The rustic portion of the congregation shouted the familiar hymn with laborious goodwill, overpowering the more cultivated voices that rose from the chancel and the front pews-almost defeating the harsh notes wrung from the harmonium by the village schoolmistress, who also led the singing in a piercing key, supported raucously by her pupils gathered about the unmusical instrument. Even in the early 'nineties nothing so ambitious as an organ or a surpliced choir had as yet been attempted in this remote west-country parish, though with the advent of the new vicar innovations had begun; actually, of late, the high oak pews had been removed to make way for shining pitch-pine seats that in the little Norman church produced much the same effect as a garish oleograph set in an antique frame. Most of the parishioners approved the change; certainly it had the advantage of permitting everyone to observe
at leisure who came to church, what they wore, and how they behaved during the sermon, even if those who were somnolently inclined found the publicity disconcerting.
Maud Verrall threw down her tennis racket; she said she was tired-a polite excuse for the termination of a game that afforded her no excitement. Stella Carrington was not a stimulating opponent; if she did not miss the ball, she sent it sky-high or out of court.
Stella saw through and sympathised with the excuse. "You see," she said regretfully, "I have had so little chance of practice. Even if we had a tennis court at The Chestnuts, there is no one for me to play with."
"Let's go into the Lovers' Walk and talk till tea-time," Maud Verrall suggested; if Stella could not play tennis she might at least prove a satisfactory recipient of confidences, and Maud had much to impart that would surely astonish the unsophisticated girl from The Chestnuts.
Arm in arm they strolled up and down the shady retreat arched over with lilac, laburnum, syringa, while Maud discoursed on the charms of the latest comic opera that had taken London by storm, and sang snatches of the songs to her envious companion; from that she went on to tell of boy-and-girl dances, and bicycling parties, and this led to disclosures concerning "desperate" adorers who were "perfectly mad" about Miss Verrall. There was one in particular-his name was Fred Glossop.
"Poor dear, he is awfully gone. I feel sorry for him. Would you like to see his photograph?" She drew a folding leather case from her pocket and displayed to the other's interested gaze the portrait of a handsome youth with curly hair and a distinct shade on his upper lip.
"Are you going to marry him?" inquired Stella.
"Oh! I shan't marry just yet," explained Maud. "I have told him so frankly. Perhaps in a couple of years, if I meet no one I like better, he might do. He is quite good looking, and he's going into the Army. I let him write to me-mother never bothers about my letters; but while I was still at school he had to write as if he was my dearest girl-friend-signed himself 'Lily'-because all our correspondence that was not in the handwriting of parents was opened. I'm to "come out" when we go back to London. I shall make my people give a fancy dress ball. What do you think of a Greek dress-white, with a key pattern in gold, and a big peacock feather fan?"
Stella was ruefully silent. She felt small and humble; there were no balls, no young men, no "coming out" on her dull horizon.
"And what about you?" asked Maud with kindly, if belated, interest; "you must have a deadly time in this hole all the year round. I'm tired of it already. How can you stand it?"
"I have to stand it!" said Stella, grimly resigned. "But I'm going to school-to a school at Torquay."
"How awful-a horrible place. I went there once after I had measles; and school, too, at your age! Hasn't the term begun?"
"I suppose so, but it does not seem to matter. Anyway, it will be a change."
"It won't be so bad if they take you to concerts and lectures, and you go out riding. Our riding master was a picture; lots of the girls were mad about him; but he liked me best because I didn't take too much notice of him. Believe me, my dear, men think all the more of you if you don't run after them. There was a creature always at the lectures we went to who gazed at me the whole time and used to follow us when we went out, trying to get near enough to speak to me. The other girls were frantic with jealousy. Once or twice I gave him the chance of slipping a note into my hand; it's quite easy-you put your hand behind your back, like this, and gaze in another direction, and if a governess happens to be too close, you just speak to her and distract her attention. I only once got into a row-it was coming away from church." ...
