Rachel was still thinking of Luke Rowan and of the man’s arm when she opened the cottage door, but the sight of her sister’s face, and the tone of her sister’s voice, soon brought her back to a full consciousness of her immediate present position. “Oh, Dolly, do not speak with that terrible voice, as though the world were coming to an end,” she said, in answer to the first note of objurgation that was uttered; but the notes that came afterwards were so much more terrible, so much more severe, that Rachel found herself quite unable to stop them by any would-be joking tone.
Mrs Prime was desirous that her mother should speak the words of censure that must be spoken. She would have preferred herself to remain silent, knowing that she could be as severe in her silence as in her speech, if only her mother would use the occasion as it should be used. Mrs Ray had been made to feel how great was the necessity for outspoken severity; but when the moment came, and her dear beautiful child stood there before her, she could not utter the words with which she had been already prompted. “Oh, Rachel,” she said, “Dorothea tells me —” and then she stopped.
“What has Dorothea told you?” asked Rachel.
“I have told her”, said Mrs Prime, now speaking out, “that I saw you standing alone an hour since with that young man — in the churchyard. And yet you had said that he was to have been away in Exeter!”
Rachel’s cheeks and forehead were now suffused with red. We used to think, when we pretended to read the faces of our neighbours, that a rising blush betrayed a conscious falsehood. For the most part we know better now, and have learned to decipher more accurately the outward signs which are given by the impulses of the heart. An unmerited accusation of untruth will ever bring the blood to the face of the young and innocent. But Mrs Ray was among the ignorant in this matter, and she groaned inwardly when she saw her child’s confusion.
“Oh, Rachel, is it true?” she said.
“Is what true, mamma? It is true that Mr Rowan spoke to me in the churchyard, though I did not know that Dorothea was acting as a spy on me.”
“Rachel, Rachel!” said the mother.
“It is very necessary that someone should act the spy on you,” said the sister. “A spy, indeed! You think to anger me by using such a word, but I will not be angered by any words. I went there to look after you, fearing that there was occasion — fearing it, but hardly thinking it. Now we know that there was occasion.”
“There was no occasion,” said Rachel, looking into her sister’s face with eyes of which the incipient strength was becoming manifest. “There was no occasion. Oh, mamma, you do not think there was an occasion for watching me?”
“Why did you say that that young man was at Exeter?” asked Mrs Prime.
“Because he had told me that he would be there — he had told us all so, as we were walking together. He came today instead of coming tomorrow. What would you say if I questioned you in that way about your friends?” Then, when the words had passed from her lips, she remembered that she should not have called Mr Rowan her friend. She had never called him so, in thinking of him, to herself. She had never admitted that she had any regard for him. She had acknowledged to herself that it would be very dangerous to entertain friendship for such as he.
“Friend, Rachel!” said Mrs Prime. “If you look for such friendship as that, who can say what will come to you?”
“I haven’t looked for it. I haven’t looked for anything. People do get to know each other without any looking, and they can’t help it.”
Then Mrs Prime took off her bonnet and her shawl, and Rachel laid down her hat and her little light summer cloak; but it must not be supposed that the war was suspended during these operations. Mrs Prime was aware that a great deal more must be said, but she was very anxious that her mother should say it. Rachel also knew that much more would be said, and she was by no means anxious that the subject should be dropped if only she could talk her mother over to her side.
“If mother thinks it right,” exclaimed Mrs Prime, “that you should be standing alone with a young man after nightfall in the churchyard, then I have done. In that case I will say no more. But I must tell her, and I must tell you also, that if it is to be so, I cannot remain at the cottage any longer.”
“Oh, Dorothea!” said Mrs Ray.
“Indeed, mother, I cannot. If Rachel is not hindered from such meetings by her own sense of what is right, she must be hindered by the authority of those older than herself.”
“Hindered — hindered from what?” said Rachel, who felt that her tears were coming, but struggled hard to retain them. “Mamma, I have done nothing that was wrong. Mamma, you will believe me, will you not?”
