BEFORE twelve o’clock there had been some heavy storms of rain, and the water lay in deep gutters on the sides of the gravel walks in the garden of Broxton Parsonage; the great Provence roses had been cruelly tossed by the wind and beaten by the rain, and all the delicate-stemmed border flowers had been dashed down and stained with the wet soil. A melancholy morning — because it was nearly time hay-harvest should begin, and instead of that the meadows were likely to be flooded.
But people who have pleasant homes get indoor enjoyments that they would never think of but for the rain. If it had not been a wet morning, Mr. Irwine would not have been in the dining-room playing at chess with his mother, and he loves both his mother and chess quite well enough to pass some cloudy hours very easily by their help. Let me take you into that dining-room and show you the Rev. Adolphus Irwine, Rector of Broxton, Vicar of Hayslope, and Vicar of Blythe, a pluralist at whom the severest Church reformer would have found it difficult to look sour. We will enter very softly and stand still in the open doorway, without awaking the glossy- brown setter who is stretched across the hearth, with her two puppies beside her; or the pug, who is dozing, with his black muzzle aloft, like a sleepy president.
The room is a large and lofty one, with an ample mullioned oriel window at one end; the walls, you see, are new, and not yet painted; but the furniture, though originally of an expensive sort, is old and scanty, and there is no drapery about the window. The crimson cloth over the large dining-table is very threadbare, though it contrasts pleasantly enough with the dead hue of the plaster on the walls; but on this cloth there is a massive silver waiter with a decanter of water on it, of the same pattern as two larger ones that are propped up on the sideboard with a coat of arms conspicuous in their centre. You suspect at once that the inhabitants of this room have inherited more blood than wealth, and would not be surprised to find that Mr. Irwine had a finely cut nostril and upper lip; but at present we can only see that he has a broad flat back and an abundance of powdered hair, all thrown backward and tied behind with a black ribbon — a bit of conservatism in costume which tells you that he is not a young man. He will perhaps turn round by and by, and in the meantime we can look at that stately old lady, his mother, a beautiful aged brunette, whose rich-toned complexion is well set off by the complex wrappings of pure white cambric and lace about her head and neck. She is as erect in her comely embonpoint as a statue of Ceres; and her dark face, with its delicate aquiline nose, firm proud mouth, and small, intense, black eye, is so keen and sarcastic in its expression that you instinctively substitute a pack of cards for the chess-men and imagine her telling your fortune. The small brown hand with which she is lifting her queen is laden with pearls, diamonds, and turquoises; and a large black veil is very carefully adjusted over the crown of her cap, and falls in sharp contrast on the white folds about her neck. It must take a long time to dress that old lady in the morning! But it seems a law of nature that she should be dressed so: she is clearly one of those children of royalty who have never doubted their right divine and never met with any one so absurd as to question it.
“There, Dauphin, tell me what that is!” says this magnificent old lady, as she deposits her queen very quietly and folds her arms. “I should be sorry to utter a word disagreeable to your feelings.”
“Ah, you witch-mother, you sorceress! How is a Christian man to win a game off you? I should have sprinkled the board with holy water before we began. You’ve not won that game by fair means, now, so don’t pretend it.”
“Yes, yes, that’s what the beaten have always said of great conquerors. But see, there’s the sunshine falling on the board, to show you more clearly what a foolish move you made with that pawn. Come, shall I give you another chance?”
“No, Mother, I shall leave you to your own conscience, now it’s clearing up. We must go and plash up the mud a little, mus’n’t we, Juno?” This was addressed to the brown setter, who had jumped up at the sound of the voices and laid her nose in an insinuating way on her master’s leg. “But I must go upstairs first and see Anne. I was called away to Tholer’s funeral just when I was going before.”
“It’s of no use, child; she can’t speak to you. Kate says she has one of her worst headaches this morning.”
“Oh, she likes me to go and see her just the same; she’s never too ill to care about that.”
If you know how much of human speech is mere purposeless impulse or habit, you will not wonder when I tell you that this identical objection had been made, and had received the same kind of answer, many hundred times in the course of the fifteen years that Mr. Irwine’s sister Anne had been an invalid. Splendid old ladies, who take a long time to dress in the morning, have often slight sympathy with sickly daughters.
