On the Monday evening, after tea, Mrs Prime came out to the cottage. It was that Monday on which Mrs Rowan and her daughter had left Baslehurst and had followed Luke up to London. She came out and sat with her mother and sister for about an hour, restraining herself with much discretion from the saying of disagreeable things about her sister’s lover. She had heard that the Rowans had gone away, and she had also heard that it was probable that they would be no more seen in Baslehurst. Mr Prong had given it as his opinion that Luke would not trouble them again by his personal appearance among them. Under these circumstances Mrs Prime had thought that she might spare her sister. For had she said much about her own love affairs. She had never mentioned Mr Prong’s offer in Rachel’s presence; nor did she do so now. As long as Rachel remained in the room the conversation was very innocent and very uninteresting. For a few minutes the two widows were alone together, and then Mrs Prime gave her mother to understand that things were not yet quite arranged between herself and Mr Prong.
“You see, mother,” said Mrs Prime, “as this money has been committed to my charge, I do not think it can be right to let it go altogether out of my own hands.”
In answer to this Mrs Ray had uttered a word or two agreeing with her daughter, she was afraid to say much against Mr Prong — was afraid, indeed, to express any very strong opinion about this proposed marriage; but in her heart she would have been delighted to hear that the Prong alliance was to be abandoned. There was nothing in Mr Prong to recommend him to Mrs Ray.
“And is she going to marry him?” Rachel asked, as soon as her sister was gone.
“There’s nothing settled as yet. Dorothea wants to keep her money in her own hands.”
“I don’t think that can be right. If a woman is married the money should belong to the husband.”
“I suppose that’s what Mr Prong thinks — at any rate, there’s nothing settled. It seems to me that we know so little about him. He might go away any day to Australia, you know.”
“And did she say anything about — Mr Rowan?”
“Not a word, my dear.”
And that was all that was then said about Luke even between Rachel and her mother. How could they speak about him? Mrs Ray also believed that he would be no more seen in Baslehurst; and Rachel was well aware that such was her mother’s belief, although it had never been expressed. What could be said between them now — or ever afterwards — unless, indeed, Rowan should take some steps to make it necessary that his doings should be discussed?
The Tuesday passed and the Wednesday, without any sign from the young man; and during these two sad days nothing was said at the cottage. On that Wednesday his name was absolutely not mentioned between them, although each of them was thinking of him throughout the day. Mrs Ray had now become almost sure that he had obeyed his mother’s behests, and had resolved not to trouble himself about Rachel any further; and Rachel herself had become frightened if not despondent. Could it be that all this should have passed over her and that it should mean nothing? — that the man should have been standing there, only three or four days since, in that very room, with his arm round her waist, begging for her love, and calling her his wife — and that all of it should have no meaning? Nothing amazed her so much as her mother’s firm belief in such an ending to such an affair. What must be her mother’s thoughts about men and women in general if she could expect such conduct from Luke Rowan — and yet not think of him as one whose falsehood was marvellous in its falseness!
But on the Thursday morning there came a letter from Luke addressed to Rachel. On that morning Mrs Ray was up when the postman passed by the cottage, and though Rachel took the letter from the man’s hand herself, she did not open it till she had shown it to her mother.
“Of course it’s from him,” said Rachel.
“I suppose so,” said Mrs Ray, taking the unopened letter in her hand and looking at it. She spoke almost in a whisper, as though there were something terrible in the coming of the letter.
“Is it not odd,” said Rachel, “but I never saw his handwriting before? I shall know it now for ever and ever.” She also spoke in a whisper, and still held the letter as though she dreaded to open it.
“Well, my dear,” said Mrs Ray.
“If you think you ought to read it first, mamma, you may.”
“No, Rachel. It is your letter. I do not wish you to imagine that I distrust you.”
Then Rachel sat herself down, and with extreme care opened the envelope. The letter, which she read to herself very slowly, was as follows:
MY OWN DEAREST RACHEL,
“It seems so nice having to write to you, though it would be much nicer if I could see you and be sitting with you at this moment at the churchyard stile. That is the spot in all Baslehurst that I like the best. I ought to have written sooner, I know, and you will have been very angry with me; but I have had to go down into Northamptonshire to settle some affairs as to my father’s property, so that I have been almost living in railway carriages ever since I saw you. I am resolved about the brewery business more firmly than ever, and as it seems that “T” [Mrs Tappitt would occasionally so designate her lord, and her doing so had been a joke between Luke and Rachel] will not come to reason without a lawsuit, I must scrape together all the capital I have, or I shall be fifty years old before I can begin. He is a pigheaded old fool, and I shall be driven to ruin him and all his family. I would have done — and still would do — anything for him in kindness; but if he drives me to go to law to get what is as much my own as his share is his own, I will build another brewery just under his nose. All this will require money, and therefore I have to run about and get my affairs settled.
