There were during the summer months four Dorcas afternoons held weekly in Baslehurst, at all of which Mrs Prime presided. It was her custom to start soon after dinner, so as to reach the working room before three o’clock, and there she would remain till nine, or as long as the daylight remained. The meeting was held in a sitting-room belonging to Miss Pucker, for the use of which the Institution paid some moderate rent. The other ladies, all belonging to Baslehurst, were accustomed to go home to tea in the middle of their labours; but, as Mrs Prime could not do this because of the distance, she remained with Miss Pucker, paying for such refreshment as she needed. In this way there came to be a great friendship between Mrs Prime and Miss Pucker — or rather, perhaps, Mrs Prime thus obtained the services of a most obedient minister.
Rachel had on various occasions gone with her sister to the Dorcas meetings, and once or twice had remained at Miss Pucker’s house, drinking tea there. But this she greatly disliked. She was aware, when she did so, that her sister paid for her, and she thought that Dorothea showed by her behaviour that she was mistress of the entertainment. And then Rachel greatly disliked Miss Pucker. She disliked that lady’s squint, she disliked the tone of her voice, she disliked her subservience to Mrs Prime, and she especially disliked the vehemence of her objection to — young men. When Rachel had last left Miss Pucker’s room she had resolved that she would never again drink tea there. She had not said to herself positively that she would attend no more of the Dorcas meetings — but as regarded their summer arrangement this resolve against the tea-drinking amounted almost to the same thing.
It was on this account, I protest, and by no means on account of that young man from the brewery, that Rachel had with determination opposed her sister’s request on this special Saturday. And the refusal had been made in an unaccustomed manner, owing to the request also having been pressed with unusual vigour.
“Rachel, I particularly wish it, and I think that you ought to come,” Dorothea had said.
“I had rather not come, Dolly.”
“That means”, continued Mrs Prime, “that you prefer your pleasure to your duty — that you boldly declare yourself determined to neglect that which you know you ought to do.”
“I don’t know any such thing,” said Rachel.
“If you think of it you will know it,” said Mrs Prime.
“At any rate I don’t mean to go to Miss Pucker’s this afternoon.” Then Rachel left the room.
It was immediately after this conversation that Mrs Prime uttered to Mrs Ray that terrible hint about the young man; and at the same time uttered another hint by which she strove to impress upon her mother that Rachel ought to be kept in subordination — in fact, that the power should not belong to Rachel of choosing whether she would or would not go to Dorcas meetings. In all such matters, according to Dorothea’s view of the case, Rachel should do as she was bidden. But then how was Rachel to be made to do as she was bidden? How was her sister to enforce her attendance? Obedience in this world depends as frequently on the weakness of him who is governed as on the strength of him who governs. That man who was going to the left is ordered by you with some voice of command to go to the right. When he hesitates you put more command into your voice, more command into your eyes — and then he obeys. Mrs Prime had tried this, but Rachel had not turned to the right. When Mrs Prime applied for aid to their mother, it was a sign that the power of command was going from herself. After dinner the elder sister made another little futile attempt, and then, when she had again failed, she trudged off with her basket.
Mrs Ray and Rachel were left sitting at the open window, looking out upon the mignonette. It was now in July, when the summer sun is at the hottest — and in those southern parts of Devonshire the summer sun in July is very hot. There is no other part of England like it. The lanes are low and narrow, and not a breath of air stirs through them. The ground rises in hills on all sides, so that every spot is a sheltered nook. The rich red earth drinks in the heat and holds it, and no breezes come up from the southern torpid sea. Of all counties in England Devonshire is the fairest to the eye; but, having known it in its summer glory, I must confess that those southern regions are not fitted for much noonday summer walking.
“I’m afraid she’ll find it very hot with that big basket,” said Mrs Ray, after a short pause. It must not be supposed that either she or Rachel were idle because they remained at home. They both had their needles in their hands, and Rachel was at work, not on that coloured frock of her own which had roused her sister’s suspicion, but on needful aid to her mother’s Sunday gown.
“She might have left it in Baslehurst if she liked,” said Rachel, “or I would have carried it for her as far as the bridge, only that she was so angry with me when she went.”
“I don’t think she was exactly angry, Rachel.”
