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The Lonely Stronghold, Page 2

Mrs. Baillie Reynolds



  The large family of the Reverend James Wilson had been brought up on thefringes of Dartmoor. His income there was, however, of so inadequate anature, in view of his domestic requirements, that when the question ofeducation demanded heroic measures, he accepted the living of Gratfield,a very large town in the industrial Midlands--a post for which both histemperament and his habit of life hitherto made him singularlyill-fitted.

  Of his seven children, four were girls. They were fine creatures, withwhite limbs, blonde hair, complexion of cream and roses. Their natureswere placidly bovine, except during that brief period in which a girl'sown sense of her own beauty and the power it bestows kindles in her afictitious vivacity, and nature, for her own purposes, lends a charmwhich is incredibly fugitive.

  The young ladies made quite a sensation upon their arrival in Gratfield.Not long before, Madoc Innes, a clever young Welsh journalist, hadbought the _Gratfield Courier_ and settled in the place. He washandsome on a small scale, and passed for rich--drove good horses,smoked expensive cigars, and was much in demand in a society where suchyoung men are rare.

  The sight of Clara Wilson at a ball set his Celtic blood on fire. HerJuno-like loveliness made so powerful an appeal to his senses that thelimits of her mind or the faults of her disposition did not enter thequestion. She was stupid, and she was essentially Philistine, but heshut his eyes to it until too late. They were married, and he committedhis first enormity by the purchase of a little old Elizabethan farm upon the moor outside Gratfield, planning to drive to his work each day.

  Clara detested the place. She had had as much of moors and heather inher childhood as would last her all her life. What she desired wasshops and fine clothes, plenty of company, the chance to show off and beadmired. For these things she had married, and not for love of Madoc,with whose tastes she had no sympathy, and whose disposition she wouldhave disliked had she ever given a thought to the subject.

  After the blind fashion of a man in love, the young husband felt that hehad not won his wife's devotion long before he consciously admittedanything of the kind. He began by spoiling her outrageously, giving herall she craved, in the vain hope that gifts might propitiate her andincline her to a more favourable--one might say a moreinterested--attitude towards himself.

  Unhappily, a year or two after the marriage his rising fortunesunderwent a sharp change.

  Being a Welshman, he was a violent partisan, and his knowledge of thetemper and prejudices of the North was very imperfect. He attacked acertain public character, and found himself up against a stone wall ofimplacable hostility. A costly libel action left him a ruined man. Hebeing thus deprived of what had been his sole asset in his wife's eyes,their lack of unity became at once nakedly apparent.

  He had plenty of courage and belief in himself. He took his wife andbaby girl to London, where he got work on a big "daily," and hoped forbetter things.

  Clara, however, had no forgiveness for him. She had married with oneobject, that of being well off; and her failure was more sharplyaccentuated in her eyes by the fact that Ethel, her next sister, hadmade a conquest of George Whitefield, only son and heir of the richestmill-owner in Gratfield.

  Hopelessly out of sympathy, the Innes pair drifted wider and widerapart. The discovery of his wife's indifference warped Madoc's unstabletemperament. Miserable at home, he consoled himself elsewhere. They rancontinually into debt, there was even an execution in the house. Scenesgrew frequent and even violent, At last, when Olwen was about sevenyears old, her father disappeared completely, leaving behind anenvelope, addressed to his wife, containing a hundred pounds inbank-notes.

  Clara, her beauty gone, broken in health, soured in temper, returned,with her little daughter, to her father's rectory.

  She came at an unlucky turn in the family fortunes.

  It had long been apparent that twenty years of sloth in a tiny parish,in a mild and balmy climate, had permanently unfitted the Rev. JamesWilson for strenuous work and the rushing life of a big town. After astruggle, hopeless from the first, against his constitutional inertia,and the growing dissatisfaction of his parishioners, he was strickendown by severe illness. His return to health was seriously retarded bythe sad climax of Clara's marriage, and the failure of his sons to doanything to lighten his burden of undone work and unpaid bills.

  At this point his old college offered him the living of St Agnes,Bramforth, about fifty miles further north. It was a depressingdistrict, semi-suburban, semi-industrial, with an 1850 church,pew-rented, and a fluctuating congregation. The income was, however, asgood as that of his present cure, and the work less than half. Abouttwelve months after the flight of Madoc Innes, and fifteen years beforethat Christmas when Olwen decided that the bank was intolerable, thefamily migrated to Bramforth, and Mr. Wilson, with the assistance of acurate, thankfully lapsed into the stagnation which suited him.

