Rachel, as soon as she had made her mother the promise that she would write the letter, left the parlour and went up to her own room. She had many thoughts to adjust in her mind which could not be adjusted satisfactorily otherwise than in solitude, and it was clearly necessary that they should be adjusted before she could write her letter. It must be remembered, not only that she had never before written a letter to a lover, but that she had never before written a letter of importance to anyone. She had threatened at one moment that she would leave the writing of it to her mother; but there came upon her a feeling, of which she was hardly conscious, that she herself might probably compose the letter in a strain of higher dignity than her mother would be likely to adopt. That her lover would be gone from her for ever she felt almost assured; but still it would be much to her that, on going, he should so leave her that his respect might remain, though his love would be a thing of the past. In her estimation he was a noble being, to have been loved by whom even for a few days was more honour than she had ever hoped to win. For a few days she had been allowed to think that her great fortune intended him to be her husband. But Fate had interposed, and now she feared that all her joy was at an end. But her joy should be so relinquished that she herself should not be disgraced in the giving of it up. She sat there alone for an hour, and was stronger, when that hour was over, than she had been when she left her mother. Her pride had supported her, and had been sufficient for her support in that first hour of her sorrow. It is ever so with us in our misery. In the first flush of our wretchedness, let the outward signs of our grief be what they may, we promise to ourselves the support of some inner strength which shall suffice to us at any rate as against the eyes of the outer world. But anon, and that inner staff fails us; our pride yields to our tears; our dignity is crushed beneath the load with which we have burdened it, and then with loud wailings we own ourselves to be the wretches which we are. But now Rachel was in the hour of her pride, and as she came down from her room she resolved that her sorrow should be buried in her own bosom. She had known what it was to love — had known it, perhaps, for one whole week — and now that knowledge was never to avail her again. Among them all she had been robbed of her sweetheart. She had been bidden to give her heart to this man — her heart and hand; and now, when she had given all her heart, she was bidden to refuse her hand. She had not ventured to love till her love had been sanctioned. It had been sanctioned, and she had loved; and now that sanction was withdrawn! She knew that she was injured — deeply, cruelly injured, but she would bear it, showing nothing, and saying nothing. With this resolve she came down from her room, and began to employ herself on her household work.
Mrs Ray watched her carefully, and Rachel knew that she was watched; but she took no outward notice of it, going on with her work, and saying a soft, gentle word now and again, sometimes to her mother and sometimes to the little maiden who attended them. “Will you come to dinner, mamma?” she said with a smile, taking her mother by the hand.
“I shouldn’t mind if I never sat down to dinner again,” said Mrs Ray.
“Oh, mamma! don’t say that; just when you are going to thank God for the good things he gives you.”
Then Mrs Ray, in a low voice, as though rebuked, said the grace, and they sat down together to their meal.
The afternoon went with them very slowly and almost in silence. Neither of them would now speak about Luke Rowan; and to neither of them was it as yet possible to speak about aught else. One word on the subject was said during those hours. “You won’t have time for your letter after tea,” Mrs Ray said.
“I shall not write it till tomorrow,” Rachel answered; “another day will do no harm now.”
At tea Mrs Ray asked her whether she did not think that a walk would do her good, and offered to accompany her; but Rachel, acceding to the proposition of a walk, declared that she would go alone. “It’s very bad of me to say so, isn’t it, when you’re so good as to offer to go with me?” But Mrs Ray kissed her; saying, with many words, that she was satisfied that it should be so. “You want to think of things, I know,” said the mother. Rachel acknowledged, by a slight motion of her head, that she did want to think of things, and soon after that she started.
“I believe I’ll call on Dolly,” she said. “It would be bad to quarrel with her; and perhaps now she’ll come back here to live with us — only I forgot about Mr Prong.” It was agreed, however, that she should call on her sister, and ask her to dine at the cottage on the following day.
