If the Lark Rise people had been asked their religion, the answer of nine out of ten would have been ‘Church of England’, for practically all of them were christened, married, and buried as such, although, in adult life, few went to church between the baptisms of their offspring. The children were shepherded there after Sunday school and about a dozen of their elders attended regularly; the rest stayed at home, the women cooking and nursing, and the men, after an elaborate Sunday toilet, which included shaving and cutting each other’s hair and much puffing and splashing with buckets of water, but stopped short before lacing up boots or putting on a collar and tie, spent the rest of the day eating, sleeping, reading the newspaper, and strolling round to see how their neighbours’ pigs and gardens were looking.
There were a few keener spirits. The family at the inn was Catholic and was up and off to early Mass in the next village before others had turned over in bed for an extra Sunday morning snooze. There were also three Methodist families which met in one of their cottages on Sunday evenings for prayer and praise; but most of these attended church as well, thus earning for themselves the name of ‘Devil dodgers’.
Every Sunday, morning and afternoon, the two cracked, flat-toned bells at the church in the mother village called the faithful to worship. Ding-dong, Ding-dong, Ding-dong, they went, and, when they heard them, the hamlet churchgoers hurried across fields and over stiles, for the Parish Clerk was always threatening to lock the church door when the bells stopped and those outside might stop outside for all he cared.
With the Fordlow cottagers, the Squire’s and farmer’s families and maids, the Rectory people and the hamlet contingent, the congregation averaged about thirty. Even with this small number, the church was fairly well filled, for it was a tiny place, about the size of a barn, with nave and chancel only, no side aisles. The interior was almost as bare as a barn, with its grey, roughcast walls, plain-glass windows, and flagstone floor. The cold, damp, earthy odour common to old and unheated churches pervaded the atmosphere, with occasional whiffs of a more unpleasant nature said to proceed from the stacks of mouldering bones in the vault beneath. Who had been buried there, or when, was unknown, for, excepting one ancient and mutilated brass in the wall by the font, there were but two memorial tablets, both of comparatively recent date. The church, like the village, was old and forgotten, and those buried in the vault, who must have once been people of importance, had not left even a name. Only the stained glass window over the altar, glowing jewel-like amidst the cold greyness, the broken piscina within the altar rails, and a tall broken shaft of what had been a cross in the churchyard, remained to witness mutely to what once had been.
The Squire’s and clergyman’s families had pews in the chancel, with backs to the wall on either side, and between them stood two long benches for the school-children, well under the eyes of authority. Below the steps down into the nave stood the harmonium, played by the clergyman’s daughter, and round it was ranged the choir of small school-girls. Then came the rank and file of the congregation, nicely graded, with the farmer’s family in the front row, then the Squire’s gardener and coachman, the schoolmistress, the maidservants, and the cottagers, with the Parish Clerk at the back to keep order.
‘Clerk Tom’, as he was called, was an important man in the parish. Not only did he dig the graves, record the banns of marriage, take the chill off the water for winter baptisms, and stoke the coke stove which stood in the nave at the end of his seat; but he also took an active and official part in the services. It was his duty to lead the congregation in the responses and to intone the ‘Amens’. The psalms were not sung or chanted, but read, verse and verse about, by the Rector and people, and in these especially Tom’s voice so drowned the subdued murmur of his fellow worshippers that it sounded like a duet between him and the clergyman — a duet in which Tom won easily, for his much louder voice would often trip up the Rector before he had quite finished his portion, while he prolonged his own final syllables at will.
The afternoon service, with not a prayer left out or a creed spared, seemed to the children everlasting. The school-children, under the stern eye of the Manor House, dared not so much as wriggle; they sat in their stiff, stuffy, best clothes, their stomachs lined with heavy Sunday dinner, in a kind of waking doze, through which Tom’s ‘Amens’ rang like a bell and the Rector’s voice buzzed beelike. Only on the rare occasions when a bat fluttered down from the roof, or a butterfly drifted in at a window, or the Rector’s little fox terrier looked in at the door and sidled up the nave, was the tedium lightened.
Edmund and Laura, alone in their grandfather’s seat, modestly situated exactly half-way down the nave, were more fortunate, for they sat opposite the church door and, in summer, when it was left open, they could at least watch the birds and the bees and the butterflies crossing the opening and the breezes shaking the boughs of the trees and ruffling the long grass on the graves. It was interesting, too, to observe some woman in the congregation fussing with her back hair, or a man easing his tight collar, or old Dave Pridham, who had a bad bunion, shuffling off a shoe before the sermon began, with one eye all the time upon the clergyman; or to note how closely together some newly married couple were sitting, or to see Clerk Tom’s young wife suckling her baby. She wore a fur tippet in winter and her breast hung like a white heather bell between the soft blackness until it was covered up with a white handkerchief, ‘for modesty’.
