WHO has not seen the misery and despair often caused in a family by the senseless selfishness of one of its members? Who has not felt enraged at such times, to think that a man or woman should presume on the affection and kindheartedness of their relatives, and yet act as if they were wholly without those affections themselves? And, lastly, who of us all is guiltless of doing this? Let him that is without sin among us cast the first stone.
The Spring sun rose on the Sabbath morning, as if no trouble were in store for any mortal that day. The Vicar rose with the sun, for he had certain arrears of the day’s sermons to get through, and he was in the habit of saying that his best and clearest passages were written with his window open, in the brisk morning air.
But although the air was brisk and pleasant this morning, and all nature was in full glory, the inspiration did not come to the Vicar quite so readily as usual. In fact, he could not write at all, and at one time was thinking of pleading ill health, and not preaching, but afterwards changed his mind, and patched the sermons up somehow, making both morning and afternoon five minutes shorter than usual.
He felt queer and dull in the head this morning. And, after breakfast, he walked to church with his sister and daughter, not speaking a word. Miss Thornton was rather alarmed, he looked so dull and stupid. But Mary set it all down to his displeasure at her.
She was so busy with far other thoughts at church that she did not notice the strange halting way in which her father read the service — sometimes lisping, sometimes trying twice before he could pronounce a word at all. But, after church, Miss Thornton noticed it to her; and she also noticed, as they stood waiting for him under the lychgate, that he passed through the crowd of neighbours, who stood as usual round the porch to receive him, without a word, merely raising his hat in salutation. Conduct so strange that Miss Thornton began to cry, and said she was sure her brother was very ill. But Mary said it was because he was still angry with her that he spoke to no one, and that when he had forgotten his cause of offence he would be the same again.
At lunch, the Vicar drank several glasses of wine, which seemed to do him good; and by the time he had, to Miss Thornton’s great astonishment, drunk half a bottle, he was quite himself again. Mary was all this time in her room, and the Vicar asked for her. But Miss Thornton said she was not very well.
“Oh, I remember,” said the Vicar, “I quarrelled with her last night. I was quite in the wrong, but, my dear sister, all yesterday and today I have been so nervous, I have not known what I said or did. I shall keep myself up to the afternoon service with wine, and tomorrow we will see the Doctor. Don’t tell Mary I am ill. She will think she is the cause, poor girl.”
Afternoon service went off well enough. When Mary heard his old familiar voice strong, clear, and harmonious, filling the aisles and chapels of the beautiful old church, she was quite reassured. He seemed stronger than usual even, and never did the congregation listen to a nobler or better sermon from his lips, than the one they heard that spring afternoon; the last, alas, they ever had from their kind old Vicar.
Mary could not listen to it. The old innocent interest she used to have in her father’s success in preaching was gone. As of old, sitting beneath the carved oak screen, she heard the sweet simple harmony of the evening hymn roll up, and die in pleasant echoes among the lofty arches overhead. As of old, she could see through the rich traceried windows the moor sloping far away, calm and peaceful, bathed in a misty halo of afternoon sunshine. All these familiar sights and sounds were the same, but she herself was different. She was about to break rudely through from the old world of simple routine and homely pleasure, and to cast herself unthinking into a new world of passion and chance, and take the consequences of such a step, let them be what they might. She felt as if she was the possessor of some guilty secret, and felt sometimes as if some one would rise in church and denounce her. How would all these quiet folks talk of her tomorrow morning? That was not to be thought of. She must harden her heart and think of nothing. Only that tomorrow she would be far away with her lover.
Poor Mary! many a woman, and many a man, who sat so quiet and calm in the old church that afternoon, had far guiltier secrets than any you ever had, to trouble them, and yet they all drank, slept, and died, as quietly as many honest and good men. Poor girl! let us judge as kindly of her as we can, for she paid a fearful penalty for her self-will. She did but break through the prejudices of her education, we may say; and if she was undutiful, what girls are not, under the influence of passion? If such poor excuses as these will cause us to think more kindly of her, let us make them, and leave the rest to God. Perhaps, brother, you and I may stand in a position to have excuses made for us, one day; therefore, we will be charitable.
