Ecbasis


Grimshaw had quite lost his look of wear and tear when he re-entered
Farleigh’s cottage. Love, we may presume, is omnipotent even over the
ravages of malaria. Vitality expressed itself in his eyes and in every
movement of his athletic body. He had just visited Isaac Burble; and he
knew—humanly speaking—that he had pulled through the plucky old man.
He believed, also, that he could restore Mary to the arms of the
pessimistic Timothy. In short, his fighting instincts were agreeably
quickened. The man’s mind had become triumphant. Perhaps his dominant
thought was the conviction that if he could win for his own a girl as
sweet as Cicely, he could win also her mother. Cicely had imposed this
task upon him. To “make good” in her eyes became the object paramount.

At the first glance round the kitchen he suspected nothing amiss, simply
because his vision was slightly blurred by Cupid. He beheld Lady Selina,
possibly for the first time, as the mother of his beloved rather than
the lady of an ill-administered manor. And in her eyes he seemed to
perceive a sort of appeal, which, of course, was there, although Lady
Selina would have repudiated the fact had she been aware of it. Cicely’s
word “forlorn” obtruded itself. She looked exactly what she felt at the
moment—solitary and practically aloof, a fine survival of a doomed
aristocracy.

She greeted him courteously. Nicodemus stumped out. Agatha and John
remained. After speaking to them, Grimshaw was crossing the kitchen when
Lady Selina lifted her hand and voice:

“One moment, Mr. Grimshaw.”

“Certainly.”

“A grave charge has been brought against me.”

She spoke very suavely, but he noticed that her tone was pitched higher
than usual.

“A charge, Lady Selina?”

“In connection with the sickness in this house to-day, and the
diphtheria long ago that took from Timothy Farleigh his two little
girls.”

The young man instantly realised what had taken place. A swift glance at
Agatha confirmed his worst fears. The girl’s lips were quivering; her
bosom heaved. John, disciplined on the field of battle, stood doggedly
at attention.

“These young people,” continued Lady Selina, “accuse me of no less a
crime than murder.”

“Uncle Timothy used the word,” said Agatha defiantly.

“And his niece, whom I have befriended in many ways, dares to lay the
death of the two Farleigh children at my door.”

Between two fires, and enfiladed by his own thoughts, stood the uneasy
Grimshaw. Cicely’s kisses were still warm on his lips. To do him
justice, he was uneasy because all consideration, naturally enough,
became centred upon Cicely. Swiftly, he perceived one way out of the
wilderness. Taken aback, too honest to temporise deliberately, he said
impetuously:

“A charge of murder is preposterous.” He turned, almost angrily, upon
Agatha, “Why do you talk nonsense? There can be no murder without
motive.”

Lady Selina smiled faintly.

“Thank you, Mr. Grimshaw. That ought to be obvious to any intelligence.”

Agatha’s face indicated confoundment. Stung more by Grimshaw’s manner
than his words, she said acrimoniously:

“So you side with Authority, Mr. Grimshaw?”

Once again, Grimshaw’s part in the proceedings was forced. A different
appeal from weakness to strength might have been met in a very different
fashion. Irritated by the consciousness of being in a false position,
irritated even more by Agatha’s undisguised sneer, he said emphatically:

“I detest violence, Miss Farleigh. Violence, let me tell you, always
defeats its ends.”

He turned to Lady Selina who was visibly impressed.

“You are too generous, Lady Selina, not to make allowance for Timothy
Farleigh, a man beside himself with misery and anxiety.”

More and more pleased with Grimshaw, Lady Selina replied graciously:

“I hope so.”

“If you will allow me,” Grimshaw went on, “I will go to my patient.”

He bowed and left the kitchen.

Lady Selina swept to the door. John opened it for her. Without a word,
she passed into the hot sunshine.

John came back to Agatha, dropping this ointment upon her lacerated
tissues:

“Grimshaw’s a damned timeserver, Aggie, like the rest of ’em.”

“I couldn’t have believed it,” she faltered. “I—I thought he was
different.”

Suddenly, from the ingle-nook came a burst of vivid flame. Nick had set
his fool’s-cap afire. His shrill, uncanny laugh rang through the
kitchen.

“Damn the boy,” exclaimed the startled John. Nick confronted him with
his imbecile grin.

“I be saft along o’ my lady,” he piped. “Father says so; yas, I be saft
along o’ she.”

II

Twenty-four hours elapsed.

During this time Upworthy celebrated the return of a hero, for as such
the fathers of the hamlet regarded John Exton. Much ale, some of it
pre-war strength, was drunk in his honour. At the Chandos Arms, upon the
afternoon following, the gaffers toasted him again and again. He had to
tell the tale of his adventures and misadventures in Flanders and
France. Everybody knew that he was engaged to Agatha.

It was well after five when John escaped from his entertainers and
returned to Timothy’s cottage. Crossing the green he noticed that the
sky was thunderously overcast. Agatha hurried out of the cottage as he
approached it. All trace of anger and disappointment had vanished. She
greeted her lover delightfully.

“I heard the cheers, Johnnie. I’m ever so proud of you.”

He nodded modestly.

“I asked ’em not to follow me because of your aunt. How is she?”

“A bit better, we fancy. Mr. Grimshaw is with her. He sent me out for a
whiff of air. Perhaps he saw you crossing the green.”

