Above an hour had passed after the interruption mentioned at the end of the last chapter before Mrs Ray and Rachel crossed back from the farmhouse to the cottage, and when they went they went alone. During that hour they had been sitting in Mrs Sturt’s parlour; and when at last they got up to go they did not press Luke Rowan to go with them. Mrs Prime was at the cottage, and it was necessary that everything should be explained to her before she was asked to give her hand to her future brother-in-law. The farmer had come in and had joked his joke, and Mrs Sturt had clacked over them as though they were a brood of chickens of her own hatching; and Mrs Ray had smiled and cried, and sobbed and laughed till she had become almost hysterical. Then she had jumped up from her seat, saying, “Oh, dear, what will Dorothea think has become of us?” After that Rachel insisted upon going, and the mother and daughter returned across the green, leaving Luke at the farmhouse, ready to take his departure as soon as Mrs Ray and Rachel should have safely reached their home.
“I knew thee was minded steadfast to take her”, said Mrs Sturt, “when it came out upon the newspaper how thou hadst told them all in Baslehurst that thou wouldst wed none but a Baslehurst lass.”
In answer to this Luke protested that he had not thought of Rachel when he was making that speech, and tried to explain that all that was “soft sawder,” as he called it, for the election. But the words were too apposite to the event, and the sentiment too much in accordance with Mrs Sturt’s chivalric views to allow of her admitting the truth of any such assurance as this.
“I know,” she said; “I know. And when I read them words in the newspaper I said to the gudeman there, we shall have bride-cake from the cottage now before Christmas.”
“For the matter of that, so you shall,” said Luke, shaking hands with her as he went, “or the fault will not be mine.”
Rachel, as she followed her mother out from the farmyard gate, had not a word to say. Could it have been possible she would have wished to remain silent for the remainder of the evening and for the night, so that she might have time to think of this thing which she had done, and a enjoy the full measure of her happiness. Hitherto she had hardly had any joy in her love. The cup had been hardly given to her to drink before it had been again snatched away, and since then she had been left to think that the draught for which she longed would never again be offered to her lips. The whole affair had now been managed so suddenly, and the action had been so quick, that she had hardly found a moment for thought. Could it be that things were so fixed that there was no room for further disappointment? She had been scalded so cruelly that she still feared the hot water. Her heart was sore with the old hurt, as the head that has ached will be still sore when the actual malady has passed away. She longed for hours of absolute quiet, in which she might make herself sure that her malady had also passed away, and that the soreness which remained came only from the memory of former pain. But there was no such perfect rest within her reach as yet.
“Will you tell her or shall I?” said Mrs Ray, pausing for a moment at the cottage gate.
“You had better tell her, mamma.”
“I suppose she won’t set herself against it; will she?”
“I hope not, mamma. I shall think her very ill-natured if she does. But it can t make any real difference now, you know.”
“No; it can’t make any difference. Only it will be so uncomfortable.”
Then with half-frightened, muffled steps they entered their own house, and joined Mrs Prime in the sitting-room.
Mrs Prime was still reading the serious book; but I am bound to say that her mind had not been wholly intent upon it during the long absence of her mother and sister. She had struggled for a time to ignore the slight fact that her companions were away gossiping with the neighbouring farmer’s wife: she had made a hard fight with her book, pinning her eyes down upon the page over and over again, as though in pinning down her eyes she could pin down her mind also. But by degrees the delay became so long that she was tantalised into surmises as to the subject of their conversation. If it were not wicked, why should not she have been allowed to share it? She did not imagine it to be wicked according to the world’s ordinary wickedness — but she feared that it was wicked according to that tone of morals to which she was desirous of tying her mother down as a bond slave. They were away talking about love and pleasure, and those heart-throbbings in which her sister had so unfortunately been allowed to indulge. She felt all but sure that some tidings of Luke Rowan had been brought in Mrs Sturt’s budget of news, and she had never been able to think well of Luke Rowan since the evening on which she had seen him standing with Rachel in the churchyard. She knew nothing against him; but she had then made up her mind that he was pernicious, and she could not bring herself to own that she had been wrong in that opinion. She had been loud and defiant in her denunciation when she had first suspected Rachel of having a lover. Since that she had undergone some troubles of her own by which the tone of her remonstrances had been necessarily moderated; but even now she could not forgive her sister such a lover as Luke Rowan. She would have been quite willing to see her sister married, but the lover should have been dingy, black-coated, lugubrious, having about him some true essence of the tears of the valley of tribulation. Alas, her sister’s taste was quite of another kind!
