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settled on the maid on duty at the time of her mistress's death, that poor Soames had nothing left wherewith to propitiate the favour of the world. She had never made a pet of Iriş, as some of the other elder servants had comforted their consciences and hearts by doing. Soames had rather regarded the young lady as standing somehow in the maid's light.
But now Soames begged to speak with Iris, and there was smouldering compassion in the woman's dull eyes, and duller voice, when she said: : 17If I were you, Miss Compton, I would walk over to the Rectory, and stay there for a day or two, as you sometimes do. If Lady Fermor inquires for you, I'll take it upon me to explain that you understood what she said, on the stairs, as a wish to be left to herself for a little while. My lady has her humours like most ladies of her rank and age, I suppose,' said Soames, hesitating a little in the caution which was an instinct with her, and she's in a bad one this morning; and if I were you, Miss Compton, I would not fly in the face of it, but keep out of her way, as she bade you, till the worst pass over. If
you will believe me, I am speaking for your
'I do believe you. I am much obliged to you, Soames,' said Iris humbly, in her bewilderment and alarm. “But what can have happened since breakfast? What is the worst that you say will pass over ?
'It is about Sir William Thwaite's marriage, I think, miss,' said Soames, perhaps not altogether reluctant, with all her lack of geniality, to retail an astounding piece of gossip to a person deeply concerned in it, and to be the first to note its effect. i Sir William Thwaite's marriage echoed Iris, turning crimson and drawing back, because she was not able to conjure up in her mind any bride for Sir William, save the one who had been set apart for him, whom he had so lately and so ardently sought in vain. .....! Yes, Miss Compton,' said Soames stolidly, though she did not fail to perceive the reddened cheeks and the erect head. “I do not like to mention such a thing to a lady, least of all to a young lady; but you'll hear it in church on Sunday with the rest of the parish. Sir William is to marry Honor Smith, the daughter of one of his under-keepers ; her that my lady stopped coming to you with berries and nuts, and such trash, when you were a young miss and she a slip of a girl.'
Iris laughed. She seemed fated to show her feelings in this fashion at different crises in her history. She laughed again the same nervous, quivering laughter to which she had yielded when Lady Thwaite congratulated her on her approaching marriage with this very Sir William Thwaite. Soames's touchy feelings were hurt.
You may not credit the story,' she said gloomily, “but I am afraid it is gospel truth. My lady has driven over to Whitehills to be at the bottom of it. And, if you will take my advice, Miss Compton-excuse me for offering it twice--you will go down to the Rectory till the disturbance has blown over.'
Soames retreated, feeling that she had done her duty, and had been treated as most people who can thus justify themselves in their own eyes may expect to be served.
The perfect confidence with which Soames had spoken, together with Iris's knowledge of the maid's prudent nature, had really robbed the listener of all incredulity from the first. Her earliest isensation was one of overwhelming humiliation, not so much because of Sir William's inconstancy as because of her rival and successor in his regard. Iris Compton had been deeply mortified, in her girlish dignity and self-respect, by his having utterly mistaken her friendliness, and addressed her as no man who was not her equal, whom she had not favoured in the light of a lover, ought to have spoken to her. How was she to feel when she heard that he had instantly transferred his suit to poor Honor Smith, whom she had known as a ragged little girl, and lamented over to him—of all men-because she was different from the humblest cottager or working woman in the field, in her unwomanly, vagabond habits ?
Iris thought next of the wrath of Lady Fermor, and then she asked herself if she would take Soames's advice. It went against the grain with the girl to flee from, instead of facing, the expression of the resentment she had provoked. On the other hand, she was docile to whoever sought to lead her in good faith. She did not question Soames's commiseration; perhaps, also, the maid was concerned for her old mistress. And ought Iris to risk injuring her grandmother by provoking
her to further paroxysms of passion, no longer usual with her, and solely exhausting to the frame, which had held together through all the troubles of over eighty years ?
In the meantime Lady Fermor drove the short distance, panting a little from the intolerable airlessness under the low sky, seeing the cattle standing in groups under any shelter they could find, or straying home, in single, file, in their distress.
The place did not look the same, though it was only three days since she had been presiding at a fête champêtre there, paving the way for Iris's becoming its mistress. The hay had all been carted off the meadow, which lay stripped and bare as in winter. The first half of the thunderstorm had committed havoc among the trees, bushes, and grass of the park, splitting up one oak, scattering leaves, beating down twigs, conveying an impression of how it must have laid low the glory of the summer garden, though the devastation there was unseen. All the merriment and gaiety, the light figures and pretty dresses, were gone. Nobody was visible. Whitehills lay as still as if it had been devastated by an earthquake, or as if a judgment was going to descend on the place.