But while Mr. Irwine was still seated, leaning back in his chair and stroking Juno’s head, the servant came to the door and said, “If you please, sir, Joshua Rann wishes to speak with you, if you are at liberty.”
“Let him be shown in here,” said Mrs. Irwine, taking up her knitting. “I always like to hear what Mr. Rann has got to say. His shoes will be dirty, but see that he wipes them Carroll.”
In two minutes Mr. Rann appeared at the door with very deferential bows, which, however, were far from conciliating Pug, who gave a sharp bark and ran across the room to reconnoitre the stranger’s legs; while the two puppies, regarding Mr. Rann’s prominent calf and ribbed worsted stockings from a more sensuous point of view, plunged and growled over them in great enjoyment. Meantime, Mr. Irwine turned round his chair and said, “Well, Joshua, anything the matter at Hayslope, that you’ve come over this damp morning? Sit down, sit down. Never mind the dogs; give them a friendly kick. Here, Pug, you rascal!”
It is very pleasant to see some men turn round; pleasant as a sudden rush of warm air in winter, or the flash of firelight in the chill dusk. Mr. Irwine was one of those men. He bore the same sort of resemblance to his mother that our loving memory of a friend’s face often bears to the face itself: the lines were all more generous, the smile brighter, the expression heartier. If the outline had been less finely cut, his face might have been called jolly; but that was not the right word for its mixture of bonhomie and distinction.
“Thank Your Reverence,” answered Mr. Rann, endeavouring to look unconcerned about his legs, but shaking them alternately to keep off the puppies; “I’ll stand, if you please, as more becoming. I hope I see you an’ Mrs. Irwine well, an’ Miss Irwine — an’ Miss Anne, I hope’s as well as usual.”
“Yes, Joshua, thank you. You see how blooming my mother looks. She beats us younger people hollow. But what’s the matter?”
“Why, sir, I had to come to Brox’on to deliver some work, and I thought it but right to call and let you know the goins-on as there’s been i’ the village, such as I hanna seen i’ my time, and I’ve lived in it man and boy sixty year come St. Thomas, and collected th’ Easter dues for Mr. Blick before Your Reverence come into the parish, and been at the ringin’ o’ every bell, and the diggin’ o’ every grave, and sung i’ the choir long afore Bartle Massey come from nobody knows where, wi’ his counter-singin’ and fine anthems, as puts everybody out but himself — one takin’ it up after another like sheep a-bleatin’ i’ th’ fold. I know what belongs to bein’ a parish clerk, and I know as I should be wantin’ i’ respect to Your Reverence, an’ church, an’ king, if I was t’ allow such goins-on wi’out speakin’. I was took by surprise, an’ knowed nothin’ on it beforehand, an’ I was so flustered, I was clean as if I’d lost my tools. I hanna slep’ more nor four hour this night as is past an’ gone; an’ then it was nothin’ but nightmare, as tired me worse nor wakin’.”
“Why, what in the world is the matter, Joshua? Have the thieves been at the church lead again?”
“Thieves! No, sir — an’ yet, as I may say, it is thieves, an’ a- thievin’ the church, too. It’s the Methodisses as is like to get th’ upper hand i’ th’ parish, if Your Reverence an’ His Honour, Squire Donnithorne, doesna think well to say the word an’ forbid it. Not as I’m a-dictatin’ to you, sir; I’m not forgettin’ myself so far as to be wise above my betters. Howiver, whether I’m wise or no, that’s neither here nor there, but what I’ve got to say I say — as the young Methodis woman as is at Mester Poyser’s was a- preachin’ an’ a-prayin’ on the Green last night, as sure as I’m a- stannin’ afore Your Reverence now.”
“Preaching on the Green!” said Mr. Irwine, looking surprised but quite serene. “What, that pale pretty young woman I’ve seen at Poyser’s? I saw she was a Methodist, or Quaker, or something of that sort, by her dress, but I didn’t know she was a preacher.”
