Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Our first curate
OUR FIRST CURATE.
On the middle of a wild uncultivated moor in the north of England is situated a small village, which shall be nameless, although the mention of its veritable name would give small enlightenment to most readers. In these days of steam and perpetual motion there are indeed but few corners of the world which remain a terra incognita, but this is, I believe, one of them; at all events at the time of which I am about to write,—the time of my youth, now alas I numbered with the past, the spot was unvisited save by the snow and sleet in the winter season, and when these had melted and gone, came only the purple heather flowers, glowing beneath the summer sunshine far as the eye could reach.
Here, in the parsonage, my two sisters and myself were born. We lost our mother early, too early to be sensible of our loss; and our father never brought any one to supply her place to us, either in the shape of step-mother or governess. We learnt our alphabet and earliest lessons at his knee, and as we grew older he it still was who taught us all we ever knew. Thus we grew up not exactly ignorant, but unaccomplished, and shy to a degree. Of this shyness each had her own characteristic manifestation. Sarah, the eldest of us, was affected by a nervous cough and contraction of the eyebrows at the sight of a stranger; the same phenomenon induced a tremor through my whole frame more nearly resembling St. Vitus’s dance than anything else; while Rose, our youngest sister, blushed a deeper red than the reddest of her namesakes in the garden. In spite, however, of all our shyness, although the scent of a tailed coat, or the sight of a hat other than our father’s in the hall, sent us off with the speed of lightning, like frightened mice to our hiding-places—the most inscrutable nooks and crannies in all the house—of course, in spite of this, we had our own private romances; we each of us were to have a lover some day; some bright being—wearing hat and coat, I suppose, but himself hardly made of mortal clay—was to fall down straight from the clouds, or perhaps to “slither down a rainbow” at our feet; this being bright—or rather these beings, for there were to be three of them—were to declare their love, a passion pure, ethereal, rapturous, such as earth before had never known, which should be reciprocated electric-like on the instant, and then shyness should be no more, reserve should be swallowed up in confidence, and there should be but one heart, one mind, one soul between us.
Such was our first dream of love, a dream altogether dream-like and unsubstantial; by and by, however, we began to indulge in some little curiosity as to what our lovers should personally be like; and when we chanced to hear that in the town nearest to us there lived an old woman who showed to people through a glass the forms of the future rulers of their destiny, we determined to pay her a secret visit. Papa must not know anything about it, nor anybody in the world except Mary, the old servant, who had told us the story—she would go with us. It was a long way, more than six miles off, that little town of B——, and the sun was scorchingly hot as we crossed the wild unsheltered moor that summer afternoon; but our feet did not tire nor our spirits flag. We reached the old woman at last; very old she looked—nearly a hundred to our eyes—and her antique dress and hollow sepulchral tones exactly embodied our imaginations of the Sibyl. The magic mirror, an ordinary prism to all appearance, was produced, and Sarah invited to look steadily into it. Wonderful to relate, she declared she beheld a gentleman whom she had never seen before, very tall, very long in the back, small enough in the waist to hint a suspicion of stays, having the tiniest darlings of feet and of hands, jet black hair and whiskers, and a profile exactly in accordance with that of a Greek statue. Encouraged by what I heard of this delightful apparition, I now took the crystal from Sarah’s hand, but alas! look as long and earnestly as I would, it reflected nothing for my eyes but the colours of the rainbow, a phenomenon belonging, as I thought, rather to the science of optics than to that of magic. Vainly I asked the Sibyl whether she portended an early death for me, or—fate yet more cruelly unkind—life as an old maid, from this vacuity of vision: she did but shake her head, a shake big, doubtless, with significance as Lord Burleigh’s, only the wisdom that should interpret it failed me. Thus was my fate left undecided, and Rose essayed her turn. Her description resembled Sarah’s so exactly, that I settled it my sisters must be the destined brides of two brothers, probably twins—the statuesque profile, tall figure, small waist, delicate hands and feet, all presented themselves a second time, only Rose’s Adonis had light hair instead of dark, and no whiskers at all.
More than two years passed away without bringing anyone to our village in the least degree like the phantoms of the mirror, and our village was our world, having never any of us travelled further from it than that little town of B—— I have mentioned before, in all our lives. Sarah was now twenty-one, I a year and a half younger, and Rose just eighteen. One day papa—but I must pause a moment first to describe what sort of man our father was. In person he was indisputably handsome, and mentally as indisputably clever. I don’t know whether it was from choice or from the necessity of the case during those more than twenty years he had held the living of —— on the Moor, but he saw scarcely any society at home, and never went out. His income was small, by the way, and did not justify his keeping a carriage. He occupied himself chiefly with literary pursuits, had contributed, as we knew, articles to several of the reviews, and at the present time we imagined him to be engaged on some greater work, though he had never spoken of it to us. Now I can return to my “one day.” One day, then, papa took us all by surprise by announcing that he was going to keep a curate. The parish was very small—the emolumen, as I have said before, also small—there was but one full service on Sunday, and very little occasional duty—a few babies were born and wanted baptising, it was true—but a burial was rare, and a wedding almost unheard of—what could papa want with a curate?
“I may tell you,” he said, in answer to our inquiry, which was looked though not spoken, “that I am writing a work—a great work,” he added rather pompously—“one which, I trust, will be acknowledged as such by future generations, and which I would fain, therefore, finish before I die. For this purpose, I have resolved to devote myself entirely to my literary labours, and have engaged as curate a young man who will take the whole of the parish-work off my hands. As I give him a title, he is satisfied with a small stipend. his name is Pembroke, and I expect him immediately after the Easter ordination. He will lodge at Mrs. Shipton’s.”
