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CHAPTER XXIII

BEFORE THE ALTAR

Virley Church has been already described, as far as its external appearance goes. The interior was even less decent.

It possessed but one bell, which was tolled alike for weddings and for funerals; there was a difference in the pace at which it went for these distinct solemnities, but that was all. The bell produced neither a cheerful nor a lugubrious effect on either occasion, as it was cracked. The dedication of Virley Church is unknown—no doubt because it never had a patron; or if it had, the patron disowned it. No saint in the calendar could be associated with such a church and keep his character. St. Nicholas is the patron of fishers, St. Giles of beggars, but who among the holy ones would spread his mantle over worshippers who were smugglers or wreckers? When we speak of worshippers we use an euphemism; for though the church sometimes contained a congregation, it never held one of worshippers. Salcot and Virley, the Siamese-twin parishes, connected by a wooden bridge, embraced together five hundred souls. There were two churches, but few churchgoers.

On the day of which we write, however, Virley Church was full to overflowing. This is not saying much, for Virley Church is not bigger than a stable that consists of two stalls and a loose box, whereof the loose box represents the chancel. When the curate in charge preached from the pulpit—the rectors of the two parishes were always non-resident—they kept a curate between them—he was able to cuff the boys in the west gallery who whispered, cracked nuts, or snored.

The bellringer stood in the gallery, and had much ado to guard his knuckles from abrasion against the ceiling at each upcast of the rope. He managed to save them when tolling for a burial, but when the movement was double-quick for a wedding his knuckles came continually in contact with the plaster; and when they did an oath, audible throughout the sacred building, boomed between the clangours of the bell.

Virley Church possessed one respectable feature, a massive chancel-arch, but that gaped; and the pillars slouched back against the wall in the attitude of the Virley men in the village street waiting to insult the women as they went by.

On either side of the east window hung one table of the Commandments, but a village humorist had erased all the "nots" in the Decalogue; and it cannot be denied that the parishioners conscientiously did their utmost to fulfil the letter of the law thus altered.

The congregation on Sundays consisted chiefly of young people. The youths who attended divine worship occupied the hour of worship by wafting kisses to the girls, making faces at the children, and scratching ships on the paint of the pews. Indeed, the religious services performed alternately at the two churches might have been discontinued, without discomposure to any, had not traditional usage consecrated them to the meeting of young couples. The "dearly beloveds" met in the Lord's house every Lord's day to acknowledge their "erring and straying like lost sheep" and make appointments for erring and straying again.

The altar was a deal table, much wormeaten, with a box beneath it. The altar possessed no cover save the red cotton pocket-handkerchief of the curate cast occasionally across it. The box contained the battered Communion plate, an ironmoulded surplice with high collar, a register-book, the pages glued together with damp, and a brush and pan.

The Communion rails had rotted at the bottom; and when there was a Communion the clerk had to caution the kneelers not to lean against the balustrade, lest they should be precipitated upon the sanctuary floor.

No such controversy as that which has of late years agitated the Church of England relative to the position of the celebrant could have affected Virley, for the floor in the midst, before the altar, had been eaten through by rats, emerging from an old grave, and exposed below gnawed and mouldy bones a foot beneath the boards.

A marriage without three "askings" was a novelty in Salcot and Virley sufficient to excite interest in the place; and when that marriage was to take place between one so well known and dreaded as Elijah Rebow and a girl hardly ever seen, but of whom much was spoken, it may well be supposed that Virley Church was crowded with sightseers. The gallery was full to bursting. Sailor -boys in the front amused themselves with dropping broken bits of tobacco-pipe on the heads below, and giggling at the impotent rage of those they hit.

There was a sweep in Salcot, who tenanted a tottering cottage, devoid of furniture. The one room was heaped with straw, and into this the sweep crept at night for his slumbers. This man now appeared at the sacred door.

"Look out, blackie!" shouted those near; "we are not going to be smutted by you."

"Then make way for your superiors."