“It’s a true word as I say, sir,” rejoined Mr. Rann, compressing his mouth into a semicircular form and pausing long enough to indicate three notes of exclamation. “She preached on the Green last night; an’ she’s laid hold of Chad’s Bess, as the girl’s been i’ fits welly iver sin’.”
“Well, Bessy Cranage is a hearty-looking lass; I daresay she’ll come round again, Joshua. Did anybody else go into fits?”
“No, sir, I canna say as they did. But there’s no knowin’ what’ll come, if we’re t’ have such preachin’s as that a-goin’ on ivery week — there’ll be no livin’ i’ th’ village. For them Methodisses make folks believe as if they take a mug o’ drink extry, an’ make theirselves a bit comfortable, they’ll have to go to hell for’t as sure as they’re born. I’m not a tipplin’ man nor a drunkard — nobody can say it on me — but I like a extry quart at Easter or Christmas time, as is nat’ral when we’re goin’ the rounds a- singin’, an’ folks offer’t you for nothin’; or when I’m a- collectin’ the dues; an’ I like a pint wi’ my pipe, an’ a neighbourly chat at Mester Casson’s now an’ then, for I was brought up i’ the Church, thank God, an’ ha’ been a parish clerk this two-an’-thirty year: I should know what the church religion is.”
“Well, what’s your advice, Joshua? What do you think should be done?”
“Well, Your Reverence, I’m not for takin’ any measures again’ the young woman. She’s well enough if she’d let alone preachin’; an’ I hear as she’s a-goin’ away back to her own country soon. She’s Mr. Poyser’s own niece, an’ I donna wish to say what’s anyways disrespectful o’ th’ family at th’ Hall Farm, as I’ve measured for shoes, little an’ big, welly iver sin’ I’ve been a shoemaker. But there’s that Will Maskery, sir as is the rampageousest Methodis as can be, an’ I make no doubt it was him as stirred up th’ young woman to preach last night, an’ he’ll be a-bringin’ other folks to preach from Treddles’on, if his comb isn’t cut a bit; an’ I think as he should be let know as he isna t’ have the makin’ an’ mendin’ o’ church carts an’ implemen’s, let alone stayin’ i’ that house an’ yard as is Squire Donnithorne’s.”
“Well, but you say yourself, Joshua, that you never knew any one come to preach on the Green before; why should you think they’ll come again? The Methodists don’t come to preach in little villages like Hayslope, where there’s only a handful of labourers, too tired to listen to them. They might almost as well go and preach on the Binton Hills. Will Maskery is no preacher himself, I think.”
“Nay, sir, he’s no gift at stringin’ the words together wi’out book; he’d be stuck fast like a cow i’ wet clay. But he’s got tongue enough to speak disrespectful about’s neebors, for he said as I was a blind Pharisee — a-usin’ the Bible i’ that way to find nick-names for folks as are his elders an’ betters! — and what’s worse, he’s been heard to say very unbecomin’ words about Your Reverence; for I could bring them as ’ud swear as he called you a ‘dumb dog,’ an’ a ‘idle shepherd.’ You’ll forgi’e me for sayin’ such things over again.”
“Better not, better not, Joshua. Let evil words die as soon as they’re spoken. Will Maskery might be a great deal worse fellow than he is. He used to be a wild drunken rascal, neglecting his work and beating his wife, they told me; now he’s thrifty and decent, and he and his wife look comfortable together. If you can bring me any proof that he interferes with his neighbours and creates any disturbance, I shall think it my duty as a clergyman and a magistrate to interfere. But it wouldn’t become wise people like you and me to be making a fuss about trifles, as if we thought the Church was in danger because Will Maskery lets his tongue wag rather foolishly, or a young woman talks in a serious way to a handful of people on the Green. We must ‘live and let live,’ Joshua, in religion as well as in other things. You go on doing your duty, as parish clerk and sexton, as well as you’ve always done it, and making those capital thick boots for your neighbours, and things won’t go far wrong in Hayslope, depend upon it.”
“Your Reverence is very good to say so; an’ I’m sensable as, you not livin’ i’ the parish, there’s more upo’ my shoulders.”
