I am disposed to think that Mrs Butler Cornbury did Mrs Tappitt an injury when she with so much ready good nature accepted the invitation for the party, and that Mrs Tappitt was aware of this before the night of the party arrived. She was put on her mettle in a way that was disagreeable to her, and forced into an amount of submissive supplication to Mr Tappitt for funds, which was vexatious to her spirit. Mrs Tappitt was a good wife, who never ran her husband into debt, and kept nothing secret from him in the management of her household — nothing at least which it behoved him to know. But she understood the privileges of her position, and could it have been possible for her to have carried through this party without extra household moneys, or without any violent departure from her usual customs of life, she could have snubbed her husband’s objections comfortably, and have put him into the background for the occasion without any inconvenience to herself or power of remonstrance from him. But when Mrs Butler Cornbury had been gracious, and when the fiddles and horn had become a fact to be accomplished, when Mrs Rowan and Mary began to loom large on her imagination and a regular supper was projected, then Mrs Tappitt felt the necessity of superior aid, and found herself called upon to reconcile her lord.
And this work was the more difficult and the more disagreeable to her feelings because she had already pooh-poohed her husband when he asked a question about the party. “Just a few friends got together by the girls,” she had said. “Leave it all to them, my dear. It’s not very often they see anybody at home.”
“I believe I see my friends as often as most people in Baslehurst,” Mr Tappitt had replied indignantly, “and I suppose my friends are their friends.” So there had been a little soreness which made the lady’s submission the more disagreeable to her.
“Butler Cornbury! He’s a puppy. I don’t want to see him, and what’s more, I won’t vote for him.”
“You need not tell her so, my dear; and he’s not coming. I suppose you like your girls to hold their heads up in the place; and if they show that they’ve respectable people with them at home respectable people will be glad to notice them.”
“Respectable! If our girls are to be made respectable by giving grand dances, I’d rather not have them respectable. How much is the whole thing to cost?”
“Well, very little, T.; not much more than one of your Christmas dinner parties. There’ll be just the music, and the lights, and a bit of something to eat. What people drink at such times comes to nothing — just a little negus and lemonade. We might possibly have a bottle or two of champagne at the supper-table, for the look of the thing.”
“Champagne!” exclaimed the brewer. He had never yet incurred the cost of a bottle of champagne within his own house, though he thought nothing of it at public dinners. The idea was too much for him; and Mrs Tappitt, feeling how the ground lay, gave that up — at any rate for the present. She gave up the champagne; but in abandoning that, she obtained the marital sanction, a quasi sanction which he was too honourable as a husband afterwards to repudiate, for the music and the eatables. Mrs Tappitt knew that she had done well, and prepared for his dinner that day a beefsteak pie, made with her own hands. Tappitt was not altogether a dull man, and understood these little signs. “Ah,” said he, “I wonder how much that pie is to cost me?”
“Oh, T., how can you say such things! As if you didn’t have beefsteak pie as often as it’s good for you.” The pie, however, had its effect, as also did the exceeding “boilishness” of the water which was brought in for his gin toddy that night; and it was known throughout the establishment that papa was in a good humour, and that mamma had been very clever.
“The girls must have had new dresses anyway before the month was out,” Mrs Tappitt said to her husband the next morning before he had left the conjugal chamber.
“Do you mean to say that they’re to have gowns made on purpose for this party?” said the brewer; and it seemed by the tone of his voice that the hot gin and water had lost its kindly effects.
“My dear, they must be dressed, you know. I’m sure no girls in Baslehurst cost less in the way of finery. In the ordinary way they’d have had new frocks almost immediately.”
“Bother!” Mr Tappitt was shaving just a moment, and dashed aside his razor for a moment to utter this one word. He intended to signify how perfectly well he was aware that a muslin frock prepared for an evening party would not fill the place of a substantial morning dress.
