Luke Rowan’s appearance at Mrs Ray’s tea-table, as described in the last chapter, took place on Wednesday evening, and it may be remembered that on the morning of that same day Mrs Prime had been closeted with Mr Prong in that gentleman’s parlour. She had promised to give Mr Prong an answer to his proposal on Saturday, and had consequently settled herself down steadily to think of all that was good and all that might be evil in such an arrangement as that suggested to her. She wished much for legal advice, but she made up her mind that that was beyond her reach, was beyond her reach as a preliminary assistance. She knew enough of the laws of her country to enable her to be sure that, though she might accept the offer, her own money could be so tied up on her behalf that her husband could not touch the principal of her wealth; but she did not know whether things could be so settled that she might have in her own hands the spending of her income. By three o’clock on that day she thought that she would accept Mr Prong, if she could be satisfied on that head. Her position as a clergyman’s wife — a minister’s wife she called it — would be unexceptionable. The company of Miss Pucker was distasteful. Solitude was not charming to her. And then, could she not work harder as a married woman than in the position which she now held? — and also, could she not so work with increased power and increased perseverance? At three o’clock she had almost made up her mind, but still she was sadly in need of counsel and information. Then it occurred to her that her mother might have some knowledge in this matter. In most respects her mother was not a woman of the world; but it was just possible that in this difficulty her mother might assist her. Her mother might at any rate ask of others, and there was no one else whom she could trust to seek such information for her. And if she did this thing she must tell her mother. It is true that she had quarrelled with them both at Bragg’s End; but there are affairs in life which will ride over family quarrels and trample them out, unless they be deeper and of longer standing than that between Mrs Prime and Mrs Ray. Therefore it was that she appeared at the cottage at Bragg’s End just as Luke Rowan was leaving it.
She had entered upon the green with something of the olive-branch in her spirit, and before she reached the gate had determined that, as far as was within her power, all unkindness should be buried on the present occasion; but when she saw Luke Rowan coming out of her mother’s door, she was startled out of all her good feeling. She had taught herself to look on Rowan as the personification of mischief, as the very mischief itself in regard to Rachel. She had lifted up her voice against him. She had left her home and torn herself from her family because it was not compatible with the rigour of her principles that anyone known to her should be known to him also! But she had hardly left her mother’s house when this most pernicious cause of war was admitted to all the freedom of family intercourse! It almost seemed to her that her mother must be a hypocrite. It was but the other day that Mrs Ray could not hear Luke Rowan’s name mentioned without wholesome horror. But where was that wholesome horror now? On Monday, Mrs Prime had left the cottage; on Tuesday, Rachel had gone to a ball, expressly to meet the young man! and on Wednesday the young man was drinking tea at Bragg’s End cottage! Mrs Prime would have gone away without speaking a word to her mother or sister, had such retreat been possible.
Stately and solemn was the recognition which she accorded to Luke’s salutation, and then she walked on into the house.
“Oh, Dorothea!” said her mother, and there was a tone almost of shame in Mrs Ray’s voice.
“We’re so glad to see you, Dolly,” said Rachel, and in Rachel’s voice there was no tone of shame. It was all just as it should not be!
“I did not mean to disturb you, mother, while you were entertaining company.”
Mrs Ray said nothing — nothing at the moment; but Rachel took upon herself to answer her sister. “You wouldn’t have disturbed us at all, even if you had come a little sooner. But you are not too late for tea, if you’ll have some.”
“I’ve taken tea, thank you, two hours ago;” and she spoke as though there were much virtue in the distance of time at which she had eaten and drunk, as compared with the existing rakish and dissipated appearance of her mother’s tea-table. Tea-things about at eight o’clock! It was all of a piece together.
“We are very glad to see you, at any rate,” said Mrs Ray; “I was afraid you would not have come out to us at all.”
“Perhaps it would have been better if I had not come.”
“I don’t see that,” said Rachel. “I think it’s much better. I hate quarrelling, and I hope you’re going to stay now you are here.”
“No, Rachel, I’m not going to stay. Mother, it is impossible I should see that young man walking out of your house in that way without speaking of it; although I’m well aware that my voice here goes for nothing now.”
“That was Mr Luke Rowan,” said Mrs Ray.
“I know very well who it was,” said Mrs Prime, shaking her head. “Rachel will remember that I’ve seen him before.”
“And you’ll be likely to see him again if you stay here, Dolly,” said Rachel. This she said out of pure mischief — that sort of mischief which her sister’s rebuke was sure to engender.
“I dare say,” said Mrs Prime; “whenever he pleases, no doubt. But I shall not see him. If you approve of it, mother, of course I can say nothing further — nothing further than this, that I don’t approve of such things.”
