Six weeks passed over them at Bragg’s End, and nothing was heard of Luke Rowan. Rachel’s letter, a copy of which was given in our last chapter, was duly sent away by the postman, but no answer to it came to Bragg’s End. It must, however, be acknowledged that it not only required no answer, but that it even refused to be answered. Rachel had told her lover that he was not to correspond with her, and that she certainly would not write to him again. Having so said, she had no right to expect an answer; and she protested over and over again that she did expect none. But still she would watch, as she thought unseen, for the Postman’s coming; and her heart would sink within her as the man would pass the gate without calling. “He has taken me at my word,” she said to herself very bitterly. “I deserve nothing else from him; but — but — but —” In those days she was ever silent and stern. She did all that her mother bade her, but she did little or nothing from love. There were no more banquets, with clotted cream brought over from Mrs Sturt’s. She would speak a word or two now and then to Mrs Sturt, who understood the whole case perfectly; but such words were spoken on chance occasions, for Rachel now never went over to the farm. Farmer Sturt’s assistance had been offered to her; but what could the farmer do for her in such trouble as hers?
During the whole of these six weeks she did her household duties; but gradually she became slower in them and still more slow, and her mother knew that her disappointment was becoming the source of permanent misery. Rachel never said that she was ill; nor, indeed, of any special malady did she show signs: but gradually she became thin and wan, her cheeks assumed a haggard look, and that aspect of the brow which her mother feared had become habitual to her. Mrs Ray observed her closely in all that she did. She knew well of those watchings for the postman. She was always thinking of her child, and, after a while, longing that Luke Rowan might come back to them, with a heart almost as sore with longing as was that of Rachel herself. But what could she do? She could not bring him back. In all that she had done — in giving her sanction to this lover, and again in withdrawing it, she had been guided by the advice of her clergyman. Should she go again to him and beg him to restore that young man to them? Ah! no; great as was her trust in her clergyman she knew that even he could not do that for her.
During all these weeks hardly a word was spoken openly between the mother and daughter about the matter that chiefly occupied the thoughts of them both. Luke Rowan’s — name was hardly mentioned between them. Once or twice some allusion was made to the subject of the brewery, for it was becoming generally known that the lawyers were already at work on behalf of Rowan’s claim; but even on such occasions as these Mrs Ray found that her speech was stopped by the expression of Rachel’s eyes, and by those two lines which on such occasions would mark her forehead. In those days Mrs Ray became afraid of her younger daughter — almost more so than she had ever been afraid of the elder one. Rachel, indeed, never spoke as Mrs Prime would sometimes speak. No word of scolding ever passed her mouth; and in all that she did she was gentle and observant. But there was ever on her countenance that look of reproach which by degrees was becoming almost unendurable. And then her words during the day were so few! She was so anxious to sit alone in her own room! She would still read to her mother for some hours in the evening; but this reading was to her so manifestly a task, difficult and distasteful!
It may be remembered that Mrs Prime, with her lover, Mr Prong, and her friend Miss Pucker, had promised to call at Bragg’s End on the evening after Rachel’s walk into Baslehurst. They did come as they had promised, about half an hour after Rachel’s letter to Luke had been carried away by the postman. They had come, and had remained at Bragg’s End for an hour, eating cake and drinking currant wine, but not having, on the whole, what our American friends call a good time of it. That visit had been terrible to Mrs Ray. Rachel had sat there cold, hard, and speechless. Not only had she not asked Miss Pucker to take off her bonnet, but she had absolutely declined to speak to that lady. It was wonderful to her mother that she should thus, in so short a time, have become wilful, masterful, and resolved in following out her own purposes. Not one word on that occasion did she speak to Miss Pucker; and Mrs Prime, observing this, had grown black and still blacker, till the horror of the visit had become terrible to Mrs Ray. Miss Pucker had grinned and smiled, and striven gallantly, poor woman, to make the best of it. She had declared how glad she had been to see Miss Rachel on the previous evening, and how well Miss Rachel had looked, and had expressed quite voluminous hopes that Miss Rachel would come to their Dorcas meetings. But to all this Rachel answered not a syllable. Now and then she addressed a word or two to her sister. Now and then she spoke to her mother. When Mr Prong specially turned himself to her, asking her some question, she would answer him with one or two monosyllables, always calling him Sir; but to Miss Pucker she never once opened her mouth. Mrs Prime became very angry — very black and very angry; and the time of the visit was a terrible time to Mrs Ray.