"Superiors!" sneered a matron near.

"Well, I am your superior," said the sweep, "for my proper place is poking out at the top of a chimney' , and yours is poking into the fire at the bottom. Make way. I have a right to see as well as the best of you."

The crowd contracted on either side in anxiety for their clothes, and the sweep worked his way to the fore.

"I'll have the best place of you all," he said, as the gods in the gallery received him with ironical cries of "Sweep! sweep!"

He charged into the chancel, and sent his black legs over the Communion rails.

At some remote period the chancel of Virley had fallen, and had been rebuilt with timber and bricks on the old walls left to the height of two feet above the floor. As the old walls were four feet thick, and the new walls only the thickness of one brick, the chancel was provided with a low seat all round it, like the cancella of an ancient basilica. The sweep, with a keen eye peering through his soot, had detected this seat and seen that it was unappropriated. He was over the altar with a second jump, and had seated himself behind it, facing west, in the post of dignity occupied in the Primitive Church by the bishop, with his legs under the table, and his elbows on it, commanding the best view attainable of everything that went on, or that would go on, in the church.

His example was followed at once. A rush of boys and men was made for the chancel; the railings fell before them, and they seized and appropriated the whole of the low seat that surrounded the sanctuary.

"I've the best place now, you lubbers," said the sweep. "I shall have them full in face, and see the blushes of the bride."

"They are a-coming! they are a-coming!" was repeated through the church. A boy peering out of the window that lighted the gallery had seen the approach of the procession from Red Hall over the wooden bridge.

In came the Reverend Mr. Rabbit, very hot and sneezy—he laboured under hay fever all the blooming time of the year. He got to the altar. The clerk dived into the box and rose to the surface with the register-book and the surplice.

"Where is the ink?"

"Here is a pen," said the clerk, producing one with nibs parted like the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes.

"But we shall want ink."

"There is a bottle somewhere in the box," said the clerk.

"Never mind if there ain't," observed one of the elders seated by the table; "there is the sweep here handy, and you have only to mix a bit of his smut with the tears of the bride."

"Shut that ugly trap of yours," said the chimney-cleaner.

"It may be ugly," retorted the humorist, "but it is clean."

"Here they are!" from the gallery.

"Make way!" shouted Mrs. De Witt, battering about her with her umbrella. "How are people to get married if you stuff up the door, as though caulking a leak?"

She drove her way in.

"Now, then," said she, "come on, Mistress Sharland. Dear soul alive! how unmannerly these Virley people are! They want some of us from Mersea to come and teach them manners. Now, then, young Spat!" she shouted to a great boy in a fishing guernsey, "do you want your head combing? Do you see what you have done to my best silk gown? What do you mean coming to a house of worship in mud-splashers?[1] Are you come here after winkles?"

"I ain't got my splashers on," said the boy.

"Then you have feet as big and as dirty as paddles. You have trodden on my best silk and took it out at the gathers." Then, turning and looking through the door behind her, she waved her umbrella with a proud flourish.

"Come on, hearties! I've cleared the way."

She put her shoulder to the crowd and wedged her way further ahead. "Ah!" she said, "here are a lot of sniggering girls. If all was known what ought to be known some of you ought to be getting married to-day. Leave off your laughing up there!" gesticulating towards the boys in the loft. "Don't you know yet how to behave in a place of worship? I have a great mind to draw my Pandora up at Virley hard and settle here and teach you."

Mehalah came in, pale, with sunken eyes, that burned with feverish brightness. A hectic flush dyed her cheeks. Her lips were set and did not tremble.

After having given her promise, under conditions, to Rebow she had neither slept nor eaten. She had abandoned her habit of retiring to the shore to sit and brood, and maintained instead incessant activity. When she had done what was necessary for others she made work for herself.

