The current of events forced upon Rachel a delay of three or four days in answering her letter, or rather forced upon her that delay in learning whether or no she might answer it; and this was felt by her to be a grievous evil. It had been arranged that she should not write until such writing should have received what might almost be called a parochial sanction, and no idea of acting in opposition to that arrangement ever occurred to her; but the more she thought of it the more she was vexed; and the more she thought of it the more she learned to doubt whether or no her mother was placing her in safe tutelage. During these few weeks a great change came upon the girl’s character. When first Mrs Prime had brought home tidings that Miss Pucker had seen her walking and talking with the young man from the brewery, angry as she had been with her sister, and disgusted as she had been with Miss Pucker, she had acknowledged to herself that such talking and walking were very dangerous, if not very improper, and she had half resolved that there should be no more of them. And when Mrs Prime had seen her standing at the stile, and had brought home that second report, Rachel, knowing what had occurred at that stile, had then felt sure that she was in danger. At that time, though she had thought much of Luke Rowan, she had not thought of him as a man who could possibly be her husband. She had thought of him as having no right to call her Rachel, because he could not possibly become so. There had been great danger — there had been conduct which she believed to be improper though she could not tell herself that she had been guilty. In her outlook into the world nothing so beautiful had promised itself to her as having such a man to love her as Luke Rowan. Though her mother was not herself ascetic — liking tea and buttered toast dearly, and liking also little soft laughter with her child — she had preached asceticisms till Rachel had learned to think that the world was all either ascetic or reprobate. The Dorcas meetings had become distasteful to her because the women were vulgar; but yet she had half believed herself to be wrong in avoiding the work and the vulgarity together. Idle she had never been. Since a needle had come easy to her hand, and the economies of a household had been made intelligible to her, she had earned her bread and assisted in works of charity. She had read no love stories, and been taught to expect no lover. She was not prepared to deny — did not deny even to herself — that it was wrong that she should even like to talk to Luke Rowan.
Then came the ball; or, rather, first came the little evening party, which afterwards grew to be a ball. She had been very desirous of going, not for the sake of any pleasure that she promised herself; not for the sake of such pleasure as girls do promise themselves at such gatherings; but because her female pride told her that it was well for her to claim the right of meeting this young man — well for her to declare that nothing had passed between them which should make her afraid to meet him. That some other hopes had crept in as the evening had come nigh at hand — hopes of which she had been made aware only by her efforts in repressing them — may not be denied. She had been accused because of him; and she would show that no such accusation had daunted her. But would he — would he give occasion for further accusation? She believed he would not; nay, she was sure: at any rate she hoped he would not. She told herself that such was her hope; but had he not noticed her she would have been wretched.
We know now in what manner he had noticed her, and we know also whether she had been wretched. She had certainly fled from him. When she left the brewery-house, inducing Mrs Cornbury to bring her away, she did so in order that she might escape from him. But she ran from him as one runs from some great joy in order that the mind may revel over it in peace. Then, little as she knew it, her love had been given. Her heart was his. She had placed him upon her pinnacle, and was prepared to worship him. She was ready to dress herself in his eyes, to believe that to be good which he thought good, and to repudiate that which he repudiated. When she bowed her head over his breast a day or two afterwards, she could have spoken to him with the full words of passionate love had not maiden fear repressed her.
But she had not even bowed her head for him, she had not acknowledged to herself that such love was possible to her, till her mother had consented. That her mother’s consent had been wavering, doubtful, expressed without intention of such expression — so expressed that Mrs Ray hardly knew that she had expressed it — was not understood by Rachel. Her mother had consented, and, that consent having been given, Rachel was not now disposed to allow of any steps backwards. She seemed to have learned her rights, or to have assumed that she had rights. Hitherto her obedience to her mother had been pure and simple, although, from the greater force of her character, she had in many things been her mother’s leader. But now, though she was ill inclined to rebel, though in this matter of the letter she had obeyed, she was beginning to feel that obedience might become a hardship. She did not say to herself, “They have let me love him, and now they must not put out their hands to hold back my love;” but the current of her feelings ran as though such unspoken words had passed across her mind. She had her rights; and though she did not presume that she could insist on them in opposition to her mother or her mother’s advisers, she knew that she would be wronged if those rights were withheld from her. The chief of those rights was the possession of her lover. If he was taken from her she would be as one imprisoned unjustly — as one robbed by those who should have been his friends — as one injured, wounded, stricken in the dark, and treacherously mutilated by hands that should have protected him. During these days she was silent, and sat with that look upon her brow which her mother feared.