Mr. Ellison in the pulpit was the Mr. Ellison of the Scripture lessons, plus a white surplice. To him, his congregation were but children of a larger growth, and he preached as he taught. A favourite theme was the duty of regular churchgoing. He would hammer away at that for forty-five minutes, never seeming to realize that he was preaching to the absent, that all those present were regular attendants, and that the stray sheep of his flock were snoring upon their beds a mile and a half away.
Another favourite subject was the supreme rightness of the social order as it then existed. God, in His infinite wisdom, had appointed a place for every man, woman, and child on this earth and it was their bounden duty to remain contentedly in their niches. A gentleman might seem to some of his listeners to have a pleasant, easy life, compared to theirs at field labour; but he had his duties and responsibilities, which would be far beyond their capabilities. He had to pay taxes, sit on the Bench of Magistrates, oversee his estate, and keep up his position by entertaining. Could they do these things? No. Of course they could not; and he did not suppose that a gentleman could cut as straight a furrow or mow or thatch a rick as expertly as they could. So let them be thankful and rejoice in their physical strength and the bounty of the farmer, who found them work on his land and paid them wages with his money.
Less frequently, he would preach eternal punishment for sin, and touch, more lightly, upon the bliss reserved for those who worked hard, were contented with their lot and showed proper respect to their superiors. The Holy Name was seldom mentioned, nor were human griefs or joys, or the kindly human feelings which bind man to man. It was not religion he preached, but a narrow code of ethics, imposed from above upon the lower orders, which, even in those days, was out of date.
Once and once only did inspiration move him. It was the Sunday after the polling for the General Election of 1886, and he had begun preaching one of his usual sermons on the duty to social superiors, when, suddenly something, perhaps the memory of the events of the past week, seemed to boil up within him. Flushed with anger —‘righteous anger’, he would have called it — and his frosty blue eyes flashing like swords, he cast himself forward across the ledge of his pulpit and roared: ‘There are some among you who have lately forgotten that duty, and we know the cause, the bloody cause!’
Laura shivered. Bad language in church! and from the Rector! But, later in life, she liked to think that she had lived early enough to have heard a mild and orthodox Liberalism denounced from the pulpit as ‘a bloody cause’. It lent her the dignity of an historical survival.
The sermon over, the people sprang to their feet like Jacks-ina-box. With what gusto they sang the evening hymn, and how their lungs expanded and their tongues wagged as they poured out of the churchyard! Not that they resented anything that was said in the Rector’s sermons. They did not listen to them. After the Bloody Cause sermon Laura tried to find out how her elders had reacted to it; but all she could learn was: ‘I seems to have lost the thread just then,’ or, more frankly, ‘I must’ve been nodding’; the most she could get was one woman’s, ‘My! didn’t th’ old parson get worked up today!’
Some of them went to church to show off their best clothes and to see and criticize those of their neighbours; some because they loved to hear their own voices raised in the hymns, or because churchgoing qualified them for the Christmas blankets and coals; and a few to worship. There was at least one saint and mystic in that parish and there were several good Christian men and women, but the majority regarded religion as something proper to extreme old age, for which they themselves had as yet no use.
‘About time he wer’ thinkin’ about his latter end,’ they would say of one who showed levity when his head and beard were white, or of anybody who was ill or afflicted. Once a hunchback from another village came to a pig feast and distinguished himself by getting drunk and using bad language, and, because he was a cripple, his conduct was looked upon with horror. Laura’s mother was distressed when she heard about it. ‘To think of a poor afflicted creature like that cursing and swearing,’ she sighed. ‘Terrible! Terrible!’ and when Edmund, then about ten, looked up from his book and said calmly, ‘I should think if anybody’s got a right to swear it’s a man with a back like that,’ she told him he was nearly as bad to say such a thing.
The Catholic minority at the inn was treated with respect, for a landlord could do no wrong, especially the landlord of a free house where such excellent beer was on tap. On Catholicism at large, the Lark Rise people looked with contemptuous intolerance, for they regarded it as a kind of heathenism, and what excuse could there be for that in a Christian country? When, early in life, the end house children asked what Roman Catholics were, they were told they were ‘folks as prays to images’, and further inquiries elicited the information that they also worshipped the Pope, a bad old man, some said in league with the Devil. Their genuflexions in church and their ‘playin’ wi’ beads’ were described as ‘monkey tricks’. People who openly said they had no use for religion themselves became quite heated when the Catholics were mentioned. Yet the children’s grandfather, when the sound of the Angelus bell was borne on the wind from the chapel in the next village, would take off his hat and, after a moment’s silence, murmur, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ It was all very puzzling.