“But what ails him that he shouldn’t be a very good young man?” says Mrs Ray. “And if it was so that he was growing fond of Rachel, why shouldn’t he? And if Rachel was to like him, I don’t see why she shouldn’t like somebody some day as well as other girls.” Mrs Ray had been a little put beside herself or she would hardly have said so much in Rachel’s presence. She had forgotten, probably, that Rachel had not as yet been made acquainted with the nature of Rowan’s proposal.
“Mamma, don’t talk in that way. There’s nothing of that kind,” said Rachel.
“I don’t believe there is,” said Mrs Prime.
“I say there is then,” said Mrs Ray; “and it’s very ill-natured in you, Dorothea, to speak and think in that way of your sister.”
“Oh, very well. I see that I had better go back to Baslehurst at once.”
“So it is, very ill-natured. I can’t bear to have these sort of quarrels; but I must speak out for her. I believe he’s a very good young man, with nothing bad about him at all, and he is welcome to come here whenever he pleases. And as for Rachel, I believe she knows how to mind herself as well as you did when you were her age; only poor Mr Prime was come and gone at that time. And as for his not intending, he came out here just because he did intend, and only to ask my permission. I didn’t at first tell him he might because Rachel was over at the farm getting the cream, and I thought she ought to be consulted first; and if that’s not straightforward and proper, I’m sure I don’t know what is; and he having a business of his own, too, and able to maintain a wife tomorrow! And if a young man isn’t to be allowed to ask leave to see a young woman when he thinks he likes her, I for one don’t know how young people are to get married at all.” Then Mrs Ray sat down, put her apron up to her eyes, and had a great cry.
It was a most eloquent speech, and I cannot say which of her daughters was the most surprised by it. As to Rachel, it must be remembered that very much was communicated to her of which she had hitherto known nothing. Very much indeed, we may say, so much that it was of a nature to alter the whole tone and tenor of her life. This young man of whom she had thought so much, and of whom she had been so much in dread — fearing that her many thoughts of him were becoming dangerous — this young man who had interested her so warmly, had come out to Bragg’s End simply to get her mother’s leave to pay his court to her. And he had done this without saying a word to herself! There was something in this infinitely sweeter to her than would have been any number of pretty speeches from himself. She had hitherto been angry with him, though liking him well; she had been angry with though almost loving him. She had not known why it was so, but the cause had been this — that he had seemed in their intercourse together, to have been deficient in that respect which she had a right to claim. But now all that sin was washed away by such a deed as this. As the meaning of her mother’s words sank into her heart, and as she came to understand her mother’s declaration that Luke Rowan should be welcome to the cottage as her lover, her eyes became full of tears, and the spirit of her animosity against her sister was quenched by the waters of her happiness.
And Mrs Prime was almost equally surprised, but was by no means equally delighted. Had the whole thing fallen out in a different way, she would probably have looked on a marriage with Luke Rowan as good and salutary for her sister. At any rate, seeing that the world is as it is, and that all men cannot be hardworking ministers of the Gospel, nor all women the wives of such or their assistants in godly ministrations, she would not have taken upon herself to oppose such a marriage. But as it was, she had resolved that Luke Rowan was a black sheep; that he was pitch, not to be touched without defilement; that he was, in short, a man to be regarded by religious people as anathema — a thing accursed; and of that idea she was not able to divest herself suddenly. Why had the young man walked about under the churchyard elms at night? Why, if he were not wicked and abandoned, did he wear that jaunty look — that look which was so worldly? And, moreover, he went to balls, and tempted others to do the like! In a word, he was a young man manifestly of that class which was esteemed by Mrs Prime more dangerous than roaring lions. It was not possible that she should give up her opinion merely because this roaring lion had come out to her mother with a plausible story. Upon her at that moment fell the necessity of forming a judgement to which it would be necessary that she should hereafter abide. She must either at once give in her adherence to the Rowan alliance; or else, if she opposed it, she must be prepared to cling to that opposition. She was aware that some such decision was now required, and paused for a moment before she declared herself. But that moment only strengthened her verdict against Rachel’s lover. Could any serious young man have taken off his hat with the flippancy which had marked that action on his part? Would not any serious young man, properly intent on matrimonial prospects, have been subdued at such a moment to a more solemn deportment? Mrs Prime’s verdict was still against him, and that verdict she proceeded to pronounce.
“Oh, very well; then of course I shall interfere no further. I shouldn’t have thought that Rachel’s seeing him twice, in such a way as that, too — hiding under the churchyard trees!”
“I wasn’t hiding,” said Rachel, “and you’ve no business to say so.” Her tears, however, prevented her from fighting her own battle manfully, or with her usual courage.
“It looked very much like it, Rachel, at any rate. I should have thought that mother would have wished you to have known a great deal more about any young man before she encouraged you to regard him in that way, than you can possibly know of Mr Rowan.”
“But how are they to know each other, Dorothea, if they mustn’t see one another?” said Mrs Ray.
