Mr. Verdant Green Married and Done for/Chapter 3




ISS Patty Honeywood was not only distinguished for unlimited powers of conversation, but was also equally famous for her equestrian abilities. She and her sister were the first horsewomen in that part of the county; and, if their father had permitted, they would have been delighted to ride to hounds, and to cross country with the foremost flight, for they had pluck enough for anything. They had such light hands and good seats, and in every respect rode so well, that, as a matter of course, they looked well—never better, perhaps, than—when on horseback. Their bright, happy faces—which were far more beautiful in their piquant irregularities of feature, and gave one far more pleasure in the contemplation than if they had been moulded in the coldly chiselled forms of classic beauty—appeared with no diminution of charms, when set off by their pretty felt riding-hats; and their full, firm, and well-rounded figures were seen to the greatest advantage when clad in the graceful dress that passes by the name of a riding-habit.

Every morning, after breakfast, the two young ladies were accustomed to visit the stables, where they had interviews with their respective steeds—steeds and mistresses appearing to be equally gratified thereby. It is perhaps needless to state that during Mr. Verdant Green's sojourn at Honeywood Hall, Miss Patty's stable calls were generally made in his company.

Such rides as they took in those happy days—wild, pic-nic sort of rides, over country equally as wild and removed from formality—rides by duets and rides in duodecimos; sometimes a solitary couple or two; sometimes a round dozen of them, scampering and racing over hill and heather, with startled grouse and black-cock skirring up from under the very hoofs of the equally startled horses;—rides by tumbling streams, like the Swirl—splashing through them, with pulled-up or draggled habits—then cantering on "over bank, bush, and scaur," like so many fair Ellens and young Lochinvars—clambering up very precipices, and creeping down break-neck hills—laughing and talking, and singing, and whistling, and even (so far as Mr. Bouncer was concerned) blowing cows' horns! What vagabond, rollicking rides were those! What a healthy contrast to the necessarily formal, groom-attended canter on Society's Rotten Row!

A legion of dogs accompanied them on these occasions; a miscellaneous pack composed of Masters Huz and Buz (in great spirits at finding themselves in such capital quarters), a black Newfoundland (answering to the name of "Nigger"), a couple of Setters (with titles from the heathen mythology—"Juno" and "Flora"), a ridiculous-looking, bandy-legged otter-hound (called "Gripper"), a wiry, rat-catching terrier ("Nipper"), and two silky-haired, long-backed, short-legged, sharp-nosed, bright-eyed, pepper-and-salt Skye-terriers, who respectively answered to the names of "Whisky" and "Toddy," and were the property of the Misses Honeywood. The lordly shepherds' dogs, whom they encountered on their journeys, would have nothing to do with

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such a medley of unruly scamps, but turned from their overtures of friendship with patrician disdain. They routed up rabbits; they turned out hedgehogs; and, at their approach, they made the game fly with a whir-r-r-r-r-r-r arranged as a diminuendo.

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These free-and-easy equestrian expeditions were not only agreeable to Mr. Verdant Green's feelings, but they were also useful to him as so many lessons of horsemanship, and so greatly advanced him in the practice of that noble science, that the admiring Squire one day said to him—"I'll tell you what, Verdant! before we've done with you, we shall make you ride like a Shafto!" At which high eulogium Mr. Verdant Green blushed, and made an inward resolution that, as soon as he had returned home, he would subscribe to the Warwickshire hounds, and make his appearance in the field.

On Sundays the Honeywood party usually rode and drove to the church of a small market-town, some seven or eight miles distant. If it was a wet day, they walked to the ruined church of Lasthope—the place Miss Patty was sketching when disturbed by Mr. Roarer. Lasthope was in lay hands; and its lay rector, who lived far away, had so little care for the edifice, or the proper conduct of divine service, that he allowed the one to continue in its ruins, and suffered the other to be got through anyhow, or not at all—just as it happened. Clergymen were engaged to perform the service (there was but one each day) at the lowest price of the clerical market. Occasionally it was announced, in the vernacular of the district, that there would be no church, "because the priest had gone for the sea-bathing," or because the waters were out, and the priest could not get across. As a matter of course, in consequence of the uncertainty of finding any one to perform the service when they had got to church, and of the slovenly way in which the service was scrambled through when they had got a clergyman there, the congregation generally preferred attending the large Presbyterian meeting-house, which was about two miles from Lasthope. Here, at any rate, they met with the reverse of coldness in the conduct of the service.

Mr. Verdant Green and his male friends strayed there one Sunday for curiosity's sake, and found a minister of indefatigable eloquence and enviable power of lungs, who had arrived at such a pitch of heat, from the combined effects of the weather and his own exertions, that in the very middle of his discourse—and literally in the heat of it—he paused to divest himself of his gown, heavily braided with serge and velvet, and, hanging it over the side of the pulpit ("the pilput," his congregation called it), mopped his head with his handkerchief, and then pursued his theme like a giant refreshed. At this stage in the proceedings, little Mr. Bouncer became in a high state of pleasurable excitement, from the expectation that the minister would next divest himself of his coat, and would struggle through the rest of his argument in his shirt-sleeves; but Mr. Bouncer's improper wishes were not gratified.