John pointed to the tree and its comfortable encircling bench. He sat
down, fanning his heated brow with his cap.

“Sultry, ain’t it? I say, Aggie, guess what bucks me most?”

“All the ale you’ve drunk.”

“They didn’t propose my health straight. They gave the toast: ‘Ephraim
Exton’s son.’ They haven’t forgotten the old man.” Laying down his cap
he fished out his pipe, regarding it rather helplessly.

“Let me fill your pipe, dear,” said Agatha.

John laughed.

“Can you do it, old girl?”

“Can I do it?”

She went to work with a skill that argued some practice, but John was
not of a jealous disposition. He watched her deft fingers with
admiration, remarking pleasantly:

“Little chunk of all-right, you are.”

“Don’t use up all your sugar, sergeant. There!”

She put the pipe between his smiling lips.

“Any matches, Johnnie?”

John took a silver match-box from his pocket.

“Catch!”

Agatha caught it, and examined it with interest. It was a queer old box,
much engraved, obviously not of English make or design.

“What a handsome box!”

“Loot, Aggie. It belonged to a Boche. He’d no further use for it.”

She struck a match and lit his pipe, which John smoked as if he enjoyed
it. Agatha stepped back and regarded him attentively. He was just right,
in her opinion: a man who had done “his bit,” the man of her delicate
choice, likely to make a sober, hard-working husband, clever enough and
not too clever, one to be gently pushed by capable hands on to fortune.
Smiling complacently, she seated herself beside him. John slipped his
one available arm round her shapely waist. She held the match-box in her
hand.

“Put your dear head on my shoulder,” he commanded.

“On the village green?”

“On my shoulder, I said.”

“I’ll risk it.”

She had glanced round, not seeing Nick, who had wandered out of his
father’s garden, and was now behind the tree grinning broadly. John
kissed the lips so near to his.

“Short o’ these rations, I am,” he declared with fervour. “Snug, I call
it.”

Agatha, half-closing her eyes, murmured:

“I feel as if I was floating in heaven.”

“Blighty!” ejaculated the lover.

At this happy moment, Nick, crawling close up to Agatha, gripped her leg
above the ankle, growling like a dog. Agatha screamed and jumped up.

“You blithering idiot!” said John. “Hop it—hop it!”

“Yes, I be village idiot, I be.”

“Not half the fool you look. Shift, I tell you.”

“I’ll make Aggie another fool’s-cap, I will. I can make anythin’ wi’
paper.”

He laughed shrilly and hopped off, as enjoined. John stared at his
retreating figure, observing sapiently:

“He can make anything with paper. Fools make paper laws. Papers rule us
in England.”

Agatha sat down again, nodding her intelligent head.

“That’s right. Papers do rule us. Why don’t you write to them, Johnnie?”

John betrayed slight astonishment.

“What about, dear?”

Agatha answered tartly:

“Conditions here.”

“Napoo,” replied John lazily.

Agatha was revolving this refusal in her mind when Grimshaw came out of
the cottage carrying his bag. He was smiling, thinking of Cicely and her
tryst with him.

Agatha nudged the somnolent John.

“Mr. Grimshaw is coming.”

John rose, and saluted stiffly as Grimshaw approached.

“Good day, sergeant. Going down the old, old trail, eh?”

John answered perfunctorily: “Yes, sir.”

Grimshaw looked at Agatha, who had not risen. This abstention was part
of her new creed.

“I’ve no new instructions for you, Miss Farleigh. Keep your aunt quiet.”

Agatha replied as formally as John:

“Yes, sir. Is it typhoid, Mr. Grimshaw?”

“I did a Widal last night.” He added quickly, “that is a blood test. I
am inclined to think your aunt has paratyphoid.”

John, impressed by the long word, said dismally:

“Then she’s a goner.”

“Oh, no. Paratyphoid is much less dangerous than typhoid. With ordinary
care Mrs. Farleigh will recover. And, thank the Lord, I can trust you,
Miss Farleigh, to see that she has more than ordinary care. Perhaps you
will go to her now.”

Poor Agatha, thus torn from her lover, rose obediently, but with much
ruffled plumage. Without a word she stalked into the cottage. Grimshaw
said pleasantly:

“I’m sorry, but her aunt is alone.”

John answered bluntly but respectfully:

“Agatha’s upset after yesterday, and so am I.”

“After yesterday?” Grimshaw frowned, a frown that deepened as John
continued emphatically:

“We expected you to stand by us, Mr. Grimshaw, and you didn’t. You know
what lies behind things here; you must know that her ladyship hasn’t
done her duty. And when I think of the trenches and the men in ’em it
maddens me”—his voice trembled with excitement—“to see great ladies,
like Lady Selina Chandos, downing those whom we are fighting, aye, and
dying for. It makes me want to down her. And I will, by God!”

Grimshaw said quietly, but not without sympathy:

“You’re a good fellow, John Exton, but, believe me, you only see one
side of this.”

“I see pretty plain that you’re not on that side, sir.”

“I’m not on the side of ranting. Ranting has wrecked many causes. It
antagonises sane men and women. To charge Lady Selina with murder is—as
I said yesterday—preposterous and ridiculous. I want to down not an
individual but a system.”

“Her ladyship is part of the system, and the biggest part in Upworthy.
That’s enough for me.”