Mrs. Sharland had forgotten her ague and left her bed in the excitement and pleasure of her daughter's submission. She had attempted several times to speak to Mehalah of her approaching marriage, but had not been able to wring a word out of her. From the moment Glory gave her consent to Rebow she said not another syllable on the subject to him or to anyone. She became more taciturn and retiring, if possible, than before. Abraham Dowsing had saluted her and attempted a rough congratulation. She had turned her back and walked away.

Elijah's conduct was the reverse of Glory's. His gloom was gone, and had made way for boisterous and demonstrative joy. His pride was roused, and he insisted on the marriage preparations being made on a liberal scale. He threw a purse into Mrs. Sharland's lap, and bade her spend it how she liked on Mehalah's outfit and her own. The old woman had been supremely happy in arranging everything, her happiness only dashed by the unsympathetic conduct of one chief performer in the ceremony, her daughter, whom she could not interest in any point connected with it.

There had been a little struggle that morning. Mehalah had drawn on her blue " Gloriana " jersey as usual, and Mrs. Sharland had insisted on its coming off. The girl had submitted after a slight resistance, and had allowed herself passively to be arrayed as her mother chose.

Elijah was dressed in a blue coat, with brass buttons, and knee-breeches. No one had seen him so spruce before.

"I say, dame," whispered Farmer Goppin to his wife, "the master of Red Hall is turning over a new leaf to-day."

"Maybe," she answered, "but I doubt it will be a blank one. Look at the girl. It won't be a gay[2] for him."

"Move on!" said Mrs. De Witt. "I'll keep the road."

Mrs. De Witt had come at Rebow's special request. She had put on for the occasion her silk dress, in which she had gone from home and been married. Her figure had altered considerably through age and maternity and the dress was now not a little too tight for her. Her hooking together had been a labour of difficulty, performed by Mrs. Sharland at Red Hall; it had been beyond her own unassisted powers, in the Pandora, when she drew on the ancient dress.

"Dear sackalive! " exclaimed Mrs. De Witt when she extracted the garment from the lavender in which it had lain, like a corpse in balm, for some five-and-twenty years, "I was a fool when I last put you on; and I won't fit myself out in you again for the same purpose, unless I am driven to it by desperate circumstances." Unable to make the body meet, she had thrown a smart red coat over it; and having engaged a boy to row her to Red Hall, sat in the stern, with her skirt pinned over her head, as though the upper part of her person were enveloped in a camera lucida, in which she was viewing in miniature the movements of the outer world. On reaching Red Hall she had thrown off the scarlet, and presented her back pleadingly to Mrs. Sharland.

"I ought not to have done it, but I did," said she in a tone of confidence. "I mean I oughtn't to have put this gown on, last time I wore it," she explained when Mrs. Sharland enquired her meaning. "It was thus it came about: I was intimate with the sister of Moses De Witt, and one Mersea fair I went over to the merrymakings, and she inwited me to take a mouthful with her and her brother on board the Pandora. I went, and I liked the looks of the wessel, and of Moses, so I said to him, 'You seem wery comfortable here, and I think I could make myself comfortable here too. So, if you are noways unobjectionable, I think I will stay.' And I did. I put on my silk gown, and was married to Moses, in spite of all my parents said, and I turned the sister of De Witt out and took her place."

Mrs. De Witt felt great restraint in the silk gown. Her arms were like wings growing out of her shoulder-blades. She was not altogether satisfied that the hooks would hold, and therefore carried to church with her the military coat, over her arm. She wore her hair elaborately frizzled. She had done it with the stove poker, and had worn it for some days in curl-papers. Over this was a broad white chip hat, tied under her chin with skyblue ribands, and she had inserted a sprig of forget-me-nots inside the frizzle of hair over her forehead. "Bless my soul," she said to herself, "the boys will go stark staring mad of love at the sight of me. I look like a pretty miss of fifteen—I do, by cock!"

Mrs. De Witt succeeded in bringing her party before the altar, at which still sat the sweep, deaf to the feeble expostulations of the curate, which he had listened to with one eye closed and his red tongue hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

Mr. Rabbit was obliged to content himself with a protest, and vest himself hastily for the function.

