It was fortunate that her condition was not such as to require the services of the clergyman, because, for some time after the events described in the last chapter, Mr. Plowden was not in any condition to give them. Whether it was the shaking or the well-planted kick or the shock to his system it is impossible to say, but in the upshot he was constrained to keep his bed for several days. Indeed, the first service that he took was on the occasion of the opening of the ancient Ceswick vault to receive the remains of the recently deceased lady. The only territorial possession which remained to the Ceswicks was their vault. Indeed, as Florence afterwards remarked to her sister, there was a certain irony in the reflection that of all their wide acres there remained only the few square feet of soil which for centuries had covered the bones of the race.
When their aunt was dead and buried the two girls went back to the Cottage, and were very desolate. They had both of them loved the old lady in their separate ways, more especially Florence, both because she possessed the deeper nature of the two and because she had lived the longest with her.
But the grief of youth at the departure of age is not inconsolable, and after a month or so they had conquered the worst of their sorrow. Then it was that the question what they were to do came prominently to the fore. Such little property as their aunt had possessed was equally divided between them, and the Cottage left to their joint use. This gave them enough to live on in their quiet way, but it undoubtedly left them in a very lonely and unprotected position. Such as it was, however, they, or rather Florence—for she managed all the business—decided to make the best of it. At Kesterwick, at any rate, they were known, and it was, they felt, better to stay there than to float away and become waifs and strays on the great sea of English life. So they settled to stay.
Florence, moreover, had her own reasons for staying. She had come to the conclusion that it would be desirable that her sister Eva should marry Mr. Plowden. Not that she liked Mr. Plowden—her lady’s instincts rose up in rebellion against the man—but if Eva did not marry him, it as probable that she would in the long-run marry Ernest, and Ernest, Florence swore, she should not marry. To prevent such a marriage was the main purpose of her life. Her jealousy and hatred of her sister had become a part of herself; the gratification of her revenge was the evil star by which she shaped her course. It may seem a terrible thing that so young a woman could give the best energies of her life to such a purpose, but it was none the less the truth.
Hers was a wild strange nature, a nature capable of violent love and violent hate; the same pendulum could swing with equal ease to each extreme. Eva had robbed her of her lover; she would rob Eva, and put the prize out of her reach too. Little she recked of the wickedness of her design; for where in the long record of human suffering is there a wickedness to surpass the deliberate separation, for no good reason, of two people who love each other with all their hearts? Surely there is none. She knew this, but she did not hesitate on that account. She was not hypocritical. She made no excuses to herself. She knew well that on every ground it was best that Eva should marry Ernest, and pursue her natural destiny, happy in his love and in her own. But she would have none of it. If once they should meet again, the game would pass out of her hands; for the weakest woman grows strong of purpose when she has her lover’s arm to lean on. Florence realised this, and determined that they should never set eyes on each other until an impassable barrier, in the shape of Mr. Plowden, had been raised between the two. Having thus finally determined on the sacrifice, she set about whetting the knife.
One day, a month or so after Miss Ceswick was buried, Mr. Plowden called at the Cottage on some of the endless details of which district-visiting was the parent. He had hardly seen Eva since that never-to-be-forgotten day when he had learned what Jeremy’s ideas of a shaking were, for the very good reason that she had carefully kept out of his way.
So it came to pass that when, looking out of the window on the afternoon in question, she saw the crown of a clerical hat coming along the road, Eva promptly gathered up her work and commenced a hasty retreat to her bedroom.
“Where are you going to, Eva?” asked her sister.
“Upstairs—here he comes.”
“’He’! who is ‘he’?”
“Mr. Plowden, of course.”
“And why should you run away because Mr. Plowden is coming?”
“I do not like Mr. Plowden.”
“Really, Eva, you are too bad. You know what a friendless position we are in right now, and you go and get up a dislike to one of the few men we know. It is very selfish of you, and most unreasonable.”
At that moment the front-door bell rang, and Eva fled.
Mr. Plowden on entering looked round the room with a somewhat disappointed air.
“If you are looking for my sister,” said Florence, “she is not very well.”
“Indeed, I am afraid that her health is not good; she is so often indisposed.”
Florence smiled, and they dropped into the district-visiting. Presently, however, Florence dropped out again.
“By the way, Mr. Plowden, I want to tell you of something I heard the other day, and which concerns you. Indeed, I think that it is only right that I should do so. I heard that you were seen talking to my sister, not very far from the Titheburgh Abbey cottages, and that she—she ran away from you. Then Mr. Jones jumped over the wall, and also began to talk with you. Presently he also turned, and, so said my informant, you struck at him with a heavy stick, but missed him. Thereupon a tussle ensued, and you got the worst of it.”
“He irritated me beyond all endurance,” broke in Mr. Plowden excitedly.
“O, then the story is true?”
Mr. Plowden saw that he had made a fatal mistake; but it was too late to deny it.
“To a certain extent,” he said, sulkily. “That young ruffian told me that I was not a gentleman.”
“Really! Of course that was unpleasant. But how glad you must feel that you missed him, especially as his back was turned! It would have looked so bad for a clergyman to be had up for assault, or worse, wouldn’t it?”
