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´╗┐Title: Imprudence
Author: Young, F.E. Mills
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Imprudence" ***

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Imprudence
By F.E. Mills Young
Published by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London.
This edition dated 1920.

Imprudence, by F.E. Mills Young.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
IMPRUDENCE, BY F.E. MILLS YOUNG.

CHAPTER ONE.

"Now came still evening on."  The fading light, warm and faintly glowing
from the last rays of the May sun, lay with a lingering mellowness upon
the fields, upon the light green of leafing trees, upon a white froth of
late blackthorn blossoming in the hedges, upon the straggling township
nestling in the hollow, and upon the tall red-brick chimneys dominating
Wortheton--dominating the souls sheltering beneath the clustering
roofs--dominating and subjugating brain and mind and body by the might
of their crushing omnipotence, by the strength of wealth and industry
and established order--gaunt chimneys, rising out of the green mist of
the trees, grotesque, symbolic landmarks--index fingers witnessing in
obelisk-like ugliness to the power and importance of successful
commercial enterprise, to the dignity of capital and the drab necessity
of labour, to, in short, the disproportionate values in most existing
things.

In the evening light, between the lengthening shadows flung by the
hedges along the dusty road that leads to Wortheton, a girl walked
listlessly, a girl whose youth was marred by a look of world-weary
wisdom, as much at variance with the young face as the tall brick
chimneys with the harmonious beauty of the landscape.  But for that
look, and the sullen expression in the brown eyes, the girl would have
been beautiful, as the scene was beautiful, and the soft primrose light
upon the uplands; but the buoyant elasticity, the hope, and the
freshness of youth, these were lacking; there remained only the pitiful
fact that in years the girl was in the springtime of life and in
experience more matured.

As she walked, her sullen gaze shifted furtively from the township below
to the fair open country, growing momentarily dimmer and greyer as the
light in the sky paled.  A gap in the hedge revealed a narrow path
between giant elms, and a cool shadowed coppice where the bracken fronds
rose stiff and closely curled, and dark ivy twined thickly about the
tree trunks.  The girl turned aside into the coppice and, with the
fugitive instinct of hiding from the light, penetrated its shaded
depths, and paused and leaned her arms against the gnarled trunk of a
sheltering beech tree, and rested her head upon her arms in dry-eyed
tragic sorrow.

In a fork of the leafy branches overhead a bird had its nest, sitting in
brooding satisfaction upon its delicate speckled eggs.  The intrusion
startled it from slumber: the round eyes betrayed a suspicious
uneasiness, and the soft warm body nestled closer over the eggs it
protected.  Quaint thing of feathers and bright-eyed watchfulness and
maternal instinct, with no sense of anything beyond the supreme
importance of hatching those little speckled eggs--drawing its
unconscious comparison by the pride of elemental right to the
disproportion in values in this as in other matters, happy in its
prospective motherhood, peering timorously through the green tracery
sheltering it, home at the unhappy prospective human mothers with
resentful eyes lifted curiously to observe its brooding content.

So still the girl remained, gazing upward into the deepening shadows
that the little feathered mother lost her fear; the sharp anxiety faded
from the round bright eyes, which never relaxed their unwavering
vigilance even when the shadows, gathering closer, enveloped the still
figure of the girl and wrapped her about with a hazy indistinctness that
made her one with the landscape, a thing of indefinite outline and
colouring, breathing, sentient nature in harmony with inanimate nature,
immovable and silent as the tree against which she leaned.

So night settled silently over Wortheton, and a wanderer stole home in
its kindly shade.

CHAPTER TWO.

In the big ugly morning-room at Court Heatherleigh six people sat
engaged with different degrees of interest on six ugly pieces of coarse
material which were being fashioned into serviceable garments for the
poor.  The poor were an institution in Wortheton and so was charity:
both, like the big chimneys dominating the town, were things of usage;
all were in a sense interdependent, and had their headquarters at Court
Heatherleigh, which was the big house and belonged to the owner of the
big chimneys--the owner of most things in Wortheton, from the ugly brick
cottages in which his employees dwelt to, one might say, the employees
themselves.  The Trades Unions had not penetrated the select privacy of
Wortheton as yet.  If occasionally a voice was uplifted in discontent
and hinted at these things, it was speedily silenced; and life flowed on
tranquilly as it had before the grumbler raised his foolish protest; and
his place knew him no more.  But each whisper was as a small stone flung
in a mill stream; and stones follow the law of aggregation till
eventually they dam the stream.

The six busy workers in Court Heatherleigh morning-room were the six
daughters of Mr Graynor, and their ages ranged from somewhere about
fifty to eighteen.  Besides the daughters, two sons had swelled the
family.  The younger of these had married indiscreetly, and died
indiscreetly with his wife somewhere abroad, bequeathing an indiscreet
son to his father because he had nothing else to leave behind him,
having departed from the family tradition that the end and aim of life
is to acquire wealth.  He had acquired nothing beyond a wife and son;
but he had loved both these, and been beloved in turn, so that,
according to his views, he had prospered well: according to his brother
William's views, he had been a fool.

William carried on the family traditions, and would eventually succeed
his father as owner of the big chimneys, the family mansion, and the
guardianship of his numerous sisters.  He was not married.  No one
expected him to marry; he did not expect it of himself.  No woman worthy
of William's attention had ever adventured across his path.

Of the sisters, Miss Agatha Graynor, who was the eldest of the family by
several years, took the lead in all things, social and domestic, and
ruled the household with a despotism that not even old Mr Graynor had
been known to question; though his wives--he had married twice--had
never been permitted such absolute authority.  In his youth he had been
as despotic as Agatha; but he was an old man now, and weary; and his
daughter overawed him.  The one being to whom he clung was his young
daughter.  Prudence, the only child of his second wife; and after
Prudence, his scapegrace grandson, Bobby, then at college, held possibly
the strongest place in his tired affections.

They were two very human young people, Prudence and Bobby, with a
contempt for the Graynor traditions, and lacking the Graynor pride and
self-complacency, and all the other creditable characteristics of an
old, influential, commercial stock that had owned the greater part of
Wortheton for generations, and had come to regard themselves by reason
of local homage as personages of high importance in the land.

Prudence made one of the working party from a matter of compulsion;
charity of that nature bored her, and she hated sewing.  Since leaving
school, where her happiest years had been spent, Miss Agatha had imposed
many irksome duties as a corrective for idleness: a healthy youthful
desire for pleasure and recreation affronted her; if she had experienced
such desires in her own youth she had forgotten them: possibly she had
not experienced them; people are born deficient in various respects and
in different degrees.  Miss Agatha had always been Good: her young
half-sister was lacking in piety, and suffered from warm human impulses
which not infrequently led her into trouble and subsequent disgrace.
Also Prudence was pretty; the other five Miss Graynors were plain.

The pretty, bored little face bending over the plain sewing showed
mutinous in the sunlit brightness of the quiet room; the small fingers
were hot, and the needle was sticky and refused to pass through the
coarse material: it bent alarmingly, and, in response to a savage little
thrust from a determined steel thimble, snapped audibly in the silence.
Miss Agatha looked up with quick rebuke.

"Not again, Prudence?  That is the second needle this morning."

She hunted in her basket for a fresh needle, and passed it down the line
to the rebellious worker in displeased silence.  Prudence's blue eyes
snapped dangerously, but she made no spoken comment.  She threaded the
new needle languidly, and then sat with it in her idle hands and stared
through the open French window to the inviting stretch of green lawn,
dotted with brilliant flower beds, which made tennis, or any other game,
thereon impossible, which was the reason, Bobby was wont to assert, why
his aunt insisted on their remaining.  Bobby and Prudence would have
made a clean sweep of the bedding-out borders if they had been allowed
their will.  Miss Agatha, looking up and observing this idleness, was on
the point of remonstrating when the door opened opportunely to admit a
visitor, and Prudence's delinquencies were forgotten in the business of
welcoming the arrival.

"My dear Mrs North!"  Miss Agatha exclaimed, surprised, and rose
hastily and shook hands with the vicar's wife, who, warm and a little
flushed, greeted her effusively, and nodded affably to the train of
nondescript sisters, who all rose and remained standing until the
new-comer was seated, when they reseated themselves--all save Prudence;
she edged a little nearer to the open window, prepared for escape at the
first favourable moment.

"Such an astonishing thing has happened," Mrs North was saying
breathlessly to the monotonous accompaniment of the diligently-plied
needles.  "That girl, Bessie Clapp, has come back.  I saw her myself in
her mother's house."

Miss Agatha's thin cheek became instantly pink.  She turned in her seat
and regarded her sisters with grave solicitude in her eyes.

"Priscilla, Alice, Mary, Matilda, _and_ Prudence, leave the room," she
said.

Four needles were promptly thrust into the unfinished work, and the four
sisters, who were echoes of Miss Agatha, and the youngest of whom was
thirty, rose obediently and followed slowly Prudence's more alert
retreat.  When they had passed beyond sight of the window Miss Agatha
turned apologetically to her friend.

"Of course," she explained earnestly, "I couldn't discuss that subject
in front of the girls."

Mrs North, realising the delicacy of the position, generously
acquiesced.

"It was a little indiscreet of me," she allowed.  "But I was never so
astounded in my life.  And the girl's mother actually defends her.  She
talks about `her own flesh and blood.' ...  As though that makes any
difference!  I knew you would be shocked.  It's such a scandal in the
place.  And to come back... where every one knows!"

"She can't stay," said Miss Agatha decidedly; and her thin lips
compressed themselves tightly, locking themselves upon the sentence as
it passed them.  She pushed the work on the table aside and looked
fixedly at the vicar's wife.  "We can't tolerate such a scandal in
Wortheton.  We have to think of the people at the Works.  That kind of
thing... it...  We must set our faces against it."

"Of course," Mrs North agreed doubtfully.  "That's why I came to you."

Every one came to Miss Agatha when an unpleasant situation had to be
faced: she faced it so resolutely, with the inflexibility of justice
untempered with mercy.  Sin was sin.  There were no intermediate shades
between black and white.  Sin had to be uprooted.  The moral prestige of
Wortheton demanded that all which was "not nice" must be eliminated from
its community.

And in a dingy room in a dingy little house in a dingier side street, a
girl with a beautiful face was thinking in her passionate discontent how
good it was to be a bird--a small feathered thing in a nest among the
branches of a fine old tree--anything rather than a human being.

CHAPTER THREE.

Prudence leaned with her arms on the sill of her bedroom window, looking
out on the night-shadowed garden and the white line of the road beyond
its shrub-hidden walls.  This was the best hour in the twenty-four--the
hour when she could be alone; for the bedroom, which once had been a
nursery, was all her own.  The other Miss Graynors, with the exception
of Agatha, shared rooms; but the little half-sister who had occupied the
nursery alone for so many years was permitted to regard this haven as
still hers: no one sought to dispossess her, though the room was large
and had a south aspect, while Miss Agatha's room faced north.  But Miss
Agatha was not averse from a northern aspect; and the room had the
advantage of commanding a view of the servants' quarters, so that she
was enabled to watch the coming in and, which was still more important,
the going forth of these dependants, whose seemly conduct she made her
particular care.

Many people besides the poet have discovered that the pleasantest place
in the house is leaning out of the window.  Prudence knew that.  From
early spring to late autumn, and occasionally on fine frosty nights, she
leaned from her window and thought, and felt, and dreamed dreams of
romance and beauty, and of a life that was fuller than the life of
Wortheton, a life beyond the seclusion of the walled garden, beyond the
white winding road, the tall chimneys, and the dull succession of busy
dreary days--days which commenced with morning prayers at seven-thirty,
followed by breakfast at eight, by work, by an hour's walk before lunch,
a little district visiting, the receiving and returning of calls, tea at
five, a dull formal dinner at seven, and family prayers at half-past
eight.  Then nine o'clock and merciful release, and that good hour,
sometimes longer, when she was supposed to be in bed and which she spent
leaning out of the window, dreaming her girlish dreams.  We all know
those dreams of youth, though some of us forget them.  They are just
dreams, nothing more; but none of life's realities are half as good as
those inspiring idle fancies which illumine the drabbest lives in the
imaginative days of youth.  The dreams of youth are worth all the
philosophy, all the wisdom of the ages; and when they arise, as
Prudence's arose, out of a spirit of dissatisfaction with existing
things, they do not necessarily add to the dissatisfaction, but catch
one away from realities in a flight of golden thought.

To-night, however, Prudence's mind was not concerned so much with
personal matters as with the story of the girl of whose return she had
heard that morning, the girl who was not good, and who was to be
banished from Wortheton for fear that her example might contaminate
others.  Prudence wondered whether Wortheton were more susceptible to
contamination than most places; otherwise the sending forth of the black
sheep, who after all belonged to Wortheton, were to inflict an injustice
on some equally respectable town.  Black sheep cannot be banished to the
nether world; they have to reside somewhere.

The details of the girl's case were known to Prudence.  All the secrecy
and silence of Miss Agatha's careful guardianship availed little against
an inquiring and sympathetic mind and somewhat unusual powers of
observation.  Prudence at eighteen was not ignorant.  To attempt to keep
an intelligent person ignorant is to attempt the impossible.  Miss
Agatha did not shrink from impossible effort: furthermore she confused
the terms ignorance and innocence, and in her furtive avoidances
contrived to throw a suggestion of indelicacy upon the most simple of
elemental things.  Many well-meaning persons bring disrepute in this way
on things which should be sacred, and utterly confuse the mind in
matters of morality with the disastrous result that, bewildered and
impatient, the individual not infrequently breaks away from conventional
caution and adopts a line of indifference in regard to decent
restraints.  Life cannot be run on lines of suppression any more
successfully than on the broader gauge of a too liberal tolerance.
Restraint has to be practised; and it is the right of the individual to
be taught to recognise the necessity for this with the encouragement of
the practice.

Miss Agatha's narrow creed proclaimed that the girl had sinned, and must
therefore be thrust forth; Prudence, in her impulsive youth, felt this
decree to be ungenerous, and, had she dared, would have championed the
sinner's cause before all Wortheton.  She did not fear Wortheton, but
she was afraid of Agatha--Agatha, who, at the time of Prudence's birth,
was older than Prudence's mother, and who had domineered over her mother
and herself until the former's death, which sad event occurred when
Prudence was five years old.  She remembered her mother only dimly, but
she hated Miss Agatha on her mother's account as she would not have
hated her on her own.  The mop of golden curls which, with the wide blue
eyes, lent to Prudence's face a guileless and childlike expression,
covered a shrewd little brain.  It was no strain on the owner's
intelligence to discern that Agatha was jealous of her, had been jealous
of her mother before her, on account of their father's preference; and
it occasioned her much inward satisfaction to reflect that not even
Agatha had the power to lessen his love for her: she was the child of
his old age and the light of his eyes.

"I've half a mind," she said to herself, and rested her dimpled chin on
her hands and stared into the shadowy distance, "to tell him about
Bessie.  If I asked him to interfere and let her remain, he--might."

She did not feel very positive on that head; Mr Graynor was after all a
male edition of Agatha.  Nevertheless, she would at least make her
appeal.

"I wonder..." she mused, and thought awhile.

"I suppose she was very much in love," was the outcome of these
reflections.  "I wonder what it feels like to be very much in love."

Prudence's world had not brought any of these experiences into her life.
She never met any men, save her father's friends and William's, none of
whom were calculated to awaken sentiment in the breast of a girl of
eighteen.  The youngest of these was a man of forty, a nice kind old
thing, who brought her chocolates, and pulled her curls before she put
her hair up.  Since the hair had gone up he had ceased to pull it, and
he did not bring her chocolates so often; his kindliness had become more
formal; but she liked him rather better on that account; the teasing had
sometimes annoyed her.

Like most girls, Prudence allowed her mind at times to dwell on the
subject of love and marriage.  The older girls at school had discussed
these subjects freely: one of them had professed an undying passion for
the drawing-master, who was married, and had asseverated before an
admiring audience in the playing-field that she would cheerfully ignore
the wife and run away with him if he asked her.  He had not asked her.
He had indeed been entirely unaware of her devotion, and had regarded
her as a rather dull pupil.  Prudence had considered her silly.  Also
she held a belief that emotional excitement was not love.  She was not
very clear in her thoughts what the term love expressed exactly; but she
believed that when it did come love would be a big thing.  She did not
consider it in relation with marriage: marriage was a contract, often a
convenience.  She would have been glad herself to marry, merely to
escape from Agatha and Wortheton.  When a girl was married she could at
least fashion her own life.  And Prudence loved children.  She envied
Bessie Clapp her coming motherhood more than she pitied her on account
of the social ostracism entailed thereby.  Prudence's ideas on morality,
never having been wisely directed, inclined to exalt the beauty of
motherhood and to ignore the baser aspect of crude and illicit passions
selfishly indulged.  It is not the maternal woman who brings children
into the world with a selfish disregard for the shame of their nameless
birth.

While Prudence leaned from her window and thought of love and
motherhood, she became abruptly and amazedly aware of a figure in the
road beyond the high wall--a man's figure, tall and straight in the
moonlight--walking with a purposeful air down the hill towards the town.
The man glanced up at the lighted window in which the girlish form was
brightly framed, and broke off abruptly in the middle of a bar he was
whistling softly, paused for the fraction of a second, and then went
swinging on down the hill.  He was a stranger; Prudence recognised that;
there were no young men, except the factory employees and the tradesmen,
in Wortheton.

"I wonder," she murmured to herself, and leaned further out to look
after the vanishing figure, "what it feels like to be in love..."

A sudden sense of chill touched her.  The moon vanished behind a cloud,
and a little cold breeze sprang up and played on her bare neck and arms.
The garden showed dark with the white light withdrawn, dark and
deserted.  A shadowed loneliness had fallen on the spirit of the night.

CHAPTER FOUR.

"I want," Prudence said in her soft appealing voice, "the sum of fifty
pounds."

Mr Graynor looked not unnaturally amazed.  Prudence's wants had never
assumed such extravagant proportions before: it puzzled him to
understand what she could possibly require to necessitate the demand for
so large a sum, and, because he had only a few hours earlier refused to
listen to another outrageous request of hers and told her a little
harshly that there were matters with which she should not concern
herself, he hoped, despite a general reluctance to part with money, that
this further demand was one he could treat more generously.  He put a
large shaky hand on her curls and tilted her head back and smiled into
the wide blue eyes.

"Fifty pounds, eh?" he said.  "That's a big sum, Prue."

"You'll let me have it?" she asked, and clasped her hands round his arm.

"That depends," he answered, "on what you want it for."

"I'd rather not tell that," she said slowly.

Mr Graynor removed his hand.  Secrecy savoured of a want of candour; he
could not allow that.

"I can't give you a cheque without knowing what you purpose spending the
money on," he said firmly.  "It's a big sum for a little girl--even for
finery.  You mustn't develop extravagance."

Prudence braced herself and faced him a little defiantly.

"It's not for me," she said.  "I don't need anything.  But you are
sending the Clapps away, and they've nowhere to go and no money.  That
isn't just; it's--wicked."

His face hardened while he listened to this sweeping indictment, and he
turned away from her with an air of sharp annoyance.

"You are extremely foolish, Prudence," he said.  "Leave these matters
which you are not able to understand to your elders.  I forbid you to
mention this subject again."

Prudence was defeated but not subdued.  She accepted the defeat, but she
had her retort ready.

"Very well," she said, as she moved towards the door.  "Then I'll just
pray hard night and morning that God will befriend Bessie Clapp.  When
you see me kneeling I hope you will remember."

Then she was gone; and the old man, staring with his dim eyes at the
closed door, reflected uncomfortably that Prudence was growing strangely
annoying.  She was, as he also recognised, growing extraordinarily like
her mother.  Of course, he told himself, unconsciously self-deceiving,
he had always intended to see that these people were sufficiently
provided for.  It was not necessary for his youngest daughter to point
out his duty to him.

So Prudence was not really defeated; though she was denied the
satisfaction of knowing of her victory.  Mr Graynor's subsequent
generosity amazed the recipients no more than it amazed his eldest
daughter and William, both of whom entirely disapproved of a munificence
they deemed unnecessary and an encouragement in wrong-doing.  But old
Mr Graynor, furtively watching Prudence's golden head bowed over her
clasped hands during the evening prayers, bowed in almost aggressive
supplication, knew that he could not view it thus night and morning with
a deaf ear turned to her appeal for succour for the friendless.  The
good-night kiss he gave her was, had she but known it, an answer to her
prayer.

Prudence retired to her room that night in a state of antagonism towards
every one.  She knew herself to be in disgrace.  Agatha treated her with
chill disapproval, and William ignored her.  It was William's invariable
rule to show his displeasure by treating the object thereof as though
she did not exist.  Prudence had been ignored before: she did not resent
this; it amused her.  William, when he attempted to be dignified, was
altogether ridiculous.

He maintained the dignified role throughout the next day, and laboured
under the delusion that his pompous disregard was impressing his young
sister with a proper sense of the enormity of her indiscretion; a belief
which suffered a rude awakening at luncheon, when Prudence threw off her
ill-humour and emerged from the large silences in which she had
enwrapped herself to participate in the unenlivening talk carried on
fragmentally by the various members of the family.  She had watched
brother William, who was a big man and corpulent of build, as she had
watched him for many years, with an amazed dumb criticism in her look,
unfasten with big deliberate fingers the two bottom buttons of his
waistcoat and the top button of his trousers on sitting down to lunch
for his greater convenience and the more thorough enjoyment of his food.
He performed this office regularly, with the formal solemnity of an
important rite.  Prudence had come to regard it as William's grace
before meals.  She sometimes wondered what ran through the serious minds
of the portly whiskered butler and the elderly parlourmaid, who
ministered to the family needs under his direction, daily privileged to
witness this public tribute of respect to the good things of life.
Perhaps they regarded these manifestations of epicurean nicety, as
Agatha regarded them, as becoming in William as a man and the
prospective head of the house of Graynor.  It was an inconsistency in
Agatha's prudish nature to consider that men might do things which could
not be tolerated in the other sex, and that whatever William did must of
necessity be seemly.  In Prudence's opinion, William's table manners
were gluttonous and disgusting.

"A man called on me at the works this morning," William observed,
addressing his father, who latterly stayed much at home and left the
control and worry of business largely to his son.  "He had a letter of
introduction from Morgan.  I asked him to call at the house this
afternoon in time for tea.  His name's Steele."

"You should have asked him to dine," Mr Graynor said.

"Time enough for that after you have seen him," William returned, and
for some reason, which he would have been at a loss to explain, his gaze
travelled in Prudence's direction and rested for the space of a second
on her listening, eager face.

"I've seen him," Prudence said.  "He's quite young."

William raised his eyebrows; Miss Agatha's head came round with a jerk;
several other heads jerked round likewise, and every one looked at
Prudence.

"I saw him from my window," Prudence explained, unabashed by the general
interest, "striding down the hill.  His back looked nice."

William sought to ignore the interruption and the interrupter, and
addressed himself exclusively to his father.  But it was useless.
Prudence, having broken her silence, refused to be excluded from the
conversation, and expressed the flippant desire to see the face
belonging to the nice-looking back.

Had it been possible to banish her young sister to her bedroom, Agatha
would have done so; but Prudence lately had shown a growing tendency to
break away from control, and she was wise enough not to put a further
strain on the weakening strands of her already frayed authority.
Therefore Prudence was in the drawing-room when the stranger called--
indeed, she was the only person present so far as he was concerned.  He
paid her far more attention than Miss Agatha deemed necessary or in good
taste.  The manners of youth, as each generation which has left youth
behind unfailingly recognises, are sadly deteriorating.

As for Prudence, she admired the front view as greatly as she had
admired the back.  Mr Philip Steele was eminently well-favoured.
Prudence considered him handsome.  She had met so few men that anyone
who escaped middle-age and stoutness appeared to her in the guise of
masculine perfection, provided only that his face was strong.  Steele's
face matched with his name, sharp, clear-cut, firm of jaw.  And he was
clean-shaven.  William wore a beard.  Hair on a man's face was
patriarchal.

Tea was brought in by the butler and deposited on a table in front of
Miss Agatha; and the young man, seizing the opportunity when his
hostess' attention was thus engaged, demanded of Prudence in a
confidential undertone:

"I say, wasn't it you I saw leaning from a window two nights ago?"

"Yes."  Prudence looked at him with a frank laugh in her blue eyes.  "I
saw you pass.  It must have been gorgeous, walking down there in the
moonlight."

"It was pleasant," he said without enthusiasm, and added with a return
smile: "I was thinking how jolly it must be up there where you were,
looking out on the quiet fragrance of the night."

And then they both laughed happily, though there was manifestly nothing
to laugh at.  Miss Agatha, disapproving of this mutual enjoyment, called
Prudence away to make the tea; whereupon the young man followed her to
the tea-table and hovered over it, wishful to be of use.

"One teaspoonful for each person and one for the teapot," Miss Agatha
directed precisely; and the visitor wondered with resentment why on
earth the old girl didn't make the brew herself.

"I hope you'll like our tea," she said, when, having handed round the
various cups, Steele returned to the table for his own.  "We give
eighteenpence a pound for it.  We drink it for an example."

She did not explain why, nor for whom, the example was deemed necessary.
Steele sipped his tea, and tried not to looked amazed, and assured her
that it was jolly good.  Then he wandered back to Prudence's side,
openly curious as to her relationship in regard to the others.

"I say," he murmured--"don't think me rude--but where do you come in?"

Prudence scrutinised him for a perplexed moment, at a loss for his
meaning; whereupon he suggested with a smile:

"Niece, perhaps?"

"Oh!"  The gay little laugh, which so irritated Miss Agatha's ears,
broke from her lips once more.  "I see.  No.  I'm Mr Graynor's youngest
daughter... by his second marriage," she added, with just a hint of
malice in her voice.

The young man grasped the position.

"I'm getting hold of it," he said, a sympathetic light in his eyes.
"The thing puzzled me.  I couldn't place you.  You don't seem to fit
in."  Then he said with a kind of inspiration, as though the idea had
suddenly presented itself to him: "You don't fit in, you know.  Your
place rightly is leaning out of a window.  That's how I shall always
picture you."

It was an extraordinary talk, and altogether delightful.  Prudence
enjoyed his visit tremendously.  But when he left, Miss Agatha reproved
her sharply for pushing herself forward and monopolising the visitor.

"He monopolised me," Prudence contended.  "I retired into corners, and
he followed."

"You made yourself conspicuous," Miss Agatha said, "and behaved
altogether in a forward and unseemly manner."

Prudence had occasion later to regret this success in which she had
triumphed at the time; Mr Philip Steele had not succeeded in winning
general favour, and so never received the invitation to dine.  He did
not possess sufficient nerve to present himself at the house uninvited,
or he would have called again for the pleasure of meeting Prudence.  He
did meet her, but the encounter was accidental.  It was all the more
enjoyable on that account.  They met where there were neither walls nor
interruptions, where they could talk without reserve and laugh
unrestrainedly, with only the mating birds to hear them, and the soft
wind to catch up and echo their mirth in the tall trees overhead--a
joyous meeting, with the springtime harmony about them, and the
springtime gladness in their hearts and eyes.

CHAPTER FIVE.

"By Jove!" exclaimed Steele, when he vaulted a stile and came upon her,
picking primroses from the hedge.  "This is a piece of luck!"

Prudence looked up from her occupation.  The sunlight was in her
surprised blue eyes, in her hair; it shone on her white dress, and on
the pale wilting flowers in her hand.  The effect of her was dazzling--a
white shining thing of milk and roses against the soft greens of the
bank.  He had sprung upon her unawares, and it took her a little while
to recover from her astonishment.  And yet she had been thinking of
him--thinking how agreeable it would be if the event which was now
realised could only befall.  She had been guilty of loitering, of
watching the field-path furtively, and wishing she knew which direction
he took when he walked abroad.  And now he stood before her, gay, and
unmistakably pleased, with a laugh in his grey eyes which expressed his
satisfaction.  He had been thinking about her as she had been thinking
of him, and wishing that he had made better use of his time that
afternoon, and discovered her favourite haunts.  It was all right now;
they had found one another.  That was good, because on the morrow he was
going away.

"You'd never guess how hard I've been wishing I might happen upon you
this morning," he said as they shook hands.  "It looks as though wishing
had brought its reward.  I'm rather a believer in telepathy.  Something
of what has been in my mind must unconsciously have transmitted itself
to yours.  Have you given me any thought, I wonder?  I've given you so
many," he added, observing her blush.

"I was thinking of you at the moment you appeared," Prudence answered
with audacious candour.  "You see, William mentioned at breakfast that
you were leaving to-morrow.  I wondered why you came?  So few people
come here--except commercial travellers."

"There are one or two at the hotel," he said, laughing.  "Save that they
possess enormous appetites, I haven't observed them particularly.  The
landlady informed me that they are very exclusive.  I came on the firm's
business--Morgan Bros.  We're woollen too, you know."

"Yes I know.  Mr Morgan stays with us sometimes."

She regarded him with renewed interest.  It was a little disappointing
to discover that he followed the same occupation as William; she had
placed him in her thoughts amid more romantic surroundings.  The
factory, despite its financial magnificence, struck her as rather
sordid.  He became aware of the criticism in her eyes and smiled in some
amusement.

"I'm just a paid man," he volunteered.  "Nothing very gorgeous about my
position."

"But that's an advantage," she said, and smiled in sympathy.  "At least,
you can leave."

"True.  I never thought of it like that.  My principal concern has been
to evade leaving; it has loomed so very imminent at times.  I say, let's
sit on this stile in the shade of that jolly elm and talk.  You're not
in a hurry, are you?"

"No," answered Prudence, who knew that she ought to be at home sewing in
the morning-room, knew also that she had not the smallest intention of
going back now.  "I'm not in any hurry.  It's--pleasant here."

"Yes, isn't it?  I don't think I have ever seen prettier country than
this.  You were gathering primroses?"

"Just a few late ones."  She held the bunch up and surveyed their
drooping beauty.  "It's almost a pity; they looked so sweet in the
hedge."

"They look sweeter where they are," he said quite sincerely, though
obviously without sufficient reason for the comparison; the primroses
were so unmistakably dying.  "Put one in my button-hole, will you?  It
will recall a pleasant morning."

She complied without hesitation, laughing when the task was accomplished
because the flower drooped its head.

"A bit shy," he commented.  "It is going to raise its face and smile at
me when I put it in water, later."

"Will you really do that?" she asked.

"Why, of course.  You don't suppose I would allow a gift of yours to
fade into a memory?"

"But it will fade," she insisted, "in spite of your efforts.  All these
pleasant things fade so swiftly."

He turned more directly towards her and looked into her eyes.  She had
taken off her hat, and sat with her shoulders against the tree and
looked steadily back at him.

"Yes," he admitted; "that's uncomfortably true.  But something remains."

"Something?"  Her eyes questioned him, wide childlike eyes with a hint
of womanhood lurking in their blue depths.  He drew a little nearer to
her.

"Something," he repeated--"subtle, intangible--an emotion, a memory...
Call it what you will...  Some recurring brightness which is to the
human soul what the sunlight is to the earth--a thousand harmonies
spring from the one source.  My primrose will fade, but for me it can't
die; nor will the kind hand that gathered it and placed it where it is
be forgotten either.  There are things one doesn't forget."

"I suppose there are," acquiesced Prudence, her thoughts by some odd
twist reverting to William's table manners.  "Sometimes one would like
to forget."

"I shouldn't," he averred--"not this, at least."

She roused herself with a laugh.

"I was thinking of other things--I don't know why--horrid things.  Are
you one of a large family?"

"No," he answered, surprised.  "I'm an only son--and rather a bad
investment.  Why?"

"There are eight of us," said Prudence--"counting Bobby."

"Who is Bobby?"

"He's a dear," she answered, as though that explained Bobby.  "He's at
college: when he leaves he will have to go into the factory; and he
hates it so.  But there isn't any help for it.  He is the only Graynor
to carry on."

"I don't think his case calls for sympathy exactly," he remarked dryly,
with a contemplative eye on the tall red chimneys, an eye that travelled
slowly over the wide spring-clad countryside and came back to her face
and rested there in quiet enjoyment.

"You don't know," she returned seriously, "how the kind of life we lead
here stifles an imaginative person."

"You find it dull?" he said.  "I suppose it may be.  Most country towns
are dull."

"The country isn't to blame," she explained; "it's the routine of dull
business, dull duties, dull pleasures, and duller people.  You've no
idea...  How should you know?  Virtue, as practised in Wortheton, is a
quality without smiles, and enjoyment is sinful.  Instead of idling
happily here I ought to be at home sewing garments for the poor, like
the others are doing.  I shall be reproved for flaying truant... and I
don't care."

She laughed joyously.  Steele, ignoring the larger part of her
communications, leaned towards her, intent on bringing her back to a
particular phrase that stuck in his memory.

"Are you happy sitting here--with me?" he asked.

"I'm always happy," Prudence replied calmly, "when I've some one to talk
to who isn't Wortheton."

"Oh!" he said, a little damped.  "So that's it?  Well, I'm happy sitting
here talking with some one who is Wortheton."

"I'm not up to sample," she said, amused.  "If you want local colour,
call at the Vicarage--or take William as a specimen.  Wortheton is
earnest in woof."

She looked so pretty and so impish as she drew her invidious comparisons
that Steele was unable to suppress a smile of sympathy.  Her criticism
of her brother was wanting in loyalty; but he could find in his heart no
blame for her: he did not like William, possibly because William had so
pointedly refrained from extending further hospitality to him.  The
young man had counted on an extension, and was disappointed.

"You'll shake the dust off your feet some day," he hazarded, and thought
how agreeable it would be to assist in the escape.  Visions of scorching
across country in a motor with her beside him floated pleasantly through
his brain.

"Some day," she returned a little vaguely, and looked pensively into the
distance.  "Yes, I'll do that...  But it's so difficult to find a way."

"Time will solve that difficulty, I expect," he said.

She glanced towards him brightly, a look of expectant eagerness shining
in her eyes.  He felt that when the opportunity offered she would not be
slow in seizing it, and was unreasonably angry at the thought of his own
uncertain prospects, which offered not the faintest hope of his ever
being able to hire, much less own, the necessary car in which to scorch
across country with anyone.

"You say such nice, encouraging things," she observed.  "I hope time
won't be long in solving the difficulty.  It would be horrid to be
forced to live here until I am middle-aged."

"I'm afraid you will be disappointed when you get out into the world,"
he said.  "Life is pretty much the same elsewhere as here, I take it.
It is what we make it--largely."

"It is what other people make it for us--largely," she mimicked him.  "I
could have quite a good time if I was allowed to.  When Bobby is home we
do contrive a little fun, but it generally ends in disaster.  They sent
him back to school a week before term commenced once.  Agatha managed
that.  It is always Bobby who reaps the blame; I am punished
vicariously."

"I call that vindictive," Steele said.

"We called it that--and other things."  She smiled reminiscently.  "It's
odd how these little things stick in the memory.  I never sew without
recalling that exasperating week when I broke needles maliciously six
days in succession.  I break them occasionally now--in memoriam."

He laughed aloud.

"I don't fancy Miss Graynor gets it all her own way," he said.

Prudence swung her hat by the brim and gazed up at a patch of blue sky
between the trees.  A little frown puckered her brow.  She had ceased to
think of Agatha; her mind was intent on the man beside her, the man who
was merely a new acquaintance and yet seemed already a tried and
sympathetic friend.  She liked him.  She wished he were staying longer
in Wortheton.  She wished William had invited him to spend his last
evening at Court Heatherleigh.  Strictly speaking, courtesy demanded it;
but William was not always courteous.  She held a well-founded belief
that William sought to punish her by this omission; and it pleased her
to reflect that she was in a sense getting even with him through the
present informal meeting.  She promised herself the satisfaction of
relating her morning's experience at lunch for his and Agatha's
delectation.  They so entirely disapproved of such harmless pleasures.

"If you've really nothing to do," she said, "let us go for a stroll in
the woods.  It's lovely there; and we can talk...  I feel like a recluse
enjoying an unexpected holiday: I want to make the most of it.  And I
love to talk."

"So do I--with some people," he returned in his level, pleasant voice,
and lent her a hand to assist her down from the stile.  "It's as well to
be hung for a sheep as a lamb, don't you think?  Why not enlarge on the
idea?  I know a shop where we can procure quite edible pasties.  If you
are agreeable, I could fetch provisions, and we can picnic in the
woods."

"But that's a capital idea," said Prudence, with a careless disregard
for developments, which further evidenced the emancipation Miss Agatha
already foresaw.

"There'll be such a row," she said cheerfully, as they walked across the
fields side by side.  "It was just such another excursion that Bobby was
sent back to school for."

"For a little thing like that!"  He laughed.  "Well, they can't send me
back to school anyhow, and I have a comfortable feeling in my mind that
you'll be able to keep your end up.  Miss Graynor would be wise to
recognise that her day is done.  I'll return with you and take my share
of the censuring.  With luck I might be asked to stay to tea."

This audacity amused them both.  There was gladness in the spring day,
the gladness of irresponsible youth, the gladness of life in its promise
with the hope of its fruition unfulfilled and undaunted.  The two gay
young hearts, in their mutual pleasure in one another, were in tune with
the brightness of the May morning; and the two gay young voices rang out
in clear enjoyment and awoke the echoes in the shady woods.

CHAPTER SIX.

It detracted somewhat from Prudence's enjoyment when, having lunched
delightfully off viands which would have met with less favour eaten off
a plate from an ordinary dining-table, having subsequently strolled
about the woods, engaged in botanical and other research, it abruptly
occurred to her that it was time to return home.  The thought of going
home was less pleasant with the prospect so imminent.  Picnicking in the
woods with a comparative stranger was, she felt now, a sufficiently
unusual proceeding to make explanation difficult.  Neither Agatha nor
her father would view the matter in the light in which she saw it--
simply as a pleasant excursion breaking the monotony of dull days.  The
necessity to account for her absence at all annoyed her.

"The drawback to stolen pleasure," she announced, regarding the young
man with serious eyes in which a shade of anxiety was faintly reflected,
"lies in the aftermath of nettles; while not dangerous, they sting."

"By Jove! yes," he agreed.  "The little matter of going back has been
sitting on my mind for the last ten minutes.  The thing loses its humour
when no longer in the background.  I'm really horribly afraid of Miss
Graynor."

"You need not come," said Prudence generously.

"Oh!  I'm not so mean a coward as to back out," he said.  "It's up to me
to see it through with you.  After all, the excursion was at my
suggestion.  And it was worth being stung for by all the nettles that
ever grew.  Besides, I want my tea."

"You'll be lucky if you get it," she returned.

"Come now!" he urged.  "Let us take a charitable view, and decide that
they will dispense generous hospitality.  Upon my soul, I don't see why
they shouldn't be charmed to receive us.  The Prodigal, you know, got an
amazing reception."

"Yes," she laughed.  "I think possibly we'll get an amazing reception
too.  Please, if you don't mind, I would rather you took that dead
flower out of your coat."

"They would never suspect you of putting it there," he protested, with a
feeling of strong reluctance to do what she proposed.

But Prudence insisted.  She knew that when William's eye fell on that
withered memento her guilty conscience would give him the clue to its
history.

"In any case," she added diplomatically, "it adds a look of untidiness."

And so the primrose never had the opportunity of lifting its head in
water.  Before discarding it, Steele was seized with the idea of placing
it between the leaves in his pocket-book; but after a glance at the
pretty, serious face of his companion he decided against this and left
the dead flower lying in the bracken at their feet.

"The first brush against the nettles," he remarked, and smiled at her
regretfully.  "I'm braced now.  That first sting hurt more than any
other can."

The further stings proved embarrassing rather than hurtful.  When Steele
entered the drawing-room at Court Heatherleigh with Prudence he was made
uncomfortably aware of the surprised gaze of five pairs of curious
feminine eyes all focussed upon himself, and, advancing under this
raking fire, felt his amiable smile of greeting fade before Miss
Agatha's blank stare of cold inquiry; her reluctantly extended hand, its
chill response to his clasp, reduced him to a state of abject humility.
He found himself stammering an apologetic explanation of his presence.

"I just looked in to say good-bye," he began awkwardly.  "I had the good
luck to meet Miss Graynor this morning--"

"I presume you mean that you encountered my sister, Prudence?"  Miss
Graynor interrupted him frigidly.

He flushed, and felt savage with himself for being betrayed into the
weakness.

"I met Miss Prudence--yes, and persuaded her to show me the woods.  You
have some very beautiful scenery about here; it seemed a pity to miss
the best of it, and this was my last opportunity.  I made the most of
it," he added with a touch of audacity which Miss Agatha inwardly
resented.

"We've had a delightful time," Prudence interposed defiantly, and turned
as her father entered the room and forestalled his reproaches with a
light kiss on his unresponsive lips.  "I've been picnicking in the
woods, daddy," she said brightly.  "And now we've come back--for tea."

She made this announcement in the tone of a person who does not intend
to be denied.  Miss Agatha remarked tartly that it was not the hour for
tea, and Mr Graynor, ignoring the hospitable suggestion, reproved her
for her long absence.

"You caused me considerable anxiety," he said.

Prudence expressed her contrition.  Steele added his apologies, although
in his heart he felt there was nothing in the adventure to apologise
for.

"I am afraid the fault was mine," he said.  "The suggestion originated
with me.  I was thoughtless enough to overlook the fact that you might
be worried."

"The thoughtlessness was on my daughter's side," Mr Graynor answered.
"She is fully aware that her absence from luncheon would cause anxiety.
She should have invited you to return with her instead."

Prudence flashed a surprised smile at him.  To have done what he
proposed was the last thing she would have dared to do.  Had she given
the invitation she would have been reproved quite as severely for taking
the liberty as for absenting herself without permission.  The privilege
of independent action involving promiscuous hospitality was vested
solely in Agatha and William.

Matters appeared to have reached a deadlock.  Steele had nothing to say!
Prudence had nothing to say!  Miss Agatha had no desire to help the
situation by bridging the silence; and Mr Graynor had nothing further
to add to his reproof.  He seated himself.  Since Miss Agatha remained
standing Steele had no option but to do the same: he felt increasingly
awkward, and wished he had taken advantage of Prudence's permission and
remained out of it.

"Sit down, sit down," exclaimed Mr Graynor suddenly, with an accession
of ill-humour as he became aware of the general strain.  "Why is every
one standing?"

His intervention scarcely relieved matters.  Steele said he thought he
must be going, and murmured something about an early start on the
morrow; he had merely called to make his adieux.  Miss Agatha's prompt
acceptance of this explanation for the brevity of his visit was not
flattering; but Mr Graynor, awakening tardily to a sense of the lack of
cordiality, protested against his leaving so hurriedly.

"William will be in presently," he said.  "You had better wait and see
him.  And we'll have tea.  I see no object in deferring tea, Agatha,
until a given hour."

"Prudence," Agatha commanded, "ring the bell, please."