“To be sure; and you must mind and not lower the Church in people’s eyes by seeming to be frightened about it for a little thing, Joshua. I shall trust to your good sense, now to take no notice at all of what Will Maskery says, either about you or me. You and your neighbours can go on taking your pot of beer soberly, when you’ve done your day’s work, like good churchmen; and if Will Maskery doesn’t like to join you, but to go to a prayermeeting at Treddleston instead, let him; that’s no business of yours, so long as he doesn’t hinder you from doing what you like. And as to people saying a few idle words about us, we must not mind that, any more than the old church-steeple minds the rooks cawing about it. Will Maskery comes to church every Sunday afternoon, and does his wheelwright’s business steadily in the weekdays, and as long as he does that he must be let alone.”
“Ah, sir, but when he comes to church, he sits an’ shakes his head, an’ looks as sour an’ as coxy when we’re a-singin’ as I should like to fetch him a rap across the jowl — God forgi’e me — an’ Mrs. Irwine, an’ Your Reverence too, for speakin’ so afore you. An’ he said as our Christmas singin’ was no better nor the cracklin’ o’ thorns under a pot.”
“Well, he’s got a bad ear for music, Joshua. When people have wooden heads, you know, it can’t be helped. He won’t bring the other people in Hayslope round to his opinion, while you go on singing as well as you do.”
“Yes, sir, but it turns a man’s stomach t’ hear the Scripture misused i’ that way. I know as much o’ the words o’ the Bible as he does, an’ could say the Psalms right through i’ my sleep if you was to pinch me; but I know better nor to take ’em to say my own say wi’. I might as well take the Sacriment-cup home and use it at meals.”
“That’s a very sensible remark of yours, Joshua; but, as I said before ——”
While Mr. Irwine was speaking, the sound of a booted step and the clink of a spur were heard on the stone floor of the entrance- hall, and Joshua Rann moved hastily aside from the doorway to make room for some one who paused there, and said, in a ringing tenor voice,
“Godson Arthur — may he come in?”
“Come in, come in, godson!” Mrs. Irwine answered, in the deep half-masculine tone which belongs to the vigorous old woman, and there entered a young gentleman in a riding-dress, with his right arm in a sling; whereupon followed that pleasant confusion of laughing interjections, and hand-shakings, and “How are you’s?” mingled with joyous short barks and wagging of tails on the part of the canine members of the family, which tells that the visitor is on the best terms with the visited. The young gentleman was Arthur Donnithorne, known in Hayslope, variously, as “the young squire,” “the heir,” and “the captain.” He was only a captain in the Loamshire Militia, but to the Hayslope tenants he was more intensely a captain than all the young gentlemen of the same rank in his Majesty’s regulars — he outshone them as the planet Jupiter outshines the Milky Way. If you want to know more particularly how he looked, call to your remembrance some tawny-whiskered, brown-locked, clear-complexioned young Englishman whom you have met with in a foreign town, and been proud of as a fellow- countryman — well-washed, high-bred, white-handed, yet looking as if he could deliver well from ‘the left shoulder and floor his man: I will not be so much of a tailor as to trouble your imagination with the difference of costume, and insist on the striped waistcoat, long-tailed coat, and low top-boots.
Turning round to take a chair, Captain Donnithorne said, “But don’t let me interrupt Joshua’s business — he has something to say.”
“Humbly begging Your Honour’s pardon,” said Joshua, bowing low, “there was one thing I had to say to His Reverence as other things had drove out o’ my head.”
“Out with it, Joshua, quickly!” said Mr. Irwine.
“Belike, sir, you havena heared as Thias Bede’s dead — drownded this morning, or more like overnight, i’ the Willow Brook, again’ the bridge right i’ front o’ the house.”
“Ah!” exclaimed both the gentlemen at once, as if they were a good deal interested in the information.
