THE OLD PRIORY

There was none to drag up the melancholy blossoms of Medora’s woe
and display the fact that they had no roots; but she kept them alive
nevertheless; and since she was tickled to persist in folly by the
increasing interest created from her alleged sufferings, she woke up
to find those sufferings real at last. She had now earned a great
deal of pity and won a reputation for patience and endurance. She had
also awakened a certain measure of feeling against Ned, which was
inevitable, and now conditions which she had implied, knowing at the
bottom of her heart they did not exist, began to develop in reality.
The man was not built to watch Medora’s histrionics in patience for
ever, and she found him growing harsh and rough.

Then there was no more play-acting for Medora. Outraged in every
instinct, her sense of humour dead and her self-consciousness morbidly
hypertrophied, she began to hate the man she had married. The cause of
his changed attitude she forgot; and the bad usage for which she had
deliberately played, when it came she resented with all her soul. Now
she ceased to be a wife to him and daily threatened to leave him.

A series of incidents more or less painful led to the threshold of
complete estrangement and Medora was always ahead of her husband and
always a good stage farther advanced to the final rupture than was he.
Indeed he never knew until the climax burst upon him that it was so
near. He did wrong things at this season, was hard when he should have
been gentle, and allowed himself brutalities of speech and action.
But again and again after such ebullitions, he was contrite, abased
himself and implored Medora to help him to a better comradeship and
understanding.

Each sought to confide, and Ned confided in Medora herself, while she
went elsewhere. Her interest was rapidly shifting and her husband’s
efforts at reconciliation meant nothing now. For the time being she
heartily loathed him, and the sound of his voice in the house, and
the fall of his foot. Yet between his furies he had struggled hard to
restore their friendship. He had confessed the incident with Kellock
and described to Medora how, in his passion that anybody should presume
to come between them, even with good advice, he had turned on the
vatman, knocked him into the water and then pulled him out again.

“He meant well; but it shows what a state I’m in that I could do it. He
forgave me quickly enough, but I couldn’t forgive myself. And I only
tell you, Medora, to show what a perilous and unnatural frame of mind
I’ve got to. It’s all so properly cruel—as if some unseen devil had
poked his claws into our affairs and was trying to tear ’em apart. And
God knows I’ll do any mortal thing that man can do to right it.”

She was, however, much more interested in the disaster to Kellock.

“What did he say that made you try to murder him?” she asked.

“I didn’t try to murder him—I only shut his mouth. So I don’t know
what he was going to say. He admitted I was right anyway, and that it
was not his place to interfere.”

“Nobody’s got the right to talk sense to you seemingly.”

“I’m not telling you this for you to begin on me again,” he said. “I’m
telling you to show you what you’re doing and what you’ve done to my
temper. If anybody had told me a year ago I’d forget myself and knock a
man down for trying to do me a good turn, I’d never have believed it.
Yet such is my state that I did so. And since then I’ve asked Jordan to
speak about the thing and give me any advice he could; but he’s told me
frankly the time has passed for that. He won’t speak now. He forgave
me for knocking him into the water; but I can see with half an eye he
don’t want any more to do with me.”

Medora, well knowing why this was, yet pretended not to know.

“You must ask yourself for a reason then and no doubt your conscience
will find it, Ned. We must cut a loss before long—you and me—for I
don’t want to die under this. I can’t stand very much more and I dare
say you feel the same.”

“What d’you mean by ‘cut a loss’?” he asked.

But after any pregnant remark of this description, Medora temporised
for a time and preferred to be indefinite.

“I don’t know what I mean,” she answered. “There’s times when I wish I
was out of it, young as I am. I can suffer and suffer of course. I’m
strong and there’s no limit to my endurance. But I’m beginning to ask
myself ‘why?’ And for that matter there are one or two others asking me
the same question.”

“No doubt,” he said. “The woman’s always right if her face is pretty
enough. You’ve got the art always to be in the right, and there’s only
one on God’s earth, and that’s me, who knows you’re wickedly in the
wrong quite as often as I am. It’s your wrongs in other people’s mouths
that made me do wrong; and when you saw me setting out with all my
heart to be patient and win you back again, you set yourself wickedly
to work to break down my patience and egg me on. Again and again you’ve
kept at me till I’ve gone too far and done evil; and then you’ve run
about everywhere and let everybody know what a coward and brute I am.”