“Well, my dear, I’m sure the girls ain’t unreasonable; nor am I. Five-and-thirty shillings apiece for them would do it all. And I shan’t want anything myself this year in September.” Now Mr Tappitt, who was a man of sentiment, always gave his wife some costly article of raiment on the first of September, calling her his partridge and his bird — for on that day they had been married. Mrs Tappitt had frequently offered to intromit the ceremony when calling upon his generosity for other purposes, but the September gift had always been forthcoming.
“Will thirty-five shillings apiece do it?” said he, turning round with his face all covered with lather. Then again he went to work with his razor just under his right ear.
“Well, yes; I think it will. Two pounds each for the three shall do it, anyway.”
Mr Tappitt gave a little jump at this increased demand for fifteen shillings, and not being in a good position for jumping, encountered an unpleasant accident, and uttered a somewhat vehement exclamation. “There,” said he, “now I’ve cut myself, and it’s your fault. Oh dear; oh dear! When I cut myself there it never stops. It’s no good doing that, Margaret; it only makes it worse. There; now you’ve got the soap and blood all down inside my shirt.”
Mrs Tappitt on this occasion was subjected to some trouble, for the wound on Mr Tappitt’s cheek-bone declined to be stanched at once; but she gained her object, and got the dresses for her daughters. It was not taken by them as a drawback on their happiness that they had to make the dresses themselves, for they were accustomed to such work; but this necessity joined to all other preparations for the party made them very busy. Till twelve at night on three evenings they sat with their smart new things in their laps and their needles in their hands; but they did not begrudge this, as Mrs Butler Cornbury was coming to the brewery. They were very anxious to get the heavy part of the work done before the Rowans should arrive, doubting whether they would become sufficiently intimate with Mary to tell her all their little domestic secrets, and do their work in the presence of their new friend during the first day of her sojourn in the house. So they toiled like slaves on the Wednesday and Thursday in order that they might walk about like ladies on the Friday and Saturday.
But the list of their guests gave them more trouble than aught else. Whom should they get to meet Mrs Butler Cornbury? At one time Mrs Tappitt had proposed to word certain of her invitations with a special view to this end. Had her idea been carried out people who might not otherwise have come were to be tempted by a notification that they were especially asked to meet Mrs Butler Cornbury. But Martha had said that this she thought would not do for a dance.
“People do do it, my dear,” Mrs Tappitt had pleaded.
“Not for dancing, mamma,” said Martha. “Besides, she would be sure to hear of it, and perhaps she might not like it.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Mrs Tappitt. “It would show that we appreciated her kindness.” The plan, however, was abandoned.
Of the Baslehurst folk there were so few that were fitted to meet Mrs Butler Cornbury! There was old Miss Harford, the rector’s daughter. She was fit to meet anybody in the county, and, as she was good-natured, might probably come. But she was an old maid, and was never very bright in her attire. “Perhaps Captain Gordon’s lady would come,” Mrs Tappitt suggested. But at this proposition all the girls shook their heads. Captain Gordon had lately taken a villa close to Baslehurst, but had shown himself averse to any intercourse with the townspeople. Mrs Tappitt had called on his “lady”, and the call had not even been returned, a card having been sent by post in an envelope.
“It would be no good, mamma,” said Martha, “and she would only make us uncomfortable if she did come.”
“She is always awfully stuck up in church,” said Augusta.
“And her nose is red at the end,” said Cherry.
Therefore no invitation was sent to Captain Gordon’s house.
“If we could only get the Fawcetts,” said Augusta. The Fawcetts were a large family living in the centre of Baslehurst, in which there were four daughters, all noted for dancing, and noted also for being the merriest, nicest, and most popular girls in Devonshire. There was a fat good-natured mother, and a thin good-natured father who had once been a banker at Exeter. Everybody desired to know the Fawcetts, and they were the especial favourites of Mrs Butler Cornbury. But then Mrs Fawcett did not visit Mrs Tappitt. The girls and the mothers had a bowing acquaintance, and were always very gracious to each other. Old Fawcett and old Tappitt saw each other in town daily, and knew each other as well as they knew the cross in the Butter Market; but none of the two families ever went into each other’s houses. It had been tacitly admitted among them that the Fawcetts were above the Tappitts, and so the matter had rested. But now, if anything could be done? “Mrs Butler Cornbury is all very well, of course,” said Augusta, “but it would be so nice for Mary Rowan to see the Miss Fawcetts dancing here.”