Steele attempted to forestall the girl; their hands touched as each
reached out to press the button.

"Oh, Lord!" he murmured under his breath, and caught her eye and smiled
dryly.  "It will require something more efficacious than dock leaves to
counteract these nettles."

She drew back without replying, but her face was charged with meaning,
and he detected the hidden laughter in her eyes.  It was well for her,
he decided, that she could find anything to laugh at in the dismal
situation; for himself he would gladly have escaped and sacrificed the
tea; a whisky and soda would have suited him better at the moment.

The tea, when it came, caused little unbending, but it provided a
legitimate excuse for moving from Miss Agatha's side, and it gave him an
opportunity for a few minutes' talk with Prudence, a disjointed,
embarrassed talk under the close observation of the rest.  Steele was
conscious of those watchful eyes, of the listening hang in the
conversation when he approached the girl.  Prudence also was conscious
of this silent manifestation of vigilant criticism on the part of her
family; but she had reached a stage of recklessness which moved her to
openly disregard the condemnation in Agatha's eyes when Steele, having
handed the cake to her, remained beside her for a few minutes, and held
her in conversation.

"I have been reconsidering what you said in the wood," he observed,
"about the influence of others in regard to the enjoyment of life.  You
were entirely right."

"Given the opportunity, I knew I could prove my case," she answered with
the same amount of caution in her tones as he had used.  "But you
mustn't talk to me now, please; I'm in disgrace."

"So am I," he replied.  "I wonder if you will be looking out of a window
to-night?"

"I expect so."

"I prowl about most nights," he said, and scrutinised her face intently
to observe the effect of his words.

"I know.  I've seen you."

"It is regrettable," he remarked, "that the upper story of a private
house is usually inaccessible.  Won't you have another piece of cake?
No!  Miss Matilda, may I fetch you some tea?"

The maidenly breasts of the four Miss Graynors, who were pale
reflections of their eldest sister, were pleasantly stirred by Steele's
punctilious courtesy.  They were envious of their young half-sister,
whose temerity had led her into the indiscretion of spending an entire
morning in the society of a member of the opposite sex.  It does not
follow that a life which has known no romance is innocent of romantic
aspirations.  Miss Matilda, spare and prim and slightly grey,
experienced a vague sense of loss and of resentment against her single
state when she met Steele's smiling, youthful eyes, and reflected that
no man's glance had ever rested upon herself with that look of pleased
interest which she observed in Steele's face whenever it was turned in
Prudence's direction.  Prudence, of course, was pretty and young.  Miss
Matilda's girlhood lay behind her, but it had known none of the delights
that her virgin heart longed for in the secret chamber which she seldom
unlocked even for her own inspection.  The emotions that lay concealed
there were unbecoming in a modest woman whose function it was to be
pious and dutiful in the acceptance of her lot.

It was possibly due to these hidden emotions that Steele found Miss
Matilda's society less depressing than her sister's, and he clung to it
tenaciously until the entrance of brother William assigned him as by
right to the position of audience to the ponderous conversation of this
man of limited intelligence and no humour.  William would have failed to
understand that a man, even when young, would rather talk with a woman
than be talked to by himself.  The manner in which his sisters effaced
themselves in his presence was a tribute to, as well as a recognition
of, his masculine superiority.  It was the want of a proper appreciation
on his youngest sister's part in this respect that so frequently made it
necessary for him to assert his dignity before her.  He was angry with
her now, and he passed her with his face averted, righteous indignation
in his frown and in the set of his shoulders.  Steele felt that it would
be a pleasure to kick him; but when he detected the mischievous
wickedness in Prudence's eyes, William's dignity became a matter for
amusement rather than annoyance; the man was so obviously an ass.

"The weather," William observed, as he took his tea, waited on by two of
his sisters despite Steele's efforts to relieve them, "shows signs of
breaking.  The barometer has fallen."

"The country needs rain," Miss Agatha remarked in tones of satisfaction.

And for the next few minutes the advantages of a good downpour and the
benefit therefrom to the garden as well as to the farmers, was discussed
in detail: the watering of the borders, it transpired, fully occupied
the gardener's time each evening as a result of the dry spell.

Bored beyond measure, Steele took an abrupt leave, and declining
William's invitation to take a stroll round the grounds in his company,
seized his hat and fled.

"She'll never stick it," he reflected, as he banged the gate and hurried
away down the road like a man pursued.  "She can't.  She'll do a bunk,
one day.  I would in her place."

And Prudence, defenceless in the drawing-room, meeting the brunt of
William's anger, and the reproaches of the others, determined in her
rebellious soul that if release did not come in some legitimate form
before she was twenty-one, she would on acquiring that age obtain it for
herself.

CHAPTER SEVEN.

The moonlight fell softly on Prudence's bright hair, touching the curls
lovingly with a wan brilliance that, paling their shining gold, added a
purer sheen to replace the beauty stolen by the night.  Its light was
reflected in the blue depths of her eyes, eyes which took on the misty
darkness of the night sky so that the moonbeams felt at home therein and
lingered there confidingly.  She leaned far out of the window, and the
fragrance of some early gloire de Dijon roses was wafted towards her on
the night breeze.  A scent besides that of the roses stole up to her out
of the shadows--the scent of cigarette smoke, too close under her window
to suggest that the smoker was beyond the wall that shut off the garden
from the road.  Prudence had watched the smoker enter the garden; she
watched him now throw away his cigarette among the flowers in one of the
borders as he advanced, and she heard his voice speaking softly to her
out of the gloom.

"Can't you come down?" he asked.

"Not unless you have come provided with a rope ladder," she replied as
softly.

"By Jove!  I never thought of that.  But you aren't locked in?"

"Not in the sense you mean.  But locked doors would be trifles compared
with the opposition I should encounter if I attempted to join you.  I'd
love to come out; but it's impossible."

"Is there any likelihood of our being overheard?" he asked with caution.

Prudence laughed quietly.

"Every likelihood," she answered.  "I don't think I mind."

Steele stood under cover of the wall of the house.  There were no lights
in the windows on that side; he had observed that on former occasions;
the library, where Mr Graynor sat every evening with William, faced the
other way.

"Then I'm going to run the risk and stay and talk with you," he said.

There was a strange intimacy in the situation that appealed to Prudence.
The adventure of the morning was as nothing compared with this stolen
interview.  The insufficient light of the moon, and the distance which
divided them, added a touch of romance which she found pleasantly
exciting.  To gaze down upon his upturned face and the uncertain outline
of his form below stirred her imagination; and the necessity for
caution, occasioning them to lower their voices to whispers, gave to the
utterance of the most trivial speech the flavour of intimate things.
She leaned down nearer to him.

"It's rather like Romeo and Juliet, isn't it?" she said.

"That ended rottenly," he replied, and laughed.

"So will this probably.  What made you venture inside?"

"Isn't the reason obvious?" he returned.  "I thought I had prepared you
for my visit at tea.  It wasn't possible for us to say good-bye like
that.  I'm sorry I got you into that mess."

"You didn't," Prudence assured him gently.  "I knew how it would be.
I'm not regretting--anything.  Stinging nettles cease to hurt when the
rash subsides.  William is furious.  We don't speak."

"That must be rather a relief for you."

She dimpled suddenly.

"He doesn't think so.  When I apologise I am to be taken into favour
again.  So, if he keeps to that, it is likely to be many years before we
interchange remarks."

"What an egregious ass he is," Steele commented.  "Never mind that now.
We don't want to discuss him.  I came to-night to beg a favour.  Will
you write to me sometimes? ... and may I write?  I don't want to lose
touch altogether."

"I can't promise that," she said, and fingered a rosebud below her
window, snapping its stem in nervous preoccupation.  "All our letters go
into a box at the post office and are sorted before we receive them.
They would not allow me to correspond with you."

"Could we not arrange a little deception," he suggested, "by means of
which you could collect your own letters from the post office?"

But this idea did not commend itself to Prudence.  She might be a rebel,
but she was honest, as courageous people usually are; anything in the
nature of deceit repelled her.  "I should not care to do that," she
said.  Her answer pleased Steele, although it defeated his purpose.  He
had hoped to follow up this pleasant friendship begun under such unusual
and difficult conditions.  It was the quality of conspiracy and quick
intimacy which made the acquaintance so extraordinarily attractive to
him.  He was more than half in love with her already; and it galled him
to reflect that with his present uncertain prospects he was no match for
this daughter of a wealthy man.  He could not have afforded to marry had
other conditions proved favourable, which they did not: Mr Graynor
would scarcely have welcomed a son-in-law with a salary of under two
hundred a year.

"I am afraid that settles it," he said in tones compounded of a mixture
of emotions.  "I wonder if ever I'll have the good luck to meet you
again?"

This remark pulled Prudence up sharply.  She had never considered the
question of his going out of her life; the suggestion thus forced on her
unwilling attention hurt.  Abruptly the knowledge came to her that she
did not wish to lose his friendship.  She had not considered the matter
of his going away seriously: she had taken it for granted that the
business that had brought him to Wortheton would bring him again; no
doubt had crossed her mind as to a further meeting--now that the doubt
was implanted a vague distress seized her, bringing with it a sense of
desolation.  She realised that when he was gone she would miss him,
would feel doubly lonely by comparison with this bright break in the
monotony of her life.

"You'll come again?" she said quickly.

"It's possible," he answered, "but not in the least likely.  It was just
a chance that brought me this time.  The firm sends a more important man
as a rule.  If I come again you will soon know of it.  I shall make my
first appearance under your window.  In the meanwhile you will quite
possibly have forgotten my existence."

"Amid the distractions of Wortheton!"  Prudence retorted.  "That's very
probable, isn't it?"

He laughed.

"I won't hear a word against Wortheton if it keeps your memory green,"
he returned.

"It fossilises memory," she answered.  "Every little event that has ever
befallen is stamped on my mind in indelible colours--drab colours for
the unpleasant event, and brighter tints for the pleasant in comparison
with their different degrees of agreeableness."

"And this event?" he questioned.  "These stolen moments?  In what colour
is this event painted?"

"I'll tell you that when we meet again--perhaps," she answered.

"Oh please!" he persisted.  "I want to know now."

Prudence laughed softly.  He detected a slight nervousness in her mirth,
a quality of shyness that gratified his eager curiosity, conveying as it
did that the girl was not insensible of his influence and his unspoken
homage.

"You see," she said, and blushed warmly in the darkness as she leaned
down towards him, "it is all a confusion of splashes of moonlight and
brighter splashes of sunshine.  There aren't any colours on the canvas
at all."

"I'm contented with that," he said... "a luminous impression!  Your
fancy pleases me.  My fancy in connexion with you will picture always a
rose-bowered window set in a grey stone wall--just a frame for you, with
your moonlit hair and eyes like beautiful stars.  Always I shall see you
like that--inaccessible, while I stand below and gaze upward."

This extravagance led to further admissions.  He managed very clearly to
convey to his silent listener that his feeling for her was of quite an
unusual quality, that he cared immensely, that he had no intention of
letting her drop out of his life.  He wanted to see more of her and was
fully determined to do so.  He made her realise that unless she
disclaimed a reciprocal liking he intended taking her silence for
acquiescence.  He spoke so rapidly, and with so much concentrated
passion in his lowered tones, that Prudence only vaguely comprehended
all that his eager words attempted to convey.  She was apprehensive of
discovery, and, rendered doubly nervous by this clandestine love-making
and the fear of interruption, could find no words in which to reply.
She wanted time to think: the whole situation flurried her; and her
heart was beating with a rapidity that made articulation difficult.

"Oh!" she said...  "Oh!  I didn't know...  I didn't understand..."

"Well, you understand now," he answered.  "Prudence, give me one word--
one kind word to carry away with me... dear!"

There followed a pause, during which her face showed dimly above him,
with eyes shadowed darkly in the wan light.  She leaned towards him.

"Ssh!  Good-bye--dear!" she called back softly.  And the next thing he
realised, even as her words floated faintly down to his eager ears, was
that he was standing alone in the darkness, gazing up at the place where
she had stood and from whence she had vanished with startling and
unaccountable suddenness.

Later Steele walked back to the quaint little hotel where he was
staying, confused by the hurried sweetness of her farewell as she
withdrew from her position at the window with a caution that suggested
unseen interruption.  He had stepped forward with noiseless haste to
secure a rose which fell from her window, and carrying it with him, made
his way silently out of the garden.  He was never certain whether the
falling of the rose had been accidental, or whether Prudence had dropped
it for him as a token and a reminder; but because her hand had gathered
it, he lifted it in the moonlight and touched its cool fragrance
reverently with his lips.  The act made him consciously her lover.  The
rose became a symbol--a bond between him and her.  Just so long as he
kept it he knew that her influence would dominate his life, and his
memory of her retain its warm and vital quality, so that she would
remain a beautiful inspiration amid the sordid worries of uncongenial
things.

CHAPTER EIGHT.

"I heard you," Miss Matilda said in tones of immense reserve to her
youngest sister on the following morning when they met on the landing at
the top of the stairs, "talking from your window last night."

Prudence blushed brightly.

"Then it was you who came to my door?"

"Yes."  Miss Matilda kept her maidenly gaze lowered to the carpet.  Her
expression was guilty, so that one might have supposed that she, and not
the defiant young woman whom she accosted in this unexpected way, had
engaged in clandestine whisperings overnight.  "I was afraid Mary might
wake.  You were a little imprudent, I think."

Prudence laughed.  The gently spoken reproof sounded like a play on her
name.

"You are a dear," she said, and felt more kindly towards this sister
whom she so little understood.

Had Miss Matilda proved less pliant to Miss Graynor's moulding she might
have developed into an ordinary human being; but she had gone down under
Miss Agatha's training, had imbibed the family traditions until she
became saturated with the Graynor ideals and lost her own individuality.
In her heart she sympathised with her sister's indiscretions; but her
mind condemned this conduct as unseemly and unbecoming in a girl of
refinement.

She went downstairs in advance of Prudence, and throughout the reading
of the morning prayers her pink distressed face witnessed to its owner's
shame in being a partner to this flagrant deception.  She was shielding
her sister against her conscience: no accessory to a criminal offence
could have felt more wickedly implicated.  And Prudence did not care.
She was so utterly reckless that she had not bargained even with Miss
Matilda for her silence.  It had not occurred to Prudence that anyone
could be mean enough to inform against her.

With the finish of breakfast Miss Agatha commanded her presence in the
morning-room, and provided her with sufficient work to occupy her fully
until the lunch hour; and Prudence sat near the open window with her
sewing in her lap and looked out on the garden with faintly smiling
eyes, recalling the overnight interview while she watched the gardener a
few yards off trimming a border of wallflowers which since the previous
day had been trampled upon inexplicably.

"It must have been a dog from outside, Simmonds," Miss Agatha remarked
from her position at the window.

Simmonds, stooping over the despoiled border, presented an
uncompromising back to her view.  He grunted something, of which the
only word that Miss Agatha caught was "tramps."

"In that case," she said with decision, "it is a matter for the police."

The smile in Prudence's eyes deepened, and Miss Matilda's downbent face
took on a brighter shade of pink.  There is no end to the embarrassment
which follows upon duplicity.

Luncheon brought William and a further sense of enormity.  William
appeared somewhat obviously not to see his youngest sister; she had
become, since answering him with unpardonable rudeness in the
drawing-room yesterday, amazingly invisible to him.  That he was aware
of her presence was manifest by the care with which he avoided looking
in her direction, and by the calculated offensiveness of his speech in
referring to the absent Steele.

"I am glad to say that bounder Steele left by train this morning," he
announced with unpleasant emphasis, as soon as the usual attention to
his buttons, which allowed for a more expansive ease, left him free to
indulge in the amenities of the table.  "I hope Morgan won't send a man
like that again."

"Edward Morgan usually comes himself," Mr Graynor observed.  "But for a
touch of bronchitis he would have come.  He is subject to chest
trouble."

"Well, of course," said Prudence, with the sisterly intention of
annoying William who was senior to Mr Morgan, "he is getting old."

Edward Morgan was the man who, with heavy playfulness, had pulled her
curls in the days of her childhood.  Despite the fact that she rather
liked him, she looked upon him as almost elderly; he had seemed to her
elderly at thirty.

"Don't be absurd," interposed Miss Agatha sharply.  "Mr Morgan is in
the prime of life."

Although he would have enjoyed the business of squashing her, William,
in his determination to ignore Prudence's existence, was compelled to
let the remark pass unchallenged.  He addressed himself pointedly to his
father on matters appertaining to the works, while the five Miss
Graynors interchanged commonplaces, and Prudence was left to the
satisfying of a healthy young appetite, and her own reflections, which,
judging from her expression of pleasant abstraction, were more
entertaining than the scrappy conversation to which she paid no
attention.

At the finish of the meal Miss Agatha created a diversion by requesting
William to call at the police station to report that tramps had been
loitering on the premises and had made havoc of the flowers in the
borders.  William required to be shown the borders, which he inspected
with an air of pompous vexation, describing the damage as scandalous and
an outrage, to the secret amusement of his youngest sister, who observed
him critically from the French window of the drawing-room, which looked
upon the borders in question.  William was aware of her presence and of
the smiling impertinence of her glance.  It may have been the sight of
her standing there in her scornful indifferent youth that accounted for
the connecting thought which caused him to lift his eyes with swift
suspicion to the window above the despoiled bed.  Prudence, intercepting
the upward glance, felt her cheeks suddenly aglow.  For the first time
since their disagreement he looked her fully in the face; then, with a
change of expression that was a studied insult, he looked away.

"I don't think it is the work of a tramp," he said.  "But I will inform
the police.  If anyone is caught loafing about the premises I'll run him
in."

And Prudence, gazing upon the outraged dignity of his retreating back,
laughed with considerable enjoyment.

"If only he could see how ridiculous he looks!" she mused, and stepped
out upon the path, and gathered a wallflower head, which with an air of
bravado she pinned in the front of her dress.

She regretted that she could not write to Steele and inform him of the
havoc he had wrought and the distress this caused the family.  She wrote
instead to Bobby, describing in detail the whole surprising event of
Steele's visit and its result; and Bobby, whose letters she was
permitted to receive uncensored, commented briefly upon the episode and
added that he would jolly well like to punch the fellow's head.  Bobby's
incipient jealousy was always taking fire when anyone loomed on
Prudence's horizon with a prominence which threatened to eclipse his own
popularity; and this matter of Steele, it occurred to him while reading
Prudence's frankly worded enthusiasms, was more serious than anything
that had transpired hitherto in the youthful experiences of his aunt.
There was just sufficient Graynor blood in his veins to excite
resentment in him at the thought of Prudence hanging out of the window
to talk with any fellow in the night; but he was wise enough not to put
that on paper.  His want of sympathy, however, disappointed Prudence.
For the first time in her life she caught herself wondering whether
there was a latent possibility for Bobby of development upon his uncle's
lines.  But she put this idea aside as absurd; Bobby was the son of his
father, and his father had flung off the family yoke early, and gone
away and married a penniless girl of no family, and never repented.
That was what Prudence admired most in him, that he had never solicited
the forgiveness which was not voluntarily extended.  That was how she
would act in similar circumstances.

When in due course Bobby came home for the summer vacation, Prudence
made a strange discovery; she could not, she found, discuss Steele with
him.  It had been easy to write, with the excitement of the experience
fresh in her memory, of the pleasure of Steele's visit and the stresses
that ensued; but in the interval she had thought much about Steele, and
missed him increasingly; and now she found it not only difficult but
impossible to speak of him without constraint and a certain shyness
foreign to her nature and oddly disconcerting.  When Bobby referred to
the fellow she had written to him about, she disposed of the matter
briefly.

"Oh, that!" she said.  "That's ancient history.  Lots of duller things
have happened since and put that in the background."

"The new curate!" suggested Bobby, grinning.  "The chap who is
fluttering the dovecots on account of his being unmarried.  You devoted
several letters to him, I remember.  What's he like?"

"He's a little man in a big coat and a big hat," she answered.  "What
can be seen of him is quite nice, but it isn't much.  There must be a
brain of sorts under the hat, but it's little too.  His chief
idiosyncrasy is that he fancies himself all brain.  Mrs North is trying
to marry her daughter to him."

"And he prefers you," commented Bobby... "naturally."

Prudence smiled wickedly.

"He says it is the duty of a curate with only his stipend to depend upon
to marry a woman of independent means.  I think myself he will marry
Matilda.  He would like to belong to the family; the factory attracts
him."

"Money-grubbing little worm!" said Bobby, who was barely a year younger
than Prudence and presumed on that account to set aside her more
responsible relationship.  "I wish he would marry Aunt Agatha.  That
would be something of a lark."

"Poor little man!" said Prudence.  "He's not so impossible as all that.
And he is horribly afraid of her.  She makes him stammer."

Bobby laughed outright.

"We're all horribly afraid of her.  That's the funny part of it.  And
yet, you know, if one turned round and cheeked her she'd crumple up.
I'll do it one day."

Prudence regarded him with increased respect.

"I hope I'll be there," was all she said.

CHAPTER NINE.

Bobby made the acquaintance of the curate very soon after that talk.
They met for the first time at the vicarage garden party, which,
according to an invariable rule, was held on Mrs North's birthday.
This enabled the vicar's wife to display her birthday gifts, exciting by
their numerical strength rather than their quality envy in the breasts
of those guests less favoured in the matter of tokens of esteem on the
important day which by right of precedent we appropriate to ourselves,
and causing embarrassment to the more neglectful of her visitors by this
reminder of a custom ignored.

She made little self-depreciatory remarks in displaying these absurd
articles, which wore in most instances an appearance of having come from
some bazaar stall and a dejected air of expectation that eventually they
would return thither by reason of their uselessness, and be sold and
resold at extortionate prices for charitable ends.

When one tired of viewing the gifts one wandered about the garden and
admired the flowers, and a few of the younger people played tennis.  The
vicar hovered on the outskirts and smiled with remote affability upon
every one.  He discussed eighteenth century art with anyone who would
listen to him.  He claimed to be an authority on eighteenth century art,
and possessed a few pictures which he had dug out of second-hand
dealers' shops and bought for a trifle on account of their doubtful
authenticity.  He led the way triumphantly to his study where these
treasures were hung, and discoursed learnedly on Humphreys, and other
artists of that period, while he showed his canvasses to a listless,
uninterested, and uninformed audience, who had seen most of them before.
One crude portrait, that resembled a bad imitation of the Hamilton, he
pronounced to be a Romney.  No one believed him.  It is doubtful whether
he believed it himself; the dealer who had sold it to him had lied
without conviction.  But the possession of even a questionable Romney
afforded him a sense of artistic importance.  His collection was, he
asserted, very valuable.  He had insured it for a figure which would
have tempted many people to the mean crime of arson: there were moments,
when the vicar was harassed and the Easter offering had proved
disappointing, when he gazed upon this comfortable asset lining his
walls and decided that if Providence saw fit to raze his dwelling to the
ground he would bear his loss with Christian fortitude and take a
holiday abroad on the proceeds.

Bobby, as one of the younger guests, enjoying also the doubtful
privilege of being one of the two bachelors of the party--the other
being the curate--was spared a review of the pictures and carried off to
the tennis court by Mable North and several middle-aged spinsters, who
cheated themselves into the deception that because romance had not been
met in their youth, youth lay before instead of behind them, and saw in
every unattached male a suppliant for their favour or an object for
their womanly sympathy.  Why country parishes beget these women remains
an unsolved problem, but that they do beget them is very certain--women
who cherish sickly sentimentality beyond the time for its decent
interment and who look down on their sturdier sisters of a busier
atmosphere as unsexed for putting the impossible aside and seeking a
justification for their existence in an independence apart from these
things.

Bobby played several sets of tennis with various partners of doubtful
efficiency, opposed to the curate with a similar inadequate support who
beseeched him plaintively to take her balls whenever they pitched a yard
from her racket.  And then the two young men insisted upon a rest, and
sat on a bench a little apart from the feminine element and took stock
of one another.  Prudence and a dispirited-looking woman of uncertain
age played a set against Mable North and the Sunday-school lady
superintendent, who was stout and forty and of a practical turn of mind.
She rather preferred playing in a feminine foursome.  The curate had
eyes only for Prudence.  It is doubtful whether he knew who else was on
the court.

"Your cousin is so graceful," he remarked to Bobby in an undertone.  And
Bobby, interrupted in the business of observing the curate's infatuated
glances, brought himself up sharply and allowed his surprised gaze to
follow his companion's.

"My--Oh! my aunt.  Yes, she's ripping, isn't she?"

"The relationship seems so absurd," the curate said, with his eyes on
Bobby's long legs.  "I always confuse it."

"Yes," Bobby agreed.  "I might as well be a grandfather as she my aunt.
There's not a year's difference between us."

He offered his cigarette case to the curate, who declined the invitation
to smoke.

"It is such a mistake to drug the brain," he said.

"It's so difficult," Bobby returned cheerfully, "to know whether one has
a brain to drug."

"Oh!  I don't think anyone can have any doubt about that," the curate
returned seriously.

"No," Bobby agreed.  "It is generally the other people who entertain
doubts."

He lighted himself a cigarette and slipped the case into his pocket.

"Prudence smokes--like a furnace," he added--"whenever she gets the
chance."

Smokes! and surreptitiously!  The curate was horrified.

"You are joking surely?" he said.

"Not much of a joke, when I have to supply the fags."  Bobby looked
amused.  "We have to be mighty close about it.  _I_ am not allowed to
smoke in the Presence."  So he designated Miss Agatha.

"But we moon about the garden at night and enjoy ourselves."

"Well played!" cried the curate enthusiastically, and ignored Bobby's
confidence in his warm admiration for Prudence's spirited return.  "That
was very neatly placed indeed," he said.

"Prudence is a very deceptive player.  She always scores through
trickery," Bobby observed, and watched the effect of this remark on his
disapproving listener.  "Nothing very brilliant about her play, you may
note; but she wins all the time."

"She is so very graceful," the curate said again, as though this quality
was accounted a virtue in his estimation, as probably it was.

"He's an awful ass, Prue," Bobby confided to her later.  "And I've
spoilt your matrimonial chances by telling him you smoke."

Whereupon Prudence laughed sceptically.

"As though I couldn't counteract that by allowing him to convert me from
the evil practice," she said.

"I think you are an abandoned little wretch," Bobby said, and dismissed
the subject.  It was so very evident that the curate as a rival for
Prudence's favour was a negligible quantity.

"Pretty tame, these old tabby meetings," Bobby remarked presently.  "Why
don't they do something in this benighted hole?"

"That's what I am always wondering.  I am looking to you to come home
and wake the place up."

"Paint it red?" he suggested, grinning.

"Paint it any colour, save the drab hues which at present disfigure it.
There isn't any earthly reason why people should remain satisfied to be
so dull.  What are you going to do when you come home to settle?"

"Well, the first thing I shall do will be to marry--in order to get away
from the Court," he replied with decision.  "I refuse to be aunt-pecked
any longer than necessity demands."

"Does that include me?"  Prudence inquired with irony.

"You!  Oh Lord!"  He threw back his head and laughed.  "You can come
along and share my emancipation."

"Thank you."  Prudence's small chin was elevated, her lip curled
disdainfully.  "I shall contrive my own emancipation," she said.

"How?" he asked, suddenly interested.

"By marriage also," she answered, and laughed and broke from his
detaining hand and fled indoors.

Bobby looked after her in perplexity.

"By Jove!  I had forgotten that chap," he reflected, and recalled her
earlier confidences with suddenly awakened suspicion and a mind not a
little disturbed.  He had been joking.  Possibly Prudence had been
joking also.  But Wortheton without her would be a drear hole, he
decided; and Wortheton and the factory were his ultimate and inevitable
lot.

And yet he did not wish her to remain unmarried.  His five spinster
aunts and the unmarried women he had met that afternoon, hovering
hungrily about the little curate, sickened him.  Prudence had no place
in that gallery.  She was altogether too fine and too clever to be
wasted in the narrow seclusion of this life which she led with such
evident distaste.  Of course she would marry and go away.  That was the
chief point; she would go away.  It didn't after all seem to matter who
the fellow was, so long as he was a decent sort of chap and could
provide for her an appreciate her qualities of beauty and intellect.  If
he didn't appreciate her--so Bobby philosophised--it would be a case of
out of the frying-pan into the fire; but whoever it was got into the
flames, the young man felt comfortably assured it would not be Prudence.
She would contrive her emancipation more thoroughly than that.

"I wish I had asked her more about that fellow," he mused.

But he recognised that the time for asking questions was past.

CHAPTER TEN.

"I've been thinking," Bobby remarked one evening to Prudence, when they
strolled up the road together in the dusk, "about our talk the other
afternoon; and I've come to the conclusion that it's not the fault of
the place, it's our own fault, that we find life dull.  One place is
much like another.  Either we want too much, or else we are dull in
ourselves and can't get the enjoyment out of life that is there for our
taking.  That's what I make of it anyhow."

Prudence considered this.

"Possibly I want too much--I think I do," she said after a while.  "And
so do you.  We are the children of our age, Bobby; we've learnt to think
for ourselves; when one begins to think one ceases to accept things
unquestioningly.  I'm alive to my finger tips.  I want to enjoy.  I am
not satisfied merely to exist; a worm does that.  I want to experience
life to the full.  Don't you?"

"I suppose I do," Bobby agreed--"when you put it that way."

Prudence was triumphant.

"There you are, you see.  It's just the way a thing is put.  For the
moment you almost convinced me that the discontent lay in myself, and
now I convince you that there is substantial ground for discontent.  No
one should remain quiet under dissatisfying conditions; we should each
strive for individual liberty.  Youth is the time in which to do things,
and youth passes quickly.  When we are old we cease to strive because
the spirit of adventure leaves us; but the hunger for the things which
we have missed remains.  And that makes us bitter."

"How do you know?" demanded Bobby, with a cynical smile for her youth.

"Know!" she repeated, and faced him, her eyes alight and scornful.  "One
has only to look around and note the disappointed, dull, sour people one
meets; people who have had their chance and missed it, because they
reasoned as you do; people who have not possessed courage or initiative,
but in whose blood the desire for enjoyment has worked as surely as it
works in ours.  Do you suppose Agatha has never wanted to marry and
manage a man and a home of her own?  Do you suppose Matilda doesn't
hunger for children, and Mary for a lover?  Didn't daddy desire love?
He married twice, and the second time at least was not merely a matter
of expediency.  I'm colder perhaps, harder anyway.  I don't want
anything but just to get away from Wortheton and live my own life
independently, and order my days as I please."

Bobby stared at her open-mouthed, bereft in his astonishment of the
power of speech.  Prudence suddenly laughed.

"You old thing!" she cried.  "I've properly scandalised you.  Why do you
set my thoughts working along these lines?  You are just a boy."

"Oh, shut it!" he ejaculated.  "You aren't much older."

"A girl is a lot older than a boy," she said.  "She apprehends life more
fully; your sex, until you are a responsible age, is just out for fun.
But there's a time limit to one's capacity for enjoyment.  In a few
years I shall settle down to the routine, whatever it is that offers;
and if I haven't had my good time, I'll just be a discontented dull
reflection of the others.  I know.  And I'm going to guard against
that."

"But how?" he persisted.  "What do you mean to do?"

"I haven't thought that out," Prudence answered after a moment for
reflection.  "I don't know that I should confide in you if I had."

He smiled at that, and stopped and lighted himself a cigarette.

"I don't care what you do," he said, and added cheerfully: "I only hope
you will have a good time.  You know you're awfully pretty, Prue, and--
and interesting, and all that."

"Am I?"  Prudence laughed again, and there was a note of satisfaction in
her mirth.  "I thank Providence that I am pretty; it makes things
easier.  But if I were plain I should still insist on my good time.  It
doesn't necessarily include the homage of man.  That's a side issue.  It
is sometimes a means to an end, but the end is the thing which matters.
I want my own individual life."

"I don't want any own individual life like that," Bobby confessed in
thoughtful seriousness.  "I want a home of my own, of course, and--a
wife, and all those jolly things."

"At seventeen?" she scoffed.

And then he confided to her that he had met the divinity he hoped to
marry at the home of a school chum.  She was nearly as old as he was,
and she was quite prepared to marry him as soon as circumstances
permitted.  She was a ripping good sort and very high spirited.

"You had better invite her to stay at Wortheton before the ceremony,"
Prudence advised him.  "If that doesn't put her off, you'll be sure of
her genuine affection anyway."

"I'm sure of that now," he returned confidently.

"You've made good use of your time," was all she said.

His words, the ring in his young voice, called up a mental picture of a
strong clear-cut face looking up at her in the uncertain light of a
moonlit night in May.  She felt that somehow Bobby had outdistanced her.

"Here we are," she exclaimed abruptly, "you and I, mooning, as we've
mooned for years whenever the vacation came round.  When we were
children we mooned along and talked of splendid things--the things we
meant to do, the positions we could create for ourselves in a world that
was open and defenceless to our attacks; and now we moon sentimentally
and talk of love instead."

"But that's splendid too," he affirmed with young enthusiasm.

"Is it? ...  I wonder.  I think perhaps it's just a little disappointing
also... moonshine, like the rest."

"Rot!" said Bobby elegantly.  "Something's changed you, Prue--or some
one...  Which?"

"The curate perhaps," Prudence returned flippantly.  "Marriage with him
would not be moonshine exactly, but it would be a trifle dull--just the
distractions which the parish offered, and on Sundays his sermons to
listen to."

"There would be stimulation in the way of jealousy," Bobby suggested
helpfully.  "Think of all those women who work braces for him and lounge
slippers.  You'd have to compete, you know."

"They cease all that when the curates marry," Prudence returned with
disgust.  "If they only kept it up there would be some excitement
offering; but they don't."

She turned and began to retrace her steps.

"Goodness knows how we got on this topic!  Your brain is love-sick,
Bobby, and you're infecting me.  If my memory serves me, there have been
three ideal girls in your life already--and one of them was Mabel
North."

"Oh! that," said Bobby, colouring, "was all rot.  This is the real
thing."

"It's always the real thing till the newer attraction comes along.  You
needn't resent that; it's true not only in your case.  We are unstable
as the waters which start from infinitesimal raindrops and run down in
flood to the sea."

Bobby chuckled.

"Your image doesn't apply aptly to every one," he said.  "One can't
think of Uncle William in connexion with all that broiling strife."

"Oh!"  Prudence made a gesture which conveyed fairly adequately her
contempt for the person referred to.  "Some raindrops form into puddles,
and the puddles cheat themselves into believing that they are the sea,
and ridicule the idea of any expansion beyond their own muddy limits.
William's is a complete little destiny in itself.  And he never suspects
the mud at the bottom because he never stirs it up."

"How can you be sure of that?"  Bobby inquired.  "You are taking it too
much for granted that the old boy's life is lived on the surface.  He
takes his annual holiday."

"Well!" said Prudence, and turned her head and surveyed his grinning
countenance with mixed emotions.  "That's the most evil suggestion I've
heard from you.  I'm not fond of brother William, but I think you ought
to be ashamed of yourself."

He only laughed.

"There's a bit of the old Adam in him as well as in the rest of us, I
imagine," he said, and drew her hand within his arm affectionately.

Thus, walking closely, they pursued their way along the dim country road
which their childish feet had trodden and made familiar in its every
aspect; which knew too the steadier tramp of their adolescent youth, and
which in the near future was to know but seldom the lighter tread of the
girl, whose feet stirred the unconscious dust that in the years ahead
would lie undisturbed by her passing, when, in the pursuance of her
destiny, the confined vista of her childhood, with its sense of security
and dulness, should have become an elusive memory of drab and peaceful
things.

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

With Bobby's return to college, life for Prudence reverted to the old
dreary routine of ceaseless exasperating duties and increasingly
curtailed liberty.  She had a strong suspicion that the sisterly
supervision which she was conscious was being exercised was carried out
at brother William's suggestion.  Although there was no one, with the
exception of the curate, to tempt her to indiscreet behaviour it was
very obvious that she was not trusted to venture abroad without one of
her sisters to chaperon her.

Prudence found this irksome at first, and set herself, sometimes
successfully, to evade their united vigilance; but after one or two
apparently accidental encounters with the curate, who appeared
astonishingly in the most unexpected places and joined her on her stolen
walks, she accepted the new development with a meekness which agreeably
surprised her family, and discomfited the curate.

It was the curate's quietly resolved manner, his air of exaggerated
conspiracy, that drove Prudence to this unusual submissiveness.  She
knew quite well that the little man was making up his mind to propose to
her, and she did not wish to give him the opportunity.  Her decision was
taken abruptly, after meeting him one day on the high road along which
she was walking briskly with her back to the tall chimneys and her face
to the wind and the little village which lay half-way between Wortheton
and the junction town which connected it with the busier world from
which it held aloof.  The curate was cycling from the opposite
direction.  He was due to attend a meeting within the half-hour and had
barely time to arrive at the appointed place; but when he came face to
face with Prudence he alighted nimbly from his machine, and, pulling off
a heather mixture glove, extended an eager hand.  For a moment she
allowed him to hold hers in his grip, and found herself wondering while
she faced him which of his admirers had knitted the gloves for him.
Then she withdrew her hand and remarked, for the lack of something more
interesting to say, that the wind was boisterous.

"Yes," he said; "you have it against you.  Why not face about?  It's a
great help at one's back."

This suggestion Prudence considered artful without being brilliant.  She
had no desire for his company on the return journey.

"I love to feel it in my face," she said.  "And since you prefer it
behind it is well we are travelling in opposite directions."

But the curate was not to be disposed of so easily.  He turned his cycle
and fell into step beside her.  Prudence was taller than he; he was
obliged to look up from under the wide brim of his hat when regarding
her, a reversal of the usual order which occasioned him secret vexation.

"One so seldom gets a chance of seeing you alone," he said.  "I suppose
it is because you are so much younger that your sisters make so much of
you.  They care for you tremendously.  It is beautiful to observe their
devotion."

This view of her family's watchful mistrust as a manifest sign of their
devotion was new to Prudence and afforded her amusement.  She wondered
whether he was altogether sincere in what he said, or if he were
indulging in unsuspected satire.

"I find it a little trying sometimes to be the family pet," she returned
demurely.  "The position is rather like that of the cat of the house
which gets called indoors when it would prefer to remain in the garden.
I wonder myself at times why the cat obeys the summons."

He experienced a little difficulty in following her train of thought.

"It's thinking of the milk, I suppose," he suggested, whereat Prudence
laughed.

"I dare say that explains it--economic dependence explains many
uncomfortable things.  I haven't much sympathy with the domesticated
cat," she added.  "She should ignore the call, and remain in the garden
and eat birds."

"Surely," he said, a little pained, "you wouldn't wish it to do that?
It's so cruel."

"So is eating mutton," she answered flippantly; "but we all do it."

He digested this for a moment, found no adequate answer, and turned the
conversation.

"I was thinking of you as I rode," he said, in tones into which he threw
an inflection of tenderness which she could not fail to detect.  "I
scarcely dared to expect so much happiness as to meet you like this.
You are a tremendous walker.  Do you realise how far you are from home?"

He still hoped to induce her to turn and walk back with him.  He would
be late for his meeting in any case.  He was too mentally flurried to
decide how he should explain the defection: he was not very ready at
invention; but the sight of Prudence's fair indifferent face drove him
to the verge of recklessness; no consideration at the moment was strong
enough to tear him from her side.

"The farther the better," Prudence answered.  "I am walking into the
sunset."  She turned her face to the westering sun and the warm glow in
the sky that lit its declining glory.  "When I turn about I see only the
chimneys; they blot out everything for me."

"But one can't see them from this distance," he insisted, and paused and
looked back to verify his statement.

Prudence smiled faintly.

"I can," she said.  "I see them even in my dreams."

"I think myself they look rather fine," he said.  "The red bricks
against the trees are arresting."

"Yes," she agreed, and smiled at him more directly.  He felt that he had
struck a happy note and was unnecessarily elated.

"All great industries appeal to me," he continued as they walked on
again.  "I'm tremendously interested in the factory--and in the
workpeople.  They are so human and yet simple.  I enjoy working among
them.  And Mr Graynor is so generous.  The workpeople think very highly
of him.  I have been very happy in my labours since coming here."

Prudence, missing the guile in this, looked at him in astonishment.

"Really!" she said.  "You are easily pleased."

"You think so?"  He drew a little nearer to her; his disengaged hand,
hanging at his side, brushed lightly against hers.  "I don't think that
myself.  But you see I have met much kindness here, and--forgive my
saying so--it is such a happiness in itself to know you.  I doubt
whether you understand what a priceless pleasure that is to me."

"It is very flattering of you to say so," Prudence broke in hastily, and
not so much turned the conversation as jerked it into an impersonal
channel.  "Look at that gorgeous splash of red on those clouds.  Isn't
it just as though they were catching fire?"

"Yes," he said in a flattened voice, feeling the rebuff; "it's very
fine."

"Isn't it?  And that warm light on the trees...  You can see it
spreading along the branches.  They're all aglow.  If it could only
last!"

"`The light of the whole world dies when day is done,'" quoted the
curate sentimentally, and gazed in rapt admiration upon her face which
was all aglow too, but owed nothing of its colour to the sunset.  "You
look like one inspired," he added.  "I wish I could sketch you as I see
you now."

Prudence made an impatient movement.

"I don't believe you care a bit for beautiful scenery," she said.

"I do," he assured her eagerly.  "I admire everything beautiful.  I...
Never mind the sunset now.  I'm thinking of you.  I can't think of
anything else.  I want to--"

"Oh!" she interrupted, with a note of sharp relief in her voice, and
turned an embarrassed face in the direction of a solitary pedestrian,
who appeared opportunely round a bend in the road, and slowly advanced,
bearing a bundle in her arms, which at first the girl failed to
recognise for an infant, wrapped in an old shawl.  "There's some one I
want to speak to," she said, and blessed Bessie Clapp for her timely
appearance--"some one I know."

"I'll wait," he said, still resolute though considerably ruffled at the
interruption.

Prudence regarded him frowningly.

"No," she insisted, "you mustn't wait.  I want to see her alone.  I
shall walk back with her."

"That isn't altogether kind," he said--"to dismiss me.  But I may see
you another time?"

He held out his hand and waited.  If he expected a direct answer to his
tentative suggestion, he was disappointed.  Prudence shook hands
hurriedly, murmured a breathless good-bye, and left him to mount his
cycle and ride in unclerical mood to his neglected meeting, where he
accounted for his unpunctuality by confessing to a puncture which he
omitted to explain was caused by a thorn which he had painstakingly
placed in the road and ridden over when a quarter of a mile from the
town.  Which proves what an amount of trouble a conscientious person
will take in the insincere evasion of a direct lie.