“Oh, but she was, mamma — very angry. I know by her way of flinging out of the house.”
“I think she was sorry because you would not go with her.”
“But I don’t like going there, mamma. I don’t like that Miss Pucker. I can’t go without staying to tea, and I don’t like drinking tea there.” Then there was a little pause. “You don’t want me to go — do you, mamma? How would the things get done here? and you can’t like having your tea alone.”
“No; I don’t like that at all,” said Mrs Ray. But she hardly thought of what she was saying. Her mind was away, working on the subject of that young man. She felt that it was her duty to say something to Rachel, and yet she did not know what to say. Was she to quote Miss Pucker? It went, moreover, sorely against the grain with her to disturb the comfort of their present happy moments by any disagreeable allusion. The world gave her nothing better than those hours in which Rachel was alone with her — in which Rachel tended her and comforted her. No word had been said on a subject so wicked and full of vanity, but Mrs Ray knew that her evening meal would be brought in at half past five in the shape of a little feast — a feast which would not be spread if Mrs Prime had remained at home. At five o’clock Rachel would slip away and make hot toast, and would run over the Green to Farmer Sturt’s wife for a little thick cream, and there would be a batter cake, and so there would be a feast. Rachel was excellent at the preparation of such banquets, knowing how to coax the teapot into a good drawing humour, and being very clever in little comforts; and she would hover about her mother, in a way very delightful to that lady, making the widow feel for the time that there was a gleam of sunshine in the valley of tribulation. All that must be over for this afternoon if she spoke of Miss Pucker and the young man. Yes; and must it not be over for many an afternoon to come? If there were to be distrust between her and Rachel what would her life be worth to her?
But yet there was her duty! As she sat there looking out into the garden indistinct ideas of what were a mother’s duties to her child lay heavy on her mind — ideas which were very indistinct, but which were not on that account the less powerful in their operation. She knew that it behoved her to sacrifice everything to her child’s welfare, but she did not know what special sacrifice she was at this moment called upon to make. Would it be well that she should leave this matter altogether in the hands of Mrs Prime, and thus, as it were, abdicate her own authority? Mrs Prime would undertake such a task with much more skill and power of language than she could use. But then would this be fair to Rachel, and would Rachel obey her sister? Any explicit direction from herself — if only she could bring herself to give any — Rachel would, she thought, obey. In this way she resolved that she would break the ice and do her duty.
“Are you going into Baslehurst this evening, dear?” she said.
“Yes, mamma; I shall walk in after tea — that is if you don’t want me. I told the Miss Tappitts I would meet them.”
“No; I shan’t want you. But, Rachel —”
Mrs Ray did not know how to do it. The matter was surrounded with difficulties. How was she to begin, so as to introduce the subject of the young man without shocking her child and showing an amount of distrust which she did not feel? “Do you like those Miss Tappitts?” she said.
“Yes — in a sort of a way. They are very good-natured, and one likes to know somebody. I think they are nicer than Miss Pucker.”
“Oh, yes — I never did like Miss Pucker myself. But, Rachel —”
“What is it, mamma? I know you’ve something to say, and that you don’t half like to say it. Dolly has been telling tales about me, and you want to lecture me, only you haven’t got the heart. Isn’t that it, mamma?” Then she put down her work, and coming close up to her mother, knelt before her and looked up into her face, “You want to scold me, and you haven’t got the heart to do it.”
“My darling, my darling,” said the mother, stroking her child’s soft smooth hair. “I don’t want to scold you — I never want to scold you. I hate scolding anybody.”
“I know you do, mamma.”
“But they have told me something which has frightened me.”
“They! who are they?”
“Your sister told me, and Miss Pucker told her.”
“Oh, Miss Pucker! What business has Miss Pucker with me? If she is to come between us all our happiness will be over.” Then Rachel rose from her knees and began to look angry, whereupon her mother was more frightened than ever. “But let me hear it, mamma. I’ve no doubt it is something very awful.”
Mrs Ray looked at her daughter with beseeching eyes, as though praying to be forgiven for having introduced a subject so disagreeable. “Dorothea says that on Wednesday evening you were walking under the churchyard elms with — that young man from the brewery.”
