The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, Part I
by George Eliot
NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.
Introductory Note: “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” is George Eliot’s (given name Mary Ann Evans) first published work of fiction, the purpose of which is to illuminate societal idiosyncrasies and depict everyday, imperfect characters, in order to engender sympathy.
This story is the first of three that comprise Scenes of Clerical Life, published serially in the politically conservative Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine throughout 1857, each a vignette addressing middle class reality through the perspective of (though not necessarily centering on) Anglican clergymen. In 1858, the three stories were published together as a single volume.
This entry was published as the first of two parts:
Part I. – Chapter I.
Shepperton Church was a very different-looking building five-and-twenty years ago. To be sure, its substantial stone tower looks at you through its intelligent eye, the clock, with the friendly expression of former days; but in everything else what changes! Now, there is a wide span of slated roof flanking the old steeple; the windows are tall and symmetrical; the outer doors are resplendent with oak-graining, the inner doors reverentially noiseless with a garment of red baize; and the walls, you are convinced, no lichen will ever again effect a settlement on—they are smooth and innutrient as the summit of the Rev. Amos Barton’s head, after ten years of baldness and supererogatory soap. Pass through the baize doors and you will see the nave filled with well-shaped benches, understood to be free seats; while in certain eligible corners, less directly under the fire of the clergyman’s eye, there are pews reserved for the Shepperton gentility. Ample galleries are supported on iron pillars, and in one of them stands the crowning glory, the very clasp or aigrette of Shepperton church-adornment—namely, an organ, not very much out of repair, on which a collector of small rents, differentiated by the force of circumstances into an organist, will accompany the alacrity of your departure after the blessing, by a sacred minuet or an easy “Gloria.”
Immense improvement! says the well-regulated mind, which unintermittingly rejoices in the New Police, the Tithe Commutation Act, the penny-post, and all guarantees of human advancement, and has no moments when conservative-reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, revelling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture. Mine, I fear, is not a well-regulated mind: it has an occasional tenderness for old abuses; it lingers with a certain fondness over the days of nasal clerks and topbooted parsons, and has a sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors. So it is not surprising that I recall with a fond sadness Shepperton church as it was in the old days, with its outer coat of rough stucco, its red-tiled roof, its heterogeneous windows patched with desultory bits of painted glass, and its little flight of steps with their wooden rail running up the outer wall, and leading to the school-children’s gallery.
Then inside, what dear old quaintnesses! which I began to look at with delight, even when I was so crude a members of the congregation, that my nurse found it necessary to provide for the reinforcement of my devotional patience by smuggling bread-and-butter into the sacred edifice. There was the chancel, guarded by two little cherubims looking uncomfortably squeezed between arch and wall, and adorned with the escutcheons of the Oldinport family, which showed me inexhaustible possibilities of meaning in their blood-red hands, their death’s-heads and cross-bones, their leopards’ paws, and Maltese crosses. There were inscriptions on the panels of the singing-gallery, telling of benefactions to the poor of Shepperton, with an involuted elegance of capitals and final flourishes, which my alphabetic erudition traced with ever-new delight. No benches in those days; but huge roomy pews, round which devout church-goers sat during “lessons,” trying to look anywhere else than into each other’s eyes. No low partitions allowing you, with a dreary absence of contrast and mystery, to see everything at all moments; but tall dark panels, under whose shadow I sank with a sense of retirement through the Litany, only to feel with more intensity my burst into the conspicuousness of public life when I was made to stand up on the seat during the psalms or the singing.
And the singing was no mechanical affair of official routine; it had a drama. As the moment of psalmody approached, by some process to me as mysterious and untraceable as the opening of the flowers or the breaking-out of the stars, a slate appeared in front of the gallery, advertising in bold characters the psalm about to be sung, lest the sonorous announcement of the clerk should still leave the bucolic mind in doubt on that head. Then followed the migration of the clerk to the gallery, where, in company with a bassoon, two key-bugles, a carpenter understood to have an amazing power of singing “counter,” and two lesser musical stars, he formed the complement of a choir regarded in Shepperton as one of distinguished attraction, occasionally known to draw hearers from the next parish. The innovation of hymn-books was as yet undreamed of; even the New Version was regarded with a sort of melancholy tolerance, as part of the common degeneracy in a time when prices had dwindled, and a cotton gown was no longer stout enough to last a lifetime; for the lyrical taste of the best heads in Shepperton had been formed on Sternhold and Hopkins. But the greatest triumphs of the Shepperton choir were reserved for the Sundays when the slate announced an anthem, with a dignified abstinence from particularization, both words and music lying far beyond the reach of the most ambitious amateur in the congregation: an anthem in which the key-bugles always ran away at a great pace, while the bassoon every now and then boomed a flying shot after them.
As for the clergyman, Mr Gilfil, an excellent old gentleman, who smoked very long pipes and preached very short sermons, I must not speak of him, or I might be tempted to tell the story of his life, which had its little romance, as most lives have between the ages of teetotum and tobacco. And at present I am concerned with quite another sort of clergyman—the Rev. Amos Barton, who did not come to Shepperton until long after Mr Gilfil had departed this life—until after an interval in which Evangelicalism and the Catholic Question had begun to agitate the rustic mind with controversial debates. A Popish blacksmith had produced a strong Protestant reaction by declaring that, as soon as the Emancipation Bill was passed, he should do a great stroke of business in gridirons; and the disinclination of the Shepperton parishioners generally to dim the unique glory of St Lawrence, rendered the Church and Constitution an affair of their business and bosoms. A zealous evangelical preacher had made the old sounding-board vibrate with quite a different sort of elocution from Mr Gilfil’s; the hymn-book had almost superseded the Old and New Versions; and the great square pews were crowded with new faces from distant corners of the parish,—perhaps from dissenting chapels.
You are not imagining, I hope, that Amos Barton was the incumbent of Shepperton. He was no such thing. Those were days when a man could hold three small livings, starve a curate a-piece on two of them, and live badly himself on the third. It was so with the Vicar of Shepperton; a vicar given to bricks and mortar, and thereby running into debt far away in a northern county—who executed his vicarial functions towards Shepperton by pocketing the sum of thirty-five pounds ten per annum, the net surplus remaining to him from the proceeds of that living, after the disbursement of eighty pounds as the annual stipend of his curate. And now, pray, can you solve me the following problem? Given a man with a wife and six children: let him be obliged always to exhibit himself when outside his own door in a suit of black broadcloth, such as will not undermine the foundations of the Establishment by a paltry plebeian glossiness or an unseemly whiteness at the edges; in a snowy cravat, which is a serious investment of labour in the hemming, starching, and ironing departments; and in a hat which shows no symptom of taking to the hideous doctrine of expediency, and shaping itself according to circumstances; let him have a parish large enough to create an external necessity for abundant shoe-leather, and an internal necessity for abundant beef and mutton, as well as poor enough to require frequent priestly consolation in the shape of shillings and sixpences; and, lastly, let him be compelled, by his own pride and other people’s, to dress his wife and children with gentility from bonnet-strings to shoe-strings. By what process of division can the sum of eighty pounds per annum be made to yield a quotient which will cover that man’s weekly expenses? This was the problem presented by the position of the Rev. Amos Barton, as curate of Shepperton, rather more than twenty years ago.
