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- Framley Parsonage - 5/111 -


it is.'

Lady Meredith laughed as she put her arm round her friend's waist. 'Don't lose your eloquence in defending him to me,' she said. 'You'll want all that for my mother.'

'But is your mother angry?' asked Mrs Robarts, showing by her countenance how eager she was for true tidings on the subject.

'Well, Fanny, you know her ladyship as well as I do. She thinks so very highly of the vicar of Framley, that she does begrudge him to those politicians at Chaldicotes.'

'But, Justinia, the bishop will be there, you know.'

'I don't think that that consideration will reconcile my mother to the gentleman's absence. He ought to be very proud, I know, to find that he is so much thought of. But come, Fanny, I want you to walk back with me, and you can dress at the house. And now we'll go and look at the children.'

After that, as they walked together to Framley Court, Mrs Robarts made her friend promise that she would stand by her if any serious attack were made on the absent clergyman.

'Are you going up to your room to dress?' said the vicar's wife, as soon as they were inside the porch leading into the hall. Lady Meredith immediately knew what her friend meant, and decided that the evil day should not be postponed. 'We had better go in and have it over,' she said, 'and then we shall be comfortable for the evening.'

So the drawing-room door was opened, and there was Lady Lufton alone on the sofa.

'Now, mamma,' said the daughter, 'you mustn't scold Fanny much about Mr Robarts. He has gone to preach a charity sermon before the bishop, and under those circumstances, perhaps, he could not refuse.' This was a stretch on the part of Lady Meredith--put in with much good-nature, no doubt; but still a stretch; for no one had supposed that the bishop would remain at Chaldicotes for the Sunday.

'How do you do, Fanny?' said Lady Lufton, getting up. 'I am not going to scold her; and I don't know how you can talk nonsense, Justinia. Of course we are very sorry not to have Mr Robarts; more especially as he was not here the last Sunday that Sir George was with us. I do like to see Mr Robarts in his own church, certainly; and I don't like any other clergyman there as well. If Fanny takes that for scolding, why--'

'Oh! no, Lady Lufton; and it's so kind of you to say so. But Mr Robarts was so sorry that he had accepted this invitation to Chaldicotes, before he heard that Sir George was coming, and--'

'Oh, I know that Chaldicotes has great attractions which we cannot offer,' said Lady Lufton.

'Indeed, it was not that. But he was asked to preach, you, know; and Mr Harold Smith--' Poor Fanny was only making it worse. Had she been worldly wise, she would have accepted the little compliment implied in Lady Lufton's first rebuke, and then have held her peace.

'Oh, yes! The Harold Smiths! They are irresistible, I know. How could any man refuse to join a party, graced both by Mrs Harold Smith and Mrs Proudie--even though his duty should require him to stay away?'

'Now, mamma--'

'Well, my dear, what am I to say? You would not wish me to tell a fib. I don't like Mrs Harold Smith--at least, what I know of her; for it has not been my fortune to meet her since her marriage. It may be conceited; but to own the truth, I think that Mr Robarts would be better off with us at Framley than with the Harold Smiths at Chaldicotes--even though Mrs Proudie be thrown into the bargain.'

It was nearly dark, and therefore the rising colour in the face of Mrs Robarts could not be seen. She, however, was too good a wife to hear these things said without some anger within her bosom. She could blame her husband in her own mind; but it was intolerable to her that others should blame him in her hearing.

'He would undoubtedly be better off,' she said; 'but then, Lady Lufton, people can't always go exactly where they will be best off. Gentlemen sometimes think--'

'Well--well, my dear, that will do. He has not taken you, at any rate; and so we will forgive him.' And Lady Lufton kissed her. 'As it is,' and she affected a low whisper between the two young wives 'as it is, we must e'en put up with poor Evan Jones. He is to be here to-night, and we must go and dress to receive him.'

And so they went off. Lady Lufton was quite enough at heart to like Mrs Robarts all the better for standing up for her absent lord.

