Outside, the moon is shedding its cold light on the cold snow, and the white-bearded fir-trees round Camp Villa are casting a blue shadow across the white ground, while the Rev. Amos Barton, and his wife are audibly crushing the crisp snow beneath their feet, as, about seven o’clock on Friday evening, they approach the door of the above-named desirable country residence, containing dining, breakfast, and drawing rooms, etc., situated only half a mile from the market-town of Milby.
Inside, there is a bright fire in the drawing-room, casting a pleasant but uncertain light on the delicate silk dress of a lady who is reclining behind a screen in the corner of the sofa, and allowing you to discern that the hair of the gentleman who is seated in the arm-chair opposite, with a newspaper over his knees, is becoming decidedly grey. A little ‘King Charles’, with a crimson ribbon round his neck, who has been lying curled up in the very middle of the hearth-rug, has just discovered that that zone is too hot for him, and is jumping on the sofa, evidently with the intention of accommodating his person on the silk gown. On the table there are two wax-candles, which will be lighted as soon as the expected knock is heard at the door.
The knock is heard, the candles are lighted, and presently Mr. and Mrs. Barton are ushered in-Mr. Barton erect and clerical, in a faultless tie and shining cranium; Mrs. Barton graceful in a newly-turned black silk.
‘Now this is charming of you,’ said the Countess Czerlaski, advancing to meet them, and embracing Milly with careful elegance. ‘I am really ashamed of my selfishness in asking my friends to come and see me in this frightful weather.’ Then, giving her hand to Amos, ‘And you, Mr. Barton, whose time is so precious! But I am doing a good deed in drawing you away from your labours. I have a plot to prevent you from martyrizing yourself.’
While this greeting was going forward, Mr. Bridmain, and Jet the spaniel, looked on with the air of actors who had no idea of by-play. Mr. Bridmain, a stiff and rather thick-set man, gave his welcome with a laboured cordiality. It was astonishing how very little he resembled his beautiful sister.
For the Countess Czerlaski was undeniably beautiful. As she seated herself by Mrs. Barton on the sofa, Milly’s eyes, indeed, rested — must it be confessed? — chiefly on the details of the tasteful dress, the rich silk of a pinkish lilac hue (the Countess always wore delicate colours in an evening), the black lace pelerine, and the black lace veil falling at the back of the small closely-braided head. For Milly had one weakness — don’t love her any the less for it, it was a pretty woman’s weakness — she was fond of dress; and often, when she was making up her own economical millinery, she had romantic visions how nice it would be to put on really handsome stylish things — to have very stiff balloon sleeves, for example, without which a woman’s dress was nought in those days. You and I, too, reader, have our weakness, have we not? which makes us think foolish things now and then. Perhaps it may lie in an excessive admiration for small hands and feet, a tall lithe figure, large dark eyes, and dark silken braided hair. All these the Countess possessed, and she had, moreover, a delicately-formed nose, the least bit curved, and a clear brunette complexion. Her mouth it must be admitted, receded too much from her nose and chin and to a prophetic eye threatened ‘nut-crackers’ in advanced age. But by the light of fire and wax candles that age seemed very far off indeed, and you would have said that the Countess was not more than thirty.
Look at the two women on the sofa together! The large, fair, mild-eyed Milly is timid even in friendship: it is not easy to her to speak of the affection of which her heart is full. The lithe, dark, thin-lipped Countess is racking her small brain for caressing words and charming exaggerations.
‘And how are all the cherubs at home?’ said the Countess, stooping to pick up Jet, and without waiting for an answer. ‘I have been kept indoors by a cold ever since Sunday, or I should not have rested without seeing you. What have you done with those wretched singers, Mr. Barton?’
‘O, we have got a new choir together, which will go on very well with a little practice. I was quite determined that the old set of singers should be dismissed. I had given orders that they should not sing the wedding psalm, as they call it, again, to make a new-married couple look ridiculous, and they sang it in defiance of me. I could put them into the Ecclesiastical Court, if I chose for to do so, for lifting up their voices in church in opposition to the clergyman.’
