"The fool saith, Who would have thought it?"
Winter had brought trouble with it to Warpington Vicarage. A new baby had arrived, and the old baby was learning, not in silence, what kings and ministers undergo when they are deposed. Hester had never greatly cared for the old baby. She was secretly afraid of it. But in its hour of adversity she took to it, and she and Regie spent many hours consoling it for the arrival of the little chrysalis up-stairs.
Mrs. Gresley recovered slowly, and before she was down-stairs again Regie sickened with one of those swift, sudden illnesses of childhood, which make childless women thank God for denying them their prayers.
Mrs. Gresley was not well enough to be told, and for many days Mr. Gresley and Hester and Doctor Brown held Regie forcibly back from the valley of the shadow, where, since the first cradle was rocked, the soft feet of children have cleft so sharp an entrance over the mother-hearts that vainly barred the way.
Mr. Gresley's face grew as thin as Hester's as the days went by. On his rounds—for he let nothing interfere with his work—heavy farmers in dog-carts, who opposed him at vestry meetings, stopped to ask after Regie. The most sullen of his parishioners touched their hats to him as he passed, and mothers of families, who never could be induced to leave their cooking to attend morning service, and were deeply offended at being called "after-dinner Christians" in consequence, forgot the opprobrious term, and brought little offerings of new-laid eggs and rosy apples to tempt "the little master."
Mr. Gresley was touched, grateful.
"I don't think I have always done them justice," he actually said to Hester one day. "They do seem to understand me a little better at last. Walsh has never spoken to me since my sermon on Dissent, though I always make a point of being friendly to him, but to-day he stopped, and said he knew what trouble was, and how he had lost"—Mr. Gresley's voice faltered, "it is a long time ago—but how, when he was about my age, he lost his eldest boy, and how he always remembered Regie in his prayers, and I must keep up a good heart. We shook hands," said Mr. Gresley. "I sometimes think Walsh means well, and that he may be a good-hearted man, after all."
Beneath the arrogance which a belief in Apostolic succession seems to induce in natures like Mr. Gresley's, as mountain air induces asthma in certain lungs, the shaft of agonized anxiety had pierced to a thin layer of humility. Hester knew that that layer was only momentarily disturbed, and that the old self would infallibly reassert itself; but the momentary glimpse drew her heart towards her brother. He was conscious of it, and love almost grew between them as they watched by Regie's bed.
At last, after an endless night, the little faltering feet came to the dividing of the ways, and hesitated. The dawn fell gray on the watchful faces of the doctor and Hester, and on the dumb suspense of the poor father. And with a sigh, as one who half knows he is making a life-long mistake, Regie settled himself against Hester's shoulder and fell asleep.
The hours passed. The light grew strong, and still Regie slept. Doctor Brown put cushions behind Hester, and gave her food. He looked anxiously at her. "Can you manage?" he whispered later, when the sun was streaming in at the nursery window. And she smiled back in scorn. Could she manage? What did he take her for?
At last Regie stretched himself and opened his eyes. The doctor took him gently from Hester, gave him food, and laid him down.
"He is all right," he said. "He will sleep all day."
Mr. Gresley, who had hardly stirred, hid his face in his hands.
"Don't try to move, Miss Hester," said Doctor Brown, gently.
Hester did not try. She could not. Her hands and face were rigid. She looked at him in terror. "I shall have to scream in another moment," she whispered.
The old doctor picked her up, and carried her swiftly to her room, where Fräulein ministered to her.
At last he came down and found Mr. Gresley waiting for him at the foot of the stair.
"You are sure he is all right?" he asked.
"Sure. Fräulein is with, him. He got the turn at dawn."
"Well, I should say thank your sister, too. She saved him. I tell you, Gresley, neither you nor I could have sat all those hours without stirring, as she did. She had cramp after the first hour. She has a will of iron in that weak body of hers."
"I had no idea she was uncomfortable," said Mr. Gresley, half incredulous.