Later on, when they came to associate more with the other children, on the way to Sunday school they would see horses and traps loaded with families from many miles around on their way to the Catholic church in the next village. ‘There go the old Catholics!’ the children would cry, and run after the vehicles shouting: ‘Old Catholics! Old lick the cats!’ until they had to fall behind for want of breath. Sometimes a lady in one of the high dogcarts would smile at them forbearingly, otherwise no notice was taken.
The horses and traps were followed at a distance by the young men and big boys of the families on foot. Always late in starting, yet always in time for the service, how they legged it! The children took good care not to call out after them, for they knew, whatever their haste, the boy Catholics would have time to turn back and cuff them. It had happened before. So they let them get on for quite a distance before they started to mock their gait and recite in a snuffling sing-song:
‘O dear Father, I’ve come to confess.’
‘Well, my child, and what have you done?’
‘O dear Father. I’ve killed the cat.’
‘Well, my child, and what about that?’
‘O dear Father, what shall I do?’
‘You kiss me and I’ll kiss you.’
a gem which had probably a political origin, for the seeds of their ignorant bigotry must have been sown at some time. Yet, strange to say, some of those very children still said by way of a prayer when they went to bed:
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed where I lie on.
Four corners have I to my bed;
At them four angels nightly spread.
One to watch and one to pray
And one to take my soul away.
At that time many words, phrases, and shreds of customs persisted which faded out before the end of the century. When Laura was a child, some of the older mothers and the grandmothers still threatened naughty children with the name of Cromwell. ‘If you ain’t a good gal, old Oliver Crummell’ll have ‘ee!’ they would say, or ‘Here comes old Crummell!’ just as the mothers of southern England threatened their children with Napoleon. Napoleon was forgotten there; being far from the sea-coast, such places had never known the fear of invasion. But the armies of the Civil War had fought ten miles to the eastward, and the name still lingered.
The Methodists were a class apart. Provided they did not attempt to convert others, religion in them was tolerated. Every Sunday evening they held a service in one of their cottages, and, whenever she could obtain permission at home, it was Laura’s delight to attend. This was not because the service appealed to her; she really preferred the church service; but because Sunday evening at home was a trying time, with the whole family huddled round the fire and Father reading and no one allowed to speak and barely to move.
Permission was hard to get, for her father did not approve of ‘the ranters’; nor did he like Laura to be out after dark. But one time out of four or five when she asked, he would grunt and nod, and she would dash off before her mother could raise any objection. Sometimes Edmund would follow her, and they would seat themselves on one of the hard, white-scrubbed benches in the meeting house, prepared to hear all that was to be heard and see all that was to be seen.
The first thing that would have struck any one less accustomed to the place was its marvellous cleanliness. The cottage walls were whitewashed and always fresh and clean. The everyday furniture had been carried out to the barn to make way for the long white wooden benches, and before the window with its drawn white blind stood a table covered with a linen cloth, on which were the lamp, a large Bible, and a glass of water for the visiting preacher, whose seat was behind it. Only the clock and a pair of red china dogs on the mantelpiece remained to show that on other days people lived and cooked and ate in the room. A bright fire always glowed in the grate and there was a smell compounded of lavender, lamp-oil, and packed humanity.
The man of the house stood in the doorway to welcome each arrival with a handshake and a whispered ‘God bless you!’ His wife, a small woman with a slight spinal curvature which thrust her head forward and gave her a resemblance to an amiable-looking frog, smiled her welcome from her seat near the fire-place. In twos and threes, the brethren filed in and took their accustomed places on the hard, backless benches. With them came a few neighbours, not of their community, but glad to have somewhere to go, especially on wet or cold Sundays.
In the dim lamplight dark Sunday suits and sad-coloured Sunday gowns massed together in a dark huddle against the speckless background, and out of it here and there eyes and cheeks caught the light as the brethren smiled their greetings to each other.
