CHAPTER I. ONLY THE GUARDIAN
American tourists, sure appreciators of all that is ancient and picturesque in England, invariably come to a halt, holding their breath in a sudden catch of wonder, as they pass through the half-ruinous gateway which admits to the Close of Wrychester. Nowhere else in England is there a fairer prospect of old-world peace. There before their eyes, set in the centre of a great green sward, fringed by tall elms and giant beeches, rises the vast fabric of the thirteenth-century Cathedral, its high spire piercing the skies in which rooks are for ever circling and calling. The time-worn stone, at a little distance delicate as lacework, is transformed at different hours of the day into shifting shades of colour, varying from grey to purple: the massiveness of the great nave and transepts contrasts impressively with the gradual tapering of the spire, rising so high above turret and clerestory that it at last becomes a mere line against the ether. In morning, as in afternoon, or in evening, here is a perpetual atmosphere of rest; and not around the great church alone, but in the quaint and ancient houses which fence in the Close. Little less old than the mighty mass of stone on which their ivy-framed windows look, these houses make the casual observer feel that here, if anywhere in the world, life must needs run smoothly. Under those high gables, behind those mullioned windows, in the beautiful old gardens lying between the stone porches and the elm-shadowed lawn, nothing, one would think, could possibly exist but leisured and pleasant existence: even the busy streets of the old city, outside the crumbling gateway, seem, for the moment, far off.
In one of the oldest of these houses, half hidden behind trees and shrubs in a corner of the Close, three people sat at breakfast one fine May morning. The room in which they sat was in keeping with the old house and its surroundings—a long, low-ceilinged room, with oak panelling around its walls, and oak beams across its roof—a room of old furniture, and, old pictures, and old books, its antique atmosphere relieved by great masses of flowers, set here and there in old china bowls: through its wide windows, the casements of which were thrown wide open, there was an inviting prospect of a high-edged flower garden, and, seen in vistas through the trees and shrubberies, of patches of the west front of the Cathedral, now sombre and grey in shadow. But on the garden and into this flower-scented room the sun was shining gaily through the trees, and making gleams of light on the silver and china on the table and on the faces of the three people who sat around it.
Of these three, two were young, and the third was one of those men whose age it is never easy to guess—a tall, clean-shaven, bright-eyed, alert-looking man, good-looking in a clever, professional sort of way, a man whom no one could have taken for anything but a member of one of the learned callings. In some lights he looked no more than forty: a strong light betrayed the fact that his dark hair had a streak of grey in it, and was showing a tendency to whiten about the temples....