“I’m afraid you will have been thinking that we were never coming back again,” said Mrs Ray, as she entered the room.
“No, mother. I didn’t think that. But I thought you were staying late with Mrs Sturt.”
“So we were — and really I didn’t think we had been so long. But, Dorothea, there was someone else over there besides Mrs Sturt, and be kept us.”
“He! What he?” said Mrs Prime. She had not even suspected that the lover had been over there in prison.
“Mr Rowan, my dear. He has been at the farm.”
“What! the young man that was dismissed from Mr Tappitt’s?”
It was ill said of her — very ill said, and so she was herself aware as soon as the words were out of her mouth. But she could not help it. She had taken a side against Luke Rowan, and could not restrain herself from ill-natured words. Rachel was still standing in the middle of the room when she heard her lover thus described; but she would not condescend to plead in answer to such a charge. The colour came to her cheeks, and she threw up her head with a gesture of angry pride, but at the moment she said nothing. Mrs Ray spoke.
“It seems to me, Dorothea,” she said, “that you are mistaken there. I think he has dismissed Mr Tappitt.”
“I don’t know much about it,” said Mrs Prime; “I only know that they’ve quarrelled.”
“But it would be well that you should learn, because I’m sure you will be glad to think as well of your brother-in-law as possible.”
“Do you mean that he is engaged to marry Rachel?”
“Yes, Dorothea. I think we may say that it is all settled now — mayn’t we, Rachel? And a very excellent young man he is — and as for being well off, a great deal better than what a child of mine could have expected. And a fine comely fellow he is, as a woman’s eye would wish to rest on.”
“Beauty is but skin deep,” said Mrs Prime, with no little indignation in her tone, that a thing so vile as personal comeliness should have been mentioned by her mother on such an occasion.
“When he came out here and drank tea with us that evening,” continued Mrs Ray, “I took a liking to him most unaccountable, unless it was that I had a foreshadowing that he was going to be so near and dear to me.”
“Mother, there can have been nothing of the kind. You should not say such things. The Lord in His providence allows us no foreshadowing of that kind.”
“At any rate I liked him very much; didn’t I, Rachel? — from the first moment I set eyes on him. Only I don’t think he’ll ever do away with cider in Devonshire, because of the apple trees. But if people are to drink beer it stands to reason that good beer will be better than bad.”
All this time Rachel had not spoken a word, nor had her sister uttered anything expressive of congratulation or good wishes. Now, as Mrs Ray ceased, there came, a silence in the room, and it was incumbent on the elder sister to break it.
“If this matter is settled, Rachel —”
“It is settled — I think,” said Rachel.
“If it is settled I hope that it may be for your lasting happiness and eternal welfare.”
“I hope it will,” said Rachel.
“Marriage is a most important step.”
“That’s quite true, my dear,” said Mrs Ray.
“A most important step, and one that requires the most exact circumspection — especially on the part of the young woman. I hope you may have known Mr Rowan long enough to justify your confidence in him.”
It was still the voice of a raven! Mrs Prime as she spoke thus knew that she was croaking, and would have divested herself of her croak and spoken joyously, had such mode of speech been possible to her. But it was not possible. Though she would permit no such foreshadowings as those at which her mother had hinted, she had committed herself to forebodings against this young man, to such extent that she could not wheel her thoughts round and suddenly think well of him. She could not do so as yet, but she would make the struggle.
“God bless you, Rachel!” she said, when they parted for the night. “You have my best wishes for your happiness. I hope you do not doubt my love because I think more of your welfare in another world than in this.” Then she kissed her sister and they parted for the night.
Rachel now shared her mother’s room; and from her mother, when they were alone together, she received abundance of that sympathy for which her heart was craving.
“You mustn’t mind Dorothea,” the widow said.
“No, mamma; I do not.”
“I mean that you mustn’t mind her seeming to be so hard. She means well through it all and is as affectionate as any other woman.”