But this visit is to be noticed in our story chiefly on account of a few words which Mr Prong found an opportunity of saying to Mrs Ray respecting his proposed marriage. Mrs Ray knew that there were difficulties about the money, and was disposed to believe, and perhaps to hope, that the match would be broken off. But on this occasion Mr Prong was very marked in his way of speaking to Mrs Ray, as though everything were settled. Mrs Ray was thoroughly convinced by this that it was so, and her former beliefs and possible hopes were all dispersed. But then Mrs Ray was easily convinced by any assertion. In thus speaking to his future mother-in-law he had contrived to turn his back round upon the other three ladies, so as to throw them together for the time, and thus make their position the more painful. It must be acknowledged that Rachel was capable of something great, after her determined resistance to Miss Pucker’s blandishments under such circumstances as these.
“Mrs Ray,” Mr Prong had said — and as he spoke his voice was soft with mingled love and sanctity —“I cannot let this moment pass without expressing one word of what I feel at the prospect of connecting myself with your amiable family.”
“I’m sure I’m much obliged,” Mrs Ray had answered.
“Of course I am aware that Dorothea has mentioned the matter to you.”
“Oh yes; she has mentioned it, certainly.”
“And therefore I should be remiss, both as regards duty and manners, if I did not take this opportunity of assuring you how much gratification I feel in becoming thus bound up in family affection with you and Miss Rachel. Family ties are sweet bonds of sanctified love; and as I have none of my own — nearer, that is, than Geelong, the colony of Victoria, where my mother and brother and sisters have located themselves — I shall feel the more pleasure in taking you and Miss Rachel to my heart.”
This was complimentary to Mrs Ray; but with her peculiar feelings as to the expediency of people having their own belongings, she almost thought that it would have been better for all parties if Mr Prong had gone to Geelong with the rest of the Prong family; this opinion, however, did she not express. As to taking Mr Prong to her heart, she felt some doubts of her own capacity for such a performance. It would be natural for her to love a son-in-law. She had loved Mr Prime very dearly, and trusted him thoroughly. She would have been prepared to love Luke Rowan, had fate been propitious in that quarter. But she could not feel secure as to loving Mr Prong. Such love, moreover, should come naturally, of its own growth, and not be demanded categorically as a right. It certainly was a pity that Mr Prong had not made himself happy, with that happiness for which he sighed, in the bosom of his family at Geelong. “I’m sure you are very kind,” Mrs Ray had said.
“And when we are thus united in the bonds of this world”, continued Mr Prong, “I do hope that other bonds, more holy in their nature even than those of family, more needful even than them, may join us together. Dorothea has for some months past been a constant attendant at my church —”
“Oh, I couldn’t leave Mr Comfort; indeed I couldn’t,” said Mrs Ray in alarm. “I couldn’t go away from my own parish church was it ever so.”
“No, no; not altogether, perhaps. I am not sure that it would be desirable. But will it not be sweet, Mrs Ray, when we are bound together as one family, to pour forth our prayers in holy communion together?”
“I think so much of my own parish church, Mr Prong,” Mrs Ray replied. After that Mr Prong did not, on that occasion, press the matter further, and soon turned round his chair so as to relieve the three ladies behind him.
“I think we had better be going, Mr Prong,” said Mrs Prime, rising from her seat with a display of anger in the very motion of her limbs. “Good evening, mother: good evening to you, Rachel. I’m afraid our visit has put you out. Had I guessed as much, we would not have come.”
“You know, Dolly, that I am always glad to see you — only you come to us so seldom,” said Rachel. Then with a very cold bow to Miss Pucker, with a very warm pressure of the hand from Mr Prong, and with a sisterly embrace for Dorothea, that was not cordial as it should have been, she bade them goodbye. It was felt by all of them that the visit had been a failure — it was felt so, at least, by all the Ray family. Mr Prong had achieved a certain object in discussing his marriage as a thing settled; and as regarded Miss Pucker, she also had achieved a certain object in eating cake and drinking wine in Mrs Ray’s parlour.