Prudence meanwhile advanced to meet the girl in the road.  As the
distance between them decreased she discovered that what the other
carried in her arms was not an inanimate bundle, as she had supposed,
but a little child.  Instantly her interest quickened.  The unexpected
appearance of Bessie Clapp had seemed to her merely opportune at a
moment when any diversion would have been welcome, but the sight of
Bessie with a baby in her arms--presumably her own baby--caught her
attention away from her immediate concerns and brought the other's
affairs into greater prominence.  She had always believed that this girl
had been hardly dealt by, and no one had ever considered it worth while
to enlighten her.  Prudence's sense of justice was in arms, and her
liking for Bessie, whom she had known from childhood, awoke anew at
sight of the beautiful tragic face with its look of passionate
antagonism.  She halted in the girl's path and accosted her with
disarming friendliness.

"I'm so glad to meet you," she said.  "I thought you had left this
neighbourhood altogether."

"There are some as would like to make me leave," said Bessie Clapp, her
dark unsmiling gaze on the fair tranquillity of the younger, happier
face.  "I've been badgered enough.  We'm living in the little village
down over the hill."

"Just five miles away!  And I never knew."  Prudence bent suddenly over
the bundle in her arms.  "Is this your child?" she asked.

"Yes; he's mine."

There was proprietorship but no pride in the admission.  It was
Prudence's hand which pulled the covering away from the tiny face.

"Oh!" she said, and half drew back, and then bent again compassionately
over the ugly little mottled piece of humanity in the beautiful young
mother's arms.  "I've never seen so young a baby before.  What do you
call him?"

"He isn't christened," the sullen voice responded.  "I've no patience
with those silly customs."

"But," began Prudence, and looked perplexed, "he'll have to have a name
of his own some time."

"We call 'im William," the young mother volunteered.  "There's no need
for cold water splashing over that.  If 'e don't like 'is name later on,
'e can change it."

Prudence, steering away from the subject, replaced the shawl over the
little face and impulsively held out her arms.

"Let me carry him," she said.  "I'd love to; and you are tired.  Where
were you taking him?"

"To the farm yonder, among the trees.  I get milk for 'im there.  'E's
been weaned these three weeks."

The exchange from the girl-mother's arms to the younger arms extended
eagerly to receive their burden was effected silently.  Prudence walked
on proudly, bearing her unaccustomed charge with a sense of new
responsibility suddenly acquired.  She loved the feel of the little warm
body against her heart; the nestling pressure of this soft helpless
thing, which lay so confidingly within the shelter of her arms, roused
in her the strong protective maternal instinct which is every woman's
heritage.  In her pity for its puny helplessness she forgot the sense of
shock which the first glimpse of the repellently ugly wrinkled face had
occasioned her, forgot the circumstances of its unfortunate birth, and
the more recent revelation that it had not been received into the
Church, was not in any sense of the term a Christian; she realised only
that she held in her arms that most wonderful of all things, a new
generation; and felt in her heart the warm glow of protective love for
this weak little morsel of humanity, born into an unwelcoming world--a
love child who was denied love.  The unfair conditions of the child's
birth awoke her utmost compassion.  She felt resentful against its
unknown father, against the injustice of the world's judgment, which
throws discredit on maternity rather than on illicit love.  The greatest
crime of this unwedded mother, Prudence recognised, lay in the fact that
she had brought a child into the world.

"He must be a great comfort to you," she said gently.  "A baby makes up
for a lot."

Bessie Clapp laughed harshly.

"Ban't many as think like you," she said.  "They wouldn't agree with you
at Court Heatherleigh."

And Prudence, thinking of Agatha, and Matilda's pink shocked face, of
brother William's austere principles, and her father's cold disapproval
at the mere mention of Bessie's name, could not contradict this.  They
would have been scandalised, and she knew it, could they have seen her
walking with this outcast, and carrying the outcast's baby in her strong
young arms.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

The meeting with Bessie Clapp set Prudence's mind working in new
directions.  She realised, with an immense pity and a growing wonder for
the complexities of human emotions, that this girl, whose motherhood had
come to her in circumstances which the world surrounds with contumely
and disgrace, had no love for the child of her unlawful passion.  She
had allowed Prudence to discover that.  But for the fear of consequent
punishment, she had admitted with bitterness that she would do away with
the baby.  She confessed too to a hatred of its father.

Prudence wondered whether this unnatural dislike for her own offspring
resulted from the shame with which its birth had covered her, or was the
inevitable consequence of the revulsion of feeling which had swept from
her heart every kindly emotion which must have drawn her once towards
the man she now professed aversion for.  The man who had injured her had
a lot to answer for.  If ever it lay in her power to hurt him in return
it was fairly certain that she would not hesitate to use her
opportunity.  The silence which she maintained in regard to his name was
no guarantee of a wish to shield him; it suggested rather a caution
which awaited its hour to strike.

The meeting left Prudence with a feeling of depression.  It did not
decrease her pity, but it lessened her liking for the girl to discover
her attitude of bitter resentment against the helpless mite she had
brought into the world.  And it set her thinking about marriage in a new
light.  Was it possible to cease to love a man one had loved once
passionately?  And could a woman grow to hate the children of a loveless
marriage?  If these matters were beyond the control of human will power,
it seemed that it might be so.  Here was an example of it anyway, though
it might be a bad example.  Until that talk with Bessie Clapp it had
never occurred to Prudence that a woman could dislike her own child.  It
was one of the inexplicable problems of life.

Prudence reached home to discover that she was late.  Miss Agatha met
her in the hall, already dressed for the evening meal, which was the
most important function of the day, and at which no one was expected to
put in a tardy appearance.  Miss Agatha glanced from the warning face of
the great clock at the foot of the staircase to the sweet flushed face
of her young sister, and from thence to her dust-soiled shoes.

"Where have you been?" she demanded.  "Don't you see the time?"

"I'll hurry," Prudence answered.  "It won't take me three minutes to
change.  I've been for a tramp."

"You have a deceitful habit," Miss Agatha admonished her, "of slipping
away from the house without informing anyone.  If you were less selfish
it might occur to you that your sisters would like to accompany you
occasionally.  I can't understand why you prefer to walk alone."

"I shall be late," Prudence said, with her foot on the stair, "if I stay
to go into that now."

And with a rebellious face she ran upstairs, leaving Miss Agatha, aghast
and indignant, looking up from the foot of the staircase after her
vanishing figure.  Prudence was getting altogether out of hand.

"She tramps the country," William affirmed on learning the trouble,
"like a factory girl.  I won't have my sister making herself so
noticeable--mooning about the lanes and hanging over stiles.  It--it
isn't respectable."

"I wish," Miss Agatha said, meanly shifting responsibility, "that you
would put your foot down.  If you were firm she might possibly respect
your wishes.  I can do nothing with her."

"M'm!"  William coughed gently, and assumed an expression which he hoped
conveyed the air of inflexibility he deemed suited to the responsible
position thus conferred on him.  "I'll see to it," he said; and felt
relieved when the gong sounded in advance of Prudence's entry, and so
deferred the moment for exercising his authority.

He was less confident than Agatha that firmness on his part would
produce the result desired.  He had in mind the occasion when he had
insisted upon an apology before the resumption of fraternal relations
with his young sister.  He had maintained a dignified silence until the
thing threatened to become ridiculous, and still the apology had not
been forthcoming: he had been forced to capitulate; and the memory of
that defeat rankled.  But the lesson had been salutary in so far that it
discouraged him from straining his authority to a point whence it
aggravated to open revolt.  Defiance was a quality which defeated
William's statesmanship.

Prudence came running down the stairs as the rest of the family crossed
the hall on the way to the dining-room.

"You ran it pretty close, Prue," her father said, as she took the last
couple of stairs at a jump and landed laughing beside him.  He patted
the little hand she slipped within his arm.

"You are precisely two minutes late," Miss Agatha observed.  "I think
you might have made a greater effort to be punctual."

"I might, of course, have slid down the banisters," Prudence retorted.

"Tut, tut!"  Mr Graynor patted the small hand again in gentle reproof.
"You are tomboy enough without scandalising us to that extent."

Save that he held his head a little higher on passing behind her to his
seat at table, William disregarded her presence, a sign by which
Prudence recognised that she was once again in disgrace.  It occasioned
her therefore something of a shock when William approached her later
during the evening and requested a few minutes of her time.  He had
something of importance, he announced, which he wished to say.  This
request in its unexpectedness deprived her for the moment of breath.
She was attracted by his speech and puzzled.  She found herself
wondering amazedly what kind of confidence William intended to repose in
her.  William found her silence embarrassing; he had expected her to
give him a cue.  He cleared his throat, nervously fingering the
arrangement of his tie.  Prudence began to feel sympathetic.  She
believed he was about to confess to some romantic attachment, although
there was not, so far as she knew, any woman of their acquaintance
likely to inspire sentiment in him.  If William were in love, that might
account for his preoccupation during dinner.

"Please give me your whole attention," he said, which was a superfluous
remark even for a commencement; it was so obvious that he was receiving
what he asked for.  "It is a little difficult for me, a little--ahem!--
embarrassing to say what I wish to say in view of your inexperience."

This confirmed Prudence's suspicion.  She smiled at him encouragingly.

"Oh!  I expect I'll understand," she said kindly.  "It's nice of you to
tell me, anyhow."

He was taken aback, and he showed it.  He had never known Prudence so
amenable before; her attitude discountenanced him slightly.

"I am glad you take so sensible a tone," he returned; "it makes my task
easier.  I do not wish to find fault; your conduct is indiscreet rather
than blameworthy.  You ought to realise that it is not seemly for a
young girl in your position to tear about the country as you do.  I am
not sure that in a factory town it is altogether safe.  In any case it
gets you talked about.  It distresses your sisters; it distresses me.
It lays you open to misapprehension.  Why should you wander about the
roads alone?"

"Oh!  Is that all?"  Prudence's smile had changed in quality; kindliness
made way for irony.  "How do you know I do wander alone?"  William
reddened angrily.

"I should be sorry to insult you by supposing the contrary," he replied
with restrained annoyance.  "No one in this house credits you with being
other than thoughtless.  Your behaviour shows a great want of
consideration for your family."

"It wasn't until to-day that I realised you were all so devoted to me,"
Prudence returned with suspicious meekness.  "I have yet to get
accustomed to that idea.  So much family affection is embarrassing."

"If you are going to adopt that outrageous tone," William observed with
a resumption of dignity, "I have nothing further to say."

"Don't worry about that," Prudence reassured him.  "You haven't left
much unsaid.  You have filled my mind with a lot of new ideas that make
it feel like a rubbish heap.  If the roads are not safe for a girl to
walk along, it is time some one saw to it that they were made so.  As
for being talked about, no one with a decent mind would make matter for
talk where there was none.  Are you quite sure, William, that your own
mind doesn't need a little tidying up?  Your workpeople at least are
your responsibility.  If you have any dubious characters among them,
turn them away--as you turned away Bessie Clapp."

William's face was crimson.  He rose and stood looking down at her with
the look of a man who feels himself deeply insulted.

"You forget yourself," he said.  "How dare you mention that woman's name
to me?"

"I have held that woman's child in my arms to-day," she answered
quietly.  "I think perhaps that gives me the courage."

He bent swiftly and caught her by the shoulder.

"So that's how you spend your time?" he said, staring into her steady
eyes.  He emitted an ugly laugh and pushed her roughly from him.  "A
decent-minded girl would shrink from such contact."

She smiled coldly.

"It is only the decent mind that does not fear these things," she
answered, and turned away from the look in his eyes, which was not good
to see.

It was by a great effort at control that he refrained from striking her.
He spluttered for words.  Confronted with her cool disdain, anger
overcame him.  He felt himself at an immense disadvantage.

"You are impossible!" was all he could find to say.

Prudence, thinking over the scene later, while leaning from her window
with the night wind cooling her heated face, wondered what was wrong
with herself that this spirit of antagonism should flame forth at the
slightest provocation.  Why could she not endure William, and suffer his
little homilies with patience?  Why should Agatha's constant
fault-finding irritate her to the verge of desperation?  If she were
possessed of a vein of humour, she told herself, these things would
merely afford amusement.  But they did not amuse.  They were slowly
souring a naturally sweet disposition.

Big tears welled in the blue eyes, hung for a space on her lashes, and
fell like silver dew upon the rose-leaves beneath the sill--hot tears
that sprang from the well of discontent which had its source in a vain
longing for unattainable things.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

The troubles of youth are none the less real because to riper age they
appear trivial in the retrospect.  In the constant fret against the
irksome restrictions of her life Prudence's sunny nature fought under
unequal conditions, with the result that the sun suffered many an
eclipse.  In one of these depressed moods she wrote to Bobby to the
effect that she felt unequal to holding out until he came home for good,
and that if matters did not improve the desperation of the situation
would drive her to elope with the curate.

"The sole consideration which deters me," she added, "is that Jones is
such an impossible name."

"What's in a name?"  Bobby wrote back airily.  "You're safe, old girl,
if you jib at a little thing like that."

The curate, failing to meet Prudence alone and wearying of being fenced
with, took a mean advantage of her at the annual Sunday-school treat,
and secluding her in a corner of the playing-field with her class of
infants, set the infants running races and came rather abruptly to his
point.

"I love to watch you with little children," he remarked with
disconcerting suddenness.  "You have such a wonderful sympathy with
them."

"I like children," she answered guardedly; and tried to gather the
babies about her; but the curate was throwing sweets for them, and they
preferred scrambling for these to clinging to teacher's hands.  There is
a time for everything.

"So do I," he said, attentively scrutinising her averted face, and
admiring the fine colour in her cheeks which a new quality in his voice
had brought there.  "Children in the home make home beautiful."

He swept the field with his glance, and decided that his chance was
short-lived and might not come again.  He plunged desperately.

"I want to marry," he said, hurriedly, and threw a further quantity of
sweets to the children and turned more directly towards her.  "I have
been waiting so long for an opportunity of saying this to you that you
will forgive me if I seem a little abrupt and choose my time
inopportunely.  I never see you alone now.  You cannot have failed to
observe how deeply in love I am.  You are so sweet and gentle that I
feel you will be kind.  I want a little encouragement."  He paused
expectantly.  "I may go on?" he asked, when she took no advantage of his
hesitation.  "You will give me a little hope?"

Prudence turned her face and met his eyes fully.  There was no
possibility of mistaking his meaning.

"No, please don't," she said.  "I don't want you to say any more.  I
hoped you would see it wasn't any use.  I'm sorry."

The curate although a vain man, had never felt very confident of winning
her.  He wanted her quite urgently; but he was not so deeply in love
with Prudence as he was with himself, and the certainty of defeat
wounded his pride more than it wounded his feelings.  He had no
intention of giving her the satisfaction of being in a position to say
that she had refused him.  He dissembled meanly, congratulating himself
on the clever ambiguity with which he had worded his proposal.

"I am sorry you have formed that opinion," he said, trying to keep the
chagrin he felt from betraying itself in his voice.  "You are so much
with her that I believed you would enjoy her entire confidence, and I
was vain enough to expect a little encouragement.  But I am not going to
accept your opinion as final.  I shall make my appeal to her.  Perhaps I
ought to have done so in the first instance; but a man feels naturally
diffident at these times."

The play of expression on Prudence's face while she listened to his
stilted sentences was remarkable.  He would have been very obtuse if he
believed that he succeeded in deceiving her.  It was very evident that
she apprehended him very clearly.  A little smile hovered about her
mouth when she replied to him.

"If it is Matilda you allude to," she said, with an ambiguity equal to
his own, "I wish you all the success you deserve."

He raised his hat gravely and left her, carrying the bag of sweets with
him, to the manifest disgust of the staring infants; and Prudence,
watching his hurrying little figure making its purposeful way through
the different groups in search of his unconscious quarry, laughed
quietly and without malice, despite his ungenerous effort to humiliate
her.

"Now I shall have a new enemy in my brother-in-law," she reflected.  "He
is marrying the chimneys.  But Matilda will be too grateful to him to
resent that."

Matilda was grateful.  She was sufficiently overcome with the honour
thus conferred on her to satisfy even Mr Jones' colossal vanity.  Mr
Jones accepted his triumph with becoming condescension; to describe his
air as elated would be misleading.  His manner towards his affianced
wife, who was several years his senior, and had never been handsome, was
benevolently patronising.  His courtship was business-like, and free
from those affectations of silly sentiment so unsuited to his calling.
If Miss Matilda regretted the lack of lover-like attentions, she
concealed her disappointment, clinging insistently to the belief that
everything that Ernest did was right and dignified.  It would have been
unbecoming in a clergyman to be demonstrative.

"I used to think," she confessed to Prudence in a moment of rare
confidence, "that it was you he admired.  You remember how he used to
persist in accompanying us on our walks, and how he talked principally
with you?  All the while he was thinking of me.  He told me so.  Isn't
it wonderful?"

"He has the sense," Prudence answered, and kissed the flushed face
kindly, "to realise that you will make the best wife in the world for a
clergyman."

And she thought of Bobby's epithet, "money-grubbing little worm," and
decided that it aptly fitted Ernest.

Bobby chaffed her about the curate, affecting to believe she had
suffered a disappointment.

Prudence did not confide in him the tale of the curate's duplicity;
loyalty to Matilda kept her silent on that subject.  But her wrathful
disgust was roused on the day of Matilda's wedding, when Mr Jones,
claiming the privilege of a brother, caught her unprepared in the hall
and kissed her unsuspecting lips.

"If you ever take such a liberty with me again," she said, white and
angry, "I will make you the laughing-stock of Wortheton."

He assumed an air of dignity while conscious of looking ridiculous.  Her
words, her tone in uttering them, lashed him into a rage of hatred that
cured him finally of any tender thought he had cherished in regard to
her.  He spoke of her later to his wife as ill-mannered and ungentle of
temper, a description which, while holding it to be ungenerous,
occasioned Matilda considerable comfort.  She had felt uneasily jealous
of Prudence at times, even during the days of her brief engagement.  Mr
Jones had shown such predilection for the society of the younger sister
that Matilda, like Leah, was made to realise the humiliating position of
the substitute.  Her faith in his uprightness did not allow of
disbelief; besides which his ill-natured criticism of her young sister
carried conviction; his tone expressed cordial dislike.

"Fuller acquaintance with her reveals her more objectionable qualities,"
he said.  "I believed her to be a nice, simple girl, but she is
certainly not that."

"Prudence is very warm-hearted," Matilda said weakly in defence of the
absent.  "But father spoils her a little."

"He makes a fool of her," was the bridegroom's unclerical retort.

Thus Matilda left the home of her childhood, seated beside her husband
in the carriage which was to take them to the junction, and to the back
of which Bobby, with a sense of the eternal unfitness of things, had
tied one of Matilda's discarded shoes.  Not even the thought of the
comfortable dowry which went with the gentle Matilda had the power to
lighten Mr Jones' lowering countenance during the long drive to the
station, and Mr Graynor had behaved with quite surprising generosity in
the matter of settlements.  The hard ring in Prudence's voice, when she
had threatened to make a laughing-stock of him, the expression of
disgust on her white face, hit his pride hard.  And he dared not offend
her further from the wholly unnecessary fear that she would put her
threat into execution.  He knew that he had paid her marked attention,
and that Wortheton was aware of his preference.  If she chose to spread
tales about him they would not lack credence.

His frown deepened when he felt his wife's gloved hand timidly feeling
for his; then he roused himself with an effort and responded to the
gentle pressure of her fingers.

"It's nervous work getting married," he said, with an uneasy laugh.
"The fuss and the crowd... every one staring.  Phew!"

Matilda sympathised with him; she had felt nervous also.

"I'm glad it's over--oh! so very glad--and happy, dear."

"Blithering ass, isn't he?" was Bobby's cheerful comment, when, turning
from watching the vanishing carriage, he found Prudence beside him,
looking unusually tall and womanly in her bridesmaid's dress of soft
blue, with a hat with cornflowers in it shading her face.  "Come along,
and drink to their connubial bliss in another bumper of champagne."

He filled her glass for her and one for himself.

"Cheer up," he cried, and raising his glass, grinned at her over the
brim.  "There are more Joneses than one in the sea.  You needn't sport
the willow so openly.  It's indecent.  Here's to their health, wealth,
and happiness!  It will be wealth for him, anyway--cute little beast!"

Prudence became aware of her father surveying them from the doorway with
a tired smile on his bored and worried face.  He had slipped away from
his guests, who lingered aimlessly on the lawn, and followed them
indoors.  She persuaded him to take a seat beside her and drink a glass
of his own very excellent champagne.

"It's jolly good stuff.  You did them awfully well, sir," said Bobby
enthusiastically approving.  "We've given Wortheton something to think
about.  It'll be Prue's turn next."

"There's plenty of time for Prudence," Mr Graynor said--"plenty of
time."

He found himself looking at her in her unfamiliar dress, surprised, as
Bobby had been, by the womanliness he realised for the first time.  It
disconcerted him.

"Weddings are a nuisance; they upset the household," he said.  "I wish
all these people would go."

"They are like the wasps," said Bobby; "they'll hang about so long as
the grub's there.  I'll go out and clear them off."

He left the room by the window.  Mr Graynor looked after him, and
meeting Prudence's eye, exchanged a smile with her.

"The assurance of youth!" he remarked.  "You and I, we've had enough of
them, Prue."  He regarded her again more attentively.  "That blue dress
is very becoming to you, my dear."

Prudence flushed warmly.  His appreciation recalled to her mind the
light of admiration in the curate's eyes, his quick hungry swoop towards
her, the eager furtiveness of his kiss--the first time that a man's lips
had touched hers, other than the members of her family.  But he belonged
to the family in a sense--a wretched little hanger-on, catching at the
overflow from the Graynor pockets.

"If it is becoming, I don't believe you like it very well," she said.

"It makes you look old--perhaps that's why," he answered, and thought
with regret of the little girl who had given place to this tall and
gracious young woman.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

Matilda's departure from the family circle made strangely little
difference.  She had made no particular place for herself in the home
which she had occupied for thirty years, had established no claim on any
member of her family.  If anyone missed her, it was Prudence: Matilda
had been the most amiable of her elder sisters; but she had never been
in any sense of the word a companion.  The first Mrs Graynor's family,
with the exception of the younger son, were none of them companionable;
they were self-contained and reserved, and lacking in those qualities of
individuality and initiative which make for the breaking away from
tradition and the following a line of one's own.  Matilda was naturally
submissive.  She had submitted uncomplainingly to Agatha's rule all her
life; and she left one submission for another, and, in accordance with
the dictates of the marriage service, which Prudence considered
degrading and Matilda thought beautiful, became subject willingly to the
dominating and not particularly chivalrous authority of her husband.
Had Mr Jones succeeded in winning the sister whom he had coveted, he
would have found this comfortable arrangement of relationship reversed.
There was no aptitude for submission in Prudence.

On one point after Matilda's marriage Prudence was firm: she refused to
be chaperoned on her walks by one of the remaining sisters.  Matilda's
presence she had suffered as a protection against the curate's advances;
since these advances were no longer to be dreaded, she refused to be
shadowed in future, and in order to escape from the annoyance took to
cycling, a form of exercise which none of the elder Miss Greynors would
attempt.

Her cycling took her far afield, and brought many new pleasures into her
life.  Miss Agatha tried to veto the idea; but Prudence, backed by her
father's permission, and in possession of a fine new machine which he
bought for her, defied opposition and rode forth whenever the weather
permitted in quest of new experiences.  Sometimes she met with
adventures, and got into unexpected and informal conversations with
strangers encountered surprisingly in little outlying villages where she
dismounted to rest and quench her thirst.  Cycling in its early stages
is very thirsty work.  She never mentioned those experiences at home;
not that she was naturally secretive, but she held a strong conviction
that such harmless amusement would meet with disapproval; and life had
taught her that it is wisest to avoid unpleasantness.

And once she met with an accident.  That had to be admitted because it
could not by any means be suppressed.

It was a silly sort of accident, which an experienced rider might have
averted; and it left her injured in temper as much as physically hurt.
The bicycle suffered the greater damage.  She was free-wheeling down
hill with a broad open road ahead and nothing more formidable to pass
than a leisurely farm cart, crawling up the steep incline, accompanied
by an amiable sheep-dog which, until the cycle came abreast with it, was
ambling comfortably within the shade at the back of the cart.
Apparently the sight of the girl on the cycle excited it.  It rushed
forward unexpectedly and, barking vociferously, got in front of her
wheel.  Prudence swerved violently in order to avoid it, overbalanced
herself, and, before she quite realised what was happening, found
herself in the road inextricably mixed up with her crumpled machine.
The dog, its feet planted deeply in the white dust, barked in enjoyment
of this new kind of game.

The farmer pulled up his horse, and looked down upon their grouping with
an expression of stolid amiability.

"'E won't 'urt 'ee," he called out reassuringly, and whistled to the
dog, which, disregarding its owner, continued to bark gleefully at the
debris.

Prudence lifted a face pale with indignation to the speaker.

"'E won't 'urt 'ee," he repeated, and in case she needed further
reassurance, added comfortably: "'E's done it afore.  'E's that
friendly.  But you needn't be afraid; 'e won't hurt."

"Afraid!" she ejaculated, and sat up and looked around for her hat.
"He's done all the mischief he can.  Get down, please, and wheel my
machine as far as the cottage.  I'll have to rest."

It dawning upon the man for the first time that the lady was annoyed
with him, he proceeded to obey her instructions, curiously little
resentful of her anger.  While Prudence painfully regained her feet he
righted the disabled cycle, and, after a glance at his horse to assure
himself of his intention to stand, half-wheeled half-carried the machine
to a cottage at the bottom of the hill, and propped it against the wall
of the house.

"'E's that friendly," he reiterated, gently admonishing the dog which
accompanied them delightedly.  "'E always runs up to folk like that.
'E's done it afore.  But 'e wouldn't 'urt anyone.  It's just
friendliness."

Prudence found nothing to say.  She was already ashamed of her heat; but
the man's amiable indifference exasperated her.  This was due, not to
any want of consideration, but to rustic obtuseness.  He was urgently
anxious to reassure her in regard to the dog; ladies were scared as a
rule of dogs; he was also desirous of returning to his cart, the horse
having views of its own about standing.  He knocked on the cottage door,
quite unnecessarily; two girls, who had witnessed the accident, having
already appeared in the entrance.  One of them was laughing
immoderately, as though she considered the affair a huge joke, enacted
for her special amusement; the other, and older girl, favoured her with
a reproving look.

"Young lady's met with a accident," the man explained.  "The dog done
it; 'e's that friendly.  She wants to rest a bit."

He left it at that, and hurried back to his cart.  The elder girl
invited the stranger to come inside, and the younger, following them,
stood in the doorway, laughing.  Prudence showed her annoyance.

"It wasn't so funny as you seem to think," she said, surveying her from
a chair in indignant surprise.

"I know," the girl replied, her laughter trailing off into spasmodic
giggles.  "I don't know what makes me keep laughing.  But it was funny
seeing you in the road, an' the bicycle an' all.  It made me fair
screech.  I'm glad you're not hurt."

"You'd like a glass of water, I expect?" said the older girl; and the
younger, as if desirous of atoning for her misplaced merriment, hurried
away to fetch it.

"I don't know how I shall get home," said Prudence, who was more
concerned with this difficulty than with her bruises, although these
were more considerable than she had thought at first.  She had wrenched
her ankle badly.  "I'm ten miles from Wortheton, and my machine is
twisted hopelessly--even if I could ride it, which at present I don't
feel equal to doing.  Could I get a conveyance near here?"

"No," answered the girl.  "There's nothing but that cart that's gone on.
I don't know what you'll do."

They were not very helpful people, and there was no other house within
sight.  Prudence began to fear that she would be hung up there for the
night.  She wondered whether for a consideration the girl who had
laughed so immoderately would walk to the nearest village and secure
some sort of conveyance.  She regretted that she had not commandeered
the cart of the man whose dog was responsible for the mishap, but events
had been too hurried to allow her time to realise the difficulties of
getting home in her damaged condition.  She appealed to the girl, who
still stood surveying her with a wide grin of amusement, and who seemed
by no means eager to undertake the mission.  She looked out along the
dusty road and up the steep hill, down which Prudence had sped to her
undoing, and hesitated; then she picked up a hat which was lying on a
chair and remarked that she would go up the road a bit and see if anyone
were about.

Prudence sat on in the room, waiting in the company of the sister, with
a blank feeling of hopelessness for the next event.  This when it befell
was so altogether unexpected that at the moment when she first caught
sight of a motor, with the girl who had set forth on her reluctant
search seated in the back, she almost discredited her senses.  But the
motor came to a stop in the roadway before the house, and the other
girl, springing up and going to the window, remarked explanatorily over
her shoulder:

"It's Major Stotford in his car.  That's a rare bit of luck for you.  I
suppose Lizzie stopped him.  She's got a cheek.  He's lord of the manor
over to Liscombe.  It's all his property about here."

Lizzie burst in in great excitement.

"It's all right," she cried; "the Major'll drive you.  Only you must be
quick; he hates to be kept waiting."

She ran out again, and stood in the road staring admiringly at the
rather heavy, handsome man who remained at the steering wheel, and only
looked round when Prudence, walking with an unmistakable limp, emerged
from the house, with the other girl behind her, and approached the car.
With his first casual glance at her the look of indifference gave
immediate place to an expression of very real interest.  What he had
expected he hardly knew, certainly not what he saw.  He raised his cap,
and with an alertness he had not yet displayed, left the wheel and
opening the door of the car stepped into the road.

"I don't know how to thank you," said Prudence.  "It's most awfully kind
of you to come to the assistance of a stranger.  I fear it will trespass
on your time.  I live at Wortheton; that's ten miles from here."

"Wortheton!" he said, and smiled charmingly.  "My time is not so
valuable that so heavy a call upon it need worry you.  I'll sprint you
home under the half-hour."

He held the door for her and helped her up.  Lizzie had occupied the
back seat, but plainly he preferred to have Prudence beside him.

"Is that your cycle?" he asked.  "You _have_ had a spill."

"Yes.  It will need to visit the doctor before I can ride it again," she
said, and turned a look of regret on the damaged machine.

"So will you, by the look of things," he remarked, and scrutinised her
more closely.

Prudence leaned down to take her farewell of, and recompense the
sisters, who, sober enough now, watched the proceedings with interest.

"I'll send out for the cycle to-morrow," she said.

But Major Stotford saw no necessity for leaving the cycle behind.

"It will go in the back all right.  We might as well take it along," he
said, and lifted it into the car.

Lizzie, considerably more obliging than heretofore, lent a hand.  When
he had settled the machine he took his seat beside Prudence.

"Anyone we pass will conclude that I've run you down, and that I'm
taking home the pieces," he said, smiling at her with curious intimacy,
as the car took the long hill, and the girl leaned back white and weary
against the cushions.  He drew a flask from his pocket and handed it to
her.  "Don't look so horrified.  If you could see the colour of your
face you would realise as surely as I do that this is what you need.
Take a good pull at it and you'll feel better."

"I begin to believe that the lamp on my bicycle must once have belonged
to Aladdin," Prudence said with a quiet little laugh of enjoyment.  "I
rubbed it to some purpose in the dust of the road.  Whatever I require
appears."

Major Stotford laughed with her.  The thought in his mind, which he was
careful not to express in words, was that she carried the magic within
her.  He leaned forward and altered the pace of the car, which had been
running at top speed.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

"And now," Major Stotford remarked, as he turned in at the gates of
Court Heatherleigh and drove slowly along the smooth gravelled path
which led to the house, "for explanations.  Beastly things,
explanations, eh?  Can't see the necessity for them myself."

He scrutinised the white face which, even in its pallor, and despite the
worried expression which he observed settled upon it as they drew near
her home, looked extraordinarily fresh and sweet.  He had enjoyed the
ten mile drive exceedingly.  Had he not believed that his companion was
enduring more discomfort than she would allow, he could have wished that
the distance had been greater.  He was a man who appreciated feminine
society, and he had derived considerable pleasure as the result of an
act of careless good-nature from which he had not anticipated enjoyment.
It had been a new and agreeable experience.  He determined that he
would see her again.  The slight service he had been able to render her
gave him that much right at least, he decided.

The door was flung wide, and the butler came down the steps with concern
written large on his discreet features.  He opened the door of the car.
Major Stotford alighted, shouldered the man authoritatively out of the
way, and assisted Prudence to the ground.  She leaned on his arm
heavily, and he saw her blue eyes darken with a look of pain.

"I'm sorry; my ankle hurts."

She turned from him to the waiting servant; but Major Stotford,
anticipating her request, lifted her in his arms and carried her easily
up the steps and into the hall.

The butler, following quickly, got ahead of this intrusive stranger
whose proceedings he did not altogether approve of, and threw open the
drawing-room door.  Major Stotford entered with his burden, and after
one swift comprehensive glance which took in the fact that the room was
untenanted, and located the sofa at the same moment, carried Prudence to
it and laid her gently down among its cushions.  He stood over her
inquiringly, anxiety in his look and the hint of a smile in his eyes.

"Come now!  We're all right, eh?" he said, and felt in his pocket for
his flask, thought better of it and withdrew his hand again empty.

Prudence made an effort to sit up and laughed nervously.

"It's so stupid," she said, "A little thing like that!  It's nothing
really."

She was immensely relieved that no one save Graves had witnessed their
arrival.  It would have alarmed her father, and scandalised Agatha, to
have seen her carried in like a baby.  Major Stotford's helpfulness had
been in excess of what was necessary, she felt; with the aid of a strong
arm she could have accomplished the journey herself.

"I've given you a lot of trouble.  You've been awfully kind to me," she
said.

Before he could reply, Mr Graynor entered, concerned and fussy,
followed by Agatha, who wore an expression of protest, and suggested
frigid disapproval in the very rustle of her skirts.

"I always knew how it would end," she exclaimed.  "This doesn't in the
least surprise me."

"Oh! it isn't the end," Major Stotford put in with a twinkling of
amusement.  "These little annoyances happen at the beginning.  I don't
think there are any bones broken."

Mr Graynor bent anxiously over Prudence and laid a hand on her hair.

"You've had an accident.  Are you much hurt?" he asked.

"It's nothing really," she said, ashamed at the general fuss in front of
a stranger.  "I had a spill--a silly little spill which jarred my ankle.
Major Stotford very kindly motored me home."

Mr Graynor glanced swiftly at the person referred to.  His anxiety
partially relieved, he found time to give attention to the man who had
not only brought his daughter home, but was, he imagined, responsible
for the accident.  Major Stotford, taking advantage of the pause, set
about correcting this impression, which he had foreseen as likely to
follow his share in the proceedings.

"I was fortunately near the spot," he said.  "Miss Graynor rode over a
dog in the roadway, and unluckily it was not the dog which got hurt.  It
seldom is on these occasions.  I brought home the wreckage."

"I am sure I am very much obliged to you," Mr Graynor said, but with
such a lack of graciousness in his manner as to cause Prudence surprise
and distress.  Major Stotford's helpfulness had been more valuable than
he realised.  She glanced at her new acquaintance with a quick bright
flush.

"I know I am.  If it had not been for Major Stotford's kindness I should
have been stranded for the night with no possibility of communicating
with you at a wretched wayside cottage ten miles away.  I've trespassed
enormously on his time, and given quite a lot of trouble.  But I enjoyed
the ride."

He laughed pleasantly.

"I enjoyed it too.  And you make too much of my services.  They were
nothing.  I trust the foot will soon be well, and that the injuries are
as light as you would so bravely have us believe."  He addressed himself
to Mr Graynor.  "If you like I'll leave word at the doctor's on my way
back.  You'll want to call him in, I expect."

"Thank you, there is no need to trouble you further," Mr Graynor
returned stiffly.  "I can send."

"I have already sent," Miss Agatha interposed; and Major Stotford turned
to look in her direction, as if recalling the presence of one he had
temporarily forgotten.

"Then that's finished," he said; "and it only remains to unload the
car."

He spoke with a certain cold hostility in his voice which did not escape
Prudence's ear.  It hurt her.  She could have wept with vexation at her
father's want of gratitude and courtesy to this man who had proved so
good a friend to her in her need: she felt that she wanted to apologise
to him for the rudeness of her family.  Then she became aware of her
father speaking again in the same politely distant tones as before,
thanking the other man coldly for the trouble he had been put to, and
assuring him that the bicycle had been removed by the servants.

"You should not have burdened yourself with that too," he added.  "You
place me under a heavy obligation to you which will leave me always
indebted."

"My dear sir," Major Stotford interrupted, "you are in no sense under an
obligation to me; please disabuse your mind of that idea."

He cut short further expressions of gratitude by advancing to the sofa
and shaking hands with Prudence, who, as if desirous of atoning for the
general lack of warmth, gave him both her hands on a simple girlish
impulse.  He took and held them with no show of surprise.

"Thank you so much," she said, a soft appeal in eyes and voice which he
was quick to note.  "I just want to say how much I enjoyed the drive and
your kind care of me.  I'm very grateful to you."

"You are setting such a premium on ordinary courtesy that I begin to
believe it must be a rare quality in these parts," he said jestingly,
with what sounded to Prudence a faintly sarcastic humour.  He had
assuredly not been given particular evidence of the quality beneath that
roof.  "But if you insist on regarding my small service so graciously I
do not feel inclined to quarrel with you on that score.  I can only
repeat that I am glad I happened to be on the spot.  Good-bye.  Take
care of the ankle.  It will tax your patience, I expect."

Mr Graynor accompanied him into the hall, and invited him into the
library for refreshment, which he declined.  Prudence listened to their
voices outside, listened to the motor drive away, and turned with a face
pale with indignation, when her father re-entered the room, and
reproached him with having displayed so little gratitude to a man who
had acted with such ready kindliness towards her.

"I felt ashamed," she said.  "You were barely civil."

"You forget yourself, Prudence," Agatha said.  "Father was quite civil.
There was no need to gush--you did that."

"And if I did," Prudence cried, exasperated, "you two forced me into
doing so."

Mr Graynor had crossed to the window, where he remained with his back
towards the room, paying little heed to their wrangling.

"I wish it had not been Major Stotford who rendered you the service," he
said presently, and faced about and approached the sofa with an
expression of worried annoyance on his face.  "I am sorry this has
happened."

"Why?"  Prudence sat up straighter and punched the cushions viciously.
"Why?" she repeated aggressively.

"Because--"

"Do you think it necessary to explain these matters to a child?"  Agatha
interrupted tartly.

Prudence laughed angrily.

"I'm not a child," she said.  "You can't keep my mind for ever on a
leading string."

"I think you are unnecessarily excited," Mr Graynor said in displeased
tones.  "I doubt whether that is good for you in your present
condition."

"Being thwarted is not good for me in my present condition," Prudence
retorted, but with greater calmness.  "You aren't being fair to me.  Why
should it be a matter for regret to you that Major Stotford should do me
a service?  He hadn't much choice.  No man, who wasn't a brute, could
have acted otherwise in the circumstances."

"No," Mr Graynor admitted.  "It was simply unfortunate.  Major Stotford
is a man whom I do not care to have in my house, whom I would not choose
as an associate for my daughters.  He has an evil reputation."

"Evil!"  Prudence sounded a note of incredulity.  "In what sense?" she
asked.

"There is no need to soil your ears with his history," Mr Graynor
replied.  "His wife divorced him two years ago.  I understood he was
abroad."

"Oh!" said Prudence, and felt oddly chilled by this revelation.

She had liked the man, had hoped that the acquaintance so informally
begun would develop pleasantly on ordinary lines, a hope which she
realised very certainly could never be fulfilled.  Further intercourse
would be forbidden her.  Though had the road been open to a pursuance of
the acquaintance Prudence herself would no longer have wished to follow
it up.  The colour had gone out of the pleasure and left a neutral-toned
picture in its stead, a picture of life in its least lovely aspect, with
the sordid streak of self-indulgence trailing its disfiguring smudges
across the canvas.  Was nothing that was pleasant altogether fine?  In
this complex meandering of human destinies was this mean streak, which
spoilt the fine grain of the wood, discoverable in each separate
individual?

Prudence lay back against the cushions feeling utterly weary and unable
to cope with the rush of swift emotions which flooded her mind.
Reaction followed upon the period of excitement.  She was conscious only
of the pain in her foot.  No one had thought of removing her shoe.  She
had loosened it in the car; but the foot had swollen and felt too big
for its covering.  She made an effort now to remove the shoe, whereupon
Agatha, capable but unsympathetic, came to her assistance.

"You ought to have done that before," she complained petulantly, and to
her own surprise, as well as to her sister's, broke down and cried
weakly.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

Though not serious, Prudence's injuries confined her to the house for
some time.  It proved an irksome time for the members of her family as
well as for herself.  She was not patient, and it exasperated her to be
compelled to lie on the sofa, unequal to rising from it and running away
when her sisters, from a sense of duty, installed themselves near her
couch with the sociable intention of keeping her company.  They insisted
on her occupying herself with some sewing as a relief to the tedium of
enforced inaction.  Prudence hated sewing, and made a demand for books;
whereupon her sisters in turn read aloud to her the works of Miss
Nouchette Carey, which were familiar to Prudence from childhood, and
bored her exceedingly.  She wanted something more stimulating; something
which did not depict Wortheton ideals and sentiment.  But the more
modern writers were banned as unwholesome, and the poets were
discredited on account of an erotic tendency to idealise passion and
adorn sensuousness with an exalted language better suited to more
spiritual qualities.  Or so Miss Agatha thought.

"The merit of a book," she affirmed, "depends upon whether it stands the
test of being read aloud without causing embarrassment to the reader and
to the audience."

"Books never embarrass me," Prudence said, "but occasionally they bore
me.  I don't care to read about people who lead the stodgy kind of life
we lead."

"Life is not stodgy," Agatha reproved her.  "And it is the same
everywhere."

"God forbid!" ejaculated Prudence, and thereby brought a storm of
horrified reproach upon her head.

On occasions Matilda arrived and spent an afternoon or morning with her,
such an altered Matilda that she appeared to Prudence in the guise of a
stranger.  Matilda had emerged since her marriage, and from being a mild
reflection of her eldest sister, reflected now Mr Jones quite brightly
and unconsciously.  She echoed him in a feminine note, and quoted him
with unintentional inaccuracy, but with sufficient likeness to recall
the original with unpleasant vividness to Prudence's mind.  Usually Mr
Jones was too busy to accompany her.

"The vicar leaves so much to him," Mrs Jones explained.  "Ernest hopes
to move from Wortheton shortly."

"I understood that he was greatly attached to his work here," Prudence
said.  "He likes the factory and the people."

"He has hopes of a living," Matilda confided, lowering her voice.

"Oh, a living!  That's another matter.  You'll be quite important."

Matilda looked a little doubtful.

"It's a very poor living," she confessed, "even if he succeeds in
obtaining it.  No clergyman without private means could accept it."

"I see."  Prudence did see, very clearly.  She smiled suddenly.  "How
grateful he must feel to you," she added.

Matilda resented this very much in the manner Prudence decided in which
Mr Jones would have resented it.

"That matters only in regard to this particular living," she said.
"Ernest would succeed in any case; he is so clever."