What was thought of this problem, and of the man who had to work it out, by some of the well-to-do inhabitants of Shepperton, two years or more after Mr Barton’s arrival among them, you shall hear, if you will accompany me to Cross Farm, and to the fireside of Mrs Patten, a childless old lady, who had got rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing. Mrs Patten’s passive accumulation of wealth, through all sorts of “bad times,” on the farm of which she had been sole tenant since her husband’s death, her epigrammatic neighbour, Mrs Hackit, sarcastically accounted for by supposing that “sixpences grew on the bents of Cross Farm;” while Mr Hackit, expressing his views more literally, reminded his wife that “money breeds money.” Mr and Mrs Hackit, from the neighbouring farm, are Mrs Patten’s guests this evening; so is Mr Pillgrim, the doctor from the nearest market-town, who, though occasionally affecting aristocratic airs, and giving late dinners with enigmatic side-dishes and poisonous port, is never so comfortable as when he is relaxing his professional legs in one of those excellent farmhouses where the mice are sleek and the mistress sickly. And he is at this moment in clover.
For the flickering of Mrs Patten’s bright fire is reflected in her bright copper tea-kettle, the home-made muffins glisten with an inviting succulence, and Mrs Patten’s niece, a single lady of fifty, who has refused the most ineligible offers out of devotion to her aged aunt, is pouring the rich cream into the fragrant tea with a discreet liberality.
Reader! did you ever taste such a cup of tea as Miss Gibbs is this moment handing to Mr Pillgrim? Do you know the dulcet strength, the animating blandness of tea sufficiently blended with real farmhouse cream? No—most likely you are a miserable town-bred reader, who think of cream as a thinnish white fluid, delivered in infinitesimal pennyworths down area steps; or perhaps, from a presentiment of calves’ brains, you refrain from any lacteal addition, and rasp your tongue with unmitigated bohea. You have a vague idea of a milch cow as probably a white-plaster animal standing in a butterman’s window, and you know nothing of the sweet history of genuine cream, such as Miss Gibbs’s: how it was this morning in the udders of the large sleek beasts, as they stood lowing a patient entreaty under the milking-shed; how it fell with a pleasant rhythm into Betty’s pail, sending a delicious incense into the cool air; how it was carried into that temple of moist cleanliness, the dairy, where it quietly separated itself from the meaner elements of milk, and lay in mellowed whiteness, ready for the skimming-dish which transferred it to Miss Gibbs’ glass cream-jug. If I am right in my conjecture, you are unacquainted with the highest possibilities of tea; and Mr Pillgrim, who is holding that cup in his hands, has an idea beyond you.
Mrs Hackit declines cream; she has so long abstained from it with an eye to the weekly butter-money, that abstinence, wedded to habit, has begotten aversion. She is a thin woman with a chronic liver-complaint, which would have secured her Mr Pillgrim’s entire regard and unreserved good word, even if he had not been in awe of her tongue, which was as sharp as his own lancet. She has brought her knitting—no frivolous fancy knitting, but a substantial woollen stocking; the click-click of her knitting-needles is the running accompaniment to all her conversation, and in her utmost enjoyment of spoiling a friend’s self-satisfaction, she was never known to spoil a stocking.
Mrs Patten does not admire this excessive click-clicking activity. Quiescence in an easy-chair, under the sense of compound interest perpetually accumulating, has long seemed an ample function to her, and she does her malevolence gently. She is a pretty little old woman of eighty, with a close cap and tiny flat white curls round her face, as natty and unsoiled and invariable as the waxen image of a little old lady under a glass-case; once a lady’s-maid, and married for her beauty. She used to adore her husband, and now she adores her money, cherishing a quiet blood-relation’s hatred for her niece, Janet Gibbs, who, she knows, expects a large legacy, and whom she is determined to disappoint. Her money shall all go in a lump to a distant relation of her husband’s, and Janet shall be saved the trouble of pretending to cry, by finding that she is left with a miserable pittance.
Mrs Patten has more respect for her neighbour Mr Hackit than for most people. Mr Hackit is a shrewd substantial man, whose advice about crops is always worth listening to, and who is too well off to want to borrow money.
And now that we are snug and warm with this little tea-party, while it is freezing with February bitterness outside, we will listen to what they are talking about.
“So,” said Mr Pillgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, “you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday. I was at Jem Hood’s, the bassoon-man’s, this morning, attending his wife, and he swears he’ll be revenged on the parson—a confounded, methodistical, meddlesome chap, who must be putting his finger in every pie. What was it all about?”
“O, a passill o’ nonsense,” said Mr Hackit, sticking one thumb between the buttons of his capacious waistcoat, and retaining a pinch of snuff with the other—for he was but moderately given to “the cups that cheer but not inebriate,” and had already finished his tea; “they began to sing the wedding psalm for a new-married couple, as pretty a psalm an’ as pretty a tune as any’s in the prayer-book. It’s been sung for every new-married couple since I was a boy. And what can be better?” Here Mr Hackit stretched out his left arm, threw back his head, and broke into melody—
“O what a happy thing it is,
And joyful for to see,
Brethren to dwell together in
Friendship and unity.’
But Mr Barton is all for th’ hymns, and a sort o’ music as I can’t join in at all.”
“And so,” said Mr Pillgrim, recalling Mr Hackit from lyrical reminiscences to narrative, “he called out Silence! did he? when he got into the pulpit; and gave a hymn out himself to some meeting-house tune?”
“Yes,” said Mrs Hackit, stooping towards the candle to pick up a stitch, “and turned as red as a turkey-cock. I often say, when he preaches about meekness, he gives himself a slap in the face. He’s like me—he’s got a temper of his own.”
“Rather a low-bred fellow, I think, Barton,” said Mr Pillgrim, who hated the Reverend Amos for two reasons—because he had called in a new doctor, recently settled in Shepperton; and because, being himself a dabbler in drugs, he had the credit of having cured a patient of Mr Pillgrim’s. “They say his father was a dissenting shoemaker; and he’s half a dissenter himself. Why, doesn’t he preach extempore in that cottage up here, of a Sunday evening?”
“Tchaw!”—this was Mr Hackit’s favourite interjection—”that preaching without book’s no good, only when a man has a gift, and has the Bible at his fingers’ ends. It was all very well for Parry—he’d a gift; and in my youth I’ve heard the Ranters out o’ doors in Yorkshire go on for an hour or two on end, without ever sticking fast a minute. There was one clever chap, I remember, as used to say, ‘You’re like the wood-pigeon; it says do, do, do all day, and never sets about any work itself.’ That’s bringing it home to people. But our parson’s no gift at all that way; he can preach as good a sermon as need be heard when he writes it down. But when he tries to preach wi’out book, he rambles about, and doesn’t stick to’s text; and every now and then he flounders about like a sheep as has cast itself, and can’t get on’ts legs again. You wouldn’t like that, Mrs Patten, if you was to go to church now?”
“Eh, dear,” said Mrs Patten, falling back in her chair, and lifting up her little withered hands, “what would Mr Gilfil say, if he was worthy to know the changes as have come about in the church these ten years? I don’t understand these new sort o’ doctrines. When Mr Barton comes to see me, he talks about nothing but my sins and my need o’ marcy. Now, Mr Hackit, I’ve never been a sinner. From the fust beginning, when I went into service, I al’ys did my duty by my emplyers. I was a good wife as any’s in the county—never aggravated my husband. The cheese-factor used to say my cheese was al’ys to be depended on. I’ve known women, as their cheeses swelled a shame to be seen, when their husbands had counted on the cheese-money to make up their rent; and yet they’d three gowns to my one. If I’m not to be saved, I know a many as are in a bad way. But it’s well for me as I can’t go to church any longer, for if th’ old singers are to be done away with, there’ll be nothing left as it was in Mr Patten’s time; and what’s more, I hear you’ve settled to pull the church down and build it up new?”