“That’s the way you talk,” she said, “and I can only listen with my
heart broken. You say these things for no reason but to make me angry,
and as to patience, even you will grant, if there’s any justice left
in you, that my patience has never broke down from the first. And when
the people have talked, I’ve laughed it off and put a bright face on
it.”

“Yes, I know that bright face—as though you were saying, ‘you see I’m
an angel already and only want the wings.’”

“Oh, your tongue!” she answered. “To think that ever you could scourge
a good wife with such bitter, biting words.”

Then she wept and he cursed and went out. It was a scene typical of
others; but from the moment that Medora heard of Kellock’s immersion
she could not rest until she had let him know she knew it. They were
meeting now unknown to Dingle, for though Jordan at first protested
against any private conference, Medora quickly over-ruled him. For
a month she had made it clear that only the wisdom of Mr. Kellock
was keeping her sane; and he believed it. Nor was this altogether
untrue, for Medora, now genuinely miserable, began to seek increasing
sustenance and support from her old lover.

As in the case of all her other schemes for entertainment and
exaltation, she crept to this and let it develop slowly. As the rift
between her and Ned grew wider, the gap narrowed between her and Jordan
Kellock. At each meeting she decreased the distance between them, yet
never by definite word or deed appeared to be doing so. Kellock himself
did not realise it. He knew the fact and taxed his own conscience with
it at first; but then for a time his conscience left him in doubt as
to his duty, until in the light of Medora’s increasing sufferings, it
spoke more distinctly and chimed dangerously with his inclination.

His whole life was dominated by this great matter. It had become
personal and he wrestled with his difficulties by day and night. Medora
was one of those women who have a marvellous power of influencing
other judgments. She had a fatal gift to waken dislike and distrust
of another person in the mind of a third. She had already created
aversion for Ned in the minds of several women; now Jordan, despite
his own reason, felt himself beginning to hate Dingle as heartily
as Medora appeared to do. He fought this emotion for a time; but
found it impossible any longer to maintain an impartial attitude.
He told himself that it was only false sentiment to pretend farther
impartiality. Justice demanded antagonism to Ned in the future—not
because Medora had once been Jordan’s whole hope and desire and was now
herself unhappy and friendless; but because, as an honest man, Kellock
could not longer be impartial.

His views of life were changing; his orderly mind was beginning to
suspect that strong action might be necessary. Justice was the word
most often on his lips; and yet knowing that he loved Medora, he was
intelligent enough to perceive that inclination might be deluding him
and making apparently simple what, in reality, was complex. For a time
he hesitated; then came a day when he met Medora by appointment and
felt it impossible to stand outside her life any longer. She, indeed,
forced his hand and made it clear that she was going to take definite
steps for her own salvation.

Medora, on her way to Priory Farm one Sunday afternoon, had arranged to
meet Kellock at the ruins of the building that gave the farm its name.
Here they would be safe from any interruption.

The fragment of masonry crowned Mr. Dolbear’s orchard on the summit of
the hill that fell into Cornworthy. Here, heaved up against the sky
in its ivy mantle, stood the meagre remains of an old priory, one of
the smaller houses of the Austin nuns, founded by the Norman lords of
Totnes.

It consisted of a great gateway with a roof vaulted, ribbed and bossed,
and a lesser entrance that stood to the north of the first. They
pierced the mass and bore above them a chamber, of which only the floor
and ruined walls remained. It was reached by a stair, where stone
steps wound in the thickness of the wall and opened on to the crown
of the ruin fifty feet above. The space aloft was hung with polypody
and spleenwort in the chinks of its crumbling mortar, and ivy knots
seemed to hold the mass together. A whitethorn had found foothold
and rose above the central block of stone. Through a ruined aperture
facing east, one might see the orchard sloping to the valley bottom and
Cornworthy’s scattered dwellings, ascending on the farther hill. The
picture, set in the grey granite frame of the priory window, revealed
thatched houses grouped closely, with land sweeping upwards on either
side, so that the hamlet lay in a dingle between the breasts of the
red earth. The land climbed on beyond the village and threw a hogged
back across the sky. Here were broad fallows and hedgerows where the
leafless elms broke the line with their grey skeletons. To this exalted
but secret place, Medora and Kellock were come. He had indeed been
there some time when she arrived.