Prudence's accident, with the unfortunate complication which had
effected Major Stotford's entry upon the scene, was used by Agatha,
backed by brother William, as a sufficient reason against future
cycling.  Agatha went to an immense amount of trouble in her efforts to
gain her father's veto against Prudence riding again.  She persuaded him
to get rid of the bicycle as the surest means of avoiding fresh
misadventures; and rendered him so nervous with her gloomy forebodings
that he did consent to part with the bicycle; but he reserved his veto
against riding until he saw how Prudence viewed a possible prohibition.
He could not deny her pleasure merely because the idea of her riding
made him nervous.  Bobby had met with accidents when he first cycled;
but it never had been suggested that Bobby should give up riding from a
fear he might break his neck.

The damaged cycle was disposed of; William saw to that.  Agatha
undertook to inform her sister; she also sought to prevail with her to
give up the exercise.  She enlarged upon her father's anxiety, so
injurious in the case of a man of his years, and pointed out to Prudence
that duty demanded this sacrifice of her pleasure to his anxious love.

Prudence heard her out in silence, a stony silence which betrayed
nothing of the rage that burned within her breast.  With the finish of
the oration her chin tilted aggressively.

"This is your doing," she said.

"It is father's wish," Agatha replied.  "The bicycle was sold by his
orders."

"Oh!"  Prudence exclaimed, with a gesture of impatience.  "I know.
What's the good of talking?  I am sick of all this pretence of anxiety.
You hate me to have any enjoyment.  You never rest--you never have
rested, from seeking to make my life colourless and dull.  You are
satisfied only when you keep me sewing, or working in the parish.  Well,
I won't sew any more--for fear I prick my fingers, and I won't work in
the parish either from a nervous dread of having my morals contaminated.
If I can't do the things I like, I won't do the things I don't like
either."

Miss Agatha's anger, if more controlled, was every whit as great as
Prudence's.  She gazed down upon her sister where she lay upon the sofa
with eyes of cold dislike.  Always they had been antagonistic.  She had
resented her father's second marriage bitterly, and had disliked his
young wife: the earlier resentment, and the dislike for Prudence's
mother, influenced her largely in her antagonism towards the child of
the marriage, the child who was dearer to their father than any of his
other children, and who was so unlike the rest.  But she had, according
to her own view, conscientiously done her duty by her young sister: the
accusation of jealous injustice stung her; she felt that she had not
merited that.

"You are wicked and ungrateful," she said.  "You display a great want of
control, and an unchristian spirit.  I hope that later, when you have
given yourself time to reflect, you will regret what you have said.  I
confess I don't understand you."

"No," Prudence rejoined.  "You never have understood me.  I don't
suppose you ever will."

"You are not," Miss Agatha answered shortly, "so complex as you
imagine."

Having nothing further to say, and feeling irritated by the laugh with
which her rebuke was received, she closed the interview by leaving the
room.

But the matter was not ended.  Prudence had no intention of allowing it
to rest there.  She meant to have it out with her father.  He had given
the bicycle to her; he had no right to dispose of it without consulting
her.  The business of having it out with him in private was not easy of
accomplishment; she seldom saw him alone, and pride restrained her from
broaching the subject before the others.  Matters were complicated by
the arrival of Mr Edward Morgan, who, to Prudence's secret
disappointment, came himself on his firm's business instead of sending a
subordinate.  Prudence had very vividly in her memory that former
occasion when Steele visited Wortheton.  She recalled their different
meetings, few in number but strangely pleasant and familiar; recalled
too the stolen interview with Steele under her window.  She longed to
speak of him to Mr Morgan; but self-consciousness tied her tongue and
made mention of his name too difficult.  She waited in the hope that Mr
Morgan would allude to the young man's visit.  But Mr Morgan was not
accommodating.  He had as a matter of fact almost forgotten Steele's
existence, had entirely forgotten that visit of Steele's to Wortheton
over a year ago.  Steele had left Morgan Bros, shortly afterwards and
gone abroad: that, so far as Edward Morgan's interest in him was
concerned, was the finish.

It became plain to Prudence, and to the members of Prudence's family, as
the days passed and Mr Morgan showed no haste to depart, that he was
becoming more than ordinarily interested in herself.  He had known her
for years.  As a child she had delighted him; as a girl he had found her
amusing; but the woman in her came as a startling revelation, and
carried this middle-aged and rather serious-minded business man out of
his immense abstractions and his rather cumbersome habit of reserve.

He became surprisingly alert and attentive to Prudence's whims.  He was
quick to lend a hand when she left her sofa; and he sat beside the sofa
in the evenings, and played chess with her, and taught her card games.
William's amiable efforts to draw him into conversation with himself, or
to entice him into the library, met with no encouragement.

"It's dull for your sister, not being able to get about," he explained.
"We've got to amuse her."

He did amuse her; and he earned her gratitude at the same time.  It was
a new and agreeable experience to be considered first and consulted
deferentially and made to feel oneself of some importance.  He bought
her chocolates and books, books such as Miss Agatha did not approve of,
and which Prudence read with avidity.  She shared her chocolates, but
she kept the books to herself.

"If you only knew what pleasure you give me," she said, on receiving a
volume.  And Mr Morgan, looking pleased, answered quietly:

"That's what I want to give you--pleasure."

The next day he gave her another book.

"I don't read novels myself," he explained.  "But I demand the best, and
place myself unreservedly in the bookseller's hands.  Generally they
know what is worth reading."

Prudence confided in him her trouble over the cycling veto, anticipating
sympathy, and was disappointed in him because he sided with the family
in their objection to her riding.  He did not approve of cycling for
ladies, he said.  That struck her as a very antiquated prejudice.
Cycling for women was so general until motoring became more popular.

"If father would give me a car," she said, "I should prefer it."

"Better have a pony carriage," he advised, "if you intend driving it
yourself.  Safer and pleasanter, really."

"How stodgy!" she said, and laughed.  "That's much too slow."

It was regrettable, she reflected, that he was so elderly; and she
wondered what he had been like as a young man, and why he had never
married.

The answer to that question was that, until he met her as a woman, he
had never known love.  He knew it now.  And he recognised it for the one
passion of his life--a disturbing passion on account of the disparity in
their ages.  This disparity he recognised as a barrier, but a barrier
which might be overcome.  It is a barrier which many people surmount and
not always unsuccessfully.  None the less the undertaking is attended
with risks, and the risks are worthy of consideration.  The ideal
marriage is based on equality in essential things.  Contemporaneous
ideas and sentiments lend themselves most readily to sympathy.  Without
sympathy and understanding a perfect relationship cannot exist.  The
individual of forty who fails to recognise this fact deserves no
compassion when he strikes the rocks ahead.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

Edward Morgan came into Prudence's life again at a time when the dulness
and restriction of her home were peculiarly galling, when her spirit was
in fierce revolt against the petty tyranny of Agatha's rule, supported
by William's influence and strengthened by their animosity towards her,
which seemed to her daily to increase and to make anything like amicable
relations impossible.  Before this powerful bond of opposition Mr
Graynor, old and incapable of sustained effort, gave way against his
volition, slowly but surely deputing his authority in domestic affairs
as he had deputed his business authority to his son, and retiring more
and more within himself, content, if not harassed with a knowledge of
unpleasantness to leave to his family the arrangement of their affairs.
That in this way he treated his young daughter unfairly did not occur to
him.  He had no idea that Prudence was unhappy.  Yet, had he reflected
he must have recognised that it was a powerful combination arrayed
against her, a combination which he himself felt unequal to opposing.
But he belonged to a past generation.  When the autumn leaves cling to
the tree beyond their time they hang sear and useless before the push of
the new verdure: and he had hung on till it seemed that the seasons had
forgotten him and time refused to detach him from the bough.  He was a
little weary of hanging there overlooked and forgotten while another
generation ripened to decay.  He saw his children entering upon their
autumn, and almost forgot the time when they, like Prudence, were in the
springtime of life.  When one reaches the winter of life one realises
life's sadness; for the hope of spring, and the contentment of summer
belong to the days that are numbered.  One lives necessarily in the
present and looks back upon the past; the future belongs solely to
youth.  In Edward Morgan's love for Prudence was repeated his own
middle-aged romance.  His married life with his young wife had been too
brief to prove its unsuitability.  He only remembered that that short
time had been a happy time for him.  And he liked Morgan; he would be
satisfied to accept him for a son-in-law.  Prudence was young for him,
he recognised that; but, he argued, middle-aged men frequently married
young girls, and such marriages were not always unsuccessful.  The
middle-aged suitor seldom pauses to reflect that if a younger man
appeared upon the scene his matured experience would stand him in no
good stead; a girl does not often marry a man many years her senior from
any happier reason than that nothing better offers.  To a girl a man of
forty appears elderly.  This is natural.  Age, like everything else, is
relative in either sex.

Prudence was flattered by Mr Morgan's attentions and grateful for his
consideration.  She did not love him.  She had a very clear idea what
type of man could inspire love in her.  It was an entirely different
type from Mr Morgan.  But marriage with Mr Morgan opened a way of
escape from uncongenial surroundings.  If she missed this opening it was
very possible that an opportunity might not occur again.  She made up
her mind, as Steele had known she would do, to seize it when the moment
offered.

She made one final attempt, however, to gain news of Steele.  One day
when she was alone with Mr Morgan she summoned all her courage and
inquired after Steele.

Mr Morgan showed surprise at her question, and paused a moment for
reflection before he was able clearly to recall the facts about the man
to whom she referred.  It seemed to be a matter of astonishment to him
that she should be acquainted with Steele.  Steele had left Morgan Bros,
a year ago, he told her.  He had gone abroad, to Africa, he believed.
He revealed an uncertainty as to his movements and a lack of interest in
them which exasperated Prudence.

"So many young men emigrate to the Colonies nowadays," he said.  "New
countries attract them.  They don't settle down in England."

"There are better openings in new countries, I suppose," she said in a
dispirited voice, which she strove to render indifferent.  "A man with
enterprise ought to get ahead in the Colonies."

"A man with enterprise possibly might get ahead," Mr Morgan allowed; "a
man with capital assuredly would."

"Don't brains reckon as capital in new countries?" she asked.

"Brains are an asset in every country," he answered; "but credit at
one's bank is the surest passport to success anywhere.  So far as I
remember, Steele was unfortunate.  He did not leave us under any cloud;
but there was a default in his department, and he had to make good.  I
imagine he emigrated with only the necessary means for landing."

"Oh!" said Prudence, and regarded Mr Morgan, who was reputed to be a
millionaire, with a diminution of respect.  He could better have
afforded to lose the money.  To have allowed a man who, while
responsible, was not culpable in the matter of the deficit to make good
was ungenerous.  "I wish you had not told me that."

He looked astonished.

"You could have borne the loss," she said.

"Business cannot be run on quixotic lines," he answered.  "Besides,
every man of honour accepts his responsibilities."

He was quite right; she knew that; all he said was perfectly just.  But
a woman seldom reasons on lines of strict justice.  She would have liked
Edward Morgan better had he been generous rather than just.  Instead she
went to bed feeling angry with him and compassionate towards Steele.
Why, she wondered, had she forbidden Steele to write?  And why had he
obeyed her so implicitly?  He might in any case have sent her a line of
farewell before sailing.  She would not have cared had the whole family
seen it if only she had received that small assurance that he
remembered.

Perhaps he did not remember.  Perhaps when he left Wortheton he had put
her out of his thoughts.  There was no reason why he should continue to
bear her in mind when circumstances had taken him out of her life and
separated them so widely.  There were fresh interests now, new scenes,
to engage and distract his attention.  The Wortheton episode had played
an unimportant part in his life.  Such episodes, she knew, were frequent
in most men's lives, and stood for no more than they were, pleasant
interludes breaking the monotony of everyday things.

Then her thoughts strayed reminiscently to that stolen interview under
her window; and she recalled things Steele had said to her and the
manner of their utterance; and it seemed to her by the light of those
half-forgotten memories that he had acted disloyally in going out of her
life so completely.  He _had_ betrayed an interest in her.  And he had
stirred up a corresponding interest in her breast.  He had no right to
do that and then to pass on and forget.

Two days later Edward Morgan returned to Derbyshire.  It had been his
intention to propose to Prudence before returning.  He had had an
interview with Mr Graynor, and had ascertained that his suit was viewed
favourably by her father; but Prudence herself was a little difficult
during those last two days; and Mr Morgan did not feel sufficiently
confident of success with her to put his happiness to the test.  Her
variable moods disconcerted him.  It did not occur to him to seek an
explanation of her decreased kindliness in anything that had passed
between them; and so he failed to trace his fall in her esteem to the
information he had given her in regard to Steele.  That unfortunate
relation had opened up a wider gulf than he would have believed
possible, as a more generous account would, while raising him in her
esteem, have decreased the influence of the absent Steele.  Now the
balance weighed in Steele's favour; and Mr Morgan was made
uncomfortably conscious of a lack of response to his tenderness from the
girl he hoped to marry.

On the evening before he left he had an interview with her alone.

It was a matter for amusement with Prudence to note the frequency of
these private audiences.  Hitherto the family had relegated her to the
background; now, with an amazing discernment for matters calling for
their united supervision, they withdrew from the drawing-room, melting
away with such tactful unobtrusiveness that Mr Morgan firmly believed
in those numerous domestic obligations which engaged so much of their
time, and very willingly submitted to be entertained by the sister whose
accident incapacitated her from taking an active share in their doings.
On the whole he was well satisfied; and he approved of the doctor's
prescription of rest as the only cure for the damaged ankle.

"I'll send you some more literature when I get back," he said, sitting
facing her in the dusk, with what remained of the daylight falling on
his broad strong face.  "I expect the sofa will see a good deal of you
for a week or so longer.  The trouble of these matters is the
disproportionately long time they take to mend.  On the next occasion
when I visit Wortheton I shall hope to see you walking about with the
best."

"I should hope so," Prudence said, and laughed.

"Oh!  I don't mean to absent myself for a specially long period," he
said, and looked at her with the light of a steady purpose in his eyes.
"I'm wanting you to say that you will be glad to see me again.  I should
have liked to have heard you express some regret at my going now."

He paused, but Prudence, who was nervously playing with a flower which
he had brought in from the garden for her, did not immediately reply.
She was not sure what might follow an expression of regret from her.
She did not feel regret; and she had a very definite desire in her mind
to avert a direct proposal.

"I shall be very pleased to see you when you come again," she said at
last.

Mr Morgan smiled faintly.

"I suppose I shall have to rest content with that," he said.  He put out
a hand and laid it over her hand--the hand which held the flower.  "Do I
seem old to you?" he asked.

Prudence looked up at him with wide surprised eyes.  He was looking back
at her with a steady kindly smile that made her nervous.

"Not so _very_ old," she answered; and felt her cheeks flaming as she
saw the quick colour stain his face.

He sighed.

"A little fatherly, eh?" he said, the smile returning.  And he wondered
whether she would ever learn to her distress how cruelly youth can hurt.
"Well, I'm not young.  I'm forty-two.  I want you to accustom yourself
to that knowledge before I come again.  When I come again I shall have
another lesson to teach you."

He spoke lightly; and with the lessening of his earnestness and the
removal of his hand, both of which Prudence had found embarrassing, she
felt relieved and was able to smile back at him with something of the
old frankness.

"If you teach then as kindly as you have to-day," she said, "I shall
prove a dull pupil if I do not learn it readily."

"You give me hope," he said.

He scrutinised her for a moment very closely, made as though he would
speak, surprised a startled apprehension in her eyes which nearly
resembled fear, and thought better of it.  He got up rather suddenly and
walked to the fireplace and stood staring unseeingly into the empty
grate.

"I'll be patient," he said.  "Perhaps you will have prepared your mind a
little to receive that lesson by the time I return."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

It was the wisest thing which Edward Morgan could have done to go away
and leave what he had it in his mind to say unsaid.  Prudence missed him
after he left, missed his kindly attentions, the quick thought for her
comfort which forestalled her wishes, his pleasant companionship.  He
was a man who, if somewhat earnest, perhaps because of this earnestness,
talked well on most subjects.  He was neither brilliant nor very ready
of speech.  The quality Prudence liked best in him was his habit of
treating her as an equal; he did not pursue the tactic of talking down
to her.  The latter was one of William's unamiable eccentricities, and
it annoyed Prudence the more because William at his wisest was never so
profound as to be beyond the comprehension of the most ordinary
intelligence.

In Mr Morgan's presence William's attitude towards her changed
considerably; following Mr Morgan's departure the increased deference
of his manner moderated slightly since no definite proposal had
resulted.  William suspected that his sister's chances were not so
secure as he had believed.  She was foolish enough, he decided, to lose
this excellent opportunity of making a brilliant marriage.  William was
not so anxious to see his sister married as he was desirous of forming
an alliance with the house of Morgan Bros.  If she brought the matter
off she would win his approbation and his unbounded respect.  Something
of what he felt on this head he managed to convey to her in an indirect
manner which he considered tactful.  He felt that his approval would
have considerable weight with her.

"Morgan appears to have enjoyed his visit," he remarked to her; "he was
sorry to go.  He is an uncommonly good fellow.  I like him."

"He's a kind old thing," said Prudence with a gleam of mischief in her
eyes.

"Old!  Nonsense!"  William squared his heavy shoulders and regarded
himself complacently in the overmantel.  "He's a younger man than I."

"Well, yes."  Prudence surveyed William's grey hairs with
uncomplimentary attentiveness, surveyed his corpulent figure, and
smiled.  "He's forty-two.  I have his own word for that."

"A man isn't old at forty-two," he said.

"He looks old though."

"When a man has passed his first youth," William observed sententiously,
"he is--ahem!--more interesting, more reliable.  He knows what he wants.
I confess that Morgan inspires in me both confidence and liking.  One
can respect a man who has proved his worth."

"He has proved an aptitude for making money," Prudence allowed.

"Isn't that proof of worth?"

"It suggests sound business acumen."

"With industry and perseverance," he insisted.

"Generosity is finer than these qualities."  She was thinking of the
unfortunate confidence relating to Steele.

"You at least have not found him lacking in that quality," he said,
surprised.  "He has showered gifts on you."

"He has been very generous to me," she admitted, and laughed with a ring
of scorn in the mirth.  "There is small merit in being generous when it
pleases one to be so."

He stared at her in amazement.

"I think you are strangely wanting in gratitude," he said.  "Few people
with the very sufficient grounds which you have for recognising a man's
generosity would display so grudging an acknowledgment.  Morgan was most
appreciative in his praise of you.  He revealed a very deep--regard for
you."

William surveyed his half-sister with the doubtful scrutiny of a man who
failed to discover what it was in her which attracted other men: beyond
her looks he could discern no particular charm; and her looks were not
in his opinion remarkable.

"I have heard more impassioned avowals," she returned.

"From whom?" he demanded instantly.

"Perhaps I have only imagined them,--or," and she patted the cover of
one of Mr Morgan's gifts and laughed, "met with them in books."

"There is a lot of pernicious trash written," observed William.  "It
puts ideas in girls' heads."

"You wouldn't wish even a girl's head empty of ideas, would you?"

"I would wish it empty of nonsense," he answered sharply.  "A woman
should be satisfied to look after her home, and--all that."

This being non-committal and liberal of interpretation, Prudence let it
pass unchallenged.  She was so familiar with William's ideas about woman
and her place in the scheme of things, and appreciated his opinion so
little that she was satisfied to leave him to the undisputed enjoyment
of his views.  It was William's own misfortune that he could never
emerge from the rut into which he had floundered.  He had long ago
persuaded himself into the belief that his rut was the open road.

Feeling that he had said sufficient to add the weight of his approval to
the balance in favour of Mr Morgan, William left his sister to digest
his words; and subsequently informed his father that he entertained
small doubt that if Edward Morgan did Prudence the honour of asking her
to be his wife she would accept him.  He believed she would appreciate
the compliment of such an offer.

Prudence herself was less confident.  She was indeed so undecided that
the respite allowed her came as a relief.  It gave her time for
consideration of the matter.  She did not love Edward Morgan; but he
held open the door of freedom, and she feared that if she missed this
opportunity of passing through, it might never open for her again.

There followed a period of waiting and uncertainty and general boredom,
during which the ankle grew well and she was able to leave the sofa and
walk in the garden.  It was then that the loss of her cycle became once
more a source of acute annoyance.

"You had no right to sell it, daddy," she complained; "it was mine.
You'll have to buy me a new one."

"I hoped you wouldn't care to ride any more, Prue," he returned
evasively.  "It isn't safe.  You may break your neck next time."

"I may, of course.  I stand a greater chance of doing so if you won't
buy me a machine, because I shall hire; and hired cycles aren't
reliable.  Of course I shall ride again.  Your advice is as preposterous
as telling a child who has learnt to walk that it must revert to
sedentary habits.  It wouldn't, you know, however nice a child it might
be."

She drew him towards her by the lapels of his coat and kissed him on
either cheek.

"You'll get me a new cycle, daddy?--just like the last?"

Mr Graynor yielded.  When Prudence coaxed, looking at him with that
light in her blue eyes, she recalled her mother so vividly to his mind
that he could not resist her.  It were easier to vex Agatha than to
disappoint Prue.

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

Summer was on the wane and autumn was busy early colouring the leaves.
Edward Morgan had intended returning to Wortheton before the finish of
the warm weather; but many things prevented him from carrying out his
wish; and the weeks went by without any sign from him, save the regular
arrival of the monthly parcel of books, which Prudence as regularly
acknowledged, writing a frank girlish letter of thanks, which took
longer to compose than the subject matter warranted.  The difficulty of
writing those letters increased with each repetition of the performance.
He never wrote to her.  He did not even address the parcels; they came
direct from the bookseller.  Had he sent a few friendly lines with his
gifts it would have made the task of acknowledgment easier.

Each time that he received one of these brief inconsequent epistles Mr
Morgan opened it eagerly and hastily read it in the always vain hope of
finding the wish expressed therein that he would fulfil his promise to
revisit Wortheton.  But Prudence made no mention of this matter.  And he
locked the letters away in a private drawer and waited in patient
hopefulness for the next.  The next letter invariably roused similar
emotions and brought further disappointment on perusal.  Mr Morgan
proved of his own experience that being in love is not a happy condition
of mind.

On the whole Prudence enjoyed the possession of an undeclared suitor: it
gave her a sense of importance, a sense too of future security.  She
could regard with indifference the acid rigour of Agatha's authority and
brother William's pompous displeasure.  William had been extremely
annoyed by the arrival of the new bicycle, and had made unpleasant
observations about Prudence's roaming habits and her propensity for
making casual and undesirable acquaintances.  It was very evident that
William considered that his sister rode abroad in quest of these
adventures.  His insinuations exasperated her, but they did not shake
her determination to ride when and where she pleased.

It was soon after the arrival of the new cycle, when she was enjoying
her first long rides after the accident, that she met again the man
whose kindness to her lingered pleasantly in her memory, despite the
shock of disillusion which had eclipsed much of the brightness of the
recollection.  The encounter sprung upon her unaware.  She had neither
expected nor wished to meet Major Stotford again.  But when he overtook
her in his car, and stopped the car a few yards ahead of her and waited
for her to come up with it, there was no doubt in Prudence's mind as to
what she ought to do.  She ceased peddling and alighted.  Major
Stotford, who was alone, opened the door of the car and stepped into the
road beside her.

"A piece of good luck!" he said, shaking hands.  "I've often wondered
about you.  There is no need to ask if you have quite recovered.  So
they let you ride again?"

"They didn't want to; it was a fight," Prudence said, and laughed.

"Yes!" he said, smiling too.  "I imagined you would have difficulty.
I'm glad you won.  They didn't tell you, I suppose, that I called to
inquire a few days after our adventure?"

"No; they didn't tell me," she replied, and flushed slightly.  "It was
very kind of you.  I didn't know."

"I thought possibly it might not get to your knowledge," he said coolly,
and surveyed her flushed face with keen appreciation.  "I was not
allowed to see you, but was privileged to interview your brother
instead.  I have never approved of substitutes, and discovered on that
occasion no good reason for reconsidering my prejudice.  I'm delighted
to meet you again anyhow."

His frankness embarrassed Prudence; but she recalled his kindness and
the service he had done her, and felt further vexation with her family.

"I'm glad too," she said, playing nervously with the little bell on her
handle-bar.  He took hold of the handle-bar also and became immensely
interested in the machine.

"It's a new one, isn't it?" he said.  "Surely the other wasn't past
repairing?"

"I don't know.  They got rid of it."

"I see."  His eyes twinkled.  "And you compelled them to make good.
They have done it quite handsomely.  Your persuasive powers must be
considerably greater than mine."

"I threatened to hire," said Prudence, and immediately realised on
hearing him laugh that this admission was disloyal to the family.  She
lifted her eyes with a flash of pride in them to his smiling face.
"Father is always generous," she said.  "He wouldn't trust the old cycle
again, though the spill was entirely my fault.  I'm cautious in regard
to dogs now."

"Yes," he agreed, the smile deepening.  "Caution is a quality which the
wise cultivate.  Possibly had I not considerably neglected it I should
have been more successful--socially.  But these things are so dull."

He took his hand off the handle-bar and straightened himself and looked
down at her with a quick resolve in his face.

"We managed to find room for the old cycle," he said.  "I don't see why
there need be any difficulty in stowing this away.  What do you say?
Will you drive with me?"

For the fraction of a second Prudence hesitated.  She did not want to
drive with him.  She knew that if she agreed she could not speak of it
at home: there was something a little shameful in doing what must of
necessity be done secretly.  But the memory of that former occasion on
which she had been glad enough to make use of his car was in her mind,
and made a refusal to accept the present invitation appear pointedly
ungracious.

"You would rather not?" he said reproachfully.

Prudence made up her mind on the instant.

"Thank you, I should like it.  But couldn't we leave the bicycle
somewhere and pick it up on our return?"

"We could," he said.  "That's not a bad idea.  There's an inn a quarter
of a mile along the road.  I'll drive on so that you shan't be smothered
in dust, and you follow; then we'll house the bicycle and go for a joy
ride."

He re-entered the car and drove off; while Prudence, waiting for the
cloud of dust which he raised to subside, stood beside her machine,
dismayed at the realisation of what she had consented to do, and
considering whether it would not be wiser to head her cycle in the
opposite direction and ride home.  But reflection showed her the
impossibility of acting in so ungracious a manner.  She should have
declined his invitation in the first instance; to evade the engagement
now was unthinkable.

When she arrived at the inn it was to discover that Major Stotford had
made the necessary arrangements; it only remained for her to relinquish
her cycle to the man who stood ready to take it, and climb to her seat
in the car.  Despite a determination to enjoy herself and banish
disquieting thoughts, Prudence was conscious of feeling not entirely at
her ease with her companion.  She could not have explained this sense of
mistrust.  There was nothing in Major Stotford's manner to arouse it;
she decided that possibly it resulted from what she had learned in
regard to his private life.  That ugly story coloured all her thoughts
of him, and revealed him in an unfavourable light.  She had not met this
type of man before.

Nevertheless he interested her.  He talked well.  And he was so
manifestly enjoying himself and showed such eagerness to please her that
Prudence made an effort to shake off her uneasiness and share his
pleasure in the excursion.  But when he stopped at a little village some
miles further on and took her into a place where they catered for
tourists, the old disquieting feeling came back intensified; and she
knew that she was not enjoying herself, that she shrank from appearing
in public with a man whose acquaintance she had been forbidden.  There
was no longer any doubt in her mind that she had acted indiscreetly.

"I would rather go on," she said.  "I don't want tea, and I mustn't be
late."

"We shan't be here many minutes," he replied.  "And you must have
something.  Rushing through the air gives me an appetite.  I'll get you
back in good time, if I have to exceed the speed limit.  We've been
doing that already."

He carried his point and led her within.  They were shown into a little
room where a table was laid for tea.  There was no one else in the room,
though from across the passage voices were audible and the sound of
clinking china in proof that other travellers were taking refreshment.
Major Stotford looked about him critically, flung his gloves on a chair,
and advised Prudence to sit down and rest.

"I'll go and order something to eat," he said.

Prudence, who was standing near the window, looking out on a regiment of
tall hollyhocks and a group of flaming dahlias blooming in the little
garden, made no response; and he left the room, closing the door behind
him.

With the closing of the door she faced about, feeling extraordinarily
like a person trapped.  It was absurd of course; but her heart beat with
uncomfortable rapidity, and excitement flushed her face and lent a
brightness to her eyes.  She moved about the room restlessly examining
the gaudy prints on the walls and the hideous design of the Brussels
carpet; but was unable to fix her attention on anything, and wandered
back to the window again.

There was a flavour of wrong-doing in this adventure which troubled her.
The fear of being found out loomed with ugly insistence in the
foreground of her ideas.  She wished he had been satisfied simply to
drive with her.  This unforeseen development with its intimate
suggestion of confidential relations vexed her.  Intuition told her that
in the circumstances he should have refrained from taking this step.

Then the door opened again to admit him.  He came in, confident and
smiling, and joined her where she stood at the window.

CHAPTER TWENTY.

Prudence poured out the tea while Major Stotford sat with his back to
the light, attentively observant of her actions, causing her
considerable confusion by the intensity of his regard, and by the fact
that he had fallen upon a quite unusual silence and seemed content
simply to sit and watch her.

"We must hurry," she said, handing him a cup.  "If I cause them anxiety
at home through being late they will make such a fuss about my cycling
in future."

"Oh, Lord!" he murmured.  "What a nuisance a family can become.  I wish
you were an orphan."  He stirred his tea slowly, and smiled at her.
"You are living up to your name.  Do you know, when I first heard it, I
thought it strangely unsuited."

"I suppose you think me imprudent?" she said, without looking at him.

"No; not that," he hastened to assure her.  "But Prudence is such a
Puritanic appellation.  It suggests a nun.  I'm not sure on the whole
that I don't prefer Imprudence.  It's purely a matter of taste."

"Never mind my name," she said, and looked vexed.  "You are not the
first to discover its unsuitability.  Will you have another cup of tea?"

"I haven't started on my first cup yet," he answered, and lifted it to
his lips to conceal his amusement.  "You _are_ in a hurry.  See here!"
He placed a gun-metal watch on the table beside his plate.  "We'll give
it ten minutes.  If you attempt to finish under you will ruin your
digestion.  I would, if permitted a choice, allow half an hour for tea
and another half-hour for digestion; but since that doesn't fit in with
your wishes, I sacrifice mine.  Try this plum cake; it's rather good.
The woman who runs this place was formerly a servant of mine, and her
plum cakes are excellent."

He cut the cake into generous slices.  Prudence took a slice and
pronounced it as good as he had promised.  Although she had declared
that she was not hungry, with the food before her she discovered a very
healthy appetite.  Her spirits began to revive.  After all, it was
rather jolly having tea in this quaint place, with the autumn sunshine
streaming in through the little window and falling brightly across the
tea-table, till the honey in its glass pot shone like liquid amber, and
the dahlias, which Major Stotford had removed from the centre of the
table because they obstructed his view, were ruby red against the snowy
cloth.  The sunlight fell too upon the man's dark hair and showed it
thinning on the top and about the temples.  Prudence noted these things
with interest.  She wondered what his age was, and decided that he was
older than he appeared.  She began to feel more at ease with him.  He
ate surprising quantities of cake in the limited time at his disposal,
and dispatched several cups of tea.  At the expiration of the ten
minutes he returned the watch to his pocket and rose briskly.

"Time's up," he said, coming round to her seat and standing over her
with his hand on the back of her chair.  "I think I deserve thanks for
my self-sacrifice, don't you?"

Prudence would have risen too, but it was impossible to do so without
coming into collision with him.  She wished he would not stand so close.

"I can't see where the self-sacrifice comes in," she replied.  "You made
an excellent tea."

He laughed and leant over her chair, so that their faces were on a
level.  The expression in his eyes startled her.  She jerked back her
chair quickly and stood up, but immediately his hand slipped to her arm
and held her.

"Do you know," he said, "I think you are a little afraid of me."

"Let me go--please!"  She was thoroughly alarmed now.  The old
uneasiness gripped her.  She experienced again the sensation of being
trapped.  And his eyes frightened her.  They held hers with strangely
compelling force, and there was a look in them such as she had never
seen in a man's eyes before--such as she had never imagined human eyes
could express.  "I wish you--wouldn't look at me--like that."

The grip on her arm tightened.  He drew her close to him, and his other
hand came to rest on her shoulder, slipped round her shoulders and held
her.

"Look into my eyes," he said.  "Don't be frightened.  There is nothing
to be frightened about."

"Oh, please!" said Prudence, near to tears.  "Let me go."

"In a minute," he returned softly.  "I've something to say first.  You
shy child, what are you afraid of?  I've a great affection for you.  You
are the dearest, sweetest little girl I have met for many a long year.
I want to be friends--now and for ever.  And I'm going to seal the
compact right here."

Swiftly with the words his clasp of her became vicelike.  It was useless
for Prudence to struggle against him.  Her resistance served only to
strengthen his resolve.  He crushed her to him, set his lips to hers,
and kissed her--kissed her with a passion that was as a flame which
burned into her soul.  Then he released her; and she fell back with a
gasp of anger, her face white, her eyes ablaze with rage and
mortification.  She leaned with her clenched hand upon the tablecloth,
panting and inarticulate.  He turned to give her time to recover, picked
his cap up from a chair, and faced round again deliberately.

"I couldn't help it," he said; "you were so sweet.  I've been wanting to
do that all the time.  Don't look so tragic.  I won't offend again."

"How dare you?" she breathed; and with difficulty he forced back the
smile that threatened to break over his features.  That was exactly what
he had expected her to say, what he had known she would say, as soon as
she found any voice to speak with.

"I don't know," he said.  "Upon my soul, I don't know how it happened.
I'm sorry--to have annoyed you.  I'm not sorry about anything else.  I
had to kiss you."

"I want," Prudence said, with a faint sob in her voice, "to go home."

"You aren't angry with me?" he said, and became suddenly humble.  "You
aren't going to punish me?  I'm really ashamed of my roughness.  Forgive
me.  Say you forgive me.  I will not offend again.  Please..."

"I will never willingly speak to you again," Prudence said.  "If I had
any means at all of getting back without you I wouldn't drive with you
now.  Please don't say any more.  Let us start at once."

"You are as hard as a piece of flint," he said, "for all your sweetness.
I didn't think you could be so unkind.  Come then!"

He opened the door for her and followed her into the passage.  From
across the passage the sound of merry voices broke upon their ears.
Major Stotford glanced in the direction from whence the sounds came, and
then glanced curiously at Prudence.  She walked on, very erect and
quiet, with a white chilled face, and a hurt look in her eyes, seeming
to notice nothing.

Once during the drive back he broke the silence which up to that moment
had endured between them since they had taken their seats in the car.
He had been driving at top speed; but they were nearing the inn where
they had left the bicycle, and he slowed the car down and turned his
face towards his quiet companion.

"Prudence," he said, "you aren't for keeping it up, are you?  I've
apologised.  I'm really awfully sorry.  Let bygones be bygones, won't
you?  I wish I hadn't made such an ass of myself.  You surprised and
delighted me.  I didn't think you'd take it like that."

"Major Stotford," Prudence returned with her face averted, "I have never
given you permission to use my name."

He reddened angrily, turned his attention to the steering and made no
response.  Nothing further passed between them.  He let the car out,
taking, with a recklessness that at another time would have made the
girl nervous, the sharp curves of the winding road.  Had they met any
traffic along the road his driving would have caused an accident, as it
was he nearly ran down a cyclist whom they overtook, and who saved
himself and his machine by riding into the hedge.

Prudence's heart stood still on perceiving the cyclist.  She had taken
one swift look at him as they rushed past, had met his eyes fully, eyes
in which indignation yielded to amazement and a most unflattering
criticism as they rested upon her face, which from white flamed swiftly
to a shamed distressed crimson in the moment of mutual recognition.

The Rev Ernest Jones extricated himself and his bicycle from the hedge
and pursued the racing car.  Why he pursued it he could not have
explained; he had certainly no hope of overtaking it, and he had no idea
that the car would come to a standstill shortly after passing him.  He
discovered it half a mile further on at the bottom of the hill, with
Major Stotford standing beside it, and Prudence in the road, holding her
bicycle which the man at the inn had brought out for her.  These
proceedings were nothing short of astounding.  Mr Jones felt they
needed explaining.  He put on a fresh spurt, and in a cloud of dust rode
almost into Prudence, and alighted.

Major Stotford uttered an exclamation of disgust and started to beat the
dust from his clothes, while Prudence silently regarded her
brother-in-law, and he in turn surveyed the general grouping with
manifest disfavour in his curious eyes.

"You are riding home," he said to Prudence, not in the manner of a
question, but simply stating a fact.  "I will accompany you--when you
are ready."

"I am ready now," she answered, and led her bicycle into the middle of
the road.

Major Stotford, still beating the dust from his clothes, did not look
round.  Mr Jones held his bicycle ready; he had no intention of
mounting until he had seen Prudence in the saddle.  Instantly with the
placing of her foot on the pedal, Major Stotford swung round and
approached her.  He held out his hand to her.

"Just for appearances," he said in an undertone.  "You must...  It's too
silly... parting like that--before him."

She shook hands gravely.  He put his hand to his cap and stepped back.

"Good-bye," he called after her.  "Sorry you couldn't come for a longer
spin.  I'm off to-morrow."

He paid no attention to Mr Jones, who was already in pursuit of
Prudence, and ringing his bell fussily; he turned his back on him and
went into the inn for the purpose of washing some of the curate's dust
from his throat, reflecting while he did so that, had Prudence been more
reasonable, she would have avoided the parson.  Despite the fact that he
felt annoyed with her, he regretted the complication of the meeting
which he foresaw would create new difficulties for her.

"He'll tell of course," he mused.  "He's the sneaking sort of little cad
who feels it his special mission in life to use the lash where he can.
Well, she ran into it, poor little Imprudence!"

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

Mr Jones was spared the necessity of describing the conditions under
which he had met Prudence by Prudence's own frank confession immediately
on her arrival at the house.  She was either too proud to appeal to Mr
Jones' generosity, or she did not credit him with the possession of this
quality.  He had quite expected an appeal from her, urging him to
secrecy in the matter, and was a little uncertain as to the attitude he
should adopt.  But he was fully determined to improve the occasion with
spiritual advice and a little brotherly reproof; also he intended that
she should thoroughly appreciate his magnanimity in shielding her from
the consequences of her very indiscreet behaviour.  And she spoilt his
pleasing role by refusing to give him the cue.  This annoyed him, and
showed him plainly that his first duty was to his father-in-law, who had
every right to be informed of his daughter's indiscretions.  He followed
Prudence into the drawing-room, the sense of responsibility sitting
heavily upon him, and was received by Mr Graynor and by his
sisters-in-law with marked cordiality.

"You should have arrived earlier," Agatha said.  "The tea is cold.
Where is Matilda?"

"I didn't come from home," he answered.  "I've just cycled in from
Hatchett.  I've had tea, thanks."

And then Prudence's bombshell was delivered.

"So have I," she said.  "I met Major Stotford, and we had tea at a
Cyclists' Rest."

"You _did what_?"

On any other occasion the scandalised horror in Agatha's voice would
have roused Prudence to a defiant retort; but the afternoon's experience
had subdued her spirit; she felt too crushed and miserable to resent her
sister's amazed anger, or to heed the exchange of significant glances
between the others.  She was dimly aware that her father rose and
approached her, but the pained displeasure of his look left her unmoved.
It did not seem to her to matter particularly what happened, or what
they thought of her; she was past caring about such things.

"I thought I had given you quite clearly to understand that I did not
wish you to pursue the acquaintance with Major Stotford," Mr Graynor
said.  Prudence's eyes fell.  "I believed I could trust you," he added
reproachfully; "and you don't even respect my wishes."

"I will in future," she answered with unusual meekness.  "It seemed
ungracious to refuse after his kindness."

"More particularly when it was against your own inclination," broke in
Agatha.

Mr Graynor raised a protesting hand.

"Not now," he said.  "We will speak of this later."

And with a word of apology to Mr Jones, he left the room.  Prudence
followed him into the hall.

"Daddy, I'm sorry," she said, and caught at his sleeve; but, for the
first time within her memory, he repulsed her.

"I don't want to hear any more," he said.  "You have annoyed me
exceedingly."

He went on, leaving Prudence to realise the enormity of her conduct, and
the hopelessness of expecting forgiveness in this quarter.  She had
offended him deeply.  She ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom
and sought relief from tears.

The exasperating part of the affair lay in the wholly unnecessary
attitude of inflexible veto adopted by her family.  Prudence was not
likely to repeat her mistake.  Experience teaches its own lessons, and
her experience had been sufficiently humiliating without any additional
disgrace.  She bore for a time with this state of affairs: when the
general hostility became insupportable she set her mind to work to
discover a remedy.  As a result of this mental activity, Mr Edward
Morgan received one morning the letter for which he had so long and so
patiently waited.

Mr Morgan read the letter in the privacy of his office, smiled, re-read
it, examined it from all angles, and promptly proceeded to answer it, a
light of satisfaction illumining his features as he wrote.

And yet there was in the briefly worded note not much that a man could
have twisted into any meaning conveying particular encouragement;
nevertheless, the invitation for which he had waited had come at last;
that sufficed for Mr Morgan.

"It is so dull," Prudence had written.  "When are you coming to pay your
promised visit?"

His answer read:

  "My dear Miss Prudence,--

  "I was delighted to get your letter.  It would be selfish on my part
  to say that I am rejoiced to know you feel dull; but at least I cannot
  express sincere regret since the admission is followed by what I have
  been hoping for ever since we parted--your permission to visit you
  again.  I am coming immediately.  I was only waiting for just this
  dear little letter.

  "Yours very truly,--

  "Edward Morgan."

"Oh!" exclaimed Prudence when she read this letter, and bit her lip in
vexation, her face aflame at the thought that she had taken the
irrevocable step, and brought very close the moment for the great
decision of her life.

She knew that he would ask her to marry him, that he would take her
consent for granted; and, although in sending the letter she had decided
upon taking this step, now that the thing was upon her she felt
reluctant and afraid.

"You've done it now," she told herself, for the purpose of stiffening
her resolution.  "You ought to have realised your doubts sooner.  It is
impossible to draw back."

Impossible to draw back!  The finality of the phrase gripped her
imagination with the startled sensation of a lost cause.  She had burnt
her boats.  The prospect ahead was not entirely lacking in fascination;
but she wished none the less that some kind of raft might discover
itself on which she could retreat conveniently if the alternative proved
very distasteful.  The thought of being kissed by Mr Morgan, as Major
Stotford had kissed her, the idea of giving any man the right to so kiss
her, filled her with sick apprehension.  The whole process of
love-making thrilled her with disgust.