Now the fact was that the Rev. Amos Barton, on his last visit to Mrs Patten, had urged her to enlarge her promised subscription of twenty pounds, representing to her that she was only a steward of her riches, and that she could not spend them more for the glory of God than by giving a heavy subscription towards the rebuilding of Shepperton church—a practical precept which was not likely to smooth the way to her acceptance of his theological doctrine. Mr Hackit, who had more doctrinal enlightenment than Mrs Patten, had been a little shocked by the heathenism of her speech, and was glad of the new turn given to the subject by this question, addressed to him as churchwarden, and an authority in all parochial matters.
“Ah,” he answered, “the parson’s boddered us into it at last, and we’re to begin pulling down this spring. But we haven’t got money enough yet. I was for waiting till we’d made up the sum, and, for my part, I think the congregation’s fell off o’ late; though Mr Barton says that’s because there’s been no room for the people when they’ve come. You see, the congregation got so large in Parry’s time, the people stood in th’ aisles; but there’s never any crowd now, as I can see.”
“Well,” said Mrs Hackit, whose good-nature began to act now that it was a little in contradiction with the dominant tone of the conversation, “I like Mr Barton. I think he’s a good sort o’ man, for all he’s not overburthen’d i’ th’ upper storey; and his wife’s as nice a lady-like woman as I’d wish to see. How nice she keeps her children! and little enough money to do’t with; and a delicate creatur’—six children, and another a-coming. I don’t know how they make both ends meet, I’m sure, now her aunt has left ‘em. But I sent ‘em a cheese and a sack o’ potatoes last week; that’s something towards filling the little mouths.”
“Ah!” said Mr Hackit, “and my wife makes Mr Barton a good stiff glass o’ brandy-and-water, when he comes into supper after his cottage preaching. The parson likes it; it puts a bit o’ colour into ‘s face, and makes him look a deal handsomer.”
This allusion to brandy-and-water suggested to Miss Gibbs the introduction of the liquor decanters, now that the tea was cleared away; for in bucolic society five-and-twenty years ago, the human animal of the male sex was understood to be perpetually athirst, and “something to drink” was as necessary a “condition of thought” as Time and Space.
“Now, that cottage preaching,” said Mr Pillgrim, mixing himself a strong glass of “cold without,” “I was talking about it to our Parson Ely the other day, and he doesn’t approve of it at all. He said it did as much harm as good to give a too familiar aspect to religious teaching. That was what Ely said—it does as much harm as good to give a too familiar aspect to religious teaching.”
Mr Pillgrim generally spoke with an intermittent kind of splutter; indeed, one of his patients had observed that it was a pity such a clever man had a “pediment” in his speech. But when he came to what he conceived the pith of his argument or the point of his joke, he mouthed out his words with slow emphasis; as a hen, when advertising her accouchement, passes at irregular intervals from pianissimo semiquavers to fortissimo crotchets. He thought this speech of Mr Ely’s particularly metaphysical and profound, and the more decisive of the question because it was a generality which represented no particulars to his mind.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Mrs Hackit, who had always the courage of her opinion, “but I know, some of our labourers and stockingers as used never to come to church, come to the cottage, and that’s better than never hearing anything good from week’s end to week’s end. And there’s that Track Society as Mr Barton has begun—I’ve seen more o’ the poor people with going tracking, than all the time I’ve lived in the parish before. And there’d need be something done among ‘em; for the drinking at them Benefit Clubs is shameful. There’s hardly a steady man or steady woman either, but what’s a dissenter.’
During this speech of Mrs Hackit’s, Mr Pillgrim had emitted a succession of little snorts, something like the treble grunts of a guinea-pig, which were always with him the sign of suppressed disapproval. But he never contradicted Mrs Hackit—a woman whose “pot luck” was always to be relied on, and who on her side had unlimited reliance on bleeding, blistering, and draughts.
Mrs Patten, however, felt equal disapprobation, and had no reasons for suppressing it.
“Well,” she remarked, “I’ve heared of no good from interfering with one’s neighbours, poor or rich. And I hate the sight o’ women going about trapesing from house to house in all weathers, wet or dry, and coming in with their petticoats dagged and their shoes all over mud. Janet wanted to join in the tracking, but I told her I’d have nobody tracking out o’ my house; when I’m gone, she may do as she likes. I never dagged my petticoats in my life, and I’ve no opinion o’ that sort o’ religion.”
“No,” said Mr Hackit, who was fond of soothing the acerbities of the feminine mind with a jocose compliment, “you held your petticoats so high, to show your tight ankles: it isn’t everybody as likes to show her ankles.”
This joke met with general acceptance, even from the snubbed Janet, whose ankles were only tight in the sense of looking extremely squeezed by her boots. But Janet seemed always to identify herself with her aunt’s personality, holding her own under protest.
Under cover of the general laughter, the gentlemen replenished their glasses, Mr Pillgrim attempting to give his the character of a stirrup-cup, by observing that he “must be going.” Miss Gibbs seized this opportunity of telling Mrs Hackit that she suspected Betty, the dairymaid, of frying the best bacon for the shepherd, when he sat up with her to “help brew;” whereupon Mrs Hackit replied, that she had always thought Betty false; and Mrs Patten said, there was no bacon stolen when she was able to manage. Mr Hackit, who always said he “never saw the like to women with their maids—he never had any trouble with his men,” avoided listening to this discussion, by raising the question of vetches with Mr Pillgrim. The stream of conversation had thus diverged: no more was said about the Rev. Amos Barton, who is the main object of interest to us just now. So we may leave Cross Farm without waiting till Mrs Hackit, resolutely donning her clogs and wrappings, renders it incumbent on Mr Pillgrim also to fulfil his frequent threat of going.
It was happy for the Rev. Amos Barton that he did not, like us, overhear the conversation recorded in the last chapter. Indeed, what mortal is there of us, who would find his satisfaction enhanced by an opportunity of comparing the picture he presents to himself of his own doings, with the picture they make on the mental retina of his neighbours? We are poor plants buoyed up by the air-vessels of our own conceit: alas for us, if we get a few pinches that empty us of that windy self-subsistence! The very capacity for good would go out of us. For, tell the most impassioned orator, suddenly, that his wig is awry, or his shirt-lap hanging out, and that he is tickling people by the oddity of his person, instead of thrilling them by the energy of his periods, and you would infallibly dry up the spring of his eloquence. That is a deep and wide saying, that no miracle can be wrought without faith—without the worker’s faith in himself, as well as the recipient’s faith in him. And the greatest part of the worker’s faith in himself is made up of the faith that others believe in him.
Let me be persuaded that my neighbour Jenkins considers me a blockhead, and I shall never shine in conversation with him any more. Let me discover that the lovely Phoebe thinks my squint intolerable, and I shall never be able to fix her blandly with my disengaged eye again. Thank heaven, then, that a little illusion is left to us, to enable us to be useful and agreeable—that we don’t know exactly what our friends think of us—that the world is not made of looking-glass, to show us just the figure we are making, and just what is going on behind our backs! By the help of dear friendly illusion, we are able to dream that we are charming—and our faces wear a becoming air of self-possession; we are able to dream that other men admire our talents—and our benignity is undisturbed; we are able to dream that we are doing much good—and we do a little.