He strode off without saluting. Grimshaw glanced at his watch. Cicely
was not due yet. He sat down in John’s place, thinking hard, dismally
conscious that he must appear a sorry figure in the eyes of Sergeant
Exton, conscious also that he had won the very thing he wanted, Lady
Selina’s approval, under false pretences. It was horrible to think that
Exton regarded him as a hypocrite with malevolent eyes. And what did the
man mean by his threats of “downing” Lady Selina? Then he laughed a
little, because it was almost impossible to think of Lady Selina
“downed.” Such imperturbable personalities were not downed by others. If
the whole village rose in arms against her, if she were stoned on the
village green, she would stand superbly erect till the end.

A light laugh roused these reflections. Cicely stood in front of him,
smiling gaily. The pressure of her little hand was reassuring.

“Did you get mother’s invitation to dine with us to-night?”

“The august Stimson delivered it in person.”

“Who was wise?”

He laughed with her, although he replied sincerely:

“That question, dearest, can’t be answered yet.”

Ignoring this, Cicely sat down, saying:

“I am ever so happy. You don’t know what an impression you made upon
mother yesterday. Now—keep it up.”

“That’s all right; but can I?”

“Of course you can, if you try hard enough.” Captivated by her manner,
sitting close to her, he heard her soft whisper:

“Did you dream of me last night?”

“I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Didn’t you? Well, I lay awake till after one thinking of you.”

“You blessed little dear!”

She raised her eyes to his as if inviting him to gaze into their clear
depths and to behold there his own image innocently enshrined. To
dissemble with so artless a creature was quite impossible.

“Something is troubling you, Harry. Tell me!”

“Call it my conscience. To accept so much”—he spoke passionately—“and
to be able to give so little; to know, as I do, that my love may bring
distress and unhappiness upon you! Ah, that tears me! I must speak
plainly now, or never. What is Upworthy to you? Have you ever tried to
measure your feeling for this village and all that goes with it? Are you
able to set a valuation, so to speak, upon it?”

“My dear old home. . . . I don’t quite see what you are driving at. What
do you mean by a valuation?”

“I mean this. I lay awake last night realising the inevitable fact that
if you marry me against your mother’s wishes you risk—disinheritance.”

“Disinheritance! Why, Harry, mother loves me. She would never do that.
Never, never, never. You don’t know her——”

“I don’t. Do you? Does she know herself? Do any of us know ourselves?
Are we able to say confidently what we would do, or not do, till some
supreme test comes along?”

She considered his words carefully; her eyes clouded with perplexity,
her lips quivered.

“You are making me miserable.”

“At what a cost to my own feelings! But we must face things together, as
they are, not as we would like them to be. First and last, it comes to
this: In your own irresistible way you have invited me to join what I
call the great conspiracy of silence in Upworthy. Better men than I are
amongst the conspirators. Dear old Pawley, for example. It is natural
for him, ten thousand times more so for you, to ‘spare’ your mother, to
keep her in cotton wool, to please, in a word, a personality so
gracious, so kindly at heart, so sincerely anxious to do the right thing
in, alas! the wrong way. But, as an honest man, Cicely, I side with her
tenants as against her.”

“Heavens! Do you mean that you took mother’s part yesterday against your
conscience, and that I tempted you to do so?”

“No, no; the murder charge was absurd. But I conveyed the impression to
others that my sympathies lay with your mother in her management of this
estate, and they don’t.”

“If you would listen to me. . . .”

“God knows I want to listen to you, you witch.”

Cicely picked her way. To the man who was watching her it became plain
that she knew her ground. Her confidence would have been amusing if
lesser issues had been at stake.

“You can’t change things or people quickly, can you?”

“Earthquakes do.”

“Perhaps. Earthquakes don’t happen in English villages. If mother learnt
to trust you instead of Gridley all that you wish might be brought about
without—without friction. And if not altogether in her
lifetime—afterwards. I will work hand-in-hand with you, Harry. I shall
love it. Between us we will change Upworthy into a model village. I ask
for nothing better. I know that mother wants me to-day as she never
wanted me before. To hurt her now, to let others hurt her . . . ah!
. . . that isn’t in me. Win mother as you have won me and we shall find
our future happiness without imperilling hers.”

Her exact choice of words indicated her intelligence and the amount of
thought that she must have given to so difficult a subject. Fiercest
temptation assailed Grimshaw. And he had yielded, under far less
pressure, to importunity in Essex and Poplar. After a tormenting pause
he said hoarsely:

“It means whitewash, Cicely. I can find no other word.”

She touched his arm gently.

“I wish I were strong like you.”

“But I’m not strong,” he protested vehemently. “No one is. The strong
man we read about is a writer’s lie. There isn’t a so-called strong man
in history without a weak spot somewhere. Don’t make me weaker than I
am. Perhaps—perhaps I ought to go away for a year and leave you free.”

The test propounded so tentatively failed utterly. In her turn she
became vehement.

“No, no. If you leave me, Harry, it will be because your love is less
than mine.”

As they gazed searchingly at each other a senile whistling was borne
down the breeze. Cicely said desperately:

“Somebody is coming. Harry—suspense will kill me. Women understand
women. Be patient, and mother will accept you as a son. I am sure of it.
And I shall love the strength in you more if you show a little weakness
now for my sake. Direct methods, which men use, are so brutal. I am
pleading for our happiness. Promise me—quick!”