She walked along the road straight into Baslehurst, and went at once to her sister’s lodgings. She had another place to visit before she returned home but it was a place for which a later hour in the evening would suit her better. Mrs Prime was at home; and Rachel, on being shown up into the sitting-room — a room in which every piece of furniture had become known to her during those Dorcas meetings — found not only her sister sitting there, but also Miss Pucker and Mr Prong. Rachel had not seen that gentleman since she had learned that he was to become her brother-in-law, and hardly knew in what way to greet him; but it soon became apparent to her that no outward show of regard was expected from her at that moment.
“I think you know my sister, Mr Prong,” said Dorothea. Whereupon Mr Prong rose from his chair, took Rachel’s hand, pressing it between his own, and then sat down again. Rachel, judging from his countenance, thought that some cloud had passed also across the sunlight of his love. She made her little speech, giving her mother’s love, and adding her own assurance that she hoped her sister would come out and dine at the cottage.
“I really don’t know,” said Mrs Prime. “Such goings about do cut up one’s time so much, I shouldn’t be here again till —”
“Of course you’d stay for tea with us,” said Rachel.
“And lose the whole afternoon,” said Mrs Prime.
“Oh do!” said Miss Pucker. “You have been working so hard; hasn’t she now, Mr Prong? At this time of the year a sniff of fresh air among the flowers do a body so much good” And Miss Pucker looked and spoke as though she also would like the sniff of fresh air.
“I’m very well in health, and am thankful for it. I can’t say that it’s needed in that way,” said Mrs Prime,
“But mamma will be so glad to see you,” said Rachel.
“I think you ought to go, Dorothea,” said Mr Prong; and even Rachel could perceive that there was some slight touch of authority in his voice. It was the slightest possible intonation of a command; but, nevertheless, it struck Rachel’s ears.
Mrs Prime merely shook her head and sniffed. It was not for a supply of air that she used her nostrils on this occasion, but that she might indicate some grain of contempt for the authority which Mr Prong had attempted to exercise. “I think I’d rather not, Rachel, thank you — not to dinner, that is. Perhaps I’ll walk out in the evening after tea, when the work of the day is over. If I come then, perhaps my friend, Miss Pucker, may come with me.”
“And if your esteemed mamma will allow me to pay my respects,” said Mr Prong, “I shall be most happy to accompany the ladies.”
It will be acknowledged that Rachel had no alternative left to her. She said that her mother would be happy to see Mr Prong, and happy to see Miss Pucker also. As to herself, she made no such assertion, being in her present mood too full of her own thoughts to care much for the ordinary courtesies of life.
“I’m very sorry you won’t come to dinner, Dolly,” she said; but she abstained from any word of asking the others to tea.
“If it had only been Mr Prong,” she said to her mother afterwards, “I should have asked him; for I suppose he’ll have to come to the house sooner or later. But I wouldn’t tell that horrid, squinting woman that you wanted to see her, for I’m sure you don’t.”
“But we must give them some cake and a glass of sweet wine,” said Mrs Ray.
“She won’t have to take her bonnet off for that as she would for tea, and it isn’t so much like making herself at home here. I couldn’t bear to have to ask her up to my room.”
On leaving the house in the High Street, which she did about eight o’clock, she took her way towards the churchyard — not passing down Brewery Lane, by Mr Tappitt’s house, but taking the main street which led from the High Street to the church. But at the corner, just as she was about to leave the High Street, she was arrested by a voice that was familiar to her, and, turning round, she saw Mrs Cornbury seated in a low carriage, and driving a pair of ponies. “How are you, Rachel?” said Mrs Cornbury, shaking hands with her friend, for Rachel had gone out into the street up to the side of the carriage, when she found that Mrs Cornbury had stopped. “I’m going by the cottage — to papa’s. I see you are turning the other way; but if you’ve not much delay, I’ll stay for you and take you home.”
