Mrs Tappitt was very full of her party. It had grown in her mind as those things do grow, till it had come to assume almost the dimensions of a ball. When Mrs Tappitt first consulted her husband and obtained his permission for the gathering, it was simply intended that a few of her daughters’ friends should be brought together to make the visit cheerful for Miss Rowan; but the mistress of the house had become ambitious; two fiddles, with a German horn; were to be introduced because the piano would be troublesome; the drawing-room carpet was to be taken up, and there was to be a supper in the dining-room. The thing in its altered shape loomed large by degrees upon Mr Tappitt, and he found himself unable to stop its growth. The word ball would have been fatal; but Mrs Tappitt was too good a general, and the girls were too judicious as lieutenants, to commit themselves by the presumption of any such term. It was still Mrs Tappitt’s evening tea-party, but it was understood in Baslehurst that Mrs Tappitt’s evening tea-party was to be something considerable.
A great success had attended this lady at the onset of her scheme. Mrs Butler Cornbury had called at the brewery, and had promised that she would come, and that she would bring some of the Cornbury family. Now Mr Butler Cornbury was the eldest son of the most puissant squire within five miles of Baslehurst, and was indeed almost as good as Squire himself, his father being a very old man. Mrs Butler Cornbury had, it is true, not been esteemed as holding any very high rank while shining as a beauty under the name of Patty Comfort; but she had taken kindly to her new honours, and was now reckoned as a considerable magnate in that part of the country. She did not customarily join in the festivities of the town, and held herself aloof from people even of higher standing than the Tappitts. But she was an ambitious woman, and had inspired her lord with the desire of representing Baslehurst in Parliament. There would be an election at Baslehurst in the coming autumn, and Mrs Cornbury was already preparing for the fight. Hence had arisen her visit at the brewery, and hence also her ready acquiescence in Mrs Tappitt’s half-pronounced request.
The party was to be celebrated on a Tuesday — Tuesday week after that Sunday which was passed so uncomfortably at Bragg’s End; and on the Monday Mrs Tappitt and her daughters sat conning over the list of their expected guests, and preparing their invitations. It must be understood that the Rowan family had somewhat grown upon them in estimation since Luke had been living with them. They had not known much of him till he came among them, and had been prepared to patronise him; but they found him a young man not to be patronised by any means, and imperceptibly they learned to feel that his mother and sister would have to be esteemed by them rather as great ladies. Luke was in nowise given to boasting, and had no intention of magnifying his mother and sister; but things had been said which made the Tappitts feel that Mrs Rowan must have the best bedroom, and that Mary Rowan must be provided with the best partners.
“And what shall we do about Rachel Ray?” said Martha, who was sitting with the list before her. Augusta, who was leaning over her sister, puckered up her mouth and said nothing. She had watched from the house door on that Saturday evening, and had been perfectly aware that Luke Rowan had taken Rachel off towards the stile under the trees. She could not bring herself to say anything against Rachel, but she certainly wished that she might be excluded.
“Of course she must be asked,” said Cherry. Cherry was sitting opposite to the other girls writing on a lot of envelopes the addresses of the notes which were afterwards to be prepared. “We told her we should ask her.” And as she spoke she addressed a cover to “Miss Ray, Bragg’s End Cottage, Cawston”.
“Stop a moment, my dear,” said Mrs Tappitt from the corner of the sofa on which she was sitting. “Put that aside, Cherry. Rachel Ray is all very well, but considering all things I am not sure that she will quite do for Tuesday might. It’s not quite in her line, I think.”
“But we have mentioned it to her already, mamma,” said Martha.
“Of course we did,” said Cherry. “It would be the meanest thing in the world not to ask her now!”
“I am not at all sure that Mrs Rowan would like it,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“And I don’t think that Rachel is quite up to what Mary has been used to,” said Augusta.
“If she had half a mind to flirt with Luke already,” said Mrs Tappitt, “I ought not to encourage it.”
“That is such nonsense, mamma,” said Cherry. “If he likes her he’ll find her somewhere if he doesn’t find her here.”
“My dear, you shouldn’t say that what I say is nonsense,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“But, mamma, when we have already asked her! Besides, she is a lady,” said Cherry.