“An’ Seth Bede’s been to me this morning to say he wished me to tell Your Reverence as his brother Adam begged of you particular t’ allow his father’s grave to be dug by the White Thorn, because his mother’s set her heart on it, on account of a dream as she had; an’ they’d ha’ come theirselves to ask you, but they’ve so much to see after with the crowner, an’ that; an’ their mother’s took on so, an’ wants ’em to make sure o’ the spot for fear somebody else should take it. An’ if Your Reverence sees well and good, I’ll send my boy to tell ’em as soon as I get home; an’ that’s why I make bold to trouble you wi’ it, His Honour being present.”
“To be sure, Joshua, to be sure, they shall have it. I’ll ride round to Adam myself, and see him. Send your boy, however, to say they shall have the grave, lest anything should happen to detain me. And now, good morning, Joshua; go into the kitchen and have some ale.”
“Poor old Thias!” said Mr. Irwine, when Joshua was gone. “I’m afraid the drink helped the brook to drown him. I should have been glad for the load to have been taken off my friend Adam’s shoulders in a less painful way. That fine fellow has been propping up his father from ruin for the last five or six years.”
“He’s a regular trump, is Adam,” said Captain Donnithorne. “When I was a little fellow, and Adam was a strapping lad of fifteen, and taught me carpentering, I used to think if ever I was a rich sultan, I would make Adam my grand-vizier. And I believe now he would bear the exaltation as well as any poor wise man in an Eastern story. If ever I live to be a large-acred man instead of a poor devil with a mortgaged allowance of pocket-money, I’ll have Adam for my right hand. He shall manage my woods for me, for he seems to have a better notion of those things than any man I ever met with; and I know he would make twice the money of them that my grandfather does, with that miserable old Satchell to manage, who understands no more about timber than an old carp. I’ve mentioned the subject to my grandfather once or twice, but for some reason or other he has a dislike to Adam, and I can do nothing. But come, Your Reverence, are you for a ride with me? It’s splendid out of doors now. We can go to Adam’s together, if you like; but I want to call at the Hall Farm on my way, to look at the whelps Poyser is keeping for me.”
“You must stay and have lunch first, Arthur,” said Mrs. Irwine. “It’s nearly two. Carroll will bring it in directly.”
“I want to go to the Hall Farm too,” said Mr. Irwine, “to have another look at the little Methodist who is staying there. Joshua tells me she was preaching on the Green last night.”
“Oh, by Jove!” said Captain Donnithorne, laughing. “Why, she looks as quiet as a mouse. There’s something rather striking about her, though. I positively felt quite bashful the first time I saw her — she was sitting stooping over her sewing in the sunshine outside the house, when I rode up and called out, without noticing that she was a stranger, ‘Is Martin Poyser at home?’ I declare, when she got up and looked at me and just said, ‘He’s in the house, I believe: I’ll go and call him,’ I felt quite ashamed of having spoken so abruptly to her. She looked like St. Catherine in a Quaker dress. It’s a type of face one rarely sees among our common people.”
“I should like to see the young woman, Dauphin,” said Mrs. Irwine. “Make her come here on some pretext or other.”
“I don’t know how I can manage that, Mother; it will hardly do for me to patronize a Methodist preacher, even if she would consent to be patronized by an idle shepherd, as Will Maskery calls me. You should have come in a little sooner, Arthur, to hear Joshua’s denunciation of his neighbour Will Maskery. The old fellow wants me to excommunicate the wheelwright, and then deliver him over to the civil arm — that is to say, to your grandfather — to be turned out of house and yard. If I chose to interfere in this business, now, I might get up as pretty a story of hatred and persecution as the Methodists need desire to publish in the next number of their magazine. It wouldn’t take me much trouble to persuade Chad Cranage and half a dozen other bull-headed fellows that they would be doing an acceptable service to the Church by hunting Will Maskery out of the village with rope-ends and pitchforks; and then, when I had furnished them with half a sovereign to get gloriously drunk after their exertions, I should have put the climax to as pretty a farce as any of my brother clergy have set going in their parishes for the last thirty years.”
“It is really insolent of the man, though, to call you an ‘idle shepherd’ and a ‘dumb dog,’” said Mrs. Irwine. “I should be inclined to check him a little there. You are too easy-tempered, Dauphin.”
