W AS there any reason why they should wait for a year?

That was the question which came up for discussion between them every time they met, which was usually once a day. It was, as a rule, at the hour of parting that the question came up for dispassionate consideration. And they discussed it quite dispassionately, he with his arms clasping her shoulders, and she enjoying an extremely close inspection of the sapphire in his tie, at intervals of pulling his moustache into fantastic twists, merging through this medium his identity into that of many distinguished personages, Imperial as well as Presidential, and even poetical.

“A year! Great Gloriana! What rot! A whole year? But why—why?”

“Why, indeed? But your mother—she takes the year for granted.”

“And I suppose your father would turn you out of his house if you were to marry me inside that time?”

“That would be almost certain. It is generally assumed that a year——”

And here there would be an interval—a breathless interlude in the academic consideration of that nice question in the etiquette of wedlock.

And then they got tired of discussing it, and it was relegated to the lovers’ limbo of the unnecessary.

But if there were grave reasons (in the eyes of such people as accepted the conventional as the inevitable) why they should not be married for a year, there did not seem to be any reason why the intentions of the pair should be concealed for the same period. Mr. Wingfield appeared several times in the High Street of Framsby with Miss Wadhurst beside him in his motor; and after the third time of observing so remarkable an incident, some of the onlookers made an honest attempt to account for it. The best set discussed it, and agreed that, being people of the world, they would not shake their heads in condemnation of the antics of a young reprobate. When a young reprobate has a rent roll of something approaching fifteen thousand a year his peccadilloes must be looked on with the eye of leniency.

The fiat having gone forth to this effect, the members of the best set looked indulgently into the shop windows when they noticed the approach of the motor with the silly young man and the foolish young woman side by side. This was very advanced, the best set thought—it put them on a level of tact with the best set in Trouville or Monte Carlo, where they understood such incidents were quite usual. But of course when the mothers came upon Mr. Wingfield when he was alone, they did not fail to recognize him or to do their best to induce him to accompany them home to tea. Equally as a matter of course when they met Priscilla they either looked across the street or at the telegraph wires between the roofs in front of them. The elderly ones sniffed, and the younger ones sneered.

But when one day Miss Wadhurst appeared by the side of Mrs. Wingfield in her victoria the impression produced in Framsby was indescribable. It was paralysing. A four-line whip was passed round the members of the best set calling them to their places in the front row of the pavilion seats at the Tennis and Croquet Club to discuss the situation.

“The poor old lady! She could have no idea of what has been going on!”

“It would be an act of duty—certainly of charity—to give her a hint.”

“Or write her a letter—not necessarily signed—charity is sometimes all the more effective when bestowed anonymously.”

“That girl is artful enough for anything.”

“And pushing enough for anything. Did you notice how she was always throwing herself in the way of the Countess at the Open Meeting?”

“Surely Mr. Possnett will think it his duty to warn Mrs. Wingfield.”

(The Reverend Osney Possnett was the Vicar of Athalsdean.)

So the discussion of the grave and disturbing social question went on among the members of the front row; and the caterer, observing askance the amount of tea and tea cake incidentally consumed, made up his mind that if another question came forward demanding the same amount of sustenance as that—whatever it was—which was now being dealt with, he would be compelled to increase his per capita charge from sixpence to ninepence.

And then, just when they were warming on the question, stimulated by copious cups, the effect of which all the cucumber sandwiches failed to neutralize, Rosa Caffyn entered the pavilion with Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst, and asked for tea for two.

Mrs. Gifford, the wife of the Colonial Civil Servant, who was the leader of the best set, was quick to perceive her opportunity. She knew that Rosa Caffyn was, in the face of all opposition, the friend of Priscilla Wadhurst, and so might be made the means of conveying to that young woman some idea of the grave scandal that her conduct was exciting. She rose from her place and hurried to Rosa’s table.

“We have just been discussing a very disagreeable incident,” she remarked, after greeting the girl and Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst.

“Oh, then we have arrived quite opportunely to give you a chance of discussing a very delightful one,” cried Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst.

“We have not heard any delightful one,” said Mrs. Gifford.

