The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, by George Eliot

Chapter 6

One November morning, at least six months after the Countess Czerlaski had taken up her residence at the vicarage, Mrs. Hackit heard that her neighbour Mrs. Patten had an attack of her old complaint, vaguely called ‘the spasms’. Accordingly, about eleven o’clock, she put on her velvet bonnet and cloth cloak, with a long boa and muff large enough to stow a prize baby in; for Mrs. Hackit regulated her costume by the calendar, and brought out her furs on the first of November; whatever might be the temperature. She was not a woman weakly to accommodate herself to shilly-shally proceedings. If the season didn’t know what it ought to do, Mrs. Hackit did. In her best days, it was always sharp weather at ‘Gunpowder Plot’, and she didn’t like new fashions.

And this morning the weather was very rationally in accordance with her costume, for as she made her way through the fields to Cross Farm, the yellow leaves on the hedge-girt elms, which showed bright and golden against the long-hanging purple clouds, were being scattered across the grassy path by the coldest of November winds. ‘Ah,’ Mrs. Hackit thought to herself, ‘I daresay we shall have a sharp pinch this winter, and if we do, I shouldn’t wonder if it takes the old lady off. They say a green Yule makes a fat churchyard; but so does a white Yule too, for that matter. When the stool’s rotten enough, no matter who sits on it.’

However, on her arrival at Cross Farm, the prospect of Mrs. Patten’s decease was again thrown into the dim distance in her imagination, for Miss Janet Gibbs met her with the news that Mrs. Patten was much better, and led her, without any preliminary announcement, to the old lady’s bedroom. Janet had scarcely reached the end of her circumstantial narrative how the attack came on and what were her aunt’s sensations — a narrative to which Mrs. Patten, in her neatly-plaited nightcap, seemed to listen with a contemptuous resignation to her niece’s historical inaccuracy, contenting herself with occasionally confounding Janet by a shake of the head — when the clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the yard pavement announced the arrival of Mr. Pilgrim, whose large, top-booted person presently made its appearance upstairs. He found Mrs. Patten going on so well that there was no need to look solemn. He might glide from condolence into gossip without offence, and the temptation of having Mrs. Hackit’s ear was irresistible.

‘What a disgraceful business this is turning out of your parson’s,’ was the remark with which he made this agreeable transition, throwing himself back in the chair from which he had been leaning towards the patient. ‘Eh, dear me!’ said Mrs. Hackit, ‘disgraceful enough. I stuck to Mr. Barton as long as I could, for his wife’s sake; but I can’t countenance such goings-on. It’s hateful to see that woman coming with ’em to service of a Sunday, and if Mr. Hackit wasn’t churchwarden and I didn’t think it wrong to forsake one’s own parish, I should go to Knebley Church. There’s a many parish’ners as do.’

‘I used to think Barton was only a fool,’ observed Mr. Pilgrim, in a tone which implied that he was conscious of having been weakly charitable. ‘I thought he was imposed upon and led away by those people when they first came. But that’s impossible now.’

‘O, it’s as plain as the nose in your face,’ said Mrs. Hackit, unreflectingly, not perceiving the equivoque in her comparison —‘comin’ to Milby, like a sparrow perchin’ on a bough, as I may say, with her brother, as she called him; and then all on a sudden the brother goes off with himself, and she throws herself on the Bartons. Though what could make her take up with a poor notomise of a parson, as hasn’t got enough to keep wife and children, there’s One above knows — I don’t.’

‘Mr. Barton may have attractions we don’t know of,’ said Mr. Pilgrim, who piqued himself on a talent for sarcasm. ‘The Countess has no maid now, and they say Mr. Barton is handy in assisting at her toilette — laces her boots, and so forth.’

‘Tilette, be fiddled!’ said Mrs. Hackit, with indignant boldness of metaphor; ‘an’ there’s that poor thing a-sewing her fingers to the bone for them children — an’ another comin’ on. What she must have to go through! It goes to my heart to turn my back on her. But she’s i’ the wrong to let herself be put upon i’ that manner.’