“Why did she say that he had been dismissed when she knew that it wasn’t true?”
“Ah, my dear! can’t you understand? When she first heard of Mr Rowan —”
“Call him Luke, mamma.”
“When she first heard of him she was taught to believe that he was giddy, and that he didn’t mean anything.”
“Why should she think evil of people? Who taught her?”
“Miss Pucker, and Mr Prong, and that set.”
“Yes; and they are the people who talk most of Christian charity!”
“But, my dear, they don’t mean to be uncharitable. They try to do good. If Dorothea really thought that this young man was a dangerous acquaintance what could she do but say so? And you can’t expect her to turn round all in a minute. Think how she has been troubled herself about this affair of Mr Prong’s.”
“But that’s no reason she should say that Luke is dangerous. Dangerous! What makes me so angry is that she should think everybody is a fool except herself. Why should anybody be more dangerous to me than to anybody else?”
“Well, my dear, I think that perhaps she is not so wrong there. Of course everything is all right with you now, and I’m sure I’m the happiest woman in the world to feel that it is so. I don’t know how to be thankful enough when I think how things have turned out — but when I first heard of him I thought he was dangerous too.”
“But you don’t think he is dangerous now, mamma?”
“No, my dear; of course I don’t. And I never did after he drank tea here that night; only Mr Comfort told me it wouldn’t be safe not to see how things went a little before you — you understand, dearest?”
“Yes, I understand. I ain’t a bit obliged to Mr Comfort, though I mean to forgive him because of Mrs Cornbury. She has behaved best through it all — next to you, mamma.”
I am afraid it was late before Mrs Ray went to sleep that night, and I almost doubt whether Rachel slept at all. It seemed to her that in the present condition of her life sleep could hardly be necessary. During the last month past she had envied those who slept while she was kept awake by her sorrow. She had often struggled to sleep as she sat in her chair, so that she might escape for a few moments from the torture of her waking thoughts. But why need she sleep now that every thought was a new pleasure? There was no moment that she had ever passed with him that had not to be recalled. There was no word of his that had not to be re-weighed. She remembered, or fancied that she remembered, her idea of the man when her eye first fell upon his outside form. She would have sworn that her first glance of him had conveyed to her far more than had ever come to her from many a day’s casual looking at any other man. She could almost believe that he had been specially made and destined for her behoof. She blushed even while lying in bed as she remembered how the gait of the man, and the tone of his voice, had taken possession of her eyes and ears from the first day on which she had met him. When she had gone to Mrs Tappitt’s party, so consciously alive to the fact that he was to be there, she had told herself that she was sure she thought no more of him than of any other man that she might meet; but she now declared to herself that she had been a weak fool in thus attempting to deceive herself; that she had loved him from the first — or at any rate from that evening when he had told her of the beauty of the clouds; and that from that day to the present hour there had been no other chance of happiness to her but that chance which had now been so wondrously decided in her favour. When she came down to breakfast on the next morning she was very quiet — so quiet that her sister almost thought she was frightened at her future prospects; but I think that there was no such fear. She was so happy that she could afford to be tranquil in her happiness.
On that day Rowan came out to the cottage in the evening and was formally introduced to Mrs Prime. Mrs Ray, I fear, did not find the little tea-party so agreeable on that evening as she had done on the previous occasion. Mrs Prime did make some effort at conversation; she did endeavour to receive the young man as her future brother-in-law; she was gracious to him with such graciousness as she possessed — but the duration of their meal was terribly long, and even Mrs Ray herself felt relieved when the two lovers went forth together for their evening walk. I think there must have been some triumph in Rachel’s heart as she tied on her hat before she started. I think she must have remembered the evening on which her sister had been so urgent with her to go to the Dorcas meeting — when she had so obstinately refused that invitation, and had instead gone out to meet the Tappitt girls, and had met with them the young man of whom her sister had before been speaking with so much horror. Now he was there on purpose to take her with him, and she went forth with him, leaning lovingly on his arm, while yet close under her sister’s eyes. I think there must have been a gleam of triumph in her face as she put her hand with such confidence well round her lover’s arm.