This information being vouchsafed us about the middle of Lent, we had full employment for the remaining two or three weeks in talking over the great prospective event; not the fate of kingdoms to the statesman, nor that of universal science to the philosopher, could be bigger with interest than was the advent of this curate to us three country girls. Sarah and Rose had each the hope of discovering her crystalline hero—or hero of the crystal I should, perhaps, rather say—and, though my interest was not so personal, it was none the less keen in my sisters’ behalf.
“I am afraid he won’t be comfortable at Mrs. Shipton’s,” said Sarah, “the rooms are so small and the furniture so mean. Don’t you think we might send a few pictures to cover the walls?”
“Or rather the paper that is upon the walls,” suggested Rose. “Those dreadful blue roses with the scarlet leaves. Of course we might. And I am sure we could spare one of the couches from our own morning-room, and—”
“You need not dispose of any more articles of our furniture in your fancy, Rose,” I interrupted; “we might spare, indeed, but we could never send them. Mrs. Shipton thinks her rooms fit for a prince, and would be mortally offended if we insinuated they were not fit for a curate, to reckon nothing of what the curate himself and papa would say and think when they discovered, which, of course, they would do, that we had carried out your plan.”
My arguments were not to be gainsayed, so Mrs. Shipton’s wonderful blue roses suffered no eclipse, and her hard-seated horsehair chairs admitted no dangerous rival in their midst in the shape of our more luxurious sofa.
Easter Sunday came at last, and the Thursday after came Mr. Pembroke. The next day he called at the parsonage, and, after being for some time closeted with papa, was conducted by the latter to the drawing-room, to be introduced to his daughters three. We heard, with beating hearts, their footsteps approaching. The door opened.
“My daughters—Mr. Pembroke,” said papa.
Sarah’s cough was distressing as she rose from her seat, and my legs trembled so that my curtsey—self-taught, by the way, for we had never had the benefit of a dancing-master—was quite a failure. I glanced at Rose: her cheeks were scarlet. And what was the colour of Mr. Pembroke’s hair? It might have been green as Mr. Tittlebat Titmouse’s when he had made use of the infallible dye, for anything I knew to the contrary, for full five minutes after my introduction.
The new curate began by offering a few remarks on the weather and his first impressions of the country, in a voice rather too loud for a drawing-room, but not unmusical. These were answered by Sarah in monosyllables, strangled in the birth by coughs. At length I took courage to look up. What colour was it? Black—black as the raven’s wing. This must then be he whom fate had predestined for my sister Sarah. Behold, the sympathetic chord was already touched in his bosom—he was inquiring anxiously about her cough.
“I am distressed to hear you cough so,” he said; “have you suffered in this way long, Miss Seaton?”
Sarah’s reply was completely choked.
“Yes, my daughter is subject to a cough,” said papa; “but I have seldom heard it so bad as this morning.”
“I believe cod-liver oil is the best remedy,” resumed the curate: “wonderful cures of long-standing disease are well authenticated to have been wrought by it.”
Long standing disease and cod-liver oil! Poor Sarah, this was a pleasant prelude to love-making! Papa resented it for her.
“My daughter’s lungs are quite sound, I am happy to say,” he remarked, in a tone which forbade anything further to be said on the subject; and Mr. Pembroke, after bestowing one more pitying glance on Sarah, began to talk of something else. He asked us if there were many pretty walks in the neighbourhood. This time it was Rose who answered. She was an artist; knew the whole length and breadth of the moor; had witnessed the different effects of sunrise, sunset, and the sun at his meridian on its broad rugged features; and she spoke with enthusiasm in its praise.
“Ah, you look strong,” said Mr. Pembroke, with a scarcely perceptible emphasis on the pronoun, which, however, papa did not appear to notice, for he observed, smiling:
“Ah! you judge by her colours, I see. Rose does not, however, always hoist such a crimson flag.”
A suggestion of consumption again under the diagnosis of the hectic flush I thought to myself, and I half expected to hear a second recommendation of the infallible cod-liver oil. But Mr. Pembroke was wiser: he might think these poor motherless girls were following their deceased parent at a galop to the churchyard, but he kept both pitying word and look to himself this time, and after a few more now-forgotten observations on matters irrelevant, rose to take his leave, papa accompanying him to the gate.
“Well, Sarah, is it he?” was my eager inquiry, as soon as we three sisters were alone.
“The very same,” she replied, confidently.
“It struck me, however, that Mr. Pembroke’s hands and feet were decidedly large—and if you recollect, they were to have been so very small,” I remarked, rather maliciously.
“Perhaps his boots and gloves did not fit,” suggested Rose.
“Well, I can’t answer for the boots, but he took a glove off to shake hands before departing, and I particularly noticed the hand. Mine felt like a child’s in the paw of a giant.”
“But then, Fanny, you know your hand is so very small,” said my sister Sarah, hoping perhaps, by this gentle flattery, to deprecate any further raillery on my part.
“Thank you, Sarah,” I returned; “then I must make no more odorous comparisons. And there is no mistake that Mr. Pembroke’s figure is tall and good, his hair black, his features of the Greek style of architecture, and that altogether he is a very handsome man. Sarah, I congratulate you: that pity is akin to love is well known, and there was, assuredly, ineffable pity in his eye the moment he heard that little cough of yours.”
“That horrid cough,” began Sarah.