If the visiting preacher happened to be late, which he often was with a long distance to cover on foot, the host would give out a hymn from Sankey and Moody’s Hymn–Book, which would be sung without musical accompaniment to one of the droning, long-drawn-out tunes peculiar to the community. At other times one of the brethren would break into extempore prayer, in the course of which he would retail the week’s news so far as it affected the gathering, prefacing each statement with ‘Thou knowest’, or ‘As thou knowest, Lord’. It amused Laura and Edmund to hear old Mr. Barker telling God that it had not rained for a fortnight and that his carrot bed was getting ‘mortal dry’; or that swine fever had broken out at a farm four miles away and that his own pig didn’t seem ‘no great shakes’; or that somebody had mangled his wrist in a turnip cutter and had come out of hospital, but found it still stiff; for, as they said to each other afterwards, God must know already, as He knew everything. But these one-sided conversations with the Deity were conducted in a spirit of simple faith. ‘Cast your care upon Him’ was a text they loved and took literally. To them God was a loving Father who loved to listen to His children’s confidences. No trouble was too small to bring to ‘the Mercy Seat’.
Sometimes a brother or a sister would stand up to ‘testify’, and then the children opened their eyes and ears, for a misspent youth was the conventional prelude to conversion and who knew what exciting transgressions might not be revealed. Most of them did not amount to much. One would say that before he ‘found the Lord’ he had been ‘a regular beastly drunkard’; but it turned out that he had only taken a pint too much once or twice at a village feast; another claimed to have been a desperate poacher, ‘a wild, lawless sort o’ chap’; he had snared an occasional rabbit. A sister confessed that in her youth she had not only taken a delight in decking out her vile body, forgetting that it was only the worm that perishes; but, worse still, she had imperilled her immortal soul by dancing on the green at feasts and club outings, keeping it up on one occasion until midnight.
Such mild sins were not in themselves exciting, for plenty of people were still doing such things and they could be observed at first hand; but they were described with such a wealth of detail and with such self-condemnation that the listener was for the moment persuaded that he or she was gazing on the chief of sinners. One man, especially, claimed that preeminence. ‘I wer’ the chief of sinners,’ he would cry; ‘a real bad lot, a Devil’s disciple. Cursing and swearing, drinking and drabbing, there were nothing bad as I didn’t do. Why, would you believe it, in my sinful pride, I sinned against the Holy Ghost. Aye, that I did,’ and the awed silence would be broken by the groans and ‘God have mercy’s of his hearers while he looked round to observe the effect of his confession before relating how he ‘came to the Lord’.
No doubt the second part of his discourse was more edifying than the first, but the children never listened to it; they were too engrossed in speculations as to the exact nature of his sin against the Holy Ghost, and wondering if he were really as thoroughly saved as he thought himself; for, after all, was not that sin unpardonable? He might yet burn in hell. Terrible yet fascinating thought!
But the chief interest centred in the travelling preacher, especially if he were a stranger who had not been there before. Would he preach the Word, or would he be one of those who rambled on for an hour or more, yet said nothing? Most of these men, who gave up their Sunday rest and walked miles to preach at the village meeting houses, were farm labourers or small shopkeepers. With a very few exceptions they were poor, uneducated men. ‘The blind leading the blind,’ Laura’s father said of them. They may have been unenlightened in some respects, but some of them had gifts no education could have given. There was something fine about their discourses, as they raised their voices in rustic eloquence and testified to the cleansing power of ‘the Blood’, forgetting themselves and their own imperfections of speech in their ardour.
Others were less sincere, and some merely self-seeking poseurs who took to preaching as the only means of getting a little limelight shed on their undistinguished lives. One such was a young shop assistant from the market town, who came, stylishly dressed, with a bunch of violets in his buttonhole, smoothing his well-oiled hair with his hand and shaking clouds of scent from his large white handkerchief. He emphatically did not preach the Word. His perfume and buttonhole and pseudo-cultured accent so worked upon the brethren that, after he had gone, they for once forgot their rule of no criticism and exclaimed: ‘Did you ever see such a la-deda in all your draggings-up?’
Then there was the elderly man who chose for his text: ‘I will sweep them off the face of the earth with the besom of destruction’, and proceeded to take each word of his text as a heading. ‘I will sweep them off the face of the earth. I will sweep them off the face of the earth. I will sweep them off the face of the earth’, and so on. By the time he had finished he had expounded the nature of God and justified His ways to man to his own satisfaction; but he made such a sad mess of it that the children’s ears burned with shame for him.
Some managed to be sincere Christians and yet quicker of wit and lighter of hand. The host keeping the door one night was greeted by the arriving minister with ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,’ and capped it with ‘than dwell in the tents of the ungodly.’
Methodism, as known and practised there, was a poor people’s religion, simple and crude; but its adherents brought to it more fervour than was shown by the church congregation, and appeared to obtain more comfort and support from it than the church could give. Their lives were exemplary.
