Mrs Tappitt’s ball was celebrated on a Tuesday, and on the preceding Monday Mrs Prime moved herself off, bag and baggage, to Miss Pucker’s lodgings. Miss Pucker had been elated with a dismal joy when the proposition was first made to her. “Oh, yes; it was very dreadful. She would do anything — of course she would give up the front bedroom upstairs to Mrs Prime, and get a stretcher for herself in the little room behind, which looked out on the tiles of Griggs’s sugar warehouse. She hadn’t thought such a thing would have been possible; she really had not. A ball! Mrs Prime couldn’t help coming away — of course not. And there would be plenty of room for all her boxes in the small room behind the shop. Mrs Ray’s daughter go to a ball!” And then some threatening words were said as to the destiny of wicked people, which shall not be repeated here.
That flitting had been a very dismal affair. An old man out of Baslehurst had come for Mrs Prime’s things with a donkey-cart, and the old man, assisted by the girl, had carried them out together. Rachel had remained secluded in her mother’s room. The two sisters had met at the same table at breakfast, but had not spoken over their tea and bread and butter. As Rachel was taking the cloth away Mrs Prime had asked her solemnly whether she still persisted in bringing perdition upon herself and her mother. “You have no right to ask me such a question,” Rachel had answered, and taking herself upstairs had secluded herself till the old man with the donkey, followed by Mrs Prime, had taken himself away from Bragg’s End. Mrs Ray, as her eldest daughter was leaving her, stood at the door of her house with her handkerchief to her eyes. “It makes me very unhappy, Dorothy; so it does.” “And it makes me very unhappy, too, mother. Perhaps my sorrow in the matter is deeper than yours. But I must do my duty.” Then the two widows kissed each other with a cold unloving kiss, and Mrs Prime had taken her departure from Bragg’s End Cottage. “It will make a great difference in the housekeeping,” Mrs Ray said to Rachel, and then she went to work at her little accounts.
It was Dorcas-day at Miss Pucker’s, and as the work of the meeting began soon after Mrs Prime had unpacked her boxes in the front bedroom and had made her little domestic arrangements with her friend, that first day passed by without much tedium. Mrs Prime was used to Miss Pucker, and was not therefore grievously troubled by the ways and habits of that lady much as they were unlike those to which she had been accustomed at Bragg’s End; but on the next morning, as she was sitting with her companion after breakfast, an idea did come into her head that Miss Pucker would not be a pleasant companion for life. She would talk incessantly of the wickednesses of the cottage, and ask repeated questions about Rachel and the young man. Mrs Prime was undoubtedly very angry with her mother, and much shocked at her sister, but she did not relish the outspoken sympathy of her confidential friend. “He’ll never marry her, you know. He don’t think of such a thing,” said Miss Pucker over and over again. Mrs Prime did not find this pleasant when spoken of her sister. “And the young men, I’m told, goes on anyhow, as they pleases at them dances,” said Miss Pucker, who in the warmth of her intimacy forgot some of those little restrictions in speech with which she had burdened herself when first striving to acquire the friendship of Mrs Prime. Before dinner was over Mrs Prime had made up her mind that she must soon move her staff again, and establish herself somewhere in solitude.
After tea she took herself out for a walk, having managed to decline Miss Pucker’s attendance, and as she walked she thought of Mr Prong. Would it not be well for her to go to him and ask his further advice? He would tell her in what way she had better live. He would tell her also whether it was impossible that she should ever return to the cottage, for already her heart was becoming somewhat more soft than was its wont. And as she walked she met Mr Prong himself, intent on his pastoral business. “I was thinking of coming to you tomorrow,” she said, after their first salutation was over.
“Do,” said he; “do; come early — before the toil of the day’s work commences. I also am specially anxious to see you. Will nine be too early — or, if you have not concluded your morning meal by that time, half past nine.