For some weeks after that but little had been seen of Mrs Prime at the cottage; and nothing had been said of her matrimonial prospects. Rachel did not once go to her sister’s lodgings; and, on the few occasions of their meeting, asked no questions as to Mr Prong. Indeed, as the days and weeks went on, her heart became too heavy to admit of her asking any questions about the love affairs of others. She still went about her work, as I have before said. She was not ill — not ill so as to demand the care due to an invalid. But she moved about the house slowly, as though her limbs were too heavy for her. She spoke little, unless when her mother addressed her. She would sit for hours on the sofa doing nothing, reading nothing, and looking at nothing. But still, at the postman’s morning hours, she would keep her eye upon the road over which he came, and that dull look of despair would come across her face when he passed on without calling at the cottage.
But on a certain morning towards the end of the six weeks the postman did call — as indeed he had called on other days, though bringing with him no letter from Luke Rowan. Neither now, on this occasion, did he bring a letter from Luke Rowan. The letter was addressed to Mrs Ray; and, as Rachel well knew from the handwriting, it was from the gentleman who managed her mother’s little money matters — the gentleman who had succeeded to the business left by Mr Ray when he died. So Rachel took the letter up to her mother and left it, saying that it was from Mr Goodall.
Mrs Ray’s small income arose partly from certain cottages in Baslehurst, which had been let in lump to a Baslehurst tradesman, and partly from shares in a gas company at Exeter. Now the gas company at Exeter was the better investment of the two, and was considered to be subject to less uncertainty than the cottages. The lease under which the cottages had been let was out, and Mrs Ray had been advised to sell the property. Building ground near the town was rising in value; and she had been advised by Mr Goodall to part with her little estate. Both Mrs Ray and Rachel were aware that this business, to them very important, was imminent; and now had come a letter from Mr Goodall, saying that Mrs Ray must go to Exeter to conclude the sale. “We should only bungle matters,” Mr Goodall had said, “if I were to send the deeds down to you; and as it is absolutely necessary that you should understand all about it, I think you had better come up on Tuesday; you can get back to Baslehurst easily on the same day.”
“My dear,” said Mrs Ray, coming into the parlour, “I must go to Exeter.”
“No, not today, but on Tuesday. Mr Goodall says I must understand all about the sale. It is a dreadful trouble.”
But, dreadful as the trouble was, it seemed that Mrs Ray was not made unhappy by the prospect of the little expedition. She fussed and fretted as ladies do on such occasions, but — as is also common with ladies — the excitement of the journey was, upon the whole, a gratification to her. She asked Rachel to accompany her, and at first pressed her to do so strongly; but such work at the present moment was not in accord with Rachel’s mood, and at last she escaped from it under the plea of expense.
“I think it would be foolish, mamma,” she said. “Now that Dolly has gone you will be run very close; and when Mr Goodall first spoke of selling the cottages, he said that perhaps you might be without anything from them for a quarter.”
“But he has sold them now, my dear; and there will be the money at once.”
“I don’t see why you should throw away ten and sixpence, mamma,” said Rachel.
And as she spoke in that resolved and masterful tone, her mother, of course, gave up the point. So when the Tuesday morning came, she went with her mother only as far as the station.
“Don’t mind meeting me, because I can’t be sure about the train,” said Mrs Ray. “But I shall be back tonight, certainly.”
“And I’ll wait tea for you,” said Rachel. Then, when her mother was gone, she walked back to the cottage by herself.
