To find out the worst is, for human nature, only a question of time. But where the “worst” is attached to a family haloed, as it were, by the authority and reputation of an institution like the Church, the process of discovery has to break through many a little hedge. Sheer unlikelihood, genuine respect, the defensive instinct in those identified with an institution, who will themselves feel weaker if its strength be diminished, the feeling that the scandal is too good to be true—all these little hedges, and more, had to be broken through. To the Dinnafords, the unholy importance of what Noel had said to them would have continued to keep them dumb, out of self-protection; but its monstrosity had given them the feeling that there must be some mistake, that the girl had been overtaken by a wild desire to “pull their legs” as dear Charlie would say. With the hope of getting this view confirmed, they lay in wait for the old nurse who took the baby out, and obtained the information, shortly imparted: “Oh, yes; Miss Noel’s. Her ’usband was killed—poor lamb!” And they felt rewarded. They had been sure there was some mistake. The relief of hearing that word “’usband” was intense. One of these hasty war marriages, of which the dear Vicar had not approved, and so it had been kept dark. Quite intelligible, but so sad! Enough misgiving however remained in their minds, to prevent their going to condole with the dear Vicar; but not enough to prevent their roundly contradicting the rumours and gossip already coming to their ears. And then one day, when their friend Mrs. Curtis had said too positively: “Well, she doesn’t wear a wedding-ring, that I’ll swear, because I took very good care to look!” they determined to ask Mr. Lauder. He would—indeed must—know; and, of course, would not tell a story. When they asked him it was so manifest that he did know, that they almost withdrew the question. The poor young man had gone the colour of a tomato.
“I prefer not to answer,” he said. The rest of a very short interview was passed in exquisite discomfort. Indeed discomfort, exquisite and otherwise, within a few weeks of Noel’s return, had begun to pervade all the habitual congregation of Pierson’s church. It was noticed that neither of the two sisters attended Service now. Certain people who went in the sincere hope of seeing Noel, only fell off again when she did not appear. After all, she would not have the face! And Gratian was too ashamed, no doubt. It was constantly remarked that the Vicar looked very grave and thin, even for him. As the rumours hardened into certainty, the feeling towards him became a curious medley of sympathy and condemnation. There was about the whole business that which English people especially resent. By the very fact of his presence before them every Sunday, and his public ministrations, he was exhibiting to them, as it were, the seamed and