Thus it was with Amos Barton on that very Thursday evening, when he was the subject of the conversation at Cross Farm. He had been dining at Mr Farquhar’s, the secondary squire of the parish, and, stimulated by unwonted gravies and port wine, had been delivering his opinion on affairs parochial and otherwise with considerable animation. And he was now returning home in the moonlight—a little chill, it is true, for he had just now no greatcoat compatible with clerical dignity, and a fur boa round one’s neck, with a waterproof cape over one’s shoulders, doesn’t frighten away the cold from one’s legs; but entirely unsuspicious, not only of Mr Hackit’s estimate of his oratorical powers, but also of the critical remarks passed on him by the Misses Farquhar as soon as the drawing-room door had closed behind him. Miss Julia had observed that she never heard any one sniff so frightfully as Mr Barton did—she had a great mind to offer him her pocket-handkerchief; and Miss Arabella wondered why he always said he was going for to do a thing. He, excellent man! was meditating fresh pastoral exertions on the morrow; he would set on foot his lending library in which he had introduced some books that would be a pretty sharp blow to the dissenters—one especially, purporting to be written by a working man who, out of pure zeal for the welfare of his class, took the trouble to warn them in this way against those hypocritical thieves, the dissenting preachers. The Rev. Amos Barton profoundly believed in the existence of that working man, and had thoughts of writing to him. Dissent, he considered, would have its head bruised in Shepperton, for did he not attack it in two ways? He preached Low-Church doctrine—as evangelical as anything to be heard in the Independent Chapel; and he made a High-Church assertion of ecclesiastical powers and functions. Clearly, the Dissenters would feel that “the parson” was too many for them. Nothing like a man who combines shrewdness with energy. The wisdom of the serpent, Mr Barton considered, was one of his strong points.
Look at him as he winds through the little churchyard! The silver light that falls aslant on church and tomb, enables you to see his slim black figure, made all the slimmer by tight pantaloons, as it flits past the pale gravestones. He walks with a quick step, and is now rapping with sharp decision at the vicarage door. It is opened without delay by the nurse, cook, and housemaid, all at once—that is to say, by the robust maid-of-all-work, Nanny; and as Mr Barton hangs up his hat in the passage, you see that a narrow face of no particular complexion—even the small-pox that has attacked it seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind—with features of no particular shape, and an eye of no particular expression, is surmounted by a slope of baldness gently rising from brow to crown. You judge him, rightly, to be about forty. The house is quiet, for it is half-past ten, and the children have long been gone to bed. He opens the sitting-room door, but instead of seeing his wife, as he expected, stitching with the nimblest of fingers by the light of one candle, he finds her dispensing with the light of a candle altogether. She is softly pacing up and down by the red fire-light, holding in her arms little Walter, the year-old baby, who looks over her shoulder with large wide-open eyes, while the patient mother pats his back with her soft hand, and glances with a sigh at the heap of large and small stockings lying unmended on the table.
She was a lovely woman—Mrs Amos Barton; a large, fair, gentle Madonna, with thick, close chestnut curls beside her well-rounded cheeks, and with large, tender, short-sighted eyes. The flowing lines of her tall figure made the limpest dress look graceful, and her old frayed black silk seemed to repose on her bust and limbs with a placid elegance and sense of distinction, in strong contrast with the uneasy sense of being no fit, that seemed to express itself in the rustling of Mrs Farquhar’s gros de Naples. The caps she wore would have been pronounced, when off her head, utterly heavy and hideous—for in those days even fashionable caps were large and floppy; but surmounting her long arched neck, and mingling their borders of cheap lace and ribbon with her chestnut curls, they seemed miracles of successful millinery. Among strangers she was shy and tremulous as a girl of fifteen; she blushed crimson if any one appealed to her opinion; yet that tall, graceful, substantial presence was so imposing in its mildness, that men spoke to her with an agreeable sensation of timidity.
Soothing, unspeakable charm of gentle womanhood! which supersedes all acquisitions, all accomplishments. You would never have asked, at any period of Mrs Amos Barton’s life, if she sketched or played the piano. You would even perhaps have been rather scandalized if she had descended from the serene dignity of being to the assiduous unrest of doing. Happy the man, you would have thought, whose eye will rest on her in the pauses of his fireside reading—whose hot aching forehead will be soothed by the contact of her cool soft hand—who will recover himself from dejection at his mistakes and failures in the loving light of her unreproaching eyes! You would not, perhaps, have anticipated that this bliss would fall to the share of precisely such a man as Amos Barton, whom you have already surmised not to have the refined sensibilities for which you might have imagined Mrs Barton’s qualities to be destined by pre-established harmony. But I, for one, do not grudge Amos Barton this sweet wife. I have all my life had a sympathy for mongrel ungainly dogs, who are nobody’s pets; and I would rather surprise one of them by a pat and a pleasant morsel, than meet the condescending advances of the loveliest Skye-terrier who has his cushion by my lady’s chair. That, to be sure, is not the way of the world: if it happens to see a fellow of fine proportions and aristocratic mien, who makes no faux pas, and wins golden opinions from all sorts of men, it straightway picks out for him the loveliest of unmarried women, and says, There would be a proper match! Not at all, say I: let that successful, well-shapen, discreet, and able gentleman put up with something less than the best in the matrimonial department; and let the sweet woman go to make sunshine and a soft pillow for the poor devil whose legs are not models, whose efforts are often blunders, and who in general gets more kicks than halfpence. She—the sweet woman—will like it as well; for her sublime capacity of loving will have all the more scope; and I venture to say, Mrs Barton’s nature would never have grown half so angelic if she had married the man you would perhaps have had in your eye for her—a man with sufficient income and abundant personal éclat. Besides, Amos was an affectionate husband, and, in his way, valued his wife as his best treasure.
But now he has shut the door behind him, and said, “Well, Milly!”
“Well, dear!” was the corresponding greeting, made eloquent by a smile.
“So that young rascal won’t go to sleep! Can’t you give him to Nanny?”
“Why, Nanny has been busy ironing this evening; but I think I’ll take him to her now.” And Mrs Barton glided towards the kitchen, while her husband ran up-stairs to put on his maize-coloured dressing-gown, in which costume he was quietly filling his long pipe when his wife returned to the sitting-room. Maize is a colour that decidedly did not suit his complexion, and it is one that soon soils; why, then, did Mr Barton select it for domestic wear? Perhaps because he had a knack of hitting on the wrong thing in garb as well as in grammar.
Mrs Barton now lighted her candle, and seated herself before her heap of stockings. She had something disagreeable to tell her husband, but she would not enter on it at once.
“Have you had a nice evening, dear?”
“Yes, pretty well. Ely was there to dinner, but went away rather early. Miss Arabella is setting her cap at him with a vengeance. But I don’t think he’s much smitten. I’ve a notion Ely’s engaged to some one at a distance, and will astonish all the ladies who are languishing for him here, by bringing home his bride one of these days. Ely’s a sly dog; he’ll like that.”
“Did the Farquhars say anything about the singing last Sunday?”
“Yes; Farquhar said he thought it was time there was some improvement in the choir. But he was rather scandalised at my setting the tune of ‘Lydia.’ He says he’s always hearing it as he passes the Independent meeting.” Here Mr Barton laughed—he had a way of laughing at criticisms that other people thought damaging—and thereby showed the remainder of a set of teeth which, like the remnants of the Old Guard, were few in number, and very much the worse for wear. “But,” he continued, “Mrs Farquhar talked the most about Mr Bridmain and the Countess. She has taken up all the gossip about them, and wanted to convert me to her opinion, but I told her pretty strongly what I thought.”
“Dear me! why will people take so much pains to find out evil about others? I have had a note from the Countess since you went, asking us to dine with them on Friday.”
