American tourists, sure appreciators of all that is ancient and picturesque in England, invariably come to a halt, holding their breath in a sudden catch of wonder, as they pass through the half-ruinous gateway which admits to the Close of Wrychester. Nowhere else in England is there a fairer prospect of old-world peace. There before their eyes, set in the centre of a great green sward, fringed by tall elms and giant beeches, rises the vast fabric of the thirteenth-century Cathedral, its high spire piercing the skies in which rooks are for ever circling and calling. The time-worn stone, at a little distance delicate as lacework, is transformed at different hours of the day into shifting shades of colour, varying from grey to purple: the massiveness of the great nave and transepts contrasts impressively with the gradual tapering of the spire, rising so high above turret and clerestory that it at last becomes a mere line against the ether. In morning, as in afternoon, or in evening, here is a perpetual atmosphere of rest; and not around the great church alone, but in the quaint and ancient houses which fence in the Close. Little less old than the mighty mass of stone on which their ivy-framed windows look, these houses make the casual observer feel that here, if anywhere in the world, life must needs run smoothly. Under those high gables, behind those mullioned windows, in the beautiful old gardens lying between the stone porches and the elm-shadowed lawn, nothing, one would think, could possibly exist but leisured and pleasant existence: even the busy streets of the old city, outside the crumbling gateway, seem, for the moment, far off.
In one of the oldest of these houses, half hidden behind trees and shrubs in a corner of the Close, three people sat at breakfast one fine May morning. The room in which they sat was in keeping with the old house and its surroundings—a long, low-ceilinged room, with oak panelling around its walls, and oak beams across its roof—a room of old furniture, and, old pictures, and old books, its antique atmosphere relieved by great masses of flowers, set here and there in old china bowls: through its wide windows, the—casements of which were thrown wide open, there was an inviting prospect of a high-edged flower garden, and, seen in vistas through the trees and shrubberies, of patches of the west front of the Cathedral, now sombre and grey in shadow. But on the garden and into this flower-scented room the sun was shining gaily through the trees, and making gleams of light on the silver and china on the table and on the faces of the three people who sat around it.
Of these three, two were young, and the third was one of those men whose age it is never easy to guess—a tall, clean-shaven, bright-eyed, alert-looking man, good-looking in a clever, professional sort of way, a man whom no one could have taken for anything but a member of one of the learned callings. In some lights he looked no more than forty: a strong light betrayed the fact that his dark hair had a streak of grey in it, and was showing a tendency to whiten about the temples. A strong, intellectually superior man, this, scrupulously groomed and well-dressed, as befitted what he really was—a medical practitioner with an excellent connection amongst the exclusive society of a cathedral town. Around him hung an undeniable air of content and prosperity —as he turned over a pile of letters which stood by his plate, or glanced at the morning newspaper which lay at his elbow, it was easy to see that he had no cares beyond those of the day, and that they—so far as he knew then—were not likely to affect him greatly. Seeing him in these pleasant domestic circumstances, at the head of his table, with abundant evidences of comfort and refinement and modest luxury about him, any one would have said, without hesitation, that Dr. Mark Ransford was undeniably one of the fortunate folk of this world.
The second person of the three was a boy of apparently seventeen—a well-built, handsome lad of the senior schoolboy type, who was devoting himself in business-like fashion to two widely-differing pursuits—one, the consumption of eggs and bacon and dry toast; the other, the study of a Latin textbook, which he had propped up in front of him against the old-fashioned silver cruet. His quick eyes wandered alternately between his book and his plate; now and then he muttered a line or two to himself. His companions took no notice of these combinations of eating and learning: they knew from experience that it was his way to make up at breakfast-time for the moments he had stolen from his studies the night before.
It was not difficult to see that the third member of the party, a girl of nineteen or twenty, was the boy's sister. Each had a wealth of brown hair, inclining, in the girl's case to a shade that had tints of gold in it; each had grey eyes, in which there was a mixture of blue; each had a bright, vivid colour; each was undeniably good-looking and eminently healthy. No one would hive doubted that both had lived a good deal of an open-air existence: the boy was already muscular and sinewy: the girl looked as if she was well acquainted with the tennis racket and the golf-stick. Nor would any one have made the mistake of thinking that these two were blood relations of the man at the head of the table—between them and him there was not the least resemblance of feature, of colour, or of manner.
While the boy learnt the last lines of his Latin, and the doctor turned over the newspaper, the girl read a letter —evidently, from the large sprawling handwriting, the missive of some girlish correspondent. She was deep in it when, from one of the turrets of the Cathedral, a bell began to ring. At that, she glanced at her brother.