“Say rather most opportune cough,” I interrupted. “You don’t know what you owe to it. I wonder whether Mr. Pembroke has a brother just like himself, only with light hair,” I went on, thinking to turn my artillery now against Rose.
“Oh, of course he has,” she answered, laughing, “and of course the light brother will come here to stay with the dark, and everything will happen just as it should do.”
“No, indeed Rose; you must not be in such a hurry. Mrs. Shipton’s house can never accommodate two lodgers at one and the same time; you must wait for your introduction till Sarah is married, and then she can bring her sister and her brother-in-law so nicely together under her own roof, and you will fall in love with one another as a matter of course.”
We did not see Mr. Pembroke again until we saw him in the pulpit the following Sunday morning.
“Much cry and little wool” was papa’s verdict on his curate’s first sermon, expressed as soon as we were out of hearing of the village congregation, within the garden gates of our own parsonage. “But he is a young hand, and it is to be hoped he will improve. It is sad, however, that pulpit oratory should be so entirely untaught at our Universities,” he went on, after a pause.
We were obliged silently to acquiesce in papa’s adaption of the old proverb. Mr. Pembroke had a fine voice—one at least which would have rolled sonorously through the cloistered aisles of some large and lofty cathedral. As the poet Wordsworth writes of Harry Gill’s,
His voice was as the voice of three.
But for our little church the sound was all too big, and when I afterwards asked Widow Barber why her little boy cried and behaved so badly that morning, she said it was the parson frightened him with the awful noise he made. Then, amid all this cry, there was, as papa said, little “wool,” neither striking argument, nor lofty thought, nor simple earnest practical lesson. We could but echo his hope of improvement from the bottom of our hearts, convinced it could not be that his future son-in-law should be dismissed from his curacy for mental incapacity.
A few days later papa asked Mr. Pembroke to dine with us, telling him he was sorry he could not invite anybody to meet him, as we never had company at the parsonage. It fell therefore to the curate’s lot to lead Sarah to her place at the head of the table that day, and as far as looks went, nobody could deny they were a very suitable and striking pair. She was tall and elegant in figure, and her face, though not exactly beautiful, was interesting, her complexion very fair and pale, her hair luxuriant, and shining like silken threads of gold, and he—but I think I have described him sufficiently before.
Of course Mr. Pembroke did not neglect to inquire of Sarah after her cough; her answer was not in words but in kind, and being unfortunately timed at the moment she was raising a spoonful of soup to her lips, had the result of upsetting the same upon her dress, a light blue silk, which bore the memorial stains to its dying day. Mr. Pembroke’s next words were spoken too low to be audible to anybody but Sarah, to whom they were addressed. Actually whispering to her, I thought, so that chrysalis pity is already changing its nature—but alas! I afterwards learnt those few low-breathed syllables had only been “Do let me persuade you to try De Jongh’s cod-liver oil.” There was very little conversation that day at our dinner-table worthy of being repeated; we girls were far too shy to speak unless we were spoken to; the only spontaneous remark Sarah offered to her right-hand neighbour during the first course, being to ask whether he would take a little more soup, while during the second the same inquiry was hazarded respecting some chickens. Thus the talk was almost exclusively between the two gentlemen.
“I had an old Cambridge friend of your name,” said papa, “Pembroke, of Trinity, he was of the same year as myself, and we took orders together, but I have not met nor heard anything of him for many a year. It may be he is a relation of yours: is it possible, your father?”
“My father—no—my father—is—not in orders,” returned our curate, with marked confusion of manner and hesitation of voice.
“No,—well certainly, my friend Pembroke in his youth bore no resemblance to you; he was tall, but his figure was much slighter, and his features—”
“My form,” interrupted Mr. Pembroke, before papa had time to complete the picture of his old friend, “my form, I have been told by an eminent sculptor, presents the happy medium between the Apollo Belvidere and the Farnese Hercules.”
Certainly our new curate was not lacking in vanity, and took small pains to conceal it. It was difficult to preserve one’s gravity at this speech; but papa’s countenance was a model of decorum as he replied,
“A most just compliment, sir. My poor old friend, on the contrary, would have felt such an one ridiculous applied to himself. His face, too, was what no painter would have chosen as a model for his ideal, though the expression made it beautiful in my eyes.”
“Like the sunlight on my moor,” remarked Rose, timidly, blushing at the sound of her own voice.
“Ah, expression and sunlight may be all very well in their way, but give me the face and the landscape which are not dependent for their beauty on such adventitious aids.” And Mr. Pembroke blew his nose at the conclusion of this observation, by way of sounding a trumpet in praise of its irreproachable Grecian outline.
Papa seemed to think we had now had enough on the subject of personal beauty, and the word “landscape” prompted him to ask his guest if he had travelled much. But Mr. Pembroke had never been out of England, and seemed to have found but little worthy of contemplation in it, nothing certainly in comparison worthy with his own matchless form and features.
The conversation was next turned by papa upon books, ever his darling theme. He met, however, with no sympathy.
“Ah, books are all very well for monks and hermits,” said Mr. Pembroke, “but man in his natural state is a sociable animal, and I acknowledge that my fellow-man has much more interest for me than all the wisdom that ever was printed.”
“And all the folly, too, Mr. Pembroke? Don’t you care for novels, either?” I ventured to ask.
“Better to live romances than to read them,” replied that gentleman, with a volume of affected sentiment in his tone.
“I am afraid,” said papa, dryly, “you will not find the phases of real life so interesting here. We are quite out of the pale of society in this place.”
“Is there absolutely no one with whom you can associate in the parish?” inquired Mr. Pembroke dismayed.