But Rachel had before her that other visit to make, and she was not minded to omit it or postpone it. “I should like it so much,” said Rachel, “but —”
“Ah! well; I see. You’ve got other fish to fry. But, Rachel, look here, dear —” and Mrs Cornbury almost whispered into her ear across the side of the pony carriage —“don’t you believe quite all you hear, I’ll find out the truth, and you shall know. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Mrs Cornbury,” said Rachel, pressing her friend’s hand as she parted from her. This allusion to her lover had called a blush up over her whole face, so that Mrs Cornbury well knew that she had been understood. “I’ll see to it,” she said, driving away her ponies.
See to it! How could she see to it when that letter should have been written? And Rachel was well aware that another day must not pass without the writing of it.
She went down across the churchyard, leaving the path to the brewery on her left, and that leading out under the elm trees to her right, and went on straight to the stile at which she had stood with Luke Rowan, watching the reflection of the setting sun among the clouds. This was the spot which she had determined to visit; and she had come hither hoping that she might again see some form in the heavens which might remind her of that which he had shown her. The stile, at any rate, was the same, and there were the trees beneath which they had stood, There were the rich fields, lying beneath her, over which they two had gazed together at the fading lights of the evening. There was no arm in the clouds now, and the perverse sun was retiring to his rest without any of that royal pageantry and illumination with which the heavens are wont to deck themselves when their king goes to his couch. But Rachel, though she had come thither to look for these things and had not found them, hardly marked their absence. Her mind became so full of him and of his words, that she required no outward signs to refresh her memory, she thought so much of his look on that evening, of the tones of his voice, and of every motion of his body, that she soon forgot to watch the clouds, she sat herself down upon the stile with her face turned away from the fields, telling herself that she would listen for the footsteps of strangers, so that she might move away if any came near her; but she soon forgot also to listen, and sat there thinking of him alone. The words that had been spoken between them on that occasion had been but trifling — very few and of small moment; but now they seemed to her to have contained all her destiny. It was there that love for him had first come upon her — had come over her with broad outspread wings like an angel; but whether as an angel of darkness or of light, her heart had then been unable to perceive. How well she remembered it all; how he had taken her by the hand, claiming the right of doing so as an ordinary farewell greeting; and how he had held her, looking into her face, till she had been forced to speak some word of rebuke to him! “I did not think you would behave like that,” she had said. But yet at that very moment her heart was going from her. The warm friendliness of his touch, the firm, clear brightness of his eye, and the eager tone of his voice, were even then subduing her coy unwillingness to part with her maiden love. She had declared to herself then that she was angry with him; but, since that, she had declared to herself that nothing could have been better, finer, sweeter than all that he had said and done on that evening. It had been his right to hold her, if he intended afterwards to claim her as his own. “I like you so very much,” he had said; “why should we not be friends?” She had gone away from him then, fleeing along the path, bewildered, ignorant as to her own feelings, conscious almost of a sin in having listened to him; but still filled with a wondrous delight that anyone so good, so beautiful, so powerful as he, should have cared to ask for her friendship in such pressing words. During all her walk home she had been full of fear and wonder and mysterious delight. Then had come the ball, which in itself had hardly been so pleasant to her, because the eyes of many had watched her there. But she thought of the moment when he had first come to her in Mrs Tappitt’s drawing-room, just as she was resolving that he did not intend to notice her further, she thought of those repeated dances which had been so dear to her, but which, in their repetition, had frightened her so grievously. She thought of the supper, during which he had insisted on sitting by her; and of that meeting in the hall, during which he had, as it were, forced her to remain and listen to him — forced her to stay with him till, in her agony of fear, she had escaped away to her friend and begged that she might be taken home! As she sat by Mrs Cornbury in the carriage, and afterwards as she had thought of it all while lying in her bed, she had declared to herself that he had been very wrong — but since that, during those few days of her permitted love, she had sworn to herself as often that he had been very right.