Mrs Ray did not know what to say. She strove to believe both of them, though the words of one were directly at variance with the words of the other.
“Do you mean to claim it as your right”, said Mrs Prime, “to be standing out there alone at any hour of the night, with any young man that you please? If so, you cannot be my sister.”
“I do not want to be your sister if you think such hard things,” said Rachel, whose tears now could no longer be restrained. Honi soit qui mal y pense. She did not, at the moment, remember the words to speak them, but they contain exactly the purport for her thought. And now, having become conscious of her own weakness by reason of these tears which would overwhelm her, she determined that she would say nothing further till she pleaded her cause before her mother alone. How could she describe before her sister the way in which that interview at the churchyard stile had been brought about? But she could kneel at her mother’s feet and tell her everything — she thought, at least, that she could tell her mother everything. She occupied generally the same bedroom as her sister; but, on certain occasions — if her mother was unwell or the like — she would sleep in her mother’s room. “Mamma,” she said, “you will let me sleep with you tonight. I will go now, and when you come I will tell you everything. Good night to you, Dolly.”
“Good night, Rachel;” and the voice of Mrs Prime, as she bade her sister adieu for the evening, sounded as the voice of the ravens.
The two widows sat in silence for a while, each waiting for the other to speak. Then Mrs Prime got up and folded her shawl very carefully, and carefully put her bonnet and gloves down upon it. It was her habit to be very careful with her clothes, but in her anger she had almost thrown them upon the little sofa. “Will you have anything before you go to bed, Dorothea?” said Mrs Ray. “Nothing, thank you,” said Mrs Prime; and her voice was very like the voice of the ravens. Then Mrs Ray began to think it possible that she might escape away to Rachel without any further words. “I am very tired,” she said, “and I think I will go, Dorothea.”
“Mother,” said Mrs Prime, “something must be done about this.”
“Yes, my dear; she will talk to me tonight, and tell it me all.”
“But will she tell you the truth?”
“She never told me a falsehood yet, Dorothea. I’m sure she didn’t know that the young man was to be here. You know if he did come back from Exeter before he said he would she couldn’t help it.”
“And do you mean that she couldn’t help being with him there — all alone? Mother, what would you think of any other girl of whom you heard such a thing?”
Mrs Ray shuddered; and then some thought, some shadow perhaps of a remembrance, flitted across her mind, which seemed to have the effect of palliating her child’s iniquity. “Suppose —” she said. “Suppose what?” said Mrs Prime, sternly. But Mrs Ray did not dare to go on with her supposition. She did not dare to suggest that Mr Rowan might perhaps be a very proper young man, and that the two young people might be growing fond of each other in a proper sort of way. She hardly believed in any such propriety herself, and she knew that her daughter would scout it to the winds. “Suppose what?” said Mrs Prime again, more sternly than before. “If the other girls left her and went away to the brewery, perhaps she could not have helped it,” said Mrs Ray.
“But she was not walking with him. Her face was not turned towards home even. They were standing together under the trees; and, judging from the time at which I got home, they must have remained together for nearly half an hour afterwards. And this with a perfect stranger, mother — a man whose name she had never mentioned to us till she was told how Miss Pucker had seen them together! You cannot suppose that I want to make her out worse than she is. She is your child, and my sister; and we are bound together for weal or for woe.”
“You talked about going away and leaving us,” said Mrs Ray, speaking in soreness rather than in anger.
“So I did; and so I must, unless something be done. It could not be right that I should remain here, seeing such things, if my voice is not allowed to be heard. But though I did go, she would still be my sister. I should still share the sorrow — and the shame.”
“Oh, Dorothea, do not say such words.”
“But they must be said, mother. Is it not from such meetings that shame comes — shame, and sorrow and sin? You love her dearly, and so do I; and are we therefore to allow her to be a castaway? Those whom you love you must chastise. I have no authority over her — as she has told me, more than once already — and therefore I say again, that unless all this be stopped, I must leave the cottage. Good night, now, mother. I hope you will speak to her in earnest.” Then Mrs Prime took her candle and went her way.