“Neither man, woman, or child,” returned papa, decisively, “the whole population is composed of labourers and one or two small tenant farmers.”
“Surely,” expostulated the Curate, “I saw a lady in church on Sunday—two middle-aged and most respectable ladies in fact—with a footman attending them.”
“Miss Arabella Green!” we girls exclaimed in chorus, while papa proceeded to give some further account of the lady.
“True,” he said; “Miss Arabella Green is, as you remarked, a most respectable lady, who will, I have no doubt, be delighted to welcome you to her house, though I should scarcely imagine her society would be the most agreeable to a young man’s fancy.” (Miss Arabella Green was, by the way, the ugliest woman I have ever seen in my life; plain, is a term totally inadequate to her description, she was positively and irreclaimably ugly.) “She is very rich,” papa went on “and spends a good deal of her time in travelling, but she has a house of her own in the parish—I dare say you have noticed it—the only one above the rank of a cottage there is,—a great staring red-faced house surrounded by a high garden-wall, about the middle of the village, and here she generally resides for some months in the year. The other lady you noticed with her at church was Mrs. Tweedie, a Scotch widow, and Miss Green’s companion, or chaperone as the latter lady herself styles her, although Miss Green would probably appear to you something past the age regarding chaperonage. Once upon a time she was very active in the parish, but I suppose I gave her offence about something or other, for her zeal has these many years past subsided into indifference, while the feeling with which she regards me and my daughters must, I fear, be indicated by a harder name. However, poor lady, she does us no harm, and we can forgive her for it,” concluded papa, magnanimously.
Yes, indeed, we could forgive her, whatever might be papa’s sentiments; far rather could we girls tolerate Miss Green’s enmity than her friendship. We had a suspicion, though we were but children at the time, that Miss Arabella had once designed to change her home at the big ugly red-faced house for our pretty quiet parsonage—to change both home and name at one and the same time.
I have said that our father was a very handsome and a very clever man, and that Miss Arabella was a veritable Gorgon, so let it not be thought so unnatural a thing that a rich maiden should dream of throwing herself away upon a poor parson, a widower, with three gawky daughters for incumbrances. Unnatural or the reverse, it was however our inward conviction that this was the secret spring of all Miss Green’s activity in the parish,—of her clothing and sick charities; of her soup bounties on Thursdays; her coals and her blankets at Christmas; and that the hardening of her heart synchronised with the melting away of her matrimonial hopes. Precisely at the same epoch, too, it was, that instead of being greeted as before—with gentle smiles as “sweet darlings”—whenever we chanced to meet Miss Arabella, she brushed past us without a word, and a brow as dark as a thunder-cloud. Of course nothing of all this was related to Mr. Pembroke, but he manifested singular curiosity about the lady, which we endeavoured, in some degree, to gratify. Enough, however, of what passed on this day; time must henceforth move with a swifter wing in my narrative.
Many sermons had now been preached by the new curate in our church, and several dinners eaten by him in our parsonage. Our shyness was diminishing in his presence by small degrees and beautifully less, while Sarah’s love was increasing by large ones and horribly larger. Her love, did I say? Nay, let me not dignify with such a name a folly, which, I may say, had “all the contortions” without any of the “inspiration” of the divine passion. Mr. Pembroke’s intellect was below mediocrity, his vanity beyond anything ever before met with, his character in no respect loveable, and Rose and I were morally certain, it was impossible our sister really loved him. She had, however, persuaded herself she did, at first sight, because of the fancied resemblance to him, whom, as she said, fate had revealed as her future husband, and reason about it as we might, we could not reason her out of her nonsense. Mr. Pembroke meanwhile manifested no symptoms, of contagious disease, and Sarah’s were only recognised by our sisterly omniscience. She was, however, looking ill to all eyes, the cause whereof was as follows:
The Curate had one day expressed his admiration of the colour of the larches which ornamented our lawn, and were then just bursting into leaf in all the fresh beauty of the opening spring. From this very simple and natural remark, Sarah had taken it into her head that green was his favourite colour, and in spite of our protest (for nothing could have worse suited her pale complexion), she persisted, from that time forth, in wearing nothing but green. Notwithstanding papa’s near-sightedness, and want of observation in such matters, I expected every day he would be remarking how very unwell she looked.
Mr. Pembroke had been with us about six months, when one morning at breakfast papa exclaimed in stronger terms than usual against the poverty, the absolute imbecility, of his sermons. His progress, papa declared, was retrograde rather than advancing, and he concluded by expressing his determination to dismiss Mr. Pembroke at the end of the year for which he had at first engaged him. I watched, on Sarah’s countenance, the effect of this announcement, but whatever her feelings were, she managed to disguise them successfully, and for several days afterwards made no allusion to the subject either to Rose or me. About a week had passed, when she came to me in my bedroom, one morning, as I was dressing for a walk, with a face which betokened something on her mind.
“I want to speak to you, Fanny,” she began.
“Well, dear, what is it?” I returned, putting my arm round her waist, and kissing her cheek, to encourage her confidence.
“You heard what papa said the other day about—Mr. Pembroke?” uttering the name with difficulty.
“That he must leave at the end of the year if he does not preach better sermons? Yes, dear, I heard that, and I am very sorry if it grieves you, only we cannot help it, you know.”