"That is one of the reasons why I always say you ought not to be a clergyman," snapped the little doctor, and was gone.
Mr. Gresley was not offended. He was too overwhelmed with thankfulness to be piqued.
"Good old Brown," he said, indulgently. "He has been up all night, and he is so tired he does not know he is talking nonsense. As if a man who did not understand cramp was not qualified to be a priest. Ha! ha! He always likes to have a little hit at me, and he is welcome to it. I must just creep up and kiss dear Hester. I never should have thought she had it in her to care for any one as she has shown she cares for Regie. I shall tell her so, and how surprised I am, and how I love her for it. She has always seemed so insensible, so callous. But, please God! this is the beginning of a new life for her. If it is, she shall never hear one word of reproach about the past from me."
A day or two later the Bishop of Southminster had a touch of rheumatism, and Doctor Brown attended him. This momentary malady may possibly account to the reader for an incident which remained to the end of life inexplicable to Mr. Gresley.
Two days after Regie had taken the turn towards health, and on the afternoon of the very same day when Doctor Brown had interviewed the Bishop's rheumatism, the episcopal carriage might have been seen squeezing its august proportions into the narrow drive of Warpington Vicarage; at least, it was always called the drive, though the horses' noses were reflected in the glass of the front-door while the hind-wheels still jarred the gate-posts.
Out of the carriage stepped, not the Bishop, but the tall figure of Dick Vernon, who rang the bell, and then examined a crack in the portico.
He had plenty of time to do so.
"Lord, what fools!" he said, half aloud. "The crazy thing is shouting out that it is going to drop on their heads, and they put a clamp across the crack. Might as well put a respirator on a South Sea Islander. Is Mr. Gresley in? Well, then, just ask him to step this way, will you? Look here, James, if you want to be had up for manslaughter, you leave this porch as it is. No, I did not drive over from Southminster on purpose to tell you; but I mention it now I am here."
"I added the portico myself when I came here," said Mr. Gresley, stiffly, who had not forgotten or forgiven the enormity of Dick's behavior at the temperance meeting.
"So I should have thought," said Dick, warming to the subject, and mounting on a small garden-chair. "And some escaped lunatic has put a clamp on the stucco."
"I placed the clamp myself," replied Mr. Gresley. "There really is no necessity for you to waste your time and mine here. I understand the portico perfectly. The crack is merely superficial."
"Is it?" said Dick. "Then why does it run round those two consumptive little pillars? I tell you it's tired of standing up. It's going to sit down. Look here"—Dick tore at the stucco with his knife, and caught the clamp as it fell—"that clamp was only put in the stucco. It never reached the stone or the wood, whichever the little kennel is made of. You ought to be thankful it did not drop on one of the children, or on your own head. It would have knocked all the texts out of it for some time to come."
Mr. Gresley did not look very grateful as he led the way to his study.
"I was lunching with the Bishop to-day," said Dick, "and Dr. Brown was there. He told us about the trouble here. He said the little chap Regie was going on like a house on fire. The Bishop told me to ask after him particularly."
"He is wonderfully better every day," said Mr. Gresley, softening. "How kind of the Bishop to send you to inquire. Not having children himself, I should never have thought—"
"No," said Dick, "you wouldn't. Do you remember when we were at Cheam, and Ogilvy's marked sovereign was found in the pocket of my flannel trousers. You were the only one of the boys, you and that sneak Field, who was not sure I might not have taken it. You said it looked awfully bad, and so it did."
"No one was gladder than I was when it was cleared up," said Mr. Gresley.
"No," said Dick; "but we don't care much what any one thinks when it's cleared up. It's before that matters. Is Hester in? I've two notes for her. One from Brown, and one from the Bishop, and my orders are to take her back with me. That is why the Bishop sent the carriage."
"I am afraid Hester will hardly care to leave us at present," said Mr. Gresley. "My wife is on her sofa, and Regie is still very weak. He has taken one of those unaccountable fancies of children for her, and can hardly bear her out of his sight."
