonder will young Mr. Wingfield find that out for himself?”

Mr. Wadhurst looked up from his plate with a very grim smile.

“He’s not the sort to find things out for himself—he has no head, I tell you,” he replied. “Ducks and drakes—that’s the sort of game that will be played by the young ass until every penny’s gone.”

“It’s a pretty large poultry bill that will absorb twelve thousand a year, to say nothing of the accumulations,” said Priscilla.

“Poultry bill? Pheasants, do you mean?” he said.

“Ducks and drakes—that was what you mentioned,” said she.

He shook his head in reproof of his daughter’s levity.

“When a young spendthrift makes spending the business of his life you may trust him to run through a million in a month. I wonder if he’ll ever find out about the pheasants. Dunning did pretty well out of the pheasants.”

“Perhaps he put down all that he made by them—put it down to the credit side of the estate,” she suggested; and again he smiled that grim smile of his—the smile of the shrewd man who is conscious of his own shrewdness.

“If he was doing that he wouldn’t have taken the trouble to bind Jenkins over to secrecy,” said the farmer.

“But you found out all about it in spite of Jenkins being bound over,” said she.

He smiled less grimly, accepting her compliment, and then rose from the table, having finished his supper, and went into the room that he used as his office. His business methods were admirable. For over thirty years he had spent an hour in his office every night before going to bed. This space out of every day was small, but it was quite enough to enable him to know exactly how he stood financially from one week to another. His system was admirable; but it had helped to kill his wife.

When Priscilla went to her own room and looked out upon that May night of pale starlight and clear sky she could not help feeling that an element of interest had come into her life, beyond any that had ever been associated with it. Here was a man who represented an estate of twelve thousand pounds a year, and the question was, “What is to be the result of his entering into possession of this splendid property? Is he to turn it to good account, or to dissipate it like the young fools of whom I have heard so much lately?”

Here there was a question of real interest beyond any that had ever risen above the somewhat restricted horizon of her life. What were all the questions that her father had to decide in connection with his farm compared with this? What were all the questions connected with the social life of Framsby, or even Birchleigh—proud of its ten thousand inhabitants—compared with this?

Was he a fool—the fool that her father believed him to be, forming his conclusion on the reports made to him by Mr. Hickman, the solicitor, at Framsby—the fool who, according to the proverb, is quickly parted from his money?

This was the question the answer to which was bound to influence the answer that should be given to the other question.

She could not bring herself to think of him as a fool. To be sure it could not be denied that his attitude in relation to certain matters was not at all that which the majority of people would think justifiable; and in the eyes of most persons, her father included, this fact was in itself strong presumptive evidence that he was inclined to be a young fool. A man who declines to fall into line with the prejudices and the conventionalities of the majority of his elders is looked on as a bit of a fool. Yes; unless he succeeds in becoming a leader of thought, in which case he becomes a hero, though as a rule he has been dead some time before this happens. Priscilla knew a good deal in a general way of the history of the world, and the men who made history, in action and by putting their thoughts on paper; but she could not remember one of these who had not begun life by being looked on as a bit of a fool.

Now, of all the institutions that have existed for the conservation of the conventional, Oxford University is the most notorious; and yet people were ready to call that undergraduate, Mr. Wingfield, a giddy young fool because he had refused to accede to one of the most cherished—one of the least worthily cherished—of its conventions!

Putting the matter in this way, she felt that she had every right to decline to accept the judgment of such people.

But what about his own confession to her? Had he not confessed quite frankly to her that he had no brains?

He certainly had done so; but what did this prove except that he had brains? It is only the empty-headed man who thinks that he is largely endowed with brains. She could recall several little things that Jack Wingfield had done—she left out of consideration altogether the things that he had said—which convinced her that he had some ability, and that he possessed something of the supreme gift of understanding how to make people do what he wanted them to do. If he had failed to exercise this valuable endowment of his upon the authorities at Oxford, he had succeeded in doing so upon the two young women who had paid him that remarkable visit on the day of his arrival at his home. By the exercise of extraordinary tact he had induced them to take lunch with him, and to sit with him afterwards in his drawing-room. If any one had said to her the day before this happened, “You will go boldly into a strange house, and you will there meet a young man whom you have never seen before; he will ask you to remain to lunch before you have even heard his name, or he yours, and you will accept his invitation without feeling—you who have been to a ‘finishing school’—that you have done anything outre”—if any one had said this to her she would at once have denied the possibility of such an incident taking place. And yet it had taken place, and the tact shown by the young man had made it seem quite an ordinary matter.

Did not this show that he possessed the supreme talent of knowing how to deal with people—how to persuade them that the unique was the usual—nay, the inevitable?

And then, what about their coming together on the road? How had he, a man whom she had seen but once before, and that in no regular way—how had he succeeded in getting her to confess to him that—that—well, all that she had confessed?

She really could not understand how it was that she had been led to confide in this young Mr. Wingfield what she had not even confided to her one dear friend, Rosa Caffyn: it must only have been by the exercise on his part of an extraordinary ability—more than ability, intuition—that he had drawn from her that confession. And would any one succeed in persuading her, after this, that Jack Wingfield was a bit of a fool?

And what an effect her stroll and chat with him had had upon her! She had been, as she told him (more confession), plunged into the black depths of despondency; and yet within five minutes, owing to his sympathetic attitude—owing to her feeling that he understood her and sympathized with her and applauded her boldness in standing out against her father’s prejudices in carrying out that form of hypocrisy known as mourning—she had been drawn out of the depths and made to feel that there might yet be a place for her in the world.