“Yes, I think I can help it, if it be only the sermons,” returned Sarah, to my astonishment taking a manuscript out of her pocket, and putting it into my hand with the request that I would read it. Seeing that I looked for an explanation, she continued modestly, “I think it is a better sermon, or at least, that it will please papa better than those Mr. Pembroke usually preaches, and I am sure I can find time to write one such every week, and—”
“And oh, Sarah!” I interrupted, “can you really love a man whom you acknowledge in anything inferior to yourself? My lover, if I ever have one, must be one whom I think, and know, and feel from the bottom of my heart, to be infinitely wiser and nobler, and better than I am. Like Helena’s should be my song:—
It were all one
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
“My dear Fanny, if you go off into a rhapsody, it is no use talking to you.”
“True, Sarah dear, I beg your pardon, and promise not to rhapsodise any more. So tell me your whole plan. Do you mean to send a sermon to Mr. Pembroke every week, under your own sign manual?”
“No indeed, of course neither he nor anybody must ever know I have anything to do with it. I should not even have told you, only I want you to promise to walk with me once a week to B——, where the manuscript must be posted. I am sure I have disguised the handwriting beyond all possibility of recognition.”
This I admitted, but objected that Mr. Pembroke would naturally suppose it was one of his own congregation who thus favoured him, for what could it matter to any of the parishioners of B—— whether he fed his flock on a dry crust, or on the choicest and richest of viands? And, among his own congregation, upon whom could suspicion fall save upon one of the parson’s daughters?
But Sarah, wiser than I, reminded me that Mr. Pembroke was personally known to more than one of the families resident at B——, that to know him was to love him (?), and that although it might matter nothing to these individuals what manner of sermons were preached in our village church, it possibly mattered everything that the preacher should remain in their neighbourhood. They had heard of papa’s discontent, and the sermons were sent as a means towards the end of preventing his dismissing his curate. Or even should Mr. Pembroke’s suspicion rest on one of his own parishioners, had I forgotten Miss Arabella Green? Had she not the pen of a ready writer? and what more likely than that she should employ it in the curate’s service? Did she not ask him to dinner, and patronise him, and smile upon him—a hideous smile, truly, but meant as a sign of grace and favour? Had she not sought to gain a husband once by feeding his hungry and clothing his naked, and might she not be seeking to gain one now by writing his sermons? She was old enough to be his mother, I was going to say; true—but did elderly maiden ladies never pay court to young single gentlemen, men young enough to be their sons? It was absurd, but was anything too absurd for Miss Arabella Green? I was obliged to grant all these arguments of Sarah’s, to grant that she might succeed in preserving her incognito.
“But,” was my next objection, “Mr. Pembroke will never make use of your sermons. Depend upon it, he thinks no small things of his own compositions, his manner of delivering them proclaims it unmistakeably. His form being the happy medium between the Apollo Belvidere and the Farnese Hercules, his style of writing doubtless combines Bishop Butler’s powers of reasoning with the eloquence of—whom shall I say?”
“Ah, Fanny, you have always done him injustice. I know papa has told him more than once that he is not satisfied with his sermons. Besides, if he doesn’t make use of the first I send, of course I shall not try a second time. But you will read this one, and tell me what you think of it. I should like to make an experiment of my plan for once.”
“Very well: but you don’t wish me to keep it a secret from Rose? She has gone out to finish a sketch on the moor, and I was just getting ready to join her there, when you came in. She asked me to bring a book to read to her, and if you will allow me, I will take this sermon of yours instead, and when we come in you shall be favoured with our united judgment of its merits.”
Having gained the desired permission, I sallied forth, and soon reached the spot where my youngest sister was seated, with her colour-box beside her, intent on the painting she had in hand.
It was now October; the heather had put off its purple robe and donned the sad and sober brown, but it was a lovely day, and the unclouded sun, with its countless lights and shadows, made objects and colours, inanimate and faded in themselves, dance with life and brilliancy. Rose’s pencil had been true to nature, and had succeeded in sketching an effective picture. I told her Sarah’s project, which surprised her as much as it had done me, and then I proceeded to read the manuscript aloud. We were doubtless partial and incapable critics, for to us it seemed a masterpiece; it was, however, indisputably superior to any effort of Mr. Pembroke’s, and we thought even his vanity must acknowledge it.
“He is not worthy of her,” exclaimed Rose. “If the light-haired brother proves half so stupid, or a quarter so vain, I will have nothing to say to him, though I should see his image reflected in all the crystals in the world, in the very rain-drops as they fall, even though he should profess to love me with an immeasurable love, which last even is sadly wanting in Sarah’s case.”
“Ah! I had forgotten all about the light-haired brother. Do you mean to say you have discovered he really exists? Mr. Pembroke always appeared so very unwilling to speak of his family. I remember the first day he dined with us, when in answer to papa’s question, he said his father was not a clergyman, his confused and hesitating manner gave me the impression that he (the father, I mean) must be a felon, or something of the sort.”
“Well, the light-haired brother may be a galley-slave, for anything I know to the contrary. My discovery goes not beyond the bare fact of his existence. One day, however, Mr. Pembroke casually mentioned this brother by name. I ventured to ask if he resembled him, and he replied, some people thought so, but the colour of the eyes and hair was different. Now, our Mr. Pembroke’s hair is dark, so it follows the other’s must be light.”
“No, it may be red.”
“In that case, too, I shall have nothing to say to him,” replied Rose, laughing; and her sketch being now finished, we returned to the house, and told Sarah we agreed to conceal and abet her proceeding—agreed to be subscribers to the Curate’s Aid Society.
The following Friday, Rose and she walked together to B——, and with the manuscript was posted a note, informing Mr. Pembroke that if he condescended to make use of this, the writer guaranteed to supply him with a new one every week, so long as he continued curate of ——. The MSS. would be all original, and the strictest secrecy observed.