Girls do triumph in their lovers — in their acknowledged and permitted lovers, as young men triumph in their loves which are not acknowledged or perhaps permitted. A man’s triumph is for the most part over when he is once allowed to take his place at the family table, as a right, next to his betrothed. He begins to feel himself to be a sacrificial victim — done up very prettily with blue and white ribbons round his horns, but still an ox prepared for sacrifice. But the girl feels herself to be exalted for those few weeks as a conqueror, and to be carried along in an ovation of which that bucolic victim, tied round with blue ribbons on to his horns, is the chief grace and ornament. In this mood, no doubt, both Rachel and Luke Rowan went forth, leaving the two widows together in the cottage.
“It is pretty to see her so happy, isn’t it now?” said Mrs Ray.
The question for the moment made Mrs Prime uncomfortable and almost wretched, but it gave her the opportunity which in her heart she desired of recanting her error in regard to Luke Rowan’s character. She wished to give in her adhesion to the marriage — to be known to have acknowledged its fitness so that she could, with some true word of sisterly love, wish her sister well. In Rachel’s presence she could not have first made this recantation. Though Rachel spoke no triumph, there was a triumph in her eye, which prevented almost the possibility of such yielding on the part of Dorothea. But when the thing should have been once done, when she should once have owned that Rachel was not wrong, then gradually she could bring herself round to the utterance of some kindly expression.
“Pretty,” she said; “yes, it is pretty. I do not know that anybody ever doubted its prettiness.”
“And isn’t it nice too? Dear girl! It does make me so happy to see her light-hearted again. She has had a sad time of it. Dorothea, since we made her write that letter to him; a very sad time of it.”
“People here, mother, do mostly have what you call a sad time of it. Are we not taught that it is better for us that it should be so? Have not you and I, mother, had a sad time of it? It would be all sad enough if this were to be the end of it.”
“Yes, just so; of course we know that. But it can’t be wrong that she should be happy now, when things are so bright all around her. You wouldn’t have thought it better for her, or for him either, that they should be kept apart, seeing that they really love each other?”
“No; I don’t say that. If they love one another of course it is right that they should marry. I only wish we had known him longer.”
“I am not sure that these things always go much better because young people have known each other all their lives. It seems to be certain that he is an industrious, steady young man. Everybody seems to speak well of him now.”
“Well, mother, I have nothing to say against him — not a word. And if it will give Rachel any pleasure — though I don’t suppose it will, the least in the world; but if it would, she may know that I think she has done wisely to accept him.”
“Indeed it will; the greatest pleasure.”
“And I hope they will be happy together for very many years. I love Rachel dearly, though I fear she does not think so, and anything I have said, I have said in love, not in anger.”
“I’m sure of that, Dorothea.”
“Now that she is to be settled in life as a married woman, of course she must not look for counsel either to you or to me. She must obey him, and I hope that God may give him grace to direct her steps aright.”
“Amen!” said Mrs Ray, solemnly. It was thus, that Mrs Prime read her recantation, which was repeated on that evening to Rachel with some little softening touches. “You won’t be living together in the same house after a bit,” said Mrs Ray, thinking, with some sadness, that those little evening festivities of buttered toast and thick cream were over for her now —“but I do hope you will be friends.”
“Of course we will, mamma. She has only to put out her hand the least little bit in the world, and I will go the rest of the way. As for her living, I don’t know what will be best about that, because Luke says that of course you’ll come and live with us.”
It was two or three days after this that Rachel saw the Tappitt girls for the first time since the fact of her engagement had become known. It was in the evening, and she had been again walking with Luke, when she met them; but at that moment she was alone. Augusta would have turned boldly away, though they had all come closely together before either had been aware of the presence of the other. But to this both Martha and Cherry objected.
“We have heard of your engagement,” said Martha, “and we congratulate you. You have heard, of course, that we are going to move to Torquay, and we hope that you will be comfortable at the brewery.”
“Yes,” said Augusta, “the place isn’t what it used to be, and so we think it best to go. Mamma has already looked at a villa near Torquay, which will suit us delightfully.”
Then they passed on, but Cherry remained behind to say another word. “I am so happy”, said Cherry “that you and he have hit it off. He’s a charming fellow, and I always said he was to fall in love with you. After the ball of course there wasn’t a doubt about it. Mind you send us cake, dear; and by and by we’ll come and see you at the old place, and be better friends than ever we were.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14