She walked back at once, but took a most devious course. She was determined to avoid the length of the High Street, and she was determined also to avoid Brewery Lane; but she was equally determined to pass through the churchyard. So she walked down from the railway station to the hamlet at the bottom of the hill below the church, and from thence went up by the field-path to the stile. In order to accomplish this she went fully two miles out of her way, and now the sun over her head was very hot. But what was the distance or the heat of the sun to her when her object was to stand for a few moments in that place? Her visit, however, to the spot which was so constantly in her thoughts did her no good. Why had she been so injured? Why had this sacrifice of herself been demanded from her? As she sat for a moment on the stile this was the matter that filled her breast. She had been exalted to the heavens when she first heard her mother speak of Mr Rowan as an acceptable suitor. She had been filled with joy as though Paradise had been opened to her, when she found herself to be the promised bride of Luke Rowan. Then had come her lover’s letter, and the clergyman’s counsel, and her own reply; and after that the gates of her Paradise had been closed against her! “I wonder whether it’s the same thing to him,” she said to herself. “But I suppose not. I don’t think it can be the same thing or he would come. Wouldn’t I go to him if I were free as he is!” She barely rested in the churchyard, and then walked on between the elms at a quick pace, with a sore heart — sore almost to breaking. She would never have been brought to this condition had not her mother told her that she might love him! Thence came her vexation of spirit. There was the cruelty. All the world knew that this man had been her lover — all her world knew it. Cherry Tappitt had sung her little witless song about it. Mrs Tappitt had called at the cottage about it. Mr Comfort had given his advice about it. Mrs Cornbury had whispered to her about it out of her pony carriage. Mrs Sturt had counselled her about it. Mr Prong had thought it very wrong on her part to love the man. Mr Sturt had thought it very right, and had offered his assistance. All this would have been as nothing had her lover remained to her. Cherry might have sung till her little throat was tired, and Mr Prong might have expressed his awe with outspread hands, and have looked as though he expected the skies to fall. Had her Paradise not been closed to her, all this talking would have been a thing of course. But such talking — such widespread knowledge of her condition, with the gates of her Paradise closed against her, was very hard to bear! And who had closed the gates? Her own hands had done it. He, her lover, had not deserted her. He had done for her all that truth and earnestness demanded, and perhaps as much as love required. Men were not so soft as girls, she argued within her own breast. Let a man be ever so true it could not be expected that he should stand by his love after he had been treated with such cold indifference as had been shown in her letter! She would have stood by her love, let his letter have been as cold as it might. But then she was a woman, and her love, once encouraged, had become a necessity to her. A man, she said to herself, would be more proud but less stanch. Of course she would hear no more from him. Of course the gates of her Paradise were shut. Such were her thoughts as she walked home, and such the thoughts over which she sat brooding alone through the entire day.
At half past seven in the evening Mrs Ray came back home, wearily trudging across the green. She was very weary, for she had now walked above two miles from the station. She had also been on her feet half the day, and, which was probably worse than all the rest had she known it, she had travelled nearly eighty miles by railway. She was very tired, and would under ordinary circumstances have been disposed to reckon up her grievances in the evening quite as accurately as Rachel had reckoned hers in the morning. But something had occurred in Exeter, the recollection of which still overcame the sense of weariness which Mrs Ray felt — overcame it, or rather overtopped it; so that when Rachel came out to her at the cottage door she did not speak at once of her own weariness, but looked lovingly into her daughter’s face — lovingly and anxiously, and said some little word intended to denote affection.
“You must be very tired,” said Rachel, who, with many self-reproaches and much communing within her own bosom, had for the time vanquished her own hard humour.
“Yes, I am tired, my dear; very. I thought the train never would have got to the Baslehurst station. It stopped at all the little stations, and really I think I could have walked as fast.” A dozen years had not as yet gone by since the velocity of these trains had been so terrible to Mrs Ray that she had hardly dared to get into one of them!
“And whom have you seen?” said Rachel.
“Seen!” said Mrs Ray. “Who told you that I had seen anybody?”
“I suppose you saw Mr Goodall.”
“Oh yes, I saw him of course. I saw him, and the cottages are all sold. We shall have seven pounds ten a year more than before. I’m sure it will be a very great comfort. Seven pounds ten will buy so many things.”
“But ten pounds would buy more.”
“Of course it would, my dear. And I told Mr Goodall I wished he could make it ten, as it would make it sound so much more regular like; but he said he couldn’t do it because the gas has gone up so much. He could have done it if I had sixty pounds, but of course I hadn’t.”
“But, mamma, whom did you see except Mr Goodall? I know you saw somebody, and you must tell me.”
“That’s nonsense, Rachel. You can’t know that I saw anybody.” It may, however, be well to explain at once the cause of Mrs Ray’s hesitation, and that this may be done in the proper course, we will go back to her journey to Exeter. All the incidents of her day may be told very shortly; but there was one incident in her day which filled her with so much anxiety, and almost dismay, that it must be narrated.