Martha shook her head, but at last she did write a note in the mother’s name. “My girls are having a little dance, to welcome a friend from London, and they would feel so much obliged if your young ladies would come. Mrs Butler Cornbury has been kind enough to say that she would join us, &c, &c, &c.” Mrs Tappitt and Augusta were in a seventh heaven of happiness when Mrs Fawcett wrote to say that three of her girls would be delighted to accept the invitation; and even the discreet Martha and the less ambitious Cherry were well pleased.
“I declare I think we’ve been very fortunate,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“Only the Miss Fawcetts will get all the best partners,” said Cherry.
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Augusta, holding up her head.
But there had been yet another trouble. It was difficult for them to get people proper to meet Mrs Butler Cornbury; but what must they do as to those people who must come and who were by no means proper to meet her? There were the Griggses, for instance, who lived out of town in a wonderfully red brick house, the family of a retired Baslehurst grocer. They had been asked before Mrs Cornbury’s call had been made, or, I fear, their chance of coming to the party would have been small. There was one young Griggs, a man very terrible in his vulgarity, loud, rampant, conspicuous with villainous jewellery, and odious with the worst abominations of perfumery. He was loathsome even to the Tappitt girls; but then the Griggses and the Tappitts had known each other for half a century, and among their ordinary acquaintances Adolphus Griggs might have been endured. But what should they do when he asked to be introduced to Josceline Fawcett? Of all men he was the most unconscious of his own defects. He had once shown some symptoms of admiration for Cherry, by whom he was hated with an intensity of dislike that had amounted to a passion. She had begged that he might be omitted from the list; but Mrs Tappitt had been afraid of angering their father.
The Rules also would be much in the way. Old Joshua Rule was a maltster, living in Cawston, and his wife and daughter had been asked before the accession of the Butler Cornbury dignity. Old Rule had supplied the brewery with malt almost ever since it had been a brewery; and no more harmless people than Mrs Rule and her daughter existed in the neighbourhood — but they were close neighbours of the Comforts, of Mrs Cornbury’s father and mother, and Mr Comfort would have as soon asked his sexton to dine with him as the Rules. The Rules never expected such a thing, and therefore lived on very good terms with the clergyman. “I’m afraid she won’t like meeting Mrs Rule,” Augusta had said to her mother; and then the mother had shaken her head.
Early in the week, before Rachel had accepted the invitation, Cherry had written to her friend. “Of course you’ll come”, Cherry had said; “and as you may have some difficulty in getting here and home again, I’ll ask old Mrs Rule to call for you. I know she’ll have a place in the fly, and she’s very good-natured.” In answer to this Rachel had written a separate note to Cherry, telling her friend in the least boastful words which she could use that provision had been already made for her coming and going. “Mamma was up at Mr Comfort’s yesterday,” Rachel wrote, “and he was so kind as to say that Mrs Butler Cobury would take me and bring me back. I am very much obliged to you all the same, and to Mrs Rule.”
“What do you think?” said Cherry, who had received her note in the midst of one of the family conferences; “Augusta said that Mrs Butler Cornbury would not like to meet Rachel Ray; but she is going to bring her in her own carriage.”
“I never said anything of the kind,” said Augusta.
“Oh, but you did, Augusta; or mamma did, or somebody. How nice for Rachel to be chaperoned by Mrs Butler Cornbury!”
“I wonder what she’ll wear,” said Mrs Tappitt, who had on that morning achieved her victory over the wounded brewer in the matter of the three dresses.
