The Wingfields as a topic were becoming too much for Framsby. No sooner had the curiosities of Mr. Wingfield’s engagement to the daughter of Farmer Wadhurst been discussed than the news came of that hole-and-corner marriage of the pair. Agriculture was looking up, some people said, while others asserted that it was manorialism that was coming down. There was a feeling of indignation at being cheated out of the marriage; the offence was in their eyes on a level with the promise of a presentation of a stained-glass window to the church and then sending one done on “Glacier” transparent paper. The act, if not absolutely fraudulent, was certainly in very bad taste, a good many people said; but there were others who announced that they were not surprised at that young woman’s desire to avoid publicity being obtained for such an act as her marriage to a second husband before her first had been dead more than two months. These were the people who had invariably referred to Priscilla as Mrs. Blaydon, and pretended not to understand who was meant when anyone spoke of Miss Wadhurst.

The right set agreed that the whole affair, from the engagement to the marriage, was disgraceful, and hastened to leave a second relay of cards upon Mrs. Wingfield the elder, and to enquire with a most interesting expression on their faces, if they were fortunate enough to get a word with that lady, when the young couple would be at the Manor, so that they might leave cards upon them as well.

It might reasonably have been expected, Framsby thought, that the Wingfields had absorbed enough of the conversation of the community up to this point; but it seemed as if the Wingfields had set themselves up as a perpetual topic; for while the buzz about the marriage was still in the air, there came the news, announced in ridiculously large type under the heading of “The Nuttingford Vacancy,” that the Wingfields were in this business as well. “The Candidature of Mr. Wingfield” soon became the most conspicuous line in every newspaper; and the way even the most respectable London organs lent themselves to this new scheme for pandering to that young woman’s insatiable desire for publicity showed, in the estimation of Mrs. Gifford and her friends, with deplorable emphasis, how depraved was the taste of the readers for whom the newspapers catered.

The same censors were, however, just enough to affirm that the woman was at the bottom of it all. They rehearsed the various items in her progress of publicity; and the result was certainly a formidable total. The first was, of course, the sensation of the arrest of Marcus Blaydon at the church door; and then came his trial, and the pathetic appeal made by the prisoner’s counsel to the judge and jury on behalf of the young wife, every line of which appeared in the papers. But this was apparently not enough for that young woman, and her name must be dragged into the published account of the death of her husband. Two months later she had married Mr. Wingfield in a way that was eminently open for discussion, and now here she was urging her poor husband—the poor rich man whom she had inveigled into marrying her, to make a fool of himself by coming forward as a candidate for the representation of an important division of an important county.

They marked off the items on their fingers after the convenient method of Lord Lovat in Hogarth’s picture, and then enquired where it was all going to end. When were those newspapers who gave four or five snapshots every morning of Mrs. Wingfield engaged in canvassing for her husband, and now and again a cabinet portrait of herself, coming to reason? When were they going to cease lending themselves to the ambitious schemes of the farmer’s daughter? Everybody knew, and several newspapers asserted, that Mr. Wingfield had no chance whatsoever of being returned to Parliament for Nutting-ford, so what on earth was the sense of pushing that young woman before the eyes of the public? That was what the censors were anxious to know.

But when the butter-making scenes came, and the papers were strewn with snapshots of this transaction—when the great London organs gave column reports of it, with occasional leading articles, and when finally the news came that Mr. Wingfield was returned by an enormous majority—the members of the best set hurried out to the Manor with a fresh relay of cards. Surely the new member and his wife, out of gratitude for the distinction conferred upon them by the electors of Nuttingford, would provide the people of Framsby with a series of fêtes on a scale unparalleled by any remembered in the neighbourhood.

Now there was in Framsby a population of some 9,000 who belonged to none of the recognized sets, and who had never so much as heard of the existence of these sets; these are the people who matter in every community, not the retired civil servants, not the retired undistinguished officers of Sappers or the A.S.C.; and these were the people who felt that something should be done to show how proud Framsby was of having given Nuttingford a member and of having given that member a wife who had her portrait looking the whole world in the face out of the pages of the illustrated papers. These are not the people who hire halls and elect a chairman and pass resolutions to the accompaniment of long, commonplace speeches. But they get there all the same, and they got there when they felt that they should do something to show their admiration for Mr. Wingfield and his wife.