‘Ah! I was talking to Mrs. Farquhar about that the other day. She said, “I think Mrs. Barton a v-e-r-y w-e-a-k w-o-m-a-n”.’ (Mr. Pilgrim gave this quotation with slow emphasis, as if he thought Mrs. Farquhar had uttered a remarkable sentiment.) ‘They find it impossible to invite her to their house while she has that equivocal person staying with her.’

‘Well!’ remarked Miss Gibbs, ‘if I was a wife, nothing should induce me to bear what Mrs. Barton does.’

‘Yes, it’s fine talking,’ said Mrs. Patten, from her pillow; ‘old maids’ husbands are al’ys well-managed. If you was a wife you’d be as foolish as your betters, belike.’

‘All my wonder is,’ observed Mrs. Hackit, ‘how the Bartons make both ends meet. You may depend on it, she’s got nothing to give ’em; for I understand as he’s been having money from some clergy charity. They said at fust as she stuffed Mr. Barton wi’ notions about her writing to the Chancellor an’ her fine friends, to give him a living. Howiver, I don’t know what’s true an’ what’s false. Mr. Barton keeps away from our house now, for I gave him a bit o’ my mind one day. Maybe he’s ashamed of himself. He seems to me to look dreadful thin an’ harassed of a Sunday.’

‘O, he must be aware he’s getting into bad odour everywhere. The clergy are quite disgusted with his folly. They say Carpe would be glad to get Barton out of the curacy if he could; but he can’t do that without coming to Shepperton himself, as Barton’s a licensed curate; and he wouldn’t like that, I suppose.’

At this moment Mrs. Patten showed signs of uneasiness, which recalled Mr. Pilgrim to professional attentions; and Mrs. Hackit, observing that it was Thursday, and she must see after the butter, said good-bye, promising to look in again soon, and bring her knitting.

This Thursday, by the by, is the first in the month — the day on which the Clerical Meeting is held at Milby Vicarage; and as the Rev. Amos Barton has reasons for not attending, he will very likely be a subject of conversation amongst his clerical brethren Suppose we go there, and hear whether Mr. Pilgrim has reported their opinion correctly.

There is not a numerous party today, for it is a season of sore throats and catarrhs; so that the exegetical and theological discussions, which are the preliminary of dining, have not been quite so spirited as usual; and although a question relative to the Epistle of Jude has not been quite cleared up, the striking of six by the church clock, and the simultaneous announcement of dinner, are sounds that no one feels to be importunate.

Pleasant (when one is not in the least bilious) to enter a comfortable dining-room, where the closely-drawn red curtains glow with the double light of fire and candle, where glass and silver are glittering on the pure damask, and a soup-tureen gives a hint of the fragrance that will presently rush out to inundate your hungry senses, and prepare them, by the delicate visitation of atoms, for the keen gusto of ampler contact! Especially if you have confidence in the dinner-giving capacity of your host — if you know that he is not a man who entertains grovelling views of eating and drinking as a mere satisfaction of hunger and thirst, and, dead to all the finer influences of the palate, expects his guest to be brilliant on ill-flavoured gravies and the cheapest Marsala. Mr. Ely was particularly worthy of such confidence, and his virtues as an Amphitryon had probably contributed quite as much as the central situation of Milby to the selection of his house as a clerical rendezvous. He looks particularly graceful at the head of his table, and, indeed, on all occasions where he acts as president or moderator: he is a man who seems to listen well, and is an excellent amalgam of dissimilar ingredients.

At the other end of the table, as ‘Vice’, sits Mr. Fellowes, rector and magistrate, a man of imposing appearance, with a mellifluous voice and the readiest of tongues. Mr. Fellowes once obtained a living by the persuasive charms of his conversation, and the fluency with which he interpreted the opinions of an obese and stammering baronet, so as to give that elderly gentleman a very pleasing perception of his own wisdom. Mr. Fellowes is a very successful man, and has the highest character everywhere except in his own parish, where, doubtless because his parishioners happen to be quarrelsome people, he is always at fierce feud with a farmer or two, a colliery proprietor, a grocer who was once churchwarden, and a tailor who formerly officiated as clerk.