‘And a most wholesome discipline that would be,’ said the Countess, ‘indeed, you are too patient and forbearing, Mr. Barton. For my part, I lose my temper when I see how far you are from being appreciated in that miserable Shepperton.’
If, as is probable, Mr. Barton felt at a loss what to say in reply to the insinuated compliment, it was a relief to him that dinner was announced just then, and that he had to offer his arm to the Countess.
As Mr. Bridmain was leading Mrs. Barton to the dining-room, he observed, ‘The weather is very severe.’
‘Very, indeed,’ said Milly.
Mr. Bridmain studied conversation as an art. To ladies he spoke of the weather, and was accustomed to consider it under three points of view: as a question of climate in general, comparing England with other countries in this respect; as a personal question, inquiring how it affected his lady interlocutor in particular; and as a question of probabilities, discussing whether there would be a change or a continuance of the present atmospheric conditions. To gentlemen he talked politics, and he read two daily papers expressly to qualify himself for this function. Mr. Barton thought him a man of considerable political information, but not of lively parts.
‘And so you are always to hold your Clerical Meetings at Mr. Ely’s?’ said the Countess, between her spoonfuls of soup. (The soup was a little over-spiced. Mrs. Short of Camp Villa, who was in the habit of letting her best apartments, gave only moderate wages to her cook.)
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Barton; ‘Milby is a central place, and there are many conveniences in having only one point of meeting.’
‘Well,’ continued the Countess, ‘every one seems to agree in giving the precedence to Mr. Ely. For my part, I cannot admire him. His preaching is too cold for me. It has no fervour — no heart. I often say to my brother, it is a great comfort to me that Shepperton Church is not too far off for us to go to; don’t I, Edmund?’
‘Yes,’ answered Mr. Bridmain; ‘they show us into such a bad pew at Milby — just where there is a draught from that door. I caught a stiff neck the first time I went there.’
‘O, it is the cold in the pulpit that affects me, not the cold in the pew. I was writing to my friend Lady Porter this morning, and telling her all about my feelings. She and I think alike on such matters. She is most anxious that when Sir William has an opportunity of giving away the living at their place, Dippley, they should have a thoroughly zealous clever man there. I have been describing a certain friend of mine to her, who, I think, would be just to her mind. And there is such a pretty rectory, Milly; shouldn’t I like to see you the mistress of it?’
Milly smiled and blushed slightly. The Rev. Amos blushed very red, and gave a little embarrassed laugh — he could rarely keep his muscles within the limits of a smile. At this moment John, the man-servant, approached Mrs. Barton with a gravy-tureen, and also with a slight odour of the stable, which usually adhered to him through his indoor functions. John was rather nervous; and the Countess happening to speak to him at this inopportune moment, the tureen slipped and emptied itself on Mrs. Barton’s newly-turned black silk.
‘O, horror! Tell Alice to come directly and rub Mrs. Barton’s dress,’ said the Countess to the trembling John, carefully abstaining from approaching the gravy-sprinkled spot on the floor with her own lilac silk. But Mr. Bridmain, who had a strictly private interest in silks, good-naturedly jumped up and applied his napkin at once to Mrs. Barton’s gown.
Milly felt a little inward anguish, but no ill-temper, and tried to make light of the matter for the sake of John as well as others. The Countess felt inwardly thankful that her own delicate silk had escaped, but threw out lavish interjections of distress and indignation.
‘Dear saint that you are,’ she said, when Milly laughed, and suggested that, as her silk was not very glossy to begin with, the dim patch would not be much seen; ‘you don’t mind about these things, I know. Just the same sort of thing happened to me at the Princess Wengstein’s one day, on a pink satin. I was in an agony. But you are so indifferent to dress; and well you may be. It is you who make dress pretty, and not dress that makes you pretty.’