The result of her consideration of the whole of this question—the most interesting that had ever come within her ken—was to make her feel that she would like to have it in her power to do something for that man—something important—something that would make people see that he was not the brainless spendthrift which so many people, on quite insufficient evidence, assumed him to be.

She was perfectly well aware of the fact that she was not in love with him, and she felt that she understood him so well that she could not be mistaken in perceiving that neither was he in love with her. She had always been an observant girl, and she had had several opportunities of diagnosing—of subjecting to the interpretation of her mental spectroscope, so to speak—the various phases incidental to the progress of the phenomena of falling in love. She had never actually been in love herself, but several men had been in love with her, and with the exception of her music master at that finishing school, whose methods were very pronounced, all her incipient lovers had behaved alike, and she could see no difference between the way their love affected them and the way it affected some of the living things of the farm. The ingratiating tones of voice, the alternate little shynesses and boldnesses, the irritation at the approach of any others of the same sex, and the overweening desire to appear at their best before the object of their worship—all these foolish, pretty ways incidental to the condition known as being in love, she had observed in her incipient lovers, in common with other animals; and her observance of them enabled her to be always on her guard.

But he showed no sign of being even momentarily under such an influence as suggested its presence in some of the ways she knew so well. She felt that he was not in love with her, and she was glad that he was not. There is no such breaking up of friendship as love, and she felt that one suggestion of love on his part—one glance of love’s admiration—would have been enough to prevent her from looking forward to a hard-and-fast friendship with this young man of great interests in life. He had treated her all along in exactly the right spirit of companionship. There had not been a false note in their interchange of words. Their sympathies were alike, and their sense of humour. But she had noticed that there had been a certain lack of enthusiasm in the tone of his voice when referring to some matters upon which she would have been disposed to speak with warmth; there was the shrug of a man who has seen a good deal, in some of the things that he had said; and she had felt that his experiences, whatever they had been, had tended to make him too tolerant, and toleration she had good reason to believe was mostly the result of laziness. He was the sort of man who underrated his own powers, and was therefore disinclined to be active in the exercise of such ability as he possessed.

And then this farseeing young woman perceived that his grandfather had made a mistake in his over-anxiety to avoid one. If Jack Wingfield had entered upon possession of his property when he was six years younger he might have set about its management with enthusiasm, but in the interregnum to which he was forced to submit he had lost (she believed) something of the sanguine nature of the very young, which often causes them to do better work than they feel inclined ever to set their hand to later on.

But then she reflected that, however tolerant he had shown himself to be in talking of things in general, he had been as warm as she could possibly have wished in his criticism of the “best set” in Framsby and the empty arrogance of its leaders. Possibly it was her recollection of this fact that caused her to feel that she had never yet met a man on whose behalf she would do all that it was possible for her to do—it was with regret that she reflected upon how little it was in her power to do for him. She hoped that he would before long show the people around him who thought him a fool, that he was very far removed from being a fool. She did not stop to think if her anxiety on his behalf might not possibly have its origin in the feeling that if he proved himself too sapient he could hardly be guilty of the folly of striking up a friendship with her.

She sat for a long time at her open window, breathing the sweet scents of that May night, and feeling better satisfied with the world than she had felt since she had last sat at that window, trying to realize the idea that the man who held her in bondage was dead. At that time all her thoughts had been of the past; but now they were all of the future. The idea of a sincere and far-reaching friendship with a man was very pleasing to her. It took away from her the sense of isolation. She recalled many cases of which she had read of the admirable operation of a true friendship between a man and a woman, and why might it not be possible, after all, for her to help the man of whom she was thinking in some way by which his interests in the world might be appreciably advanced?

The thought of this possibility was much more agreeable to her amour propre than any thought of the possibility of his loving her would have been upon this particular night.

And all the joy of the silver summer night was about her as she sat there. Her own garden was just beneath her window, and in its borders the groups of old-fashioned spring flowers could be dimly seen through the silver-shot air. From the meadow at the foot of the Downs came the barking of a dog, and the sound was faintly answered from the shepherd’s hut higher up. There was the occasional lowing of one of the herd of Jerseys, only a short time sent out to the grass and not yet used to the change. Every now and again a bat flapped between her face and the sheen of the sky, and gave her the impression of the hand of some ghostly figure making a grasp at something close to her. At rarer intervals a still more spectral thing swooped by, and its passage was followed by the squeal of a rat, and later by a “tu-whit-tu-whoo” of the barn owl.

She leant out of the window so that she could see the dark, many-folded cloud spreading itself abroad halfway across the valley through which the Wadron wandered. That cloud represented the trees of Overdean Manor. The Manor House was hidden by the summer boskage of the Park, so that she saw nothing of it—not even a light in one of the windows.

She drew back into her room and, after another interval of thought, unfastened the clasps of her clothes and let them slip down to her feet; she had already loosened the coils of her hair, and now, by a shake of her head, her white shoulders and the exquisite full curves of roseate flesh were deluged with a thousand little cascades flowing and overflowing with the unevenness of a torrent on which a fitful moon is shining. She began her task of brushing, and went on with it for five minutes until her arms began to ache. Then she wove her plaits, and in crossing the room to get her nightdress she caught a glimpse of her figure passing the tall looking-glass. The glimpse did not interest her in the least. She did not cast a second glance at the glass. She slipped her nightdress over her head, blew out her candles, and went into bed.

No, she was not in the least in love with the man of whom she had been thinking.

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