“I could not make Mr Comfort come any sooner, Rachel,” said Mrs Ray.
“I can see how impatient you are.”
“I don’t know that I’m impatient. I’m sure that I haven’t said anything.”
“If you said anything I shouldn’t mind it so much; but I can’t bear to see you with that unhappy look. I’m sure I only wish to do what’s best. You can’t think it right that you should be writing letters to a gentleman without being sure that it is proper.”
“Oh, mamma, don’t talk about it!”
“You don’t like me to ask your sister; and I’m sure it’s natural I should want to ask somebody. He’s nearly seventy years old, and he has known you ever since you were born. And then he’s a clergyman, and therefore he’ll be sure to know what’s right. Not that I should have liked to have said a word about it to Mr Prong, because there’s a difference when they come from one doesn’t know where.”
“Pray, mamma, don’t. I haven’t made any objection to Mr Comfort. It isn’t nice to be talked over in that way by anybody, that’s all.”
“But what was I to do? I’m sure I liked the young man very much. I never knew a young man who took his tea so pleasant. And as for his manners and his way of talking, I had it in my heart to fall in love with him myself. I had indeed. As far as that goes, he’s just the young man that I could make a son of.”
“Dear mamma! my own dearest mamma!” and Rachel, jumping up, threw herself upon her mother’s neck. “Stop there. You shan’t say another word.”
“I’m sure I didn’t mean to say anything unpleasant.”
“No, you did not; and I won’t be impatient.”
“Only I can’t bear that look. And you know what his mother said — and Mrs Tappitt. Not that I care about Mrs Tappitt; only a person’s mother is his mother, and he shouldn’t have called her a goose.”
It must be acknowledged that Rachel’s position was not comfortable; and it certainly would not have been improved had she known how many people in Baslehurst were talking about her and Rowan. That Rowan was gone everybody knew; that he had made love to Rachel everybody said; that he never meant to come back any more most professed to believe. Tappitt’s tongue was loud in proclaiming his iniquities; and her follies and injuries Mrs Tappitt whispered into the ears of all her female acquaintances.
“I’m sorry for her,” Miss Harford said, mildly. Mrs Tappitt was calling at the rectory, and had made her way in. Mr Tappitt was an upholder of the old rector, and there was a fellow-townsman’s friendship between them.
“Oh, yes — very sorry for her,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“Very sorry indeed,” said Augusta, who was with her mother.
“She always seemed to me a pretty, quiet, well-behaved girl,” said Miss Harford.
“Still waters run deepest, you know, Miss Harford, said Mrs Tappitt. “I should never have imagined it of her — never. But she certainly met him half-way.”
“But we all thought he was respectable, you know,” said Miss Harford.
Miss Harford was thoroughly good-natured; and though she had never gone half-way herself, and had perhaps lost her chance from having been unable to go any part of the way, she was not disposed to condemn a girl for having been willing to be admired by such a one as Luke Rowan.
“Well — yes; at first we did. He had the name of money, you know, and that goes so far with some girls. We were on our guard,’— and she looked proudly round on Augusta —“till we should hear what the young man really was. He has thrown off his sheep’s clothing now with a vengeance. Mr Tappitt feels quite ashamed that he should have introduced him to any of the people here; he does indeed.”
“That may be her misfortune and not her fault,” said Miss Harford, who in defending Rachel was enough inclined to give up Luke. Indeed, Baslehurst was beginning to have a settled mind that Luke was a wolf.
“Oh, quite so,” said Mrs Tappitt. “The poor girl has been very unfortunate no doubt.”
After that she took her leave of the rectory.
On that evening Mr Comfort dined with Dr Harford, as did also Butler Cornbury and his wife, and one or two others. The chances of the election formed, of course, the chief subject of conversation both in the drawing-room and at the dinner-table; but in talking of the election they came to talk of Mr Tappitt, and in talking of Tappitt they came to talk of Luke Rowan.