She leaned from her window and looked out upon the glistening darkness
of the wet November night, and her thoughts became detached from present
complexities, and attuned themselves to memories that were becoming old.
They were nearly two years old, but they wore the stark vividness of
very recent things.  She allowed her fancy to riot unchecked around
these bitter-sweet memories of a romance which had started from slumber
only to fall back again into sleep, a sleep no longer sound and
reposeful but disturbed by haunting dreams, dreams that were elusive and
disconnected, and which belonged to the might-have-been.  There was no
shrinking from these dreams; they floated before her mind arrayed in the
gracious beauty of simple and sincere emotions.  The thought of love, of
passion even, in this connection, had no qualm of revulsion in it.  To
be held in strong arms a willing captive, to be kissed by lips to which
her own responded, that was a different matter.  There would be no sense
of shame in that, only a great wonder and a vast content.

"Dreams! dreams!"  Prudence murmured, and listened to the falling of the
rain without--wet darkness everywhere, the dismal darkness of a winter
world sodden with the sky's incessant weeping.

She clenched her hands upon the wet sill, and felt the rain drops on her
hair.

"He is out there in the sunshine," she thought; "and I'm here in the
dark and the rain alone.  It is easy to forget when the sun shines
always."

Abruptly she drew back and closed the window and turned up the lights in
the room.

"I wish he wasn't coming quite so soon," she said, crouching down by the
dying fire, a shivering, shrinking figure, with rain-wet hair, and eyes
which were wet also, but not with rain.

The memories were shut out with the rain-washed night.  She was back in
the present again, with the disturbing reflection that the morrow, the
last day of sad November, would see the arrival of Edward Morgan and the
end of her girlish dreams.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

Mr Edward Morgan arrived on the following afternoon.  Prudence watched
him from the window disentangling himself from the carriage rugs, and
fussing with the muffler which he wore wound carefully about his throat.
The wind was in the north-east, and he was subject to bronchitis.

Swathed in wraps he did not cut a romantic figure: he looked what he
was, a prosperous, middle-aged man who valued his health and refrained
from taking liberties with it.  Prudence told herself that he was wise
to be cautious, at the same time she wished that he was of an age at
which such caution was unnecessary.

He mounted the steps, and was welcomed in the hall by Mr Graynor and
taken to the library for purposes of refreshment stronger than tea after
his cold and tedious journey.  Later, he made his appearance in the
drawing-room, divested of his outdoor wear and improved on that account.
A subtle blending of whisky and cigar smoke emanated from his person,
of which Prudence was critically aware as she shook hands and replied to
his inquiries as to her health.  He was in immense spirits, as became a
successful lover; also he was a little shy and nervously anxious to
please.

He talked about his journey and discussed politics and business and the
weather; and Prudence listened, taking no part in the conversation, and
feeling grateful to him for refraining from addressing her directly.  He
was, while intensely alive to her presence, seemingly unmindful of it.
He credited her, not without reason, with sharing his shyness; and was
anxious to give her time to get used to him and feel her way back to
their former easy relations.  Miss Agatha received the greater part of
his attention, and in return pressed the hot scones on him hospitably.
He refused these on the plea that they gave him indigestion; but he
accepted cake, and a cup of the eighteenpenny tea, which he pronounced
excellent.

"Mrs Morgan is well, I hope?"  Miss Agatha inquired conversationally,
filling in one of those abrupt, unaccountable, and disconcerting pauses
in the talk, which flowed with even dulness between the hitches.

"Thank you, yes.  My mother enjoys excellent health.  Henry's wife has
been laid up; they had to operate for appendicitis.  She's about again
now.  Henry and the boys are flourishing."

There followed polite expressions of regret for Mrs Henry Morgan's
indisposition, broken into by the arrival of William, whose greeting of
Mr Morgan overflowed with cordiality.

"Been looking to see you in these parts for months," he said.  "Beastly
weather for travelling; the wind is cutting.  Are those hot scones,
Prudence?"

William was so accustomed to being waited upon by the different members
of his family that it never occurred to him to attend to his own needs.
He did not observe the flush of annoyance that overspread Prudence's
face, nor the reluctance with which she rose to fetch the scones in
question; Mr Morgan observed it, however, and was before her in
reaching the fireplace where the scones lay on a hot plate inside the
fender.  He stooped for the plate; and the stiffness of his movements,
while apparent to Prudence, passed uncriticised on this occasion.
William protested loudly.

"Oh, come!" he said.  "You shouldn't do that.  I can't allow a visitor
to wait on me.  One of the girls will do it."

Mr Morgan disregarded the remonstrance, refusing to relinquish the dish
of scones.

"My mother brought me up to wait upon her," he said, smiling.  "It comes
natural to me."

Prudence felt pleased; but she had no faith in the lesson proving
beneficial to William; he would assuredly miss the point.

"Well, you're a younger man than I," said William jocularly.  "I
shouldn't show such energy after a long journey."

Which speech, delivered for Prudence's benefit, William considered
particularly tactful.  He had in mind his sister's reflections on Mr
Morgan's age.  But Mr Morgan was not helpful.

"I'm forty-three to-day," he acknowledged, with, in William's opinion,
quite unnecessary candour.  "I decided on this date for making the
journey from sentimental reasons; it occurred to me as an altogether
agreeable way of celebrating the occasion."

He did not look in Prudence's direction while he spoke, for which
consideration she was obliged to him: she felt the eyes of the rest
focussed upon herself, and guessed what was in their thoughts in
connection with these confidences.  It did not in the least surprise her
to hear William playfully observe that they would have to contrive
something special in the way of entertainment to mark the event and make
this birthday a memorable one.  He looked meaningly at Prudence, and
slyly at Mr Morgan, and remarked that birthdays conferred peculiar
privileges and gave a right to indulgence.  But Mr Morgan repudiated
this.

"At my age one doesn't insist on those prerogatives," he said.  "The
only advantage I take of the day is to give myself pleasure.  I have
done that."

From which Prudence gathered to her relief that he did not intend to
press his suit that day.  Nor did he.  He rather skilfully evaded the
_tete-a-tetes_ with her, which every member of the household seemed in
conspiracy to bring about.  He was giving her time to commit to heart
the lesson which he had told her he wanted her to learn.  It was a
lesson which she could not master with him for teacher; but she came to
feel a very warm friendship for him, which in lieu of anything better
seemed not insufficient to begin with.

Mr Morgan had been at Court Heatherleigh a week before he broached the
question of marriage with her; and Prudence, lulled into a sense of
security by his avoidance of the subject, doubted whether he intended to
propose to her, and was divided between a state of mortification and
relief.  The proposal when it came startled her the more by reason of
this adaptation of Mr Morgan from the role he had been cast for to the
less romantic role of friend.  It found her immensely unprepared, as the
delayed falling of anything long expected is apt to do when launched
suddenly and with irrelevant haste.  She was altogether unaware of what
was in his mind at the moment when he sprung the thing upon her.

They were playing billiards together after dinner, with Mary acting as
marker and making a third in the conversation that confined itself
almost exclusively to the game.  Prudence, in the interest of making a
brake, did not observe when Mary left the room; she became aware of her
absence for the first time on looking round to call the score.  Mr
Morgan marked for her.  When he approached the table, instead of
playing, he laid his cue on the cloth and took Prudence's hand.

"Come and sit down," he said, drawing her to the settee.  "We'll finish
the game presently."

Prudence relinquished her cue to him and sat down.  He put the cue away
in the rack and seated himself beside her.

"I've been a long time coming to my point," he said, coming to it rather
abruptly now that he was once started; "but I think you must have
understood my reason for delay.  I did not want to hurry you.  You know
why I came down...  Prudence, will you marry me?"

Prudence gave a little sigh, and sat perfectly still, staring with
amazed eyes at the neglected balls on the green cloth.  Oddly, the
thought which struck her at the moment was that it was unnecessary to
break off in the middle of a game to ask her that.  There was no need to
make opportunities; they were thrust at him.

"Let me think," she said.  "Give me time.  You--startled me."

"But you knew that I meant to ask you that question?"  He took her hand
again and pressed it gently.  "When you sent that letter, wasn't it
intended for permission to speak?  I interpreted it that way."

"I--don't--know."  She was still for a moment; then she turned to him
and looked him uncertainly in the eyes.  "I was very miserable when I
wrote that letter.  Yes; I suppose that was what I meant--then."

She broke off, and her gaze wandered away and came to rest again on the
balls.

"It's silly of me," she said, speaking very low.  "I feel a little
afraid."

"Just shyness," he said reassuringly, stroking the hand which lay limply
in his.  "I am old for you; but you will find me the more gentle,
possibly the more understanding, on that account.  My darling, I love
you very dearly.  You are so young--you don't know yet what love is.  I
did not know either until recently.  I come to it rather late.  But my
feeling for you is very deep.  Prudence, my dear, I want you.  I love
you.  If you give yourself to me I will do everything in my power to
make your life happy.  Will you marry me, dear?"

It seemed to Prudence that there was only one possible answer.  She had
understood when she invited him to come down the significance of what
she did.  She had no right to encourage him to hope and then fail in her
part.  He was too good a man to play with.  She kept her face averted
while she answered him, staring fixedly at the shining balls, lying
where her last stroke had left them placed conveniently, she realised
with grim appreciation of her mistake, for him to score off.

"I want to be quite frank with you," she said, her breathing fast
through sheer nervousness, an earnest expression on her face, which he
thought very modest and gentle.  "I don't love you, Mr Morgan,--not in
that way--not, I mean, as you love me.  I've thought--I should like to
marry you.  I think that still--only I'm afraid sometimes,--afraid that
you'll find me disappointing."

He placed his arm very gently round her shoulders and held her so
without attempting any warmer caress.  He smiled into her troubled eyes.

"There is only one thing that could possibly disappoint me," he said,
"and that is if I fail to make you happy.  Trust me, and all will be
well."

And so Prudence secured her passage through the door which it seemed he
alone could open for her into those wider spaces where she imagined
freedom was to be found.  But emerging with Edward Morgan at her side,
it gradually became clear to her that she was doubly fettered.  In
blindly groping for her freedom she had given herself to a new and more
complete bondage.  She would leave the old tyranny behind her, only to
pass to another condition of fresh and more pressing obligations.  The
certainty of these things came to her with the realisation of her
distaste for her new responsibility.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

Prudence insisted upon a long engagement.

That was the first hitch in the amicable relations between her and her
fiance.  Mr Morgan could see no reason why they should not marry
immediately.  He had less time than she to waste, and he was impatient
of delay.  But Prudence remained firm.  She held out for a six months'
engagement; and Mr Graynor from purely selfish reasons ranged himself
on her side.  He was glad that her choice had fallen so wisely on this
trusty friend of long standing.  He could hand her over to the care of
Edward Morgan with no anxiety for her future well-being; but he did not
want to part with her too soon.  When she was married the opportunities
for seeing her would be few, and he dreaded the separation.

"Six months is not so very long," he told the exasperated Mr Morgan.
"And Prudence is only twenty."

"If I were twenty," Mr Morgan retorted, "I might see the matter in that
light.  Unfortunately I am not that age.  But I shall have to exercise
patience, I suppose."

He bought his fiancee a magnificent half hoop of diamonds, and slipped
it on her fingers, where it looked, Prudence considered, oddly out of
place.  It was altogether too valuable for constant wear.  She did not
tell him so for fear of hurting his feelings; but she wished that he
would buy her less extravagant gifts.  Whenever he gave her anything it
was of the costliest description that he could procure.  It seemed to
give him peculiar satisfaction to surround her with expensive things.
And he was amazingly kind and considerate for her unexpressed wishes.
Prudence never knew how much it cost him in self-restraint in those
early days of their engagement to keep under the ardour of his love for
her, and school his passionate desire to take her in his arms and kiss
madly her cool unresponding lips.  He was wise, this mature lover.  He
knew that he had to foster her kindly affection for him; that he would
need to tend and cherish it a long time before he could look to see it
blossom into love.  But he did not despair.  He believed that she would
give him eventually a full and willing response.

The engagement brought unforeseen consequences in the form of
affectionate and intimate letters from the different members of Mr
Morgan's family.  All these people were unknown to Prudence; yet they
wrote to her as though the prospective relationship admitted them to
terms of confidential familiarity.

Old Mrs Morgan wrote approving her son's choice, and congratulating
Prudence on having won so excellent a husband.  She was glad, she added,
that Prudence was young; she liked young people about her.  She looked
forward to having Prudence on a visit, when she would instruct her in
regard to Edward's likes and dislikes, the care of his health, and other
matters of similar importance.

Mrs Henry Morgan's letter was gushing and insincere in tone.  As a
matter of fact Mr Morgan's sister-in-law was not very pleased to hear
of his engagement.  She had come to regard him as a confirmed bachelor,
and her two sons, for whom she was very ambitious as quite certain of
inheriting their uncle's immense wealth.  She had mapped out a brilliant
future for them in which Morgan Bros, played no part; and she considered
it indelicate on Edward's side to upset her plans by marrying--at his
time of life.

"You are a brave little person," ran one passage in her letter; "a man
past forty is not adaptable.  But I'll give you all sorts of wrinkles
how to manage him.  And of course his mother will live with you.  She
and I don't get on."

"Of course his mother won't live with us," Prudence told herself.

But she learned later that Mrs Henry's statement was correct.  Old Mrs
Morgan had managed Edward's house always, and would continue to do so.

"You will love her," he assured Prudence; "and most certainly she will
love you."

An invitation to spend Christmas in Derbyshire followed; but Prudence,
panic-stricken at the thought of meeting these people, insisted on
spending her last Christmas at home; and it was finally settled that the
visit should be deferred till the spring, when Mr Morgan promised
himself the pleasure of fetching her to spend a fortnight with his
mother, and of bringing her home again at the finish of the visit.
There was little likelihood of seeing much of her in the interval; but
she promised to write to him regularly once a week, setting aside his
tentative suggestion that a daily correspondence would be welcome by
frankly admitting that she would find nothing to say.  He was
disappointed.  The ink on his own pen would not have dried from a dearth
of ideas.  At forty-three a man's passion is no whit less ardent than
that of a boy of twenty; but the man knows how to practise restraint.
It was this knowledge which helped Edward Morgan over the difficulties
of his courtship with a girl whose heart he had yet to win, and to whom
passion was an unknown quantity.

Prudence was rather sexless in those days.  The realities of love and
marriage were mysteries to her.  Marriage meant no more than the
solution of a problem that had occupied her attention on and off for
years.  She saw no other way of obtaining her emancipation.  And he was
very unexacting in his devotion, and patient and kind.

The kindly attentions of Mr Morgan, the cessation of general
hostilities, and the patronising approval of brother William, effected a
wonderful clearance in the domestic atmosphere.  Prudence was once more
in favour, and the indiscretions of the past were tacitly overlooked.
She discovered also that by virtue of her engagement she had achieved a
new importance in Wortheton social life.  People called to offer their
congratulations; and the vicar talked affably of the imitative tendency
of marriage, seeming to ascribe Prudence's good fortune to the example
set by her sister.  He informed Mr Morgan rather unnecessarily that he
was rich in this world's goods.

Amid the general rejoicings Bobby alone stood aloof, critical and
disapproving and altogether unimpressed with the splendour of the match.

"You don't need to marry money," he wrote.  "There's more than enough of
the beastly commodity in the family as it is.  And Morgan! ...  Of
course he's all right in himself, and a good fellow; but he's more than
double your age.  Imagine what you would say if I wanted to marry a
woman old enough to be my mother!  Break it off, Prue.  I'll be home
shortly, and I'll stand by you."

Prudence shed a few surreptitious tears over this letter, though it
moved her to mirth as well; it was so characteristic of the writer.
But, save for glimpses during the holidays, Bobby had no idea of the
flatness of life at Court Heatherleigh, its repression, its sneaking
pose--there was no other term for it--of pious superiority which crushed
the spirit and the natural honesty of those upon whom its influence was
exerted.  She was not marrying Mr Morgan for his wealth; she was not
marrying him for love.  Her reasons, when she came to analyse them,
occurred to her singularly inadequate.  She felt very doubtful as to the
wisdom of the step she had taken.  The idea of a triangular household,
with a mother-in-law in supreme command, seemed to her rather like a
repetition of the unsatisfactory home conditions.  She felt that Edward
Morgan owed it to her to set up a separate establishment, and even
ventured to suggest this rearrangement to him.  He heard her in pained
surprise.

"My mother will not intrude on us," he said.  "Morningside has been her
home always.  I could not agree to her living elsewhere."

"Couldn't _we_ live elsewhere?"  Prudence insisted.  "I should like a
house of my own."

"You don't understand," he said, with his hands on her shoulders, and
his grave eyes looking tenderly down upon her.  "Home for my mother is
where I am."

He stooped and kissed her as a sort of act of forgiveness for the want
of consideration she had shown.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

On the morning that Edward Morgan left Wortheton it was arranged that
Prudence should drive with him to the junction and see the train off.
It was never clear to Prudence with whom the idea originated; it
certainly did not emanate from her own brain.  She was even a little
embarrassed at the thought of the four-mile drive with her heavily
coated and bemuffled fiance, and the prospective ordeal of standing by
the door of his compartment during those exasperating, interminable
minutes before the starting of the train.

She came downstairs into the hall dressed for the drive in a navy
costume which accentuated the girlish slenderness of her figure to
discover Mr Morgan winding his many wraps about him, and talking
cheerfully with her father and sisters, who were gathered together to
see him off.

He paused in the business of buttoning his coat to inquire anxiously if
she were sufficiently warmly clad for the day, which was bright and
cold, with a touch of December frost in the air.  She replied carelessly
that she did not feel cold; and Mr Graynor, with his arm about her
shoulders, remarked thoughtlessly:

"Young blood, Morgan, defies the weather."

"I think Prudence should wear a fur about her throat," Agatha said.  "It
would look more suitable."

Mary was despatched forthwith to fetch the unwanted addition, which,
when it appeared, Mr Morgan insisted on placing round her shoulders.
Prudence took her seat in the carriage, feeling oppressed with the
warmth of the sable and the confined heated atmosphere of the
artificially warmed brougham, with its windows carefully closed against
the cold clear air.  She dragged at the fur impatiently.

"I must take it off," she said.  "I feel stifled."

"All right," he acquiesced, and passed his arm round her waist in a
clumsy caress.  "I'll keep you warm.  Comfy, eh?"

She smiled at him a little nervously.

"You are just a mountain of clothes," she said.

During the long drive Mr Morgan kept his arm about her, and held her so
closely that Prudence felt suffocated.  She proposed letting down the
window part way; but Mr Morgan showed such alarm at the idea that she
did not persist.

"You don't understand the risk," he said.  "This winter travelling...
It's how people contract pneumonia, risking chills through open windows.
You don't know how to take care of yourself.  It's time I took a hand
at it.  I'm going to take great care of you, little girl,--all my life.
Open windows!--no!  This open-air craze is the cause of most of the ills
of life."

Prudence laughed.

"I understood it was the cure for them," she replied.  "I live in the
open air--and sleep in it."

"Sleep in it!" he ejaculated in horrified accents.

"Well, not actually that," she said; "but with the bedroom window wide--
always."

He stared at her.  He had never supposed that any one, save those
undergoing the outrageous experiment of the new-fangled open-air cure,
which he considered stark madness, slept with open windows in the
winter.  His own windows were always carefully secured and heavily
curtained.  Occasionally, during the very warm summer months, he allowed
an inch at the top to remain open for purposes of ventilation.

"You will grow wiser as you grow older," he said, and determined that on
that point anyhow he would have his own way.

It was a relief to Prudence when they arrived at the station.  She
walked on to the platform, declining to accompany Mr Morgan to the
booking-office while he procured his ticket.  She wanted to fill her
lungs with fresh air before the further ordeal of final leave-taking;
and she wanted for a few minutes to be rid of his kindly presence, and
the necessity of responding to his lover-like advances.  It was all so
dull and irksome; there was only one word which occurred to her as
applicable to the situation, and that was stodgy.  The stodginess of it
was getting on her nerves.

When finally the big over-coated figure emerged upon the platform and
came towards her Prudence felt a touch of compunction because she could
not return the smiling gladness of his look with eyes which expressed a
like pleasure at his approach; her own gaze was critical and entirely
matter-of-fact.

His train was in.  She opened the door of an empty compartment and stood
beside it.  He joined her, waited until the porter had placed his
luggage on the rack, and dismissed him handsomely; then he motioned
Prudence to get into the compartment, and followed her quickly and
closed the door upon themselves.

"We've just time," he said, "for a last good-bye."  And took her in his
arms.

She had never felt so embarrassed in his presence before, perhaps
because he had never before assumed so lover-like and determined an
attitude.  He tilted back her face and kissed her lips, and continued to
hold and kiss her in this extravagant manner, despite the fact that
people passed the carriage at intervals and stared in as they passed.
Mr Morgan was indifferent to this manifest curiosity in his doings, and
his broad figure blocked the middle window and screened Prudence from
intrusive eyes.

"Oh!" she said, and attempted to withdraw from his embrace.  "The train
will be starting immediately.  I had better get out."

"Shy little girl!" he returned, and laughed joyously.  "You've never
been very free with your kisses, Prudence; and it will be a long time
before I see you again.  All right!  You shall get out now.  One good
kiss before I let you go."

He fairly hugged her.  Prudence gave him a cool hasty peck on the cheek,
slipped from his hold, and was out on the platform as soon as he opened
the door.  He closed the door and fastened it and leaned from the window
to talk to her, holding her hand until the guard's flag waved the signal
for her release.

"Good-bye, my darling," he called to her.

Prudence stood back and waved her hand to him, waved it gaily with a
glad sense of relief.  The last she saw of him as the train began to
move out of the station was his grave face regarding her mournfully as
he pulled up the window before settling down in his corner.

Prudence hurried out to the waiting carriage with her thoughts in a
whirl.  This business of being engaged was an altogether perplexing
affair.  She had not expected things to be like this somehow.  She did
not know quite what she had expected; but she had never imagined that
the stolid Edward Morgan could assume the role of lover and confidently
look for a similar response from her; she had believed he would maintain
the more dignified attitude of a warm and affectionate friendliness
throughout their engagement; and she felt vexed and cheated because he
had disappointed her in this belief.

"It's absurd," she told herself, with her hot face turned to the sharp
crisp air which came through the open window, "for him to imagine I am
going to let him make love to me when I only want him to be nice and
kind always."

But she began dimly to apprehend that the absurdity was likely to go on.

Bobby came home for the Christmas holidays and talked to her seriously
of the mistake she was making.  He did not look forward to the prospect
of coming home finally to find Prudence gone; and the next term at
school was his last.

"Beastly rotten it will be here without you," he remarked.  "You might
have waited, Prue, a little longer.  You don't love old Morgan, do you?"

That was a poser for Prudence.

"I'm fond of him," she answered guardedly.  "He's kind, and generous.
When I am married I shall be able to do as I like."

"Rot!" he retorted.  "It will mean simply exchanging one dulness for
another.  Then you'll vary the dullness by falling in love with some one
else, and there'll be a scandal.  I know you.  You'll never settle down
to a stick-in-the-mud existence with old Morgan.  And serve him jolly
well right for being such an ass."

Prudence regarded him with newly awakened interest, her expression
slightly aggrieved.

"I had no idea you held such a low opinion of me," she said.

He laughed.

"That's human nature, old girl.  If you intend to remain faithful to old
Morgan you'll not have to look at another man, because when the right
man comes along you'll know it; all the wedding rings in the world won't
keep you blind to facts.  You chuck the silly old geyser," he counselled
in the inelegant phraseology he affected, "before you tie your life into
a hopeless knot."

She shook her head.

"It's not so easy," she said.

"They'd be down on you, of course.  But I'd stand by you.  We'd worry
through."

"I didn't mean that."  She attempted explanations.  "He's so good and
kind.  You don't understand.  I'd feel the meanest thing on the face of
the earth if I hurt him deliberately like that.  And there isn't any
need.  I _want_ to marry him."

"There's no accounting for tastes, of course," he said rudely, and flung
out of the room in a mood of deep disgust.

The whole business of Prudence's engagement was profoundly exasperating
to him.  It obtruded itself at unexpected moments with an insistence
that was to his way of thinking indecent.  It interfered with his
arrangements.  So many hours of her time were given to letter writing
that the size of the weekly epistle was ever a matter of suspicious
amazement to him.  He had no means of knowing how long those bald
sentences which Prudence sprawled largely with a generous marginal space
over the sheet of notepaper took in their composition.  He suspected
that she wrote reams to the fellow and posted them on the sly.

The regular arrival of Mr Morgan's weekly effusion was a further
irritation.  This was handed usually to Prudence across the breakfast
table with ponderous playfulness on brother William's part, and a show
of sly surreptitiousness, that drew general attention to the transit
from his pocket to her reluctant hand.

The sorting of the letters was accompanied by such facetious subtleties
as "Do we behold a billet doux?" or the murmured misquotation: "He sent
a letter to his love."  And the bulky envelope would be passed to her to
the accompaniment of appreciative giggles from his sisters, and received
by Prudence with as unconcerned an air as the trying circumstances made
possible, and left by her lying unopened on the table exposed to the
general gaze while she finished her meal.  She carried her letter away
with her and read it in the privacy of her room.

"I can't think how you stand it," Bobby said once, when they were alone
together.  "If Uncle William made such fatuous remarks to me I'd hit
him."

"I won't give him the satisfaction of seeing how he annoys me," she
answered.  "William would vulgarise the most sacred thing."

"You aren't for calling this luke-warm affair sacred, I hope?"  Bobby
asked with fine sarcasm.  Whereupon she smiled suddenly and pulled his
scornful young face down to hers and kissed it.

"It's one way out," she explained; and he was silent in face of the
reasonableness of her reply.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

Christmas came and brought with it Edward Morgan's gift to his fiancee,
a rope of pearls, so beautiful and costly that Prudence, on taking the
shining thing from its bed of velvet, and holding it in her hands, was
moved with a sense of remorse at the inadequacy of the return she was
making this man, who showered gifts upon her in token of his love.  She
did not want his presents; they were an embarrassment and a distress.

The thought of wearing the pearls, as in the letter which accompanied
them he requested her to do, on Christmas night, was distasteful to her
on account of the continuous flow of witticism she would be forced to
meet from William, who already had revealed a new inventiveness on
presenting the registered package to her, and had manifested open
curiosity as to its contents, which she had failed to gratify.  And she
dreaded the cold criticism of Bobby's appraising eye.  Bobby would
possibly refrain from verbal comment, but his face would express the
more.

She locked the pearls away and decided that she would show them to no
one; she would ignore the request that came with them.  In any case they
were too valuable to wear at a quiet dinner at home, at which the only
guests would be Matilda and her husband, who, still in uncertainty as to
his living, waited on in Wortheton in hopeful expectation.  To wear the
pearls in Ernest's presence, and suffer William's sly pleasantries
unmoved, was more than she felt equal to.  Ernest, through the medium of
his wife, had expressed amazement at her engagement, which he attributed
to worldly considerations.

"She is incapable of appreciating the seriousness of marriage," he had
told Matilda.  "Her mind is light and inclines to frivolity, and
material advantages."

That his own inclination had been towards a comfortable income, was a
point he was apt to overlook.

Prudence found some difficulty in writing a sufficiently appreciative
acknowledgment of her lover's gift.  She hated the necessity for
expressing a pleasure which she did not feel.

"Your present is much too beautiful," she wrote.  "I don't know how to
thank you.  I am overpowered.  You give such wonderful things..."

She added nothing about locking the pearls away, but left it to his
imagination to picture her, as he had said he would do, shining in all
her girlish beauty with his pearls about her throat.  She determined to
take them with her to Morningside when she went in April.  If he wished
to see her wearing pearls, she would gratify him then.

The visit to Morningside hung over her like a nightmare.  She was not
allowed to forget it; Mr Morgan continually referred to it in his
letters.  He was having the whole place re-decorated for her; and he
wrote consulting her preference in the matter of wall-papers, and her
taste in tapestries.  The furnishing of the house was Victorian; and he
feared she might consider it a little heavy and inartistic.  He wanted
her to express her wishes in regard to furniture and other matters.  But
Prudence, taking alarm at the thought of this responsibility, flung the
onus of everything on to him, and insisted that the furniture which had
sufficed hitherto would assuredly serve for her needs.  She did not want
anything changed.  This proved disappointing to him.  He would have
liked her to show a greater interest in the home which was to be hers.
Her indifference chilled his enthusiasm in the plans he was making for
her pleasure; and the arrangements were left more and more in the
entirely capable hands of the decorator.  "We can alter things later,"
he told himself.  "And Prudence can buy any new stuff she wants."

The agreeable prospect of shopping with her compensated for the earlier
disappointment.  It would be so much pleasanter to choose things
together.

When she first beheld Morningside Prudence thought it the ugliest house
she had ever been in; but later, when better acquainted with its solid
splendour, she decided that it had possibilities, and was really a nice
house made to look ugly.  There was a dingy serviceable effect about
everything.

She arrived on a fine evening in April, soft and balmy, following a day
of intermittent showers and blazing sunshine.  Mr Morgan accompanied
her.  He had spent the week-end at Wortheton, and made the journey back
with her, as had been arranged.  His manner during the journey was
kindly and attentive.  He displayed great consideration for her comfort,
and, because she enjoyed fresh air, lowered one window a couple of
inches and buttoned his coat from fear of the draught.  The absence of
lover-like attentions, which he had sufficient perception to see
disturbed her, reassured Prudence, and placed their relations on an
easier footing.

When she arrived at his home and was conducted to the drawing-room to be
received by his mother, she was conscious of a new feeling in regard to
him; he inspired her with a sense of support.  She turned to him
instinctively as to some one reliable and familiar; and was grateful to
him when he slipped his hand within her arm and kept it there while they
advanced together down the long room to where old Mrs Morgan, stout and
severe of feature, sat in a big chair, quietly observant of her,
scrutinising her in the close disconcerting way peculiar to
short-sighted people.

"This is the daughter I promised you, mother," Edward Morgan said.

Mrs Morgan rose slowly and confronted them.  She took the girl's
outstretched hand.

"What a child!" she said, and bent forward and kissed Prudence on the
cheek.

She was, nor did she hide it altogether successfully, a little
disappointed.  Edward had prepared her for a young daughter-in-law, but
she had not expected to see any one quite so youthful in appearance.
Comparing them as they stood side by side, the disparity in age struck
her unpleasantly.

"My dear," she said, "I had not realised you were so young."

"I don't think I realised it myself," Prudence returned, feeling her
courage oozing away before the hard scrutiny of those critical eyes,
"until to-day.  I've an unfledged feeling since leaving home.  But I'm
twenty."

Twenty!  And the man who proposed to make her his wife might, had
circumstances so ordained it, have been her father.

"She'll grow up, mother," Mr Morgan observed, and pressed the girl's
arm reassuringly.  "I must try to equalise matters by growing younger
myself."

But the old lady was not encouraging.

"You won't succeed, Edward.  It's like planting a bulb the wrong way in
the soil; it grows against nature downwards, curves about, and works its
way to the surface, crooked.  Prudence will have to grow to you; you
can't go backwards."

He reddened and laughed a little constrainedly.

"I feel as young as I did at twenty," he said.  "Prudence will help to
rejuvenate me.  I refuse to be discouraged."

He crossed to the tea-table, poured the girl out a cup of tea, and
brought it to her.

"We've had a tiring journey," he said.  "I expect you'll be glad to go
to your room and rest.  There's a family gathering to-night--in your
honour."  He smiled down into the startled upraised eyes, and added:
"Just my brother and his wife.  You'll find Mrs Henry amusing.  She's
very eager to meet you."

"Rose always gushes over new acquaintances," Mrs Morgan interposed.
"She is making plans for Prudence's entertainment, although I told her
that Prudence was coming for the purpose of making our acquaintance, and
might prefer to avoid festivities.  I think she might have waited to
consult her wishes."

"Oh!" cried Prudence, with a ring of pleasurable excitement in her
tones.  "But that's awfully kind of her."

"You see," Mr Morgan said, enjoying the sight of her pleasure, and
feeling grateful to his sister-in-law for her forethought, "the idea is
not amiss.  We are out for amusement and agreeable to anything that
offers.  Rose's plan is excellent."

"Rose is glad of any excuse for gaiety," Mrs Morgan said.  "It is
ridiculous for a woman of her age, with two big boys, to amuse herself
in the undignified manner in which she does.  There is to be a dance
next week.  She says it will introduce Prudence to the neighbourhood.
In reality it is an excuse for indulging in a form of exercise which she
has outgrown."

"Do you enjoy dancing, Prudence?"  Mr Morgan asked.

Her sparkling eyes answered him.

"Oh! yes," she murmured eagerly, and was conscious from the expression
on Mrs Morgan's face, of giving offence.  "I've never been to a dance--
a real dance in my life," she added.

"Too much thought is given to amusement nowadays," Mrs Morgan observed.
"When I was a girl we seldom went to evening parties.  Late hours rob
young people of their freshness, and these modern dances are very
vulgar.  Edward dislikes dancing."

"Oh! once in a way I can put up with that sort of thing," he interposed
quickly.  "If Prudence enjoys it, I expect I shall get some pleasure out
of the evening."

Prudence gave him a grateful look, and, in reward for his consideration,
remarked:

"It's fortunate that I brought my pearls.  It's such a splendid
opportunity for wearing them.  You didn't prepare me for these
festivities."

"Upon my word," he returned, laughing, "I never gave it a thought."  He
became aware of his mother's silence, her tight-lipped disapproval, and
turned the subject diplomatically.  "There's a busy time ahead for you.
We've quite a lot of things calling for your attention.  And my mother
is looking forward to showing you over the house, and letting you into
the inner mysteries.  She is quite a wonderful housewife."

"Prudence is probably not domesticated," Mrs Morgan said.  "Girls show
no interest in their homes nowadays.  Things are left to servants."

"I've never had much chance," Prudence explained apologetically.  "You
see, I am the youngest of six daughters.  But I'd like to learn."

Mr Morgan considered her gentle submissiveness very sweet.  He was
surprised at his mother's lack of response to this softly-voiced desire;
for himself, he felt a strong temptation to kiss the pretty timid face
of the speaker, but his natural shyness restrained him from obeying this
impulse.

"Six woman are too many in one household," Mrs Morgan vouchsafed.
"Some of you ought to have married."

"One of us has," Prudence answered.

"And another is going to," Mr Morgan put in, with a tentative smile at
his fiancee.  She laughed softly.

"It suggests the rhyme of the ten little nigger boys," she said.  "Six
women in one house; one of them married, and then there were five."

Later, when Prudence had gone upstairs to her room, Mrs Morgan voiced
her opinion of her to her son in a single expressive phrase.

"I am afraid, Edward, that your choice has fallen on a rather frivolous
girl."

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

Alone in the spacious bedroom allotted to her, Prudence spent the rest
time allowed her before dinner in the indulgence of her favourite
occupation, leaning from the window, lost in a maze of thought.  It
struck her very forcibly with not the slightest intimation of doubt that
six women in a household were less assertively too many than two women--
two women with conflicting interests and equal authority.  She
determined that she would not consent to live with a mother-in-law.  It
was very plain to her that in the event of Mrs Morgan sharing their
home, the combined wills of mother and son would force her inevitably to
regulate her life on the lines which habit and tradition inclined them
naturally to follow.  She did not aspire to excel as a housewife; nor
did she wish to avoid late hours and unwholesome excitement, and develop
a horror of draughts and a cautious regard for her digestion.  Mr
Morgan was obliged to live simply.  His diet consisted mainly, it seemed
to Prudence, of boiled mutton and milk puddings.  Mrs Morgan had
impressed these important details on her in the drawing-room while she
drank her tea.  Any departure from this rigorous self-denial was
followed by tribulation.  And invariably he drank a glass of hot water
the last thing before retiring.

Old Mrs Morgan partook of hot water also.  She proposed that Prudence
should adopt this excellent custom.

"It is so good for every one," she had explained to Prudence's immense
embarrassment.  "It flushes the kidneys."

Recalling this amazing statement in the solitude of her room, Prudence
was moved to quiet mirth.

"A kidney bath," she reflected with a flash of malicious humour at Mrs
Morgan's expense, "before bedtime.  Excellent practice!  I must
certainly introduce Bobby to the beverage.  We'll call it K.B.  I
suppose I'm expected to dine off boiled mutton every night, and wash it
down with K.B.  What a prospect!  I wonder whether his mother suspects
that when he is away from home Edward strengthens his nightly tonic with
whisky."

Prudence lingered at the open window until the first gong, booming
through the house, roused her from her meditations to the disquieting
realisation that she must dress and go down and face a resumption of
these surprisingly intimate confidences.  Mrs Morgan had given her to
understand that she was to be fully informed in everything relating to
Edward's well-being and comfort.  The first duty of a wife, indeed the
duty which embraced all others, consisted in having always in mind a
regard for her husband's wishes and care for his health and happiness.

"I fail to see where I come in," Prudence thought.  "Presumably my
wishes don't count."

Mr Morgan was waiting for her alone in the drawing-room when she
descended.  He came forward quickly at sight of her and took her in his
arms and kissed her gently.

"I want to thank you," he said, "while I have the opportunity, for your
sweetness and patience.  My mother has coddled me so long; she loves
doing it; and I let her because--well, because she is my mother.  But
don't be alarmed into believing I am the faddist she would make me
appear.  You will find, when we are married, it is I who will do the
thinking for both.  Don't worry your pretty head with trying to absorb
these ideas.  They amuse her; we need not distress ourselves about
them."

Prudence looked up at him with a smile in her wide blue eyes.

"Have I really to see to the airing of your flannels before you change?"
she asked.

He laughed with her.

"There is an airing cupboard.  I don't think you need bother.  But I
believe she does."

"You really are a reassuring person," she said, and held up her face to
him to be kissed.

"You are crumpling your shirt, Edward," Mrs Morgan said, entering the
room at the moment, a commanding figure in black silk and fine old lace,
with a critical eye on their grouping and an absence of sympathy in her
look.

Prudence moved away quickly with the feeling that she had been rebuked.

The Henry Morgans arrived exactly five minutes in advance of dinner, and
were received with restrained cordiality, and duly presented to
Prudence.  Mrs Henry, a bright little woman in the middle thirties,
with a gay audacity of manner and a ready infectious laugh, took
Prudence by the shoulders and kissed her effusively.  Then she held her
off at arm's length and scrutinised her closely.

"It is absurd," she remarked, her amused eyes on the girl's blushing
face; "you'll take precedence of me.  You're the senior partner, you
know.  We really ought to change husbands."

"Prudence is better suited to a serious-minded husband than you are,
Rose, in everything but years," old Mrs Morgan retorted.

Mrs Henry did not appear to resent this remark.  She and her
mother-in-law never met without an interchange of polite hostilities.

"Now you know where to place me," she said to Prudence.  "I'm the little
lump of leaven amid the dough of Morgan responsibility.  You and I have
got to be friends.  I've been blessing Edward ever since he broke the
amazing news for introducing something youthful into the firm.  We
didn't expect it of him."

The gong broke in on these indiscretions with its booming summons to the
dining-room.  Prudence went in with her fiance, and faced Henry Morgan
and his wife at table.  Henry was a younger edition of his brother, and
not much more animated.  It occurred to Prudence that Mrs Henry struck
a bright note of contrast amid the semitones of the Morgan household.

Mrs Henry could on occasions make herself peculiarly offensive to her
mother-in-law; but it suited her to cultivate Prudence's acquaintance,
and so she exercised for that evening a certain tact in fencing with
Mrs Morgan that gave no substantial ground for disagreement.  She
contrived none the less to reveal Edward's mother to his fiancee in an
altogether unfavourable light.

"Mother is such an autocrat," she remarked once laughingly.  "I suppose
that is due to the fact that she has never had a daughter."

"If I had had a daughter," Mrs Morgan replied, "I would have brought
her up to respect authority."

"You'll be able to practise on Prudence," Mrs Henry suggested
pleasantly, giving the old lady, who was more shrewd than she suspected,
an insight into her game.  She was trying to prejudice Prudence against
her.

Mrs Morgan said nothing; but she determined to counterstroke that move.
With the laudable desire of getting on to easier ground, Edward Morgan
spoke of the coming dance and Prudence's anticipatory pleasure.  Mrs
Henry discussed it happily.

"I love dancing," she confessed to Prudence.  "And of course I knew you
would.  It's one way of giving you a glimpse of the aborigines.  They
are a dull lot on the whole.  And I'm afraid we'll be short of dancing
men.  I shall have to import a few.  I'm glad you approve of the idea;
mother, of course, doesn't."

"You could scarcely expect dancing to appeal to me at my time of life,"
Mrs Morgan observed, her short-sighted eyes scrutinising her
daughter-in-law's face with unflattering attentiveness.  "I confess to
surprise that it should still attract you so strongly.  But for Prudence
it is a different matter.  At her age dancing is quite suitable.  Since
Edward is willing to accompany her, I am sure she will enjoy it."  She
smiled agreeably at Prudence.  "I shall enjoy hearing all about it
afterwards."

Mrs Henry had not calculated on this neat turning of her weapon of
offence, and was temporarily at a disadvantage.  But she recovered from
her surprise with astonishing quickness.

"She will be able to tell you of her many conquests," she said.  "It
will amuse you to hear of her triumphs."

"I pay Prudence the compliment of believing her to be neither silly nor
vain," Mrs Morgan returned.  "If she made conquests she would not boast
of them."

"I'm unfortunate," Mrs Henry remarked plaintively.  "I am always saying
the wrong thing."  She glanced at Prudence with a swift upward lift of
her eyelid, and added: "I shall have to borrow a leaf from your book of
deportment.  You don't look as good as they would have me believe; but,"
and she turned her eyes to where Edward Morgan sat beside his fiancee,
and let them rest contemplatively on his solid figure, "I suppose you
really are seriously inclined."

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

During the days which followed Prudence strove continually to overcome
her prejudices and adapt herself to Mrs Morgan's ways.  She tried, too,
to blind herself to what she now realised for an unalterable fact, that
her engagement was a mistake.  She did not love Edward Morgan.  She did
not like his mother, nor his home, nor the life they led.  Mrs Henry's
humorously sarcastic criticisms of the Morningside establishment did not
annoy her.  She was often amused by them, and allowed Mrs Henry to see
it.  Afterwards, removed from Mrs Henry's influence, her conscience
rebuked her for disloyalty.

She liked Mrs Henry on account of her brightness, and spent more time
with her than old Mrs Morgan approved of.  Mrs Henry kept open house
for her bachelor friends, of whom she had a number, and she took a
malicious pleasure in getting Prudence to help in the business of
entertaining.

"You'll meet these men at my dance," she said.  "I want you to know them
first; it makes it so much more agreeable."

Prudence thought so too.  She failed to understand old Mrs Morgan's
objection.  It was absurd to suppose that she must avoid all other male
society on account of her engagement.