Mrs Prime assured him that her morning meal was always concluded before nine o’clock, and promised to be with him by that hour. Then as she slowly paced up the High Street to the Cawston Bridge and back again, she wondered within herself as to the matter on which Mr Prong could specially want to see her. He might probably desire to claim her services for some woman’s work in his sheepfold. He should have them willingly, for she had begun to feel that she would sooner co-operate with Mr Prong than with Miss Pucker. As she returned down the High Street, and came near to her own door, she saw the cause of all her family troubles standing at the entrance to Griggs’s wine-store. He was talking to the shopman within, and as she passed she frowned grimly beneath her widow’s bonnet. “Send them to the brewery at once,” said Luke Rowan to the man. “They are wanted this evening.”
“I understand,” said the man.
“And tell your fellow to take them round to the back door.”
“All right,” said the man, winking with one eye. He understood very well that young Rowan was ordering the champagne for Mrs Tappitt’s supper, and that it was thought desirable that Mr Tappitt shouldn’t see the bottles going into the house.
Miss Pucker possessed at any rate the virtue of being early, so that Mrs Prime had no difficulty in concluding her “morning meal”, and being at Mr Prong’s house punctually at nine o’clock. Mr Prong, it seemed, had not been quite so steadfast to his purpose, for his teapot was still upon the table, together with the debris of a large dish of shrimps, the eating of small shellfish being an innocent enjoyment to which he was much addicted.
“Dear me; so it is; just nine. We’ll have these things away in a minute. Mrs Mudge! Mrs Mudge!.” Whereupon Mrs Mudge came forth, and between the three the table was soon cleared. “I wish you hadn’t caught me so late,” said Mr Prong; “it looks as though I hadn’t been thinking of you.” Then he picked up the stray shell of a shrimp, and in order that he might get rid of it, put it into his mouth. Mrs Prime said she hoped she didn’t trouble him, and that of course she didn’t expect him to be thinking about her particularly. Then Mr Prong looked at her in a way that was very particular out of the corner of his eyes, and assured her that he had been thinking of her all night. After that Mrs Prime sat down on a horsehair-seated chair, and Mr Prong sat on another opposite to her, leaning back, with his eyes nearly closed, and his hands folded upon his lap.
“I don’t think Miss Pucker’s will quite do for me,” said Mrs Prime, beginning her story first.
“I never thought it would, my friend,” said Mr Prong, with his eyes still nearly closed.
“She’s a very good woman — an excellent woman, and her heart is full of love and charity. But —”
“I quite understand it, my friend. She is not in all things the companion you desire.”
“I am not quite sure that I shall want any companion.”
“Ah!” sighed Mr Prong, shaking his head, but still keeping his eyes closed.
“I think I would rather be alone, if I do not return to them at the cottage. I would fain return if only they —”
“If only they would return too. Yes! That would be a glorious end to the struggle you have made, if you can bring them back with you from following after the Evil One! But you cannot return to them now, if you are to countenance by your presence dancings, and love-makings in the open air,’— why worse in the open air than in a close little parlour in a back street, Mr Prong did not say —“and loud revellings, and the absence of all good works, and rebellion against the spirit.” Mr Prong was becoming energetic in his language, and at one time had raised himself in his chair, and opened his eyes. But he closed them at once, and again fell back. “No, my friend,” said he, “no. It must not be so. They must be rescued from the burning; but not so — not so.” After that for a minute or two they both sat still in silence.
“I think I shall get two small rooms for myself in one of the quiet streets, near the new church,” said she.
“Ah, yes, perhaps so — for a time.”
“Till I may be able to go back to mother. It’s a sad thing families being divided, Mr Prong.”
“Yes, it is sad — unless it tends to the doing of the Lord’s work.”
“But I hope — I do hope, that all this may be changed. Rachel, I know, is obstinate, but mother means well, Mr Prong. She means to do her duty, if only she had good teaching near her.”
“I hope she may, I hope she may. I trust that they may both be brought to see the true light. We will wrestle for them — you and me. We will wrestle for them — together. Mrs Prime, my friend, if you are prepared to hear me with attention, I have a proposition to make which I think you will acknowledge to be one of importance.” Then suddenly he sat bolt upright, opened his eyes wide, and dressed his mouth with all the solemn dignity of which he was the master. “Are you prepared to listen to me, Mrs Prime?”
Mrs Prime, who was somewhat astonished, said in a low voice that she was prepared to listen.