In her agitation she clung to him, pressing her soft body against his.
He answered dully:

“All right, Cicely.”

The Ancient approached, redder than usual in the face. His gait was not
perfectly steady. Cicely said hurriedly:

“It’s Nicodemus. He may pass on. Good day, granfer.”

Nicodemus halted, surveying the pair whimsically.

“Good day, miss. Good day, doctor. A rare starm be comin’ up. I feel ’un
in my old boans.”

“You mustn’t get wet, Master Burble,” said the artful Cicely.

“Ah-h-h! I bain’t in no sart o’ hurry to invite meself, as the sayin’
is, to my own funeral. I be come from drinkin’ Johnny Exton’s health—a
very notable set-to.”

Cicely still hoping that the garrulous old man would move on, said
briskly:

“Yes; we heard some cheering up at the Hall.”

“Did ’ee now? Johnny be a valiant soul, but a sad Raddicle. I hope,
miss, that her ladyship won’t mix me up wi’ him and Aggie Farleigh. I
don’t hold wi’ such flustratious talk.”

“My mother knows that.”

Nicodemus uplifted his voice, thinking, possibly, that his wise words
might penetrate the open windows in the Farleigh cottage:

“Rich folks, I allers say, should be treated wi’ respect—because why?
They can make we pore ’uns so danged uncomfortsome. Beggin’ your pardon,
miss, but I’ll sit me down under old tree. It ha’ seen a sight o’
things, to be sure.”

Grimshaw and Cicely exchanged rueful glances, sensible that the Ancient
had diddled them squarely. He cackled on:

“Lumbager has me this instant minute. ’Twas the third tankard as done
it.”

Grimshaw stood up, looking at his watch and addressing Cicely:

“I must see a patient on the Wilverley road.”

Cicely nodded, as he continued formally for the benefit of Nicodemus:
“Better get home, Miss Chandos, before the storm breaks.
Till—to-night.”

“Eight punctually, Mr. Grimshaw.”

He picked up his bag and strode off. Nicodemus smacked his lips.

“A very forcible man, doctor.”

“Yes, he is—and so are you, granfer.”

“A-h-h! Father o’ five I was at his age. How be Mary Farleigh, miss?”

“A shade better.” She looked up at the darkening skies. “I shall just
have time to get home. Good night, Master Burble.”

“Good night, miss.”

III

After Cicely had left him, the Ancient dozed pleasantly, being full of
ale paid for by others. Martha Giles awoke him by shaking his shoulder.

“Be you quite sober, Master Burble?” she asked in a neighbourly spirit,
and not unmindful of the change in the weather.

Nicodemus wagged his head, remarking chirrupingly:

“I’ve had a rare skin-full, Martha, and my old legs tell me so, not my
head, old girl. Call it a touch o’ lumbager, as I did to Miss Cicely. So
Mary be better, hey?”

“Yas, Mary be better and Timothy worse, pore dear soul!”

“What? Down wi’ the fever, too?”

“Fev’rish in his mind, look you. And that set agen my lady ’tis a mortal
sin. Yas, Mary be mendin’. A be-utiful corpse she’d ha’ made. ’Twould
ha’ been a sad pleasure to lay her out. Aggie got miffed when I passed
the remark to her las’ night.”

Nicodemus heaved a sigh.

“Young folks be upsettin’, Martha. We be livin’ in fearful and
wondersome times.”

Martha did not answer him, her attention being engrossed by a sudden
sight of Nick capering wildly across the green.

“Come you here,” she shouted.

Nick danced up, grinning.

“Wheer ha’ you been, Nick? Up to some mischief, I’ll be bound.”

“He can bide along wi’ me,” said Nicodemus comfortably.

“I likes you,” said Nick.

“Do ’ee now? For why?”

“Because you be so nice an’ hairy, like old baboon I sees at Wilverley
Fair.”

Nicodemus accepted this as a compliment. A bell began to boom loudly.
Both Martha and the Ancient were startled.

“Dang me, if that bain’t big bell up at Hall!”

He half-staggered to his feet, and fell back.

“I be fair ashamed o’ my legs,” he observed solemnly. Then, as the bell
boomed out even more violently, he cocked his head at Martha.

“Something be up, Marthy. You climb tree, Nicky, and tell us what you
sees.”

“The lad might break his neck,” suggested Martha.

“You climb tree,” commanded Nicodemus, “or I’ll warm your starn-sheets
for ’ee.”

“I likes to climb trees, I do.”

“Then up you goes.”

Nicky obeyed with alacrity. As he reached the first branch, Agatha
appeared at the cottage window which fronted the green.

“What has happened?” she asked. The bell went on ringing. Then a sharp
whistle was heard.

“Constable’s whistle,” remarked the Ancient. “I knows ’un.”

Excitement gripped them, as a man tore past on a bicycle, heading for
Wilverley. As he passed the tree, he yelled out: “Fire! Fire!”

“That was Wilson. My lady’s shover,” faltered Martha. “Oh, dear! oh,
dear! Where be fire?”

“’Tis a rick, maybe,” hazarded Nicodemus.

By this time, Nick was high up the tree. He shouted down:

“I sees a gert smoke, I do.”

“Wheer? Wheer?” shouted Nicodemus.

