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Mr. Clacton was in his glory. The machinery which he had perfected and
controlled was now about to turn out its bi-monthly product, a committee meeting;
and his pride in the perfect structure of these assemblies was great. He loved the
jargon of committee-rooms; he loved the way in which the door kept opening as
the clock struck the hour, in obedience to a few strokes of his pen on a piece of
paper; and when it had opened sufficiently often, he loved to issue from his inner
chamber with documents in his hands, visibly important, with a preoccupied
expression on his face that might have suited a Prime Minister advancing to meet
his Cabinet. By his orders the table had been decorated beforehand with six
sheets of blotting-paper, with six pens, six ink-pots, a tumbler and a jug of water,
a bell, and, in deference to the taste of the lady members, a vase of hardy
chrysanthemums. He had already surreptitiously straightened the sheets of
blotting-paper in relation to the ink-pots, and now stood in front of the fire
engaged in conversation with Miss Markham. But his eye was on the door, and
when Mary and Mrs. Seal entered, he gave a little laugh and observed to the
assembly which was scattered about the room:
"I fancy, ladies and gentlemen, that we are ready to commence."
So speaking, he took his seat at the head of the table, and arranging one bundle
of papers upon his right and another upon his left, called upon Miss Datchet to
read the minutes of the previous meeting. Mary obeyed. A keen observer might
have wondered why it was necessary for the secretary to knit her brows so
closely over the tolerably matter-of-fact statement before her. Could there be any
doubt in her mind that it had been resolved to circularize the provinces with
Leaflet No. 3, or to issue a statistical diagram showing the proportion of married
women to spinsters in New Zealand; or that the net profits of Mrs. Hipsley's
Bazaar had reached a total of five pounds eight shillings and twopence half-
Could any doubt as to the perfect sense and propriety of these statements be
disturbing her? No one could have guessed, from the look of her, that she was
disturbed at all. A pleasanter and saner woman than Mary Datchet was never
seen within a committee-room. She seemed a compound of the autumn leaves
and the winter sunshine; less poetically speaking, she showed both gentleness
and strength, an indefinable promise of soft maternity blending with her evident
fitness for honest labor. Nevertheless, she had great difficulty in reducing her
mind to obedience; and her reading lacked conviction, as if, as was indeed the
case, she had lost the power of visualizing what she read. And directly the list
was completed, her mind floated to Lincoln's Inn Fields and the fluttering wings of
innumerable sparrows. Was Ralph still enticing the bald-headed cock-sparrow to
sit upon his hand? Had he succeeded? Would he ever succeed? She had meant
to ask him why it is that the sparrows in Lincoln's Inn Fields are tamer than the
sparrows in Hyde Park--perhaps it is that the passers-by are rarer, and they
come to recognize their benefactors. For the first half-hour of the committee
meeting, Mary had thus to do battle with the skeptical presence of Ralph