Mrs Ray, in her trouble occasioned by Luke’s letter, had walked up to Mr Comfort’s house, but had not found him at home. Therefore she had written to him, in his own study, a few very simple words, telling the matter on which she wanted his advice. Almost any other woman would have half hidden her real meaning under a cloud of ambiguous words; but with her there was no question of hiding anything from her clergyman. “Rachel has had a letter from young Mr Rowan,” she said, “and I have begged her not to answer it till I have shown it to you.” So Mr Comfort sent word down to Bragg’s End that he would call at the cottage, and fixed an hour for his coming. This task was to be accomplished by him on the morning after Dr Harford’s dinner; and he had thought much of the coming conference between himself and Rachel’s mother while Rowan’s character was being discussed at Dr Harford’s house; but on that occasion he had said nothing to anyone, not even to his daughter, of the application which had been made to him by Mrs Ray. At eleven o’clock he presented himself at the cottage door, and, of course, found Mrs Ray alone. Rachel had taken herself over to Mrs Sturt, and greatly amazed that kind-hearted person by her silence and confusion. “Why, my dear,” said Mrs Sturt, “you hain’t got a word today to throw at a dog.” Rachel acknowledged that she had not; and then Mrs Sturt allowed her to remain in her silence.
“Oh, Mr Comfort, this is so good of you!” Mrs Ray began as soon as her friend was inside the parlour. “When I went up to the parsonage I didn’t think of bringing you down here all the way — I didn’t indeed.” Mr Comfort assured her that he thought nothing of the trouble, declared that he owed her a visit, and then asked after Rachel.
“To tell you the truth, then, she’s just stepped across the green to Mrs Sturt’s, so as to be out of the way. It’s a trying time to her, Mr Comfort — very; and whatever way it goes, she’s a good girl — a very good girl.”
“You needn’t tell me that, Mrs Ray.”
“Oh! but I must. There’s her sister thinks she’s encouraged this young man too freely, but —”
“By the by, Mrs Ray, I’ve been told that Mrs Prime is engaged to be married herself.”
“Have you, now?”
“Well, yes; I heard it in Baslehurst yesterday — to Mr Prong.”
“She’s kept it so close, Mr Comfort, I didn’t think anybody had heard it.”
“It is true, then?”
“I can’t say she has accepted him yet. He has offered to her — there’s no doubt about that, Mr Comfort — and she hasn’t said him no.”
“Do let her look sharp after her money,” said Mr Comfort.
“Well, that’s just it. She’s not a bit inclined to give it up to him, I can tell you.”
“I can’t say, Mrs Ray, that the connection is one that I like very much, in any way. There’s no reason at all why your eldest daughter should not marry again, but —”
“What can I do, Mr Comfort? Of course I know he’s not just what he should be — that is, for a clergyman. When I knew he hadn’t come from any of the colleges, I never had any fancy for going to hear him myself. But of course I should never have left your church, Mr Comfort — not if anybody had come there. And if I could have had my way with Dorothea, she would never have gone near him — never. But what could I do, Mr Comfort? Of course she can go where she likes.”
“Mr Prime was a gentleman and a Christian,” said the vicar.
“That he was, Mr Comfort; and a husband for a young woman to be proud of. But he was soon taken away from her — very soon! and she hasn’t thought much of this world since.”
“I don’t know what she’s thinking of now.”
“It isn’t of herself, Mr Comfort; not a bit. Dorothea is very stern; but, to give her her due, it’s not herself she’s thinking of.”
“Why does she want to marry him, then?”
“Because he’s lonely without someone to do for him.”
“Lonely! — and he should be lonely for me, Mrs Ray.”
“And because she says she can work in the vineyard better as a clergyman’s wife.”
“Pshaw! work in the vineyard, indeed! But it’s no business of mine; and, as you say, I suppose you can’t help it.”
“Indeed I can’t. She’d never think of asking me.”
“I hope she’ll look after her money, that’s all. And what’s all this about my friend Rachel? I’d a great deal sooner hear that she was going to be married — if I knew that the man was worthy of her.”