It has already been said that Dr Harford had been rector of Baslehurst for many years at the period to which this story refers. He had nearly completed half a century of work in that capacity, and had certainly been neither an idle nor an inefficient clergyman. But, now in his old age, he was discontented and disgusted by the changes which had come upon him; and though some bodily strength for further service still remained to him, he had no longer any aptitude for useful work. A man cannot change as men change. Individual men are like the separate links of a rotatory chain. The chain goes on with continuous easy motion as though every part of it were capable of adapting itself to a curve, but not the less is each link as stiff and sturdy as any other piece of wrought iron. Dr Harford had in his time been an active, popular man — a man possessing even some Liberal tendencies in politics, though a country rector of nearly half a century’s standing. In his parish he had been more than a clergyman. He had been a magistrate, and a moving man in municipal affairs. He had been a politician, and though now for many years he had supported the Conservative candidate, he had been loudly in favour of the Reform Bill when Baslehurst was a close borough in the possession of a great duke, who held property hard by. But Liberal politics had gone on and had left Dr Harford high and dry on the standing-ground which he had chosen for himself in the early days of his manhood. And then had come that Pestilent act of the Legislature under which his parish had been divided. Not that the Act of Parliament itself had been violently condemned by the doctor on its becoming law. I doubt whether he had then thought much of it.
But when men calling themselves Commissioners came actually upon him and his, and separated off from him a district of his own town, taking it away altogether from his authority, and giving it over to such inexperienced hands as chance might send thither — then Dr Harford became a violent Tory. And my readers must not conceive that this was a question touching his pocket. One might presume that his pocket would be in some degree benefited, seeing that he was saved from the necessity of supplying the spiritual wants of a certain portion of his parish. No shilling was taken from his own income, which, indeed, was by no means excessive. His whole parish gave him barely six hundred a year, out of which he had kept always one, and latterly two curates. It was no question of money in any degree. Sooner than be invaded and mutilated he would have submitted to an order calling upon him to find a third curate — could any power have given such order. His parish had been invaded and his clerical authority mutilated. He was no longer totus teres atque rotundus . The beauty of his life was over, and the contentment of his mind was gone. He knew that it was only left for him to die, spending such days as remained to him in vague prophecies of evil against his devoted country — a country which had allowed its ancient parochial landmarks to be moved, and its ecclesiastical fastnesses to be invaded!
But perhaps hatred of Mr Prong was the strongest passion of Dr Harford’s heart at the present moment. He had ever hated the dissenting ministers by whom he was surrounded. In Devonshire dissent has waxed strong for many years, and the pastors of the dissenting flocks have been thorns in the side of the Church of England clergymen. Dr Harford had undergone his full share of suffering from such thorns. But they had caused him no more than a pleasant irritation in comparison with what he endured from the presence of Mr Prong in Baslehurst. He would sooner have entertained all the dissenting ministers of the South Hams together than have put his legs under the same mahogany with Mr Prong. Mr Prong was to him the evil thing! Anathema! He believed all bad things of Mr Prong with an absolute faith, but without any ground on which such faith should have been formed. He thought that Mr Prong drank spirits; that he robbed his parishioners — Dr Harford would sooner have lost his tongue than have used such a word with reference to those who attended Mr Prong’s chapel — that he had left a deserted wife on some parish; that he was probably not in truth ordained. There was nothing which Dr Harford could not believe of Mr Prong. Now all this was, to say the least of it, a pity, for it disfigured the close of a useful and conscientious life.
Dr Harford of course intended to vote for Mr Cornbury, but he would not join loudly in condemnation of Mr Tappitt. Tappitt had stood staunchly by him in all parochial contests regarding the new district. Tappitt opposed the Prong faction at all points. Tappitt as churchwarden had been submissive to the doctor. Church of England principles had always been held at the brewery, and Bungall had been ever in favour with Dr Harford’s predecessor.
“He calls himself a Liberal, and always has done,” said the doctor. “You can’t expect that he should desert his own party.”
“But a Jew!” said old Mr Comfort.
“Well; why not a Jew?” said the doctor. Whereupon Mr Comfort, and Butler Cornbury, and Dr Harford’s own curate, young Mr Calclough, and Captain Byng, an old bachelor, who lived in Baslehurst, all stared at him; as Dr Harford had intended that they should. “Upon my word,” said he, “I don’t see the use for caring for that kind of thing any longer; I don’t indeed. In the way we are going on now, and for the sort of thing we do, I don’t see why Jews shouldn’t serve us as well in Parliament as Christians. If I am to have my brains knocked out, I’d sooner have it done by a declared enemy than by one who calls himself my friend.”