At any rate everything had been said now. The extent of the depravity with which Rachel was to be charged had been made known to her in the very plainest terms. Mrs Ray as she uttered the terrible words turned first pale and then red — pale with fear and red with shame. As soon as she had spoken them she wished the words unsaid. Her dislike to Miss Pucker amounted almost to hatred. She felt bitterly even towards her own eldest daughter. She looked timidly into Rachel’s face and unconsciously construed into their true meaning those lines which formed themselves on the girl’s brow and over her eyes.
“Well, mamma; and what else?” said Rachel.
“Dorothea thinks that perhaps you are going into Baslehurst to meet him again.”
“And suppose I am?”
From the tone in which this question was asked it was clear to Mrs Ray that she was expected to answer it. And yet what answer could she make?
It had never occurred to her that her child would take upon herself to defend such conduct as that imputed to her, or that any question would be raised as to the propriety or impropriety of the proceeding. She was by no means prepared to show why it was so very terrible and iniquitous. She regarded it as a sin — known to be a sin generally — as is stealing or lying. “Suppose I am going to walk with him again? what then?”
“Oh, Rachel, who is he? I don’t even know his name. I didn’t believe it, when Dorothea told me; only as she did tell me I thought I ought to mention it. Oh dear, oh dear! I hope there is nothing wrong. You were always so good — I can’t believe anything wrong of you.”
“No, mamma — don’t. Don’t think evil of me.”
“I never did, my darling.”
“I am not going into Baslehurst to walk with Mr Rowan — for I suppose it is him you mean.”
“I don’t know, my dear; I never heard the young man’s name.”
“It is Mr Rowan. I did walk with him along the churchyard path when that woman with her sharp squinting eyes saw me. He does belong to the brewery. He is related in some way to the Tappitts, and was a nephew of old Mrs Bungall’s. He is there as a clerk, and they, say he is to be a partner — only I don’t think he ever will, for he quarrels with Mr Tappitt.”
“Dear, dear!” said Mrs Ray.
“And now, mamma, you know as much about him as I do; only this, that he went to Exeter this morning, and does not come back till Monday, so that it is impossible that I should meet him in Baslehurst this evening — and it was very unkind of Dolly to say so; very unkind indeed.” Then Rachel gave way and began to cry.
It certainly did seem to Mrs Ray that Rachel knew a good deal about Mr Rowan. She knew of his kith and kin, she knew of his prospects and what was like to mar his prospects, and she knew also of his immediate proceedings, whereabouts, and intentions. Mrs Ray did not logically draw any conclusion from these premises, but she became uncomfortably assured that there did exist a considerable intimacy between Mr Rowan and her daughter. And how had it come to pass that this had been allowed to form itself without any knowledge on her part? Miss Pucker might be odious and disagreeable — Mrs Ray was inclined to think that the lady in question was very odious and disagreeable — but must it not be admitted that her little story about the young man had proved itself to be true?
“I never will go to those nasty rag meetings any more.”
“Oh, Rachel, don’t speak in that way.”
“But I won’t. I will never put my foot in that woman’s room again. They talk nothing but scandal all the time they are there, and speak any ill they can of the poor young girls whom they talk about. If you don’t mind my knowing Mr Rowan, what is it to them?”
But this was assuming a great deal. Mrs Ray was by no means prepared to say that she did not object to her daughter’s acquaintance with Mr Rowan. “But I don’t know anything about him, my dear. I never heard his name before.”
“No, mamma; you never did. And I know very little of him; so little that there has been nothing to tell — at least next to nothing, I don’t want to have any secrets from you, mamma.”
“But, Rachel — he isn’t, is he —? I mean there isn’t anything particular between him and you? How was it you were walking with him alone?”
“I wasn’t walking with him alone — at least only for a little way. He had been out with his cousins and we had all been together, and when they went in, of course I was obliged to come home. I couldn’t help his coming along the churchyard path with me. And what if he did, mamma? He couldn’t bite me.”
“But, my dear —”
“Oh, mamma — don’t be afraid of me.” Then she came across, and again knelt at her mother’s feet. “If you’ll trust me I’ll tell you everything.”