For ten minutes the mother sat herself down, thinking of the condition of her youngest daughter, and trying to think what words she would use when she found herself in her daughter’s presence. Sorrow, and Shame, and Sin! Her child a castaway! What terrible words they were! And yet there had been nothing that she could allege in answer to them. That comfortable idea of a decent husband for her child had been banished from her mind almost before it had been entertained. Then she thought of Rachel’s eyes, and knew that she would not be able to assume a perfect mastery over the girl. When the ten minutes were over she had made up her mind to nothing, and then she also took up her candle and went to her room. When she first entered it she did not see Rachel. She had silently closed the door and come some steps within the chamber before her child showed herself from behind the bed. “Mamma,” she said, “put down the candle that I may speak to you.” Whereupon Mrs Ray put down the candle, and Rachel took hold of both her arms. “Mamma, you do not believe ill of me; do you? You do not think of me the things that Dorothea says? Say that you do not, or I shall die.”
“My darling, I have never thought anything bad of you before.”
“And do you think bad of me now? Did you not tell me before I went out that you would trust me, and have you so soon forgotten your trust? Look at me, mamma. What have I ever done that you should think me to be such as she says?”
“I do not think that you have done anything; but you are very young. Rachel.”
“Young, mamma! I am older than you were when you married, and older than Dolly was. I am old enough to know what is wrong. Shall I tell you what happened this evening? He came and met us all in the fields. I knew before that he had come back, for the girls had said so, but I thought that he was in Exeter when I left here. Had I not believed that, I should not have gone. I think I should not have gone.”
“Then you are afraid of him?”
“No, mamma; I am not afraid of him. But he says such strange things to me; and I would not purposely have gone out to meet him. He came to us in the fields, and then we returned up the lane to the brewery, and there we left the girls. As I went through the churchyard he came there too, and then the sun was setting, and he stopped me to look at it; I did stop with him — for a few moments, and I felt ashamed of myself; but how was I to help it? Mamma, if I could remember them I would tell you every word he said to me, and every look of his face. He asked me to be his friend. Mamma, if you will believe in me I will tell you everything. I will never deceive you.”
She was still holding her mother’s arms while she spoke. Now she held her very close and nestled in against her bosom, and gradually got her cheek against her mother’s cheek, and her lips against her mother’s neck. How could any mother refuse such a caress as that, or remain hard and stern against such signs of love? Mrs Ray, at any rate, was not possessed of strength to do so. She was vanquished, and put her arm round her girl and embraced her. She spoke soft words, and told Rachel that she was her dear, dear, dearest darling. She was still awed and dismayed by the tidings which she had heard of the young man; she still thought there was some terrible danger against which it behoved them all to be on their guard. But she no longer felt herself divided from her child, and had ceased to believe in the necessity of those terrible words which Mrs Prime had used.
“You will believe me? said Rachel. “You will not think that I am making up stories to deceive you?” Then the mother assured the daughter with many kisses that she would believe her.
After that they sat long into the night, discussing all that Luke Rowan had said, and the discussion certainly took place after a fashion that would not have been considered satisfactory by Mrs Prime had she heard it. Mrs Ray was soon led into talking about Mr Rowan as though he were not a wolf — as though he might possibly be neither a wolf ravenous with his native wolfish fur and open wolfish greed; or, worse than that, a wolf, more ravenous still, in sheep’s clothing. There was no word spoken of him as a lover; but Rachel told her mother that the man had called her by her Christian name, and Mrs Ray had fully understood the sign. “My darling, you mustn’t let him do that.” “No, mamma; I won’t. But he went on talking so fast that I had not time to stop him, and after that it was not worthwhile.” The project of the party was also told to Mrs Ray, and Rachel, sitting now with her head upon her mother’s lap, owned that she would like to go to it. “Parties are not always wicked, mamma,” she said. To this assertion Mrs Ray expressed an undecided assent, but intimated her decided belief that very many parties were wicked. “There will be dancing, and I do not like that,” said Mrs Ray. “Yet I was taught dancing at school,” said Rachel. When the matter had gone so far as this it must be acknowledged that Rachel had done much towards securing her share of mastery over her another: “He will be there, of course,” said Mrs Ray. “Oh, yes; lie will be there,” said Rachel. “But why should I be afraid of him? Why should I live as though I were afraid to meet him? Dolly thinks that I should be shut up close, to be taken care of; but you do not think of me like that. If I was minded to be bad, shutting me up would not keep me from it.” Such arguments as these from Rachel’s mouth sounded, at first, very terrible to Mrs Ray, but yet she yielded to them.