These brief lapses into an almost Bohemian gaiety under Mrs Henry's
chaperonage, made the Morningside household more noticeably dull.  The
evenings were particularly dreary.  Mrs Morgan insisted upon playing
patience after dinner, three-handed to include Prudence, and
necessitating the use of three packs of cards which made for confusion
in dealing.  Prudence was dense in learning the game, and would have
preferred to sit out, but was not allowed to; it was imperative that she
should share in the amusement.  It did not amuse her; and the
concentration necessary in following the play made conversation
impossible.

"Edward and I play every night," Mrs Morgan explained.  "When he is
absent I play a single-handed patience.  But that isn't so interesting.
Now when he has to leave home you will be able to play with me.  That
will cheer us during his absences, and will be nicer for me."

Prudence began to feel very much as a fish must when caught in a net.
The desire to escape was imperative; but the net tightened hourly; there
appeared no weak places in it.  And Edward Morgan himself was so
amazingly kind, and equally amazingly obtuse.  He appeared entirely
unaware of the vain longing for escape which dominated Prudence's mind,
and made her increasingly restless because of that gradual closing of
the net which made retreat day by day more seemingly impossible.

Old Mrs Morgan gave a dinner party for the purpose of introducing
Prudence formally as her son's betrothed wife to his and her immediate
friends.  Prudence was obliged to stand beside her with Edward and
receive these guests as they arrived, and listen to their
congratulations and utter little stereotyped phrases in acknowledgment
of their good wishes.

There was no way out of the muddle that she could see.  She had sealed
and ratified her engagement by this visit to her fiance's home.

The dinner party produced a curious state of reaction.  Apathetic
resignation to the inevitable followed upon this amazingly dull
ceremony.  She must go through with what she had undertaken and make the
best of the bargain.  The hope of keeping a separate establishment from
Mrs Morgan was as forlorn as the hope of escape had been.  Neither
mother nor son, she knew, would suffer the arrangement.  They would wear
down her opposition with the firm kindliness with which those in
authority overrule the undisciplined complainings of youth.  None the
less, she felt that the imposition of a mother-in-law was unfair.  Had
Mr Morgan raised this condition at the time of his proposal she would
not have agreed to it.

The night of Mrs Henry's dance was to witness another reaction.
Prudence's mood varied so continually during the brief visit to Mr
Morgan's home that it might be said to shift like the compass with each
fresh breath of criticism that greeted the intelligence of her
engagement.  She was painfully sensitive on the subject.

She had looked forward to this dance, the success of which in regard to
partners was secured in advance, with much pleasure.  It was a new
experience for her.  She dressed that evening with unusual care, and was
conscious on surveying the finished result in the glass of looking her
best.  When she went downstairs old Mrs Morgan's dim eyes noticed only
that she appeared extraordinarily young and immature; there was a
suggestion of the ingenue in the fresh girlish prettiness, emphasised by
her white dress and the childlike expression in the wide blue eyes.

At sight of her, flushed and happy, and wearing his pearls about her
throat, Edward Morgan was moved to an infinitely tender admiration.  The
thought of the appraising eyes of other men resting upon her, of her
being held in familiar closeness by the partners who would claim the
privilege of dancing with her, gave him a queer stab of jealousy.  He
would have preferred that she should dance only with himself.

"You look like a bride," he said, and bent over her and kissed her lips.

Both speech and manner disconcerted Prudence.  Her glance fell, and the
flush in her cheeks deepened.

"I'm glad you think I look nice," she said.

He put her into the motor, and sat beside her, a silent abstracted
figure, enveloped in a heavy fur-lined coat.  Concern for the thinness
of her attire and fear of draughts occupied him during the brief drive.
Prudence was relieved when they reached the house and she was free from
his fussy guardianship.

He was waiting for her when she emerged from the cloak-room, and he
tucked her hand under his arm with an air of conscious proprietorship
and led her through an admiring group of men to where the hostess stood
with her husband receiving their guests.

"How sweet you look.  Prudence!"  Mrs Henry said.

"How do?  Awfully glad to see you," murmured Mr Henry, repeating his
formula parrotwise to each arrival.

Edward Morgan passed gravely on into the ball-room with his fiancee.  He
felt nervous and out of his element.  Functions of this description
always bored him; he possessed no small talk, and dancing seemed to him
a foolish pastime.  Nevertheless he claimed two dances from Prudence,
whose programme filled rapidly; and, having danced the first dance with
her, retired to the outskirts, and leaned against the doorpost, watching
the moving scene with eyes that looked with jealous insistence for
Prudence's figure among the gay throng of dancers.  Mrs Henry, who
found time among her distractions to observe him, drew her husband's
attention to the lounging figure, with the whispered injunction:

"For goodness' sake take him into the card-room!  He is making himself
ridiculous."

But Mr Morgan refused to be beguiled into the card-room.  He maintained
a determined stand near the door; and Prudence, whenever she left the
room with her partner in search of rest at the finish of a dance, was
conscious of his hungry watchfulness and the look of grave
dissatisfaction in his eyes.  She wished that he would not watch her; it
was embarrassing.

"He doesn't look much like the hero of the evening," one unconscious
partner remarked to her as he steered her carefully through the press of
people.  "I wonder which is the lucky lady?--Some one with her eyes wide
to the main chance, I imagine.  I've been amusing myself with trying to
pick her out.  She is not conspicuous through attentiveness to him,
anyhow.  Do you know her?"

"Yes," Prudence admitted, with face aflame.

"Oh, I say!  Point her out to me, will you?  I am a new-comer, and out
of the know."

"No; I don't think I will."

"That's the reproof courteous," he returned, slightly nettled.  "You
consider my remarks in bad taste."

"I think them indiscreet," she answered.  "You wouldn't feel very happy
for instance if I laid claim to the honour."

It never occurred to him to treat this speech seriously.  He laughed as
though it were a huge joke.

"I'm not such a fool as I look," he said.  "It was because I knew it was
safe that I spoke so unguardedly to you."

Later on in the evening he had cause to remember his indiscretion and to
regret it.  He noticed her with Edward Morgan, and observed with
amazement the intimacy of the terms that held between them.  It flashed
into his mind with disconcerting conviction that what he had believed to
be a joke was no jest after all.  He had seen Mr Morgan speak to no one
else, dance with no other partner.  He pushed his inquiries further, and
learned to his ever-increasing discomfiture that it was to Mr Morgan's
fiancee he had made his unguarded remarks.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.

That night Prudence asked Edward Morgan for her release.  The dance to
which she had looked forward so gladly, and which she had not enjoyed,
had galvanised her into a fixed determination to secure her freedom
while yet there was time.  The thought of marriage with a man so much
older than herself, with whom she had nothing in common, whose every
wish opposed itself in gentle opposition to her own, had become a
nightmare to her.  Young eyes had looked into her eyes that night with a
wondering question in them that had hurt her.  The hunger for young
companionship gripped her.  Her memory echoed the careless inconsequent
chatter, the joyous laughter of irresponsible youth.  One laugh in
particular, an amused incredulous laugh, rang in her ears like a
reproach.

Why had she committed this folly?  She must draw back before it was too
late.

With manifest nervousness Prudence made her faltering appeal for release
from her engagement during the homeward drive.  Mr Morgan was amazed.
He keenly resented her lack of consideration for himself in wishing to
withdraw her promise after the publicity given to their engagement.  She
shrank back from the cold anger in his eyes and the hardness of his
voice when he answered her.

"You are overwrought," he said.  "You don't know what you are saying.
What have I done, that you should wish to break off your engagement?  I
have striven to please you, to make you happy.  Do you realise that in
less than two months we are to be married?  You would make me
ridiculous.  People will laugh.  It will be scandalous."

His voice gathered anger as he considered the amusement that would arise
at his expense when it became known that the young bride he had chosen
had jilted him--jilted the wealthy Edward Morgan almost on the eve of
the wedding.

"It is absurd!" he added.  "You don't realise what you ask."

"Oh, please!" she cried, and turned a white frightened face towards him.
"Don't be angry with me.  I'm so sorry.  I ought never to have become
engaged to you.  I don't love you."

He sounded a note of impatience.

"You raised that point at the time when I proposed," he said.  "I
thought we had settled that.  Love will come with marriage.  I have
enough for both."

"Don't you see that that only makes it worse?" she said in a voice that
shook with nervousness.  "I can never love you.  I know that now.  I've
tried.  Oh! please be generous and forgive me.  I am so sorry for
causing you pain.  I'm so sorry."

She broke down, and sat huddled in a corner of the motor, and sobbed.

Mr Morgan sank back in his corner and stared out at the darkened
street.  Never in his life had he felt so annoyed and upset.  At the
back of his mind lurked the uncomfortable conviction that he had been a
fool, that his world would call him a fool, an old fool for falling in
love with a pretty face.

He wished he had never seen Prudence, wished that he had never asked her
to become his wife.  Since he had asked her and she had accepted him, he
had no intention of acceding now to her absurd request for release.  She
was placing him in a most invidious position.  She seemed to have no
appreciation of what was right and due to him.  It would be necessary to
make her see that he had to be considered in this as well as herself.
He thought of his mother, of the annoyance this would cause her.  He
determined to ask her to intercede with the girl in his behalf.  It was
impossible that she should retract from her promise at the eleventh
hour.

He sat in a heavy silence, his imagination busy with the awkwardness of
this disastrous crisis in his hitherto pleasant life, until the motor
turned in at his own gates and stopped in front of the house.  He got
out, and, leaving Prudence to follow, walked up to the door which he
opened with his latchkey.  He waited for her in the warm, dimly-lit
hall, and closed the door after her and bolted it.  He lit a bedroom
candle for her with some attempt to atone for his late discourtesy, and
asked:

"Would you like anything before you go upstairs?"

"No, thank you."

She took the candlestick from him with a shaking hand and turned towards
the stairs.

"Good-night," he said.

The emotion in his voice moved her to yet deeper distress.  It was the
first time she had parted from him without the good-night kiss.  She
looked back at him where he stood, muffled in his greatcoat, a big
ungainly figure, which nevertheless seemed shrunken, possibly on account
of the loss of that air of successful assurance which hitherto had
characterised the man.

"Good-night," she answered softly.  "I am so sorry that I have hurt
you."

Then, carrying her candle, she went swiftly up the stairs.

Neither Prudence nor Edward Morgan secured any sleep that night.  While
Mr Morgan tossed restlessly on his bed, fretting and worrying over this
blow which she had dealt him, Prudence lay very still and wide-eyed in
the darkness, wondering dismally what the new day would bring forth, and
how she would face old Mrs Morgan's anger, and the pained displeasure
in Edward's eyes.

It was obvious to Prudence when she descended on the following morning,
heavy-eyed and with nerves strung to high tension, that Mr Morgan had
already confided in his mother the fact that she wished to end her
engagement.  The old lady was upset and deeply affronted.  Her agitation
betrayed itself in the trembling of her hands as she poured out the
coffee from the big silver urn.  Nothing was said on the subject
uppermost in their thoughts until the finish of the meal, but a sense of
something impending hung in the air, making ordinary conversation
impossible.  When he had finished his breakfast Mr Morgan rose and went
out, closing the door behind him.  Mrs Morgan followed his exit with
her short-sighted gaze; then she sat back in her chair and gave her
attention to Prudence.

She did not speak immediately; she was busy collecting her ideas, trying
to subdue her bitter resentment against this girl who deliberately
planned to wreck her son's happiness.  A betrayal of anger would, she
realised, only make the estrangement more complete.

"I want to talk to you," she said presently, breaking the silence which
was becoming increasingly awkward.

Prudence looked up, and sat crumbling the bread beside her plate
nervously, and waited.

"Edward has told me what happened last night," Mrs Morgan added with
fresh signs of agitation in her voice.  "He is very distressed and
worried.  This means more to him than you realise.  It is not as if he
were a young man, and could face a disappointment and get over it.  You
cannot seriously intend to break off your engagement--now--when
everything is arranged?  It would be monstrous."

She paused, and looked with pathetic eagerness to Prudence for her
answer.  The girl choked.  She felt the tears rising to her eyes and
hastily winked them away.  What could she say?  What was there to say in
face of her determination not to marry a man with whom marriage seemed
to her now intolerable?  It amazed her to think that ever she could have
contemplated such a step.

"I don't know how to answer you," she faltered.  "It's so hateful to
keep hurting people.  I know I've hurt Edward.  I know you are thinking
badly of me--you must be.  And I can't alter it.  I can't please you.  I
ought never to have accepted Edward.  I don't love him.  How can I marry
some one I don't love?"

The tears fell now unchecked; she made no attempt to staunch them.  But
old Mrs Morgan took no heed of this display of emotion; no amount of
tears could atone for such heartless conduct.  She set herself to the
task of overruling the girl's decision.

"I agree with you that you ought not to have engaged yourself to my
son," she said; "but, since you are engaged to him and every one knows
of the engagement, it would be most dishonourable for you to end it now.
Your father will say the same.  You cannot do it, Prudence."

"But I must," Prudence insisted.

"No."  The old lady became more emphatic.  "It is unthinkable.  You
can't do it.  I don't consider, myself, that you will make Edward a
suitable wife; but he still wishes it; your family wish it.  You cannot
draw back."

Prudence pushed back her chair and stood up.

"I'll go home," she said.  "I'll go to-day--now.  I don't think that
Edward has a right to expect me to many him against my will.  I'll go
home."  She gripped the back of her chair hard, and met Mrs Morgan's
unfriendly eyes with no sign of yielding in her look.  "I know you are
angry with me," she added.  "They'll be angry at home.  I can't help
that.  I deserve it.  But to do as you wish wouldn't help matters.  It
would be another mistake.  I couldn't make him happy."

"You will never make any one happy," Mrs Morgan said, "because you are
utterly selfish."

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.

Prudence was not allowed to return home that day as she wished to do.
Old Mrs Morgan insisted upon writing first to Mr Graynor to prepare
him for his daughter's unexpected return, and to explain the reason for
her travelling before the original date and alone.  In the circumstances
it was impossible that Mr Morgan should accompany her.

Prudence dreaded the sending of this letter.  She feared as the result
of its dispatch that some member of her family would arrive to take her
home like a child who is in disgrace.  She retired to her room and spent
the greater part of the day in tears till her face was disfigured and
her eyelids swollen with weeping, so that Mrs Henry, when she called
during the afternoon, could not fail to detect these signs of distress.
Old Mrs Morgan was too upset to receive any one; and Prudence
entertained the mystified visitor alone, and in response to repeated
probings, explained the situation to her in jerky incomplete sentences
which conveyed nothing very clearly, save the fact that she wished to
end her engagement and that the Morgans would not agree to this on
account of what people would say.

Mrs Henry's primary emotion, when this point became clear, revealed
itself in a vindictive gratification in her mother-in-law's
discomfiture.  Apart from that she kept an open mind on the subject.
She liked Prudence.  She would have preferred that Edward should not
upset her own arrangements by taking to himself a wife, but, since he
was inclined that way, she thoroughly approved his choice, and had
become reconciled to the thought of his marriage.  She scarcely knew
whether to feel relieved or disappointed at this unexpected turn of
affairs.  But she was frankly amused.  The picture of old Mrs Morgan,
amazed and angry, fussing in irreconcilable distress over what people
would say, filled her with indescribable satisfaction.

"They can't make you marry against your will," she said reassuringly.

Prudence was not so sanguine.  Persistent opposition of the kind
enforced in her family bore one with the irresistible force of a flood
in the most unlikely directions.  To brave this opposition from a
distance was a very different affair from facing it daily and being
crushed beneath its influence.  She had had experience enough of this
sort in the past.

"It wouldn't be so intolerable," she said, "if Edward and I could five
alone.  I want a home of my own.  I should hate to have my household
ordered according to Mrs Morgan's ideas of what a home should be.
Imagine not being mistress in one's own house!"

"I can't imagine anything of the kind," Mrs Henry said, and became
animated with a new and brilliant inspiration.  "Make your consent to
marrying him conditional on his keeping a separate establishment," she
suggested.  "Turn the old woman out--or make him take another house.
That's how I should act in your place."

The audacity of this proposal robbed it largely of its effect.  Prudence
rejected it without consideration.

"They would never agree to that," she said.

"Then Edward has no right to hold you to your engagement.  You didn't
undertake to marry his mother."

Mrs Henry felt particularly pleased with her Solomon-like solution of
the difficulty.  She urged Prudence to give it her attention.

"You have the whole situation in your hands, if you like to be firm,"
she said.

It was a shabby card.  Prudence felt, to hold in reserve for the winning
of the game.  Nevertheless, if it was a shabby card, it was a very
strong one: it threw the responsibility of decision on Mr Morgan's
shoulders.

"Don't let them bully you, you poor child!"  Mrs Henry added, and
passed a friendly arm around Prudence's waist.  "Be firm, and show some
spirit, and you'll win through."  She took Prudence out motoring, to
change the current of her thoughts, as she expressed it.  "It won't help
matters if you are ill on our hands," she said.

William arrived at Morningside as a result of Mrs Morgan's letter, a
pompously irate and blustering William, whose anger roused Prudence to a
show of defiance, but otherwise left her unmoved.

"This is a nice thing to have happened," he observed, his cold eyes
resting with unsympathetic criticism on her white face, with the eyes
ringed from sleeplessness and recent distress.  "You have disgraced the
family.  No Graynor, whatever his faults, has acted dishonourably
before.  Your conduct is scandalous.  Here have I been obliged to leave
my business and start off at a moment's notice on your account.  You
show no consideration for any one."

"You might have spared yourself the journey, so far as my pleasure is
concerned," Prudence retorted.

He insisted upon her returning with him by the first available train, an
arrangement which suited Prudence, whose one desire was to get away from
Morningside under any condition.  Edward Morgan's sense of injury, which
he made very manifest, and his mother's silent anger, were difficult to
face.

She had not seen Edward alone since the night of the dance; but he
sought an interview with her before she left the house to which he had
brought her in the proud belief that she would one day live there with
him as his wife.  He came to her in the drawing-room where she waited
dressed ready for departure, with an air of perplexed and hurt inquiry
in his look.  He refused to believe in the unalterable quality of her
decision.  The whole thing was utterly incomprehensible to him.

"Don't move," he said gravely, as Prudence started up nervously at his
entrance with a hurried demand to know whether the motor and William
were ready.  "I couldn't let you leave without a further effort to
arrive at some sort of an understanding.  The motor will not be round
for a few minutes.  There is plenty of time.  Won't you sit down?"

She reseated herself, and looked away from his reproachful eyes,
painfully conscious of the changing colour in her cheeks.  It troubled
her to see him look so sad and stern.  He drew a chair forward and sat
down near her.  His proximity, the ordeal of remaining there alone with
him, was peculiarly distressing to her.

"I am not going to accept your present decision as final," he said,
after a pause given to reflection.  "You haven't allowed yourself
opportunity for thought.  I regard this unaccountable change in your
feelings as the result of some emotional phase which will eventually
pass.  No; don't interrupt me," for she had looked up as if about to
speak.  "I would rather that you took time to think about this matter
first.  I have a right to that much consideration at least.  It is not
fair to me that you should rely upon your impulses in so grave an issue.
Treat me justly, Prudence.  Go home and weigh the question carefully,
and then let me hear from you again.  My love for you remains unaltered
in essence, though I confess to a feeling of disappointment at your want
of appreciation.  Take time, my dear.  Give yourself at least a month
for reflection.  I have not released you from your engagement; I cannot
do that.  But if at the end of the month you still feel you do not wish
to marry me, write to me frankly, and I promise you you will not find me
unreasonable."

"Thank you," Prudence said with her face averted.  "You are very kind."

Mr Morgan, who was finding a pathetic satisfaction in the role of
sorrowful mentor, took her listless hand in his, and assumed a
friendlier tone.  He was beginning to believe his own assertion that her
present mood was merely a phase that would pass and leave her in a
normal frame of mind once more.  He pressed his point.

"You haven't answered me," he said gently.  "You will do as I ask?"

"I'll think it over," she agreed.  "And I'll write.  But--I wish you
didn't care so much."

Conversation hung after that.  Mr Morgan had made his appeal; he had
nothing further to add, and Prudence found nothing to say.  It came as a
relief to both when the door opened abruptly, and William thrust his
head inside and demanded how much longer his sister intended keeping him
waiting.  She rose and offered Mr Morgan her hand.  He pressed it
warmly, and followed her from the room, and saw her into the waiting
motor.  He still wore an air of chastened sorrow, but there was a gleam
in his eyes suggestive of hope; and he turned away from watching the
departure of the motor and went into the house with a lessening of the
heavy gravity of his expression and a look of greater assurance than he
had worn since the rupture.  He refused to accept defeat.  When she left
his house Prudence had on her finger the engagement ring which he had
given her.  She had offered to return this; but in answer he had taken
her hand and replaced it and told her to keep it where it was.  It was
not until after she reached home that she remembered it and took it off
and locked it away from her sight.

The return home was a miserable affair.  Her conduct in breaking off her
engagement was viewed on all sides as a dishonourable act.  No one had
any sympathy with the reasons she alleged for this amazing decision.
Mr Graynor refused with an obstinacy that baffled her to discuss the
subject.  He would not hear of her breaking her word to his valued and
trusted friend.  It seemed to him disgraceful that she should
contemplate such a step.  To jilt a man like Edward Morgan appeared to
him an unpardonable offence.

Prudence crept away early to bed and cried her heart out in the solitude
of her room.

CHAPTER THIRTY.

An intolerable fortnight went by.  Prudence bore with the displeasure of
the family, which manifested itself in a gloomy reserve in her presence,
with such cheerfulness as she could command.  The influence of Agatha
and brother William pervaded the household and fenced her about in a
withering isolation.  She had ample opportunity for the reflection which
Mr Morgan had so earnestly entreated her to give to the matter of her
engagement; but this subject least engrossed her attention.  The
alternative of marriage with Mr Morgan in order to escape from the
dreary home life was less attractive than it had seemed.  It held out no
promise of freedom.  Old Mrs Morgan's rule was as arbitrary as
Agatha's.  There still remained to her the move in the game which Mrs
Henry had suggested so readily; but Prudence felt reluctant to win that
way.

From Bobby's letters Prudence derived her sole source of comfort.  These
came fairly frequently, and urged upon her the necessity for keeping her
end up.  Bobby approved of the rupture which disturbed the peace of two
households, and promised his active support in the near future, and in
the present his very sincere sympathy.

"You've done the right thing at last, old girl," he wrote.  "It would
have been better had you done it before; but it's no use wailing about
that.  Don't let them bully you into retracing your step."

Advice that was easier to give than to follow, in view of the general
displeasure.  There were moments when Prudence felt that if something
did not speedily relieve the tension she would be unable to hold out
against the combined pressure of her family's disapproval and her
father's sorrowful anger.  The latter hit her hard.  She had not known
what it was to be really estranged from him before.

"I wish you would try to understand," she pleaded with him once.  "I
can't bear it when you never speak.  I want to talk to you about--
things.  I want to make you understand my point of view.  You can't
really think it right I should marry a man I do not care for."

"I do not think it right that you should jilt an honourable man like
Edward Morgan," he said.

"But if I don't love him?" she insisted.  "You married for love."

"Yes," he answered.  "And there was as great a difference between the
ages of your mother and me as between you and the man you have promised
to marry.  But your mother was happy with me."

"Because she loved you," Prudence replied.

"Yes," he allowed, and shifted uneasily in his chair and shaded his eyes
with his hand.  "I think your mother's sense of duty would have kept her
to her promise in any case," he added quietly.  "There is a code of
honour.  Prudence, which we, who would keep our own respect and the
respect of others, must uphold.  In urging the plea for your own
happiness you are opposing a selfish consideration against the happiness
of a good and just man.  You have to think of him as well as of
yourself--of his happiness and your honour.  I beg you not to jilt him
in this heartless manner.  It is not right, Prudence.  I must continue
to set my face against it."

That was the last time she attempted to plead her cause with him.  He
was past being able to appreciate her point of view.  The only member of
the family who sympathised with Prudence, and who in unobtrusive fashion
sought to show a kindly understanding and to invite her confidence, was
Matilda.  Marriage had not lessened Matilda's love for romance, though
there was little that was romantic in her own life.  Ernest was sternly
opposed to sentiment; and his wife, beautifully submissive to his
prejudices, restrained her sentimental yearning in his presence, and in
his absence fed her emotional mind on erotic literature and dreams.  He
was absent from Wortheton at the time of Prudence's amazing return.  The
expected living had fallen vacant, and he had gone in advance of his
wife to prepare the new home for her reception.  That she might like a
voice in the furnishing and decoration of the dilapidated vicarage which
her money was to restore did not seem to have occurred to him.  He felt
indeed quite generous and important while spending her money lavishly,
according to his own idea of what was needful and agreeable for their
mutual comfort.  The enlargement and improvement of his study gave him
much pleasurable thought.

Matilda, as well as Prudence, felt relieved that he was away.  The
breaking of Prudence's engagement would have afforded him many
opportunities for making unfavourable comments on his sister-in-law's
character.  Matilda on this subject held views opposed to the rest.  The
engagement had always been a matter for wonderment to her.  Her mind
strayed continually back to the days of Steele's visit, and harped with
reflective persistence on the more vivid events of that time.  She
pictured his strong, good-looking face, and the admiration in his eyes
when they had rested upon Prudence.  She recalled the night when he had
entered the garden and talked stealthily with her young sister under her
window.  She felt puzzled to understand how, after knowing Philip
Steele, Prudence could have engaged herself to marry any one else.
Matilda would have lived solitary, wedded to the memory of romance,
rather than shut romance out of her life.

"You should not many a man you don't love," she said once.  "You are
young enough to wait."

"I have waited two years," Prudence answered drearily.

"Wait a little longer.  You don't want to marry Edward Morgan?"

"I don't want to; but it looks as if I should be driven to marry him
against my will."

Matilda found nothing to say to that.  She had never possessed any will
of her own as opposed to the family.

The month for reflection drew to a close, and Prudence had arrived at no
settled resolve as to what she purposed doing; she could not determine
what to write to Mr Morgan.  She had promised him that she would write,
but she found nothing to say.  The relations between herself and her
family became more strained.  William made unnecessary references to the
Graynor Honour at frequent intervals.  The word of a Graynor, he
remarked, was regarded as equal to his bond--in the past; and left it to
be generally inferred that it remained for Prudence to break that
admirable record.

Old Mr Graynor took little notice of her.  He was not actively unkind;
but she had disappointed him keenly, and he allowed her to feel the
weight of his displeasure.

Goaded beyond measure, her thoughts reverted at times to the dull
tranquillity of the Morningside establishment, and the relief to be
gained from Mrs Henry's bright companionship, the memory of which
brought a sense of comfort to her weary brain.  If it were not for old
Mrs Morgan...

She sat down one day to write to Mr Morgan.  She took her engagement
ring from the locked drawer and packed it in its case and directed it to
him.  All of which was entirely simple.  But the writing of the letter
was a different matter.  It was very difficult to set down on paper what
she wanted to say.  Ultimately the letter was written but the finished
production did not please her; the sentences looked bald and brutal and
ungracious.  It was one thing to resolve to refuse to marry a man unless
he sent his old mother out of the home, it was another and altogether
detestable matter to put that statement on to paper.  She could not do
it.  Either she must marry the man unconditionally, or end the
engagement finally.  It was impossible to make any such stipulation.

So the letter was never sent.  Prudence eventually destroyed it; and
still in a state of desperate indecision, entered upon a further period
for reflection.

The re-opening of the subject devolved upon Mr Morgan.  After the lapse
of six weeks a letter arrived, reminding her of her promise to write to
him, urging his love upon her, and hoping that she had reconsidered her
decision.  It was a restrained and kindly letter, with not one sentence
in the whole of it into which she could read a hint at reproach.  Quite
at the finish he wrote:

"My mother sends her love, and wishes me to say that, as possibly you
would be happier keeping house alone, she will find a home for herself
near ours."

A flush came into Prudence's face while she read these words.  She
smiled ruefully, and laid the letter aside, and sat quite still, looking
out at the sunlight with a shadow of doubt like a passing cloud
darkening the blue of her eyes.

"That knocks down all my defences," she mused, and moved suddenly and
found her handkerchief and buried her face in it.  "I'm a fool to cry,"
she reflected.  "It doesn't alter anything really...  But I wish she
hadn't sent that message."

Thus ended Prudence's fight for freedom.  She gave in weakly, without
further struggle; her resolves borne down by the relentless opposition
of the family, by Mr Morgan's quite courteous persistence, and by his
mother's unexpected concession.  She no longer had any substantial
reason to urge against the marriage.  The reason which she had put
forward repeatedly, that she did not love the man she was being forced
to marry, was treated as frivolous and generally disregarded.  There
appeared no way of escape.

Marriage, which once had seemed to her to offer freedom from the dull
restrictions of her home life, was nothing more than a shuffling of the
same pack of cards.  She would change her place in the game, that was
all; leave one control for another.  Perhaps that was life--woman's
life, anyway.  But she had dreamed once of fine things, big things, in a
world that was fair and lovely and tolerant--the land of promise of
every young imaginative mind.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.

Having yielded on the most important point.  Prudence conceded every
other.  She no longer seemed to possess any will, or, if the will were
there, she had no heart to express her wishes.  The family arranged
everything without consulting her; and the marriage, which was hurried
forward to fit in as nearly as possible with the date previously fixed
upon, was the biggest and most important function of its kind that
Wortheton had ever seen.

The young bride alone showed no interest in the proceedings, and wore
her white satin and orange wreath with a look of weary protest in her
pretty eyes, and an air of shrinking timidity which Mr Morgan
considered very beautiful.

Bobby's disgust at the whole affair was openly manifest.  It would have
been more seemly, he told her with scorn, had she married the curate.

"There's no accounting for tastes," he said, with an odd lack of
sympathy in his manner.  "Morgan is a refined edition of Uncle William.
When you are indulging in your hot water kidney cures and boiled mutton
and respectability, don't forget that you asked for these blessings."

"Oh, Bobby!" she protested.

"Well, I told you not to give in.  You should have taken a firm stand."

"When you have lived at home a little while you will discover how simple
that advice is to follow," she said, and left him to digest this remark
at his leisure.  She felt too flattened to argue with him.

But on the day of the actual ceremony Bobby proved helpful and
encouraging.  He hovered about her watchfully, and was always at hand to
fend off the bores, as he expressed it.

"It might be worse, old girl," he said.  "When you are fed up with
things, send for me, and we'll manage some sort of a stunt together."

There was no pretence between him and Prudence that the latter's
marriage was a subject for rejoicing: they were too intimately
acquainted with each other's thoughts to attempt a pose.

"Lord! won't it be dull," he said, "without you."

The Rev Ernest assisted in marrying his sister-in-law; and Matilda in
a dove-coloured dress, a little regretful, and still puzzled by the turn
of events, followed the service tearfully, and compared Mr Morgan's
matured thick-set figure with Steele's well-set-up, muscular
youthfulness, to the former's disadvantage, and tried to solace her
misgivings with the reflection that doubtless everything was ordered for
the best in this admirably regulated universe.

Then the ring was placed on Prudence's finger; and the married couple
repaired to the vestry, where Prudence signed the register which
witnessed to the sacrifice of her girlhood and all her dreams of romance
and freedom and the great flight into the unknown, which was to have
revealed such wonderful possibilities of a golden life, complete and
satisfying, and bright with gratified desires.  The shackles were
riveted and her wings clipped for all time.

Marriage is one of two things, a realisation of life, or a compromise.
Prudence had effected a compromise, with her eyes opened wide to what
she had lost.

"That's finished," Edward Morgan said in satisfied tones, and kissed his
wife heartily.

Every one showed an eagerness to kiss the bride.  Even William raised
her veil and laid a benedictory kiss upon her brow; but it was Bobby
alone who felt her lips respond to his in warm affection; to the rest
she remained a composed, unsmiling young woman, far too composed for a
bride, Matilda thought.  She never shed a tear.  Matilda had shed
several--emotional drops of pure happiness.  She recalled her
sentimental mood of tremulous joy with agreeable satisfaction.  Love
must express itself in such tender ways; it is never coldly and gravely
self-contained, as in Prudence's case.

"I hope you will be very happy, dear," Matilda said mournfully.  "It is
a blessed thing to be married."

At which the bride's stony features relaxed into a quiet smile; she had
often heard Ernest make use of the same expression, though never in
relation to his connubial bliss.

Old Mrs Morgan, and Mr and Mrs Henry attended the wedding; and Bobby
and Mrs Henry exerted themselves to make the affair go off brightly.
Mrs Henry was a sport, Bobby opined.  He had an idea that under her
auspices Prudence might have quite a good time, the nightly K.B. and the
mother-in-law notwithstanding.

Mrs Henry confessed to him her surprise at Prudence's sudden
capitulation.

"I never supposed she would give in," she said.

"It wasn't her fault entirely," Bobby returned.  "The family made it so
beastly uncomfortable for her.  Now you see us in bulk you ought to be
equal to grasping the situation.  You see us at our amiable best; we
aren't often so agreeable.  But even at our best we are a trifle heavy."

"You are the lightest heavyweight I have ever encountered," she replied,
laughing.

"Oh!  I don't count.  I'm a sort of changeling."  He brought his face
suddenly close to hers.  "I say," he said confidentially, "look after
Prue a bit, and help her to a spree occasionally.  It's been dull enough
for her at home.  She ought to have a fling now and again."

Mrs Henry looked into his earnest eyes reflectively for a moment, and
smiled.

"That will be all right," she said.  "I've been a rebel always.  We'll
contrive between us to make things hum.  You shall come along some day
and see."

"I can't understand a man wishing to marry a girl who has shown that she
isn't keen," he remarked.

Mrs Henry betrayed amusement.

"The average man's vanity prevents him from realising her lack of
eagerness," she returned cynically.

"He attributes her reluctance to shyness or ignorance or any other
incomprehensible feminine quality, seldom to non-appreciation of
himself.  It is just as well, perhaps; it makes things pleasanter.  But
don't you think at this stage it would be advisable to admit the
keenness?"

"Well, perhaps," he allowed, and smiled in response to the laugh in her
eyes.  "Life is all a game of make-believe, after all.  Look round, and
behold!  Every one affecting affability, and trying to appear as though
this were a joyful occasion.  There is as much real joy in a funeral.
Uncle William is genuinely pleased anyhow.  He has always feared that
Prue would get Benjamin's share of the spoil.  There is more than a
touch of the miser in the Graynor blood."

William meanwhile was conversing amiably with the bride, who, wearied
with congratulations, had drawn a little apart from the press of guests,
and stood in the opening of the French window where the sunlight fell on
the sheen of white satin and brightened the gold of her hair.  From
where she stood she could survey the wallflowers growing in the borders
near the path.  The sight of them brought back vividly the memory of the
night when they had suffered sadly from the tread of despoiling feet.
She answered William absently.

"I am proud of you," he said unexpectedly, and placed a heavy hand upon
her arm.  "The Graynor honour is safe in your keeping."

She looked at him curiously.  William was fond of talking of the Graynor
honour as though it were a quality peculiarly and finely personal.  She
wondered what he had ever done to make it so manifestly his.  He spoke
as a man might speak, but never does, who spends his life in defence of
this particular virtue.

"I've renounced the Graynor," she replied with a little twist of her
lips.  "I'm not keeping anything appertaining to the name.  As for
honour, we guard it best, perhaps, when we are least concerned about
it--it's a natural instinct, not an hereditary quality."

"It has always been an attribute of our family," he observed pompously.

"Like the chimneys," she remarked--"which spoil the landscape for other
people."

She felt irritated, irritated with his sententiousness, his inflated
pride.  She wished he would not thrust his unwanted company upon her.
His condescending air of being kind and brotherly exasperated her.  He
had rushed her into this marriage, he and Agatha; and she was resentful
and bitter on this account.  It was a matter of immense regret to her at
that moment that she had yielded to the force of circumstances and
become the reluctant bride of a man who was altogether too good to be
treated in this fashion.  Their married life could never be entirely
happy: he would demand of her what she could never give.

The consciousness of his claim upon her galled already.  When she saw
him coming towards her, where she stood with William in the aperture of
the window, advancing heavily with his smiling gaze upon her white-clad
figure, she experienced a difficulty in meeting his eyes.  Something
akin to fear gripped her heart and held her silent, white-lipped and
unsmiling, as he approached.  She felt a wild desire to escape--out
through the open window, beyond the walls into the road--to run away
into the wide open country and hide.

He little guessed at the storm that shook that quiet figure which
remained so still and unresponsive when he halted beside it, with some
jesting remark about her having slipped away from him.  She gathered
from his words that she had done an unprecedented thing in deserting his
side.  That was her place--at his side--always.

He conducted her to the dining-room, where a huge wedding cake adorned
the centre of the long table, a mountain of ornamental white sugar and
silver decorations, which it was required she should cut, while her
husband stood by, glad and proud, wishful to be helpful, enjoying these
absurd customs, and listening to and responding to the toasts with
heartfelt appreciation.

Would all this insincere merrymaking never end?

Old Mr Graynor put out a hand and felt for hers under the tablecloth,
and pressed her fingers tenderly.  His action, in its simple appeal,
melted the ice that was closing about Prudence's heart.  She turned to
him swiftly, silently, and smiled into his understanding eyes with eyes
as dim as his.  The new antagonism broke down; he was again the one
human being whom she greatly loved.  And he was feeling every whit as
lonely and sad at heart as herself.  How stupid and unnecessary it all
seemed, and yet how inevitable!

There followed the change into her travelling-dress, and the bustle of
departure amid hurried farewells; and then Prudence entered the motor--
the fine new car which Edward had bought for her, and in which they
would make the journey to London, _en route_ for the Continent, where
the honeymoon was to be spent.

He had thought of everything that would conduce to her pleasure and
comfort; and had sacrificed many an old-fashioned prejudice in planning
a honeymoon that would appeal to her more youthful ideas of enjoyment.
He did not care about travelling himself, and he hated foreign places
and people.  But he enjoyed giving her pleasure.

When the car turned out of the gates and whirled down the white road, he
took her in his arms and crushed her to him and rained ardent kisses on
her unresponsive lips.

"My darling!" he murmured.  "My own darling!  How good it is to be alone
with you at last!"

Thus Prudence left her girlhood behind her and started upon her married
life.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.

One sorry satisfaction attends on circumstance which admit no prospect
of great happiness or pleasurable development, disappointment and
disillusion are alike avoided.  During five dull years of married life
Prudence passed from one stage to another of repugnance, remorse, and
hostility, till she reached the final stage of apathetic resignation to
the conditions of her life.

The years, and Prudence's lack of any response, had considerably altered
Edward Morgan's feelings towards her.  The ardour of his passion had
cooled, and a polite indifference mainly characterised his mental
attitude in regard to his girl-wife.  He remained proud of her, proud of
her youth and of her beauty; but they were in no sense companions, or
even faintly interested in each other's concerns.  They went their
separate ways within the first two years of the ill-assorted union.
During the first year they quarrelled frequently.  Mr Morgan,
unaccustomed to opposition, found himself so constantly opposed to his
young wife in small things that his temper suffered considerably.  Their
first serious difference was in the matter of open windows.  Mr Morgan
was unaccustomed to sleeping with his window open to the treacherous
ills of the night air; Prudence was unaccustomed to sleep with them
closed.  She could not, she averred, sleep at all in an insufficiently
ventilated room; she couldn't breathe without air.  It transpired that
Mr Morgan's respiratory organs worked better in a confined atmosphere.
He ought to have belonged to the toad, or other hybernating species,
Prudence reflected, but forbore to frame her reflections in speech.

They spent some hours one cold night in the unprofitable exercise of
jumping in and out of bed, alternately opening and shutting the window;
until Prudence, recognising the absence of dignity in these proceedings,
feigned slumber; and awoke in the morning with a headache, and the fixed
resolve to have a separate sleeping apartment.

Quarrels were frequent after that decision, which she adhered to firmly;
until finally they arrived at that state of mutual indifference to which
most unsuitably married people attain in time, when they are not
sufficiently spirited to part, or are deterred by other considerations
from taking this step.

No children came to bless the union.  The little hands which might have
drawn them together, the little feet which alone could have bridged the
distances, were destined never to gladden their hearts.  It was a great
grief to Prudence that she had no child.  Had a little child been born
to her it would have eased her heart hunger and filled her lonely life
and satisfied her.  It might possibly have reconciled her to her
marriage.  The mother instinct was strong in her.  She desired a child
with passionate intensity, and she was denied this greatest wish of her
life.  She resented this.  It widened the gulf between herself and her
husband, and fed her discontent from the perennial springs of regret
which occasionally submerge the barren woman's soul in bitter waters.

She wished to adopt a child; but Edward Morgan objected to the
introduction into his quiet home of a child who was not his; and she let
the matter drop.  It would have caused dissension had she persisted.
Edward was seconded in his objection by old Mrs Morgan, who continued
to live with them, her promise of a separate establishment having ended
in a temporary absence from Morningside, to which she returned on a
visit to her daughter-in-law, which prolonged itself indefinitely until
her presence in the home was tacitly accepted as a matter of course.
Had she adopted a child, there would have been, Prudence foresaw,
considerable disagreement in regard to its upbringing; she and the
Morgans held such opposite views on subjects of hygiene and education
and general discipline.

Mrs Henry was Prudence's sole refuge from unutterable boredom.  The
worldly-minded little woman proved a staunch ally.  But her influence
did not tend towards reconciling Prudence to her lot.  Mrs Henry
cordially detested her husband's people, and enjoyed nothing better than
inciting her sister-in-law to rebellion.

"They would flatten you out, if you allowed them to," she declared,
"until you felt like nothing in the world so much as a tired worm.  They
tried it on with me."

Prudence fell into the habit of seeking Mrs Henry's society whenever
life at home proved more than usually trying; and Mrs Henry, whose
house enjoyed the reputation of being a sort of free hotel, encouraged
her visits, recognising in her pretty sister-in-law's presence an
additional attraction to her successful parties.

The intimacy between the two women was a source of continual annoyance
to Mrs Morgan; but Edward, who liked his brother's wife and trusted his
own wife implicitly, saw no reason for objecting to the friendship.
Possibly he was wise enough to recognise that any objection to this
harmless pleasure would be futile.  The affair of the windows had left a
lasting impression on his mind.

The beginning of the sixth year of her married life, when Prudence, at
the age of twenty-five, outwardly very little altered since the day she
married, had become resigned, if not reconciled, to a life in which she
foresaw no possibility of change, witnessed the outbreak of war--the war
which sprung so suddenly upon the world, and which was destined to
change so many lives.  Lives which were fitted into grooves so deeply
that it seemed they had rusted there and could never be dislodged, were
flung out of their ruts like lava spit from the mouth of a volcano by
this greatest upheaval which the world had known.  To Morgan Bros, as to
Mr Graynor, the great disaster brought added prosperity.  The works
were engaged in the manufacture of khaki, which Bobby, afire with
enthusiasm, and eager for release from a life that was irksome and
uninspiring, donned speedily, to William's manifest satisfaction, and
his grandfather's pride and grief.