Many in the hamlet who attended neither church nor chapel and said they had no use for religion, guided their lives by the light of a few homely precepts, such as ‘Pay your way and fear nobody’; ‘Right’s right and wrong’s no man’s right’; ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil’, and ‘Honesty is the best policy’.
Strict honesty was the policy of most of them; although there were a few who were said to ‘find anything before ’tis lost’ and to whom findings were keepings. Children were taught to ‘Know it’s a sin to steal a pin’, and when they brought home some doubtful finding, saying they did not think it belonged to anybody, their mothers would say severely, ‘You knowed it didn’t belong to you, and what don’t belong to you belongs to somebody else. So go and put it back where you found it, before I gets the stick to you.’
Liars were more detested than thieves. ‘A liar did ought to have a good memory,’ they would say, or, more witheringly, ‘You can lock up from a thief, but you can’t from a liar.’ Any statement which departed in the least degree from plain fact was a lie; any one who ate a plum from an overhanging bough belonging to a neighbour’s tree was a thief. It was a stark code in which black was black and white was white; there were no intermediate shades.
For the afflicted or bereaved there was ready sympathy. Had the custom of sending wreaths to funerals been general then, as it is today, they would certainly have subscribed their last halfpenny for the purpose. But, at that time, the coffins of the country poor went flowerless to the grave, and all they could do to mark their respect was to gather outside the house of mourning and watch the clean-scrubbed farm wagon which served as a hearse set out on its slow journey up the long, straight road, with the mourners following on foot behind. At such times the tears of the women spectators flowed freely, little children howled aloud in sympathy, and any man who happened to be near broke into extravagant praise of the departed. ‘Never speak ill of the dead’ was one of their maxims and they carried it to excess.
In illness or trouble they were ready to help and to give, to the small extent possible. Men who had been working all day would give up their night’s rest to sit up with the ill or dying, and women would carry big bundles of bed-linen home to wash with their own.
They carried out St. Paul’s injunction to weep with those who weep; but when it came to rejoicing with those who rejoiced they were less ready. There was nothing they disliked more than seeing one of their number doing better or having more of anything than themselves. A mother whose child was awarded a prize at school, or whose daughter was doing better than ordinary in service, had to bear many pin-pricks of sarcasm, and if a specially devoted young married couple was mentioned, some one was bound to quote, ‘My dear today’ll be my devil tomorrow.’ They were, in fact, poor fallible human beings.
The Rector visited each cottage in turn, working his way conscientiously round the hamlet from door to door, so that by the end of the year he had called upon everybody. When he tapped with his gold-headed cane at a cottage door there would come a sound of scuffling within, as unseemly objects were hustled out of sight, for the whisper would have gone round that he had been seen getting over the stile and his knock would have been recognized.
The women received him with respectful tolerance. A chair was dusted with an apron and the doing of housework or cooking was suspended while his hostess, seated uncomfortably on the edge of one of her own chairs, waited for him to open the conversation. When the weather had been discussed, the health of the inmates and absent children inquired about, and the progress of the pig and the prospect of the allotment crops, there came an awkward pause, during which both racked their brains to find something to talk about. There was nothing. The Rector never mentioned religion. That was looked upon in the parish as one of his chief virtues, but it limited the possible topics of conversation. Apart from his autocratic ideas, he was a kindly man, and he had come to pay a friendly call, hoping, no doubt, to get to know and to understand his parishioners better. But the gulf between them was too wide; neither he nor his hostess could bridge it. The kindly inquiries made and answered, they had nothing more to say to each other, and, after much ‘ahing’ and ‘ering’, he would rise from his seat, and be shown out with alacrity.
His daughter visited the hamlet more frequently. Any fine afternoon she might have been seen, gathering up her long, full skirts to mount the stile and tripping daintily between the allotment plots. As a widowed clergyman’s only daughter, parochial visiting was, to her, a sacred duty; but she did not come in any district-visiting spirit, to criticize household management, or give unasked advice on the bringing up of children; hers, like her father’s, were intended to be friendly calls. Considering her many kindnesses to the women, she might have been expected to be more popular than she was. None of them welcomed her visits. Some would lock their doors and pretend to be out; others would rattle their teacups when they saw her coming, hoping she would say, as she sometimes did, ‘I hear you are at tea, so I won’t come in.’
The only spoken complaint about her was that she talked too much. ‘That Miss Ellison; she’d fair talk a donkey’s hind leg off,’ they would say; but that was a failing they tolerated in others, and one to which they were not averse in her, once she was installed in their best chair and some item of local gossip was being discussed.