What they perceived they could do in this way was to meet the train by which the pair whom they desired to honour would arrive at Framsby, and, removing the horses from their carriage (they had found that the motor was not to be used), harness themselves to the vehicle and drag it through the streets and along the road to the Manor. From the steps of the porch the new member of Parliament would address them, and possibly his wife would follow him; they would all cheer and sing that about the jolly good fellow, and then the final and most important act of appreciation would take place: the health of the young couple would be drunk by the crowd at the young couple’s expense. Moreover, a little reflection was sufficient to convince the good people that the occasion represented what was known as a double event: the celebration was not only of the home-coming of Mr. and Mrs. Wingfield, after their honeymoon; it was also the celebration of the splendid and successful election contest in which they had both been so actively engaged.

The good people pulled themselves together. They felt that it could be done. They felt themselves quite equal to doing the honours of the double event, and no one who knew them would have ventured to suggest that the confidence which they had in their own powers was misplaced.

There was very little organization in the matter—very little was required. Half-a-dozen house painters prepared as many lengths of canvas containing the simple manly English words “Welcome Home,” and half-a-dozen young gentlemen in the drapery line got together some slices of bunting which they shaped and glued on to rollers, so that they became bannerets in a moment. For the necessary bouquets they knew that they could depend upon the Manor gardeners; so the arrangements for the demonstration did not occupy much time or thought. The musical accompaniments were suggested by the Town Band, and then it was that Mr. Mozart Tutt, Mr. Morley Quorn, and the other members of the Framsby Glee and Madrigal Meistersingers had a chance of putting into practical form their recognition of what Mrs. Wingfield had done for them upon one occasion, for they prepared some choice serenade music with which to greet the lady and her husband in the course of the night.

Someone suggested that they should practise a chorus beginning “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” for the railway station; but Mr. Tutt was too wise to enter into any contract that would involve competition with the band and the cheers of the public.

And on this scale the home-coming of Mr. and Mrs. Wingfield was arranged for; and as neither of them had been informed of the intention of Framsby, they were rather surprised when, late in the evening, their train steamed into the station, and slowed down into an atmosphere of yells. Beyond the barrier there was a sea of faces whose waves were caps with an occasional straw hat, and here and there a bowler—all were in the air undulating fitfully, and lapping the base of a headland bearing the inscription “Welcome Home.”

“Gloriana!” cried Jack. “Is this for us? And I fancied we had been done with all that sort of thing until the next general election.”

“Of course it’s for us,” said Priscilla. “I had no idea that Framsby would rise equal to the occasion.”

“Framsby is rather more than equal to the occasion,” growled Jack. “What I want to know is, what has Framsby got to do with the election?”

“This isn’t an election demonstration. Can’t you see that it’s only a welcome home?”

“Dammitall!” murmured Jack.

It is part of the penalty which people have to pay for being popular that when they are trying to get into the church where a clergyman is waiting to marry them, their admirers prevent them from entering; when they are leaving a public meeting where they have made a stirring speech, they have to fight their way to their carriage, and when they are met at the railway station they are all but deafened first and suffocated afterwards. Jack and his wife tried to stem that sea of faces that roared in front of them, but they found it impossible. The platform exit was narrow, and now it was choked with human life. But this circumstance did not affect the enthusiasm of the people beyond. They cheered and waved and quite prematurely broke into the “Jolly Good Fellow” chorus which, properly speaking, should only find its vent when Mr. Wingfield should announce from the porch of his house that he hoped his good friends would honour him by drinking to the health of his bride.

It was not until the railway authorities had admitted a force of police that Mr. and Mrs. Wingfield were able, following in the hollow of the wedge which they inserted between the masses at the barriers, to reach the outer atmosphere, which was resonant and throbbing with the fifes and drums of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes,” though the moment they put in an appearance, the strains were overwhelmed by cheers as completely as the flame of a candle is overwhelmed when the extinguisher is dropped over it. The whole space in front of the station and the streets to the right and left were crammed with warm human life, cheering in battalions.