“I can’t say that I think Mrs Butler Cornbury would wish to meet her,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“Mrs Butler Cornbury’s father is their particular friend,” said Martha. “Mrs Ray always goes to Mr Comfort’s parties.”
In this way the matter was discussed, and at last Cherry’s eagerness and Martha’s sense of justice carried the day. The envelope which Cherry had addressed was brought into use, and the note to Rachel was deposited in the post with all those other notes, the destination of which was too far to be reached by the brewery boy without detrimental interference with the brewery work. We will continue our story by following the note which was delivered by the Cawston postman at Bragg’s End about seven o’clock on the Tuesday morning. It was delivered into Rachel’s own hand, and read by her as she stood by the kitchen dresser before either her mother or Mrs Prime had come down from their rooms. There was still sadness and gloom at Bragg’s End. During all the Monday there had been no comfort in the house, and Rachel had continued to share her mother’s bedroom. At intervals, when Rachel had been away, much had been said between Mrs Ray and Mrs Prime; but no conclusion had been reached; no line of conduct had received their joint adhesion; and the threat remained that Mrs Prime would leave the cottage. Mrs Ray, while listening to her elder daughter’s words, still continued to fear that evil spirits were hovering around them; but yet she would not consent to order Rachel to become a devout attendant at the Dorcas meetings. Monday had not been a Dorcas day, and therefore it had been very dull and very tedious.
Rachel stood a while with the note in her hand, fearing that the contest must be brought on again and fought out to an end before she could send her answer to it. She had told her mother that she was to be invited, and Mrs Ray had lacked the courage at the moment which would have been necessary for an absolute and immediate rejection of the proposition. If Mrs Prime had not been with them in the house, Rachel little doubted but that she might have gone to the party. If Mrs Prime had not been there, Rachel, as she was now gradually becoming aware, might have had her own way almost in everything. Without the support which Mrs Prime gave her, Mrs Ray would have gradually slid down from that stern code of morals which she had been induced to adopt by the teaching of those around her, and would have entered upon a new school of teaching under Rachel’s tutelage. But Mrs Prime was still there, and Rachel herself was not inclined to fight, if fighting could be avoided. So she put the note into her pocket, and neither answered it nor spoke of it till Mrs Prime had started on her after-dinner walk into Baslehurst. Then she brought it forth and read it to her mother. “I suppose I ought to answer it by the post this evening, mamma?”
“Oh, dear, this evening! that’s very short.”
“It can be put off till tomorrow if there’s any good in putting it off,” said Rachel. Mrs Ray seemed to think that there might be good in putting it off, or rather that there would be harm in doing it at once.
“Do you particularly want to go, my dear?” Mrs Ray said, after a pause.
“Yes, mamma; I should like to go.” Then Mrs Ray uttered a little sound which betokened uneasiness, and was again silent for a while.
“I can’t understand why you want to go to this place — so particularly. You never used to care about such things. You know your sister won’t like it, and I’m not at all sure that you ought to go.”
“I’ll tell you why I wish it particularly, only —”
“Well, my dear?”
“I don’t know whether I can make you understand just what I mean.”
“If you tell me I shall understand, I suppose.”
Rachel considered her words for a moment or two before she spoke, and then she endeavoured to explain herself. “It isn’t that I care for this party especially, mamma, though I own that, after what the girls have said, I should like to be there; but I feel —”
“You feel what, my dear?”
“It is this, mamma. Dolly and I do not agree about these things, and I don’t intend to let her manage me just in the way she thinks right.”
“Well, mamma, would you wish it? If you could tell me that you really think it wrong to go to parties, I would give them up. Indeed it wouldn’t be very much to give up, for I don’t often get the chance. But you don’t say so. You only say that I had better not go, because Dolly doesn’t like it. Now, I won’t be ruled by her. Don’t look at me in that way, mamma. Is it right that I should be?”
“You have heard what she says about going away.”
“I shall be very sorry if she goes, and I hope she won’t; but I can’t think that her threatening you in that way ought to make any difference. And — I’ll tell you more; I do particularly wish to go to Mrs Tappitt’s, because of all that Dolly has said about — about Mr Rowan. I wish to show her and you that I am not afraid to meet him. Why should I be afraid of anyone?”
“You should be afraid of doing wrong.”