Here Mrs Barton reached the note from the mantel-piece, and gave it to her husband. We will look over his shoulder while he reads it:—
“Sweetest Milly,—Bring your lovely face with your husband to dine with us on Friday at seven—do. If not, I will be sulky with you till Sunday, when I shall be obliged to see you, and shall long to kiss you that very moment. —Yours, according to your answer,
“Just like her, isn’t it?” said Mrs Barton. “I suppose we can go?”
“Yes; I have no engagement. The Clerical Meeting is to-morrow, you know.”
“And, dear, Woods the butcher called, to say he must have some money next week. He has a payment to make up.”
This announcement made Mr Barton thoughtful. He puffed more rapidly, and looked at the fire.
“I think I must ask Hackit to lend me twenty pounds, for it is nearly two months till Lady-Day, and we can’t give Woods our last shilling.”
“I hardly like you to ask Mr Hackit, dear—he and Mrs Hackit have been so very kind to us; they have sent us so many things lately.”
“Then I must ask Oldinport. I’m going to write to him to-morrow morning, for to tell him the arrangement I’ve been thinking of about having service in the workhouse while the church is being enlarged. If he agrees to attend service there once or twice, the other people will come. Net the large fish, and you’re sure to have the small fry.”
“I wish we could do without borrowing money, and yet I don’t see how we can. Poor Fred must have some new shoes; I couldn’t let him go to Mrs Bond’s yesterday because his toes were peeping out, dear child! and I can’t let him walk anywhere except in the garden. He must have a pair before Sunday. Really, boots and shoes are the greatest trouble of my life. Everything else one can turn and turn about, and make old look like new; but there’s no coaxing boots and shoes to look better than they are.”
Mrs Barton was playfully undervaluing her skill in metamorphosing boots and shoes. She had at that moment on her feet a pair of slippers which had long ago lived through the prunella phase of their existence, and were now running a respectable career as black silk slippers, having been neatly covered with that material by Mrs Barton’s own neat fingers. Wonderful fingers those! they were never empty; for if she went to spend a few hours with a friendly parishioner, out came her thimble and a piece of calico or muslin, which, before she left, had become a mysterious little garment with all sorts of hemmed ins and outs. She was even trying to persuade her husband to leave off tight pantaloons, because if he would wear the ordinary gun-cases, she knew she could make them so well that no one would suspect the sex of the tailor.
But by this time Mr Barton has finished his pipe, the candle begins to burn low, and Mrs Barton goes to see if Nanny has succeeded in lulling Walter to sleep. Nanny is that moment putting him in the little cot by his mother’s bedside; the head, with its thin wavelets of brown hair, indents the little pillow; and a tiny, waxen, dimpled fist hides the rosy lips, for baby is given to the infantine peccadillo of thumb-sucking.
So Nanny could now join in the short evening prayer, and all could go to bed.
Mrs Barton carried up-stairs the remainder of her heap of stockings, and laid them on a table close to her bedside, where also she placed a warm shawl, removing her candle, before she put it out, to a tin socket fixed at the head of her bed. Her body was very weary, but her heart was not heavy, in spite of Mr Woods the butcher, and the transitory nature of shoe leather; for her heart so overflowed with love, she felt sure she was near a fountain of love that would care for husband and babes better than she could foresee; so she was soon asleep. But about half-past five o’clock in the morning, if there were any angels watching round her bed—and angels might be glad of such an office—they saw Mrs Barton rise up quietly, careful not to disturb the slumbering Amos, who was snoring the snore of the just, light her candle, prop herself upright with the pillows, throw the warm shawl round her shoulders, and renew her attack on the heap of undarned stockings. She darned away until she heard Nanny stirring, and then drowsiness came with the dawn; the candle was put out, and she sank into a doze. But at nine o’clock she was at the breakfast-table, busy cutting bread-and-butter for five hungry mouths, while Nanny, baby on one arm, in rosy cheeks, fat neck, and night-gown, brought in a jug of hot milk-and-water. Nearest her mother sits the nine-year-old Patty, the eldest child, whose sweet fair face is already rather grave sometimes, and who always wants to run up-stairs to save mamma’s legs, which get so tired of an evening. Then there are four other blond heads—two boys and two girls, gradually decreasing in size down to Chubby, who is making a round O of her mouth to receive a bit of papa’s “baton.” Papa’s attention was divided between petting Chubby, rebuking the noisy Fred, which he did with a somewhat excessive sharpness, and eating his own breakfast. He had not yet looked at Mamma, and did not know that her cheek was paler than usual. But Patty whispered, “Mamma, have you the headache?”
Happily, coal was cheap in the neighbourhood of Shepperton, and Mr Hackit would any time let his horses draw a load for “the parson” without charge; so there was a blazing fire in the sitting-room, and not without need, for the vicarage garden, as they looked out on it from the bow-window, was hard with black frost, and the sky had the white woolly look that portends snow.
Breakfast over, Mr Barton mounted to his study, and occupied himself in the first place with his letter to Mr Oldinport. It was very much the same sort of letter as most clergymen would have written under the same circumstances, except that instead of perambulate, the Rev. Amos wrote preambulate, and instead of “if haply,” “if happily,” the contingency indicated being the reverse of happy. Mr Barton had not the gift of perfect accuracy in English orthography and syntax; which was unfortunate, as he was known not to be a Hebrew scholar, and not in the least suspected of being an accomplished Grecian. These lapses, in a man who had gone through the Eleusinian mysteries of a university education, surprised the young ladies of his parish extremely; especially the Misses Farquhar, whom he had once addressed in a letter as Dear Mads., apparently an abbreviation for Madams. The persons least surprised at the Rev. Amos’s deficiencies were his clerical brethren, who had gone through the mysteries themselves.
At eleven o’clock, Mr Barton walked forth in cape and boa, with the sleet driving in his face, to read prayers at the workhouse, euphemistically called the “College.” The College was a huge square stone building, standing on the best apology for an elevation of ground that could be seen for about ten miles round Shepperton. A flat ugly district this; depressing enough to look at, even on the brightest days. The roads are black with coal-dust, the brick houses dingy with smoke; and at that time—the time of handloom weavers—every other cottage had a loom at its window, where you might see a pale, sickly-looking man or woman pressing a narrow chest against a board, and doing a sort of treadmill work with legs and arms. A troublesome district for a clergyman; at least to one who, like Amos Barton, understood the “cure of souls” in something more than an official sense; for over and above the rustic stupidity furnished by the farm-labourers, the miners brought obstreperous animalism, and the weavers an acrid Radicalism and dissent. Indeed, Mrs Hackit often observed that the colliers, who many of them earned better wages than Mr Barton, “passed their time in doing nothing but swilling ale and smoking, like the beasts that perish” (speaking, we may presume, in a remotely analogical sense); and in some of the alehouse corners the drink was flavoured by a dingy kind of infidelity, something like rinsings of Tom Paine in ditch-water. A certain amount of religious excitement, created by the popular preaching of Mr Parry, Amos’s predecessor, had nearly died out, and the religious life of Shepperton was falling back towards low-water mark. Here, you perceive, was a terrible stronghold of Satan; and you may well pity the Rev. Amos Barton, who had to stand single-handed and summon it to surrender. We read, indeed, that the walls of Jericho fell down before the sound of trumpets; but we nowhere hear that those trumpets were hoarse and feeble. Doubtless they were trumpets that gave forth clear ringing tones, and sent a mighty vibration through brick and mortar. But the oratory of the Rev. Amos resembled rather a Belgian railway-horn, which shows praiseworthy intentions inadequately fulfilled. He often missed the right note both in public and private exhortation, and got a little angry in consequence. For though Amos thought himself strong, he did not feel himself strong. Nature had given him the opinion, but not the sensation. Without that opinion he would probably never have worn cambric bands, but would have been an excellent cabinetmaker and deacon of an Independent church, as his father was before him (he was not a shoemaker, as Mr Pillgrim had reported). He might then have sniffed long and loud in the corner of his pew in Gun Street chapel; he might have indulged in halting rhetoric at prayer-meetings, and have spoken faulty English in private life; and these little infirmities would not have prevented him, honest faithful man that he was, from being a shining light in the dissenting circle of Bridgeport. A tallow dip, of the long-eight description, is an excellent thing in the kitchen candlestick, and Betty’s nose and eye are not sensitive to the difference between it and the finest wax; it is only when you stick it in the silver candlestick, and introduce it into the drawing-room, that it seems plebeian, dim, and ineffectual. Alas for the worthy man who, like that candle, gets himself into the wrong place! It is only the very largest souls who will be able to appreciate and pity him—who will discern and love sincerity of purpose amid all the bungling feebleness of achievement.