That was the beginning of the changes in Prudence's life.  Apart from
her anxiety on Bobby's account, and the natural gravity which the
appalling immensity of the disaster occasioned, Prudence in the early
days witnessed only the lighter side of war.  Mrs Henry, destined
before those tragic five years ran their terrible course to lose both
her young sons, worked hard in the early days--indeed, she worked
unflaggingly to the end, and bravely strove to hide her sorrow from the
world--to give the men she knew, and many who were strangers to her
until the wearing of the uniform made them participators in her
hospitality, the best of times while they remained in England.  Dances
and entertainments of every description were organised on a princely
scale for the benefit of the men who were out to defend the honour of
the Empire.

Old Mrs Morgan looked upon all this festivity disapprovingly, and
remonstrated with her, urging the unseemliness of feting in such
frivolous fashion men who were about to face death, and many of whom
would be called inevitably before long to meet their God.  But Mrs
Henry treated these remonstrances with smiling indifference.

"The heroes of Waterloo left a ball-room to defeat their enemies," she
argued.  "I expect the poor dears fought better and died happier by
reason of those few bright hours.  The boys like being amused, and they
love flirting with the girls.  Whatever does it matter?  If one has to
die one might as well have a good time first.  It is the moment, after
all, which counts.  We have only the present to think for; there may be
no to-morrow."

Which view of things did not tend to soothe her mother-in-law, who had
arrived at an age which avoids reflecting on the uncertainty of the
future.

"Rose has no spiritual outlook," she observed one evening, over the
nightly glass of hot water which she sipped with an enjoyment a toper
might evince while imbibing his grog.  "Her attitude towards the
Hereafter is frankly pagan.  She will perhaps be brought some day
through suffering to recognise the vanity of this world, and the
importance of the Future Life.  No one can escape responsibility for his
acts."

"Quite possibly Rose's record will be finer than the records of many
people who lead seemingly exemplary lives," returned Prudence, to whom
her mother-in-law's narrow views were particularly irritating.  "`How
strange it will be,' as Lewis Hind says, `if, when we awake from the
dream of death, we find that we are judged only by the good we have
done.'  That would cause a considerable readjustment of the balance."

"People who lead good lives do good by example," Mrs Morgan insisted;
"those who spend their days in a feverish round of pleasure exert an
evil influence."

"The warm impulses which make for kindly human acts and brighten life
for others have for me greater virtue than any prayer," came the quick
retort, which scandalised Edward Morgan as well as his mother, and
provoked him into joining in the discussion.

"I don't like to hear any disparagement of prayer," he said quietly.
"Your training in a pious home should have taught you at least respect
for such things.  I say nothing against pleasure, except where it
clashes with duty.  In the lives of upright people duty ranks above
everything."

"I've heard so much about the paramount importance of duty that I am a
little weary of it.  It seems good to turn instead to the more genial
side of human nature.  I think Rose's practical idea of a God-speed to
the men by sending them off smiling is just splendid.  They all kissed
her in sheer gratitude when they left her house the other night."

"I hope," Edward Morgan said stiffly, "that you don't allow them to take
those liberties with you?"

Prudence laughed suddenly.

"I'd just love it, if they did," she said.  "But I am too near their own
age for them to attempt it.  I've, promised to write to quite a number
of them though.  That includes parcels.  They will all be glad of gifts
from home.  They are so young and jolly and full of life--just like
Bobby."

Her eyes were a little wistful.  She stood up, a graceful girlish figure
in blue velvet, with the light falling softly on the gold of her hair.
Edward Morgan's gaze followed her movements, as she walked to the
fireplace and stood leaning with her arm on the mantelshelf, looking
down on the hearth.  This free and frequent mixing with young life of
the male sex disturbed him.  He was jealous.  It seemed to him that this
new stream of sturdy youthful masculinity flowed between them, and set
them still further apart.  If his love for Prudence had diminished, his
sense of proprietorship had not abated in the least.  His pride of
ownership was in arms against this incursion of new interests, new
friendships, in which he had no share.

"Rose is giving another dance to-morrow night, isn't she?" he said.  "I
think I'll go with you and look on for a bit."

She lifted her head and glanced towards him, surprised, and not
particularly overwhelmed with gladness at the prospect of his company.
Her reception of his proposal was not exactly flattering.

"You!  You will be--bored.  It's just a romp."

"Henry will be there, I suppose?"

"Oh, Henry!  He likes that sort of thing.  He romps too."

"Henry was always a fool," Mrs Morgan put in acidly.  "He would not
have married Rose if he had possessed ordinary common sense.  It will be
as well for you to go, Edward; it may lend a little dignity to the
occasion."

Prudence laughed.

"Oh! there's plenty of dignity--of a joyous nature," she said.  "We
don't rag."

She crossed to old Mrs Morgan's side and laid a hand on the back of her
chair, feeling remorseful, as she so often felt when she had been
provoked into a show of ungraciousness.

"You come too," she said softly,--"just for an hour, and look on.  You'd
love it; and they would love to see you there.  It's you, and others
like you, that every mother's son of them is out to fight for.  Come and
show them you appreciate their sacrifice."

"I can better show my appreciation," Mrs Morgan answered, "by praying
for them on my knees every night and morning of my life."  She handed
her empty tumbler to her daughter-in-law, and stood up.  "It is time I
went to bed," she said.  "I find these talks very upsetting."

"I'm sorry," Prudence said, and suffered the distant good-night kiss,
which was the customary parting between them, regardless of any feeling
of antagonism that lay behind the caress.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.

Having announced his intention of accompanying his wife to the dance
which Mrs Henry was giving, Edward Morgan, despite a growing
disinclination for spending an evening in this way, adhered to his
purpose in much the same spirit in which a man will keep an appointment
he has made with his dentist, not compulsorily, nor because he wants to,
but because he has no definite reason to urge against keeping the
engagement.

It was a matter of indifference to Prudence whether he went or not.  His
presence would not add to the general hilarity; and he would probably
want her to leave early; apart from that, it would be good for him to
look on at the harmless fun with which youth took its fill of enjoyment
in the presence of tragedy.  There was something fine and inspiriting in
the gay manner in which these young people enjoyed themselves with the
dark cloud of war overshadowing their lives.

Prudence's thoughts dwelt upon these things as she entered Mrs Henry's
house with her husband, and left him at the foot of the stairs and went
up to take off her wrap.  They were everywhere, these khaki-clad
figures; the sound of their voices, of their gay laughter, filled the
rooms and passages.  She talked to them, when she descended, and met
their admiring glances with the quiet self-possession which
characterised her always, talked easily and pleasantly with men whom she
had never met before, to whom she had not been introduced.  The uniform
was an introduction; and she was there to help them to have a good time.
Mrs Henry demanded that of her.  But this lapse from the conventions
struck Edward Morgan unfavourably.  He perceived disrespect in the eager
push of these unknown young men to secure a dance with his wife.  And
she gave her dances readily to any one who solicited the favour, a sweet
and gracious-looking figure in a dress of white and gold, with a wreath
of gold leaves in her hair.

"Don't tell me your name," he heard one laughing voice exclaim, as its
owner scribbled something on his card.  "I've written it down as Queen
of Hearts.  That's what you are--to me for to-night.  I want to think of
you as just that."

Mr Morgan, restraining a desire to interfere, turned abruptly and moved
away.  He did not at all approve of this sort of thing.  The licence
permitted by the times struck him as very objectionable.  He took up a
position near the door, where he could command a view of the dancing and
be out of the way.  He did not like the modern dances; they were
awkward, and lacked the dignity of the dances familiar to his youth.

"Come and open the ball with me," Mrs Henry said graciously, pausing
beside him while the band played the opening bars of a two-step.

"I'm sorry," he said stiffly; "but these rag-time airs are unfamiliar to
me."

"We can waltz to this," she said good-naturedly.  "You waltz divinely.
Come on, old dear!"

She put her hand on his arm, and he found himself to his amazement
dancing with his sister-in-law and enjoying it.  He had not danced for
years, not since the night when he danced in that same room with his
fiancee, who, at the finish of the evening, had asked him to release her
from her engagement.  The memory of that humiliating experience was with
him when, at the finish of the dance, he found his way back to the quiet
corner near the doorway, from whence he watched Prudence come and go
with her different partners, always animated and gay and tireless in her
enjoyment.  What, he wondered, would his life have been like, and hers,
had he not turned a deaf ear to her request?

He hated to see her enjoying herself thus independently of him; and he
was powerless to interfere.  She would have accused him justly of
jealousy of her youth.  He was jealous of her youth; he was still more
jealous of the youth of the men who surrounded her.

A late arrival, entering unobtrusively while the dancing was in full
swing, seeing Mr Morgan standing disconsolately in the doorway, came to
a halt beside him, and noting the heavy boredom of his look, was moved
to address him, though he had no particular liking for the man he
accosted, and was not sure how his advances would be received.

"Something of a crush inside, sir," he observed.  "There doesn't appear
to be any room for me."

Mr Morgan turned his head and surveyed the speaker.  A light of
surprised recognition flashed into his sombre eyes, and, after a slight
show of hesitation, he held out his hand.

"Steele!" he exclaimed.  "The last man I expected to see.  Where do you
spring from?"

Steele laughed quietly.

"The war brought me back," he said.  "I arrived two days ago, and of
course came home.  Mrs Henry met me yesterday outside the bank--and so
I'm here.  She told me she was short of men.  The shortage isn't
apparent."  He stared into the densely packed room and smiled.  "One
can't imagine Mrs Henry short of anything.  It looks ripping."

"Beastly crush!"  Edward Morgan muttered.  "I hate this sort of thing."

The smile in the young man's eyes deepened, but the rest of his face was
grave.  He was wondering why Mr Morgan put himself to the inconvenience
of attending an entertainment against his inclination.

"It doesn't look as though my chance of securing partners was rosy," he
remarked.  "I'm horribly late."

He had not made any great effort to get there earlier.  He had felt no
particular interest in the dance to which he had been so urgently and
unceremoniously bidden.  But he deplored his lateness sincerely when, as
the music slowed down before finally ceasing, he caught an amazingly
unexpected vision of soft white and gold, with cheeks flushed like a
wild rose, and with wide blue eyes opened to their fullest as they
encountered his eager gaze.  Prudence's eyes looked into his; and the
lights and the music and the crowd melted magically away.  She was back
in the past, with the scent of _gloire de Dijon_ roses filling the air,
and one voice only breaking across immeasurable distance, and falling on
her ears like a note, lost and now recalled, the dear familiar sound of
a voice to which her heart responded and which flooded the universe with
the music of the spring.

Whether Prudence broke away from her legitimate partner, or whether it
was Steele who effected the change, she never afterwards remembered.
She was conscious at the moment only of the eager welcome in his eyes,
the surprised satisfaction of his voice speaking her name, the glad
assurance with which he took her hand and placed it on his arm and
steered her with dexterous swiftness through the crowd about the
doorway, leaving Mr Morgan staring after them in stupefied amazement,
and her late partner frowning with annoyance at the slight which bereft
him of the most sought after partner of the evening.

It all happened so quickly.  Before she had recovered fully from the
first surprise of the encounter, she found herself alone with Steele in
a little room off the hall, that was all in confusion with an overflow
of furniture from the rooms which had been cleared.  He drew her inside
and closed the door and stood looking down at her with a laugh in his
grey eyes.

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.

"What luck!" he ejaculated.  "Whoever would have thought of finding you
here?  This saves me a journey."

"I thought you were abroad," she said, her face irradiating happiness.
"It's just a dream, I can't believe you are real."

He stooped over her, and laid his hands on her shoulders and held her,
looking into her upturned face.  "I thought myself at first _you_ were a
dream," he said--"a vision which the longing in my heart had conjured
up.  And then your voice--the touch of your hand..."  He bent lower and
kissed her lips.  "That is no dream," he murmured, and drew back,
smiling at her.  "How good it is to be with you again!  All the way home
on the ship I've had you in my thoughts.  For that matter, I've had you
in my thoughts right along ever since I went away.  I came home, I
think, just to see you."

"I thought you had forgotten," she said, and turned aside her face to
hide the regret in her eyes.  "I waited to hear from you.  I waited, and
waited.  And then--I thought surely you must have forgotten."

"You might have known I couldn't forget," he said.  "You told me not to
write.  I did write several times, but I didn't send the letters for
fear they might get you into trouble at home.  But all that doesn't
count now.  I've come back."

There was a ring of triumph in his voice, a joyous inflection that
seemed not only to invite, but to confidently expect, a sympathetic
response.  Prudence, who in the first flush of her gladness at being
with him again, had forgotten everything else for the moment, gave
herself up to the pleasure of this unexpected encounter: her marriage,
everything outside the immediate present, every one save themselves, was
blotted out like patterns on the sand which the incoming tide
obliterates.  She was as a person whose mind swings abruptly backward,
with every event which has befallen in the interval wiped from her
memory for the time.

"You've come back!" she repeated, and smiled happily.  "I'm so glad.
Why did you go abroad?"

"Because there didn't seem much chance of getting on here," he replied.
"I couldn't afford to waste the years.  You see, I wanted to make a
home.  Well, I've done that."

"Oh! but that's splendid!" she cried, her eyes shining with excitement.
"You've got on quickly."

He laughed with her, and seated himself on the arm of her chair and laid
a hand upon one of hers.

"I've been lucky," he said.

He lifted his hand to her neck and slipped his arm around her shoulders.
It did not seem to occur to him that she might resent or feel surprised
at this familiarity.  They were in love with one another; he took that
for granted; he was so certain about it that it did not appear necessary
even to raise that point.

"So now, you see," he added, "I can afford to marry."

She looked at him with a quick darkening of her blue eyes, a sudden
gravity chasing the smiling happiness from her face.  She knew quite
well whom he wished to marry.  And she loved him.  She had no doubt
about that at all.  She loved the feel of his nearness, the clasp of his
arm about her: the touch of his lips had caused her a thrill of
happiness, deeper and sweeter than any emotion she had felt or imagined.
He wanted her; she wanted him; and she was not free to go to him.

"Yes," she said, with, to him, unaccountable nervousness.  "Yes.  That's
wonderful.  It's great news.  Tell me more--something about your life
out there.  Where was it you went?  South Africa!  Funny!  I didn't even
know where you were.  You'll go back, I suppose, after the war?"

"Yes, I'll go back.  I don't think I'd care to live in England again.
It's jolly out there--always summer.  You'd like it.  Say you'll like
it--the jolly warmth and the brightness.  The scenery knocks spots out
of Wortheton.  Do you remember that day in the woods, Prudence?--and the
primroses we gathered and threw away?  I've often thought of that day,
when I've been lonely and wanting you, and comparing the blue of your
eyes with the blue of the African sky.  Dear, waking and dreaming, I
have pictured you continually--leaning out of a window with the roses
beneath the sill."

He bent lower over her and clasped her closely, smiling at the
reluctance, which he realised, and attributed to shyness; it was not
because she did not love him that she shrank from his embrace.

"Little girl," he said, "dear little girl, I didn't come over only to
fight for the old country, I came for the purpose of fetching you and
taking you out with me, if I am spared.  You'll go with me, Prudence--as
my wife?  You know how I love you."

"Oh!" she said.  And suddenly she was clinging to him sobbing, with her
face hidden against his sleeve.  "I can't.  I can't."

He was surprised, but manifestly unconvinced.  He supposed it was family
opposition she feared, and he set himself to the business of sweeping
this difficulty aside.

"We're up against a lot, of course," he said, and smoothed her hair with
his ungloved hand.  "Who cares?  If I go back to Africa I'm going to
take you with me, if all the blooming family rolls up to prevent me.
You trust me?  You love me, Prudence dear?"

Prudence lifted her head, and sat back, looking at him with drenched,
dismayed blue eyes.  The realisation that she must tell him of her
marriage, that she ought to have told him sooner, came to her with
startling abruptness.  A distressful certainty that she was about to
give pain to this man whom she loved better than any one in all the
world gripped her tormentingly.  She felt ashamed at the confession
which she must make.  Horror of her marriage seized her.  She wanted to
hide her eyes from the tenderness in his.

"You don't understand," she said, and clenched her hands on the chair
arm, her face strained and weary and her eyes full of a humiliated
appeal.  "It's not the family.  Their attitude wouldn't matter.  If I
had only known!  I thought you had forgotten, and I was so unhappy at
home."  Her head drooped suddenly; she hid her eyes from his gaze.  "I
can't tell you," she faltered.  "I can't tell you."

He seized her hands almost roughly and held them in a grip which hurt.
His face, set and stern and paler than her own, seemed suddenly to have
aged.  His voice was hoarse.

"You aren't going to tell me that you are married?" he said.  "For God's
sake, don't tell me that!"

Prudence did not answer, did not raise her head; she dared not meet his
eyes.  He loosened her hands abruptly and stood up.

"Some one's got before me," he said in odd constrained tones.  "Is that
it?"

He turned deliberately away, and remained rigid and outwardly composed,
staring at a hideous old print on the wall, without consciously seeing
what he looked at.  Prudence stood up also, and approached him, a
white-robed quiet figure, in the stillness of the dimly-lit room.  She
put one hand to her throat and nervously fingered the pearls which
Edward Morgan had given her.

"Yes, I'm married," she said, "to Mr Morgan."

"That man!"  He turned on her angrily.  "He's old enough to be your
father."

"My mother married a man much older than herself," she answered quietly.
"They were very happy."

He emitted a short hard laugh.

"So that's the end of my hopes," he said.  "Fool that I was!  I thought
you cared for me."

She moved nearer to him, and something of her forced control left her in
that moment of intense emotion.  She laid a hand swiftly on his arm; and
he read the despair and the longing in her saddened eyes.

"You know I cared," she said.  "You know I care still.  I didn't
understand.  I thought you had forgotten.  I was not sure how much you
really meant.  You went away; and life was very difficult.  I had to get
away from it all--I had to.  You had gone.  I believed that I should
never see you again.  If I'd known you remembered, I would have borne
with things; I would have waited all my life, if necessary, until you
came back to me.  And now you've come--and it's too late.  It's too
late."

He looked down at her long and steadily, with a hint of something in his
eyes which she did not understand, which she instinctively feared.  She
put a hand before her eyes to shut out that look in his; and he seized
the hand and dragged it aside and compelled her to meet his gaze.

"Look here," he said quickly.  "We've got to meet and talk this matter
out.  We can't talk here.  They'll miss you presently, and search for
you."

They had missed her already.  Mr Morgan was even then on his way to
discover their retreat.  He approached the door while Steele spoke.
Steele continued speaking rapidly and with vehement insistence.

"It's not going to end like this, you know.  It can't.  Now that I know
you love me, I'm not reckoning anything else.  Nothing else counts.
I'll win you, if I have to break every law under the sun.  You are mine.
I'll have you, whoever stands in my way.  Yours is no better than a
forced marriage.  You belong to me.  You belonged to me first.  I went
abroad to make a home for you.  I've done that.  Now I've come back to
fight for you--in a double sense.  If I come through this war, you go
back with me.  I won't go without you.  Think it over.  I'll see you
somehow, and learn your decision later.  We'll bolt.  Don't be
frightened.  It's a bit of a muddle, but it will all come right."

At which moment the door opened, and Mr Morgan, ruffled and large and
important, with an air of refusing to see what was altogether painfully
obvious, advanced with an exaggeration of dignity and offered Prudence
his arm.

"Your partner is looking for you," he said.  "You have overstayed the
interval."

Prudence placed her hand on his sleeve, and, with her face averted from
Steele, walked silently out of the room.

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.

The Edward Morgans left the dance early, at whose suggestion Prudence
never remembered.  She was quite willing to go home.  The misery of
meeting again Philip Steele after the lapse of years, of discovering
that she loved him--that he loved her, had remained true to her memory
always, was more than she could bear.  The image of Steele filled her
mind and so dominated her thoughts that she could not fix her attention
on anything else.

She did not see him again.  He left quietly soon after Edward Morgan led
his wife away--disappearing as he had come, unobtrusively, without
meeting his hostess, feeling unequal to facing her, and fearful of
risking a further encounter with the girl whose memory he had cherished
faithfully since the night he had stood under her window and caught a
rose which she dropped down to him for a token at parting.  The rose was
in his possession still, and it was no more faded with the years, he
reflected with bitterness, than his memory was in her fickle affections.

He felt angry with her, and in his anger he judged her harshly.  He had
thought of her so much, had imagined her pleasure at their meeting, had
taken for granted that she would wait for him, confident of his return
and of his love.  And he came back to find her married--gone from her
old place at the window, the setting in which he had pictured her during
those five lonely years of work.  He had sworn to take her back with
him, sworn to have her in defiance of every law.  He recalled the boast
with a smile of grim irony.  There was a suggestion of melodrama about
it which struck him now as absurd.  What, he wondered, had she thought
of the boast--of him?  She had remained so still and silent, with her
half-averted face and an air of drooping sadness in her quiet pose.  She
loved him.  In spite of his bitter resentment at her marriage, at her
want of faith, deep down in his inner consciousness there remained the
calm assurance that her heart was his, would remain his, no matter what
the years brought forth.

The Morgans exchanged scarcely a word during the drive home.  But when
they reached the house Mr Morgan followed his wife into the
drawing-room with the air of a man who intends having things out.  It
was not the time for explanations.  He would have displayed greater
wisdom had he deferred the discussion to a more fitting occasion.
Prudence's nerves were all jarred.  She had reached a stage of misery
which rendered her desperate, and her husband's manner, conveying his
sense of outraged pride and conscious authority, provoked her to a show
of bitterness, which in calmer moments she deplored.

"That's the finish of all this dancing and merrymaking," he said rudely,
and poured himself out a glass of water, which old Mrs Morgan's thought
for their comfort had provided in chill readiness on a side table.  "I
have always felt that this frivolity was out of keeping with the
seriousness of the times.  Perhaps you will give me some explanation of
your extraordinary behaviour.  What is Steele to you?  I saw there was
something between you when you met.  It was not difficult to see.  Your
manner attracted general attention.  I won't have my wife make herself
conspicuous with any man.  Steele!"

He voiced the name with an oath, and banged down his glass so that the
water spilled over on the polished table.  Prudence watched him stonily,
but without surprise, while he sopped up the water with his
handkerchief.  It was so characteristic of him to be careful in small
matters even in a moment of great emotional strain.

"I am tired," she said, making the only appeal that presented itself to
her mind whereby to avoid the discussion.  "I would rather not talk
about these things now."

"Tired!" he ejaculated angrily.  "You won't have to complain of that in
future.  I will see that you take more rest.  And you _must_ talk of
these things.  I have every right to insist upon an explanation."

"Very well," she said, in quiet tones that should have warned him to
desist.  "But I think you are unwise.  Mr Steele, when he met me
to-night, had no idea that I was married; and, in the surprise of seeing
him again, I suppose I betrayed my gladness.  I did not mean to do that.
It was all so unexpected."

"But what is he to you?"  Edward Morgan demanded.  "Good God! can't you
answer a plain question?  What has there been between you and Steele in
the past?"

Prudence turned away from him to conceal the quivering of her lips, but
her voice was steady when she answered despite the wild beating of her
heart.

"I loved him," she said simply, "and he loved me.  There was that
between us.  But he went away, and I thought--he had forgotten."

A long silence fell between them, a heavy silence.  In all his life
Edward Morgan had never received such a blow to his pride as this.  She
had dealt him a blow before when she sought to break their engagement;
but that was trifling as compared with this--this brazen confession of
love for another man.  She had never loved him--her husband.  She had
been in love with another man all these years.

"And yet you married me!" he said in a hard voice, snapping the silence
abruptly.

Had she not been goaded past endurance, Prudence, would not have said
what she did say; she was ashamed of it later.  But his manner and his
clumsy insistence irritated her into retorting.

"At least I tried to evade doing you that injury," she said.

His face became purple with anger.  Nothing she could have planned to
say could have enraged him more than that cutting reminder at such a
time of her reluctance to become his wife.

"You did," he shouted, and smote the table beside which he stood so
violently that the glasses on it jingled and the water was spilled
again.  This time he allowed it to remain; he appeared not to see it in
his outburst of noisy passion.  "But you weren't honest with me even
then.  You concealed this thing from me deliberately.  You deceived me.
I believed you were a simple-hearted girl whose love I could win with
kindness.  And I was kind to you.  I have tried to be kind always--
though God knows!  I received small return.  Do you suppose I would have
married you had you told me that you loved another man?  I could feel
some respect for you had you persisted in your refusal; I feel none for
you now.  It was an evil day for me when you married me."

"It was the one big mistake of my life," she answered, and turned and
faced him fully, with blue eyes aflame with anger, her head lifted
proudly, almost aggressively, her face expressing cold dislike.  She had
never loved Edward Morgan, but she had not until then actively disliked
him.  His blustering anger, and his ill-considered taunts repelled her.
"If you care to have a separation I am quite agreeable.  I think we
shall be happier apart."

"I don't doubt you would like that," he said brutally.  "To be free to
gallivant in your frivolous way at my expense, and under the protection
of my name!  I prefer to exercise full control over my wife.  You are my
wife, remember.  Nothing's going to alter that.  And since you bear my
name I will see that you respect it.  There's going to be no scandal in
this family.  Separation!  So that's what you are after!  Good God!  I
would sooner see you lying dead in your coffin than that you should
disgrace the name of Morgan by dragging it into the courts."

She smiled coldly.  His arrogant rhetoric recalled annoyingly William's
pride in the Graynor Honour.  They both seemed to fear these things were
in jeopardy through her.  The tissue-paper wrappings in which they
preserved these qualities appeared to her as consistent as they were
inadequate.  There was a hollow ring in all this noisy talk.  Respect
was to her a personal attribute, which revealed itself daily in the
commonplace round of homely things.  She was not in the least concerned
as to its chance of safe keeping in her possession.

"I'll go to bed," she said.  "It isn't very profitable to stay here
wrangling at this hour of night.  And to-morrow I will go home.  I want
to get away.  I am weary of everything."

"_This_ is your home," he said sharply.  Prudence looked at him
strangely.

"This has never been home to me," she replied.  "It is your home.  It is
more your mother's home than mine.  I have not even authority to order
the meals, or direct the household."

"That's your own fault," he returned curtly.  "You evinced no interest
in these matters."

"Largely, it is my own fault," she agreed, with surprising meekness.  "I
am responsible for the arrangement of my life, and I have done it very
badly."

She was perilously near to weeping.  She felt that if she did not escape
immediately she would break down in front of him, and that was the last
thing she desired to happen.  But he would not let her go at once.  He
detained her while he put further questions to her relative to Steele.
Had she made any arrangement to meet him again?  That was a suspicion
which had jerked itself into his mind and would not be dislodged.  He
was jealous of the man.  It was jealousy which had lashed him to his
mood of unreasonable anger; it was jealousy which prompted him to ask
this question of her, though in his heart he did not believe her capable
of that.

"What do you take me for?" she demanded fiercely, and shook off his
detaining hand as if it stung her.  "I am going away in order to avoid
meeting him.  Oh! let me go.  I can't stand any more to-night.  If you
had been wise you would have kept silent and let me bury this thing in
the most secret place of my heart.  There are things one ought not to
speak of."

"I have a right to your full confidence," he said.

"Ah!" she cried, and brushed a tear away.  "If you only knew how much
you lose in insisting on your rights!"

With which she left him to his reflections, and went quickly from the
room.

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.

It was strange that in this bitter crisis of her life the old home, from
which she had longed so impatiently to escape in the days of her
impulsive girlhood, should seem to Prudence a refuge from the distresses
which now overwhelmed her.  She wanted to return to her childhood's
home, to her father, to the bedroom with its window facing south and the
roses lifting their heads to the sunlight below the sill.  These
familiar pleasant things in their quiet beauty appealed to her
irresistibly.  There was a suggestion of peace in the homely picture, of
escape from misunderstanding and worry and the near danger of a presence
which she feared to face.

Edward Morgan raised no objection to her going.  Relations between
himself and his wife were so strained since his unusual outburst of
passion that he was relieved to be spared the awkwardness of daily
intercourse for a time.  A brief separation might more readily effect a
reconciliation between them than the present hostile conditions of life
together promised.  His attitude of cold courtesy towards her, her
silent aloofness, threatened to widen the distances irrevocably; and Mr
Morgan had no desire for an open breach.  It was his intention to patch
up the quarrel.  Prudence had not arrived at this stage.  Her thought
was solely for the present.  She realised the urgent need to get away,
to escape from Morningside, and from her husband and this life which had
grown so painful to her.

The return to her old home stuck in her memory by reason of the sense of
change here as elsewhere.  The influence of the times had its grip on
Wortheton, on Court Heatherleigh and its inmates.  William, whose manner
was oddly unwelcoming towards his sister, was much occupied at the
works, and troubled with labour discontent, and the threatened invasion
of the Trades Union.  Some of his workpeople had struck for increased
wages.  The increase had been granted after considerable delay; but the
strikers had been compelled to apologise before they were allowed to
resume their places.  That was the beginning of the end of William's
autocracy.  Higher wages were given elsewhere, and the workpeople spoke
sullenly among themselves of going in quest of better pay and fairer
treatment.  The Wortheton factories were fated to come into line with
the rest.

At Court Heatherleigh the family had decreased in numbers, the younger
Miss Graynor being absent on war work.  And Agatha had developed the
knitting habit, and was never to be seen without a ball of wool and
needles in her hands.  Even during meals she occupied herself with
knitting between the courses.  The irreproachable butler was somewhere
in France behind the lines, and his place had not been filled; the
eminently respectable, severe-looking parlourmaid carried on unaided for
the present.  Eventually the war engulfed her also; and she drifted from
Wortheton to a munition factory with the settled purpose of bringing the
war to a close.

Prudence observed these changes with wonderment.  Somehow she had not
supposed that a war even could alter the course of life in Wortheton--
that lichenous spot, which seemed to have detached itself from the
general progress and fallen into contented slumber for all time.  But
the booming of the guns had effectually disturbed its repose.  The
booming of those guns in France penetrated everywhere and found their
echo in every heart.

Old Mr Graynor alone stood apart from these things.  He was too old and
feeble to feel a great interest in anything beyond the personal aspect
of the great upheaval.  He was concerned at his daughters leaving home,
and was anxious for Bobby's safety; but the war between the nations,
which he was fated never to see ended, was too amazing and too vast to
hold his attention.  The discussions in the home circle provided all the
information he gleaned of the progress of events.

He was glad of Prudence's company.  She, as well as himself, stood
outside the general activity, and conveyed by her presence something of
the atmosphere of the past.  He accepted her reappearance in the home
without question.  He was growing forgetful and, save when Edward
Morgan's name was mentioned, did not appear to remember his existence.
The changes which had taken the others away had brought Prudence home;
that was how he saw things; and he liked to have her there.

"I'm getting old, Prue," he told her.  "I've taken to falling asleep in
my chair, and my memory plays me tricks.  It is good to have you back.
They are all so busy; the old man gets overlooked and forgotten.  You'll
stay with me?"

"Yes," Prudence answered, responding to the wistful tone in his shaky
voice; "as long as you want me."

He was the only person in all the world, she reflected, who really had
need of her.  His dependence on her comforted her greatly.  They were
both of them lonely souls, whom the rush of events left stranded beyond
reach of the changing tides.

It was early spring, and the depression of those first months of war
brooded like a dark cloud over everything.  The garden, which in former
years had blazed with bloom, seemed to have taken on an air of mourning
with the rest.  Only a solitary bulb here and there, left in the soil
from a past season, lifted its defiant head among the empty borders.
The Court was short-handed; and Agatha had deemed it unfitting to waste
time and money over the planting of unnecessary flowers.  But below
Prudence's window the _gloire de Dijon_ roses were opening slowly,
bringing their golden promise of warmer days to come.

In the evenings, when her father had retired early as his custom was of
late, Prudence would stand at her old place and lean upon the sill and
look out over the shadowy stillness upon the white riband of road beyond
the walls.  And her thoughts would travel back to the days when she had
leaned there as a girl and watched a man go striding down the hill,
whistling as he walked.  She had dreamed of love in those days, and of
romance: but these things too had passed her by and gone down the road
of life, following the man's destiny out of her sight.  When one has
voluntarily accepted the lesser gift it is vain to hunger after what
might have been.  There are two philosophies in life, and they both lead
to definite points, and each has its followers: the one is to accept
one's lot, whatever it may be, and bear it courageously; the other is to
cast off responsibility and take what offers agreeably as the
opportunity presents itself.  The individual can resolve for himself
alone which is the better course.  Temptation assails people
differently.  The prudent nature is not necessarily always the higher;
but discretion is a wise virtue, and restraint is a proof of strength.

Not until the night of her unexpected meeting with Steele had Prudence's
fortitude been really tried.  She had felt it to be unequal to battle,
and had not stayed to test its strength.  Safety for her lay in flight.
Yet had she paused to reflect she might have realised that by her flight
she betrayed her weakness to the man who had avowed in passionate terms
his determination to meet and have speech with her again.

Prudence had sought only to avoid a further meeting; but while she stood
at her window a few nights after her return to Court Heatherleigh a
sudden conviction seized her that Steele would make inquiries, would
discover her movements, might even follow her.  He had been in earnest
when he had said: "We've got to meet and talk this matter out...  It's
not going to end like this.  Now that I know you love me nothing else
counts."

Nothing else counts! ...  So many things counted; so many conflicting
interests stood between her and this reckless reasoning.  It was not in
his right, nor in hers, to set aside every consideration that baulked
his desire.

Prudence rested her elbows on the sill and sunk her chin in her hands
and remained still, lost in thought.  It was late.  The big clock in the
hall had chimed the hour of midnight; but still she lingered there--
lingered in the windy moonlight, which the dark clouds, hurrying athwart
the sky, intermittently obscured.  A fever of pain and unrest fired her
blood, and sent the warm colour to her cheeks where it burned, two
brilliant spots of crimson, that defied the cooling breath of the wind.
A sense of something impending held her breathless.  All that day she
had felt an influence at work, an intangible something which oppressed
and oddly disquieted her; the prescience of some unexpected event armed
her against surprise.  She stood at the window as one who watches and
waits for the event to befall.  She did not know what she expected, what
she waited for in the silent room, that room in which she had lived
through so many emotions, none more disturbing than those which swayed
her now.  She felt that something was about to happen.  The suggestion
of a presence near her was so real that she could not rest.  She had no
thought of going to bed.  Something in the night called to her
imperatively and kept her at her post.

Suddenly while she leaned there her attention was caught by a sound
below her window, a sound which brought with it a rush of memories which
were a part of the past.  Some one moved swiftly out from the shadows of
the bushes and stood under her window and called to her softly by name.
The quiet authority of that voice set her pulses beating rapidly, till
the thudding of her heart sounded loudly in her ears.  For a long moment
she remained motionless, looking down through the shadowy moonlight upon
a man's upturned face, a strong determined face with purposeful eyes
raised to meet her shrinking gaze.

Prudence half drew back, and put a hand over her breast with a quick
involuntary movement; at the same moment the man below drew himself a
foot or so nearer to her by grasping at the trellis against which the
rose-bush was trained.

"If you don't come down, I will come up to you," Steele said.

"Oh! wait," she cried.

She remained for awhile irresolute; then, as if in answer to an
impatient movement from below, she said quietly:

"Please be cautious.  I will join you in a minute."

And the next moment the light of the moon was eclipsed and the stars
paled to insignificance--or so it seemed to Steele--as her form vanished
from above him, and he was alone in the windy darkness with the clouds
trailing drearily across the face of the moon.

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.

Prudence slipped a cloak over her evening dress and softly unlatched her
bedroom door and stepped out on to the landing.  There was no show of
hesitation in her movements now.  She was doing an unwise thing; she
realised that perfectly; but something outside her volition urged her on
to the course she was taking.  She wanted to see Philip Steele, to talk
with him once more--for the last time--talk with him uninterruptedly
with no fear of being seen or overheard, with the certainty of being
alone together, unsuspected, and with no explanations to be demanded by
any one concerning their doings.  The freedom of the thought was like a
breath of fresh air in her lungs.

But there was need for caution too.  She stood still for a second or so
on the landing, and listened with rapidly beating heart to the sounds
which disturbed the silence of the sleeping house.  Every one had gone
to bed hours before; the lights were all extinguished; but the moonlight
shone at intervals brightly through the big windows, and illumined the
staircase and the hall below.

Prudence grasped the bannister and began the descent.  Carefully though
she trod, the stairs creaked ominously as they never seemed to creak in
the daylight.  And the great clock in the hall swung its heavy pendulum
noisily backwards and forwards.  The familiar sound struck unfamiliarly
on her excited fancy; it seemed to her that the old clock was ticking a
warning, that it sought to rouse the house.  Stealthily she crossed the
hall towards the drawing-room; the windows were easier to unfasten than
the barred and chained front door.  To reach the drawing-room it was
necessary to pass the library; in doing so a sound from within the room
caught her attention, causing her heart to momentarily stop its beating.
Some one was moving about, treading with heavy cautiousness over the
carpet.  She took a hurried run, heedless, in her fear of being
discovered there, whether her footsteps were audible or not, and gaining
the drawing-room door, slipped inside the room, and remained still,
watchful and alert.

The figure of a man emerged from the library, hesitated, and then
approached the hat-rack in the hall.  Prudence watched the man while he
divested himself of his cap and overcoat and shoes before going quietly
upstairs, shoes in hand, to his room.  She stood amazed and surveyed
these doings through the narrow opening of the partially closed door.
Intuition assured her that these mysterious proceedings were not
connected in any way with herself.  Whatever it was that had taken
William abroad it could have no association with her concerns.  William
had shown as furtively anxious a desire to avoid detection as she had;
he wore the air of a person engaged in nefarious practices.  The hall
was not sufficiently light to reveal the expression of worried annoyance
on his face; she recognised only the familiar outline of his form, and
noted the secretiveness of his movements, and the care with which, in
his stockinged feet, he had crept upstairs.

Abruptly some words of Bobby's, uttered half jestingly years ago,
recurred in an illuminating flash across her mind: "You are taking it
too much for granted that the old boy's life is lived on the surface."
Perhaps after all William had a life apart from the factory and the
home, a life which he did not choose to reveal before the world.  It was
strangely disconcerting to discover a person whom one had believed
hitherto to have walked always circumspectly through life, stealing
furtively about the house in the middle of the night like a burglar in
search of plunder.

In the surprise of this amazing development in the night's proceedings,
Prudence lost sight of her own fears and became wonderfully clear-headed
and reliant.  The responsibility of her present action weighed less
heavily with her.  She unfastened the window quietly, and without haste,
and stepped out on to the gravelled path.  Immediately Steele was beside
her.  It seemed to her little short of miraculous that William should be
abroad and have failed to discover his presence.  Steele, as a matter of
fact, was alive to William's nocturnal prowling, and had concealed
himself from sight among the shrubs.  He came forward now quickly and
with caution, took Prudence's hand, and led her from the garden.

"Some one's about," he said.

"William," she whispered back.  "We only missed coming face to face in
the hall by the fraction of a second."

"I know."  He gripped her hand tightly.  "When I saw him pass round the
corner of the house I made sure you'd run into him.  What's he doing,
anyway?"

"I don't know.  He was so anxious to avoid detection that it was easy to
evade him."  She laughed nervously.  "I wonder what would have happened
if I had run into him?"

They passed through the gate side by side and came out on the moonlit
road.  Steele drew his companion into the shadow of the wall and caught
her in his arms and kissed her.

"Oh, Prudence!" he said, and held her, scrutinising the shadowy outline
of her face, with the dear eyes, misty and starlike, gazing sadly back
into his.

She made a feeble effort to extricate herself from his embrace.

"I don't think we ought," she said, and found herself suddenly crying,
with her face pressed against his shoulder.

It was altogether wrong.  She knew quite well that she ought not to be
there alone with him in the night.  She had not allowed for his
following her to Wortheton.  The shock of seeing him again unnerved her.
Steele soothed her and kissed the tears away.  Then he started to walk
again, keeping his arm about her.

"We can't talk here," he said.  "I've a lot of things to say to you.
We'll cut across the fields and sit on that jolly stile where I
discovered you picking primroses--was it really seven years ago?  Seven
years!  My God!  Prudence, what a fool I was to believe you would wait
for me till that time."

"I didn't know..." she faltered.

"Never mind," he said quickly.  "We won't speak of it.  We'll wipe the
years out.  You are here--with me.  The other is just a dream.  It was
yesterday that we picked primroses together, and spent the morning
mooning in the woods.  You were so sweet, dear.  I just loved you.  I so
longed to kiss you that day.  What a fool I was not to kiss you.  I
remember so well how the sunlight played on your hair.  I watched it,
and loved it--and you.  Oh, my dear!"

"Don't!"  Prudence urged him.  "I can't bear it.  And I ought not to
listen.  You mustn't say these things to me--now."

"But I must," he said.  And added: "Now!  Why not now?  It's my time.
As though it matters--anything.  I'm not going to consider anything but
just my need of you.  You are mine, by every right under the sun."

"No," she protested.  "No!  I can't let you say these things.  I ought
not to have come out with you.  Don't make me regret coming."

He was silent for a while after that; and she heard him breathing in
hard deep breaths as he walked close by her side.  Many emotions stirred
him; passion and desire and resentment strove furiously within him,
making speech difficult, and defeating his effort after control.  The
sense of loss, of defeat, weighed bitterly with him.  He wanted her so,
wanted her with an intensity that resembled hunger--wanted her urgently,
savagely, with a crude, primitive, human want that was for setting aside
every consideration, every civilised law and code; that was for taking
the law into his own hands and making her see eye to eye with himself.
And she would not see things as he wished her to.  She was difficult.
She was altogether too civilised.

He turned to her abruptly, and snapped the silence sharply by hurling an
unexpected question at her.

"Why did you come out?" he asked.  "What did you expect?"

"I don't know," she answered, and drew a little away from him.  "I think
I wanted to talk to you just once more before--we parted."

"Oh!" he said, with a short laugh.  "So that was it?  If that was your
only reason you shouldn't have come.  I'm not intending to part--like
that anyhow.  I wanted to talk to you on quite another subject.  You
were stolen from me.  I'm for stealing you back.  I haven't any
scruples--of that kind Mine was the greater injury.  I love you.  You
love me.  You can't deny that, Prudence."

Prudence made no attempt to deny it.  She faced him fully in the
moonlight with her steady eyes lifted to his in saddened appeal.  He
realised the quiet strength of her nature with a sense of impotent anger
in feeling it opposed to his will.  There was going to be a fight in any
case and the issue appeared uncertain.

"Whether we love one another or not," she said, "we have to bear in mind
that I am married."