Then Mrs Ray put her hand into her pocket, and taking out Rowan’s letter, gave it to the vicar to read. As she did so, she looked into his face with eyes full of the most intense anxiety. She was he greatly frightened by the magnitude of this marriage question. She feared the enmity of Mrs Rowan; and she doubted the firmness of Luke. She could not keep herself from reflecting that a young man from London was very dangerous; that he might probably be a wolf; that she could not be safe in trusting her one lamb into such custody. But, nevertheless, she most earnestly hoped that Mr Comfort’s verdict might be in the young man’s favour. If he would only say that the young man was not a wolf — if he would only take upon his own clerical shoulders the responsibility of trusting the young man — Mrs Ray would become for the moment one of the happiest women in Devonshire. With what a beaming face — with what a true joy — with what smiles through her tears, would she then have welcomed Rachel back from the farmhouse! How she would have watched her as she came across the green, beckoning to her eagerly, and telling all her happy tale beforehand by the signs of her joy! But there was to be no such happy tale as that told on this morning. She watched the vicar’s face as he read the letter, and soon perceived that the verdict was to be given against the writer of it. I do not know that Mrs Ray was particularly quick at reading the countenances of men, but, in this instance, she did read the countenance of Mr Comfort. We, all of us, read more in the faces of those with whom we hold converse, than we are aware of doing. Of the truth, or want of truth, in every word spoken to us, we judge, in great part, by the face of the speaker. By the face of every man and woman seen by us, whether they speak or are silent, we form a judgement — and in nine cases out of ten our judgement is true. It is because our tenth judgement — that judgement which has been wrong — comes back upon us always with the effects of its error, that we teach ourselves to say that appearances cannot be trusted. If we did not trust them we should be walking ever in doubt, in darkness, and in ignorance. As Mr Comfort read the letter, Mrs Ray knew that it would not be allowed to her a speak words of happiness to Rachel on that day. She knew that the young man was to be set down as dangerous; but she was by no means aware that she was reading the vicar’s face with precise accuracy. Mr Comfort had been slow in his perusal, weighing the words of the letter; and when he had finished it he slowly refolded the paper and put it back into its envelope. “He means what he says,” said he, as he gave the letter back to Mrs Ray.
“Yes; I think he means what he says.”
“But we cannot tell how long he may mean it; nor can we tell as yet whether such a connection would be good for Rachel, even if he should remain steadfast in such meaning. If you ask me, Mrs Ray —”
“I do ask you, Mr Comfort.”
“Then I think we should all of us know more about him, before we allow Rachel to give him encouragement — I do indeed.”
Mrs Ray could not quite repress in her heart a slight feeling of anger against the vicar. She remembered the words — so different not only in their meaning, but in the tone in which they were spoken — in which he had sanctioned Rachel’s going to the ball: “Young people get to think of each other,” he had then said, speaking with good-humoured, cheery voice, as though such thinking were worthy of all encouragement. He had spoken then of marriage being the happiest condition for both men and women, and had inquired as to Rowan’s means. Every word that had then fallen from him had expressed his opinion that Luke Rowan was an eligible lover. But now he was named as though he were undoubtedly a wolf. Why had not Mr Comfort said then, at that former interview, when no harm had as yet been done, that it would be desirable to know more of the young man before any encouragement was given to him? Mrs Ray felt that she was injured; but, nevertheless, her trust in her counsellor was not on that account the less.
“I suppose it must be answered,” said Mrs Ray.
“Oh, yes; of course it should be answered.”
“And who should write it, Mr Comfort?”
“Let Rachel write it herself. Let her tell him that she is not prepared to correspond with him as yet, any further that is, you understand, than the writing of that letter.”
“And about — about — about what he says as to loving her, you know? There has been a sort of promise between them, Mr Comfort, and no young man could have spoken more honestly than he did.”
“And he meant honestly, no doubt; but you see, Mrs Ray, it is necessary to be so careful in these matters! It is quite evident his mother doesn’t wish this marriage.”
“And he shouldn’t have called her a goose; should he?”
“I don’t think much about that.”
“Don’t you, now?”
“It was all meant in good-humour. But she thinks it a bad marriage for him as regards money, and money considerations always go so far, you know. And then he’s away, and you’ve got no hold upon him.”
“That’s quite true, Mr Comfort.”
“He has quarrelled with the people here. And upon my word I’m inclined to think he has not behaved very well to Mr Tappitt.”
“Hasn’t he, now?”
“I’m afraid not, Mrs Ray. They were talking about him last night in Baslehurst, and I’m afraid he has behaved badly at the brewery. There were words between him and Mr Tappitt — very serious words.”
“Yes; I know that. He told Rachel as much as that. I think he said he was going to law with Mr Tappitt.”