“Why, Mother, you don’t think it would be a good way of sustaining my dignity to set about vindicating myself from the aspersions of Will Maskery? Besides, I’m not so sure that they ARE aspersions. I AM a lazy fellow, and get terribly heavy in my saddle; not to mention that I’m always spending more than I can afford in bricks and mortar, so that I get savage at a lame beggar when he asks me for sixpence. Those poor lean cobblers, who think they can help to regenerate mankind by setting out to preach in the morning twilight before they begin their day’s work, may well have a poor opinion of me. But come, let us have our luncheon. Isn’t Kate coming to lunch?”
“Miss Irwine told Bridget to take her lunch upstairs,” said Carroll; “she can’t leave Miss Anne.”
“Oh, very well. Tell Bridget to say I’ll go up and see Miss Anne presently. You can use your right arm quite well now, Arthur,” Mr. Irwine continued, observing that Captain Donnithorne had taken his arm out of the sling.
“Yes, pretty well; but Godwin insists on my keeping it up constantly for some time to come. I hope I shall be able to get away to the regiment, though, in the beginning of August. It’s a desperately dull business being shut up at the Chase in the summer months, when one can neither hunt nor shoot, so as to make one’s self pleasantly sleepy in the evening. However, we are to astonish the echoes on the 30th of July. My grandfather has given me carte blanche for once, and I promise you the entertainment shall be worthy of the occasion. The world will not see the grand epoch of my majority twice. I think I shall have a lofty throne for you, Godmamma, or rather two, one on the lawn and another in the ballroom, that you may sit and look down upon us like an Olympian goddess.”
“I mean to bring out my best brocade, that I wore at your christening twenty years ago,” said Mrs. Irwine. “Ah, I think I shall see your poor mother flitting about in her white dress, which looked to me almost like a shroud that very day; and it WAS her shroud only three months after; and your little cap and christening dress were buried with her too. She had set her heart on that, sweet soul! Thank God you take after your mother’s family, Arthur. If you had been a puny, wiry, yellow baby, I wouldn’t have stood godmother to you. I should have been sure you would turn out a Donnithorne. But you were such a broad-faced, broad-chested, loud-screaming rascal, I knew you were every inch of you a Tradgett.”
“But you might have been a little too hasty there, Mother,” said Mr. Irwine, smiling. “Don’t you remember how it was with Juno’s last pups? One of them was the very image of its mother, but it had two or three of its father’s tricks notwithstanding. Nature is clever enough to cheat even you, Mother.”
“Nonsense, child! Nature never makes a ferret in the shape of a mastiff. You’ll never persuade me that I can’t tell what men are by their outsides. If I don’t like a man’s looks, depend upon it I shall never like HIM. I don’t want to know people that look ugly and disagreeable, any more than I want to taste dishes that look disagreeable. If they make me shudder at the first glance, I say, take them away. An ugly, piggish, or fishy eye, now, makes me feel quite ill; it’s like a bad smell.”
“Talking of eyes,” said Captain Donnithorne, “that reminds me that I’ve got a book I meant to bring you, Godmamma. It came down in a parcel from London the other day. I know you are fond of queer, wizardlike stories. It’s a volume of poems, ‘Lyrical Ballads.’ Most of them seem to be twaddling stuff, but the first is in a different style —’The Ancient Mariner’ is the title. I can hardly make head or tail of it as a story, but it’s a strange, striking thing. I’ll send it over to you; and there are some other books that you may like to see, Irwine — pamphlets about Antinomianism and Evangelicalism, whatever they may be. I can’t think what the fellow means by sending such things to me. I’ve written to him to desire that from henceforth he will send me no book or pamphlet on anything that ends in ISM.”
“Well, I don’t know that I’m very fond of isms myself; but I may as well look at the pamphlets; they let one see what is going on. I’ve a little matter to attend to, Arthur,” continued Mr. Irwine, rising to leave the room, “and then I shall be ready to set out with you.”