My Lord was at church that afternoon, a very rare circumstance, for he was mostly at his great property in the north, and had lately been much abroad for his health. So when Miss Thornton and Mary joined the Vicar in the main aisle, and the three went forth into the churchyard, they found the villagers drawn respectfully back upon the graves, and his lordship waiting in close confabulation with farmer Wreford, to receive the Vicar as he came out.
A tall, courtly, grizzled-looking man he was, with clear grey eyes, and a modulated harmonious voice. Well did their lordships of the upper-house know that voice, when after a long sleepy debate it aroused them from ambrosial slumbers, with biting sarcasm, and most disagreeably told truths. And most heartily did a certain proportion of their lordships curse the owner of that voice, for a talented, eloquent, meddlesome innovator. But on all his great estates he was adored by the labourers and town’s-folk, though hated by the farmers and country ‘squires; for he was the earliest and fiercest of the reform and free-trade warriors.
He came up to the Vicar with a pleasant smile. “I have to thank you, Mr. Thornton, for a most charming sermon, though having the fault common to all good things, of being too short. Miss Thornton, I hope you are quite well; I saw Lady D—— the other day, and she begged that when I came down here, I would convey her kindest love to you. I think she mentioned that she was about to write to you.”
“I received a letter from her ladyship last week,” said Miss Thornton; “informing me that dear Lady Fanny had got a son and heir.”
“Happy boy,” said my Lord; “fifty thousand a-year, and nothing to do for it, unless he likes. Besides a minority of at least ten years for L—— is getting very shaky, Miss Thornton, and is still devotedly given to stewed mushrooms. Nay, my dear lady, don’t look distressed, she will make a noble young dowager. This must be your daughter, Mr. Thornton — pray introduce me.”
Mary was introduced, and his Lordship addressed a few kindly commonplaces to her, to which she replied with graceful modesty. Then he demanded of the Vicar, “where is Dr. Mulhaus, has he been at church this afternoon?”
At that moment the Doctor, attended by the old clerk, was head and shoulders into the old oak chest that contained the parish registers, looking for the book of burials for sixteen hundred and something. Not being able to get to the bottom, he got bodily in, as into a bath, and after several dives succeeded in fishing it up from the bottom, and standing there absorbed for a few minutes, up to his middle in dusty parchments and angry moths, he got his finger on a particular date, and dashed out of church, book in hand, and hatless, crying, “Vicar, Vicar!” just as the villagers had cleared off, and my lord was moving away with the Vicar to the parsonage, to take tea.
When his Lordship saw the wild dusty figure come running out of the church porch with the parish register in his hand, and no hat on his head, he understood the position immediately. He sat down on a tombstone, and laughed till he could laugh no longer.
“No need to tell me,” he said through his laughter, “that he is unchanged; just as mad and energetic as ever, at whatever he takes in hand, whether getting together impossible ministries, or searching the parishregister of an English village. How do you do, my dear old friend?”
“And how do you do, old democrat?” answered the Doctor. “Politics seem to agree with you; I believe you would die without vexation — just excuse me a moment. Look you here, you infidel,” to the Vicar, showing him the register; “there’s his name plain —‘Burrows, Curate of this parish, 1698.’— Now what do you say?”
The Vicar acquiesced with a sleepy laugh, and proposed moving homewards. Miss Thornton hoped that the Doctor would join them at dinner as usual. The Doctor said of course, and went back to fetch his hat, my Lord following him into the church. When the others had gone down the hill, and were waiting for the nobleman and the Doctor at the gate, Miss Thornton watched the two coming down the hill. My Lord stopped the Doctor, and eagerly demonstrated something to him with his forefinger on the palm of his hand; but the Doctor only shook his head, and then the pair moved on.
My Lord made himself thoroughly agreeable at dinner, as did also the Doctor. Mary was surprised too at the calm highbred bearing of her aunt, the way she understood and spoke of every subject of conversation, and the deference with which they listened to her. It was a side of her aunt’s character she had never seen before, and she felt it hard to believe that that intellectual dignified lady, referred to on all subjects, was the old maid she had been used to laugh at, and began to feel that she was in an atmosphere far above what she was accustomed to.