Upon hearing this assurance, Mrs Ray of course promised Rachel that she would trust her and expected in return to be told everything then, at the moment. But she perceived that her daughter did not mean to tell her anything further at that time. Rachel, when she had received her mother’s promise, embraced her warmly, caressing her and petting her as was her custom, and then after a while she resumed her work. Mrs Ray was delighted to have the evil thing over, but she could not but feel that the conversation had not terminated as it should have done.
Soon after that the hour arrived for their little feast, and Rachel went about her work just as merrily and kindly as though there had been no words about the young man. She went across for the cream, and stayed gossiping for some few minutes with Mrs Sturt. Then she bustled about the kitchen making the tea and toasting the bread. She had never been more anxious to make everything comfortable for her mother, and never more eager in her coaxing way of doing honour to the good things which she had prepared; but, through it all, her mother was aware that everything was not right; there was something in Rachel’s voice which betrayed inward uneasiness — something in the vivacity of her movements that was not quite true to her usual nature. Mrs Ray felt that it was so, and could not therefore be altogether at her ease. She pretended to enjoy herself — but Rachel knew that her joy was not real. Nothing further, however, was said, either regarding that evening’s walk into Baslehurst, or touching that other walk as to which Miss Pucker’s tale had been told. Mrs Ray had done as much as her courage enabled her to attempt on that occasion.
When the tea-drinking was over, and the cups and spoons had been tidily put away, Rachel prepared herself for her walk. She had been very careful that nothing should be hurried — that there should be no apparent anxiety on her part to leave her mother quickly. And even when all was done, she would not go without some assurance of her mother’s goodwill. “If you have any wish that I should stay, mamma, I don’t care in the least about going.”
“No, my dear; I don’t want you to stay at all.”
“Your dress is finished.”
“Thank you, my dear; you have been very good.”
“I haven’t been good at all; but I will be good if you’ll trust me.”
“I will trust you.”
“At any rate you need not be afraid tonight, for I am only going to take a walk with these three girls across the church meadows. They’re always very civil, and I don’t like to turn my back upon them.”
“I don’t wish you to turn your back upon them.”
“It’s stupid not to know anybody; isn’t it?”
“I dare say it is,” said Mrs Ray. Then Rachel had finished tying on her hat, and she walked forth.
For more than two hours after that the widow sat alone, thinking of her children. As regarded Mrs Prime, there was at any rate no cause for trembling, timid thoughts. She might be regarded as being safe from the world’s wicked allurements. She was founded like a strong rock, and was, with her steadfast earnestness, a staff on which her weaker mother might lean with security. But then she was so stern — and her very strength was so oppressive! Rachel was weaker, more worldly, given terribly to vain desires and thoughts that were almost wicked; but then it was so pleasant to live with her! And Rachel, though weak and worldly and almost wicked, was so very good and kind and sweet! As Mrs Ray thought of this she began to doubt whether, after all, the world was so very bad a place, and whether the wickedness of tea and toast, and of other creature comforts, could be so very great. “I wonder what sort of a young man he is,” she said to herself.
Mrs Prime’s return was always timed with the regularity of clockwork. At this period of the year she invariably came in exactly at half past nine. Mrs Ray was very anxious that Rachel should come in first, so that nothing should be said of her walk on this evening, she had been unwilling to imply distrust by making any special request on this occasion, and had therefore said nothing on the subject as Rachel went; but she had carefully watched the clock, and had become uneasy as the time came round for Mrs Prime’s appearance. Exactly at half past nine she entered the house, bringing with her the heavy basket laden with work, and bringing with her also a face full of the deepest displeasure, she said nothing as she seated herself wearily on a chair against the wall; but her manner was such as to make it impossible that her mother should not notice it, “Is there anything wrong, Dorothea?” she said.
“Rachel has not come home yet, of course?” said Mrs Prime.
“No; not yet. She is with the Miss Tappitts.”
“No, mother, she is not with the Miss Tappitts:” and her voice, as she said these words, was dreadful to the mother’s ears.
“Isn’t she? I thought she was. Do you know where she is?”
“Who is to say where she is? Half an hour since I saw her alone with —”
“With whom? Not with that young man from the brewery, for he is at Exeter.”
“Mother, he is here — in Baslehurst! Half an hour since he and Rachel were standing alone together beneath the elms in the churchyard. I saw them with my own eyes.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01