On the next morning Rachel was down first, and was found by her sister fast engaged on the usual work of the house, as though nothing out of the way had occurred on the previous evening. “Good morning, Dolly,” she said, and then went on arranging the things on the breakfast-table. “Good morning, Rachel,” said Mrs Prime, still speaking like a raven. There was not a word said between them about the young man or the churchyard, and at nine o’clock Mrs Ray came down to them, dressed ready for church. They seated themselves and ate their breakfast together, and still not a word was said.
It was Mrs Prime’s custom to go to morning service at one of the churches in Baslehurst; not at the old parish church which stood in the churchyard near the brewery, but at a new church which had been built as auxiliary to the other, and at which the Rev Samuel Prong was the ministering clergyman. As we shall have occasion to know Mr Prong it may be as well to explain here that he was not simply a curate to old Dr Harford, the rector of Baslehurst. He had a separate district of his own, which had been divided from the old parish, not exactly in accordance with the rector’s good pleasure. Dr Harford had held the living for more than forty years; he had held it for nearly forty years before the division had been made, and he had thought that the parish should remain a parish entire — more especially as the presentation to the new benefice was not conceded to him. Therefore Dr Harford did not love Mr Prong.
But Mrs Prime did love him — with that sort of love which devout women bestow upon the church minister of their choice. Mr Prong was an energetic, severe, hard-working, and, I fear, intolerant young man, who bestowed very much laudable care upon his sermons. The care and industry were laudable, but not so the pride with which he thought of them and their results. He spoke much of preaching the Gospel, and was sincere beyond all doubt in his desire to do so; but he allowed himself to be led away into a belief that his brethren in the ministry around him did not preach the Gospel — that they were careless shepherds, or shepherds’ dogs indifferent to the wolf, and in this way he had made himself unpopular among the clergy and gentry of the neighbourhood. It may be well understood that such a man coming down upon a district cut out almost from the centre of Dr Harford’s parish, would be a thorn in the side of that old man. But Mr Prong had his circle of friends, of very ardent friends, and among them Mrs Prime was one of the most ardent. For the last year or two she had always attended morning service at his church, and very frequently had gone there twice in the day, though the walk was long and tedious, taking her the whole length of the town of Baslehurst. And there had been some little uneasiness between Mrs Ray and Mrs Prime on the matter of this church attendance. Mrs Prime had wished her mother and sister to have the benefit of Mr Prong’s eloquence; but Mrs Ray, though she was weak in morals, was strong in her determination to adhere to Mr Comfort of Cawston. It had been matter of great sorrow to her that her daughter should leave Mr Comfort’s church, and she had positively declined to be taken out of her own parish. Rachel had, of course, stuck to her mother in this controversy, and had said some sharp things about Mr Prong. She declared that Mr Prong had been educated at Islington, and that sometimes he forgot his “h’s”. When such things were said Mrs Prime would wax very angry, and would declare that no one could be saved by the perfection of Dr Harford’s pronunciation. But there was no question as to Dr Harford, and no justification for the introduction of his name into the dispute. Mrs Prime, however, did not choose to say anything against Mr Comfort, with whom her husband had been curate, and who, in her younger days, had been a light to her own feet. Mr Comfort was by no means such a one as Dr Harford, though the two old men were friends. Mr Comfort had been regarded as a Calvinist when he was young, as Evangelical in middle life, and was still known as a Low Churchman in his old age. Therefore Mrs Prime would spare him in her sneers, though she left his ministry. He had become lukewarm but not absolutely stone cold, like the old rector at Baslehurst. So said Mrs Prime. Old men would become lukewarm, and therefore she could pardon Mr Comfort. But Dr Harford had never been warm at all — had never been warm with the warmth which she valued. Therefore she scorned him and sneered at him. In return for which Rachel scorned Mr Prong and sneered at him.