“And if so, the chances are that he may never be seen here again. It’s ill coming to a place where one is quarrelling with people. And as to the lawsuit, it seems to me, from what I hear, that he would certainly lose it. No doubt he has a considerable property in the brewery; but he wants to be master of everything, and that can’t be reasonable, you know. And then, Mrs Ray, there’s worse than that behind.”
“Worse than that!” said Mrs Ray, in whose heart every gleam of comfort was quickly being extinguished by darkening shadows.
“They tell me that he has gone away without paying his debts. If that is so, it shows that his means cannot be very good.” Then why had Mr Comfort taken upon himself expressly to say that they were good at that interview before Mrs Tappitt’s party? That was the thought in the widow’s mind at the present moment. Mr Comfort, however, went on with his caution. “And then, when the happiness of such a girl as Rachel is concerned, it is impossible to be too careful. Where should we all be if we found that we had given her to a scamp?”
“Oh dear, oh dear! I don’t think he can be a scamp — he did take his tea so nicely.”
“I don’t say he is — I don’t judge him. But then we should be careful. Why didn’t he pay his debts before he went away? A young man should always pay his debts.”
“Perhaps he’s sent it down in a money order,” said Mrs Ray. “They are so very convenient — that is if you’ve got the money.”
“If he hasn’t I hope he will, for I can assure you I don’t want to think badly of him. Maybe he will turn out all right. And you may be sure of this, Mrs Ray, that if he is really attached to Rachel he won’t give her up, because she doesn’t throw herself into his arms at his first word. There’s nothing becomes a young woman like a little caution, or makes a young man think more of her. If Rachel fancies that she likes him let her hold back a while and find out what sort of stuff he’s made of. If I were her I should just tell him that I thought it better to wait a little before I made any positive engagement.”
“But, Mr Comfort, how is she to begin it? You see he calls her Dearest Rachel.”
“Let her say Dear Mr Rowan. There can’t be any harm in that.”
“She mustn’t call him Luke, I suppose.”
“I think she’d better not. Young men think so much of those things.”
“And she’s not to say ‘Yours affectionately’ at the end?”
“She’ll understand all that when she comes to write the letter better than we can tell her. Give her my love; and tell her from me I’m quite sure she’s a dear, good girl, and that it must be a great comfort to you to know that you can trust her so thoroughly.” Then, having spoken these last words, Mr Comfort took himself away.
Rachel, sitting in the window of Mrs Sturt’s large front kitchen on the other side of the green, could see Mr Comfort come forth from the cottage and get into his low four-wheeled carriage, which, with his boy in livery, had been standing at the garden gate during the interview. Mrs Sturt was away among the milk-pans, scalding cream or preparing butter, and did not watch either Rachel or the visitor at the cottage. But she knew with tolerable accuracy what was going on, and with all her heart wished that her young friend might have luck with her lover. Rachel waited for a minute or two till the little carriage was out of sight, till the sound of the wheels could be no longer heard, and then she prepared to move. She slowly got herself up from her chair as though she were afraid to show herself upon the green, and paused still a few moments longer before she left the kitchen.
“So, thou’s off,” said Mrs Sturt, coming in from the back regions of her territory, with the sleeves of her gown tucked up, enveloped in a large roundabout apron which covered almost all her dress. Mrs Sturt would no more have thought of doing her work in the front kitchen than I should think of doing mine in the drawing-room. “So thou’s off home again my lass,” said Mrs Sturt.
“Yes, Mrs Sturt. Mr Comfort has been with mamma — about business; and as I didn’t want to be in the way I just came over to you.”
“Thou art welcome, as flowers in May, morning or evening; but thee knowest that, girl. As for Mr Comfort — it’s cold comfort he is, I always say. It’s little I think of what clergymen says, unless it be out of the pulpit or the like of that. What does they know about lads and lasses?”
“He’s a very old friend of mamma’s.”
“Old friends is always the best, I’ll not deny that. But, look thee here, my girl; my man’s an old friend too. He’s know’d thee since he lifted thee in his arms to pull the plums off that bough yonder; and he’s seen thee these ten years a deal oftener than Mr Comfort. If they say anything wrong of thy joe there, tell me, and Sturt’ll find out whether it be true or no. Don’t let ere a parson in Devonshire rob thee of thy sweetheart. It’s passing sweet, when true hearts meet. But it breaks the heart, when true hearts part,” With the salutary advice contained in these ancient local lines Mrs Sturt put her arms round Rachel, and having kissed her, bade her go.