“But our brains are not knocked out yet,” said Butler Cornbury.
“I don’t know anything about yours, but mine are.”
“I don’t think the world’s coming to an end yet,” said the captain.
“Nor do I. I said nothing about the world coming to an end. But if you saw a part of your ship put under the command of a landlubber, who didn’t know one side of the vessel from the other, you’d think the world had better come to an end than be carried on in that way.”
“It’s not the same thing, you know,” said the captain. “You couldn’t divide a ship.”
“Oh, well; you’ll see.”
“I don’t think any Christian should vote for a Jew,” said the curate. “A verdict has gone out against them, and what is man that he should reverse it?”
“Are you quite sure that you are reversing it by putting them into Parliament?” said Dr Harford. “May not that be a carrying on of the curse?”
“There’s consolation in that idea for Butler if he loses his election,” said Mr Comfort.
“Parliament isn’t what it was,” said the doctor. “There’s no doubt about that.”
“And who is to blame?” said Mr Comfort, who had never supported the Reform Bill as his neighbour had done.
“I say nothing about blame. It’s natural that things should get worse as they grow older.”
“Dr Harford thinks Parliament is worn out,” said Butler Cornbury.
“And what if I do think so? Have not other things as great fallen and gone into decay? Did not the Roman senate wear out, as you call it? And as for these Jews, of whom you are speaking, what was the curse upon them but the wearing out of their grace and wisdom? I am inclined to think that we are wearing out; only I wish the garment could have lasted my time without showing so many thin places.”
“Now I believe just the contrary,” said the captain, “I don’t think we have come to our full growth yet.”
“Could we lick the French as we did at Trafalgar and Waterloo?” said the doctor.
The captain thought a while before he answered, and then spoke with much solemnity. “Yes,” said he, “I think we could. And I hope the time will soon come when we may.”
“We shan’t do it if we send Jews to Parliament,” said Mr Comfort.
“I must say I think Tappitt wrong,” said young Cornbury. “Of course, near as the thing is going, I’ m sorry to lose his vote; but I’ m not speaking because of that. He has always pretended to hold on to the Church party here, and the Church party has held on to him. His beer is none of the best, and I think he’d have been wise to stick to his old friends.”
“I don’t see the argument about the beer,” said the doctor.
“He shouldn’t provoke his neighbours to look at his faults.”
“But the Jew’s friends would find out that the beer is bad as well as yours.”
“The truth is”, said Cornbury, “that Tappitt thinks he has a personal grievance against me. He’s as cross as a bear with a sore head at the present moment, because this young fellow who was to have been his partner has turned against him. There’s some love affair, and my wife has been there and made a mess of it. It’s hard upon me, for I don’t know that I ever saw the young man in my life.”
“I believe that fellow is a scamp,” said the doctor.
“I hope not,” said Mr Comfort, thinking of Rachel and her hopes.
“We all hope he isn’t, of course,” said the doctor. “But we can’t prevent men being scamps by hoping. There are other scamps in this town in whom, if my hoping would do any good, a very great change would be made.’— Everybody present knew that the doctor alluded especially to Mr Prong, whose condition, however, if the doctor’s hopes could have been carried out, would not have been enviable. —“But I fear this fellow Rowan is a scamp, and I think he has treated Tappitt badly. Tappitt told me all about it only this morning.”
“ Audi alteram partem,” said Mr Comfort.
“The scamp’s party you mean,” said the doctor. “I haven’t the means of doing that. If in this world we suspend our judgement till we’ve heard all that can be said on both sides of every question, we should never come to any judgement at all. I hear that he’s in debt; I believe he behaved very badly to Tappitt himself, so that Tappitt was forced to use personal violence to defend himself; and he has certainly threatened to open a new brewery here. Now that’s bad, as coming from a young man related to the old firm.”
“I think he should leave the brewery alone,” said Mr Comfort.
“Of course he should,” said the doctor. “And I hear, moreover, that he is playing a wicked game with a girl in your parish.”
“I don’t know about a wicked game,” said the other. “It won’t be a wicked game if he marries her.”