“But this is a nice love-letter — is it not? However, you must take me as I am. Just now I have beer in my very soul. The grand object of my ambition is to stand and be fumigated by the smoke of my own vats. It is a fat, prosperous, money-making business, and one in which there is a clear line between right and wrong. No man brews bad beer without knowing it — or sells short measure. Whether the fatness and the honesty can go together — that is the problem I want to solve.
“You see I write to you exactly as if you were a man friend, and not my own dear sweet girl. But I am a very bad hand at love-making. I considered that that was all done when you nodded your head over my arm in token that you consented to be my wife. It was a very little nod, but it binds you as fast as a score of oaths. And now I think I have a right to talk to you about all my affairs, and expect you at once to get up the price of malt and hops in Devonshire. I told you, you remember, that you should be my friend, and now I mean to have my own way.
“You must tell me exactly what my mother has been doing and saying at the cottage. I cannot quite make it out from what she says, but I fear that she has been interfering where she had no business, and making a goose of herself. She has got an idea into her head that I ought to make a good bargain in matrimony, and sell myself at the highest price going in the market — that I ought to get money, or if not money, family connection. I’m very fond of money — as is everybody, only people are such liars — but then I like it to be my own; and as to what people call connection, I have no words to tell you how I despise it. If I know myself I should never have chosen a woman as my companion for life who was not a lady; but I have not the remotest wish to become second cousin by marriage to a baronet’s grandmother. I have told my mother all this, and that you and I have settled the matter together; but I see that she trusts to something that she has said or done herself to upset our settling. Of course, what she has said can, have no effect on you. She has a right to speak to me but she has none to speak to you — not as yet. But she is the best woman in the world, and as soon as ever we are married you will find that she will receive you with open arms.
“You know I spoke of our being married in August. I wish it could have been so. If we could have settled it when I was at Bragg’s End, it might have been done. I don’t, however, mean to scold you, though it was your fault. But as it is, it must now be put off till after Christmas. I won’t name a day yet for seeing you, because I couldn’t well go to Baslehurst without putting myself into Tappitt’s way. My lawyer says I had better not go to Baslehurst just at present. Of course you will write to me constantly — to my address here; say, twice a week at least. And I shall expect you to tell me everything that goes on. Give my kind love to your mother.
“Yours, dearest Rachel, “Most affectionately, “ LUKE ROWAN
The letter was not quite what Rachel had expected, but, nevertheless, she thought it very nice. She had never received a love-letter before, and probably had never read one — even in print; so that she was in possession of no strong preconceived notions as to the nature or requisite contents of such a document. She was a little shocked when Luke called his mother a goose — she was a little startled when he said that people were “liars”, having an idea that the word was one not to be lightly used — she was amused by the allusion to the baronet’s grandmother, feeling, however, that the manner and language of his letter was less pretty and love-laden than she had expected — and she was frightened when he so confidently called upon her to write to him twice a week. But, nevertheless, the letter was a genial one, joyous, and, upon the whole, comforting. She read it very slowly, going back over much of it twice and thrice, so that her mother became impatient before the perusal was finished.
“It seems to be very long,” said Mrs Ray.
“Yes, mamma, it is long. It’s nearly four sides.”
“What can he have to say so much?”
“There’s a good deal of it is about his own private affairs.”
“I suppose, then, I mustn’t see it.”
“Oh yes, mamma!” And Rachel handed her the letter. “I shouldn’t think of having a letter from him and not showing it to you — not as things are now.” Then Mrs Ray took the letter and spent quite as much time in reading it as Rachel had done. “He writes as though he meant to have everything quite his own way,” said Mrs Ray.
“That’s what he does mean. I think he will do that always. He’s what people call imperious; but that isn’t bad in a man, is it?”