She was indeed more conscious of the fact at the moment than of any
other.  She felt the necessity of impressing it upon him.  But Steele
needed no reminding.  The rage in his heart leapt up at her words like a
flame fed by some combustible fluid.  He seized her roughly in his arms
and rained hot kisses upon her mouth.

"But you don't love him?" he breathed.  "You don't love him?"  He stared
at her as she pushed his face back, and laughed harshly.  "God!  Do you
suppose I'm not bearing it in mind?--every moment since I learned the
truth from your lips?  It's like murder in my heart, that knowledge.
I'd like to kill him.  I could have struck him in the face that night
when he came in and found us together, and took you away.  And he
knows...  He knows that only the legal tie binds you to him.  I saw the
knowledge in his eyes.  He doesn't trust you.  If he knew that you were
out here, walking with me in the night, he would believe the worst.
He's that type of man.  Nothing you could say would convince him
otherwise.  They are made like that, those narrow, strictly conventional
people.  They daren't trust their own emotions; they never allow them
full play.  And they don't trust any one else.  They judge others by
their own feeble standards.  They aren't human--it's sawdust, not blood,
in their veins."

He helped her over the first stile and led her along the field-path and
so on to the next gate.  Prudence was rather silent and worried and
somewhat dispirited.  She left him to do the talking, and walked on like
a woman only half awake, to whom everything appears hazy and a little
unreal.  And he unfolded his views to her on life, and love, and
happiness, and the right of the individual to independent action.

"It's not as though this business of marriage were a natural
institution," he argued; "it's purely artificial.  When a man and a
woman are honestly in love they don't bother with that aspect of the
relationship.  They just want one another.  Marriage is merely a result
attendant on the natural impulse.  I came home with the idea of marrying
you, and I find you no longer free.  That fact maddens me; its fills me
with despair.  But it doesn't alter the initial fact that I want you.
That desire is no less keen than before I heard of your marriage.
Prudence, dearest, be true to yourself.  You love me.  Come with me--
now.  I came down here for that purpose--to take you away with me."

He pulled her down on the stile beside him and put his arm about her and
held her close to him.  She did not repulse him.  She felt strangely
little angry at what he said.  She was too greatly moved to experience
the lesser emotions which a sense of outraged virtue might have called
forth at another time.  She had hurt this man badly; and she felt too
sorry for him to resent in indignant terms the proposal which he made.
He wanted her, wanted her urgently; and they loved one another.  Why had
she allowed the years to separate them so irrevocably?

"You don't answer," he said, and brought his face nearer to here and
looked her in the eyes.  "You don't answer me."

His voice shook with hardly repressed passion; his whole form shook.
She felt the shoulder which pressed against her shoulder tremble, and
the hand which gripped hers trembled also, and was burning to the touch.

"You don't answer," he said again hoarsely.

"My dear," she said, "what is there to say?"  And broke down again and
wept.

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.

There was a great deal which she might have said, Steele thought, as he
held her sobbing in his arms, and tried to convince her that happiness
for both of them lay in following the path along which he sought to
direct her steps.  He wanted her so; and they loved one another--two
all-sufficient reasons, as he saw matters, for throwing such deterrent
considerations as honour and duty to the winds.  They owed a duty to
themselves as well as to others, he argued; and a loveless marriage was
dishonouring.  She ought not to submit to the spoiling of both their
lives from motives of no higher consideration than fear of the world's
censure.

"What does it matter to us what any one thinks?" he asked.  "This ruling
of one's life by the world's opinion is ridiculous.  Here we are, you
and I, in love with one another, wanting one another.  Life is very
sweet and precious while one loves.  Prudence, but it isn't worth more
than a sigh when one is denied love.  I want to make you mine before I
leave for France.  We'll have our time together.  Then, when I come
back, I will take you with me--to a new country where no one knows
anything about us.  Dear, we shall be so happy."

"You may never come back," Prudence said, and sat up and started to dry
her tears.  "What would become of me then?"

"I may not, of course."  He stared at her with his hot eager eyes,
careless in that hour of passionate longing about the consequences
involved.  He knew that for himself there was only one certainty--the
present.  He lived in the present; it was useless to look ahead.
"Aren't you ready to risk something?  I'd rather leave you my widow than
not have you," he declared.  "I can't go away feeling that you belong to
some one else.  Prudence, I'm mad with jealousy.  I'm jealous of that
man's claim on you.  I'm beside myself.  I don't know what I'm saying.
I know only one thing--I want you.  I'm just hungry for you.  I can't
rest."

"Oh, hush!" she said.

"But you've got to hear," he insisted.  "You've got to know.  I've been
like this since you told me your news.  I lie awake at nights, thinking,
thinking, till it seems as if I were going mad.  I think of you always.
I'm wanting you always.  For years I've thought of you as mine.  I meant
from the beginning to win you.  Life's just a nightmare for me while I
know you belong to some one else.  You made a mistake.  Set it right,
dear--as far as you can.  Give yourself to me.  Say you will--now."

He seized her again in his arms and held her and set his lips to hers.
Frightened as well as distressed.  Prudence struggled against him,
pushed his face gently away.  She felt the quick beating of his heart
against her breast while he held her close, and she knew that her own
heart was beating as rapidly; the pulses in her throat were going like
tiny hammers.  The ardour of his kisses excited her.  All the natural
impulses of youth, repressed so long, leapt up to answer his passion and
flamed into warmth beneath his touch.  He stirred her, tempted her.  She
had never experienced passionate love before, but she knew it now; it
burned her lips and set her blood on fire.  She was a woman alight with
love for the first time in her life.  Her eyes glowed softly, and behind
their glow, dried up as it were by that flame of love, the mist of
sorrow's unshed rain welled slowly and dimmed her sight of him.

"You can't refuse me," he pleaded.  "My darling, you can't send me out
of your life."

"Oh, don't!" she sobbed, and clung to the gate, half swooning, and
rested her face on her arm.  "You've no right to say these things to me;
it's wicked of me to listen.  I ought not to have come out.  I don't
know what to do.  I don't know what to say to you.  It's all so
difficult."

He refused to admit the difficulty.

"If you had an ounce of pluck," he said--"if you cared, you would know
what to do all right.  I am asking you for one thing; it's yes or no.
Prudence."

He gripped her shoulder and pulled her forcibly round till she faced him
again.

"Look here!" he cried hoarsely.  "Listen to me for a moment.  This may
be the last time I shall see you--it will be the last time, if you
refuse what I ask.  If I didn't know that you love me I wouldn't worry
you.  I shouldn't want you if you did not want me.  But you do.  I don't
care a damn about your marriage.  If you'll trust me, and come to me,
you shall never regret it.  Oh! my little love!--my sweetheart!  Don't
refuse what I ask.  It means everything to me.  Say you will, dear?"

"Oh, don't!" she entreated him again, and shrank back from the passion
in his eyes.

But his arms were about her; they held her tightly.

"Are you afraid?" he said, his face grim and set.  "I'm dangerous to you
to-night, and you know it.  Here we are alone in the night together.
What is to prevent me from taking what I want?  Why should I consider
your scruples--or anything?  I am going out to that inferno...  Why
shouldn't I seize my good hour before I go?  What's to prevent me?
What's to prevent me from kissing you now?"

He leaned over her and rained kisses on her mouth, kisses that seared
her lips, that almost stifled her.  He was giving rein to his passion.
A quality both wild and lawless sprang to life in him and overrode his
better nature for the time.  Disappointed hope and baulked desire drove
him to a frenzy of excess which in saner moments he would not have
believed himself capable of.  He would have been horrified at this
complete loss of control had he been able to appreciate it.  But a
spirit of recklessness held him before which his commonsense melted like
snow consumed by the fires which passion lit in his breast.  It occurred
to him while he held her, crushed and trembling, in his arms and kissed
her madly, that he was a fool to attempt to reason with her.  A girl
nursed in the washy traditions of her class, as Prudence was, should not
be hampered with the responsibility of choice: he ought to decide for
her--ought to take full responsibility for the step he was urging her to
accede to.  It wasn't fair to burden her conscience with a sense of
willing concession.  That was where he had made the mistake.  He was
asking too much of her.

"Little love," he whispered against her lips, "don't be afraid.  There
is nothing to fear in love; and I love you better than life.  You are
going with me to-night.  No, don't speak!  You are nervous and unstrung.
You don't know what you want.  Leave this to me.  I've got a car
waiting in the village.  We'll travel up to town in it; and later, when
I am drafted across the water, you'll go to France as my wife, and live
there until I can be with you again."

He drew back his head to look at her, and his face softened to a
wonderful tenderness; there were tears in his eyes.  After a barely
perceptible pause, he resumed more quietly:

"Prudence, I've thought of this hour day and night since I saw your dear
face light up at sight of me, and your dear eyes smile their welcome
into mine.  You are mine by every natural law; and I'm going to take
you.  Scruples!  We have no use for such folly.  They didn't scruple to
marry you to a man too old for you.  He had no scruple against taking
you without love.  They've themselves to thank for this.  What does it
matter?  It's our own lives we have to think for.  Leave everything to
me.  Don't worry.  I'll manage things.  I am taking you away with me
to-night...  Life's going to be just splendid, dear.  We'll be together.
Oh, Prudence, it will be great--wonderful!  My dear! ...  Oh, my
dearest!"

Very tenderly he kissed her lips again.  Prudence suddenly disengaged
herself from his arms and slipped to her feet and stood facing him, the
moonlight splashed on her hair and face, and on the slender bare arms,
which she lifted on an impulse, bringing the hands to rest on his
shoulders.

"We can't, dear," she said.  "We can't.  It isn't that I'm afraid; it
isn't that I don't love you--better than any one in all the world.  It's
just because I love you so well, I think, that I can't have the beauty
of it spoiled.  That sort of thing brings regret--always."

"You don't dare," he said in sullen tones.  "You are thinking of what
people will say."

"No; it isn't that.  I don't wish to pose as good--I've never been good.
But clean and decent living appeals to me.  I'm cold, perhaps--even a
little hard; it isn't so difficult for me to practise restraint--when I
try--hard.  I'm loving you with all my heart, dear; but I don't want to
do what you ask.  If I agreed, I should hate myself, my life,
everything, when the glamour faded and I had time to reflect.  I know
myself so well.  I would rather go on with my dull loveless life than go
away with you and lose my self-respect."

"You don't love me," he said.  "You couldn't talk like that if you were
in love.  It's unnatural.  I'd risk damnation for you."

She leaned a little nearer to him, and a new quality came into her
voice; her face was solemn and tender.

"There's something else I'm thinking of besides these things," she said.
"I can't bear that you should go to face death--to meet death,
perhaps--with this sin upon your soul.  I don't like to think that men
can talk so lightly of sinning in such grave and terrible times."

He made an impatient sound that was like a cry of protest, and moved
restlessly under her hands.

"Oh, hang it all!  One doesn't want to be thinking all the time about
that."

"When death stands so close as it stands to nearly every one of us these
days; when one reads of nothing else," she added quietly; "it makes one
think.  It alters all one's view of life.  I used to feel that my own
life mattered tremendously; that I had to make the most of every
opportunity which might add to my enjoyment.  Now I see things
differently.  I don't hold a lesser belief in the importance of life,
quite the reverse; but the personal point of view is altogether
unimportant.  Satisfaction comes from living worthily.  I have never
done that.  I have been always selfish and inconsiderate for others.  I
believe that to-night you have taught me self-knowledge.  Teach me also
to be strong."

Her voice fell into silence, but she did not remove her hands from his
shoulders.  And he remained for a few seconds motionless, looking at her
without speaking.  The appeal in her eyes and in her voice was
irresistible; it was as an appeal to his manhood from some one
pathetically weak and conscious of her weakness; and the better side of
his nature responded to it.  But it cost him more than she could ever
know to relinquish his dreams at her bidding.

He put his hands over hers and stood up.  And so they remained for a
while close together, looking into each other's eyes.

"You are everything to me," he said at last, breaking the silence
unexpectedly.  "I've thought of you so much--thought of you always as
belonging to me.  It doesn't seem possible to rid myself of that idea.
I've no interest in life outside it."

"I know," she said.  "I know.  It is not going to be easy for me
either."

They came upon another pause.

"At least you have a cause to fight for," she said presently.

He shook his head.

"All that doesn't count, somehow.  But I shall be glad to go now.  I
shall never come back.  Prudence."

"Ah, don't!" she cried, with a sob in her voice.  "Don't say that.  I
shall pray for your safety every day of my life."

"Pray rather for a swift and merciful bullet," he said.  Then, seeing
the pain in her eyes, he took her face between his hands and kissed it.
"Don't cry, little love.  There are worse things to face than the long
sleep.  Alive or dead, you will live in my heart always.  Keep my place
green in your memory, dear."

She dropped her face on his breast and sobbed her heart out in the
shelter of his arms.

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.

More credit is given to heroism which arises from physical courage than
is accorded usually to moral bravery.  Yet the standard of physical
courage, however loudly acclaimed, ranks no higher.  To win a victory
over one's self demands greater strength of purpose than is required for
the defeat of an ordinary foe.  To obey a sense of right from motives
other than discretion necessitates courage of a superior order.  And it
is through this courage, this quiet self-denial, that the world is kept
a little better, a little sweeter, than would be possible if each
individual set-out with the poor determination to gratify his every
desire.

Prudence had won a victory; but she did not feel triumphant; there was
no conscious elation in her heart.  If the night air struck fresher and
purer by reason of this restraint, it also struck very chill.  Its cold
breath enveloped her.  She was weary and sad at heart.

Steele, too, was silent and dispirited.  He parted from her in the road
outside the gate, parted in almost apathetic calmness, and turned and
walked quickly away down the hill.  He did not once look back to where
Prudence waited at the gate and watched him with sad eyes, tearless now,
until the night enfolded him and hid him from her view.  Then she let
herself into the house and went wearily up to bed.

That was the beginning and the end of her romance.  All the fine
thinking in the world could not reduce the feeling of irreparable loss
which she experienced in the knowledge that he had passed out of her
life for ever.  She had sent him away; and all her happiness went with
him, all her love.  If for a moment she regretted the triumph of virtue,
it was but a transitory regret; but she did regret, passionately, that
life had come between her and the realisation of love.  She believed
that she could never feel happy any more.  She also believed that she
could not return to her husband.  The thought of living again beneath
his roof was hateful to her.

Then merciful sleep overtook her, and the darkness closed down upon the
misery of her thoughts.

The morning brought no relief.  Heavy-eyed and languid, Prudence went
downstairs, to find that she was late for prayers.  She was aware of
William's gaze, as she slipped quietly into the room and took her seat,
fixed upon her with a curious, it seemed to her, even a suspicious
scrutiny.  He paused in the reading and waited with a sort of aggressive
patience until she was seated.  Then he continued in his sonorous voice
reading the lesson for the day.

Upon the finish of prayers breakfast followed, after which Mr Graynor
repaired to the library with Prudence who since her return read the
papers to him because of his failing sight.  William prepared to start
out on the day's business.  From the library Prudence could hear him
calling loudly for his boots, and demanding of the servant who brought
them why they were not in their accustomed place.  It transpired that he
had omitted to put them outside his bedroom door on the previous night
and thereby caused delay in the cleaning of them.  He muttered something
in response, and hastily proceeded to draw them on.

The servant meanwhile went to the front door in answer to an imperative
ring.  Commotion followed upon the opening of the door.  Mr Graynor
looked round at these unexpected interruptions and signed to Prudence to
cease reading.  She sat with the newspaper open in her hands and
listened to the sound of angry voices without.

Some one had entered and was talking loudly and defiantly to William in
the hall.  William was doing his utmost to eject the intruder and to
talk her down at the same time--two impossible feats.  The noise of
their voices raised in fierce altercation drew nearer; and, attracted by
the disturbance, Agatha made her appearance from the morning-room and
stood, pink and trembling with indignation, looking upon the scene in
incredulous amazement.

"What is that--creature doing here?" she asked of her brother.

He seemed to find some difficulty in answering her, and, evading her
eyes, glared furiously at the defiant young woman, who, holding a child
by the hand, maintained her stand with an air of assurance which refused
to be cowed by his lowering scowl.

"You tell 'er what I want," she said.  "I don't mind."

"Go away," he shouted.  "Do you hear?  Go away!"

"It isn't difficult to 'ear you," she retorted sharply.  "I want a word
with you, William Graynor; and I'm not going away until I've 'ad it."

"Turn her out," Miss Agatha exclaimed, shocked and affronted.  "How dare
she speak to you like that?"

"Why don't you tell 'er," the insolent voice insisted, "what I've come
for, and why I speak as I do?  Seems as if you was afraid of 'er."

She looked round suddenly, and caught sight of Mr Graynor, standing
with the library door open, surveying the scene.  She shrank back,
quailing before the cold anger of his look.  But he had recognised her,
and spoke now in a voice of sharp command.

"Come in here, girl," he said; and to his son he added fiercely:
"William, bring that woman inside, and shut the door."

From force of habit, perhaps too because he recognised that there was no
possible chance of evading explanations, William obeyed the order.  He
allowed Bessie Clapp to precede him, and following her into the room,
shut the door sharply behind him, and stood with his back against it in
an attitude of gloomy anger.  Once he looked at Prudence, seated
opposite their father with the newspaper in her lap, regarding the woman
and child with pitiful understanding eyes.  He would have liked to
suggest the advisability of her retiring; but his natural effrontery had
deserted him, and he remained silent.

Bessie Clapp also looked at Prudence.  The sight of the quiet figure,
the light of friendly interest in the blue eyes, proved heartening: the
hardness melted from her own face.  Standing a few steps inside the door
against which William leaned, superb in her magnificent beauty, with the
child clinging nervously to her hand, she confronted Mr Graynor, who,
reseating himself, remained staring at her fixedly across the
writing-table upon which he rested his shaking hand.

The stillness of their various poses, for with the closing of the door
each had maintained a rigid immovability, was fraught with significance.
There was no need for a verbal explanation of the presence of the woman
with her child in that house.  Mr Graynor knew, Prudence knew, as
surely as William and the girl, what brought her there.  Nevertheless
Mr Graynor, leaning heavily upon the table, with his cold eyes upon the
girl's frightened face, demanded the reason of her noisy intrusion.

"I told her not to come," William interposed sullenly.  "I dared her to
come here annoying you."

Mr Graynor silenced him with a gesture, never once removing his gaze
from the nervous, but still defiant, face.  His question had been
addressed to the girl, and he waited for her to answer him.  She drew
the child closer to her, and looked into the cold unsympathetic face of
her questioner, and answered with a sort of sulky shame:

"I've brought William Graynor's son 'ome."

William made a move, taking a quick step towards her as though he would
have silenced her with force; but no one looked in his direction; and he
shrank back to his former position by the door.

"You make a serious charge," Mr Graynor said, speaking harshly.  "It
will go hard with you if you cannot prove your words."

"I can prove them all right," she answered sulkily.

"I do not believe you," Mr Graynor said.  "This sort of thing has been
tried often enough.  It is an audacious lie.  I say it is a lie.  Give
me your proof."

Bessie Clapp smiled faintly.  Her manner was growing more assured; the
nervousness which the unexpected sight of him had caused her, was less
apparent now.

"You can't 'ave looked at the boy," she said, and bent down and removed
the cap from the child's head and turned his face towards the man who
questioned the truth of her statement.

Mr Graynor had given only a cursory glance at the child; he looked now
more closely, and, staring with dim eyes fierce with passionate anger
into the small face, beheld as in the days of his own youth the features
of his elder son faithfully reproduced.  There could be no dispute as to
the likeness.  A sickening sense of the truth of the woman's claim,
which before he had not so much doubted as refused to admit, held him
dumb.  He put his hand before his eyes to shut out the sight of the
child's face; and the little fellow, thoroughly frightened now, began to
whimper.  His mother held him and hushed his cries.

"You see," she said, watching Mr Graynor curiously, fascinated and
somewhat awed by his evident emotion; "that's my proof.  One 'as only to
look at 'im to see who's 'is father."

A groan escaped Mr Graynor's lips.  He took his hand from before his
eyes, and pushed aside some papers on the table, and rested his arms on
it as before.

"How dare you bring him here?" he asked in low shaking tones.  "Why do
you bring him--now--after all this time?  You want money, I suppose?"

Bessie Clapp turned a resentful gaze from him to William, who, furtively
watching her, remained with his shoulders hunched dejectedly, scowling
malevolently at her, and at the child whose claim upon him she sought to
establish.

"'E knows why I came," she said, indicating William with a brief nod.
"I gave 'im 'is chance; but 'e wouldn't 'elp me.  I asked 'im to take
the child off my 'ands, and 'e refused.  'E thought the work'ouse good
enough for 'is son.  But the work'ouse don't 'elp these cases; and
anyway I wouldn't care for 'im to go there.  And I can't keep 'im no
longer I'm going to be married.  My man's joined up, and I'll draw the
separation allowance.  But 'e don't want _'is_ child."

Again she gave a nod indicating William, and then brought her gaze back
to Mr Graynor's face.  The sight of the pained humiliation of his look
caused a softening in her voice and manner.  She had not wanted to
distress him; she was not vindictive.  She only required that the father
of her child should make provision for it.  He was wealthy enough to do
so.

"I am sorry to 'ave 'ad to come," she said.  "I didn't mean no 'arm.  If
'e 'adn't treated me mean, I wouldn't 'a come.  But I've got a chance
now to start fair.  I want to place the child somewheres.  Plenty would
take 'im if I could get the money guaranteed.  But _'e_," with another
nod at William, "won't do nothing.  That's why I came.  I warned 'im all
right."

The red of William's face deepened to purple.  He looked at the woman as
if he would have killed her had he dared; but he did not move, did not
utter a word even in his own defence.  His animus against this girl, who
had been his mistress, arose from the fact that she had broken with him.
Had the initiative been his he might have acted differently.  He hated
her while he listened to her scornful denunciation of himself, and the
sordid story of his meanness which she mercilessly unfolded.  Not a word
of what she uttered but had the ring of truth in it, and not a word in
the miserable recital reflected any credit upon himself.  He shifted his
feet uneasily, and turned his furtive eyes from the spectacle of her
standing there in her dark and tragic beauty, with the boy clinging
timidly to her skirt, hiding his tear-stained face in her dress in fear
of the old man who sat and glared at him and spoke to his mother in
harsh angry tones.  They frightened him, these strange people.  He
wanted to go away from the big house, and this fierce old man, and the
red-faced man, whom he knew slightly but did not like.  The red-faced
man so often made his mother cry.  But the mother took no heed of the
small hands tugging at her dress; her thoughts were intent on other
matters than the child's distress.

Mr Graynor, his face transformed with anger, turned to his son, and, in
a voice broken with emotion, with shame for that son's dishonourable
conduct and most despicable meanness, bade him speak.

"You stand there and say nothing to these charges," he cried.  "Why
don't you speak?  Have you nothing to say in answer to what this woman
alleges?"

"What is there to say?"  William returned.  "No doubt the child is mine.
But I don't flatter myself that I have been more favoured than others.
She is a loose woman; and she is lucky enough to have forced a claim on
me."

"You lie, William Graynor," she said fiercely.  "And you know that you
lie.  From the time you pursued me, when I worked in the factory, a girl
of sixteen, to the moment when I met the man I am going to marry, I
never looked at another man.  You are a mean liar, that's what you are."

Mr Graynor, ignoring the speaker and still looking towards his son,
struck the table violently with his hand in an access of indignant
anger.

"You admit the paternity of this child, and, instead of sharing the
responsibility, meanly try to shift it, and impugn the morality of a
woman whose immorality you brought about!  How dare you utter these
things in my hearing?"

"I've paid her," William excused himself, and fingered his collar
nervously as though it were too tight.  "I kept her so long as--" He
broke off abruptly; and added in a savage voice: "She's had money enough
from me."

"I'm not complaining of what's past," the girl interposed.  "If you
'adn't stopped the payments I shouldn't be 'ere now.  I can't afford to
keep the child.  'E's as much yours as mine."

"There," Prudence broke in to the general astonishment, for she had
remained so quiet until now that they had almost forgotten her presence,
"you are mistaken.  The law protects the man in these cases."

"Then the law's rotten bad," said Bessie Clapp bitterly.

Whether the sudden recollection of his daughter's presence decided Mr
Graynor to bring the interview to a close, or if he felt unequal to
further discussion is uncertain, but at this point he waved the girl to
silence, and unlocking a drawer in the table, took out his cheque book
and wrote a cheque and tore it out and passed it across the table to
her.

"I will see that my son makes suitable provision for the child," he said
quaveringly.

Bessie Clapp took the cheque and stood with it in her hand, looking at
him out of her dark, sombre eyes.

"I'm sorry I come," she said falteringly.  "I'm going right away from
'ere.  You won't see me no more."

Then suddenly Prudence rose.  She left her place by the fire, and
crossing to where the other girl stood beside the table, she bent over
the child and took the little fellow by the hand and drew him to her.

"I am a childless woman," she said, in a sweet voice full of sympathy,
"and I love children.  Give him to me."

CHAPTER FORTY.

A bomb falling in their midst could scarcely have caused a greater
sensation than was produced by Prudence's request.  The effect of her
speech and of her action was electrical.  Only the child remained
unmoved; and he, reassured doubtless by the quiet composure of her
bearing amid the general tension, which he realised without
understanding it, and the sweet gentleness of her voice, ceased his
plaintive whimpering and stared at her with round eyes filled with
wonderment, and forgot his fear.

Bessie Clapp stared also, a solemn light in her dark eyes, and with a
face grown tender and womanly, with all the hardness gone from its look.
But William Graynor, flushed with anger, strode forward to intervene;
and the old man, looking with disfavour upon the grouping, uttered: "No,
no!" in tones of sharp protest, and put out a hand and touched
Prudence's sleeve.

"The child will be all right," he said.  "Leave this to me."

She turned to him with a wistful smile.

"He's nobody's bairn," she said.  "Nobody wants him--except me."

"Your husband wouldn't like it," he remonstrated.  "You have to consider
him.  Take the child away," he added, addressing Bessie Clapp.  "I will
communicate with you later."

Prudence gave the boy into his mother's charge and walked with them to
the door.

"If I can arrange it, are you willing to give him up to me entirely?"
she asked.

"Yes, miss," Bessie answered in awed tones; and added, almost in a
whisper: "It 'ud be a fine thing for 'im, any'ow."

"'E's good," she said, with the door open and her hand upon it.  "'E
ban't like 'is father; 'e ban't mean."

Prudence returned to confront her father and brother, both of them
disturbed, though in different degrees, by her unlooked for
interference.  Mr Graynor regretted having allowed her to be present at
the interview, while William resented deeply the fact that his double
life should have been revealed to the young sister whom he had
systematically snubbed and preached to all the years she had lived in
the home.  The knowledge that she wished to adopt his bastard son was
insupportable.

"Let me beg, sir," he said, crimson and spluttering for words, "that you
won't permit this.  It's indecent.  It's--unthinkable.  I can't agree to
it."

"It has nothing," Prudence answered quietly, "to do with you."

Mr Graynor fixed his dim angry eyes on his son's face, the passion
which he had kept under until now blazing up like a conflagration fanned
by a sudden draught.  He had never felt so humiliated and ashamed in all
the years of his long life.  For generations they had lived in
Wortheton, honourable men and women, with an unsullied record which it
remained for the present generation to smirch.  It hurt him in his most
vulnerable spot, his pride, that this base and sordid sin should be laid
to his son's charge.

"You despicable hypocrite!" he shouted.  "How dare you question the
right of any one to undertake a responsibility you are not man enough to
shoulder?  Had I known before of this low intrigue I would have
compelled you to marry the mother of your child.  Fortunately for her,
she has found a better fate.  As for the child--" He broke off abruptly,
and turned in his seat and sat looking into the fire.  "Prudence and I
will settle that matter," he added more quietly.  "Leave it to us."

Without uttering another word, William went heavily out of the room.
Prudence approached the old man, who sat, a shrunken dejected figure,
before the hearth, and kneeling on the carpet beside him, put her arms
about him lovingly, and remained so in silence, while he looked steadily
into the fire, thinking back--hearing again in imagination her indignant
young voice speaking out of the past: "I will pray hard night and
morning that God will befriend Bessie Clapp."  He put a hand upon her
hair and smoothed it caressingly.

"This is a blow, Prue," he said.  "It hits me hard."

He roused himself after a while and sat straighter in his chair and
looked at her inquiringly.

"What makes you think you would like to have the child?" he asked.

"Because I have no little one of my own," she answered.  "And this
little child's life promises to be a sad one.  He has a claim on our
consideration; the same blood runs in his veins."

"That is what makes your proposition impossible, as I see it," he said.
"Edward would not wish it.  Think of the disgrace, my dear.  One likes
to hide these things."

"That's where I don't see with you," she replied gently.  "In my opinion
it is in refusing to accept our responsibilities that we merit disgrace.
I've learned that quite lately.  Let me try to explain."

She clung closer to him and laid her head on his shoulder and was silent
for a space, plunged in thought.  The old man continued his occupation
of stroking the bright hair, and was silent too, wondering what it was
that needed explanation.

"You never asked me," Prudence said presently, "what it was that brought
me home so unexpectedly."

"I was so glad," he replied, "to see you.  It never occurred to me to
ask the reason of your coming.  It's sufficient for me that you are
here."

"Dear!" she said, and pressed his hand fondly.  "I'm always glad to
come.  I'm sorry that ever I went away.  I came home because of a
quarrel with Edward.  I left him in anger.  I had thoughts of leaving
him altogether.  You see, dear, I too have behaved badly.  I meant to
shirk my responsibilities because they had grown irksome.  Don't grieve,
daddy; that's all past.  I've come to see that life can't be twisted to
suit each person's needs.  We should make a hopeless tangle of it if we
followed that principle.  There's one simple course for the straight and
decent liver--to accept life as it is and make the best of it.  I mean
to write to Edward to-day and ask him to come down and fetch me.  Then I
will tell him about the child.  If he consents to my adopting him, I
shall take him back with me."

"You will make Edward's consent a condition to your reconciliation?"
Mr Graynor asked.

"Oh, no!"  Prudence looked swiftly into his face.  "I am hoping that he
will give it as a concession."

She twined her arms about the old man's neck and drew his cheek to hers
and pressed hers against it.

"I'm just hungry for a little child," she said.  "I long to hear little
footsteps about the house, to know the clinging feel of little hands.
I'm just a sackful of motherhood tied down and repressed.  I feel that I
can't go on like this much longer."

"I wish you had a dozen babies of your own," he said wistfully.

"My dear!"  She was laughing now, though the tears shone behind the
laughter.  "Half that number would serve."

"I still don't like the idea of you adopting this child," Mr Graynor
said after a pause.  "He comes of bad stock, Prue."

"Not bad stock," she contradicted.  "I've known his mother all my life.
She made a mistake.  That was largely due to environment: many girls in
her position would have done the same.  And William... we won't judge
William.  We don't know--everything, do we?  I am a great believer in
training.  I know the faults I have to watch for.  I shall teach my
child to be honest and generous and self-controlled."

He smiled at her a little sadly.  Youth is so hopeful and so sanguine.
But experience had proved to him that there is something which strikes
deeper than training, something which no training can overcome--the
nature which lies at the root of every human being.

CHAPTER FORTY ONE.

Edward Morgan came in immediate response to his wife's letter.  It was
highly inconvenient with the press of business at the mills for him to
leave; but he spent the night in travelling in order to save a day, and
arrived at Wortheton, cold and stiff, in the early hours of the morning,
risking chills and all the evils he was wont to avoid in his alacrity to
respond to his wife's unexpected summons.

It had come to him in a flash of unusual perceptivity that if he did not
seize this moment which her softened mood generously offered for
effecting a reconciliation, another opportunity might not present
itself.  Despite a certain narrowness of outlook, there was no smallness
in Mr Morgan's nature.  Because he read in Prudence's letter a sign of
relenting, an earnest wish to close their differences, it did not occur
to him to take a dignified stand and leave her to make all the advances,
extending his forgiveness only when fully assured of her penitence.
Such unequal methods, he realised quite clearly, never effected anything
beyond a compromise.  And he was very anxious for a complete
understanding between himself and his young wife.  Complete
understanding and complete trust.  Without these no married life could
be congenial.

His own marriage had fallen far short of his expectations.  He knew that
he had not won Prudence's love.  Since the night of their quarrel, when
she had confessed to loving Steele, the hope which he had fostered
patiently through the disappointing years, that he might yet win it, had
died utterly.  But, oddly, that night with its ugly memories, its noisy
wrangling and bitter recrimination, had revealed with a certainty beyond
question that his own love for her, which he had believed was faded to
insignificance, was still very much alive.  He wanted her very
earnestly.  He missed her, missed her bright presence about the house,
her youthful prettiness, her coming and going in her independent search
for pleasure outside his home.  She had brought a glimpse of the
unexpected, the delightful irrelevance of pleasant trivial things, into
the prosaic setting of everyday life which had caught him away
insensibly from the dulness and the worries of his stupendous business
undertakings, and brightened his home, very much, he often thought, as
the swift appearance of the sun would brighten the prospect on a grey
day.  He had not realised, until she left him, how much he appreciated
these things.  It was some return anyway, if not the most adequate he
could have desired, for the love he felt for her.  He had made no
particular concession, had not even attempted to adapt himself to her
view of life.  He had demanded a great deal of her and given little in
return.

These thoughts floated through his mind as he drove up the hill to the
house.  He was seeing their case altogether differently from the days
when he had taken his young wife home and quarrelled with her seriously
over such unimportant matters as ventilation and the direction of
household affairs.  He was, he realised now, directly responsible for
the beginning of the breach which had widened yearly and ended in an
open rupture.  It remained for him to make amends for those earlier
mistakes which had broken up the peace of his home.  He had led too
self-centred a life.  In future he would evince greater interest in his
wife's doings, show more sympathy with her aims.  After all, a wife
needs something more from her husband than board and lodging; she has a
right to his confidence and companionship.  He had never attempted to
make a companion of her.  He had treated her always as a child, a child
to be spoilt and petted, until she refused the petting.  Lately he had
treated her with greater indifference, but still as a child, an
unreasonable child towards whom kindness was misdirected.  It was not
surprising that the woman in her had rebelled.

It came as an agreeable surprise to Mr Morgan when he reached Court
Heatherleigh in the grey dawn, weary and cold after his long journey, to
be met on the doorstep by Prudence, who was the only member of the
household awake at that hour.

Their meeting was somewhat constrained.  He had not expected to see her
and was at a loss for words.  They faced one another a little
self-consciously in the big empty hall; and then Edward Morgan bent down
and kissed his wife, with an air of uncertainty as to how his caress
would be received.  Prudence flushed warmly, and, to cover her
embarrassment, became actively helpful in disentangling him from his
numerous wrappings.

"I didn't expect to see any one at this hour," he said, and struggled
out of his heavy coat and hung it on a peg.  Then he turned to her with
quick unexpectedness.  "Thank you for the kindly thought, dear.  It is
good to find a welcome awaiting one at the end of a journey."

"You shouldn't have travelled by the night train," she said.  "You know
you hate it."

"It saved time," he explained.

Arrangements had been made for an early breakfast for the traveller.
Prudence led him into the breakfast-room, and poured out the hot coffee
which she had made.  They did not talk much.  Each was conscious of the
strain of this meeting; and the remarks which passed between them were
impersonal and confined to the business of the moment.

On finishing his meal Mr Morgan expressed a desire to go to bed; he
thought he could sleep for a couple of hours.  Prudence accompanied him
upstairs, and parted from him outside his bedroom door with a smile that
was friendlier and more ready than any she had given him of late.  He
was puzzled.  He could not understand her.  It was as though they had
gone back to the days of the courtship, when he had been diffident and
awkward and had found her shy and a little difficult, but kind always.
The wife who had left him in anger, who for years, it seemed to him on
looking back upon the past, had felt entirely indifferent towards him,
ceased to be a vivid memory with him; her place in his thoughts was
blotted out by the sunshine of Prudence's smile.

He did not understand what had worked this change in her, but he
realised that in some subtle way she was changed.  She had grown
suddenly older, more self-contained and womanly.  She was as a person
who, after walking aimlessly for a long while, strikes the right road
unexpectedly, and proceeds more surely, with a definite purpose in view.

Still puzzling over these things, he got into bed and soon forgot his
perplexities and fatigue in sleep.

While Edward Morgan slept heavily, and the rest of the household
slumbered on undisturbed by the early arrival, Prudence remained at her
bedroom window, wakeful and deep in thought, looking out upon the new
day, upon the garden drenched with the heavy dews and saddened looking
in its mantle of unrelieved green.  There were weeds upon the paths,
which formerly had been weedless.  It occurred to her that the disorder
was significant of the disorder in their own lives.  They had been
careless of what they should have tended carefully, and had allowed
things to fall into neglect.  There was a good deal of weeding to be
accomplished on her own account.  She had let the disorder accumulate
until it threatened to choke all the pleasant places in her mind and
leave her just a discontented woman with no object in life, no mental
outlook.

Many lives as they unfold reveal a less agreeable vista than
anticipation has led one to expect.  The philosophic mind makes the best
of these disappointments, and sets to work to discover hidden beauties
in the less alluring prospect ahead; it is the shallower mind which is
dismayed by adverse conditions.  The road upon which Prudence had set
her feet was not the road of her inclination; it was none the less the
road she must travel.  To follow it finely was the desire of her heart,
as she leaned from the window and thought sadly of the love she had let
pass out of her life, and of the responsibilities she had undertaken,
and so far neglected entirely.  She had endeavoured to shape life to her
purpose, and instead life was shaping her to certain definite ends.

Prudence leaned her chin on her hand and looked down upon the white
riband of road beyond the walls.  Love had appeared to her along that
road, and love had parted from her there and gone on down the road out
of her life.  There were two sad hearts more in the world, that was all.
But the road of life, like the road beyond the walls, remained to be
trodden.  One had to go on.  It is better to travel with a brave
confidence than to cherish vain regrets.

Prudence and her husband met and had their talk out in the library after
breakfast.  It was not so difficult a talk as she had imagined it would
be.  Mr Morgan was as eager to make concessions as Prudence.  He had
been doing a good deal of private thinking on his own account; and he
saw very clearly that his young wife had never received fair treatment.
He was anxious to make amends.

His insistence on taking the greater share of the blame left her with
curiously little to urge.  She scrutinised him, faintly amused.  It
occurred to her that this generous closing of differences resembled the
impulsive overtures of two children who had quarrelled needlessly and
were bent on making it up.  On one point he was very decided: he refused
to open up the cause of their quarrel.  All that was past.  He wanted to
start afresh from that moment; he was not going to look back.

"I've been a fool, Prudence," he said.  "A man is apt to forget the
value of even his dearest treasure, simply, I suppose, because of the
assurance given by possession; but when he is in danger of losing it he
discovers his need.  My dear, I have been very unhappy."

He was seated beside her on the sofa, and he moved as he finished
speaking and put a hand upon hers, which rested on the seat beside her.
She twisted her hand round and clasped his warmly.

"Perhaps it was rather a good thing that I came away," she said, after a
moment's pause.  "I was growing nervy.  A woman with nerves is difficult
to live with.  I have been thinking, and finding out things.  It is
astonishing what a lot I've learned about myself just lately.  I want to
do better."

"It's been my fault," he insisted.  "I never made sufficient allowance
for your youth, dear.  We'll try again--make a fresh start.  We'll talk
things out together and not bottle up grievances.  We have never talked
freely enough to one another."

"No," she said.

"I'm rather glad," he said presently, "that things came to a head.  It
has opened up the way to a better understanding.  You are the sort of
woman a man learns to rely upon.  You're honest.  When I recall the
things I said to you that night I am ashamed of myself."

"Never mind that now," she said quickly.  "I don't want to think of
that.  We agreed not to talk of that."

She got up suddenly and stood in front of him, looking down at him with
softened, smiling eyes.

"I want to ask a favour," she said, "and I feel that that isn't quite
honest just at the moment.  It's like taking advantage of our talk.
That's so like a woman, isn't it?"

He sprang up from his seat and took her by the shoulders and kissed her.

"It's the most generous response you could make," he said--"to ask a
favour.  It's a proof of your trust anyhow."

"It's something very big," she said, with her earnest eyes lifted to his
face.  "If you are altogether against it I'll not insist."

"Tell me what it is," he said, manifestly surprised by the seriousness
of her manner, and entirely unsuspecting the nature of the request.

A faint increase of colour stole into her cheeks, but she kept her gaze
lifted to his.

"I have discovered a little child," she explained softly, "whom nobody
wants; and I want to mother him.  I want to take him home with me."

"You've always wanted that," he said, and waited for further
enlightenment.

Briefly she confided to his scandalised ears the story of William's
illegitimate son, observing him closely while she unfolded the sordid
tale in simple direct language, making no appeal to sentiment, merely
relating the bald facts and leaving these to work their own effect.  She
was not in the least surprised that he was too shocked on hearing the
story to feel any sympathy for the child in his deserted condition.
That side of the picture left him unmoved.

"You couldn't bring that child home," he said, with more than a touch of
firmness.  "A child like that! ...  In our home!  My dear, how could you
wish such a thing in view of his parentage?"

"It is on account of his parentage I wish it," Prudence answered
quietly.  "He is a Graynor, Edward.  I want to give him a chance--a
chance to grow up honest and decent living, a chance to become a better
man than his father."

"You talk as though the child were your responsibility," he complained.
"It's nothing to do with us."

"Not directly, no," she said.

"Nor indirectly," he insisted.  "There isn't the faintest reason why you
should assume responsibility."

"There is every reason," she urged.  "He is a child launched evilly into
a world which shows little sympathy for these children.  His life will
be a hard one with no good nor kindly influences surrounding it.  There
are numberless cases like this--little children brought into the world
shamefully, and left to drift.  It is not surprising that they grow up
to become bad citizens; it would be surprising if they didn't.  I want
to give one of these small citizens his chance.  The knowledge that he
is closely akin to me makes me more earnest in this wish.  We are
childless people, Edward; we could do this without injuring any one.
Are you very set against it?"

She paused, and gazed inquiringly into his grave face, while he looked
back at her for a long minute in silence, looked into the blue eyes,
raised to his with a frank trustfulness he had never beheld in them
before; and he knew that he could not refuse her her wish, however
distasteful the idea of introducing this child into his home might be.
Still gazing steadily into her quiet eyes, he said:

"You wish to give this child his chance?  I don't like the idea, but I
have no doubt it is none the less right because it is objectionable to
me.  I withdraw my opposition.  Give him his chance, Prudence.  And in
return let me ask a favour of you."

"What is that?" she said.

He did not take his eyes from hers.  He remained standing before her,
observing her with such a yearning wistfulness in his face that her
heart went out to him in pity because she had no love to offer in return
for the love he still bore for her.

"What is the favour, dear?" she asked.  "Give me also a chance," he said
hoarsely, and held out his hands to her, and waited.

Prudence put her hands into his, and the tears were in her eyes.





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