Then Rachel’s chances of matrimonial success were discussed with a degree of vigour which must have been felt by her to be highly complimentary, had she been aware of it. But I grieve to say that public opinion, as expressed in Dr Harford’s dining-room, went against Luke Rowan. Mr Tappitt was not a great man, either as a citizen or as a brewer: he was not one to whom Baslehurst would even rejoice to raise a monument; but such as he was he had been known for many years. No one in that room loved or felt for him anything like real friendship; but the old familiarity of the place was in his favour, and his form was known of old upon the High Street. He was not a drunkard, he lived becomingly with his wife, he had paid his way, and was a fellow-townsman. What was it to Dr Harford, or even to Mr Comfort, that he brewed bad beer? No man was compelled to drink it. Why should not a man employ himself, openly and legitimately, in the brewing of bad beer, if the demand for bad beer were so great as to enable him to live by the occupation? On the other hand, Luke Rowan was personally known to none of them; and they were jealous that a change should come among them with any view of teaching them a lesson or improving their condition. They believed, or thought they believed, that Mr Tappitt had been ill-treated in his counting-house. It was grievous to them that a man with a wife and three daughters should have been threatened by a young unmarried man — by a man whose shoulders were laden with no family burden. Whether Rowan’s propositions had been in truth good or evil, just or unjust, they had not inquired, and would not probably have ascertained had they done so. But they judged the man and condemned him. Mr Comfort was brought round to condemn him as thoroughly as did Dr Harford — not reflecting, as he did so, how fatal his condemnation might be to the happiness of poor Rachel Ray.
“The fact is, Butler,” said the doctor, when Mr Comfort had left them and gone to the drawing-room —“the fact is, your wife has not played her cards at the brewery as well as she usually does play them. She has been taking this young fellow’s part; and after that I don’t know how she was to expect that Tappitt would stand by you.”
“No general can succeed always,” said Cornbury, laughing.
“Well; some generals do. But I must confess your wife is generally very successful. Come; we’ll go upstairs; and don’t you tell her that I’ve been finding fault. She’s as good as gold, and I can’t afford to quarrel with her; but I think she has tripped here.”
When the old doctor and Butler Cornbury reached the drawing-room the names of Rowan and Tappitt had not been as yet banished from the conversation; but to them had been added some others. Rachel’s name had been again mentioned, as had also that of Rachel’s sister.
“Papa, who do you think is going to be married?” said Miss Harford.
“Not you, my dear, is it?” said the doctor.
“Mr Prong is going to be married to Mrs Prime,” said Miss Harford, showing by the solemnity of her voice that she regarded the subject as one which should by its nature repress any further joke.
Nor was Dr Harford inclined to joke when he heard such tidings as these. “Mr Prong!” said he, “Nonsense; who told you?”
“Well, it was Baker told me.” Mrs Baker was the housekeeper at the Baslehurst rectory, and had been so for the last thirty years. “She learned it at Drabbit’s in the High Street, where Mrs Prime had been living since she left her mother’s cottage.”
“If that’s true, Comfort,” said the doctor, “I congratulate you on your parishioner.”
“Mrs Prime is no parishioner of mine,” said the vicar of Cawston. “If it’s true, I’m very sorry for her mother — very sorry.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Mrs Cornbury.
“Poor, wretched, unfortunate woman!” said the doctor, “Her little bit of money is all in her own hands; is it not?”
“I believe it is,” said Mr Comfort.
“Ah, yes; I dare say it’s true,” said the vicar. “She’s been running after him ever since he’s been here. I don’t doubt it’s true. Poor creature! — poor creature! poor thing!” And the doctor absolutely sighed as he thought of the misery in store for Mr Prong’s future bride. “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” he said after a while. “He’ll go off, no doubt, when he has got the money in his hand, and we shall be rid of him. Poor thing — poor thing!”
Before the evening was over Mrs Cornbury and her father had again discussed the question of Rachel’s possible engagement with Luke Rowan. Mr Comfort had declared his conviction that it would be dangerous to encourage any such hopes; whereas his daughter protested that she would not see Rachel thrown over if she could help it. “Don’t condemn him yet papa,” she said.
“I don’t condemn him at all, my dear; but I hardly think we shall see him back at Baslehurst. And he shouldn’t have gone away without paying his debts, Patty!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14