At Mr. Ely’s right hand you see a very small man with a sallow and somewhat puffy face, whose hair is brushed straight up, evidently with the intention of giving him a height somewhat less disproportionate to his sense of his own importance than the measure of five feet three accorded him by an oversight of nature. This is Rev. Archibald Duke, a very dyspeptic and evangelical man, who takes the gloomiest view of mankind and their prospects, and thinks the immense sale of the ‘Pickwick Papers,’ recently completed, one of the strongest proofs of original sin. Unfortunately, though Mr. Duke was not burdened with a family, his yearly expenditure was apt considerably to exceed his income; and the unpleasant circumstances resulting from this, together with heavy meat-breakfasts, may probably have contributed to his desponding views of the world generally.

Next to him is seated Mr. Furness, a tall young man, with blond hair and whiskers, who was plucked at Cambridge entirely owing to his genius; at least I know that he soon afterwards published a volume of poems, which were considered remarkably beautiful by many young ladies of his acquaintance. Mr. Furness preached his own sermons, as any one of tolerable critical acumen might have certified by comparing them with his poems: in both, there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared.

On Mr. Furness’s left you see Mr. Pugh, another young curate, of much less marked characteristics. He had not published any poems; he had not even been plucked; he had neat black whiskers and a pale complexion; read prayers and a sermon twice every Sunday, and might be seen any day sallying forth on his parochial duties in a white tie, a well-brushed hat, a perfect suit of black, and well-polished boots — an equipment which he probably supposed hieroglyphically to represent the spirit of Christianity to the parishioners of Whittlecombe.

Mr. Pugh’s vis-a-vis is the Rev. Martin Cleves, a man about forty — middle-sized, broad-shouldered, with a negligently-tied cravat, large irregular features, and a large head, thickly covered with lanky brown hair. To a superficial glance, Mr. Cleves is the plainest and least clerical-looking of the party; yet, strange to say, there is the true parish priest, the pastor beloved, consulted, relied on by his flock; a clergyman who is not associated with the undertaker, but thought of as the surest helper under a difficulty, as a monitor who is encouraging rather than severe. Mr. Cleves has the wonderful art of preaching sermons which the wheelwright and the blacksmith can understand; not because he talks condescending twaddle, but because he can call a spade a spade, and knows how to disencumber ideas of their wordy frippery. Look at him more attentively, and you will see that his face is a very interesting one — that there is a great deal of humour and feeling playing in his grey eyes, and about the corners of his roughly-cut mouth: a man, you observe, who has most likely sprung from the harder-working section of the middle class, and has hereditary sympathies with the checkered life of the people. He gets together the working men in his parish on a Monday evening, and gives them a sort of conversational lecture on useful practical matters, telling them stories, or reading some select passages from an agreeable book, and commenting on them; and if you were to ask the first labourer or artisan in Tripplegate what sort of man the parson was, he would say — ‘a uncommon knowin’, sensable, free-spoken gentleman; very kind an’ good-natur’d too’. Yet for all this, he is perhaps the best Grecian of the party, if we except Mr. Baird, the young man on his left.

Mr. Baird has since gained considerable celebrity as an original writer and metropolitan lecturer, but at that time he used to preach in a little church something like a barn, to a congregation consisting of three rich farmers and their servants, about fifteen labourers, and the due proportion of women and children. The rich farmers understood him to be ‘very high learnt;’ but if you had interrogated them for a more precise description, they would have said that he was ‘a thinnish-faced man, with a sort o’ cast in his eye, like’.

Seven, altogether: a delightful number for a dinner-party, supposing the units to be delightful, but everything depends on that. During dinner Mr. Fellowes took the lead in the conversation, which set strongly in the direction of mangold-wurzel and the rotation of crops; for Mr. Fellowes and Mr. Cleves cultivated their own glebes. Mr. Ely, too, had some agricultural notions, and even the Rev. Archibald Duke was made alive to that class of mundane subjects by the possession of some potato-ground. The two young curates talked a little aside during these discussions, which had imperfect interest for their unbeneficed minds; and the transcendental and near-sighted Mr. Baird seemed to listen somewhat abstractedly, knowing little more of potatoes and mangold-wurzel than that they were some form of the ‘Conditioned’.

‘What a hobby farming is with Lord Watling!’ said Mr. Fellowes, when the cloth was being drawn. ‘I went over his farm at Tetterley with him last summer. It is really a model farm; first-rate dairy, grazing and wheat land, and such splendid farm-buildings! An expensive hobby, though. He sinks a good deal of money there, I fancy. He has a great whim for black cattle, and he sends that drunken old Scotch bailiff of his to Scotland every year, with hundreds in his pocket, to buy these beasts.’