With slow step she made her way across the green, hardly daring to look to the door of the cottage. But there was no figure standing at the door; and let her have looked with all her eyes, there was nothing there to have told her anything. She walked very slowly, thinking as she went of Mrs Sturt’s words —“Don’t let ere a parson in Devonshire rob thee of thy sweetheart.” Was it not hard upon her that she should be subjected to the misery of such discussion, seeing that she had given no hope, either to her lover or to herself, till she had received full warranty for doing so? She would do what her mother should bid her, let it be what it might; but she would be wronged — she felt that she would be wronged and injured, grievously injured, if her mother should now bid her think of Rowan as one thinks of those that are gone.
She entered the cottage slowly, and turning into the parlour, found her mother seated there on the old sofa, opposite to the fireplace. She was seated there in stiff composure, waiting the work which she had to do. It was no customary place of hers, and she was a woman who, in the ordinary occupations of her life, never deserted her customary places. She had an old easy chair near the fireplace, and another smaller chair close to the window, and in one of these she might always be found, unless when, on special occasions like the present, some great thing had occurred to throw her out of the grooves of her life.
“Well, mamma?” said Rachel, coming in and standing before her mother. Mrs Ray, before she spoke, looked up into her child’s face, and was afraid. “Well, mamma, what has Mr Comfort said?”
Was it not hard for Mrs Ray that at such a moment she should have had no sort of husband on whom to lean? Does the reader remember that in the opening words of this story Mrs Ray was described as a woman who specially needed some standing-corner, some post, some strong prop to bear her weight — some marital authority by which she might be guided? Such prop and such guiding she had never needed more sorely than she needed them now. She looked up into Rachel’s face before she spoke, and was afraid. “He has been here, my dear,” she said, “and has gone away.”
“Yes, mamma, I knew that,” said Rachel. “I saw his phaeton drive off; that’s why I came over from Mrs Sturt’s.”
Rachel’s voice was hard, and there was no comfort in it. It was so hard that Mrs Ray felt it to be unkind. No doubt Rachel suffered; but did not she suffer also? Would not she have given blood from her breast, like the maternal pelican, to have secured from that clerical counsellor a verdict that might have been comforting to her child? Would she not have made any sacrifice of self for such a verdict, even though the effecting of it must have been that she herself would have been left alone and deserted in the world? Why, then, should Rachel be stern to her? If misery was to fall on both of them, it was not of her doing.
“I know you will think it’s my fault, Rachel; but I cannot help it, even though you should say so. Of course I was obliged to ask someone; and who else was there that would be able to tell me so well as Mr Comfort? You would not have liked it at all if I had gone to Dorothea; and as for Mr Prong —”
“Oh! mamma, mamma, don’t! I haven’t said anything. I haven’t complained of Mr Comfort. What has he said now? You forget that you have not told me.”
“No, my dear, I don’t forget; I wish I could. He says that Mr Rowan has behaved badly to Mr Tappitt, and that he hasn’t paid his debts, and that the lawsuit will be sure to go against him, and that he will never show his face in Baslehurst again; and he says, too, that it would be very wrong for you to correspond with him — very; because a young girl like you must be so careful about such things; and he says he’ll be much more likely to respect you if you don’t — don’t — don’t just throw yourself into his arms like. Those were his very words; and then he says that if he really cares for you, he’ll be sure to come back again, and so you’re to answer the letter, and you must call him “Dear Mr Rowan.” Don’t call him Luke, because young men think so much about those things. And you are to tell him that there isn’t to be any engagement, or any letter-writing, or anything of that sort at all. But you can just say something friendly — about hoping he’s quite well, or something of that kind. And then when you come to the end, you had better sign yourself “Yours truly”. It won’t do to say anything about affection, because one never knows how it may turn out. And — let me see; them was only one thing more. Mr Comfort says that you are a good girl, and that he is sure you have done nothing wrong — not even in a word or a thought; and I say so too. You are my own beautiful child; and, Rachel — I do so wish I could make it all right between you”
Nobody can deny that Mrs Ray had given, with very fair accuracy, an epitome of Mr Comfort’s words; but they did not leave upon Rachel’s mind a very clear idea of what she was expected to do. “Go away in debt! she said; “who says so?”
“Mr Comfort told me so just now. But perhaps he’ll send the money in a money order you know.”