On arriving at Exeter she got into an omnibus which would have taken her direct to Mr Goodall’s office in the Close; but she was minded to call at a shop in the High Street, and had herself put down at the corner of one of those passages which lead from the High Street to the Close. She got down from the step of the vehicle, very carefully, as is the wont with middle-aged ladies from the country, and turned round to walk directly into the shop; but before her, on the pavement, she saw Luke Rowan. He was standing close to her, so that it was impossible that they should have pretended to miss seeing each other, even had they been so minded. Any such pretence could have been impossible to Mrs Ray, and would have been altogether contrary to Luke Rowan’s nature. He had been coming out of the shop, and had been arrested at once by Mrs Ray’s figure as he saw it emerging from the door of the omnibus.
“How d’you do?” said he, coming forward with outstretched hand, and speaking as though there was nothing between him and Mrs Ray which required any peculiar word or tone.
“Oh, Mr Rowan! is this you?” said she. “Dear, dear! I’m sure I didn’t expect to see you in Exeter.”
“I dare say not, Mrs Ray; and I didn’t expect to see you. But the odd thing is I’ve come here about the same business as you, though I didn’t know anything about it till yesterday.”
“What business, Mr Rowan?”
“I’ve bought your cottages in Baslehurst.”
“But I have, and I’ve paid for them too, and you’re going this very minute to Mr Goodall to sign the deed of sale. Isn’t that true? So you see I know all about it.”
“Well, that is strange! Isn’t it, now?”
“The fact is I must have a bit of land at Baslehurst for building. Tappitt will go on fighting; and as I don’t mean to be beaten, I’ll have a place of my own there.”
“And you’ll pull down the cottages?”
“If I don’t pull him down first, so as to get the old brewery. I was obliged to buy your bit of ground now, as I might not have been able to get any just when I wanted it. You’ve sold it a deal too cheap. You tell Mr Goodall I say so.”
“But he says I’m to gain something by selling it.”
“Does he? If it is so, I’m very glad of it. I only came down from London yesterday to finish this piece of business, and I’m going back today.”
During all this time not a word had been said about Rachel. He had not even asked after her in the ordinary way in which men ask after their ordinary acquaintance. He had not looked as though he were in the least embarrassed in speaking to Rachel’s mother, and now it seemed as though he were going away, as though all had been said between them that he cared to say. Mrs Ray at the first moment had dreaded any special word; but now, as he was about to leave her, she felt disappointed that no special word had been spoken. But he was not as yet gone.
“I literally haven’t a minute to spare,” he said, offering her his hand for a second time; “for I’ve two or three people to see before I get to the train.”
“Goodbye,” said Mrs Ray.
“Goodbye, Mrs Ray. I don’t think I’ve been very well treated among you. I don’t indeed. But I won’t say any more about that at present. Is she quite well?”
“Pretty well, thank you,” said she, all of a tremble.
“I won’t send her any message. As things are at present, no message would be of any service. Goodbye.” And so saying he went from her.
Mrs Ray at that moment had no time for making up her mind as to what she would do or say in consequence of this meeting — or whether she would do or say anything. She looked forward to all the leisure time of her journey home for thinking of that; so she finished her shopping and hurried on to Mr Goodall’s office without resolving whether or no she would tell Rachel of the encounter. At Mr Goodall’s she remained some little time, dining at that gentleman’s house as well as signing the deed, and asking questions about the gas company. He had grateful recollections of kindnesses received from Mr Ray, and always exercised his hospitality on those rare occasions which brought Mrs Ray up to Exeter. As they sat at table he asked questions about the young purchaser of the property which somewhat perplexed Mrs Ray. Yes, she said, she did know him. She had just met him in the street and heard his news. Young Rowan, she told her friend, had been at the cottage more than once, but no mention had been made of his desire to buy these cottages. Was he well spoken of in Baslehurst? Well — she was so little in Baslehurst that she hardly knew. She had heard that he had quarrelled with Mr Tappitt, and she believed that many had said that he was wrong in his quarrel. She knew nothing of his property; but certainly had heard somebody say that he had gone away without paying his debts. It may easily be conceived how miserable and ineffective she would be under this cross-examination, although it was made by Mr Goodall without any allusion to Rachel.