“Yes; and if it were wrong to meet any other young man I ought not to go; but there is nothing specially wrong in my meeting him. She has said very unkind things about it, and I intend that she shall know that I will not notice them.” As Rachel spoke Mrs Ray looked up at her, and was surprised by the expression of unrelenting purpose which she saw there. There had come over her face that motion in her eyes and that arching of her brows which Mrs Ray had seen before, but which hitherto she had hardly construed in their true meaning. Now she was beginning to construe these signs aright, and to understand that there would be difficulty in managing her little family.
The conversation ended in an undertaking on Rachel’s part that she would not answer the note till the following day. “Of course that means”, said Rachel, “that I am to answer it just as Dolly thinks fit.” But she repented of these words as soon as they were spoken, and repented of them almost in ashes when her mother declared with tears in her eyes, that it was not her intention to be guided by Dorothea in this matter. “You ought not to say such things as that, Rachel,” she said. “No, mamma, I ought not; for there is no one so good as you are; and if you’ll say that you think I ought not to go, I’ll write to Cherry, and explain it to her at once. I don’t care a bit about the party — as far as the party is concerned.” But Mrs Ray would not now pronounce any injunction on the matter. She had made up her mind as to what she would do. She would call upon Mr Comfort at the parsonage, explain the whole thing to him, and be guided altogether by his counsel.
Not a word was said in the cottage about the invitation when Mrs Prime came back in the evening, nor was a word said on the following morning. Mrs Ray had declared her intention of going up to the parsonage, and neither of her daughters had asked her why she was going. Rachel had no need to ask, for she well understood her mother’s purpose. As to Mrs Prime, she was in these days black and full of gloom, asking but few questions, watching the progress of events with the eyes of an evil-singing prophetess, but keeping back her words till the moment should come in which she would be driven by her inner impulses to speak them forth with terrible strength. When the breakfast was over, Mrs Ray took her bonnet and started forth to the parsonage.
I do not know that a widow, circumstanced as was Mrs Ray, could do better than go to her clergyman for advice, but nevertheless, when she got to Mr Comfort’s gate she felt that the task of explaining her purpose would not be without difficulty. It would be necessary to tell everything; how Rachel had become suddenly an object of interest to Mr Luke Rowan, how Dorothea suspected terrible things, and how Rachel was anxious for the world’s vanities. The more she thought over it, the more sure she felt that Mr Comfort would put an embargo upon the party. It seemed but yesterday that he had been telling her, with all his pulpit unction, that the pleasures of this world should never be allowed to creep near the heart. With doubting feet and doubting heart she walked up to the parsonage door, and almost immediately found herself in the presence of her husband’s old friend.
Whatever faults there might be in Mr Comfort’s character, he was at any rate good-natured and patient. That he was sincere, too, no one who knew him well had ever doubted — sincere, that is, as far as his intentions went. When he endeavoured to teach his flock that they should despise money, he thought that he despised it himself. When he told the little children that this world should be as nothing to them, he did not remember that he himself enjoyed keenly the good things of this world. If he had a fault it was perhaps this — that he was a hard man at a bargain. He liked to have all his temporalities, and make them go as far as they could be stretched. There was the less excuse for this, seeing that his children were well, and even richly, settled in life, and that his wife, should she ever be left a widow, would have ample provision for her few remaining years. He had given his daughter a considerable fortune, without which perhaps the Cornbury Grange people would not have welcomed her so kindly as they had done, and now, as he was still growing rich, it was supposed that he would leave her more.
He listened to Mrs Ray with the greatest attention, having first begged her to recruit her strength with a glass of wine. As she continued to tell her story he interrupted her from time to time with good-natured little words, and then, when she had done, he asked after Luke Rowan’s worldly means. “The young man has got something, I suppose,” said he.
“Got something!” repeated Mrs Ray, not exactly catching his meaning.
“He has some share in the brewery, hasn’t he?”
“I believe he has, or is to have. So Rachel told me.”
“Yes — yes; I’ve heard of him before. If Tappitt doesn’t take him into the concern he’ll have to give him a very serious bit of money. There’s no doubt about the young man having means. Well, Mrs Ray, I don’t suppose Rachel could do better than take him.”
“Yes — why not? Between you and me, Rachel is growing into a very handsome girl — a very handsome girl indeed. I’d no idea she’d be so tall, and carry herself so well.”