“All this is above me,” she said to herself; “let them live in this sphere who are accustomed to it, I have chosen wiser, out of the rank in which I have been brought up. I would sooner be George Hawker’s wife than sit there, crushed and bored by their highflown talk.”
Soon after dinner she retired with her aunt; they did not talk much when they were alone, so Mary soon retired to her room, and having made a few very slight preparations, sat down at the window. The time was soon to come, but it was very cold; the maids were out, as they always were on Sunday evening, and there was a fire in the kitchen — she would go and sit there — so down she went.
She wished to be alone, so when she saw a candle burning in the kitchen she was disappointed, but went in nevertheless. My Lord’s groom, who had been sitting before the fire, rose up and saluted her. A handsome young man, rather square and prominent about the jaws, but nevertheless foolish and amiable looking. The sort of man one would suppose, who, if his lord were to tell him to jump into the pit Tophet, would pursue one of two courses, either jump in himself, without further to do, or throw his own brother in with profuse apologies. From the top of his sleek round head to the sole of his perfect top-boot, the model and living exponent of what a servant should be-fit to be put into a case and ticketed as such.
He saluted her as she came in, and drawing a letter from his hat, put it into her astonished hands. “My orders were, Miss, that I was not to give it to you unless I saw you personally.”
She thanked him and withdrew to read it. It was a scrawl from George Hawker, the first letter she had ever received from him, and ran as follows:—
“MY HEART’S DARLING,
“I SHALL be in the croft to-night, according to promise, ready to make you the happiest woman in England, so I know you won’t fail. My Lord is coming to church this afternoon, and will be sure to dine with you. So I send this present by his groom, Sam; a good young chap, which I have known since he was so high, and like well, only that he is soft, which is not to his disadvantage.
She was standing under the lamp reading this when she heard the dining-room door open, and the men coming out from their wine. She slipped into the room opposite, and stood listening in the dark. She could see them as they came out. There was my Lord and the Doctor first, and behind came Major Buckley, who had dropped in, as his custom was, on Sunday evening, and who must have arrived while she was up-stairs. As they passed the door, inside which she stood, his Lordship turned round and said:—
“I tell you what, my dear Major, if that old Hawker was a tenant of mine, I’d take away his lease, and, if I could, force him to leave the parish. One man of that kind does incalculable harm in a village, by lowering the tone of the morality of the place. That’s the use of a great landlord if he does his duty. He can punish evildoers whom the law does not reach.”
“Don’t say anything more about him,” said the Doctor in a low voice. “It’s a tender subject in this house.”
“It is, eh!” said my Lord; “thanks for the hint, good — bah! — Mulhaus. Let us go up and have half an hour with Miss Thornton before I go!”
They went up, and then her father followed. He seemed flushed, and she thought he must have been drinking too much wine. After they were in the drawing-room, she crept up-stairs and listened. They were all talking except her father. It was half-past nine, and she wished they would go. So she went into her bedroom and waited. The maids had come home, and she heard them talking to the groom in the kitchen. At ten o’clock the bell was rung, and my Lord’s horse ordered. Soon he went, and not long afterwards the Major and the Doctor followed. Then she saw Miss Thornton go to her room, and her father walk slowly to his; and all was still throughout the house.
She took her hat and shawl and slipped down stairs shoeless into her father’s study. She laid a note on his chimney-piece, which she had written in the morning, and opening the back-door fled swiftly forth, not daring to look behind her. Quickly, under the blinking stars, under the blooming apple-trees, out to the croft-gate, and there was George waiting impatiently for her, according to promise.
“I began to fear you were not coming, my dear. Quick, jump!”
She scrambled over the gate, and jumped into his arms; he hurried her down the lane about a hundred yards, and then became aware of a dark object in the middle of the road.
“That’s my gig, my dear. Once in that, and we are soon in Exeter. All right, Bob?”
“All right!” replied a strange voice in the dark, and she was lifted into the gig quickly; in another moment George was beside her, and they were flying through the dark steep lanes at a dangerous speed.