On the Friday morning Mrs Rowan came with her daughter, Luke having met them at Exeter on the Thursday. Mrs Rowan was a somewhat stately lady, slow in her movements and careful in her speech, so that the girls were at first very glad that they had valiantly worked up their finery before her coming. But Mary was by no means stately; she was younger than them, very willing to be pleased, with pleasant round eager eyes, and a kindly voice. Before she had been three hours in the house Cherry had claimed Mary for her own, had told her all about the party, all about the dresses, all about Mrs Butler Cornbury and the Miss Fawcetts, and a word or two also about Rachel Ray. “I can tell you somebody that’s almost in love with her.” “You don’t mean Luke? said Mary. “Yes, but I do,” said Cherry; “but of course I’m only in fun.” On the Saturday Mary was hard at work herself assisting in the decoration of the drawing-room, and before the all-important Tuesday came even Mrs Rowan and Mrs Tappitt were confidential. Mrs Rowan perceived at once that Mrs Tappitt was provincial — as she told her son, but she was a good motherly woman, and on the whole Mrs Rowan condescended to be gracious to her.
At Bragg’s End the preparations for the party required almost as much thought as did those at the brewery, and involved perhaps deeper care. It may be remembered that Mrs Prime, when her ears were first astounded by that unexpected revelation, wiped the crumbs from out of her lap and walked off, wounded in spirit, to her own room. On that evening Rachel saw no more of her sister. Mrs Ray went up to her daughter’s bedroom, but stayed there only a minute or two. “What does she say?” asked Rachel, almost in a whisper. “She is very unhappy. She says that unless I can be made to think better of this she must leave the cottage. I told her what Mr Comfort says, but she only sneers at Mr Comfort. I’m sure I’m endeavouring to do the best I can.”
“It wouldn’t do, mamma, to say that she should manage everything, otherwise I’m sure I’d give up the party.”
“No, my dear; I don’t want you to do that — not after what Mr Comfort says.” Mrs Ray had in truth gone to the clergyman feeling sure that he would have given his word against the party, and that, so strengthened, she could have taken a course that would have been offensive to neither of her daughters. She had expected, too, that she would have returned home armed with such clerical thunders against the young man as would have quieted Rachel and have satisfied Dorothea. But in all this she had been — I may hardly say disappointed — but dismayed and bewildered by advice the very opposite to that which she had expected. It was perplexing, but she seemed to be aware that she had no alternative now but to fight the battle on Rachel’s side. She had cut herself off from all anchorage except that given by Mr Comfort, and therefore it behoved her to cling to that with absolute tenacity. Rachel must go to the party, even though Dorothea should carry out her threat. On that night nothing more was said about Dorothea, and Mrs Ray allowed herself to be gradually drawn into a mild discussion about Rachel’s dress.
But there was nearly a week left to them of this sort of life. Early on the following morning Mrs Prime left the cottage, saying that she should dine with Miss Pucker, and betook herself at once to a small house in a back street of the town, behind the new church, in which lived Mr Prong. Have I as yet said that Mr Prong was a bachelor? Such was the fact; and there were not wanting those in Baslehurst who declared that he would amend the fault by marrying Mrs Prime. But this rumour, if it ever reached her, had no effect upon her. The world would be nothing to her if she were to be debarred by the wickedness of loose tongues from visiting the clergyman of her choice. She went, therefore, in her present difficulty to Mr Prong.