Mr. Plowden turned pale, and bit his lip. He began to feel that he was in the power of this quiet, dignified young woman, and the feeling was not pleasant.
“And it would not look well if the story got round here, would it? I mean even if it was not known that you hit at him with the stick when he was not looking, because, you see, it would seem so absurd!”
Mr. Plowden winced beneath her mockery, and rising, seized his hat; but she motioned him back to his chair.
“Don’t go yet,” she said. “I wanted to tell you that you ought to be much obliged to me for thinking of all this for you. I thought that it would be painful for you to have the story all over the country-side, so I nipped it in the bud.”
Mr. Plowden groaned in spirit. If these were the results of a story nipped in the bud, what would its uninjured bloom be like?
“Who told you?” he asked, brusquely. “Jones went away.”
“Yes. How glad you must be, by the way, that he is gone! But it was not Mr. Jones, it was a person who oversaw the difference of opinion. No, never mind who it was; I have found means to silence that person.”
Little did Mr. Plowden guess that during the whole course of his love-scene, and the subsequent affair with Jeremy, there had leaned gracefully in an angle of the sod wall, not twenty yards away, a figure uncommonly resembling that of an ancient mariner in an attitude of the most intense and solemn contemplation; but so it was.
“I am grateful to you, Miss Ceswick.”
“Thank you, Mr. Plowden, it is refreshing to meet with true gratitude, it is a scarce flower in this world; but really I don’t deserve any. The observer who oversaw the painful scene between you and Mr. Jones also oversaw a scene preceding it, that, so far as I can gather, seems to have been hardly less painful in its way.”
Mr. Plowden coloured, but said nothing.
“Now you see, Mr. Plowden, I am left in a rather peculiar position as regards my sister; she is younger than I am, and has always been accustomed to look up to me, so, as you will easily understand, I feel my responsibilities to weigh upon me. Consequently, I feel bound to ask you what I am to understand from the report of my informant?”
“Simply this, Miss Ceswick: I proposed to your sister, and she refused me.”
“Indeed! you were unfortunate that afternoon.”
“Miss Ceswick,” went on Mr. Plowden, after a pause, “if I could find means to induce your sister to change her verdict, would my suit have your support?”
Florence raised her piercing eyes from her work, and for a second fixed them on the clergyman’s face.
“That depends, Mr. Plowden.”
“I am well off,” he went on, eagerly, “and I will tell you a secret. I have bought the advowson of this living; I happened to hear that it was going, and got it at a bargain. I don’t think that Halford’s life is worth five years’ purchase.”
“Why do you want to marry Eva, Mr. Plowden,” asked Florence, ignoring this piece of information; “you are not in love with her?”
“In love! No, Miss Ceswick. I don’t think that sensible men fall in love; they leave that to boys and women.”
“Oh! Then why do you want to marry Eva? It will be best to tell me frankly, Mr. Plowden.”
He hesitated, and then came to the conclusion that, with a person of Florence’s penetration, frankness was the best game.
“Well, as you must know, your sister is an extraordinarily beautiful woman.”
“And would therefore form a desirable addition to your establishment?”
“Precisely,” said Mr. Plowden. “Also,” he went on, “she is a distinguished-looking woman, and quite the lady.”
Florence shuddered at the phrase.
“And would therefore give you social status, Mr. Plowden?”
“Yes. She is also sprung from an ancient family.”
Florence smiled, and looked at Mr. Plowden with an air that said more plainly than any words, “Which you clearly are not.”
“In short, I am anxious to get married, and I admire your sister Eva more than anybody I ever saw.”
“All of which are very satisfactory reasons, Mr. Plowden; all you have to do is convince my sister of the many advantages you have to offer her, and—to win her affections.”
“Ah, Miss Ceswick, that is just the point. She told me that her affections were already irredeemably engaged, and that she had none to give. If only I have the opportunity however, I shall hope to be able to outdistance my rival.”
Florence looked at him scrutinisingly as she answered:
“You do not know Ernest Kershaw, or you would not be so confident.”
“Why am I not as good as this Ernest?” he asked; for Florence’s remark, identical as it was with that of Jeremy, wounded his vanity intensely.
“Well, Mr. Plowden, I do not want to be rude, but it is impossible for me to conceive a woman’s affections being won away from Ernest Kershaw by you. You are so very different.”
If Mr. Plowden wanted a straightforward answer, he had certainly got it. For some moments he sat in sulky silence, and then he said:
“I suppose, if that is the case, there is nothing to be done.”
“I never said that. Women are frequently married whose affections are very much engaged elsewhere. You know how they win their wives in savage countries, Mr. Plowden: they catch them. Marriage by capture is one of the oldest institutions in the world.”
“Well, the same institution still obtains in England, only we don’t call it by that name. Do you suppose that no women are hunted down nowadays? Ah, very many are; the would-be husband heads the pack, and all the loving relatives swell its cry.”
“You mean that your sister can be hunted down,” he said bluntly.
“I! I mean nothing, except that the persistent suitor on the spot often has a better chance than the lover at a distance, however dear he may be.”
Then Mr. Plowden took his leave. Florence watched him walking down the garden-path.
“I am glad Jeremy shook you soundly,” she said aloud. “Poor Eva!”