Martha Giles expressed a positive opinion that Wilson was riding fast
for the Wilverley fire-engine.

“Why didn’t ’un take my lady’s car?”

Nick shouted again, very shrilly:

“I sees yeller flames, I do.”

Agatha rushed out of the cottage.

“It’s the Hall,” she said, tremblingly. “Maybe ’tis only a chimney.”

“Ah-h-h. Best thing for that is a wet turf a-top o’ chimney pot, and a
wet blanket stuffed up the flue. I knows.”

Martha covered her face with her apron. But Nicodemus tried to hearten
her up with his coagulated wisdom.

“Things might be worse, Marthy. Our cottages might be afire—see.”

Nevertheless, one and all stared at each other, helpless and almost
tongue-tied under the stress of emergency.

“I wish I knew where my John was,” said Agatha.

Nick yelled out:

“’Tis the Hall, neighbours. The roof be blazin’.”

Agatha, very pale, hurried back into the cottage. Martha observed, less
tearfully:

“Lard, presarve us! That pore soul in bed needs rousin’. This’ll do it.
Here be Timothy Farleigh.”

Timothy stood in his doorway. His deepset eyes smouldered sullenly. Not
a word escaped from his tightly-compressed lips. Nicodemus piped shrilly
at him:

“Timothy, man, old Hall be afire.”

“Let ’un burn,” replied Timothy, in diapason tones. “Let ’un burn, I
says.”

The Ancient glared at him.

“Shame on ’ee—shame! Think o’ the good liquor down cellar.”

“Let ’un burn, I says.”

Nicodemus, full of righteous indignation, replied sharply:

“I don’t want to listen to what you says. You listen to what I says. I
be old in wisdom, and you be old in your blarsted ignerunce. We pore
folks’ll suffer for this.”

A red glow suffused itself. Almost immediately a peal of distant thunder
was heard. Timothy, erect and menacing, exclaimed solemnly:

“This be the Day o’ Judgment.”

Nicodemus shook his fist at him.

“If that be so, you stand wi’ the goats.”

But really he was impressed by Timothy’s deportment. The man seemed to
have expanded. He had the air of an inspired prophet as he lifted his
deep voice:

“May God A’mighty deal this day wi’ Lady Selina Chandos as she has dealt
wi’ me and mine!”

IV

George Ball, the village constable, joined the group under the tree, and
dismounted from his bicycle. He was a heavy, good-natured man,
ordinarily lethargic. He spoke with authority:

“Is Doctor Grimshaw here?”

“No, he bain’t, Garge. What be wantin’ doctor for, hey?”

“I dun’no. Miss Cicely told me to fetch ’un quick. Old Hall be done for.
That’s sartain.”

A quarter of an hour at least had elapsed before George appeared. During
that time, men and boys had been seen hurrying up to the Hall.
Nicodemus, unable to budge, had remained under the tree. No rain had
fallen as yet, but the storm was coming nearer, and the intermittent
lightning became more vivid with each succeeding flash. From the top of
the tree Nick’s eerie laughter floated earthwards.

“Anybody burned?” asked the Ancient.

George Ball couldn’t be sure of this. He furnished a few details, avidly
swallowed. The fire had started in the garage, and thence spread to the
house; all the servants were safe, and busy rescuing pictures and
furniture. He concluded on a high, nerve-shattering note:

“’Tis arson, I reckons.”

“What be arson?” asked Martha Giles.

“Settin’ other folks’ houses afire,” replied the constable. Noting a
derisive smile on Timothy’s face, he asked officially:

“Why ain’t you up at Hall—helpin’?”

Timothy replied defiantly:

“Because I bain’t.”

George Ball went on:

“Arson it seems to be, accordin’ to Wilson. He told me in servants’ hall
that he had left the garage not five minutes afore fire started.
Positive, he was, that all was snug. In my quiet way I spoke o’
cigarettes, but Fred Wilson don’t smoke terbacker in no form. And he
swears that no match was lighted by him this blessed afternoon. Bag o’
mystery this be, because my lady had no enemies in these parts.”

“Liar!” remarked Timothy.

The astonished constable glared at him.

“What you say?”

“I said, liar. I be her enemy.”

George, utterly dazed, wiped his forehead, ejaculating:

“Queer talk, I must say.”

To this Timothy replied savagely:

“You’ll be wiser afore you’re older.”

Nicodemus interrupted sharply:

“Timothy Farleigh’ll be dead afore he’s wise at all Now, Garge, I minds
me that Doctor Grimshaw walked off Wilverley way. If that bit o’ news be
worth a tankard, don’t ’ee forget it, my good man.”

“You might ha’ said as much five minutes ago.”

He mounted his bicycle and sped off.

Nicodemus, active of mind and unduly elated because ale had impaired
underpinning, instead of understanding, was now the centre of a small
group of women, children and gaffers. Everybody else, of course, was
watching the fire in the Hall gardens, or helping to remove furniture.
From the first none dared even to hope that so old a house, so heavily
timbered, could escape being burnt to the ground.

Martha Giles said mournfully:

“Her ladyship, pore dear soul, ’ll be lacking shelter.”

By the luck of things, she addressed this innocent remark to Timothy,
who remained at his wicket gate, sullenly rejoicing over this great
calamity. He replied harshly:

“Shelter? Aye. Not under my roof.”