Perhaps at the root of their unease in her presence was the subconscious feeling of contrast between her lot and theirs. Her neat little figure, well corseted in; her dear, high-pitched voice, good clothes, and faint scent of lily-of-the-valley perfume put them, in their workaday garb and all blowsed from their cooking or water-fetching, at a disadvantage.
She never suspected she was unwanted. On the contrary, she was most careful to visit each cottage in rotation, lest jealousy should arise. She would inquire about every member of the family in turn, listen to extracts from letters of daughters in service, sympathize with those who had tales of woe to tell, discuss everything that had happened since her last visit, and insist upon nursing the baby the while, and only smile good-naturedly when it wetted the front of her frock.
Her last visit of the day was always to the end house, where, over a cup of tea, she would become quite confidential. She and Laura’s mother were ‘Miss Margaret’ and ‘Emma’ to each other, for they had known each other from birth, including the time when Emma was nurse to Miss Margaret’s young friends at the neighbouring rectory.
Laura, supposed to be deep in her book, but really all ears, learnt that, surprisingly, Miss Ellison, the great Miss Ellison, had her troubles. She had a brother, reputed ‘wild’ in the parish, whom her father had forbidden the house, and much of their talk was about ‘my brother Robert’, or ‘Master Bobbie’, and the length of time since his last letter, and whether he had gone to Brazil, as he had said he should, or whether he was still in London. ‘What I feel, Emma, is that he is such a boy, and you know what the world is — what perils ——’ Then Emma’s cheerful rejoinder: ‘Don’t you worry yourself, Miss Margaret. He can look after himself all right, Master Bob can.’
Sometimes Emma would venture to admire something Miss Margaret was wearing. ‘Excuse me, Miss Margaret, but that mauve muslin really does become you’; and Miss Ellison would look pleased. She had probably few compliments, for one of her type was not likely to be admired in those days of pink and white dollishness, although her clear, healthy pallor, with only the faintest flush of pink, her broad white brow, grey eyes, and dark hair waving back to the knot at her nape were at least distinguished looking. And she could not at that time have been more than thirty, although to Laura she seemed quite old, and the hamlet women called her an old maid.
Such a life as hers must have been is almost unimaginable now. Between playing the harmonium in church, teaching in Sunday school, ordering her father’s meals and overseeing the maids, she must have spent hours doing needlework. Coarse, unattractive needlework, too, cross-over shawls and flannel petticoats for the old women, flannel shirts and long, thick knitted stockings for the old men, these, as well as the babies’ print frocks, were all made by her own hands. Excepting a fortnight’s visit a year to relatives, the only outing she was known to have was a weekly drive to the market town, shopping, in her father’s high, yellow-wheeled dogcart, with the fat fox-terrier, Beppo, panting behind.
Half-way through the decade, the Rector began to feel the weight of his seventy odd years, and a succession of curates came to share his work and to provide new subjects of conversation for his parishioners. Several appeared and vanished without leaving any definite impression, beyond those of a new voice in church and an extraordinary bashfulness before the hamlet housewives; but two or three stayed longer and became, for a time, part of the life of the parish. There was Mr. Dallas, who was said to be ‘in a decline’. A pale, thin wraith of a man, who, in foggy weather wore a respirator, which looked like a heavy black moustache. Laura remembered him chiefly because when she was awarded the prize for Scripture he congratulated her — the first time she was ever congratulated upon anything in her life. On his next visit to her home he asked to see the prize prayerbook, and when she brought it, said: ‘The binding is calf — my favourite binding — but it is very susceptible to damp. You must keep it in a room with a fire.’ He was talking a language foreign to the children, who knew nothing of bindings or editions, a book to them being simply a book; but his expression and the gentle caressing way in which he turned the pages, told Laura that he, too, was a book-lover.
After he had left came Mr. Alport; a big, fat-faced young man, who had been a medical student. He kept a small dispensary at his lodgings and it was his delight to doctor any one who was ailing, both advice and medicine being gratis. As usual, supply created demand. Before he came, illness had been rare in the hamlet; now, suddenly, nearly every one had something the matter with them. ‘My pink pills’, ‘my little tablets’, ‘my mixture’, and ‘my lotion’ became as common in conversation as potatoes or pig’s food. People asked each other how their So-and-So was when they met, and, barely waiting for an answer, plunged into a description of their own symptoms.