"There's Martin, Dick!" she said. "You'll have to hurry."
Many a long year before that, in one of the bygone centuries, a worthy citizen of Wrychester, Martin by name, had left a sum of money to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral on condition that as long as ever the Cathedral stood, they should cause to be rung a bell from its smaller bell-tower for three minutes before nine o'clock every morning, all the year round. What Martin's object had been no one now knew—but this bell served to remind young gentlemen going to offices, and boys going to school, that the hour of their servitude was near. And Dick Bewery, without a word, bolted half his coffee, snatched up his book, grabbed at a cap which lay with more books on a chair close by, and vanished through the open window. The doctor laughed, laid aside his newspaper, and handed his cup across the table.
"I don't think you need bother yourself about Dick's ever being late, Mary," he said. "You are not quite aware of the power of legs that are only seventeen years old. Dick could get to any given point in just about one-fourth of the time that I could, for instance—moreover, he has a cunning knowledge of every short cut in the city."
Mary Bewery took the empty cup and began to refill it.
"I don't like him to be late," she remarked. "It's the beginning of bad habits."
"Oh, well!" said Ransford indulgently. "He's pretty free from anything of that sort, you know. I haven't even suspected him of smoking, yet."
"That's because he thinks smoking would stop his growth and interfere with his cricket," answered Mary. "He would smoke if it weren't for that."
"That's giving him high praise, then," said Ransford. "You couldn't give him higher! Know how to repress his inclinations. An excellent thing—and most unusual, I fancy. Most people—don't!"
He took his refilled cup, rose from the table, and opened a box of cigarettes which stood on the mantelpiece. And the girl, instead of picking up her letter again, glanced at him a little doubtfully.
"That reminds me of—of something I wanted to say to you," she said. "You're quite right about people not repressing their inclinations. I—I wish some people would!"
Ransford turned quickly from the hearth and gave her a sharp look, beneath which her colour heightened. Her eyes shifted their gaze away to her letter, and she picked it up and began to fold it nervously. And at that Ransford rapped out a name, putting a quick suggestion of meaning inquiry into his voice.
"Bryce?" he asked.
The girl nodded her face showing distinct annoyance and dislike. Before saying more, Ransford lighted a cigarette.
"Been at it again?" he said at last. "Since-last time?"
"Twice," she answered. "I didn't like to tell you—I've hated to bother you about it. But—what am I to do? I dislike him intensely—I can't tell why, but it's there, and nothing could ever alter the feeling. And though I told him—before—that it was useless—he mentioned it again—yesterday—at Mrs. Folliot's garden-party."
"Confound his impudence!" growled Ransford. "Oh, well!—I'll have to settle with him myself. It's useless trifling with anything like that. I gave him a quiet hint before. And since he won't take it—all right!"
"But—what shall you do?" she asked anxiously. "Not—send him away?"
"If he's any decency about him, he'll go—after what I say to him," answered Ransford. "Don't you trouble yourself about it—I'm not at all keen about him. He's a clever enough fellow, and a good assistant, but I don't like him, personally—never did."
"I don't want to think that anything that I say should lose him his situation—or whatever you call it," she remarked slowly. "That would seem—"
"No need to bother," interrupted Ransford. "He'll get another in two minutes—so to speak. Anyway, we can't have this going on. The fellow must be an ass! When I was young—"
He stopped short at that, and turning away, looked out across the garden as if some recollection had suddenly struck him.
"When you were young—which is, of course, such an awfully long time since!" said the girl, a little teasingly. "What?"
"Only that if a woman said No—unmistakably—once, a man took it as final," replied Ransford. "At least—so I was always given to believe. Nowadays—"
"You forget that Mr. Pemberton Bryce is what most people would call a very pushing young man," said Mary. "If he doesn't get what he wants in this world, it won't be for not asking for it. But—if you must speak to him—and I really think you must!—will you tell him that he is not going to get—me? Perhaps he'll take it finally from you—as my guardian."
"I don't know if parents and guardians count for much in these degenerate days," said Ransford. "But—I won't have him annoying you. And—I suppose it has come to annoyance?"
"It's very annoying to be asked three times by a man whom you've told flatly, once for all, that you don't want him, at any time, ever!" she answered. "It's—irritating!"
"All right," said Ransford quietly. "I'll speak to him. There's going to be no annoyance for you under this roof."
The girl gave him a quick glance, and Ransford turned away from her and picked up his letters.
"Thank you," she said. "But—there's no need to tell me that, because I know it already. Now I wonder if you'll tell me something more?"