But now Amos Barton has made his way through the sleet as far as the College, has thrown off his hat, cape, and boa, and is reading, in the dreary stone-floored dining-room, a portion of the morning service to the inmates seated on the benches before him. Remember, the new poor-law had not yet come into operation, and Mr Barton was not acting as paid chaplain of the Union, but as the pastor who had the cure of all souls in his parish, pauper as well as other. After the prayers he always addressed to them a short discourse on some subject suggested by the lesson for the day, striving if by this means some edifying matter might find its way into the pauper mind and conscience—perhaps a task as trying as you could well imagine to the faith and patience of any honest clergyman. For, on the very first bench, these were the faces on which his eye had to rest, watching whether there was any stirring under the stagnant surface.
Right in front of him—probably because he was stone-deaf, and it was deemed more edifying to hear nothing at a short distance than at a long one—sat “Old Maxum,” as he was familiarly called, his real patronymic remaining a mystery to most persons. A fine philological sense discerns in this cognomen an indication that the pauper patriarch had once been considered pithy and sententious in his speech; but now the weight of ninety-five years lay heavy on his tongue as well as in his ears, and he sat before the clergyman with protruded chin and munching mouth, and eyes that seemed to look at emptiness.
Next to him sat Poll Fodge—known to the magistracy of her county as Mary Higgins—a one-eyed woman, with a scarred and seamy face, the most notorious rebel in the workhouse, said to have once thrown her broth over the master’s coat-tails, and who, in spite of nature’s apparent safeguards against that contingency, had contributed to the perpetuation of the Fodge characteristics in the person of a small boy, who was behaving naughtily on one of the back benches. Miss Fodge fixed her one sore eye on Mr Barton with a sort of hardy defiance.
Beyond this member of the softer sex, at the end of the bench, sat “Silly Jim,” a young man, afflicted with hydrocephalus, who rolled his head from side to side, and gazed at the point of his nose. These were the supporters of Old Maxum on his right.
On his left sat Mr Fitchett, a tall fellow, who had once been a footman in the Oldinport family, and in that giddy elevation had enunciated a contemptuous opinion of boiled beef, which had been traditionally handed down in Shepperton as the direct cause of his ultimate reduction to pauper commons. His calves were now shrunken, and his hair was grey without the aid of powder; but he still carried his chin as if he were conscious of a stiff cravat; he set his dilapidated hat on with a knowing inclination towards the left ear; and when he was on field-work, carted and uncarted the manure with a sort of flunkey grace, the ghost of that jaunty demeanour with which he used to usher in my lady’s morning visitors. The flunkey nature was nowhere completely subdued but in his stomach, and he still divided society into gentry, gentry’s flunkeys, and the people who provided for them. A clergyman without a flunkey was an anomaly, belonging to neither of these classes. Mr Fitchett had an irrepressible tendency to drowsiness under spiritual instruction, and in the recurrent regularity with which he dozed off until he nodded and awaked himself, he looked not unlike a piece of mechanism, ingeniously contrived for measuring the length of Mr Barton’s discourse.
Perfectly wide-awake, on the contrary, was his left-hand neighbour, Mrs Brick, one of those hard undying old women, to whom age seems to have given a network of wrinkles, as a coat of magic armour against the attacks of winters, warm or cold. The point on which Mrs Brick was still sensitive—the theme on which you might possibly excite her hope and fear—was snuff. It seemed to be an embalming powder, helping her soul to do the office of salt.
And now, eke out an audience of which this front benchful was a sample, with a certain number of refractory children, over whom Mr Spratt, the master of the workhouse, exercised an irate surveillance, and I think you will admit that the university-taught clergyman, whose office it is to bring home the gospel to a handful of such souls, has a sufficiently hard task. For, to have any chance of success, short of miraculous intervention, he must bring his geographical, chronological, exegetical mind pretty nearly to the pauper point of view, or of no view; he must have some approximate conception of the mode in which the doctrines that have so much vitality in the plenum of his own brain will comport themselves in vacuo—that is to say, in a brain that is neither geographical, chronological, nor exegetical. It is a flexible imagination that can take such a leap as that, and an adroit tongue that can adapt its speech to so unfamiliar a position. The Rev. Amos Barton had neither that flexible imagination, nor that adroit tongue. He talked of Israel and its sins, of chosen vessels, of the Paschal lamb, of blood as a medium of reconciliation; and he strove in this way to convey religious truth within reach of the Fodge and Fitchett mind. This very morning, the first lesson was the twelfth chapter of Exodus, and Mr Barton’s exposition turned on unleavened bread. Nothing in the world more suited to the simple understanding than instruction through familiar types and symbols! But there is always this danger attending it, that the interest or comprehension of your hearers may stop short precisely at the point where your spiritual interpretation begins. And Mr Barton this morning succeeded in carrying the pauper imagination to the dough-tub, but unfortunately was not able to carry it upwards from that well-known object to the unknown truths which it was intended to shadow forth.
Alas! a natural incapacity for teaching, finished by keeping “terms” at Cambridge, where there are able mathematicians, and butter is sold by the yard, is not apparently the medium through which Christian doctrine will distil as welcome dew on withered souls.
And so, while the sleet outside was turning to unquestionable snow, and the stony dining-room looked darker and drearier, and Mr Fitchett was nodding his lowest, and Mr Spratt was boxing the boys’ ears with a constant rinforzando, as he felt more keenly the approach of dinner-time, Mr Barton wound up his exhortation with something of the February chill at his heart as well as his feet. Mr Fitchett, thoroughly roused now the instruction was at an end, obsequiously and gracefully advanced to help Mr Barton in putting on his cape, while Mrs Brick rubbed her withered forefinger round and round her little shoe-shaped snuff-box, vainly seeking for the fraction of a pinch. I can’t help thinking that if Mr Barton had shaken into that little box a small portion of Scotch high-dried, he might have produced something more like an amiable emotion in Mrs Brick’s mind than anything she had felt under his morning’s exposition of the unleavened bread. But our good Amos laboured under a deficiency of small tact as well as of small cash; and when he observed the action of the old woman’s forefinger, he said, in his brusque way, “So your snuff is all gone, eh?”
Mrs Brick’s eyes twinkled with the visionary hope that the parson might be intending to replenish her box, at least mediately, through the present of a small copper.
“Ah, well! You’ll soon be going where there is no more snuff. You’ll be in need of mercy then. You must remember that you may have to seek for mercy and not find it, just as you’re seeking for snuff.”