  Olwen's mother was at this time an invalid. Three years later aprominent surgeon diagnosed serious internal trouble. She underwent anoperation, failed to rally from the shock, and died a few days later.

  The two younger Miss Wilsons, Maud and Ada, did not marry. Perhaps theylooked too high, for while in Gratfield they had not been withoutadmirers. They were, however, still single, and had borne with fineunselfishness their share in the strain on the meagre family resourcesinvolved by the necessity of supporting Clara and Clara's child.

  Olwen's memory of her father was vivid. In fact, she often thought thatthe first seven years of her life had left a mark far deeper than thosethat followed. She was always striving, in an unformed, eager way, toarrive at the truth concerning the breach between her parents. Hermother remained in her memory as mostly fretful and complaining,uncertain in temper, dissatisfied and uncontrolled. She knew now thatMrs. Innes was a deeply wronged woman; yet she could not escape the biasof mind produced by the fact that she herself owed every hour ofhappiness as a child to her father. She remembered him as invariablysweet-tempered and gay--as a constant companion, more like acontemporary--liable as herself to incur the sudden and capricious wrathof the mistress of the house.

  His upbringing had been cosmopolitan, his parents having lived muchabroad. To adapt himself to the Wilson standpoint had been from thefirst impossible. The laborious etiquette of the provinces was a matterof which he could never grasp the importance. That his wife's happinessshould depend upon such things as card-cases, "At Home" days, latedinner, or a "drawing-room suite" was to him unthinkable.

  Olwen remembered best of all their habit of escaping together. Theywent to remote corners of Hampstead Heath or Battersea Park, or, if hewere in funds, to the Thames, where they took a boat. They spent longdays in make-believe, with a packet of picnic lunch, and a few pence fortheir omnibus ride home through the magic dusk of London. His facultyfor story-telling was endless, and one romance, especially dear, went onin sections from week to week, and was entitled: "Story of the DandyLion and his four friends, the Pale Policeman, the Cheery Churchwarden,the Sad Sweep, and the Tremendous Tramp." An illustration of this groupof friends was one of her few mementoes of her vanished boon companion.

  From him, too, she heard the tales of the Mabinogion, the "Romance ofKiluch and Olwen"--whence came her own name, so severely condemned bythe Wilson family--the "Romance of Enid and Geraint," and so on.

  This all made it hard for her to apportion the blame between thesundered pair. At the Vicarage, of course, all the guilt was heaped onMadoc Innes. She supposed this to be in fact just. His temperament mayhave been charming but his principles were apparently all wrong. She sawonly part. Yet as she grew older she found herself concentrating moreand more upon her mother's share in the debacle.

  That Clara Innes was unable either to sympathise with or to understandher husband was the result presumably of her limitations, and these, onewould suppose, she could not help. Not until Olwen read her "Pilgrim'
sProgress" and learned, with a sudden shock, that Ignorance was thrustdown into hell, did it occur to her that Ignorance is a crime, since itis a thing one may remedy if one chooses.

  Grumbling, one grants, is not a sin. To fail in sympathy to yourhusband is hardly a sin. To make his home uncomfortable is not a sin,that is, not of the sort called deadly. But to be unfaithful to yourwife is a direct breach of a commandment. Therefore, in the Wilsoncode, Clara was innocent and her husband criminal. To his other crimeshe added wife desertion, which is a matter for the police courts. Clarahad never done anything in her life which could conceivably have landedher in the police court. It was all very puzzling. When Olwen hadspent time, as she often did, in considering the subject, she usuallyfound that she ended by wishing that her father had taken her with himwhen he fled. She felt sure they could have been happy together.

  In her heart she knew herself for her father's daughter, and from theWilson point of view wholly alien. It was typical of them that theyshould so dislike her name, for no reason but because they had neverheard it before. The name of Owendolen, just as Welsh, and morehigh-falutin in sound, was quite popular in Bramforth, because Owendolenwas in fairly common use. Olwen was different, and she was usuallycalled "Ollie" in hopes that the casual acquaintance might suppose herbaptismal name to be Olive, a name which, mysteriously enough, was underno ban.

  Her defaulting father had made no sign, and sent no message upon theoccasion of his wife's death. It was tacitly assumed that he was eitherdead or had gone to some remote quarter of the globe, where he wasliving most probably under an alias.