“If you sit here,” he said, “you’re out of the wind.”

“We’re safe now,” she answered. “And ’twas like you to put yourself
about and tramp all this way. But I’ve got to be terrible careful,
Jordan, for if my husband thought I’d any friends working for me and
thinking for me, I don’t know what awful thing he’d do against me. Nuns
used to live here in past ages,” she continued. “Oh, my God! I wish I’d
been one of them. Then I should have spent my days in peace and be at
rest now.”

“Sit down and let’s use our time as best we can,” he advised.

“Time—time—I want for time to end. For two pins I’d jump out of that
window and end all time so far as I’m concerned.”

“You mustn’t talk or think like that, or else I shall fear I can’t be
any use. I tell you, before God, that my life’s all centred in you and
your troubles now. I shan’t have no peace till you have peace.”

“I’ll live for you then; and that’s about all I want to live for any
longer,” declared Medora. She felt in a theatrical mood and Ned’s
recent confession enabled her to speak with a great oncoming of warmth
and emotion. Her perception had fastened upon it from the first and
measured its value.

And now in the Priory ruin, she made the most of the matter. She had
worked it up and found it a tower of strength.

“I know what happened,” she said. “You hid it, Jordan, like the man you
are; but he told me how he knocked you into the water—cruel devil.”

“I’m sorry he told you.—I asked him not to.”

“He wanted me to see what he could do, and would do again, and will do
again. He properly hates me now, and I shall soon be going in fear of
my life—I know that well enough. Not that I care much for my life; but
it’s awful to live with a tiger.”

“You don’t mean that, Medora?”

“I do then. He’s far ways different from what he was, or what
anybody thinks. He may pretend in the works; but he’s got the temper
of a devil; and sometimes I wish he’d strike and finish me; and
sometimes—I’m young and I don’t like to think of dying—sometimes I
say to myself I’ll make a bolt for it and go out into the world and
chance it. The world would be kinder than him and anyway it couldn’t be
crueller.”

“This is fearful—fearful,” he exclaimed. “I can’t stand you saying
these things, Medora.”

“I wouldn’t if they weren’t true. It can’t go on. I hate to distress
you, but there’s not a soul in the world cares a button what becomes
of me but you. I’m punished for the past I suppose. I deserve it.
I took that cruel tyrant when I might have took you—there, don’t
listen to me. I’m mad to-day.” She worked herself into tears and wept
convulsively, while he stared helplessly out at the world. His mind
moved. He could not stand her continued suffering, and the confession
and assurance of danger inspired him to thoughts of action. Something
must be done. She was in evident peril now. Any day might bring the
awful news of a disaster beyond repair. Such things were in every
newspaper. Not for an instant did he doubt the critical nature of the
situation. He hated to think Medora must presently return home to sleep
under the same roof as her husband. To his order of mind the situation
appealed with the uttermost gravity, for not an inkling of the true
Medora tinctured his impression and he was as ignorant of the true
Ned. He trusted the woman absolutely and he loved her. He steadfastly
believed now that the most precious life in the world to him was in
torment and in danger. She had, under dreadful stress of emotion as it
appeared, more than once expressed her regret at the fatal step in the
past. She had mourned frankly and explicitly at taking Dingle, when she
might have married Kellock himself.

Here then was the tremendous problem for him; and so pressing and
immediate did it appear, that the young man was driven out of his usual
level attitude of mind and customary deliberation before the demands of
life. For the moment his future ambitions and purposes were lost: he
was only urged by the instant necessity to decide what might best be
done for Medora’s sake. Immense prospects opened before him—knightly
deeds, and unconventional achievements calling for great efforts and an
indifference to all commonplace, social standards.

He was prepared at a future time to make war upon society for the sake
of his class, if the occasion demanded it. He fully intended presently
to stand forth with the protagonists of labour and fight for socialism.
He anticipated that battle and was educating and priming himself for
it. As yet the great revolt belonged to the future and there his
ultimate ambition lay; but now an immediate personal appeal confronted
him—a matter in which he himself and his own happiness were deeply
involved. And more than himself, for he felt that Medora’s future now
hung in the balance. Her destiny waited on him.