“Because I must beg you to hear me out. I shall fail altogether in reaching your intelligence — whatever effect I might possibly have upon your heart — unless you will hear me to the end.”
“I will hear you certainly, Mr Prong.”
“Yes, my friend, for it will be necessary. If I could convey to your mind all that is now passing through my own, without any spoken word, how glad should I be! The words of men, when taken at the best, how weak they are! They often tell a tale quite different from that which the creature means who uses them. Every minister has felt that in addressing his flock from the pulpit. I feel it myself sadly, but I never felt it so sadly as I do now.”
Mrs Prime did not quite understand him, but she assured him again that she would give his words her best attention, and that she would endeavour to gather from them no other meaning than that which seemed to be his. “Ah — seemed!” said he. “There is so much of seeming in this deceitful world. But you will believe this of me, that whatever I do, I do as tending to the strengthening of my hands in the ministry.” Mrs Prime said that she would believe so much; and then as she looked into her companion’s face, she became aware that there was something of weakness displayed in that assuring mouth. She did not argue about it within her own mind, but the fact had in some way become revealed to her.
“My friend,” said he — and as he spoke he drew his chair across the rug, so as to bring it very near to that on which Mrs Prime was sitting —“our destinies in this world, yours and mine, are in many things alike. We are both alone. We both of us have our hands full of work, and of work which in many respects is the same. We are devoted to the same cause: is it not so?” Mrs Prime, who had been told that she was to listen and not to speak, did not at first make any answer. But she was pressed by a repetition of the question. “Is it not so, Mrs Prime?”
“I can never make my work equal to that of a minister of the Gospel,” said she.
“But you can share the work of such a minister. You understand me now. And let me assure you of this; that in making this proposition to you, I am not self-seeking. It is not my own worldly comfort and happiness to which I am chiefly looking.”
“Ah,” said Mrs Prime, “I suppose not.” Perhaps there was in her voice the slightest touch of soreness.
“No — not chiefly to that. I want assistance, confidential intercourse, sympathy, a congenial mind, support when I am like to faint, counsel when I am pressing on, aid when the toil is too heavy for me, a kind word when the day’s work is over. And you — do you not desire the same? Are we not alike in that, and would it not be well that we should come together?” Mr Prong, as he spoke had put out his hand, and rested it on the table with the palm upwards, as though expecting that she would put hers within it; and he had tilted his chair so as to bring his body closer to hers, and had dropped from his face his assumed look of dignity. He was quite in earnest, and being so had fallen away into his natural dispositions of body.
“I do not quite understand you,” said Mrs Prime. She did however understand him perfectly, but thought it expedient that he should be required to speak a little further before she answered him. She wanted time also to arrange her reply. As yet she had not made up her mind whether she would say yes or no.
“Mrs Prime, I am offering to make you my wife. I have said nothing of love, of that human affection which one of God’s creatures entertains for another — not, I can assure you, because I do not feel it, but because I think that you and I should be governed in our conduct by a sense of duty, rather than by the poor creature-longings of the heart.”
“The heart is very deceitful,” said Mrs Prime.
“That is true — very true; but my heart, in this matter, is not deceitful. I entertain for you all that deep love which a man should feel for her who is to be the wife of his bosom.”
“But, Mr Prong —”
“Let me finish before you give me your answer. I have thought much of this, as you may believe; and by only one consideration have I been made to doubt the propriety of taking this step. People will say that I am marrying you for — for your money, in short. It is an insinuation which would give me much pain, but I have resolved within my own mind, that it is my duty to bear it. If my motives are pure,’— here he paused a moment for a word or two of encouragement, but received none —“and if the thing itself be good, I ought not to be deterred by any fear of what the wicked may say. Do you not agree with me in that?”
Mrs Prime still did not answer. She felt that any word of assent, though given by her to a minor proposition, might be taken as involving some amount of assent towards the major proposition. Mr Prong had enjoyed the advantage of thinking over his matrimonial prospects in undisturbed solitude, but she had as yet possessed no such advantage. As the idea had never before presented itself to her, she did not feel inclined to commit herself hastily.
“And as regards money,” he continued.