The little matter that Mr. Irwine had to attend to took him up the old stone staircase (part of the house was very old) and made him pause before a door at which he knocked gently. “Come in,” said a woman’s voice, and he entered a room so darkened by blinds and curtains that Miss Kate, the thin middle-aged lady standing by the bedside, would not have had light enough for any other sort of work than the knitting which lay on the little table near her. But at present she was doing what required only the dimmest light — sponging the aching head that lay on the pillow with fresh vinegar. It was a small face, that of the poor sufferer; perhaps it had once been pretty, but now it was worn and sallow. Miss Kate came towards her brother and whispered, “Don’t speak to her; she can’t bear to be spoken to today.” Anne’s eyes were closed, and her brow contracted as if from intense pain. Mr. Irwine went to the bedside and took up one of the delicate hands and kissed it, a slight pressure from the small fingers told him that it was worth-while to have come upstairs for the sake of doing that. He lingered a moment, looking at her, and then turned away and left the room, treading very gently — he had taken off his boots and put on slippers before he came upstairs. Whoever remembers how many things he has declined to do even for himself, rather than have the trouble of putting on or taking off his boots, will not think this last detail insignificant.
And Mr. Irwine’s sisters, as any person of family within ten miles of Broxton could have testified, were such stupid, uninteresting women! It was quite a pity handsome, clever Mrs. Irwine should have had such commonplace daughters. That fine old lady herself was worth driving ten miles to see, any day; her beauty, her well- preserved faculties, and her old-fashioned dignity made her a graceful subject for conversation in turn with the King’s health, the sweet new patterns in cotton dresses, the news from Egypt, and Lord Dacey’s lawsuit, which was fretting poor Lady Dacey to death. But no one ever thought of mentioning the Miss Irwines, except the poor people in Broxton village, who regarded them as deep in the science of medicine, and spoke of them vaguely as “the gentlefolks.” If any one had asked old Job Dummilow who gave him his flannel jacket, he would have answered, “the gentlefolks, last winter”; and widow Steene dwelt much on the virtues of the “stuff” the gentlefolks gave her for her cough. Under this name too, they were used with great effect as a means of taming refractory children, so that at the sight of poor Miss Anne’s sallow face, several small urchins had a terrified sense that she was cognizant of all their worst misdemeanours, and knew the precise number of stones with which they had intended to hit Farmer Britton’s ducks. But for all who saw them through a less mythical medium, the Miss Irwines were quite superfluous existences — inartistic figures crowding the canvas of life without adequate effect. Miss Anne, indeed, if her chronic headaches could have been accounted for by a pathetic story of disappointed love, might have had some romantic interest attached to her: but no such story had either been known or invented concerning her, and the general impression was quite in accordance with the fact, that both the sisters were old maids for the prosaic reason that they had never received an eligible offer.
Nevertheless, to speak paradoxically, the existence of insignificant people has very important consequences in the world. It can be shown to affect the price of bread and the rate of wages, to call forth many evil tempers from the selfish and many heroisms from the sympathetic, and, in other ways, to play no small part in the tragedy of life. And if that handsome, generous-blooded clergyman, the Rev. Adolphus Irwine, had not had these two hopelessly maiden sisters, his lot would have been shaped quite differently: he would very likely have taken a comely wife in his youth, and now, when his hair was getting grey under the powder, would have had tall sons and blooming daughters — such possessions, in short, as men commonly think will repay them for all the labour they take under the sun. As it was — having with all his three livings no more than seven hundred a-year, and seeing no way of keeping his splendid mother and his sickly sister, not to reckon a second sister, who was usually spoken of without any adjective, in such ladylike ease as became their birth and habits, and at the same time providing for a family of his own — he remained, you see, at the age of eight-and-forty, a bachelor, not making any merit of that renunciation, but saying laughingly, if any one alluded to it, that he made it an excuse for many indulgences which a wife would never have allowed him. And perhaps he was the only person in the world who did not think his sisters uninteresting and superfluous; for his was one of those large-hearted, sweet-blooded natures that never know a narrow or a grudging thought; Epicurean, if you will, with no enthusiasm, no self-scourging sense of duty; but yet, as you have seen, of a sufficiently subtle moral fibre to have an unwearying tenderness for obscure and monotonous suffering. It was his large-hearted indulgence that made him ignore his mother’s hardness towards her daughters, which was the more striking from its contrast with her doting fondness towards himself; he held it no virtue to frown at irremediable faults.