It was all very flattering and overpowering, and unless a man had gone through a fortnight’s electioneering he would not know what to do to restore the status quo ante. Happily Mr. Wingfield was such a man. He sprang upon a trunk—a weight-carrier of the Saratoga type—and taking off his cap, raised his hand. At once the cheers began to wane and then they ceased altogether in the region of the station, though further away they died hard.

“My friends,” said Jack, in strident tones. “My friends—” and so on. Everyone knows what he said—everyone present knew what he was going to say, and he said it. It lasted just three minutes, and before the crowds had recovered from the effects of that spell of silence, he was in the carriage with Priscilla by his side. The coachman had taken good care to send the horses that had been taken out of the traces, back to their stables, so as to prevent the possibility of a mistake being made by the crowd. He had heard of enthusiasts taking the horses out of a carriage upon a similar occasion and failing to return them.

It was a triumphal progress of Mr. and Mrs. Wingfield from the railway station to the Manor. Never could such a home-coming have been looked for by either Jack or Priscilla when, in accordance with the terms of an agreement which they had entered into at the office of the registrar of marriages, they had left that station a couple of months earlier, she having returned to Framsby for one day only from her visit to her Dorsetshire friends, and he from his interesting interview with his promising agent.

The sun had just set when the carriage was dragged along the road to the Manor House, the crowds trotting on each side. It was a warm evening, and they were getting into fine form for the beer which they knew was awaiting them. On through the gates and up the avenue the carriage was dragged. The band had been left some distance behind, so they were spared any more suggestions of the “Conquering Hero,” but the full choir of the Framsby Glee and Madrigal Meistersingers now ranged around the Georgian porch, and in response to the beat of Mr. Tutt, struck into “Hail to the Chief that in Triumph Advances,” and the effect was certainly admirable, especially as the blackbirds and the thrushes supplied an effective obbligato from the shrubberies. There are several stanzas to that stirring chorus, and the young couple had ample time to greet Mrs. Wingfield, who had come to the head of the steps of the porch to welcome them, before the strains had come to a legitimate close. Jack had also time to ask the butler if he had made any arrangements about those casks of beer, and to receive a satisfactory reply.

When the last notes of the melody had died away and the cheers began once more, he stood with Priscilla by his side (she was carrying the beautiful bouquet with which she had been presented: every flower had come from the garden before her) at the top of the steps.

“My dear friends,” he began, and then he said the rest of what everyone expected him to say—even his final words, referring exclusively to the drinking of his health and the health of Mrs. Wingfield, were not unexpected—at any rate, they were quite as well received as any part of his speech; and then came the true and legitimate rendering of the anthem which marks the apotheosis of the orator, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” followed by the “Hip, hip, hip, hooray!” thrice repeated, with one cheer more in case that the enthusiasm had not found an adequate vent by the triplex scheme, though the latter certainly did not seem to be ungenerous in its application.

The butler responded to the sentiment of the cheer.

Priscilla went upstairs to her room to change her travelling-dress, but Jack, with his arm about his mother, went into the dining-room, where some cold eatables had been laid out, with a refreshing “cup” in an old cut-glass jug. No candles had yet been lighted; there was no need for them; the glow of the sunset came through the windows and imparted the show of life to the portraits, each in its own panel along the wall on both sides of the fireplace.

The man glanced round the room with a look of satisfaction on his face.

“Ha, my old friends,” he cried; “how have you all been since I saw you last? Somehow you don’t seem quite so surly as you used to be when I first came among you. You’re not altogether so sneery as you were, my bold ancestors—what? Do you know, mother, I always had a hang-dog feeling from the first day I found myself among these impressive Johnnies—I had a feeling that they were jeering at me; and I was afraid to argue it out with them on the spot. But now I can face them without feeling that I’m like the dirt beneath their feet. I’ve done something—I’ve married the right wife for a chap like me—she has done it all, mother. I never should have had the cheek to try it off my own bat. She made me go in for it, and then she pulled it off for me. And all so quietly and tactfully; no one would fancy that she was doing it When Franklin Forrester was stating the case to me, she sat by and never uttered a single word, and so it was to the very end. I tell you she almost succeeded in inducing me to delude myself into the belief that I was doing the whole thing. Oh, she’s the wife for me!”