“Oh, Mr Comfort, good looks are very dangerous for a young woman.”
“Well, yes; indeed they are. But still, you know, handsome girls very often do very well; and if this young man fancies Miss Rachel —”
“But, Mr Comfort, there hasn’t been anything of that. I don’t suppose he has ever thought of it, and I’m sure she hasn’t.”
“But young people get to think of it. I shouldn’t be disposed to prevent their coming together in a proper sort of way. I don’t like night walkings in churchyards, certainly, but I really think that was only an accident.”
“I’m sure Rachel didn’t mean it.”
“I’m quite sure she didn’t mean anything improper. And as for him, if he admires her, it was natural enough that he should go after her. If you ask my advice, Mrs Ray, I should just tell her to be cautious, but I shouldn’t be especially careful to separate them. Marriage is the happiest condition for a young woman, and for a young man, too. And how are young people to get married if they are not allowed to see each other?”
“And about the party, Mr Comfort?”
“Oh, let her go; there’ll be no harm. And I’ll tell you what, Mrs Ray; my daughter, Mrs Cornbury, is going from here, and she shall pick her up and bring her home. It’s always well for a young girl to go with a married woman.” Then Mrs Ray did take her glass of sherry, and walked back to Bragg’s End, wondering a good deal, and not altogether at ease in her mind as to that great question — what line of moral conduct might best befit a devout Christian.
Something also had been said at the interview about Mrs Prime. Mrs Ray had intimated that Mrs Prime would separate herself from her mother and her sister unless her views were allowed to prevail in this question regarding the young man from the brewery. But Mr Comfort, in what few words he had said on this part of the subject, had shown no consideration whatever for Mrs Prime. “Then she’ll behave very wickedly,” he had said. “But I’m afraid Mrs Prime has learned to think too much of her own opinion lately. If that’s what she has got by going to Mr Prong she had better have remained in her own parish.” After that, nothing more was said about Mrs Prime.
“Oh, let her go; there’ll be no harm.” That had been Mr Comfort’s dictum about the evening party. Such as it was, Mrs Ray felt herself bound to be guided by it. She had told Rachel that she would ask the clergyman’s advice, and take it, whatever it might be. Nevertheless she did not find herself to be easy as she walked home. Mr Comfort’s latter teachings tended to upset all the convictions of her life. According to his teaching, as uttered in the sanctum of his own study, young men were not to be regarded as ravening wolves. And that meeting in the churchyard, which had utterly overwhelmed Dorothea by the weight of its iniquity, and which even to her had been very terrible, was a mere nothing — a venial accident on Rachel’s part, and the most natural proceeding in the world on the part of Luke Rowan! That it was natural enough for a wolf Mrs Ray could understand; but she was now told that the lamb might go out and meet the wolf without any danger! And then those questions about Rowan’s share in the brewery, and Mr Comfort’s ready assertion that the young wolf — man or wolf, as the case might be — was well to do in the world! In fact Mrs Ray’s interview with her clergyman had not gone exactly as she had expected, and she was bewildered; and the path into evil — if it was a path into evil — was made so easy and pleasant! Mrs Ray had already considered the difficult question of Rachel’s journey to the party, and journey home again; but provision was now made for all that in a way that was indeed very comfortable, but which might make Rachel very vain. She was to be ushered into Mrs Tappitt’s drawing-room under the wing of the most august lady of the neighbourhood. After that, for the remaining half-hour of her walk home, Mrs Ray gave her mind up to the consideration of what dress Rachel should wear.
When Mrs Ray reached her own gate, Rachel was in the garden waiting for her. “Well, mamma?” she said. “Is Dorothea at home?” Mrs Ray asked, and on being informed that Dorothea was at work within, she desired Rachel to follow her up to her bedroom. When there she told her budget of news — not stinting her child of the gratification which it was sure to give. She said nothing about Luke Rowan and his means, keeping that portion of Mr Comfort’s recommendation to herself; but she declared it out as a fact, that Rachel was to accept the invitation, and to be carried to the party by Mrs Butler Cornbury. “Oh, mamma! Dear mamma!” said Rachel, who was leaning against the side of the bed. Then she gave a long sigh, and a bright colour came over her face — almost as though she were blushing. But she said no more at the moment, but allowed her mind to run off and revel in its own thoughts. She had indeed longed to go to this party, though she had taught herself to believe that she could bear being told that she was not to go without disappointment. “And now we must let Dorothea know,” said Mrs Ray. “Yes — we must let her know,” said Rachel; but her mind was away, straying, I fear, under the churchyard elms with Luke Rowan, and looking at the arm amidst the clouds. He had said that it was stretched out as though to take her; and she had never shaken off from her imagination the idea that it was his arm on which she had been bidden to look — the arm which had afterwards held her when she strove to go.