Alice, the buxom lady’s-maid, wearing a much better dress than Mrs. Barton’s, now appeared to take Mr. Bridmain’s place in retrieving the mischief, and after a great amount of supplementary rubbing, composure was restored, and the business of dining was continued. When John was recounting his accident to the cook in the kitchen, he observed, ‘Mrs. Barton’s a hamable woman; I’d a deal sooner ha’ throwed the gravy o’er the Countess’s fine gownd. But laws! what tantrums she’d ha’ been in arter the visitors was gone.’
‘You’d a deal sooner not ha’ throwed it down at all, I should think,’ responded the unsympathetic cook, to whom John did not make love. ‘Who d’you think’s to mek gravy anuff, if you’re to baste people’s gownds wi’ it?’
‘Well,’ suggested John, humbly, ‘you should wet the bottom of the duree a bit, to hold it from slippin’.’
‘Wet your granny!’ returned the cook; a retort which she probably regarded in the light of a reductio ad absurdum, and which in fact reduced John to silence.
Later on in the evening, while John was removing the teathings from the drawing-room, and brushing the crumbs from the table-cloth with an accompanying hiss, such as he was wont to encourage himself with in rubbing down Mr. Bridmain’s horse, the Rev. Amos Barton drew from his pocket a thin green-covered pamphlet, and, presenting it to the Countess, said — ‘You were pleased, I think, with my sermon on Christmas Day. It has been printed in “The Pulpit,” and I thought you might like a copy.’
‘That indeed I shall. I shall quite value the opportunity of reading that sermon. There was such depth in it! — such argument! It was not a sermon to be heard only once. I am delighted that it should become generally known, as it will be now it is printed in “The Pulpit.”’
‘Yes,’ said Milly, innocently, ‘I was so pleased with the editor’s letter.’ And she drew out her little pocket-book, where she carefully treasured the editorial autograph, while Mr. Barton laughed and blushed, and said, ‘Nonsense, Milly!’
‘You see,’ she said, giving the letter to the Countess, ‘I am very proud of the praise my husband gets.’
The sermon in question, by the by, was an extremely argumentative one on the Incarnation; which, as it was preached to a congregation not one of whom had any doubt of that doctrine, and to whom the Socinians therein confuted were as unknown as the Arimaspians, was exceedingly well adapted to trouble and confuse the Sheppertonian mind.
‘Ah,’ said the Countess, returning the editor’s letter, ‘he may well say he will be glad of other sermons from the same source. But I would rather you should publish your sermons in an independent volume, Mr. Barton; it would be so desirable to have them in that shape. For instance, I could send a copy to the Dean of Radborough. And there is Lord Blarney, whom I knew before he was chancellor. I was a special favourite of his, and you can’t think what sweet things he used to say to me. I shall not resist the temptation to write to him one of these days sans facon, and tell him how he ought to dispose of the next vacant living in his gift.’
Whether Jet the spaniel, being a much more knowing dog than was suspected, wished to express his disapproval of the Countess’s last speech, as not accordant with his ideas of wisdom and veracity, I cannot say; but at this moment he jumped off her lap, and, turning his back upon her, placed one paw on the fender, and held the other up to warm, as if affecting to abstract himself from the current of conversation.
But now Mr. Bridmain brought out the chess-board, and Mr. Barton accepted his challenge to play a game, with immense satisfaction. The Rev. Amos was very fond of chess, as most people are who can continue through many years to create interesting vicissitudes in the game, by taking long-meditated moves with their knights, and subsequently discovering that they have thereby exposed their queen.
Chess is a silent game; and the Countess’s chat with Milly is in quite an under-tone — probably relating to women’s matters that it would be impertinent for us to listen to; so we will leave Camp Villa, and proceed to Milby Vicarage, where Mr. Farquhar has sat out two other guests with whom he has been dining at Mr. Ely’s, and is now rather wearying that reverend gentleman by his protracted small-talk.