“Well,” said Mrs Prime, looking down demurely upon the ground, for Mr Prong had not at once gone on to say what were his ideas about money.
“And as regards money — need I hardly declare that my motives are pure and disinterested? I am aware that in worldly affairs you are at present better off than I am. My professional income from the pew-rents is about a hundred and thirty pounds a year.’— It must be admitted that it was very hard work. By this time Mr Prong had withdrawn his hand from the table, finding that attempt to be hopeless, and had resettled his chair upon its four feet. He had commenced by requesting Mrs Prime to hear him patiently, but he had probably not calculated that she would have listened with a patience so cruel and unrelenting. She did not even speak a word when he communicated to her the amount of his income. “That is what I receive here,” he continued, “and you are probably aware that I have no private means of my own.”
“I didn’t know,” said Mrs Prime.
“No; none. But what then?”
“Oh dear, no.”
“Money is but dross. Who feels that more strongly than you do?”
Mr Prong in all that he was saying intended to be honest, and in asserting, that money was dross, he believed that he spoke his true mind. He thought also that he was passing a just eulogium on Mrs Prime, in declaring that she was of the same opinion. But he was not quite correct in this, either as regarded himself, or as regarded her. He did not covet money, but he valued it very highly; and as for Mrs Prime, she had an almost unbounded satisfaction in her own independence. She had, after all, but two hundred a year, out of which she gave very much in charity. But this giving in charity was her luxury. Fine raiment and dainty food tempted her not at all; but nevertheless she was not free from temptations, and did not perhaps always resist them. To be mistress of her money, and to superintend the gifts, not only of herself but of others; to be great among the poor, and esteemed as a personage in her district — that was her ambition. When Mr Prong told her that money in her sight was dross, she merely shook her head. Why was it that she wrote those terribly caustic notes to the agent in Exeter if her quarterly payments were ever late by a single week? “Defend me from a lone widow,” the agent used to say, “and especially if she’s evangelical.” Mrs Prime delighted in the sight of the bit of paper which conveyed to her the possession of her periodical wealth. To her money certainly was not dross, and I doubt if it was truly so regarded by Mr Prong himself.
“Any arrangements that you choose as to settlements or the like of that, could of course be made.” Mr Prong when he began, or rather when he made up his mind to begin, had determined that he would use all his best power of language in pressing his suit; but the work had been so hard that his fine language had got itself lost in the struggle. I doubt whether this made much difference with Mrs Prime; or it may be, that he had sustained the propriety of his words as long as such propriety was needful and salutary to his purpose. Had he spoken of the “like of that” at the opening of the negotiation, he might have shocked his hearer; but now she was too deeply engaged in solid serious considerations to care much for the words which were used. “A hundred and thirty from pew-rents,” she said to herself, as he endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to look under her bonnet into her face.
“I think I have said it all now,” he continued. “If you will trust yourself into my keeping I will endeavour, with God’s assistance, to do my duty by you. I have said but little personally of myself or of my feelings, hoping that it might be unnecessary.”
“Oh, quite so,” said she.
“I have spoken rather of those duties which we should undertake together in sweet companionship, if you will, consent to — to — to be Mrs Prong, in short.” Then he waited for an answer.
As she sat in her widow’s weeds, there was not, to the eye, the promise in her of much sweet companionship. Her old crape bonnet had been lugged and battered about — not out of all shape, as hats and bonnets are sometimes battered by young ladies, in which guise, if the young ladies themselves be pretty, the battered hats and bonnets are often more becoming than ever they were in the proper shapes — but so as closely to fit her head, and almost hide her face. Her dress was so made, and so put on, as to give to her the appearance of almost greater age than her mother’s. She had studied to divest herself of all outward show of sweet companionship; but perhaps she was not the less, on that account, gratified to find that she had not altogether succeeded.
“I have done with the world, and all the world’s vanities and cares,” she said, shaking her head.
“No one can have done with the world as long as there is work in it for him or her to do. The monks and nuns tried that, and you know what they came to.”
“But I am a widow.”
“Yes, my friend; and have shown yourself very willing to do your part. But do you not know that you could be more active and more useful as a clergyman’s wife than you can be as a solitary woman?”