“Indeed I feel that she is,” said his mother, still keeping her hand upon his arm. “I am so glad that I have lived to see your happiness, Jack. I am so glad that I loved her from the first.”

“I knew that you would, dearest. That made you doubly my mother. I felt that I was giving you a daughter after your own heart.”

She pressed his arm, and held up her face to him. He kissed her silently on each cheek, and then on the forehead.

“Good-night, my boy,” she said. “I must leave you now. You will be together.”

“Don’t think of going yet,” he cried.

“I have not been quite so well to-day,” she said. “I just got up so as to be able to welcome you both, but it has been too much for me. You will say good-night to her for me.”

“You do look very pale and frail, my dearest,” he said. “You should not have left your bed. We could easily have put off our return for another day.”

“Oh, I’m not so ill as all that,” she said, with a laugh. “But you know how I need to be careful. If I have a good night I may be able to breakfast with you in the morning. Good night, my own boy. God bless you.”

“God has blessed me,” he said. “I have the best mother in the world—the best wife in the world.”

He put her in the hands of her maid, who was waiting for her in the corridor at the head of the staircase. Then he walked to the further end of the same corridor and stood at the window, looking out at the dissolving crowds below, hearing the “chaff” of the boys and the girls, and the cackling laughter of incipient but certainly not insipid love-making. The advances of the young men were no more deficient in warmth than was the retreat of the young women. The giggle and the shriek were, of course, the natural accompaniments of this playfulness.

And the Meistersingers were giving their serenade in a self-respecting style. Mr. Tutt knew all about how that sort of thing should be done. He had spent close upon three months at Leipzig, studying music on its highest plane and becoming thoroughly familiar with the varying aspects of German sentimentality.

Jack was waiting for the sound of Priscilla’s door and of her steps on the corridor. Half-an-hour had passed since she had gone upstairs, and she was not the girl to be making an elaborate toilet at this time. She should have been ready long ago.

He returned half-way down the corridor, and entered his own dressing-room to change his coat and brush his hair. The bedroom was in silence.

“Hallo!” he said, without opening the connecting door. “Hallo, Priscilla, what are you about that you haven’t come down yet?”

He heard her voice say, “Jack, come to me—come,” but he scarcely knew the voice to be hers; it was the voice of a stranger.

He opened the door and passed through.

She was standing in the centre of the room, still in her travelling-dress—she had only taken off her hat.

“I say, what’s the matter?” he began at the moment of entering. But then he stood still, as she turned her face to him. “Good God! Priscilla—dearest, what is the matter? You are as pale as death.”

He thought that she was about to fall—she was swaying as a tall lily sways in a breath of air. He hurried to her and put his arm about her.

“My God! You are ill. You have been doing too much. You have been overdoing it at that beastly election, and this is the reaction. Pull yourself together, darling.”

She seemed trying to speak, but no word would come. She gasped. Her attempt to speak was choking her. At last she managed to make herself audible. Clutching at his shoulders rather wildly and with her face rigid, pushed forward close to his—with wild eyes and cheeks as pale as moonlight, she cried in gasps:

“Jack—Jack—my own Jack—my husband—swear to me that you will stand by me—that you will never leave me whatever may happen.”

“My darling! Calm yourself! Tell me what has happened.”

“What? What? Only one thing—one thing! I saw his face in the crowd—close to the carriage. He was not drowned—he’s alive—he has returned.”

“What do you mean?—he?—who? God above—not—not that man?”

“Marcus Blaydon—I tell you I saw his face. He smiled—such a smile! There is no chance of a mistake. He is alive, and he has returned.”

The Framsby Glee and Madrigal Meistersingers were giving a spirited rendering of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to min’,

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And days o’ lang syne?

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