Nicodemus, trembling with rage, exclaimed:

“’Twon’t be your roof much longer, you damned fool. You be headin’
straight for porehouse, you be. No part wine there, and the vittles so
ontasty as never was.”

Agatha, noting the angry faces glaring at her uncle, said entreatingly:

“Better go in, uncle.”

“No,” said Timothy, “not till the house of that woman be utterly
destroyed.”

V

Destroyed it was within an incredibly short space of time.

From the moment when the garage burst into flame Lady Selina behaved
with fortitude, directing operations and exhibiting amazing pluck and
resource. The most valuable furniture, the pictures, china and plate
were carried to the farther end of the topiary garden. Despite the
entreaties of Cicely, the lady of the manor was almost the last to leave
the house. As she did so a tongue of flame licked her arm. Unmindful of
this, she commanded a general retreat, a withdrawal to a slight eminence
in the garden, whence the last act of the tragedy was witnessed. Here,
to her satisfaction, she learned that nobody except herself had been
injured. Already Cicely had dispatched George Ball in search of
Grimshaw. Lady Selina, however, made light of her scorching, concerned
only with the housing of her establishment. It was settled that Cicely
and she would go to the Vicarage for the night. The worthy Goodrich
hovered about her, scant of breath but full of sympathy and warm with
indignation because the dreadful word “arson” lay pat on every lip
except his own.

Towards the end, after the roof had fallen in, the rain poured down.
Lady Selina gazed sadly at the ruins of her home, saying nothing. Cicely
clutched her.

“Come, mother, you will be wet through.”

Lady Selina yielded at length to importunity. She passed, erect, through
her people, and took the path to the village, pausing to speak to the
landlord of the Chandos Arms, to whom the board and lodging of her
servants had been entrusted.

“I will see to it myself that all is in order.”

“Very good, my lady.”

Then, resolutely, she turned her back upon all that was left of the home
to which she had come as a bride. In silence, leaning upon her
daughter’s arm, she walked wearily, spent by her physical exertions.
Goodrich followed, and others. Burdens greater than those of fatigue
weighed heavily upon her. By the time she had reached the tree upon the
green, the first tropical downpour was over.

“I must rest a moment,” she said faintly.

“Are you in pain, mother?”

“Of course I am, but that is of no consequence.”

“When will Mr. Grimshaw be here?”

Lady Selina sat down, gasping a little. Nicodemus tried to stand up.

“Sit you down, old friend,” commanded Lady Selina.

“A very sad mishap, my lady.”

“Very.”

Then, for the first time, she heard the word that was distressing the
parson. The Ancient, feeling as if he were enthroned beside the queen
regnant, and regarded as a trusty councillor, remarked solemnly:

“Garge Ball do say ’twas arson.”

Instantly Lady Selina became alert. She sat up in every sense of the
phrase, alert, interrogative, almost excited.

“Arson?” she repeated sharply. “Impossible!”

Nicodemus wagged his hoary head. This was his great moment. To rise to
it adequately became a sort of obsession.

“I knows what I knows,” he affirmed positively.

“Stuff and nonsense!” exclaimed the parson.

Lady Selina spoke gently to the old man.

“Tell me what you know, Nicodemus.”

Thus encouraged, the Ancient expanded visibly, raising his voice so that
all and sundry might hear him.

“’Tis ondeniably true that your ladyship has enemies in this yere
parish.”

Probably he expected protest. Lady Selina said quietly:

“So I discovered yesterday.”

“I bain’t one to carry tales, my lady.”

It says much for Lady Selina Chandos that this affirmation provoked her
humour. In the familiar tone that so endeared her to her dependents, she
bantered the old gaffer:

“That won’t do, Nicodemus. We have gossiped together a score of times.
Any service you can render me will not be forgotten, I can assure you.”

“Ah-h-h! I did hear wicked talk about burning down this village.”

“Where?”

Goodrich, as a Justice of the Peace, was constrained to interrupt:

“Dear lady,” he said warningly, “may I suggest that any inquiry ought to
take place at another time, and in a more private place?”

Slightly irritated, conscious, perhaps, that Nicodemus might not speak
at another time and in another place with entire frankness, Lady Selina
said tartly:

“Please allow me to be the judge of that.” In a more conciliatory tone
she addressed Nicodemus: “Where did you hear this talk?”

“In cottage yonder.” He pointed to Farleigh’s house.

“From whom?”

“From Aggie Farleigh and John Exton.”

“Quite so.”

Cicely interrupted eagerly:

“Mother, you don’t—you can’t think either of them capable of——”

Lady Selina cut her short.

“My dear, long ago I thought of them as firebrands, and firebrands they
are.”

Goodrich, much perturbed, but ever the peacemaker, suggested blandly:

“If you are rested sufficiently, Lady Selina, shall we go on to my
house? Another heavy shower impends.”

“Rested! . . . Do you think that rest is possible till I have got to the
bottom of this?” She raised her voice again, glancing round at the
circle of familiar faces, some of them not looking too friendly,
inasmuch as Agatha and John were favourites in the village. Even to the
rustic mind, prone to leap hastily to wrong conclusions, this indictment
of two persons on so grave a charge, an indictment unsupported by
evidence, seemed unjust and intolerable. A faint murmur of protest was
heard.

“Does anybody present,” continued Lady Selina, “know anything that would
throw light on this dreadful charge of arson? If so, I ask him or her to
speak.”