“What, do you mean to say that you have not heard that that pretty Miss Wadhurst, the girl with that wonderful hair, you know, is engaged to Jack Wingfield? Why, where have you been living? Don’t you take in the Morning Post? No? Oh, well, I suppose it would not contain much to interest you.”

Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst was very much of the county; she was indifferent to Framsby’s “sets.” She watched with malicious interest the collapse of the leader of the best and resumed her revelation.

“Oh, yes; it was in the Post this morning, ‘A marriage is arranged,’ and the rest of it. I knew that you would all be glad to hear of it, but I thought that you would be the first to get the pleasant news. Rosa and I are driving to the Manor to offer our felicitations. Miss Wadhurst is staying there with Mrs. Wingfield. It’s so nice when a handsome and clever girl like that is making a good match; and the poor girl deserves something good as a set-off against that unlucky affair of hers.”

“She is a clever young woman,” said Mrs. Gifford spitefully. “Oh, yes, a very clever young woman! I hear that she milks her father’s cows.”

“Oh, my dear Mrs. Gifford, you are very far behind the times,” laughed Rosa. “Nobody milks cows nowadays. You might as well talk of Priscilla using one of the old barrel churns. It’s all done by machinery.”

“And will you have some of the machine-made in your tea, Rosa?” asked Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst, poising the jug over the cups which had just been brought to the table.

“Thank you—that’s enough,” said Rosa. “And let me offer you some of the machine-made butter on the machine-made bread.”

“I think I’ll try a hand at a hand-made sandwich,” said Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst. “There’s a joke in that somewhere, I feel—can you catch it?”

“Hand-made sandwiches made by the handmaid of the caterer—is that it?” asked Rosa after a thoughtful frown—the frown of the habitual prize acrostic-solver and anagram-maker of the English vicarage.

Mrs. Gifford felt rather neglected when the two others laughed together quite merrily. She rather thought that she would take a stroll round the grounds.

“One of the cats,” whispered Rosa.

“The leader of the tabbies,” assented Mrs. Bowlby-Sutherst. “But don’t you make any mistake, my dear: although she’s wild to hear that your friend is doing so well for herself——”

“And for Mr. Wingfield.”

“And for Mr. Wingfield—in spite of that, you may rest perfectly certain that she will leave cards with pencilled congratulations upon the Manor people as early as possible to-morrow. Another sandwich?”

And that prognosis turned out to be correct. Several members of the best set called at the Manor the next day and left congratulatory cards. They had in view the possibility of future fêtes at the Manor; they would do any reasonable amount of calling or crawling to get invited to a garden-party given by a county person; and Miss Wadhurst was to be promoted over the heads of a large number of aspirants to a position in the county.

Although there were a certain number of persons who affirmed that she was showing very doubtful taste indeed in becoming engaged to any one, even a man with a rent roll of something like fifteen thousand a year, within a few months after receiving the news of the death of the other man, still Miss Wadhurst got quite a large number of cards of the same nature from ladies who had done their best to keep her in her place in the past, and who were clearly hoping that their failure to do so would prejudice her in their favour in the days to come.

But when a month had passed and the people of Framsby had almost ceased discussing the question of the advancement of Miss Wadhurst, there came a faint rumour to the effect that the rapprochement between the young couple was not quite so complete as it had been. They were no longer seen together either on foot or in the motor, and while heads were being shaken and significant winks exchanged, the definite announcement was made (by Mrs. Gifford) that a final rupture had taken place. The engagement was broken off, and the principals to that pencilled contract had separated.

A small and discreet commission of enquiry made their report on the subject, the tenor of which removed any doubt that might possibly remain on any mind. Investigations proved that the young man had elected to run away; and the fact that his mother had affirmed that he had gone on business, even specifying this business and alleging that he was endeavouring to find a substitute for Mr. Dunning, the agent, whose health had unfortunately broken down, necessitating his taking a long voyage, suggested that she had had a hand in the breaking off of the engagement. As for the young woman, it was thought very natural that she should desire to avoid the humiliation of meeting, under altered conditions, her Framsby friends, whose cards of congratulation she had never so much as acknowledged.