But he did not tell Medora the result of his reflections. For the
moment he bade her be of good cheer and trust him.

While she sobbed, he considered and then, feeling it was time to speak,
comforted her.

“I’m glad you’ve told me all this,” he said. “It shows you know where
you can put your faith. And since you come to me with it, Medora, I’ll
make it my business. I’m only a human man and I loved you with all my
heart, and I do love you with all my heart still, and now the case is
altered. I should never have thought of you again—not in that way—if
your married life had turned out all right; but as it’s turned out all
wrong, then it’s up to me to come into your life again. May I do so?”

“You’re the only thing in my life,” she said, drying her eyes.
“Everything else makes me want to end it—yes, I’ve thought often of
that, Jordan. But I’ll thankfully put myself in your hands and be
patient a bit longer if you tell me to.”

“It ain’t a case for waiting,” he said. “It’s a case for doing. I don’t
know what fear is myself, and more did you till he made you. It looks
very much to me as if you’d have to come to me, Medora.”

“Oh, my God—could you?”

“Yes, I could, and I will.”

“Think of yourself—it’s like your bravery to put me first and I’d be
your slave and live for you and thank Heaven for its blessings; but I
don’t want to ruin your life, you good, brave man.”

“Nobody can ruin your life but yourself,” he answered, “and if I save
your life, it won’t be to ruin my own. Say you’d like it to be so and
leave the rest to me. I mean it, Medora.”

A dream that had often filled the girl’s waking thoughts suddenly
promised to come true and for a moment she was frightened. But only for
a moment. She hardly hesitated. Here was romance, fame, the centre of
the stage—everything. She knew very well that she could trust him, and
if ever she loved and adored the impassive vatman it was at this moment.

She took his hand and pressed her lips to it.

“Like it!” she cried. “It would be heaven on earth—heaven on earth.
And God’s my judge you shan’t repent it. I’ll live for you and die for
you.”

“So be it, Medora. It’s done.”

He put his arms round her and kissed her. Then both felt a secret
desire to be alone and consider the magnitude of the decision. He
voiced this wish.

“We’ll part now,” he said. “You go down to your mother and I’ll go
home. Be quite easy in your mind and cheerful and content. Leave the
rest to me. I’ll write to you to-night after I’ve gone all through it.
It ain’t so difficult as it sounds if we back each other up properly.
I’ll see you get the letter to-morrow out of sight of everybody at the
works. Be round by the vat house half after eleven. You’ve got a man to
deal with—remember that.”

“God bless you,” she answered very earnestly. “I’m yours now, and
never, never shall you repent of it, Jordan. You can trust me same as I
trust you in everything.”

They descended the winding stair of the ruin and then parted. Medora
went down through the orchard to her mother’s home at Priory Farm,
while Kellock, climbing through the hedge, presently set his face to
Dene and strolled down the Corkscrew Lane with his mind full of the
future. He found that thought persisted in drifting away from Medora to
her husband. He had just told her that she had a man to deal with; and
now it was impressed on Kellock that he, also, had to deal with a man.

Meantime Ned’s wife reached the farm, and before she did so, she bathed
her eyes at a little stream under the orchard hedge.

She appeared in an unusually contented frame of mind and Lydia was
glad to see her so. Another guest had arrived, for Philander Knox, at
Mrs. Trivett’s invitation, visited Priory Farm. A friendship had sprung
up between him and the widow, for modest though Lydia might be, she
could not fail to perceive her company was agreeable to Mr. Knox. He
would listen to her opinions in a flattering manner and often expressed
surprise to mark how her sense chimed with his experience. His own
philosophy and general outlook on life were approved by Mrs. Trivett
and on this occasion she had invited him to drink tea at Priory Farm
and meet her brother and his family.

He had come and, as all who first penetrated into the life of the
farm, found himself bewildered by its complications. The children, the
mother, and the helpless father appeared to revolve as a system of
greater and lesser planets around the steadfast sun of Lydia. She moved
in the chaos as though it were her proper environment—“like a ship in
a storm,” as Mr. Knox afterwards told her.