Mr Samuel Prong was a little man, over thirty, with scanty, light-brown hair, with a small, rather upturned nose, with eyes by no means deficient in light and expression, but with a mean mouth. His forehead was good, and had it not been for his mouth his face would have been expressive of intellect and of some firmness. But there was about his lips an assumption of character and dignity which his countenance and body generally failed to maintain; and there was a something in the carriage of his head and in the occasional projection of his chin, which was intended to add to his dignity, but which did, I think, only make the failure more palpable. He was a devout, good man; not self-indulgent; perhaps not more self-ambitious than it becomes a man to be; sincere, hard-working, sufficiently intelligent, true in most things to the instincts of his calling — but deficient in one vital qualification for a clergyman of the Church of England; he was not a gentleman. May I not call it a necessary qualification for a clergyman of any church? He was not a gentleman. I do not mean to say that he was a thief or a liar; nor do I mean hereby to complain that he picked his teeth with his fork and misplaced his “h’s”. I am by no means prepared to define what I do mean — thinking, however, that most men and most women will understand me. Nor do I speak of this deficiency in his clerical aptitudes as being injurious to him simply — or even chiefly — among folk who are themselves gentle; but that his efficiency for clerical purposes was marred altogether, among high and low, by his misfortune in this respect. It is not the owner of a good coat that sees and admires its beauty. It is not even they who have good coats themselves who recognise the article on the back of another. They who have not good coats themselves have the keenest eyes for the coats of their better-clad neighbours. As it is with coats, so it is with that which we call gentility. It is caught at a word, it is seen at a glance, it is appreciated unconsciously at a touch by those who have none of it themselves. It is the greatest of all aids to the doctor, the lawyer, the member of Parliament — though in that position a man may perhaps prosper without it — and to the statesman; but to the clergyman, it is a vital necessity. Now Mr Prong was not a gentleman.
Mrs Prime told her tale to Mr Prong, as Mrs Ray had told hers to Mr Comfort. It need not be told again here. I fear that she made the most of her sister’s imprudence, but she did not do so with intentional injustice. She declared her conviction that Rachel might still be made to go in a straight course, if only she could be guided by a hand sufficiently strict and armed with absolute power. Then she went on to tell Mr Prong how Mrs Ray had gone off to Mr Comfort, as she herself had now come to him. It was hard — was it not? — for poor Rachel that the story of her few minutes’ whispering under the elm tree should thus be bruited about among the ecclesiastical councillors of the locality. Mr Prong sat with patient face and with mild demeanour while the simple story of Rachel’s conduct was being told; but when to this was added the iniquity of Mr Comfort’s advice, the mouth assumed the would-be grandeur, the chin came out, and to anyone less infatuated than Mrs Prime it would have been apparent that the purse was not made of silk, but that a coarser material had come to hand in the manufacture.
“What shall the sheep do”, said Mr Prong, “when the shepherd slumbers in the folds?” Then he shook his head and puckered up his mouth.
“Ah!” said Mrs Prime; “it is well for the sheep that there are still left a few who do not run from their work, even in the heat of the noonday sun.”
Mr Prong closed his eyes and bowed his head, and then reassumed that peculiarly disagreeable look about his mouth by which he thought to assert his dignity, intending thereby to signify that he would willingly reject the compliment as unnecessary, were he not forced to accept it as being true. He knew himself to be a shepherd who did not fear the noonday heat; but he was wrong in this — that he suspected all other shepherds of stinting their work. It appeared to him that no sheep could nibble his grass in wholesome content, unless some shepherd were at work at him constantly with his crook. It was for the shepherd, as he thought, to know what tufts of grass were rank, and in what spots the herbage might be bitten down to the bare ground. A shepherd who would allow his flock to feed at large under his eye, merely watching his fences and folding his ewes and lambs at night, was a truant who feared the noonday sun. Such a one had Mr Comfort become, and therefore Mr Prong despised him in his heart. All sheep will not endure such ardent shepherding as that practised by Mr Prong, and therefore he was driven to seek out for himself a peculiar flock. These to him were the elect of Baslehurst, and of his elect, Mrs Prime was the most elect. Now this fault is not uncommon among young ardent clergymen.