At the first sentence of this admonition, the twinkle subsided from Mrs Brick’s eyes. The lid of her box went “click!” and her heart was shut up at the same moment.
But now Mr Barton’s attention was called for by Mr Spratt, who was dragging a small and unwilling boy from the rear. Mr Spratt was a small-featured, small-statured man, with a remarkable power of language, mitigated by hesitation, who piqued himself on expressing unexceptionable sentiments in unexceptional language on all occasions.
“Mr Barton, sir—aw—aw—excuse my trespassing on your time—aw—to beg that you will administer a rebuke to this boy; he is—aw—aw—most inveterate in ill-behaviour during service-time.”
The inveterate culprit was a boy of seven, vainly contending against “candles” at his nose by feeble sniffing. But no sooner had Mr Spratt uttered his impeachment, than Miss Fodge rushed forward and placed herself between Mr Barton and the accused.
“That’s my child, Muster Barton,” she exclaimed, further manifesting her maternal instincts by applying her apron to her offspring’s nose. “He’s al’ys a-findin’ faut wi’ him, an’ a-poundin’ him for nothin.’ Let him goo an’ eat his roost goose as is a-smellin’ up in our noses while we’re a-swallering them greasy broth, an’ let my boy alooan.”
Mr Spratt’s small eyes flashed, and he was in danger of uttering sentiments not unexceptionable before the clergyman; but Mr Barton, foreseeing that a prolongation of this episode would not be to edification, said “Silence!” in his severest tones.
“Let me hear no abuse. Your boy is not likely to behave well, if you set him the example of being saucy.” Then stooping down to Master Fodge, and taking him by the shoulder, “Do you like being beaten?”
“Then what a silly boy you are to be naughty. If you were not naughty, you wouldn’t be beaten. But if you are naughty, God will be angry, as well as Mr Spratt; and God can burn you for ever. That will be worse than being beaten.”
Master Fodge’s countenance was neither affirmative nor negative of this proposition.
“But,” continued Mr Barton, “if you will be a good boy, God will love you, and you will grow up to be a good man. Now, let me hear next Thursday that you have been a good boy.”
Master Fodge had no distinct vision of the benefit that would accrue to him from this change of courses. But Mr Barton, being aware that Miss Fodge had touched on a delicate subject in alluding to the roast goose, was determined to witness no more polemics between her and Mr Spratt, so, saying good-morning to the latter, he hastily left the College.
The snow was falling in thicker and thicker flakes, and already the vicarage-garden was cloaked in white as he passed through the gate. Mrs Barton heard him open the door, and ran out of the sitting-room to meet him.
“I’m afraid your feet are very wet, dear. What a terrible morning! Let me take your hat. Your slippers are at the fire.”
Mr Barton was feeling a little cold and cross. It is difficult, when you have been doing disagreeable duties, without praise, on a snowy day, to attend to the very minor morals. So he showed no recognition of Milly’s attentions, but sniffed and said, “Fetch me my dressing-gown, will you?”
“It is down, dear. I thought you wouldn’t go into the study, because you said you would letter and number the books for the Lending Library. Patty and I have been covering them, and they are all ready in the sitting-room.”
“Oh, I can’t do those this morning,” said Mr Barton, as he took off his boots and put his feet into the slippers Milly had brought him; “you must put them away into the parlour.”
The sitting-room was also the day-nursery and schoolroom; and while Mamma’s back was turned, Dickey, the second boy, had insisted on superseding Chubby in the guidance of a headless horse, of the red-wafered species, which she was drawing round the room, so that when Papa opened the door, Chubby was giving tongue energetically.
“Milly, some of these children must go away. I want to be quiet.”
“Yes, dear. Hush, Chubby; go with Patty, and see what Nanny is getting for our dinner. Now, Fred and Sophy and Dickey, help me—carry these books into the parlour. There are three for Dickey. Carry them steadily.”
Papa meanwhile settled himself in his easy-chair, and took up a work on Episcopacy, which he had from the Clerical Book Society; thinking he would finish it, and return it this afternoon, as he was going to the Clerical Meeting at Millby Vicarage, where the Book Society had its headquarters.
The Clerical Meetings and Book Society, which had been founded some eight or ten months, had had a noticeable effect on the Rev. Amos Barton. When he first came to Shepperton he was simply an evangelical clergyman, whose Christian experiences had commenced under the teaching of the Rev. Mr Johns of Gun Street Chapel, and had been consolidated at Cambridge under the influence of Mr Simeon. John Newton and Thomas Scott were his doctrinal ideals; he would have taken in the Christian Observer and the Record, if he could have afforded it; his anecdotes were chiefly of the pious-jocose kind, current in dissenting circles; and he thought an Episcopalian Establishment unobjectionable.
But by this time the effect of the Tractarian agitation was beginning to be felt in backward provincial regions, and the Tractarian satire on the Low-Church party was beginning to tell even on those who disavowed or resisted Tractarian doctrines. The vibration of an intellectual movement was felt from the golden head to the miry toes of the Establishment; and so it came to pass that, in the district round Millby, the market-town close to Shepperton, the clergy had agreed to have a clerical meeting every month, wherein they would exercise their intellects by discussing theological and ecclesiastical questions, and cement their brotherly love by discussing a good dinner. A Book Society naturally suggested itself as an adjunct of this agreeable plan; and thus, you perceive, there was provision made for ample friction of the clerical mind.
Now, the Rev. Amos Barton was one of those men who have a decided will and opinion of their own; he held himself bolt upright, and had no self-distrust. He would march very determinedly along the road he thought best; but then it was wonderfully easy to convince him which was the best road. And so, a very little unwonted reading and unwonted discussion made him see that an Episcopalian Establishment was much more than unobjectionable, and on many other points he began to feel that he held opinions a little too far-sighted and profound to be crudely and suddenly communicated to ordinary minds. He was like an onion that has been rubbed with spices; the strong original odour was blended with something new and foreign. The Low-Church onion still offended refined High-Church nostrils, and the new spice was unwelcome to the palate of the genuine onion-eater.
We will not accompany him to the Clerical Meeting to-day, because we shall probably want to go thither some day when he will be absent. And just now I am bent on introducing you to Mr Bridmain and the Countess Czerlaski, with whom Mr and Mrs Barton are invited to dine to-morrow.
Outside, the moon is shedding its cold light on the cold snow, and the white-bearded fir-trees round Camp Villa are casting a blue shadow across the white ground, while the Rev. Amos Barton, and his wife are audibly crushing the crisp snow beneath their feet, as, about seven o’clock on Friday evening, they approach the door of the above-named desirable country residence, containing dining, breakfast, and drawing rooms, &c., situated only half a mile from the market-town of Millby.
Inside, there is a bright fire in the drawing-room, casting a pleasant but uncertain light on the delicate silk dress of a lady who is reclining behind a screen in the corner of the sofa, and allowing you to discern that the hair of the gentleman who is seated in the arm-chair opposite, with a newspaper over his knees, is becoming decidedly grey. A little “King Charles,” with a crimson ribbon round his neck, who has been lying curled up in the very middle of the hearth-rug, has just discovered that that zone is too hot for him, and is jumping on the sofa, evidently with the intention of accommodating his person on the silk gown. On the table there are two wax candles, which will be lighted as soon as the expected knock is heard at the door.
The knock is heard, the candles are lighted, and presently Mr and Mrs Barton are ushered in—Mr Barton erect and clerical, in a faultless tie and shining cranium; Mrs Barton graceful in a newly-turned black silk.