“I have no doubt he knows how to dance very cleverly. As Rachel is being taught to live now, that may perhaps be the chief thing necessary.”
This blow did reach poor Mrs Ray, who a week or two since would certainly have agreed with her elder daughter in thinking that dancing was sinful. Into this difficulty, however, she had been brought by Mr Comfort’s advice. “But what else can she know of him?” continued Mrs Prime. “He is able to maintain a wife you say — and is that all that is necessary to consider in the choice of a husband, or is that the chief thing? Oh, mother, you should think of your responsibility at such a time as this. It may be very pleasant for Rachel to have this young man as her lover, very pleasant while it lasts. But what — what — what?” Then Mrs Prime was so much oppressed by the black weight of her own thoughts, that she was unable further to express them.
“I do think about it,” said Mrs Ray. “I think about it more than anything else.”
“And have you concluded that in this way you can best secure Rachel’s welfare? Oh, mother!”
“He always goes to church on Sundays,” said Rachel. “I don’t know why you are to make him out so bad.” This she said with her eyes fixed upon her mother, for it seemed to her that her mother was almost about to yield.
A good deal might be said in excuse for Mrs Prime. She was not only acting for the best in accordance with her own lights, but the doctrine which she now preached was the doctrine which had been held by the inhabitants of the cottage at Bragg’s End. The fault, if fault there was, had been in the teaching under which had lived both Mrs Prime and her mother. In their desire to live in accordance with that teaching, they had agreed to regard all the outer world, that is all the world except their world, as wicked and dangerous. They had never conceived that in forming this judgement they were deficient in charity; nor, indeed, were they conscious that they had formed any such judgement. In works of charity they had striven to be abundant, but had taken simply the Dorcas view of that virtue. The younger and more energetic woman had become sour in her temper under the régime of this life, while the elder and weaker had retained her own sweetness partly because of her weakness. But who can say that either of them were other than good women — good according to such lights as had been lit for their guidance? But now the younger was stanch to her old lessons while the elder was leaving them. The elder was leaving them, not by force of her own reason, but under the necessity of coming in contact with the world which was brought upon her by the vitality and instincts of her younger child. This difficulty she had sought to master, once and for ever, by a reference to her clergyman. What had been the result of that reference the reader already knows.
“Mother,” said Mrs Prime, very solemnly, “is this young man such a one as you would have chosen for Rachel’s husband six months ago?”
“I never wished to choose any man for her husband,” said Mrs Ray. “I don’t think you ought to talk to me in that way, Dorothea.”
“I don’t know in what other way a talk to you. I cannot be indifferent on such a subject as this. When you tell me, and that before Rachel herself, that you have given this young man leave to come and see her whenever he pleases.”
“I never said anything of the kind, Dorothea.”
“Did you not, mother? I am sure I understood you so.”
“I said he had come to ask leave, and that I should be glad to see him when he did come, but I didn’t say anything of having told him so. I didn’t tell him anything of the kind; did I, Rachel? But I know he will come, and I don’t see why he shouldn’t. And if he does, I can’t turn him out. He took his tea here quite like a steady young man. He drank three large cups; and if, as Rachel says, he always goes to church regularly, I don’t know why we are to judge him and say that he’s anything out of the way.”
“I have not judged him, mother.”
Then Rachel spoke out, and we may say that it was needful that she should do so. This offering of her heart had been discussed in her presence in a manner that had been very painful to her, though the persons discussing it had been her own mother and her own sister. But in truth she had been so much affected by what had been said, there had been so much in it that was first joyful and then painful to her, that she had not hitherto been able to repress her emotions so as to acquire the power of much speech. But she had struggled, and now so far succeeded as to be able to come to her mother’s support.
“I don’t know, mamma, why anybody should judge him yet; and as to what he has said to me, I’m sure no one has a right to judge him unkindly. Dolly has been very angry with me because she saw me speaking to him in the churchyard, and has said that I was — hiding.”
“I meant that he was hiding.”
“Neither of us were hiding, and it was an unkind word, not like a sister. I have never had to hide from anybody. And as for — for — for liking Mr Rowan after such words as that, I will not say anything about it to anybody, except to mamma. If he were to ask me to be — his wife, I don’t know what answer I should make — not yet. But I shall never listen to anyone while mamma lives, if she wishes me not.” Then she turned to her mother, and Mrs Ray, who had before been driven to doubt by Mrs Prime’s words, now again became strong in her resolution to cherish Rachel’s lover.
“I don’t believe she’ll ever do anything to make me think that I oughtn’t to have trusted her,” said Mrs Ray, embracing Rachel and speaking with her own eyes full of tears.