‘By the by,’ said Mr. Ely, ‘do you know who is the man to whom Lord Watling has given the Bramhill living?’

‘A man named Sargent. I knew him at Oxford. His brother is a lawyer, and was very useful to Lord Watling in that ugly Brounsell affair. That’s why Sargent got the living.’

‘Sargent,’ said Mr. Ely. ‘I know him. Isn’t he a showy, talkative fellow; has written travels in Mesopotamia, or something of that sort?’

‘That’s the man.’

‘He was at Witherington once, as Bagshawe’s curate. He got into rather bad odour there, through some scandal about a flirtation, I think.’

‘Talking of scandal,’ returned Mr. Fellowes, ‘have you heard the last story about Barton? Nisbett was telling me the other day that he dines alone with the Countess at six, while Mrs. Barton is in the kitchen acting as cook.’

‘Rather an apocryphal authority, Nisbett,’ said Mr. Ely.

‘Ah,’ said Mr. Cleves, with good-natured humour twinkling in his eyes, ‘depend upon it, that is a corrupt version. The original text is, that they all dined together with six — meaning six children — and that Mrs. Barton is an excellent cook.’

‘I wish dining alone together may be the worst of that sad business,’ said the Rev. Archibald Duke, in a tone implying that his wish was a strong figure of speech.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Fellowes, filling his glass and looking jocose, ‘Barton is certain either the greatest gull in existence, or he has some cunning secret — some philtre or other to make himself charming in the eyes of a fair lady. It isn’t all of us that can make conquests when our ugliness is past its bloom.’

‘The lady seemed to have made a conquest of him at the very outset,’ said Mr. Ely. ‘I was immensely amused one night at Granby’s when he was telling us her story about her husband’s adventures. He said, “When she told me the tale, I felt I don’t know how — I felt it from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet.”’

Mr. Ely gave these words dramatically, imitating the Rev. Amos’s fervour and symbolic action, and every one laughed except Mr. Duke, whose after-dinner view of things was not apt to be jovial. He said — ‘I think some of us ought to remonstrate with Mr. Barton on the scandal he is causing. He is not only imperilling his own soul, but the souls of his flock.’

‘Depend upon it,’ said Mr. Cleves, ‘there is some simple explanation of the whole affair, if we only happened to know it. Barton has always impressed me as a right-minded man, who has the knack of doing himself injustice by his manner.’

‘Now I never liked Barton,’ said Mr. Fellowes. ‘He’s not a gentleman. Why, he used to be on terms of intimacy with that canting Prior, who died a little while ago; — a fellow who soaked himself with spirits, and talked of the Gospel through an inflamed nose.’

‘The Countess has given him more refined tastes, I daresay,’ said Mr. Ely.

‘Well,’ observed Mr. Cleves, ‘the poor fellow must have a hard pull to get along, with his small income and large family. Let us hope the Countess does something towards making the pot boil.’

‘Not she,’ said Mr. Duke; ‘there are greater signs of poverty about them than ever.’

‘Well, come,’ returned Mr. Cleves, who could be caustic sometimes, and who was not at all fond of his reverend brother, Mr. Duke, ‘that’s something in Barton’s favour at all events. He might be poor without showing signs of poverty.’

Mr. Duke turned rather yellow, which was his way of blushing, and Mr. Ely came to his relief by observing — ‘They’re making a very good piece of work of Shepperton Church. Dolby, the architect, who has it in hand, is a very clever fellow.’

‘It’s he who has been doing Coppleton Church,’ said Mr. Furness. ‘They’ve got it in excellent order for the visitation.’

This mention of the visitation suggested the Bishop, and thus opened a wide duct, which entirely diverted the stream of animadversion from that small pipe — that capillary vessel, the Rev. Amos Barton.

The talk of the clergy about their Bishop belongs to the esoteric part of their profession; so we will at once quit the dining-room at Milby Vicarage, lest we should happen to overhear remarks unsuited to the lay understanding, and perhaps dangerous to our repose of mind.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54