Rosa Caffyn knew all about her, and when interrogated, said that Priscilla had gone to pay a visit to a girl friend of hers in Dorsetshire, who was at the point of leaving England with her father, a major-general in the army, about to take up an appointment in the Bengal Presidency. This was Rosa’s story, and every one acknowledged that Rosa was a staunch friend to Priscilla, unfortunate though the latter had been; for she was ready to deny the breaking off of the engagement—to be exact, she had not quite gone so far as to deny it in so many words: being the daughter of a parson, however, she was sufficiently adroit in choosing words which by themselves expressed what was the truth, and could not be regarded as compromising, should it be found out, later on, that they had been the means of promulgating a falsehood. “Every one knows how guarded clergymen can be in this way,” said Mrs. Gifford and her friends.

Rosa’s exact words, when questioned, were these:—“She said nothing to me about the engagement being broken off.”

Oh, yes; Rosa was a staunch friend, but it could do her no good to suggest in this way that the engagement was still unbroken; the whole truth was bound to come out eventually.

Of course, Mrs. Wingfield could not be asked directly if there was any truth in the report. Being a semi-invalid she was rarely at home to any of the Framsby people. But as ten days had passed and her son had not yet returned to the Manor, it might surely be assumed that the lady’s story about her son’s expedition in search of a new agent was partaking of the character of Rosa Caffyn’s statement. Estate agents were not so rare as black swans, they said; a man on the look-out for one could certainly manage to obtain a specimen in less than ten days.

Then there was Farmer Wadhurst; he was a straightforward man and a man of business, and though officially connected with the church, yet without that adroitness at misleading through the medium of verbally accurate phrases, which—according to Framsby’s best set—is characteristic of parsons and the members of their families—Mr. Wadhurst might be approached on the subject of his daughters engagement. But Mr. Wadhurst was not easy of approach on social matters, though always ready to talk of “cake.” He had his theories regarding this form of confectionery for milch kine, and was always ready to say which breed should take the cake, and in what quantities. But he quickly repelled the approach of such persons as came to congratulate him on the engagement of his daughter—a fact that caused them to wink at their friends and say that that was the right position for a yeoman to take up in respect of his daughter’s engagement to the young squire. He was not going to stand congratulations on such a thing. He was an English yeoman and he paid his way, and he wasn’t the man to regard an alliance with the Manor as a tremendous thing for him or his daughter either. He knew all about the Wadhursts, and he knew all about the Wingfields, and he wasn’t going to truckle down to any Wingfields, or, for that matter, to the Duke himself; no, not he.

This was Farmer Wadhurst. But someone, stimulated by a desire to find out the exact truth, managed to approach him—a tradesman who enjoyed the Gifford custom.

“We haven’t seen your young lady about of late, sir,” he remarked when the business excuse had been completed. “We hope that she’s well, and nothing wrong, sir.”

“You could hardly have seen her here, for she’s been in Dorset for the past fortnight, and so far as I know she’s in good health,” said Farmer Wadhurst. But in the act of leaving the shop a thought seemed to occur to him. He turned round, and looked at the tradesman suspiciously.

“What did you mean by that?” he asked.

“Mean by what?”

“By ‘nothing wrong’? What do you suspect is wrong?”

The man held up horny hands of protest.

“Bless your heart! Mr. Wadhurst, you musn’t take me up like that,” he cried. “I meant nought more’n or’nary remark. I’d be the last man in Framsby to hint at ought being wrong; I would indeed, sir, as I hope you know. I’ve all’ays said that in this case it is the man that’s the really lucky one, and I don’t care who knows it, Mr. Wadhurst.”

Mr. Wadhurst gave a searching glance at the man, and then left the shop. He was not quite satisfied with the explanation which the man had given him of his use of that very ordinary phrase. “Nothing wrong—nothing wrong—we hope there’s nothing wrong”—the words buzzed about him all the time he was walking down the High Street. “Nothing wrong!” Why, what could there be wrong? What could there be wrong? What sort of gossip was going about? Who had been saying that anything was wrong?

He went down the street to where his dogcart was waiting for him, and mounting to his seat, drove off in the direction of the farm; but before he had gone more than half a mile along the road he turned his horse about, and drove quickly back to Framsby. He pulled up at the post office, and, descending, entered the place and, after a considerable amount of thought, composed and wrote out a telegram.

Then he mounted his dogcart and drove off to his farm.

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