It was tea-time before courage was mustered for telling the facts to Mrs Prime. Mrs Prime, after dinner, had gone into Baslehurst; but the meeting at Miss Pucker’s had not been a regular full gathering, and Mrs Prime had come back to tea. There was no hot toast, and no clotted cream. It may appear selfish on the part of Mrs Ray and Rachel that they should have kept such good things only for their little private banquets, but, in truth, such delicacies did not suit Mrs Prime. Nice things aggravated her spirits and made her fretful. She liked the tea to be stringy and bitter, and she liked the bread to be stale — as she preferred also that her weeds should be battered and old. She was approaching that stage of discipline at which ashes become pleasant eating, and sackcloth is grateful to the skin. The self-indulgences of the saints in this respect often exceed anything that is done by the sinners.
“Dorothea,” said Mrs Ray, and she looked down upon the dark dingy fluid in her cup as she spoke, “I have been up to Mr Comfort’s today.”
“Yes; I heard you say you were going there.”
“I went to ask him for advice.”
“As I was in much doubt, I thought it right to go to the clergyman of my parish.”
“I don’t think much about parishes myself. Mr Comfort is an old man now, and I fear he does not give himself up to the gospel as he used to do. If people were called upon to bind themselves down to parishes, what would those poor creatures do who have over them such a pastor as Dr Harford?”
“Dr Harford is a very good man, I believe,” said Rachel, “and he keeps two curates.”
“I’m afraid, Rachel, you know but little about it. He does keep two curates — but what are they? They go to cricket matches, and among young women with bows and arrows! If you had really wanted advice, mamma, I would sooner have heard that you had gone to Mr Prong.”
“But I didn’t go to Mr Prong, my dear — and I don’t mean. Mr Prong is all very well, I dare say, but I’ve known Mr Comfort for nearly thirty years, and I don’t like sudden changes.” Then Mrs Ray stirred her tea with rather a quick motion of her hand. Rachel said not a word, but her mother’s sharp speech and spirited manner was very pleasant to her. She was quite contented now that Mr Comfort should be regarded as the family counsellor. She remembered how well she had loved Mr Comfort always, and thought of days when Patty Comfort had been very good-natured to her as a child.
“Oh, very well,” said Mrs Prime. “Of course, mamma, you must judge for yourself.”
“Yes, my dear, I must; or rather, as I didn’t wish to trust my own judgement, I went to Mr Comfort for advice. He says that he sees no harm in Rachel going to this party.”
“Party! what party?” almost screamed Mrs Prime. Mrs Ray had forgotten that nothing had as yet been said to Dorothea about the invitation.
“Mrs Tappitt is going to give a party at the brewery,” said Rachel, in her very softest voice, “and she has asked me.”
“And you are going? You mean to let her go?” Mrs Prime had asked two questions, and she received two answers. “Yes,” said Rachel; “I suppose I shall go, as mamma says so.” “Mr Comfort says there is no harm in it,” said Mrs Ray; “and Mrs Butler Cornbury is to come from the parsonage to take her up.” All question as to Dorcas discipline to be inflicted daily upon Rachel on account of that sin of which she had been guilty in standing under the elms with a young man was utterly lost in this terrible proposition! Instead of being sent to Miss Pucker in her oldest merino dress, Rachel was to be decked in muslin and finery, and sent out to a dancing party at which this young man was to be the hero! It was altogether too much for Dorothea Prime. She slowly wiped the crumbs from off her dingy crape, and with creaking noise pushed back her chair. “Mother.” she said, “I couldn’t have believed it! I could not have believed it!” Then she withdrew to her own chamber.
Mrs Ray was much afflicted; but not the less did Rachel look out for the returning postman, on his road into Baslehurst, that she might send her little note to Mrs Tappitt, signifying her acceptance of that lady’s kind invitation.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01