Stimson stepped forward. He was hardly recognisable. The staid,
respectable butler had covered himself with glory and grime in a beloved
mistress’s service.

She smiled graciously upon him.

“Yes, my lady. I saved all the plate, every bit of it, my lady.”

“Oh, Stimson! We could have spared that ugly Early-Victorian
tea-service. Well, well, you faithful soul, do you know anything?”

“There is this clue, my lady. We found it on the grass near the garage.”

He held out a silver match-box.

“A match-box?”

“Yes, my lady.”

She examined it carefully. The parson, pince-nez on nose, took it gently
from her hand. Then, with the air of Sherlock Holmes, he said
portentously:

“It bears a German inscription. I draw the obvious inference—it was
made in Germany.”

The crowd sighed with relief as the parson continued in the tones
ordinarily sacrosanct to the lectern and pulpit:

“I infer more. One of our enemies, some alien, possibly, who has escaped
internment, must have committed this terrible crime.”

The crowd hummed approval. Lady Selina, more alert than ever, observed
derisively:

“Your inference will hold water, Mr. Goodrich, if any alien has been
seen about my premises.”

Goodrich replied hastily:

“’M’yes—a question pat to the point.”

“Many persons,” continued Lady Selina, “carry objects like match-boxes,
made in Germany.”

At this Agatha came forward. Timothy had gone back into his cottage as
soon as he saw Lady Selina approaching. Agatha had remained near the
cottage gate, looking anxiously for her lover.

“May I look at the match-box?” she asked quietly.

“Certainly.”

It was handed to her. The crowd edged in closer. Agatha said positively:

“This match-box belongs to John Exton. I struck a match on it not an
hour ago, here, on this very spot. I—I had it in my hand. I must have
dropped it or left it on this bench. I can’t remember returning it
to—to its owner.”

A dramatic silence followed, broken by Goodrich, no longer the parson
but the magistrate.

“You testify to that, Agatha Farleigh?”

“Testify?” she repeated blankly.

“It is my duty to warn you that anything said by you now may be used
against you later.”

“What does this all mean?” groaned Cicely.

Her mother answered grimly: “It means something very terrible, child.”

As she spoke, Grimshaw, mounted upon the constable’s bicycle, was seen
approaching.

“Mr. Grimshaw at last!” exclaimed Cicely. As he dismounted she said to
him nervously: “Mother has been burnt.”

“Scorched, my dear; scorched.”

“It’s a very nasty burn,” said Cicely.

Grimshaw insisted upon instant examination. He unstrapped his bag,
opened it, and took out a pair of scissors. Deftly he slit up the
sleeve, saying:

“Ball could not tell me what was saved.”

“The servants saved themselves,” said Lady Selina. “We saved the more
valuable miniatures and my Chelsea. There is a pantechnicon van-load of
furniture on the lawns.”

Grimshaw nodded, intent on his work. He pulled a broad bandage from his
bag and made an impromptu sling, adding professionally:

“This must be dressed properly elsewhere. Where are you going, Lady
Selina?”

“To my house,” said Goodrich.

“In five minutes,” murmured Lady Selina. Obviously she was in pain, but
her eyes rested tranquilly upon Grimshaw. She appreciated the delicacy
of his touch, and said so. Then she addressed Agatha coldly:

“The match-box, please.”

Agatha returned it, bursting out vehemently:

“I know what you think, my lady, but it’s simply impossible. I wish
Sergeant Exton were here to defend himself. As for me,” she drew herself
up with dignity, “I have been in attendance upon my aunt, as Martha
Giles can _testify_.”

She glanced at the parson, using the word scornfully.

“Johnnie Exton be here,” exclaimed one of the crowd.

The villagers made way for John, who approached Agatha. The young man
was dishevelled and his khaki was scorched and stained by smoke. Out of
a grimy face his eyes sparkled brilliantly.

“Where have you been, John?” asked Agatha.

“Helping up at the Hall.”

“Helping?” repeated Lady Selina.

“I did what a one-armed man could, my lady.”

“Of course you did,” said Agatha. “No one who knows you,” she added
defiantly, “would question that.”

Lady Selina, bent upon conducting the inquiry in her own way, said
sharply:

“Where were you, sergeant, when the fire broke out?”

“I was in the park.”

“In my park—but why?”

“There is a right of way through the park, my lady.”

“True. Now, Nicodemus, speak up, speak the whole truth? Did you or did
you not hear Sergeant Exton and Agatha say that my village ought to be
burnt?”

The Ancient, never forgetting doles, piped up valiantly:

“I heard ’un, my lady; I heard more, too.”

“I did say that a score of cottages ought to be burnt, including Timothy
Farleigh’s. And what of it? It’s true. Let the whole truth come out.
Nicodemus Burble heard more. What? I’ll tell you. He heard Timothy
Farleigh, a man crazy with misery, say that the Hall ought to be burnt
first.”

The crowd, inarticulate with astonishment, buzzed like a swarm of bees.
Grimshaw, thinking first of his patient, anxious to keep her quiet,
suggested an immediate withdrawal to the Vicarage.

“Not yet,” replied Lady Selina firmly. Perhaps she was conscious of
latent sympathy from her people. In a very few she may have divined
hostility. She addressed the parson.