Full of curiosity, we entered church the next Sunday morning. Would Mr. Pembroke avail himself of the anonymously sent manuscript? The prayers seemed twice as long as usual, and the second hymn had six verses, long measure. Mr. Pembroke had reissued from the vestry, and ascended the pulpit, full five minutes before it came to an end. We heard him turn over the leaves of his sermon-book, for our pew was just beneath, and by looking up we could easily have discerned whether they bore recognisable features, but we all three felt too conscious to do so. At length the last notes of the hymn died into silence, the congregation seated themselves, the opening collect was pronounced, and the text about to be given out. Breathless we listened. It was Sarah’s text! With bended heads we heard each well-remembered following sentence. Would papa make any remark? Mr. Pembroke half obliterated the sense and destroyed the feeling of many a passage by his tasteless screaming; but in spite of this, we thought it must universally be felt that such a sermon had not been heard in —— church since the new curate was inducted. We were not disappointed. It was longer than usual before papa joined us in the garden after the service, and when he did so his words were:—
“I have been congratulating Pembroke on the sermon he gave us to-day. He spoilt it by his unfortunate delivery, else it was one that no young fellow of his age need have been ashamed of. Did not you girls observe a wonderful improvement?”
Rose and I at once answered in the affirmative; but Sarah, conscious and abashed, held her peace. Papa was not satisfied: Sarah had been from childhood his favourite daughter; he was proud of her abilities, and now wanted to have her opinion coincide with his own.
“Didn’t you think so, Sarah?” he repeated.
Poor Sarah was obliged to run away to hide her confusion, and I, in explanation, to say she had not been well for some time, and I was afraid she was to-day feeling unusually ill.
“Go, both of you, after her,” he ordered, and we obeyed. When we afterwards all three appeared at dinner, he looked anxiously at Sarah. She wore a pale, sea-green dress, and did look really ill.
“I shall send you from home before the winter if you are not better by that time,” papa said to her.
In vain she assured him she was quite well: his anxiety was now aroused, and daily she had to meet his look of solicitude, and to answer his inquiry how she felt.
Weeks passed on; the sermons were regularly written and as regularly posted, but not without difficulties. Though Sarah was clever, she required time for her work, and papa unfortunately discovered she sat and studied too much, and that fresh air and exercise were essentials in her case. This made her sit up late at nights writing; she grew paler and more pale, and under the shadow of the sea-green her appearance was ghastly. As the days grew shorter too, the Friday afternoon walks to B—— were not so easily accomplished. It was always quite dark before we reached home, and one evening, when we had had heavy rain as well as darkness to contend with, papa met us at the door, seriously angry, and forbade our staying out so late ever again. There was nothing for it now but to make it a morning instead of an afternoon walk, though this too had its difficulty. If there was one thing about which papa was particular it was punctuality at dinner, which being on the table at two o’clock, while breakfast was never off it before half-past nine, we had to scud over the moor like steam-engines, and often came in panting and puffing after the manner of those agents of locomotion.
Meanwhile Mr. Pembroke grew in papa’s favour; the latter became more and more friendly, and though he declared his curate’s powers of conversation did not progress in keeping with his power of writing, he added it was said of a greater man, that he “wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll.”
One day papa happened unexpectedly to ask Mr. Pembroke to dinner on a Friday, at our usual hour. It was Sarah and I who had taken the walk to B—— that morning; we entered the drawing-room on our return, tired and heated, and found him already there, in company with papa and Rose.
“Been taking one of your long walks I perceive, young ladies. I hear of your going as far as B—— almost every week,” was the curate’s greeting to us.
Could he have any suspicion of our errand? No; surely the remark betokened the innocence of ignorance rather than the impertinence of knowledge. But papa took up the word.
“In B—— every week—is that true?”
“We have gone there rather often lately,” I replied, apologetically. “We have wanted things that John could not attend to for us.”
John was a boy sent regularly once a week to the town to make the purchases required for our housekeeping.
“Then I must tell you I will not allow Sarah to take such long walks. But, indeed, she will not have the power of doing so much longer,” said papa.
Does papa then imagine Sarah so very ill, was my thought; but he soon proceeded to explain himself.
“I wrote a short time ago to your Aunt Markham, saying I should be happy if she would repeat the invitation I have so often declined, as I thought a little change of air and scene would be beneficial to Sarah. To-day I have received an answer expressive of your aunt’s delight. She hopes I will not delay fixing as early a day as possible for Sarah’s departure.”
Dismay sat on all our countenances. Aunt Markham was papa’s only sister, who had been a great beauty in her day, and had made what was considered a grand marriage for a poor clergyman’s daughter, Mr. Markham being an M.P. and a man of large property. She had not only married herself well, but had made still more brilliant matches for her two daughters in their first season, and since this success had been most benevolently anxious to do the same for us, her three nieces. Many a time had papa been implored to part with us to her. He was most selfishly sacrificing our prospects. We were “wasting our sweetness on the desert air.” So said Aunt Markham. But the great world and the aunt we had never seen were a terror rather than an attraction for us, and papa too, I believe, thought his sister a vain, worldly woman, and had hitherto been of opinion that his wild moorland flowers would flourish better in their native soil than under her fostering care. Now, however, he seemed suddenly to have changed his mind, and the winter at Brighton and ensuing season in London, with all the splendours which had been suspended over Sarah’s head so long, were now to fall upon it, and—so we feared at least—to crush her. How we should miss her too! never having been separated from one another for a single day in all our lives before. What Mr. Pembroke said and did during that day’s dinner I have forgotten; after he was gone, and papa had retired to his study, Sarah began to bewail her fate.