The sermon was so extremely metaphorical, was founded on such abstruse passages, and was delivered in so broad a dialect, that it was caviare to Mr. Verdant Green and his friends; but it seemed to be far otherwise with the attentive and crowded congregation, who relieved their minister at intervals by loud bursts of singing, that were impressive from their fervency though not particularly harmonious to a delicately-musical ear. Near to the close of the service there was a collection, which induced Mr. Bouncer to whisper to Verdant—as an axiom deduced from his long experience—that "you never come to a strange place, but what you are sure to drop in for a collection;" but, on finding that it was a weekly offering, and that no one was expected to give more than a copper, the little gentleman relented, and cheerfully dropped a piece of silver into the wooden box. It was astonishing to see the throngs of people, that, in so thinly inhabited a district, could be assembled at this meeting-house. Though it seemed almost incredible to our midland-county friends, yet not a few of these poor, simple, earnest-minded people would walk from a distance of fifteen miles, starting at an early hour, coming by easy stages, and bringing with them their dinner, so as to enable them to stay for the afternoon service. On the Sunday mornings the red cloaks and grey plaids of these pious men and women might be seen dotting the green hillsides, and slowly moving towards the gaunt and grim red brick meeting-house. And around it, on great occasions, were tents pitched for the between-service accommodation of the worshippers.

Both they and it contrasted, in every way, with the ruined church of Lasthope, whose worship seemed also to have gone to ruin with the uncared-for edifice. Its aisles had tumbled down, and their material had been rudely built up within the arches of the nave. The church was thus converted into the non-ecclesiastical form of a parallelogram, and was fitted up with the very rudest and ugliest of deal enclosures, which were dignified with the name of pews, but ought to have been termed pens.

During the time of Mr. Verdant Green's visit, the service at this ecclesiastical ruin was performed by a clergyman who had apparently been selected for the duty from his harmonious resemblance to the place; for he also was an ecclesiastical ruin—a schoolmaster in holy orders, who, having to slave hard all through the working-days of the week, had to work still harder on the day of rest. For, first, the Ruin had to ride his stumbling old pony a distance of twelve miles (and twelve such miles!) to Lasthope, where he stabled it (bringing the feed of corn in his pocket, and leading it to drink at the Swirl) in the dilapidated stable of the tumbled-down rectory-house. Then he had to get through the morning service without any loss of time, to enable him to ride eight miles in another direction (eating his sandwich dinner as he went along), where he had to take the afternoon duty and occasional services at a second church. When this was done, he might find his way home as well as he could, and enjoy with his family as much of the day of rest as he had leisure and strength for. The stipend that the Ruin received for his labours was greatly below the wages given to a butler by the lay rector, who pocketed a very nice income by this respectable transaction. But the Butler was a stately edifice in perfect repair, both outside and in, so far as clothes and food went; and the Parson was an ill-conditioned Ruin left to moulder away in an obscure situation, without even the ivy of luxuriance to make him graceful and picturesque.

Mr. Honeywood's family were the only "respectable" persons who occasionally attended the Ruin's ministrations in Lasthope church. The other people who made up the scanty congregation were old Andrew Graham and his children, and a few of the poorer sort of Honeybourn. They all brought their dogs with them as a matter of course. On entering the church the men hung up their bonnets on a row of pegs provided for that purpose, and fixed, as an ecclesiastical ornament, along the western wall of the church. They then took their places in their pens, accompanied by their dogs, who usually behaved with remarkable propriety, and, during the sermon, set their masters an example of watchfulness. On one occasion the proceedings were interrupted by a rat hunt; the dogs gave tongue, and leaped the pews in the excitement of the chase—their masters followed them and laid about them with their sticks—and when with difficulty order had been restored, the service was proceeded with. It must be confessed that Mr. Bouncer was so badly disposed as to wish for a repetition of this scene; but (happily) he was disappointed.

The choir of Lasthope Church was centred in the person of the clerk, who apparently sang tunes of his own composing, in which the congregation joined at their discretion, though usually to different airs. The result was a discordant struggle, through which the clerk bravely maintained his own until he had exhausted himself, when he shut up his book and sat down, and the congregation had to shut up also. During the singing the intelligence of the dogs was displayed in their giving a stifled utterance to howls of anguish, which were repeated ad libitum throughout the hymn; but as this was a customary proceeding it attracted no attention, unless a dog expressed his sufferings more loudly than was wont, when he received a clout from his master's staff that silenced him, and sent him under the pew-seat, as to a species of ecclesiastical St. Helena.

Such was Lasthope Church, its Ruin, and its service; and, as may be imagined from these notes which the veracious historian has thought fit to chronicle, Mr. Verdant Green found that his Sundays in Northumberland produced as much novelty as the week-days.