And he had been right. She said so to herself now again, though the words which he had spoken and the things which he had done had brought upon her all this sorrow. He had been right. If he loved her it was only manly and proper in him to tell his love. And for herself — seeing that she had loved, had it not been proper and womanly in her to declare her love? What had she done; when, at what point, had she gone astray, that she should be brought to such a pass as this? At the beginning, when he had held her hand on the spot where she was now sitting, and again when he had kept her prisoner in Mr Tappitt’s hall, she had been half-conscious of some sin, half-ashamed of her own conduct; but that undecided fear of sin and shame had been washed out, and everything had been made white as snow, as pure as running water, as bright as sunlight, by the permission to love this man which had been accorded to her. What had she since done that she should be brought to such a pass as that in which she now found herself?
As she thought of this she was bitter against all the world except him — almost bitter against her own mother. She had said that she would obey in this matter of the letter, and she knew well that she would in truth do as her mother bade her. But, sitting there, on the churchyard stile, she hatched within her mind plans of disobedience — dreadful plans! She would not submit to this usage. She would go away from Baslehurst without knowledge of anyone, and would seek him out in his London home. It would be unmaidenly — but what cared she now for that — unless, indeed, he should care? All her virgin modesty and young maiden fears — was it not for him that she would guard them, for his delight and his pride? And if she were to see him no more, if she were to be forced to bid him go from her, of what avail would it be now to her to cherish and maintain the unsullied brightness of her woman’s armour? If he were lost to her, everything was lost. She would go to him, and throwing herself at his feet would swear to him that life without his love was no longer possible for her. If he would then take her as his wife she would strive to bless him with all that the tenderness of a wife could give. If he should refuse her — then she would go away and die. In such case what to her would be the judgement of any man or any woman? What to her would be her sister’s scorn and the malignant virtue of such as Miss Pucker and Mr Prong? What the upturned hands and amazement of Mr Comfort? It would have been they who had driven her to this.
But how about her mother when she should have thus thrown herself overboard from the ship and cast herself away from the pilotage which had hitherto been the guide of her conduct? Why — why — why had her mother deserted her in her need? As she thought of her mother she knew that her plan of rebellion was nothing; but why — why had her mother deserted her?
As for him, and these new tidings which had come to the cottage respecting him, she would have cared for them not a jot. Mrs Cornbury had cautioned her not to believe all that she heard; but she had already declined — had altogether declined to believe any of it. It was to her, whether believed or disbelieved, matter altogether irrelevant. A wife does not cease to love her husband because he gets into trouble. She does not turn against him because others have quarrelled with him. She does not separate her lot from his because he is in debt! Those are the times when a wife, a true wife, sticks closest to her husband, and strives the hardest to lighten the weight of his cares by the tenderness of her love! And had she not been permitted to place herself in that position with regard to him when she had been permitted to love him? In all her thoughts she recognised the right of her mother to have debarred her from the privilege of loving this man, if such embargo had been placed on her before her love had been declared. She had never, even within her own bosom, assumed to herself the right of such privilege without authority expressed. But her very soul revolted against this withdrawal of the sanction that had been given to her. The spirit within her rebelled, though she knew that she would not carry on that rebellion by word or deed. But she had been injured — injured almost to death; injured even to death itself as regarded all that life could give her worth her taking! As she thought of this injury that fierce look of which I have spoken came across her brow! She would obey her pastors and masters. Yes; she would obey them. But she could never again be soft and pliable within their hands. Obedience in this matter was a necessity to her. In spite of that wild thought of throwing off her maiden bonds and allowing her female armour to be splashed and sullied in the gutter, she knew that there was that which would hinder her from the execution of such scheme. She was bound by her woman’s lot to maintain her womanly purity. Let her suffer as she might, there was nothing for her but obedience. She could not go forth as though she were a man, and claim her right to stand or fall by her love. She had been injured in being brought to such plight as this, but she would bear her injury as best might be within her power.