Mr. Ely was a tall, dark-haired, distinguished-looking man of three-and-thirty. By the laity of Milby and its neighbourhood he was regarded as a man of quite remarkable powers and learning, who must make a considerable sensation in London pulpits and drawing-rooms on his occasional visit to the metropolis; and by his brother clergy he was regarded as a discreet and agreeable fellow. Mr. Ely never got into a warm discussion; he suggested what might be thought, but rarely said what he thought himself; he never let either men or women see that he was laughing at them, and he never gave any one an opportunity of laughing at him. In one thing only he was injudicious. He parted his dark wavy hair down the middle; and as his head was rather flat than otherwise, that style of coiffure was not advantageous to him.
Mr. Farquhar, though not a parishioner of Mr. Ely’s, was one of his warmest admirers, and thought he would make an unexceptionable son-inlaw, in spite of his being of no particular ‘family’. Mr. Farquhar was susceptible on the point of ‘blood’— his own circulating fluid, which animated a short and somewhat flabby person, being, he considered, of very superior quality.
‘By the by,’ he said, with a certain pomposity counteracted by a lisp, ‘what an ath Barton makth of himthelf, about that Bridmain and the Counteth, ath she callth herthelf. After you were gone the other evening, Mithith Farquhar wath telling him the general opinion about them in the neighbourhood, and he got quite red and angry. Bleth your thoul, he believth the whole thtory about her Polish huthband and hith wonderful ethcapeth; and ath for her — why, he thinkth her perfection, a woman of motht refined fellingth, and no end of thtuff.’
Mr. Ely smiled. ‘Some people would say our friend Barton was not the best judge of refinement. Perhaps the lady flatters him a little, and we men are susceptible. She goes to Shepperton Church every Sunday — drawn there, let us suppose, by Mr. Barton’s eloquence.’
‘Pshaw,’ said Mr. Farquhar: ‘Now, to my mind, you have only to look at that woman to thee what she ith — throwing her eyth about when she comth into church, and drething in a way to attract attention. I should thay, she’th tired of her brother Bridmain, and looking out for another brother with a thtronger family likeneth. Mithith Farquhar ith very fond of Mithith Barton, and ith quite dithtrethed that she should athothiate with thuch a woman, tho she attacked him on the thubject purpothly. But I tell her it’th of no uthe, with a pig-headed fellow like him. Barton’th well-meaning enough, but tho contheited. I’ve left off giving him my advithe.’
Mr. Ely smiled inwardly and said to himself, ‘What a punishment!’ But to Mr. Farquhar he said, ‘Barton might be more judicious, it must be confessed.’ He was getting tired, and did not want to develop the subject.
‘Why, nobody vithit-th them but the Bartonth,’ continued Mr. Farquhar, ‘and why should thuch people come here, unleth they had particular reathonth for preferring a neighbourhood where they are not known? Pooh! it lookth bad on the very fathe of it. You called on them, now; how did you find them?’
‘O! — Mr. Bridmain strikes me as a common sort of man, who is making an effort to seem wise and well-bred. He comes down on one tremendously with political information, and seems knowing about the king of the French. The Countess is certainly a handsome woman, but she puts on the grand air a little too powerfully. Woodcock was immensely taken with her, and insisted on his wife’s calling on her and asking her to dinner; but I think Mrs. Woodcock turned restive after the first visit, and wouldn’t invite her again.’
‘Ha, ha! Woodcock hath alwayth a thoft place in hith heart for a pretty fathe. It’th odd how he came to marry that plain woman, and no fortune either.’
‘Mysteries of the tender passion,’ said Mr. Ely. ‘I am not initiated yet, you know.’
Here Mr. Farquhar’s carriage was announced, and as we have not found his conversation particularly brilliant under the stimulus of Mr. Ely’s exceptional presence, we will not accompany him home to the less exciting atmosphere of domestic life.
Mr. Ely threw himself with a sense of relief into his easiest chair, set his feet on the hobs, and in this attitude of bachelor enjoyment began to read Bishop Jebb’s Memoirs.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50