It now seemed to Mrs Prime that there was nothing left for her but to go. In her eagerness about her sister’s affairs, she had for a while forgotten her own; and now, as she again remembered the cause that had brought her on the present occasion to Bragg’s End, she felt that she must return without accomplishing her object. After having said so much in reprobation of her sister’s love-affair, it was hardly possible that she should tell the tale of her own. And yet her need was urgent. She had pledged herself to give Mr Prong an answer on Friday, and she could hardly bring herself to accept that gentleman’s offer without first communicating with her mother on the subject. Any such communication at the present moment was quite out of the question.
“Perhaps it would be better that I should go and leave you,” she said. “If I can do no good, I certainly don’t want to do any harm. I wish that Rachel would have taken to what I think a better course of life.”
“Why, what have I done?” said Rachel, turning round sharply.
“I mean about the Dorcas meetings.”
“I don’t like the women there — that’s why I haven’t gone.”
“I believe them to be good, praiseworthy, godly women. But it is useless to talk about that now. Goodnight, Rachel,” and she gave her hand coldly to her sister. “Goodnight, mother; I wish I could see you alone tomorrow.”
“Come here for your dinner,” said Mrs Ray.
“No — but if you would come to me in the morning I should take it kindly.” This Mrs Ray promised to do, and then Mrs Prime walked back to Baslehurst.
Rachel, when her sister was gone, felt that there was much to be said between her and her mother. Mrs Ray herself was so inconsequent in her mental workings, so shandy-pated if I may say so, that it did not occur to her that an entirely new view of Luke Rowan’s purposes had been exposed to Rachel during this visit of Mrs Prime’s, or that anything had been said, which made a further explanation necessary. She had, as it were, authorised Rachel to regard Rowan as her lover, and yet was not aware that she had done so. But Rachel had remembered every word. She had resolved that she would permit herself to form no special intimacy with Luke Rowan without her mother’s leave; but she was also beginning to resolve that with her mother’s leave, such intimacy would be very pleasant. Of this she was quite sure within her own heart — that it should not be abandoned at her sister’s instigation.
“Mamma,” she said, “I did not know that he had spoken to you in that way.”
“In what way, Rachel?” Mrs Ray’s voice was not quite pleasant. Now that Mrs Prime was gone, she would have been glad to have had the dangerous subject abandoned for a while.
“That he had asked you to let him come here, and that he had said that about me.”
“He did then — while you were away at Mrs Sturt’s.”
“And what answer did you give him?”
“I didn’t give him any answer. You came back, and I’m sure I was very glad that you did, for I shouldn’t have known what to say to him.”
“But what was it that he did say, mamma? — that is, if you don’t think, it wrong to tell me.”
“I hardly know; but I don’t suppose it can be wrong, for no young man could have spoken nicer; and it made me happy to hear him — so it did, for the moment.”
“Oh, mamma, do tell me!” and Rachel kneeled down before her.
“Well — he said you were the nicest girl he had ever seen.”
“Did he, mamma?” And the girl clung closer to her mother as she heard the pleasant words.
“But I oughtn’t to tell you such nonsense as that; and then he said that he wanted to come out here and see you, and — and — and — It is simply this, that he meant to ask you to be his sweetheart, if I would let him.”
“And what did you say, mamma?”
“I couldn’t say anything because you came back.”
“But you told Dolly that you would be glad to see him whenever he might choose to come here.”
“Yes; you said he was welcome to come whenever he pleased, and that you believed him to be a very good young man.”
“And so I do. Why should he be anything else?”
“I don’t say that he’s anything else; but, mamma —”
“Well, my dear.”
“What shall I say to him if he does ask me that question? He has called me by my name two or three times, and spoken to me as though he wanted me to like him. If he does say anything to me like that, what shall I answer?”
“If you think you don’t like him well enough, you must tell him so, of course.”
“Yes, of course I must.” Then Rachel was silent for a minute or two. She had not as yet received the full answer which she desired. In such an alternative as that which her mother had suggested, we may say that she would have known how to frame her answer to the young man without any advice from her mother. But there was another alternative as to which she thought it well that she should has her mother’s judgement and opinion. “But, mamma, I think I do like him,” said Rachel, burying her face.
“I’m sure I don’t wonder at it” said Mrs Ray, “for I like him very much. He has a way with him so much nicer than most of the young men now; and then, he’s very well off, which, after all, must count for something. A young woman should never fall in love with a man who can’t earn his bread, not if he was ever so religious or steady. And he’s very good-looking, too. Good looks are only skin-deep I know, and they won’t bring much comfort when sorrow comes; but I do own I love to look on a young fellow with a sonsy face and a quick lively step. Mr Comfort seemed to think it would do very well if there was to be any such thing; and if he’s not able to tell, I’m sure I don’t know who ought to be. And nothing could be fairer than his coming out here and telling me first. There’s so many of them are sly; but there was nothing sly about that.”
In this way, with many more rambling words, with many kisses also, and with some tears, Rachel Ray received from her mother permission to regard Luke Rowan as her lover.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01