CHAPTER III

CHALDICOTES

Chaldicotes is a house of much more pretension than Framley Court. Indeed, if one looks at the ancient marks about it, rather than at those of the present day, it is a place of very considerable pretension. There is an old forest, not altogether belonging to the property, but attached to it, called the Chase of Chaldicotes. A portion of this forest comes up close behind the mansion, and of itself gives a character and celebrity to the place. The Chase of Chaldicotes--the greater part of it, at least--is, as all the world knows, Crown property, and now, in these utilitarian days, is to be deforested. In former times it was a great forest, stretching half across the country, almost as far as Silverbridge; and there are bits of it, here and there, still to be seen at intervals throughout the whole distance; but the larger remaining portion, consisting of aged hollow oaks, centuries old, and wide-spreading withered beeches, stands in the two parishes of Chaldicotes and Uffley. People still come from afar to see the oaks of Chaldicotes and to hear their feet rustle among the thick autumn leaves. But they will soon come no longer. The giants of past ages are to give way to wheat and turnips; a ruthless Chancellor of the Exchequer, disregarding old associations and rural beauty, requires money returns from the lands; and the Close of Chaldicotes is to vanish from the earth's surface.

Some part of it, however, is the private property of Mr Sowerby, who hitherto, through all his pecuniary distresses, has managed to save from the axe and the auction-mart that portion of his paternal heritage. The house of Chaldicotes is a large stone building, probably of the time of Charles the Second. It is approached on both fronts by a heavy double flight of stone steps. In the front of the house a long, solemn, straight avenue through a double row of lime-trees, leads away to lodge-gates, which stand in the centre of the village of Chaldicotes; but to the rear the windows open upon four different vistas, which run down through the forest: four open green rides, which all converge together at a large iron gateway, the barrier which divides the private grounds from the Chase. The Sowerbys, for many generations, have been rangers of the Chase of Chaldicotes, thus having almost as wide an authority over the Crown forest as over their own. But now all this is to cease for the forest will be disforested.

It was nearly dark when Mark Robarts drove up through the avenue of lime-trees to the hall-door; but it was easy to see that the house, which was dead and silent as the grave through nine months of the year, was now alive in all its parts. There were lights in many of the windows, and a noise of voices came from the stables and servants were moving about, and dogs barked, and the dark gravel before the front steps was cut up with many a coach-wheel.

'Oh, is that you, sir, Mr Robarts?' said a groom, taking the parson's horse by the head, and touching his own hat. 'I hope I see your reverence well?'

'Quite well, Bob, thank you. All well at Chaldicotes?'

'Pretty bobbish, Mr Robarts. Deal of life going on here now, sir. The bishop and his lady came this morning.'

'Oh--ah--yes! I understand they were to be here. Any of the young ladies?'

'One young lady. Miss Olivia, I think they call her, your reverence.'

'And how's Mr Sowerby?'

'Very well, your reverence. He, and Mr Harold Smith, and Mr Fothergill--that's the duke's man of business, you know--is getting off their horses now in the stable-yard there.'

'Home from hunting--eh, Bob?'

'Yes, sir, just home, this minute.' And then Mr Robarts walked into the house, his portmanteau following on a foot-boy's shoulder.

It will be seen that our young vicar was very intimate at Chaldicotes; so much so that the groom knew him, and talked to him about the people in the house. Yes; he was intimate there; much more than he had given the Framley people to understand. Not that he had wilfully and overtly deceived any one; not that he had ever spoken a false word about Chaldicotes. But he had never boasted at home that he and Sowerby were near allies. Neither had he told them how often Mr Sowerby and Lord Lufton were together in London. Why trouble women with such matters? Why annoy so excellent a woman as Lady Lufton? And then Mr Sowerby was one whose intimacy few young men would wish to reject. He was fifty, and had lived, perhaps, not the most salutary life; but he dressed young, and usually looked well. He was bald, with a good forehead, and sparkling moist eyes. He was a clever man, and a pleasant companion, and always good-humoured when it so suited him. He was a gentleman, too, of high breeding and good birth, whose ancestors had been known in that county--longer, the farmers around would boast, than those of any other landowner in it, unless it be the Thornes of Ullathorne, or perhaps the Greshams of Greshambury--much longer than the De Courcys of De Courcy Castle. As for the Duke of


Framley Parsonage - 5/111

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