  For nearly three years now Olwen had been self-supporting. At first herpost at the bank had possessed that elfin charm with which mostnovelties are gilded when one is in one's teens. Life itself is then aromance, the mere act of coming out into the streets on a fine morningmay be the beginning of endless adventure.

  Now the monotony had killed the novelty. Her father's restless bloodstirred and demanded relief. She felt almost desperate as she letherself into the Vicarage and pushed her streaming umbrella into theuntidy receptacle.

  A lowered jet of gas burned dimly in the hall. Yet by its light shecould descry a letter upon the hall table, addressed "Miss O. Innes, St.Agnes Vicarage, Bramforth."

  An answer to her advertisement at last! A way of escape from the bankor its alternative, Ben and the linoleumed villa!

  Snatching it up, she hurried away to her own room, to enjoy theexcitement of reading it.

  On the threshold of that sanctuary she paused. It was in a state ofupheaval. There was no bedding on the bedstead, no carpet on the floor.Instantly she remembered that her room was being cleaned for thereception of Marjorie Whitefield, and that she herself was to "doubleup" with Aunt Maud during the period of invasion.

  Ashamed of her own feeling of acute distaste, she turned and went slowlyalong the passage.

  Aunt Maud was washing her hands for supper, and the subdued kindnesswith which she welcomed her niece and showed her how she had takenthings out of drawers and bestowed them as well as she could during thegirl's absence, made Olwen vexed at her own irritation.

  Aunt Maud was very fond of "Ollie." She turned wistfully to the onlyyoung creature left remaining in the shabby old Vicarage. She lingerednow, to explain in detail every point in her successful "packing of themall in." It was her part to superintend the housework while her eldersister did the catering, an arrangement which, on the whole, workedwell.

  Olwen strove with courage and some success to make her interest seemreal. The way in which a certain hole in the dining-room carpet hadbeen triumphed over, and the report that the re-enamelling of the bathwas a complete success, were things of deep importance to Aunt Maud, andit would have been brutal to snub her.

  When at last she went downstairs, there were but five minutes before thesupper bell, but curiosity would no longer be denied. Olwen sat down onthe bed with the letter in her hand, enjoying the delights ofspeculation before opening it. It was addressed in a very pretty hand,and bore the postmark of a part of England noted for fine scenery.

  "Suppose," thought Olwen, whose suppositions leaned always to theromantic, "that I hold my destiny in my hand at this moment?"

  Excuse enough, in all conscience, for some dallying with theanticipation!

  However, at last the envelope was broken and the letter lay under hereyes:

  "Dulley Vicarage.

  "Mrs. Jones, having seen Miss O. Innes's advt, thinks the post she canoffer might be suitable. She is in want of a lady to live in the houseand help in the training of her children, five in number.

  "A servant is kept, but Miss I. would be asked to make herself generallyuseful. Her secretarial training would be very useful to Mr. Jones incopying out his sermons and conducting his correspondence. If Miss I.has a typewriter of her own, Mrs. Jones would have no objection to herbringing it with her. She would be treated in all respects as one ofthe family, and Mrs. Jones would give a pound a month pocket money, asto her own daughter."

  For a moment Olwen gripped the letter in her young fist as if she wishedits writer were there instead. Then her sense of humour triumphed.Bursting into hearty laughter, she crushed the impertinence into a balland tossed it into the fender.

  "Well," she mused, "I think that is the limit! And there is my solereply to an advertisement which cost me five shillings!"

  Fiercely she brushed the thick mane of dun-coloured hair that shaded togold. "And I thought my destiny lay in that envelope!" she whisperedquite fiercely. Her eyes seemed to blaze. They were pale grey eyes,made beautiful by noticeably fine lashes, which, with her eyebrows, weretoo dark for such fair hair. She was not going to be discouraged. Shewould write to London, to a first-class agency, and pay whatever feethey demanded. To go to London would be to escape from Ben.

  She laughed and sighed both at once. Aunt Maud would have liked her tomarry Ben--poor Aunt Maud, who knew nothing of the discontent which hadgrown up within the daughter of Madoc Innes. She had feared it inOllie's early girlhood--had watched for signs of it. But by degrees shehad reached the comforting conviction that Olwen inherited from herWilson relatives too good a strain of steady devotion to duty to betroubled by her father's vagabond instincts.

  She loved Olwen, and confided in her. Olwen loved her, but neverreciprocated the confidences. Aunt Maud might have inferred much fromthe circumstance, but she belonged to a type which does not drawinferences.