Mr. Alport complained to the children’s father that the hamlet people were ignorant, and some of them certainly were, on the subjects in which he was enlightened. One woman particularly. On a visit to her house he noticed that one of her children, a tall, thin, girl of eleven or twelve was looking rather pale. ‘She is growing too fast, I expect,’ he remarked. ‘I must give her a tonic’; which he did. But she was not allowed to take it. ‘No, she ain’t a goin’ to take that stuff,’ her mother told the neighbours. ‘He said she was growin’ too tall, an’ it’s summat to stunt her. I shan’t let a child o’ mine be stunted. Oh, no!’
When he left the place and the supply of physic failed, all the invalids forgot their ailments. But he left one lasting memorial. Before his coming, the road round the Rise in winter had been a quagmire. ‘Mud up to the hocks, and splashes up to the neck,’ as they said. Mr. Alport, after a few weeks’ experience of mud-caked boots and mud-stained trouser-ends, decided to do something. So, perhaps in imitation of Ruskin’s road-making at Oxford, he begged cartloads of stones from the farmer and, assisted by the hamlet youths and boys, began, on light evenings, to work with his own hands building a raised foot-path. Laura always remembered him best breaking stones and shovelling mud in his beautifully white shirt-sleeves and red braces, his clerical coat and collar hung on a bush, his big, smooth face damp with perspiration and his spectacles gleaming, as he urged on his fellow workers.
Neither of the curates mentioned ever spoke of religion out of church. Mr. Dallas was far too shy, and Mr. Alport was too busy ministering to peoples’ bodies to have time to spare for their souls. Mr. Marley, who came next, considered their souls his special care.
He was surely as strange a curate as ever came to a remote agricultural parish. An old man with a long, grey beard which he buttoned inside his long, close-fitting, black overcoat. Fervour and many fast days had worn away his flesh, and he had hollow cheeks and deep-set, dark eyes which glowed with the flame of fanaticism. He was a fanatic where his Church and his creed were concerned; otherwise he was the kindest and most gentle of men. Too good for this world, some of the women said when they came to know him.
He was what is now known as an Anglo–Catholic. Sunday after Sunday he preached ‘One Catholic Apostolic Church’ and ‘our Holy Religion’ to his congregation of rustics. But he did not stop at that: he dealt often with the underlying truths of religion, preaching the gospel of love and forgiveness of sins and the brotherhood of man. He was a wonderful preacher. No listener nooded or ‘lost the thread’ when he was in the pulpit, and though most of his congregation might not be able to grasp or agree with his doctrine, all responded to the love, sympathy, and sincerity of the preacher and every eye was upon him from his first word to his last. How such a preacher came to be in old age but a curate in a remote country parish is a mystery. His eloquence and fervour would have filled a city church.
The Rector by that time was bedridden, and a scholarly, easy-going, middle-aged son was deputizing for him; otherwise Mr. Marley would have had less freedom in the church and parish. When officiating, he openly genuflected to the altar, made the sign of the cross before and after his own silent devotions, made known his willingness to hear confessions, and instituted daily services and weekly instead of monthly Communion.
This in many parishes would have caused scandal; I but the Fordlow people rather enjoyed the change, excepting the Methodists, who, quite rightly according to their tenets, left off going to church, and a few other extremists who said he was ‘a Pope’s man’. He even made a few converts. Miss Ellison was one, and two others, oddly enough, were a navvy and his wife who had recently settled near the hamlet. The latter had formerly been a rowdy couple and it was strange to see them, all cleaned up and dressed in their best on a week-day evening, quietly crossing the allotments on their way to confession.
Of course, Laura’s father said they were ‘after what they could get out of the poor old fool’. That couple almost certainly were not; but others may have been, for he was a most generous man, who gave with both hands, ‘and running over’, as the hamlet people said. Not only to the sick and needy, although those were his first care, but to anybody he thought wanted or wished for a thing or who would be pleased with it. He gave the schoolboys two handsome footballs and the girls a skipping-rope each — fine affairs with painted handles and little bells, such as they had never seen in their lives before. When winter came he bought three of the poorest girls warm, grey ulsters, such as were then fashionable, to go to church in. When he found Edmund loved Scott’s poems, but only knew extracts from them, he bought him the Complete Poetical Works, and, that Laura might not feel neglected, presented her at the same time with The Imitation of Christ, daintily bound in blue and silver. These were only a few of his known kindnesses; there were signs and rumours of dozens of others, and no doubt many more were quite unknown except to himself and the recipient.