I will not repeat the conversation that took place between the two, because they used holy words and spoke on holy subjects. In doing so they were both sincere, and not, as regarded their language, fairly subject to ridicule. In their judgement I think they were defective. He sustained Mrs Prime in her resolution to quit the cottage unless she could induce her mother to put a stop to that great iniquity of the brewery. “The Tappitts,” he said, “were worldly people — very worldly people; utterly unfit to be the associates of the sister of his friend. As to the ‘young man’, he thought that nothing further should be said at present, but that Rachel should be closely watched — very closely watched.” Mrs Prime asked him to call upon her mother and explain his views, but he declined to do this. “He would have been most willing — so willing! but he could not force himself where he would be unwelcome!” Mrs Prime was, if necessary, to quit the cottage and take up her temporary residence with Miss Pucker; but Mr Prong was inclined to think, knowing something of Mrs Ray’s customary softness of character, that if Mrs Prime were firm, things would not be driven to such a pass as that. Mrs Prime said that she would be firm, and she looked as though she intended to keep her word.
Mr Prong’s manner as he bade adieu to his favourite sheep was certainly of a nature to justify that rumour to which allusion has been made. He pressed Mrs Prime’s hand very closely, and invoked a blessing on her head in a warm whisper. But such signs among such people do not bear the meaning which they have in the outer world. These people are demonstrative and unctuous — whereas the outer world is reticent and dry. They are perhaps too free with their love, but the fault is better than that other fault of no love at all. Mr Prong was a little free with his love, but Mrs Prime took it all good part, and answered him with an equal fervour. “If I can help you, dear friend,’— and he still held her hand in his —“come to me always. You can never come too often.”
“You can help me, and I will come; always,” she said, returning his pressure with mutual warmth. But there was no touch of earthly affection in her pressure; and if there was any in his at its close, there had, at any rate, been none at its commencement.
While Mrs Prime was thus employed, Rachel and her mother became warm upon the subject of the dress, and when the younger widow returned home to the cottage, the elder widow was actually engaged in Baslehurst on the purchase of trappings and vanities. Her little hoard was opened, and some pretty piece of muslin was purchased by aid of which, with the needful ribbons, Rachel might be made, not fit, indeed, for Mrs Butler Cornbury’s carriage — no such august fitness was at all contemplated by herself — but nice and tidy, so that her presence need not be a disgrace. And it was pretty to see how Mrs Ray revelled in these little gauds for her daughter now that the barrier of her religious awe was broken down, and that the waters of the world had made their way in upon her. She still had a feeling that she was being drowned, but she confessed that such drowning was very pleasant. She almost felt that such drowning was good for her. At any rate it had been ordered by Mr Comfort, and if things went astray Mr Comfort must bear the blame. When the bright muslin was laid out on the counter before her, she looked at it with a pleased eye and touched it with a willing hand. She held the ribbon against the muslin, leaning her head on one side, and enjoyed herself. Now and again she would turn her face upon Rachel’s figure, and she would almost indulge a wish that this young man might like her child in the new dress. Ah! — that was surely wicked. But if so, how wicked are most mothers in this Christian land!
The morning had gone very comfortably with them during Dorothea’s absence. Mrs Prime had hardly taken her departure before a note came from Mrs Butler Cornbury, confirming Mr Comfort’s offer as to the carriage. “Oh, papa, what have you done?’— she had said when her father first told her. “Now I must stay there all the night, for of course she’ll want to go on to the last dance!” But, like her father, she was good-natured, and therefore, though she would hardly have chosen the task, she resolved, when her first groans were over, to do it well. She wrote a kind note, saying how happy she should be, naming her hour — and saying that Rachel should name the hour for her return.
“It will be very nice,” said Rachel, rejoicing more than she should have done in thinking of the comfortable grandeur of Mrs Butler Cornbury’s carriage.
“And are you determined?” Mrs Prime asked her mother that evening.
“It is too late to go back now, Dorothea,” said Mrs Ray, almost crying.
“Then I cannot remain in the house,” said Dorothea. “I shall go to Miss Pucker’s — but not till that morning; so that if you think better of it, all may be prevented yet.”
But Mrs Ray would not think better of it, and it was thus that the preparations were made for Mrs Tappitt’s — ball. The word “party” had now been dropped by common consent throughout Baslehurst.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14