She was still thinking of all this, and still sitting with her eyes turned towards the tower of the church, when she was touched on the back by a light hand. She turned round quickly, startled by the touch — for she had heard no footstep — and saw Martha Tappitt and Cherry. It was Cherry who had come close upon her, and it was Cherry’s voice that she first heard, “A penny for your thoughts,” said Cherry.
“Oh, you have so startled me!” said Rachel.
“Then I suppose your thoughts were worth more than a penny. Perhaps you were thinking of an absent knight.” And then Cherry began to sing —“Away, away, away. He loves and he rides away.”
Poor Rachel blushed and was unable to speak, “Don’t be so foolish,” said Martha to her sister. “It’s ever so long since we’ve seen you, Rachel. Why don’t you come and walk with us?”
“Yes, indeed — why don’t you?” said Cherry, whose good nature was quite as conspicuous as her bad taste. She knew now that she had vexed Rachel, and was thoroughly sorry that she had done so. If any other girl had quizzed her about her lover it would not have annoyed her, and she had not understood at first that Rachel Ray might be different from herself, “I declare we have hardly seen you since the night of the party, and we think it very ill-natured in you not to come to us. Do come and walk tomorrow.”
“Oh, thank you — not tomorrow, because my sister is coming out from Baslehurst, to spend the evening with us.”
“Well — on Saturday, then,” said Cherry, persistingly.
But Rachel would make no promise to walk with them on any day. She felt that she must henceforth be divided from the Tappitts. Had not he quarrelled with Mr Tappitt; and could it be fitting that she should keep up any friendship with the family that was hostile to him? She was also aware that Mrs Tappitt was among those who were desirous of robbing her of her lover. Mrs Tappitt was her enemy as Mr Tappitt was his. She asked herself no question as to that duty of forgiving them the injuries they had done her, but she felt that she was divided from them — from Mr and Mrs Tappitt, and also from the girls. And, moreover, in her present strait she wanted no friend. She could not talk to any friend about her lover, and she could not bring herself even to think on any other subject.
“It’s late”, she said, “and I must go home, as mamma will be expecting me.”
Cherry had almost replied that she had not been in so great a hurry once before, when she had stood in the churchyard with another companion; but she thought of Rachel’s reproachful face when her last little joke had been uttered, and she refrained.
“She’s over head and ears in love,” said Cherry to her sister, when Rachel was gone.
“I’m afraid she has been very foolish,” said Martha, seriously.
“I don’t see that she has been foolish at all. He’s a very nice fellow, and as far as I can see he’s just as fond of her as she is of him.”
“But we know what that means with young men,” said Martha, who was sufficiently serious in her way of thinking to hold by that doctrine as to wolves in sheep’s clothing in which Mrs Ray had been educated.
“But young men do marry — sometimes,” said Cherry.
“But not merely for the sake of a pretty face or a good figure. I believe mamma is right in that, and I don’t think he’ll come back again.”
“If he were my lover I’d have him back,” said Cherry, stoutly — and so they went away to the brewery.
Rachel on her way home determined that she would write her letter that night. Her mother was to read it when it was written; that was understood to be the agreement between them; but there would be no reason why she should not be alone when she wrote it. She could word it very differently, she thought, if she sat alone over it in her own bedroom, than she could do immediately under her mother’s eye. She could not pause and think and perhaps weep over it, sitting at the parlour table, with her mother in her armchair, close by, watching her. It needed that she should write it with tears, with many struggles, with many baffled attempts to find the words that would be wanted — with her very heart’s blood. It must not be tender. No; she was prepared to omit all tenderness. And it must probably be short — but if so its very shortness would be another difficulty. As she walked along she could not tell herself with what words she would write it; but she thought that the words would perhaps come to her if she waited long enough for them in the solitude of her own chamber.
She reached home by nine o’clock and sat with her mother for an hour, reading out loud some book on which they were then engaged.
“I think I’ll go to bed now, mamma,” she said.
“You always want to go to bed so soon,” said Mrs Ray. “I think you are getting tired of reading out loud. That will be very sad for me with my eyes.”