Philander had designed to enliven the tea with humorous chatter. He
wished to impress Mr. Dolbear and his wife favourably, for he was a
sociable person and anxious to increase the number of friends in his
new home; but he found a meal at Priory Farm no occasion for much
intercourse or advancement of amenities. It proved a strenuous and
rather exasperating affair. The children dominated the tea and the tea
table. They chattered until they had eaten all they could and departed;
then, when the visitor hoped that his opportunity had come, he found,
instead, that their mother took up the conversation and discussed the
vanished youngsters one by one. She lingered over each as a gardener
over his treasures, or a connoisseur over his collection. They were an
incomparable group of children, it appeared; and what puzzled Philander
was to find that Lydia enjoyed the subject as much as Mary herself. She
also knew the children by heart and was evidently devoted to each and
all of them.

Tom Dolbear said very little, but enjoyed listening. His brood rejoiced
him and he lived now in hope of another boy.

It was Medora who strove to change the subject and allow Bobby and
Milly and Clara and Jenny and the rest to drop out of the conversation.

“Mr. Knox will be sick to death of your babies, Aunt Polly,” she said.

“Far from it,” he declared. “A finer, hopefuller family I never wish to
see.”

Mr. Dolbear then invited Philander to come into the garden and smoke,
but finding the ladies were not prepared to accompany them, he declined.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll rest here until I must get going,”
he answered. “I’m not used to your hills yet and they weary my legs a
lot. Never a great walker—after the way of town birds that have lived
all their lives by a tram line.”

So he sat and smoked, while Lydia cleared the tea things and Medora
helped her.

With Mrs. Trivett there were few opportunities for speech. She came
and went and worked. Then the dusk fell and the younger Dolbears were
brought in to go to bed. Medora nursed the baby for a time and her
mother noticed that she was more than usually cheerful.

Knox then declared that he must be going home and offered to escort
Medora. She agreed and having thanked Tom for his hospitality and hoped
that he might be privileged to accept it again at some future time, he
took his leave. On the way home he spoke to his companion.

“Your mother’s a wonderful woman, Mrs. Dingle,” he said. “I see these
things from the outside and I’m properly astonished at her cleverness.”

“So she is,” admitted Medora. “But I wish she wouldn’t work so hard all
the same. She does her day at the Mill and then comes back home and
instead of getting her proper rest—well, you see what it is.”

“She’s like the mainspring of a watch,” declared Philander. “’Tis a
most delicate contrivance, yet all depends upon it; and if I may say
so, as an outsider, you can see with half an eye that her relations
depend upon her for everything.”

“They do—they do. If anything happened to mother, I don’t know what
would become of Aunt and Uncle—let alone all the children.”

“They don’t know their luck,” he said, and Medora agreed with him.

“I’m glad you see it. I’ve often thought that—so have other people. My
mother at Priory Farm is like a cheese-cake in a pigstye.”

“Strong, but not too strong. She must have great affection for them to
stand it.”

“Once a man offered for mother,” said Medora; “and, at the first
whisper of it, Uncle Tom and Aunt Polly pretty well went on their knees
to her not to leave them.”

“I can well believe it. It didn’t come to anything, however?”

“No, no—mother’s not for another husband.”

“If anything might make her think upon such a change, it would be that
household surely.”

“No,” answered Medora. “It’s just that helpless household that would
make her sacrifice herself. Duty’s her God. She’s mother to all those
children—more their mother than Aunt Polly in a way—for my aunt is so
busy bringing them into the world, that she’s got to leave all the rest
of the work to other people.”

Mr. Knox shook his head.

“It’s contrary to nature that such a fine woman as Mrs. Trivett should
hide her light under that bushel,” he asserted. “It’s a very selfish
thing to let her slave and wear her fingers to the bone like that; but
it often happens so. A husband and wife with a long family always seem
to fasten on some good-natured, kindly creature and drag her in their
house to be a slave to their children. There’s no selfishness like the
selfishness of a pair with a long quiver. They’ll fairly batter the
life out of anybody who’s fool enough to lend a hand; and the more such
a person does for the other woman’s children, the more she may do. But
I should hope your mother was too proud to let herself be used as a
nursemaid to her own nieces.”

“She’s never proud where children are concerned,” answered Medora.
“She’ll stop there till she’s worn out.”

“A very gloomy picture and I hope you’re wrong, Mrs. Dingle,” he
answered.

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