The horse was a noble beast — the finest in the country side — and, like his driver, knew every stock and stone on the road; so that ere poor Mary had recovered her first flurry, they had crossed the red ford, and were four miles on the road towards the capital, and began to feel a little more cheerful, for she had been crying bitterly.
“Don’t give way, Polly,” said George.
“No fear of my giving way now, George. If I had been going to do that, I’d have done it before. Now tell us what you are going to do? I have left everything to you.”
“I think we had better go straight on to London, my dear,” he replied, “and get married by licence. We could never stop in Exeter; and if you feel up to it, I should like to get off by early coach tomorrow morning. What do you say?”
“By all means! Shall we be there in time?”
“Yes; two hours before the coach starts.”
“Have you money enough, George?” she asked.
“Plenty!” he replied.
“If you go short, you must come to me, you know,” she said.
They rattled through the broad streets of a small country town just as the moon rose. The noble minster, which had for many years been used as the parish church, slept quietly among the yews and gravestones; all the town was still; only they two were awake, flying, she thought, from the fellowship of all quiet men. Was her father asleep now? she wondered. What would Miss Thornton say in the morning? and many other things she was asking herself, when she was interrupted by George saying, “Only eight miles to Exeter; we shall be in by daybreak.”
So they left Crediton Minster behind them, and rolled away along the broad road by the river, beneath the whispering poplars.
As Miss Thornton was dressing herself next morning she heard the Vicar go down into his study as usual. She congratulated herself that he was better, from being up thus early, but determined, nevertheless, that he should see a doctor that day, who might meet and consult with Dr. Mulhaus.
Then she wondered why Mary had not been in. She generally came into her aunt’s room to hook-and-eye her, as she called it; but not having come this morning, Miss Thornton determined to go to her, and accordingly went and rapped at her door.
No answer. “Could the girl have been fool enough?” thought Miss Thornton. “Nonsense! no! She must be asleep!”
She opened the door and went in. Everything tidy. The bed had not been slept in. Miss Thornton had been in at an elopement, and a famous one, before; so she knew the symptoms in a moment. Well she remembered the dreadful morning when Lady Kate went off with Captain Brentwood, of the Artillery. Well she remembered the Countess going into hysterics. But this was worse than that; this touched her nearer home.
“Oh you naughty girl! Oh you wicked, ungrateful girl; to go and do such a thing at a time like this, when I’ve been watching the paralysis creeping over him day by day! How shall I tell him? How shall I ever tell him? He will have a stroke as sure as fate. He was going to have one without this. I dare not tell him till breakfast, and yet I ought to tell him at once. I was brought into the world to be driven mad by girls. Oh dear, I wish they were all boys, and we might send them to Eton and wash our hands of them. Well, I must leave crying, and prepare for telling him.”
She went into his study, and at first could not see him; but he was there — a heap of black clothes lay on the hearthrug, and Miss Thornton running up, saw that it was her brother, speechless, senseless, clasping a letter in his hand.
She saw that the worst was come, and nerved herself for work, like a valiant soul as she was. She got him carried to his bed by the two sturdy maids, and sent an express for Dr. Mulhaus, and another for the professional surgeon. Then she took from her pocket the letter which she had found in the poor Vicar’s hand, and, going to the window, read as follows:
“When you get this, father, I shall be many miles away. I have started to London with George Hawker, and God only knows whether you will see me again. Try to forgive me, father, and if not, forget that you ever had a daughter who was only born to give you trouble. — Your erring but affectionate Mary.”
It will be seen by the reader that this unlucky letter, written in agitation and hurry, contained no allusion whatever to marriage, but rather left one to infer that she was gone with Hawker as his mistress. So the Vicar read it again and again, each time more mistily, till sense and feeling departed, and he lay before his hearth a hopeless paralytic.
At that moment Mary, beside George, was rolling through the fresh morning air, up the beautiful Exe valley. Her fears were gone with daylight and sunshine, and as he put his arm about her waist, she said,
“I am glad we came outside.”
“Are you quite happy now?” he asked.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10