“No, I’m not, mamma, and I’ll go on again for half an hour, if you please; but I thought you liked going to bed at ten.”
The watch was consulted, and as it was not quite ten Rachel did go on for another half-hour, and then she went up to her bedroom.
She sat herself down at her open window and looked out for a while upon the heavens. The summer moon was at its full, so that the green before the cottage was as clear before her as in the day, and she could see over into the gloom of Mr Sturt’s farmyard across it. She had once watched Rowan as he came over the turf towards the cottage swinging his stick in his hand, and now she gazed on the spot where the Baslehurst road came in as though she expected that his figure might again appear. She looked and looked, thinking of this, till she would hardly have been surprised had that figure really come forth upon the road. But no figure was to be seen, and after awhile she withdrew from the window and sat herself down at the little table. It was very late when she undressed herself and went to her bed, and later still when her eyes, red with many tears, were closed in sleep — but the letter had been written and was ready for her mother’s inspection, This was the letter as it stood after many struggles in the writing of it:
“Bragg’s End “Thursday, 186 —.
“ MY DEAR MR. ROWAN,
“I am much obliged to you for having written the letter which I received from you the other day, and I should have answered it sooner, only mamma thought it best to see Mr Comfort first, as he is our clergyman here, and to ask his advice. I hope you will not be annoyed because I showed your letter to mamma, but I could not receive any letter from you without doing so, and I may as well tell you that she will read this before it goes.
“And now that I have begun I hardly know how to write what I have to say. Mr Comfort and mamma have determined that there must be nothing fixed as an engagement between us, and that for the present, at least, I may not correspond with you. This will be my first and last letter. As that will be so, of course I shall not expect you to write any more, and I know that you will be very angry. But if you understood all my feelings I think that perhaps you would not be very, very angry. I know it is true that when you asked me that question, I nodded my head as you say in your letter. If I had sworn the twenty oaths of which you speak they would not, as you say, have bound me tighter. But neither could bind me to anything against mamma’s will. I thought that you were very generous to come to me as you did — oh, so generous! I don’t know why you should have looked to such a one as me to be your wife. But I would have done my best to make you happy, had I been able to do as I suppose you then wished me. But you well know that a man is very different from a girl, and of course I must do as mamma wishes.
“They say that as the business here about the brewery is so very unsettled they think it probable that you will not have to come back to Baslehurst any more; and that as our acquaintance has been so very short, it is not reasonable to suppose that you will care much about me after a little while. Perhaps it is not reasonable, and after this I shall have no right to be angry with you if you forget me. I don’t think you will quite forget me; but I shall never expect or even hope to see you again. [Twice in writing her letter Rachel cut out this latter assertion, but at last, sobbing in despair, she restored the words. What right would she have to hope that he would come to her, after she had taken upon herself to break that promise which had been conveyed to him, when she bent her head over his arm?] I shall not forget you, and I will always be your friend, as you said I should be. Being friends is very different to anything else, and nobody can say that I may not do that.
“I will always remember what you showed me in the clouds; and, indeed, I went there this very evening to see if I could see another arm. But there was nothing there, and I have taken that as an omen that you will not come back to Baslehurst. [“To me,” had been the words as she had first written them; but there was tenderness in those words, and she found it necessary to alter them.] I will now say goodbye to you, for I have told you all that I have to tell. Mamma desires that I will remember her to you kindly.
“May God bless you and protect you always!
“Believe me to be “Your sincere friend, “ RACHEL RAY
In the morning she took down the letter in her hand and gave it to her mother. Mrs Ray read it very slowly and demurred over it at sundry places. She especially demurred at that word about the omen, and even declared that it ought to be expunged. But Rachel was very stern and held her ground. She had put into the letter, she said, all that she had been bidden to say. Such a word from herself to one who had been so dear to her must be allowed to her.
The letter was not altered and was taken away by the postman that evening.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55