Ransford turned back with a sudden apprehension.
"Well?" he asked brusquely. "What?"
"When are you going to tell me all about—Dick and myself?" she asked. "You promised that you would, you know, some day. And—a whole year's gone by since then. And—Dick's seventeen! He won't be satisfied always—just to know no more than that our father and mother died when we were very little, and that you've been guardian—and all that you have been!—to us. Will he, now?"
Ransford laid down his letters again, and thrusting his hands in his pockets, squared his shoulders against the mantelpiece. "Don't you think you might wait until you're twenty-one?" he asked.
"Why?" she said, with a laugh. "I'm just twenty—do you really think I shall be any wiser in twelve months? Of course I shan't!"
"You don't know that," he replied. "You may be—a great deal wiser."
"But what has that got to do with it?" she persisted. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't be told—everything?"
She was looking at him with a certain amount of demand—and Ransford, who had always known that some moment of this sort must inevitably come, felt that she was not going to be put off with ordinary excuses. He hesitated—and she went on speaking.
"You know," she continued, almost pleadingly. "We don't know anything—at all. I never have known, and until lately Dick has been too young to care—"
"Has he begun asking questions?" demanded Ransford hastily.
"Once or twice, lately—yes," replied Mary. "It's only natural." She laughed a little—a forced laugh. "They say," she went on, "that it doesn't matter, nowadays, if you can't tell who your grandfather was—but, just think, we don't know who our father was—except that his name was John Bewery. That doesn't convey much."
"You know more," said Ransford. "I told you—always have told you—that he was an early friend of mine, a man of business, who, with your mother, died young, and I, as their friend, became guardian to you and Dick. Is—is there anything much more that I could tell?"
"There's something I should very much like to know —personally," she answered, after a pause which lasted so long that Ransford began to feel uncomfortable under it. "Don't be angry—or hurt—if I tell you plainly what it is. I'm quite sure it's never even occurred to Dick—but I'm three years ahead of him. It's this—have we been dependent on you?"
Ransford's face flushed and he turned deliberately to the window, and for a moment stood staring out on his garden and the glimpses of the Cathedral. And just as deliberately as he had turned away, he turned back.
"No!" he said. "Since you ask me, I'll tell you that. You've both got money—due to you when you're of age. It—it's in my hands. Not a great lot—but sufficient to—to cover all your expenses. Education—everything. When you're twenty-one, I'll hand over yours—when Dick's twenty-one, his. Perhaps I ought to have told you all that before, but—I didn't think it necessary. I—I dare say I've a tendency to let things slide."
"You've never let things slide about us," she replied quickly, with a sudden glance which made him turn away again. "And I only wanted to know—because I'd got an idea that—well, that we were owing everything to you."
"Not from me!" he exclaimed.
"No—that would never be!" she said. "But—don't you understand? I—wanted to know—something. Thank you. I won't ask more now."
"I've always meant to tell you—a good deal," remarked Ransford, after another pause. "You see, I can scarcely—yet —realize that you're both growing up! You were at school a year ago. And Dick is still very young. Are—are you more satisfied now?" he went on anxiously. "If not—"
"I'm quite satisfied," she answered. "Perhaps—some day —you'll tell me more about our father and mother?—but never mind even that now. You're sure you haven't minded my asking —what I have asked?"
"Of course not—of course not!" he said hastily. "I ought to have remembered. And—but we'll talk again. I must get into the surgery—and have a word with Bryce, too."
"If you could only make him see reason and promise not to offend again," she said. "Wouldn't that solve the difficulty?"
Ransford shook his head and made no answer. He picked up his letters again and went out, and down a long stone-walled passage which led to his surgery at the side of the house. He was alone there when he had shut the door—and he relieved his feelings with a deep groan.
"Heaven help me if the lad ever insists on the real truth and on having proofs and facts given to him!" he muttered. "I shouldn't mind telling her, when she's a bit older—but he wouldn't understand as she would. Anyway, thank God I can keep up the pleasant fiction about the money without her ever knowing that I told her a deliberate lie just now. But —what's in the future? Here's one man to be dismissed already, and there'll be others, and one of them will be the favoured man. That man will have to be told! And—so will she, then. And—my God! she doesn't see, and mustn't see, that I'm madly in love with her myself! She's no idea of it —and she shan't have; I must—must continue to be—only the guardian!"
He laughed a little cynically as he laid his letters down on his desk and proceeded to open them—in which occupation he was presently interrupted by the opening of the side-door and the entrance of Mr. Pemberton Bryce.