But though it was Mrs Prime’s custom to go to church at Baslehurst, on this special Sunday she declared her intention of accompanying her mother to Cawston. Not a word had been said about the young man, and they all started off on their walk together in silence and gloom. With such thoughts as they had in their mind it was impossible that they should make the journey pleasantly. Rachel had counted on the walk with her mother, and had determined that everything should be pleasant. She would have said a word or two about Luke Rowan, and would have gradually reconciled her mother to his name. But as it was she said nothing; and it may be feared that her mind, during the period of her worship, was not at charity with her sister. Mr Comfort preached his half-hour as usual, and then they all walked home. Dr Harford never exceeded twenty minutes, and had often been known to finish his discourse within ten. What might be the length of a sermon of Mr Prong’s no man or woman could foretell, but he never spared himself or his congregation much under an hour.
They all walked home gloomily to their dinner, and ate their cold mutton and potatoes in sorrow and sadness. It seemed as though no sort of conversation was open to them. They could not talk of their usual Sunday subjects. Their minds were full of one matter, and it seemed that that matter was by common consent to be banished from their lips for the day. In the evening, after tea, the two sisters again went up to Cawston Church, leaving their mother with her Bible — but hardly a word was spoken between them, and in the same silence they sat till bedtime. To Mrs Ray and to Rachel it had been one of the saddest, dreariest days that either of them had ever known. I doubt whether the suffering of Mrs Prime was so great. She was kept up by the excitement of feeling that some great crisis was at hand. If Rachel were not made amenable to authority she would leave the cottage.
When Rachel had run with hurrying steps from the stile in the churchyard, she left Luke Rowan still standing there. He watched her till she crossed into the lane, and then he turned and again looked out upon the still ruddy line of the horizon. The blaze of light was gone, but there were left, high up in the heavens, those wonderful hues which tinge with softly-changing colour the edges of the clouds when the brightness of some glorious sunset has passed away. He sat himself on the wooden rail, watching till all of it should be over, and thinking, with lazy half-formed thoughts, of Rachel Ray. He did not ask himself what he meant by assuring her of his friendship, and by claiming hers, but he declared to himself that she was very lovely — more lovely than beautiful, and then smiled inwardly at the prettiness of her perturbed split. He remembered well that he had called her Rachel, and that she had allowed his doing so to pass by without notice; but he understood also how and why she had done so. He knew that she had been flurried, and that she had skipped the thing because she had not known the moment at which to make her stand. He gave himself credit for no undue triumph, nor her discredit for any undue easiness. “What a woman she is!” he said to himself; “so womanly in everything.” Then his mind rambled away to other subjects, possibly to the practicability of making good beer instead of bad.
He was a young man, by no means of a bad sort, meaning to do well, with high hopes in life, one who had never wronged a woman, or been untrue to a friend, full of energy and hope and pride. But he was conceited, prone to sarcasm, sometimes cynical, and perhaps sometimes affected. It may be that he was not altogether devoid of that Byronic weakness “which was so much more prevalent among young men twenty years since than it is now. His two trades had been those of an attorney and a brewer, and yet he dabbled in romance, and probably wrote poetry in his bedroom. Nevertheless, there were worse young men about Baslehurst than Luke Rowan.
“And now for Mr Tappitt,” said he, as he slowly took his legs from off the railing.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14