He once gave the very shoes off his feet to a woman who had pleaded that she could not go to church for want of a pair, and had added, meaningly, that she took a large size and that a man’s pair of light shoes would do very well. He gave her the better of the two pairs he possessed, which he happened to be wearing, stipulating that he should be allowed to walk home in them. The wearing of them home was a concession to convention, for he would have enjoyed walking barefoot over the flints as a follower of his beloved St. Francis of Assisi, towards whom he had a special devotion twenty years before the cult of the Little Poor Man became popular. He gave away so much that he could only have kept just enough to keep himself in bare necessaries. His black overcoat, which he wore in all weathers, was threadbare, and the old cassock he wore indoors was green and falling to pieces.
Laura’s mother, whose religion was as plain and wholesome as the food she cooked, had little sympathy with his ‘bowings and crossings’; but she was genuinely fond of the old man and persuaded him to look in for a cup of tea whenever he visited the hamlet. Over this simple meal he would tell the children about his own childhood. He had been the bad boy of the nursery, he said, selfish and self-willed and given to fits of passionate anger. Once he had hurled a plate at his sister (here the children’s mother frowned and shook her head at him and that story trailed off lamely); but on another day he told them of his famous ride, which ever after ranked with them beside Dick Turpin’s.
The children of his family had a pony which they were supposed to ride in turn; but, in time, he so monopolized it that it was known as his Moppet, and once, when his elders had insisted that another brother should ride that day, he had waited until the party had gone, then taken his mother’s riding horse out of the stable, mounted it with the help of a stable boy who had believed him when he said he had permission to do so, and gone careering across country, giving the horse its head, for he had no control over it. They went like the wind, over rough grass and under trees, where any low-hanging bough might have killed him, and, at that point in the story, the teller leaned forward with such a flush on his cheek and such a light in his eye that, for one moment, Laura could almost see in the ageing man the boy he had once been. The ride ended in broken knees for the horse and a broken crown for the rider. ‘And a mercy ’twas nothing worse,’ the children’s mother commented.
The moral of this story was the danger of selfish recklessness; but he told it with such relish and so much fascinating detail that had the end house children had access to anybody’s stable they would have tried to imitate him. Edmund suggested they should try to mount Polly, the innkeeper’s old pony, and they even went to the place where she was pegged out to reconnoitre; but Polly had only to rattle her tethering chain to convince them they were not cut out for Dick Turpins.
All was going well and Mr. Marley was talking of teaching Edmund Latin, when, in an unfortunate moment, finding the children’s father at home, he taxed him with neglect of his religious duties. The father, who never went to church at all and spoke of himself as an agnostic, resented this and a quarrel arose, which ended in Mr. Marley being told never to darken that door again. So there were no more of those pleasant teas and talks, although he still remained a kind friend and would sometimes come to the cottage door to speak to the mother, scrupulously remaining outside on the doorstep. Then, in a few months, the Rector died, there were changes, and Mr. Marley left the parish.
Five or six years afterwards, when Edmund and Laura were both out in the world, their mother, sitting by her fire one gloomy winter afternoon, heard a knock at her door and opened it to find Mr. Marley on her doorstep. Ignoring the old quarrel, she brought him in and insisted upon making tea for him. He was by that time very old and she thought he looked very frail; but in spite of that he had walked many miles across country from the parish where he was doing temporary duty. He sat by the fire while she made toast and they talked of the absent two and of her other children and of neighbours and friends. He stayed a long time, partly because they had so much to say to each other and partly because he was very tired and, as she thought, ill.
Presently the children’s father came in from his work and there was a strained moment which ended, to her great relief, in a polite handclasp. The old feud was either forgotten or repented of.
The father could see at once that the old man was not in a fit state to walk seven or eight miles at night in that weather and begged him not to think of doing so. But what was to be done? They were far from a railway station, even had there been a convenient train, and there was no vehicle for hire within three miles. Then some one suggested that Master Ashley’s donkey-cart would be better than nothing, and the father departed to borrow it. He brought it to the garden gate, for he had to drive it himself, and this, surprisingly, he was ready to do although he had just come in tired and damp from his work and had had no proper meal.
With his knees wrapped round in an old fur coat that had once belonged to the children’s grandmother and a hot brick at his feet, the visitor was about to say ‘Farewell,’ when the mother, Martha like, exclaimed: ‘I’m sorry it’s such a poor turn-out for a gentleman like you to ride in.’
‘Poor!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m proud of it and shall always remember this day. My Master rode through Jerusalem on one of these dear patient beasts, you know!’
A fortnight afterwards she read in the local paper that the Rev. Alfred Augustus Peregrine Marley, who was relieving the Vicar of Such-and-such a parish, had collapsed and died at the altar while administering Holy Communion.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55