See the difference between the impression a man makes on you when you walk by his side in familiar talk, or look at him in his home, and the figure he makes when seen from a lofty historical level, or even in the eyes of a critical neighbour who thinks of him as an embodied system or opinion rather than as a man. Mr. Roe, the “travelling preacher” stationed at Treddleston, had included Mr. Irwine in a general statement concerning the Church clergy in the surrounding district, whom he described as men given up to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life; hunting and shooting, and adorning their own houses; asking what shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed? — careless of dispensing the bread of life to their flocks, preaching at best but a carnal and soul-benumbing morality, and trafficking in the souls of men by receiving money for discharging the pastoral office in parishes where they did not so much as look on the faces of the people more than once a-year. The ecclesiastical historian, too, looking into parliamentary reports of that period, finds honourable members zealous for the Church, and untainted with any sympathy for the “tribe of canting Methodists,” making statements scarcely less melancholy than that of Mr. Roe. And it is impossible for me to say that Mr. Irwine was altogether belied by the generic classification assigned him. He really had no very lofty aims, no theological enthusiasm: if I were closely questioned, I should be obliged to confess that he felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners, and would have thought it a mere loss of time to talk in a doctrinal and awakening manner to old “Feyther Taft,” or even to Chad Cranage the blacksmith. If he had been in the habit of speaking theoretically, he would perhaps have said that the only healthy form religion could take in such minds was that of certain dim but strong emotions, suffusing themselves as a hallowing influence over the family affections and neighbourly duties. He thought the custom of baptism more important than its doctrine, and that the religious benefits the peasant drew from the church where his fathers worshipped and the sacred piece of turf where they lay buried were but slightly dependent on a clear understanding of the Liturgy or the sermon. Clearly the rector was not what is called in these days an “earnest” man: he was fonder of church history than of divinity, and had much more insight into men’s characters than interest in their opinions; he was neither laborious, nor obviously self-denying, nor very copious in alms-giving, and his theology, you perceive, was lax. His mental palate, indeed, was rather pagan, and found a savouriness in a quotation from Sophocles or Theocritus that was quite absent from any text in Isaiah or Amos. But if you feed your young setter on raw flesh, how can you wonder at its retaining a relish for uncooked partridge in after-life? And Mr. Irwine’s recollections of young enthusiasm and ambition were all associated with poetry and ethics that lay aloof from the Bible.
On the other hand, I must plead, for I have an affectionate partiality towards the rector’s memory, that he was not vindictive — and some philanthropists have been so; that he was not intolerant — and there is a rumour that some zealous theologians have not been altogether free from that blemish; that although he would probably have declined to give his body to be burned in any public cause, and was far from bestowing all his goods to feed the poor, he had that charity which has sometimes been lacking to very illustrious virtue — he was tender to other men’s failings, and unwilling to impute evil. He was one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following them away from the marketplace, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course, and not as a subject for panegyric.
Such men, happily, have lived in times when great abuses flourished, and have sometimes even been the living representatives of the abuses. That is a thought which might comfort us a little under the opposite fact — that it is better sometimes NOT to follow great reformers of abuses beyond the threshold of their homes.
But whatever you may think of Mr. Irwine now, if you had met him that June afternoon riding on his grey cob, with his dogs running beside him — portly, upright, manly, with a good-natured smile on his finely turned lips as he talked to his dashing young companion on the bay mare, you must have felt that, however ill he harmonized with sound theories of the clerical office, he somehow harmonized extremely well with that peaceful landscape.
See them in the bright sunlight, interrupted every now and then by rolling masses of cloud, ascending the slope from the Broxton side, where the tall gables and elms of the rectory predominate over the tiny whitewashed church. They will soon be in the parish of Hayslope; the grey church-tower and village roofs lie before them to the left, and farther on, to the right, they can just see the chimneys of the Hall Farm.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50