This line of conversation was pursued whenever Stella was invited to The Court as company for Maud, and when Maud visited her friend at The Chestnuts. What, oh! what would have been the feelings of grandmamma and the aunts could they have overheard such vulgar, pernicious talk? To women of their type and upbringing this dawning of the most powerful of all instincts would have seemed a matter for the severest censure-not a natural symptom to be guided into safe and open channels, but a danger to be dealt with as sinful, corrupt. Intuitively Stella felt that Maud's enthralling confidences would be condemned with horror by her relations; and when Aunt Augusta,
vaguely suspicious, inquired one day what the two young people found to talk about, self-preservation prompted a careless and misleading reply: "Oh, I don't know; Maud's school, and all that sort of thing."
Reassured, Aunt Augusta considered this perfectly satisfactory and natural, seeing that Stella was soon to begin school-life herself.
Maud Verrall's egoistical communications, innocent enough in themselves (though scarcely to be commended), led, indirectly, after the manner of trivial happenings, to far-reaching results. One of the immediate consequences of Stella's newly awakened interest in the opposite sex was her expulsion from Miss Ogle's high-principled establishment before her first term was over.
From the moment of her arrival at Greystones Stella was in constant hot water. According to the school standards she was backward, and her capabilities were hopelessly unequal; she wasted hours that should have resulted in progress over work she disliked, whereas in the subjects that attracted her she outstripped her class. Her talent for music was undeniable, but she shirked the drudgery of practice, and her fatal facility for playing by ear was ever in the way. She was not popular, for she made no concealment of her contempt for sickly adorations and fashionable fawnings on governesses and senior girls. The life irked her, and her disappointment was keen to find that at Greystones there was no question of concerts and lectures; that no finishing extras figured on Miss Ogle's programme such as might have
afforded the sort of excitement described by Maud Verrall as an antidote to the monotony of school existence. She hated the daily crocodile walk; true, there was a tennis court, but the game was a monopoly of the first class, while the rest of the school marched two and two along dusty roads and uninteresting byways. Stella moped.
Then, one fatal afternoon, the daily procession passed through the town, a treat permitted once in the term, and as they all tramped the pavement of the principal thoroughfare, past fascinating shops that held the attention of governesses and girls, a flashy looking youth, loitering on the kerb, caught Stella's eye. She remembered Maud Verrall and that daring young person's adventures; what a triumph if she could tell Maud, in the summer holidays, that she had attracted the admiration of a real live young man! Maud had advocated a swift side-glance, especially if one had long eyelashes. Stella tried the experiment in passing the youth, who wore a loud waistcoat and had an immature moustache. She felt rather alarmed at her success. The young man responded with alacrity, and proceeded to follow the school at a discreet distance; followed when the "crocodile" turned to climb the hill; and was still in attendance when it reached the gate of the short drive.
Stella throbbed with excitement. She wondered what he would do now; would he linger outside; would he return to-morrow and be there when they emerged for the walk, just to obtain a glimpse of her as they passed? She thought his appearance rather dreadful; but at any rate, he was a young
man, an admirer; all that she regretted was that she could not write now and tell Maud Verrall how he had followed the school on a blazing hot day up a steep hill, all on her, Stella's, account!
A game of tennis was in progress as the girls filed up the sloping drive and scattered on the edge of the lawn, and at this moment, as it happened, a ball was sent over the privet hedge into the road below. Stella saw her chance.
"All right!" she shouted to the players. "I'll run and get it." And she raced back down the drive and through the open gate. There was the admirer lurking on the sidepath! He darted forward, an eager expression on his countenance that, even in her agitation, Stella remarked was sallow and spotty; also, as he grinned, she saw that his teeth were bad. What a pity! But it flashed through her mind that such drawbacks need not, when the time came, be cited to Maud. She would tell Maud, when they met, that he was "a picture!"
Affecting not to see him, and with a fluttering heart, Stella pounced on the tennis ball that lay in the middle of the road; and "the picture," murmuring something she could not catch, pounced also, and thrust a piece of paper into her hand. Just at that moment, by all the laws of ill-luck, Miss Ogle herself came in sight, advancing along the road, with floating veil and fringed parasol, returning from a private constitutional.
The letter that brought the appalling news to The Chestnuts of Stella's disgrace was addressed to Miss Augusta Carrington. Even the customary ignoring
of unpleasant facts was not proof against such a staggering blow. Stella! the granddaughter, the niece, the child they had cherished and guarded and reared with such care-to think that she should have been detected in a vulgar intrigue, and could no longer be harboured at Greystones lest she should contaminate her schoolfellows!...