“But my heart is buried, Mr Prong.”
“No; not so. While the body remains in this vale of tears, the heart must remain with it.” Mrs Prime shook her head; but in an anatomical point of view, Mr Prong was no doubt strictly correct. “Other hopes arise — and perhaps, too, other cares, but they will be sources of gentle happiness.”
Mrs Prime understood him as alluding to a small family, and again shook her head at the allusion.
“What I have said may probably have taken you by surprise.”
“Yes, it has, Mr Prong — very much.”
“And if so, it may be that you would wish time for consideration before you give me an answer.”
“Perhaps that will be best, Mr Prong.”
“Let it be so. On what day shall we say? Will Friday suit you? If I come to you on Friday morning, perhaps Miss Pucker will be there.”
“Yes, she will.”
“And in the afternoon.”
“We shall be at the Dorcas meeting.”
“I don’t like to trouble you to come here again.”
Mrs Prime herself felt that there was a difficulty. Hitherto she had entertained no objection to calling on Mr Prong at his own house. His little sitting-room had been as holy ground to her — almost as part of the church, and she had taken herself there without scruple. But things had now been put on a different footing. It might be that that room would become her own peculiar property, but she could never again regard it in a simply clerical light. It had become as it were a bower of love, and she could not take her steps thither with the express object of assenting to the proposition made to her — or even with that of dissenting from it. “Perhaps”, said she, “you could call at ten on Saturday. Miss Pucker will be out marketing.” To this Mr Prong agreed, and then Mrs Prime got up and took her leave. How fearfully wicked would Rachel have been in her eyes, had Rachel made an appointment with a young man at some hour and some place in which she might be found alone! But then it is so easy to trust oneself, and so easy also to distrust others.
“Good morning,” said Mrs Prime; and as she went she gave her hand as a matter of course to her lover.
“Goodbye,” said he; “and think well of this if you can do so. If you believe that you will be more useful as my wife than you can be in your present position — then —”
“You think it would be my duty to —”
“Well, I will leave that for you to decide. I merely wish to put the matter before you. But, pray, understand this; money need be no hindrance.” Then, having said that last word, he let her go.
She walked away very slowly, and did not return by the most direct road to Miss Pucker’s rooms. There was much to be considered in the offer that had been made to her. Her lot in life would be very lonely if this separation from her mother and sister should become permanent. She had already made up her mind that a continued residence with Miss Pucker would not suit her; and although, on that very morning, she had felt that there would be much comfort in living by herself, now, as she looked forward to that loneliness, it had for her very little attraction. Might it not be true, also, that she could do more good as a clergyman’s wife than could possibly come within her reach as a single woman? She had tried that life once already, but then she had been very young. As that memory came upon her, she looked back to her early life, and thought of the hopes which had been hers as she stood at the altar, now so many years ago. How different had everything been with her then! She remembered the sort of love she had felt in her heart, and told herself that there could be no repetition of such love on Mr Prong’s behalf. She had come round in her walk to that very churchyard stile at which she had seen Rachel standing with Luke Rowan, and as she remembered some passages in her own girlish days, she almost felt inclined to forgive her sister. But then, on a sudden, she drew herself up almost with a gasp, and went on quickly with her walk. Had she not herself in those days walked in darkness, and had it not since that been vouchsafed to her to see the light? In her few months of married happiness it had been given to her to do but little of that work which might now be possible to her. Then she had been married in the flesh; now she would be married in the spirit — she would be married in the spirit, if it should, on final consideration, seem good to her to accept Mr Prong’s offer in that light. Then unconsciously, she began to reflect on the rights of a married woman with regard to money — and also on the wrongs. She was not sure as to the law, and asked herself whether it would be possible for her to consult an attorney. Finally, she thought it would not be practicable to do so before giving her answer to Mr Prong.
And she could not even ask her mother. As to that, too, she questioned herself, and resolved that she could not so far lower herself under existing circumstances. There was no one to whom she could go for advice. But we may say this of her — let her have asked whom she would, she would at least have been guided by her own judgement. If only she could have obtained some slight amount of legal information, how useful it would have been!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01