"The Bishop has taken another of those unaccountable fancies for her," said Dick, looking full at Mr. Gresley in an unpleasant manner. "I'm not one that holds that parsons should have their own way in everything. I've seen too much of missionaries. I just shove out curates and vicars and all that small fry if they get in my way. But when they break out in buttons and gaiters, by Jove! I knock under to them—at least, I do to men like the Bishop. He knows a thing or two. He has told me not to come back without Hester, and I'm not going to. Ah! there she is in the garden." Dick's large back had been turned towards the window, but he had seen the reflection of a passing figure in the glass of a framed testimonial which occupied a prominent place on the study wall, and he at once marched out into the garden and presented the letters to Hester.
Hester was bewildered at the thought of leaving Warpington, into which she seemed to have grown like a Buddhist into his tree. She was reluctant, would think it over, etc. But Dick, after one glance at her strained face, was obdurate. He would hear no reason. He would not go away. She and Fräulein nervously cast a few clothes into a box, Fräulein so excited by the apparition of a young man, and a possible love affair, that she could hardly fold Hester's tea-gowns.
When Hester came down with her hat on she found Dick untiring Mr. Gresley's bicycle in the most friendly manner, while the outraged owner stood by remonstrating.
"I assure you, Dick, I don't wish it to be touched. I know my own machine. If it were a common puncture I could mend it myself, but I don't want the whole thing ruined by an ignorant person. I shall take it in to Southminster on the first opportunity."
"No need to do that," said Dick, cheerfully. "Might as well go to a doctor to have your nails cut. Do it at home. You don't believe in the water test? Oh! that's rot. You'll believe in it when you see it. You're learning it now. There! Now I've got it in the pail; see all these blooming little bubbles jostling up in a row. There's a leak at the valve. No, there isn't. It's only unscrewed. Good Lord, James! it's only unscrewed; and you thought the whole machine was out of order. There, now, I've screwed it up. Devil a bubble! What's that you're saying about swearing in your presence? Oh! don't apologize! You can't help being a clergyman. Look for yourself. You will never learn if you look the other way just when a good-natured chap is showing you. I would have put the tire on again, but as you say you can do it better yourself, I won't. Sorry to keep you waiting, Hester. And look here, James, you ought to bicycle more. Strengthen your legs for playing the harmonium on Sundays. Well, I could not tell you had an organ in that little one-horse church. Good-bye, Fräulein; good-bye, James. Home, Coleman. And look here," said Dick, putting his mischievous face out of the window as the carriage turned, "if you are getting up steam for another temperance meeting, I'm your man."
"Good-bye, dear James," interrupted Hester, hastily, and the carriage drove away.
"He looks pasty," said Dick, after an interval. "A chap like James has no power in his arms and legs. He can kneel down in church, and put his arm round Mrs. Gresley's waist, but that's about all he's up to. He doesn't take enough exercise."
"He is not well. I don't think I ought to have left them."
"You had no choice. Brown said, unless you could be got away at once you would be laid up. I was at luncheon at the Palace when he said it. The Bishop's sister was too busy with her good works to come herself, so I came instead. I said I should not come back alive without you. They seemed to think I should all the same, but, of course, that was absurd. I wanted the Bishop to bet upon it, but he wouldn't."
"Do you always get what you want?" said Hester.
"Generally, if it depends on myself. But sometimes things depend on others besides me. Then I may be beaten."
They were passing Westhope Abbey, wrapped in a glory of sunset and mist.
"Did you know Miss West was there?" Dick said, suddenly.
"No," said Hester, surprised. "I thought she was in London."
"She came down last night to be with Lady Newhaven who is not well. Miss West is a great friend of yours, isn't she?"
"Well, she has one fault, and it is one I can't put up with. She won't look at me."
"Don't put up with it," said Hester, softly. "We women all have our faults, dear Dick. But if men point them out to us in a nice way we can sometimes cure them."