Mrs Ray did not quite know whether it was bad in a man or no. But she mistrusted the letter, not construing it closely so as to discover what might really be its full meaning, but perceiving that the young man took, or intended to take, very much into his own hands; that he demanded that everything should be surrendered to his will and pleasure, without any guarantee on his part that such surrendering should be properly acknowledged. Mrs Ray was disposed to doubt people and things that were at a distance from her. Some check could be kept over a lover at Baslehurst; or, if perchance the lover had removed himself only to Exeter, with which city Mrs Ray was personally acquainted, she could have believed in his return. He would not, in that case, have gone utterly beyond her ken. But she could put no confidence in a lover up in London. Who could say that he might not marry someone else tomorrow — that he might not be promising to marry half a dozen? It was with her the same sort of feeling which made her think it possible that Mr Prong might go to Australia. She would have liked as a lover for her daughter a young man fixed in business — if not at Baslehurst, then at Totnes, Dartmouth, or Brixham — under her own eye as it were — a young man so fixed that all the world of South Devonshire would know of all his doings. Such a young man, when he asked a girl to marry him, must mean what he said. If he did not there would be no escape for him from the punishment of his neighbours’ eyes and tongues. But a young man up in London — a young man who had quarrelled with his natural friends in Baslehurst — a young man who was confessedly masterful and impetuous — a young man who called his own mother a goose, and all the rest of the world liars, in his first letter to his lady-love — was that a young man in whom Mrs Ray could place confidence as a lover for her pet lamb? She read the letter very slowly, and then, as she gave it back to Rachel, she groaned.
For nearly half an hour after that nothing was said in the cottage about the letter. Rachel had perceived that it had not been thought satisfactory by her mother; but then she was inclined to believe that her mother would have regarded no letter as satisfactory until arguments had been used to prove to her that it was so. This, at any rate, was clear — must be clear to Mrs Ray as it was clear to Rachel — that Luke had no intention of shirking the fulfilment of his engagement. And after all, was not that the one thing as to which it was essentially necessary that they should be confident? Had she not accepted Luke, telling him that she loved him? and was it not acknowledged by all around her that such a marriage would be good for her? The danger which they feared was the expectation of such a marriage without its accomplishment. Even the forebodings of Mrs Prime had shown that this was the evil to which they pointed. Under these circumstances what better could be wished for than a ready, quick, warm assurance on Luke’s part, that he did intend all that he had said?
With Rachel now, as with all girls under such circumstances, the chief immediate consideration was as to the answer which should be given. Was she to write to him, to write what she pleased; and might she write at once? She felt that she longed to have the pen in her hand, and that yet, when holding it, she would have to think for hours before writing the first word. “Mamma,” she said at last, “don’t you think it’s a good letter?”
“I don’t know what to think, my dear. I doubt whether any letters of that sort are good for much.”
“Of what sort, mamma?”
“Letters from men who call themselves lovers to young girls. It would be safer, I think, that there shouldn’t be any — very much safer.”
“But if he hadn’t written we should have thought that he had forgotten all about us. That would not have been good. You said yourself that if he did not write soon, there would be an end of everything,”
“A hundred years ago there wasn’t all this writing between young people, and these things were managed better then than they are now, as far as I can understand.”
“People couldn’t write so much then,” said Rachel, “because there were no railways and no postage stamps. I suppose I must answer it, mamma?” To this proposition Mrs Ray made no immediate answer. “Don’t you think I ought to answer it, mamma?”
“You can’t want to write at once.”
“In the afternoon would do.”
“In the afternoon! Why should you be in so much hurry, Rachel? It took him four or five days to write to you.”
“Yes; but he was down in Northamptonshire on business. Besides he hadn’t any letter from me to answer. I shouldn’t like him to think —”
“To think what, Rachel?”
“That I had forgotten him.”
“Or that I didn’t treat his letter with respect.”
“He won’t think that. But I must turn it over in my mind; and I believe I ought to ask somebody.”
“Not Dolly,” said Rachel, eagerly.
“No; not your sister. I will not ask her. But if you don’t mind, my dear, I’ll take the young man’s letter out to Mr Comfort, and consult him. I never felt myself so much in need of somebody to advise me. Mr Comfort is an old man, and you won’t mind his seeing the letter.”
Rachel did mind it very much, but she had no means of saving herself from her fate. She did not like the idea of having her love-letter submitted to the clergyman of the parish. I do not know any young lady who would have liked it. But bad as that was, it was preferable to having the letter submitted to Mrs Prime. And then she remembered that Mr Comfort had advised that she might go to the ball, and that he was father to her friend Mrs Butler Cornbury.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01