"Look here," said Mrs. De Witt, who took on herself the office of master of the ceremonies: "I am not going to be trodden on and crumpled. Stand back, good people; stand back, you parcel of unmannerly cubs! Let me get where I can keep the boys in order and see that everything gives satisfaction. I have been married; I ought to know all the ways and workings of it, and I do."

She thrust her way to the pulpit, ascended the stair, and installed herself therein.

"Oh, my eye!" whispered the boys in the gallery. "The old lady is busted all down her back!"

"What is that?" asked Mrs. De Witt in dismay. She put her hands behind her. The observation of the boys was just. Her efforts to clear a way had been attended with ruin to the fastenings of her dress, and had brought back her arms to their normal position at the expense of hooks and eyes.

"It can't be helped," said Mrs. De Witt, "so here goes!" And she drew on her military coat to hide the wreck.

"Now, then, parson, cast off! Elijah, you stand on the right, and Glory on the left."

The curate sneezed violently and rubbed his nose, and then his inflamed eyes. The dust of the flowering grass got even into that mouldy church, rank with grave odours and rotting timber. He began with the Exhortation. Mrs. De Witt followed each sentence with attention and appropriate gesture.

"'Is not to be enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly,'" she repeated, with solemn face and in an awestruck whisper; then, poking the boys in the gallery with her umbrella, "Just you listen to that, you cubs!" Then she nodded and gesticulated at the firstly, secondly, and thirdly of the address to those whom she thought needed impressing with the solemn words. Elijah answered loudly to the questions asked him whether he would have the girl at his side to be his wedded wife. Her answer was faint and reluctantly given. "'Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?’"

There was a pause.

"Speak up, Mistress Sharland, speak up!" said Mrs. De Witt in a tone of authority. "Or, if you don't speak, curtsey."

The curate was affected with a violent sneezing fit. When he recovered he went on. Rebow clasped Mehalah's hand firmly, and firmly repeated the sentences after the priest.

"'I, Elijah, take thee——'" began the curate; then asked, in a whisper, "What is the bride's name?

"Mehalah," answered the mother.

"'I, Elijah, take thee, Mehalah, to my wedded wife,'" began the curate.

"'I, Elijah, take thee. Glory, to my wedded wife,'" repeated Rebow.

"That is not the name," protested Mr. Rabbit.

"I marry Glory, and no one else; I take her by that name and by none other," said Rebow. "Go on."

"Say the words after me," the curate whispered to Mehalah, who began to tremble. She obeyed, but stopped at the promise "to love, cherish, and to obey." The curate repeated it again.

"'To obey,'" said Mehalah.

Mr. Rabbit looked uncertain how to act.

"'To love, cherish, and obey,'" he suggested faintly.

"Go on," ordered Rebow. "Let her obey now; the rest will come in due season."

The priest nervously submitted.

"Now for the ring," said the clerk. "Put it on the book."

Rebow was taken by surprise. "By heaven!" he said, "I forgot all about that."

"You must have something to use for the purpose," said the curate. "Have you no ring of your own?"

"No. Am I like to have?"

"Then let her mother lend her her own marriage-ring."

"She shall not," said Rebow angrily. "No, no! Glory's marriage with me is not a second-hand affair, and like that of such fools as she," pointing to Mrs. Sharland. "No, we shall use a ring such as has never been used before, because our union is unlike all other unions. Will this do?" He drew the link of an iron chain from his pocket.

"This is a link broke off my brother's fetters. I picked it up on the sea-wall this morning. Will it do? "

"It must do for want of a better," said the curate.

Elijah threw it on the book; then placed it on Mehalah's finger, with a subdued laugh. "Our bond. Glory," he said, in a low tone, "is not of gold, but of iron."

  1. Wooden paddles, worn by those who go out "winkling " in the mud, to prevent their sinking.
  2. Essex for "Picture."