“What shall I do?” was her exclamation.
“What you are bid, I suppose,” returned Rose, with an affectation of gaiety she did not feel. “Papa bids you go to Aunt Markham, and Aunt Markham—let me see—what will she bid you? In the first place, to learn to dance; in the next, to make a bonfire of all your green dresses, look as pretty as you can; and finally to captivate a live lord or rich baronet at the least.”
“Oh, but Rose!” said Sarah, dolefully, without the shadow of a smile on her face, “I mean, what shall I do about Mr. Pembroke?”
“And oh, Sarah! I mean London is a big place, and I have no doubt contains thousands of black-haired and handsome-featured individuals, just as like the one you saw in the crystal as Mr. Pembroke is, who will make you forget the existence of the latter in no time.”
“You won’t understand me,” said Sarah, almost crossly this time, “I mean what shall I do about the sermons? I begin now to see my own folly—love it never has been. But if Mr. Pembroke ceases to receive the sermons when I go away, he will find me out, and think, oh!—all sorts of horrid things. I am sure I shall never find time to write them when I am with Aunt Markham, or else I might have sent them by post for you to forward. Oh, Fanny! Oh, Rose! Won’t you try to write them when I am away?”
We both, however, positively declined this proposal.
“Qui amat non laborat, Sarah,” I said, “but in Rose’s case and mine the work would be not light but grievous.”
I tried, however, to comfort my sister by suggesting that some other way out of the difficulty would probably turn up before she left us. I said probably, though the chance, indeed, seemed small. In a few days more the time of Sarah’s departure was fixed. Papa was himself to take her to Brighton the week before Christmas—that was in little more than a fortnight. We had been all three taking a walk on the moor the day following this decision; the weather was dark and gloomy, and our spirits in unison with it, when on our return we met papa at the garden gate, just bidding Mr. Pembroke good morning. The Curate’s calls were not unfrequent, and had seldom any important object: we were therefore rather surprised when papa asked us to guess what it had been to-day.
“To inform me of his intention to leave at Easter,” said he, seeing us at a loss: “knowing I was going from home, he thought it better to tell me before I left, as I might, when away, hear of another curate to supply his place. You don’t any of you seem to feel much sorrow at my news,” he added, scanning our faces, “nor do I myself, either. His sermons have been well enough lately, but he is a vain, conceited fellow, whom I could never bring myself to like.”
The news was indeed anything but sorrowful to us. Our first thought was, here was relief for Sarah. The anonymous sermon-writer had only promised assistance so long as Mr. Pembroke should continue in his present curacy. His intention of leaving would remain no secret, and might naturally be supposed speedily to reach the ears of his benefactor or tress, as the case might be. That the latter’s aid should at once be withdrawn might follow as a matter of course. After some discussion, however, we decided it to be advisable that Sarah should send a note to Mr. Pembroke explanatory of these causes and effects, and the following, in the same disguised hand-writing, was accordingly despatched through the B—— post-office:—
“In consequence of information the writer has received, that it is Mr. Pembroke’s intention to give up the Curacy of ——, no more sermons will be forwarded.”
“I can’t understand it,” said papa, the next Sunday morning, as we were leaving church; “I can’t understand it, unless the fellow has been preaching sermons not his own for the last two months, and to-day has returned again to his original compositions. Can you explain it otherwise?” he finished by inquiring, looking Sarah full in the face.
She was a bad dissembler, and instead of answering began to cough her old nervous cough. I made an attempt at evasion, but it was unsuccessful. Papa was determined on knowing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he questioned and cross-questioned with all the pertinacity of a crown lawyer. So the story came out. He was not very angry; in fact, I think he was rather proud that a daughter of his could write such clever sermons.
“It is the story of Titania and Bottom over again,” he said. “I think, however, we have arrived at the point where the queen discovers the asses’ ears, so we will spare her further ridicule.” And the subject was never again referred to.