“You know, Mr. Goodrich, what was said by Sergeant Exton when I had to
give his father notice to leave his farm?”

“I grieve to say I do,” answered Goodrich.

“Agatha Farleigh, here, whom Sergeant Exton is going to marry, lays the
death of the two Farleigh children at my door. And now my house is
burnt.”

She betrayed no excitement, no animosity. Slowly she held up the
match-box.

“Is this yours?”

John stared at it.

Lady Selina continued impassively:

“It was picked up near the garage. An hour ago it was in your
possession.”

“It was,” John admitted. “But I haven’t been near the garage.”

Goodrich said impatiently:

“All this is irregular. At the same time, matters having gone so far, I
will take it upon myself to ask you a question, sergeant: Will you tell
us exactly where you happened to be when the fire broke out?”

“I happened to be near the house.”

“Alone?”

“Alone.”

The villagers were tremendously impressed. Of all now present, and many
others had sauntered up, possibly Exton and Lady Selina alone remained
self-possessed. Agatha said emotionally:

“Miss Cicely—you—you don’t accuse my John? You—can’t!”

A sob broke from her. As Cicely, on the edge of tears, did not answer
quickly, Agatha turned impetuously to Grimshaw.

“I appeal to you, Mr. Grimshaw.”

Lady Selina nodded majestically:

“I shall be glad to hear what you think, Mr. Grimshaw.”

“I think, Lady Selina, that John Exton is innocent of this charge.”

“Thank you, sir,” said John.

“Is that thought,” said Goodrich, “grounded on some evidence not yet
forthcoming?”

Grimshaw replied quietly: “You see, I know the man. Does not character
weigh with you, Mr. Goodrich?”

“Of course.”

Lady Selina, looking earnestly at Grimshaw, continued:

“But, unhappily, this young man’s character as—as an agitator, as a
stirrer-up of strife, is against him.”

“To my knowledge,” Grimshaw replied firmly, “he has been a good son and
a good soldier. Doesn’t that appeal to you, Lady Selina?”

“It does. You say, Mr. Grimshaw, that you know Sergeant Exton. Has he,
in talk with you, ever shown any personal animus against me?”

Grimshaw betrayed his uneasiness, conscious once again that his hand was
being forced by Fate, that, against his own convictions and principles,
he was constrained to take, seemingly, the side of Authority. He
hesitated, and then answered quickly:

“Well, yes; he has, but——”

John Exton cut him short.

“I’m not ashamed of what I said. I told Doctor Grimshaw, my lady, that I
wanted to see you—_downed_.”

“Ah.”

The fact that she made no comment strengthened her case enormously in
the eyes and ears of those who might still be counted loyal subjects. On
the other hand, John’s handsome admission, his frank countenance, his
soldierly deportment made a profound impression. Cecily, torn in two,
exclaimed vehemently:

“It’s incredible! You, a brave man, a soldier of the King, actually
wanted to down a woman!”

Lady Selina, with uplifted hand, imposed silence. Goodrich delivered his
verdict:

“I am grieved—grieved. Where is the constable, George Ball?”

“Here, sir.”

Goodrich addressed him magisterially:

“If a constable has reasonable ground for suspecting that a felony has
been committed, he can arrest the person so suspected without a
warrant.”

Agatha interposed hotly:

“The grounds are unreasonable.”

“Are they, Mr. Grimshaw?”

Lady Selina’s smooth, soft voice silenced the murmuring crowd.
Breathlessly Grimshaw’s answer was awaited. He replied promptly:

“Not altogether.”

“Thank you.”

For the second time, using him as a sort of court of final appeal, she
had triumphed, and triumph informed her tones. She continued, as quietly
as before:

“I put it to you, as an impartial observer, as a comparative stranger to
this village and its ways, is it unreasonable to give this man into
custody pending a proper enquiry?”

“Perhaps not.”

The crowd buzzed with excitement. It was impossible to interpret that
buzzing. Grimshaw continued professionally:

“As your medical attendant, Lady Selina, I must insist upon dressing
your arm at once. I will go to Dr. Pawley’s dispensary to fetch what is
necessary, and rejoin you at the Vicarage.”

He bowed and went his way. Lady Selina stood up, surveying her people.

“Quite obviously, Mr. Grimshaw gave an honest opinion against a kindly
wish to help an old acquaintance.”

George Ball, knowing instinctively the temper of the villagers, and
divining trouble, said tentatively:

“Be I to take John Exton into custody, my lady?”

“Yes.”

George Ball, attempting to justify himself before his fellow-villagers,
added deprecatingly:

“It do seem as if the Hall couldn’t, so to speak, set fire to itself.
All the same, my lady——”

“Well?”

“I be only parish constable, my lady, and if I exceeds my dooty I be
liable to lose my job.”

“I will assume all responsibility,” the lady of the manor assured him.
Thus fortified, Ball turned to John.

“I be bound to ax you to come along wi’ me.”

Sergeant Exton answered cheerfully:

“That’s all right, George. You can’t help yourself. Aggie, dear——”

She flung herself into his embrace, sobbing bitterly.

“You didn’t do it, Johnnie! You didn’t do it!”

“Bless your heart! I didn’t.”

“It’s begun to rain again,” said Cicely.

She took her mother’s arm. Lady Selina nodded, too tired to speak. In
silence, followed by the parson, mother and daughter passed through the
gaping villagers.