“I don’t think he would go away in debt. And why should the lawsuit go against him if he’s got right on his side? He does not wish to do any harm to Mr Tappitt.”
“I don’t know about that, my dear; but at any rate they’ve quarrelled.”
“But why shouldn’t that be Mr Tappitt’s fault as much as his? And as for not showing his face in Baslehurst —! Oh, mamma! don’t you know him well enough to be sure that he will never be ashamed of showing his face anywhere? He not show his face! Mamma, I don’t believe a word of it all — not a word.”
“Mr Comfort said so; he did indeed.” Then Mrs Sturt’s words came back upon Rachel. “Don’t let ere a parson in Devonshire rob thee of thy sweetheart.” This lover of hers was her only possession — the only thing of her own winning that she had ever valued. He was her great triumph, the rich upshot of her own prowess — and now she felt that this parson was indeed robbing her. Had he been then present, she would have risen up and spoken at him, as she had never spoken before. The spirit of rebellion against all the world was strong within her — against all the world except that one weak woman who now sat before her on the sofa. Her eyes were full of anger, and Mrs Ray saw that it was so; but still she was minded to obey her mother.
“It’s no good talking,” said Rachel; “but when they say that he’s afraid to show himself in Baslehurst, I don’t believe them. Does he look like a man afraid to show himself?”
“Looks are so deceitful, Rachel.”
“And as for debts — people, if they’re called away by telegraph in a minute, can’t pay all that they owe. There are plenty of people in Baslehurst that owe a deal more than he does, I’m sure. And he’s got his share in the brewery, so that nobody need be afraid.”
“Mr Comfort didn’t say that you were to quarrel with him altogether.”
“Mr Comfort —! What’s Mr Comfort to me, mamma?” This was said in such a tone that Mrs Ray absolutely started up from her seat.
“But, Rachel, he is my oldest friend. He was your father’s friend.”
“Why did he not say it before then? Why — why — why —? Mamma, I can’t throw him off now. Didn’t I tell him that — that — that I would — love him? Didn’t you say that it might be so — you yourself? How am I to show my face, if I go back now? Mamma, I do love him, with all my heart and all my strength, and nothing that anybody can say can make any difference. If he owed ever so much money I should love him the same. If he had killed Mr Tappitt it wouldn’t make any difference.”
“No more it would. If Mr Tappitt began it first, it wasn’t his fault.”
“But Rachel, my darling — what can we do? If he has gone away we cannot make him come back again.”
“But he wrote almost immediately.”
“And you are going to answer it — are you not?”
“Yes — but what sort of an answer, mamma? How can I expect that he will ever want to see me again when I have written to him in that way? I won’t say anything about hoping that he’s very well. If I may not tell him that he’s my own, own, own Luke, and that I love him with all my heart, I’ll bid him stay away and not trouble himself any further. I wonder what he’ll think of me when I write in that way!”
“If he’s constant-hearted he’ll wait a while and then he’ll come back again.”
“Why should he come back when I’ve treated him in that way? What have I got to give him? Mamma, you may write the letter yourself and put in it what you please.”
“Mr Comfort said that you had better write it.”
“Mr Comfort! I don’t know why I’m to do all that Mr Comfort tells me,” and then those other words of Mrs Sturt’s recurred to her, “It’s little I think of what a clergyman says unless it be out of a pulpit”. After that there was nothing further said for some minutes. Mrs Ray still sat on the sofa, and as she gazed upon the table which stood in the middle of the room, she wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. Rachel was now seated in a chair with her back almost turned to her mother, and was beating with her impatient fingers on the table. She was very angry — angry even with her mother; and she was half broken-hearted, believing that such a letter as that which she was desired to write would estrange her lover from her for ever. So they sat, and for a few minutes no word was spoken between them.
“Rachel,” said Mrs Ray at last, “if wrong has been done, is it not better that it should be undone?”
“What wrong have I done?” said Rachel, jumping up.
“It is I that have done it — not you.”
“No, mamma; you have done no wrong.”
“I should have known more before I let him come here and encouraged you to think of him. It has been my fault. My dear, will you not forgive me?”
“Mamma, there has been no fault. There is nothing to forgive.”
“I have made you unhappy, my child,” and then Mrs Ray burst out into open tears.
“No, mamma, I won’t be unhappy — or if I am I will bear it.” Then she got up and threw her arms round her mother’s neck, and embraced her. “I will write the letter, but I will not write it now. You shall see it before it goes.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01