The day of Sarah’s departure arrived only too soon, and papa went with her, and, after something less than a fortnight’s absence, he returned alone. We did not see so much of Mr. Pembroke at this time. He had not named to papa his reason for wishing to resign the curacy, and we were in doubt whether it might be he considered the stipend inadequate to his merits, or that the latter were shining under a bushel, in such a wild out-of-the-world place as our village. Suddenly a strange rumour ran like wild-fire over the moor. Mr. Pembroke was going to be married to Miss Arabella Green! It was in everybody’s mouth, but we refused to believe it. Mrs. Shipton declared she had all along guessed what would happen; this being, from time immemorial, the observation with which she greeted every piece of news that surprised her ears. The idea of her being mistaken! Was he not her lodger, and did she not know everything about him just as if he were her son? Not that he could have been her son, though, she wasn’t quite old enough for that. She was, indeed, several years younger than the lady he was going to marry. She remembered Miss Arabella Green a grown-up young lady when she, Mary Podger, was quite a child—years before she had ever seen poor dear departed John Shipton—bless his soul!—to whom she was married when she was only nineteen. And, for her part, she thought the young gentleman was going to throw himself away—such a fine handsome young gentleman as he was. Then, there was Miss Arabella Green’s cook’s tale to our cook. Of course there was going to be a wedding. As if anybody had a better right to know than she. And she thought her lady, with all her money, might have looked higher than a curate, though, to be sure, he was a handsome young man, and, no doubt, Miss Arabella could buy him a bishopric directly, if she liked. In spite, however, of Mrs. Shipton’s tale, and Miss Arabella Green’s cook’s tale, and the tale of the butcher’s wife, who lived just opposite the big, staring, red-faced house, and had seen the Curate go into it I forget how many times a-day—but it was a number that “must mean something:” in spite of these and tales too numerous to mention—our population the preceding Census was 395, and of these every man, woman, and child beyond the age of babyhood, had his or her story to tell about the wedding that was to be: in spite of them all we were still incredulous, only resolving to tease Mr. Pembroke about them the next time we saw him. But before this time came papa received a letter which must be transcribed. It was addressed in an unknown and somewhat illiterate handwriting, bore the postmark of a small town in the west of England, and its contents were as follows:
Reverund Sir,—This coms hopin you will not take it amis seein as how the Feelins of a parint must be sakrid in the heyes of one whose duty it is to inforse the Fifth Comandment from the halter ivry Sunday sir my Name his Pembroke and i ham the Father the unhapy Father of my ungratefull son your curate sir i hope you will Pardon me for trubblin of you with sum Partiklers of my own history my brother and i were hurly left horphans with no fortin beyond the Superor hedication of wich your reverence now as a speciment your Reverence knows as how we receeve not allays the just recompens of our doins in this warld my brother he grows Rich but your humble sarvent he tried the Sea he tried ivry honest callin on land but ivrythink went agin him sir does not the Bibel say sumthink aboot the Stars in there corses a fightin agin a Body well sir sure they did agin your humble sarvent and no Fault of his’n my brother sir he maried a rich leddy and had no childer while my wife of poor but honest parints had Five as fine childern as iver the Sun shined on two on ’em lads and wen my brother seed em he covetted em forby the Comandment says thou shalt not covet so seein as how he wur rich and we had scarce Bread to eat i let him take John George him as is now your Curate to bring up has his own Son and sur he was Brought up to be a fine Gintleman and despise his poor ould Father and Mother that bore him to whom he has niver sent a Penny and who lives now to be a Burden on his brother who is a rispectabel Grocer in this Town and who would niver have let me rite this here letter to you sir if he knowed it but sir he has a Wife and Family of his own to support and hearin as how my son your Curate is goin to Marry a grand Rich lady i thought praps your Reverence might kindly get him to settel a small anuity upon his mother and me to make us Comfortabel and independant in our ould Age sur it is our wish to disgrace Nobody and our Son need not Fear we shall iver put ourselves in the way of his Rich Wife whose Face we hear is not so bony that Folks might long to see It Sir i should not have trubbled your Reverence with this long letter but i can get no anser to those i have writ to my son your Curate axin your Pardon again Sir i am
John William Pembroke.
The effect of this letter was to stir up our indignation against that hard-hearted and unnatural son. Papa suggested it was a case for inquiry, that it might be false altogether, and that the son himself should be heard as well as the father, but Rose and I were ready to stand up for the truth of every syllable in the letter. And we proved right. Later in the day papa called on his curate with the epistle in his hand. Great was the confusion and annoyance of Mr. Pembroke, when he found his humble parentage had become known. He condescended to implore the tale might not be told to Miss Arabella Green, acknowledging the fact of his matrimonal engagement to that lady. He promised that, from the date of his marriage, 100l. per annum should be regularly paid to his parents; it had, in fact, been his intention all along, he had told his betrothed of his wish to make a settlement of that sum on a poor distant relative—had he said how near was really that relative, it would possibly have led to the destruction of his hopes. Hitherto Mr. Pembroke declared it had been out of his power to do anything for his parents, his uncle having allowed him but just sufficient to support him at the University, and having since his ordination withdrawn the allowance entirely. He repudiated, with indignation, the charge of being without natural affection, and half insinuated the rich marriage he was about to make was an unselfish one for his parents’ benefit. This we none of us believed of course, though that money was the attraction there could be no doubt, Miss Arabella being so totally devoid of every other. We gave small credit either to the story of the promise previously obtained from her in behalf of the poor distant relation, else why had the son refused the father the comfort of that knowledge? That such a promise was, however, afterwards extorted, or at least that the money was regularly paid, is scarcely to be doubted. Papa wrote to old Mr. Pembroke, telling him the result of his own interview with his son, and bidding the old man appeal to him (papa) again, in case he should ever fail to receive the annuity. No appeal ever was made, and so we will trust the old couple lived on to the end of their days in increased comfort, having no longer cause to complain of the stars fighting against them. They must, in the course of nature, be both dead long ago.
Mr. Pembroke, junior, left us at Easter as agreed. He did not return for his marriage. Possibly the dislike which Miss Green had in these latter days, conceived for papa, made her desire that his should not be the hand to tie the knot; for, about two months later, she went to stay with a friend in the south, from whose house, as we shortly after read in the papers, the wedding took place. Then came the news that Mr. Pembroke had bought the living of ——, held at the time by an octogenarian rector, who was obliging enough to die within the year. Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke immediately took possession, and the former, I hear, is still the rector, having daughters by a second wife, likely—when they come out—to be the belles of the county.
My sister Sarah came home to us, after her London season, engaged to be married to the Hon. Augustus Seymour, an agreeable and good-looking young man, with decidedly light hair and whiskers, not in the least resembling the picture the crystal of fate presented to her. Mr. Pembroke’s brother—“the respectable grocer,” being already disposed of—was of course not to be further thought of as a husband for Rose; another was, however, in due time found for her, while of my own fate I shall say nothing. The crystal, it will be remembered, left it a blank.