“At any rate we have got our money,” said Mr Goodall; “and I suppose that’s all we care about. But I should say he’s rather a harum-scarum sort of fellow. Why he should leave his debts behind him I can’t understand, as he seems to have plenty of money.”
All this made Mrs Ray’s task the more difficult. During the last two or three weeks she had been wishing that she had not gone to Mr Comfort — wishing that she had allowed Rachel to answer Rowan’s letter in any terms of warmest love that she might have chosen — wishing, in fact, that she had permitted the engagement to go on. But now she began again to think that she had been right. If this man were in truth a harum-scarum fellow was it not well that Rachel should be quit of him — even with any amount of present sorrow? Thinking of this on her way back to Baslehurst she again made up her mind that Rowan was a wolf. But she had not made up her mind as to what she would, or what she would not tell Rachel about the meeting, even when she reached her own door. “I will send her no message,” he had said. “As things are at present no message would be of service.” What had he meant by this? What purpose on his part did these words indicate? These questions Mrs Ray had asked herself, but had failed to answer them.
But no resolution on Mrs Ray’s part to keep the meeting secret would have been of avail, even had she made such resolution. The fact would have fallen from her as easily as water falls from a sieve. Rachel would have extracted from her the information, had she been ever so determined not to impart it. As things had turned out she had at once given Rachel to understand that she had met someone in Exeter whom she had not expected to meet.
“But, mamma, whom did you see except Mr Goodall?” Rachel asked. “I know you saw somebody and you must tell me.”
“That’s nonsense, Rachel; you can’t know that I saw anybody.”
After that there was a pause for some moments, and then Rachel persisted in her inquiry. “But, mamma, I do know that you met somebody.’— Then there was another pause. —“Mamma, was it Mr Rowan?”
Mrs Ray stood convicted at once. Had she not spoken a word, the form of her countenance when the question was asked would have answered it with sufficient clearness. But she did speak a word. “Well; yes, it was Mr Rowan. He had come down to Exeter on business.”
“And what did he say, mamma?”
“He didn’t say anything — at least, nothing particular. It is he that has bought the cottages, and he had come down from London about that. He told me that he wanted some ground near Baslehurst, because he couldn’t get the brewery.”
“And what else did he say, mamma?”
“I tell you that he said nothing else.”
“He didn’t — didn’t mention me then?”
Mrs Ray had been looking away from Rachel during this conversation — had been purposely looking away from her. But now there was a tone of agony in her child’s voice which forced her to glance round. Ah me! She beheld so piteous an expression of woe in Rachel’s face that her whole heart was melted within her, and she began to wish instantly that they might have Rowan back again with all his faults.
“Tell me the truth, mamma; I may as well know it.”
“Well, my dear, he didn’t mention your name, but he did say a word about you.”
“What word, mamma?”
“He said he would send no message because it would be no good.”
“He said that, did he?”
“Yes, he said that. And so I suppose he meant it would be no good sending anything till he came himself.”
“No, mamma; he didn’t mean quite that. I understand what he meant. As it is to be so, he was quite right. No message could be of any use. It has been my own doing, and I have no right to blame him. Mamma, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go to bed.”
“My dear, you’re wrong. I’m sure you’re wrong. He didn’t mean that.”
“Didn’t he, mamma?” And as she spoke a sad, weary, woebegone smile came over her face — a smile so sad and piteous that it went to her mother’s heart more keenly than would have done any sound of sorrow, any sobs, or wail of grief. “But I think he did mean that, mamma. It’s no good doubting or fearing any longer. It’s all over now.”
“And it has been my fault!”
“No, dearest. It has not been your fault, nor do I think that it has been mine. I think we’d better not talk of faults. Ah dear — I do wish he had never come here!”
“Perhaps it may be all well yet, Rachel.”
“Perhaps it may — in another world. It will never be well again for me in this. Goodnight, mamma. You must never think that I am angry with you.”
Then she went upstairs, leaving Mrs Ray alone with her sorrow.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01