“Now this is charming of you,” said the Countess Czerlaski, advancing to meet them, and embracing Milly with careful elegance. “I am really ashamed of my selfishness in asking my friends to come and see me in this frightful weather.” Then, giving her hand to Amos, “And you, Mr Barton, whose time is so precious! But I am doing a good deed in drawing you away from your labours. I have a plot to prevent you from martyrising yourself.”
While this greeting was going forward, Mr Bridmain, and Jet the spaniel, looked on with the air of actors who had no idea of by-play. Mr Bridmain, a stiff and rather thick-set man, gave his welcome with a laboured cordiality. It was astonishing how very little he resembled his beautiful sister.
For the Countess Czerlaski was undeniably beautiful. As she seated herself by Mrs Barton on the sofa, Milly’s eyes, indeed, rested—must it be confessed?—chiefly on the details of the tasteful dress, the rich silk of a pinkish lilac hue (the Countess always wore delicate colours in an evening), the black lace pelerine, and the black lace veil falling at the back of the small closely-braided head. For Milly had one weakness—don’t love her any the less for it, it was a pretty woman’s weakness—she was fond of dress; and often, when she was making up her own economical millinery, she had romantic visions how nice it would be to put on really handsome stylish things—to have very stiff balloon sleeves, for example, without which a woman’s dress was nought in those days. You and I too, reader, have our weakness, have we not? which makes us think foolish things now and then. Perhaps it may lie in an excessive admiration for small hands and feet, a tall lithe figure, large dark eyes, and dark silken braided hair. All these the Countess possessed, and she had, moreover, a delicately formed nose, the least bit curved, and a clear brunette complexion. Her mouth, it must be admitted, receded too much from her nose and chin and to a prophetic eye threatened “nut-crackers” in advanced age. But by the light of fire and wax-candles that age seemed very far off indeed, and you would have said that the Countess was not more than thirty.
Look at the two women on the sofa together! The large, fair, mild-eyed Milly is timid even in friendship: it is not easy to her to speak of the affection of which her heart is full. The lithe, dark, thin-lipped Countess is racking her small brain for caressing words and charming exaggerations.
“And how are all the cherubs at home?” said the Countess, stooping to pick up Jet, and without waiting for an answer. “I have been kept indoors by a cold ever since Sunday, or I should not have rested without seeing you. What have you done with those wretched singers, Mr Barton?”
“O, we have got a new choir together, which will go on very well with a little practice. I was quite determined that the old set of singers should be dismissed. I had given orders that they should not sing the wedding psalm, as they call it, again, to make a new-married couple look ridiculous, and they sang it in defiance of me. I could put them into the Ecclesiastical Court, if I chose for to do so, for lifting up their voices in church in opposition to the clergyman.”
“And a most wholesome discipline that would be,” said the Countess; “indeed, you are too patient and forbearing, Mr Barton. For my part, I lose my temper when I see how far you are from being appreciated in that miserable Shepperton.”
If, as is probable, Mr Barton felt at a loss what to say in reply to the insinuated compliment, it was a relief to him that dinner was announced just then, and that he had to offer his arm to the Countess.
As Mr Bridmain was leading Mrs Barton to the dining-room, he observed, “The weather is very severe.”
“Very, indeed,” said Milly.
Mr Bridmain studied conversation as an art. To ladies he spoke of the weather, and was accustomed to consider it under three points of view:—as a question of climate in general, comparing England with other countries in this respect; as a personal question, inquiring how it affected his lady interlocutor in particular; and as a question of probabilities, discussing whether there would be a change or a continuance of the present atmospheric conditions. To gentlemen he talked politics, and he read two daily papers expressly to qualify himself for this function. Mr Barton thought him a man of considerable political information, but not of lively parts.
“And so you are always to hold your Clerical Meetings at Mr Ely’s?” said the Countess, between her spoonfuls of soup. (The soup was a little over-spiced. Mrs Short of Camp Villa, who was in the habit of letting her best apartments, gave only moderate wages to her cook.)
“Yes,” said Mr Barton; “Millby is a central place, and there are many conveniences in having only one point of meeting.”
“Well,” continued the Countess, “every one seems to agree in giving the precedence to Mr Ely. For my part, I cannot admire him. His preaching is too cold for me. It has no fervour—no heart. I often say to my brother, it is a great comfort to me that Shepperton church is not too far off for us to go to; don’t I, Edmund?”
“Yes,” answered Mr Bridmain “they show us into such a bad pew at Millby—just where there is a draught from that door. I caught a stiff neck the first time I went there.”
“O, it is the cold in the pulpit that affects me, not the cold in the pew. I was writing to my friend Lady Porter this morning, and telling her all about my feelings. She and I think alike on such matters. She is most anxious that when Sir William has an opportunity of giving away the living at their place, Dippley, they should have a thoroughly zealous clever man there. I have been describing a certain friend of mine to her, who, I think, would be just to her mind. And there is such a pretty rectory, Milly; shouldn’t I like to see you the mistress of it?”
Milly smiled and blushed slightly. The Rev. Amos blushed very red, and gave a little embarrassed laugh—he could rarely keep his muscles within the limits of a smile.
At this moment John, the man-servant, approached Mrs Barton with a gravy-tureen, and also with a slight odour of the cow-shed, which usually adhered to him throughout his indoor functions. John was rather nervous; and the Countess happening to speak to him at this inopportune moment, the tureen slipped and emptied itself on Mrs Barton’s newly-turned black silk.
“O, horror! Tell Alice to come directly and rub Mrs Barton’s dress,” said the Countess to the trembling John, carefully abstaining from approaching the gravy-sprinkled spot on the floor with her own lilac silk. But Mr Bridmain, who had a strictly private interest in silks, good-naturedly jumped up and applied his napkin at once to Mrs Barton’s gown.
Milly felt a little inward anguish, but no ill-temper, and tried to make light of the matter for the sake of John as well as others. The Countess felt inwardly thankful that her own delicate silk had escaped, but threw out lavish interjections of distress and indignation.
“Dear saint that you are,” she said, when Milly laughed, and suggested that, as her silk was not very glossy to begin with, the dim patch would not be much seen; “you don’t mind about these things, I know. Just the same sort of thing happened to me at the Princess Wengstein’s one day, on a pink satin. I was in an agony. But you are so indifferent to dress; and well you may be. It is you who make dress pretty, and not dress that makes you pretty.”
Alice, the buxom lady’s-maid, wearing a much better dress than Mrs Barton’s, now appeared to take Mr Bridmain’s place in retrieving the mischief, and after a great amount of supplementary rubbing, composure was restored, and the business of dining was continued.
When John was recounting his accident to the cook in the kitchen, he observed, “Mrs Barton’s a hamable woman; I’d a deal sooner ha’ throwed the gravy o’er the Countess’s fine gownd. But laws! what tantrums she’d ha’ been in arter the visitors was gone.”
“You’d a deal sooner not ha’ throwed it down at all, I should think,” responded the unsympathetic cook, to whom John did not make love. “Who d’you think’s to mek gravy anuff, if you’re to baste people’s gownds wi’ it?”
“Well,” suggested John, humbly, “you should wet the bottom of the duree a bit, to hold it from slippin.”
“Wet your granny!” returned the cook; a retort which she probably regarded in the light of a reductio ad absurdum, and which in fact reduced John to silence.
Later on in the evening, while John was removing the tea-things from the drawing-room, and brushing the crumbs from the table-cloth with an accompanying hiss, such as he was wont to encourage himself with in rubbing down Mr Bridmain’s horse, the Rev. Amos Barton drew from his pocket a thin green-covered pamphlet, and, presenting it to the Countess, said,—
“You were pleased, I think, with my sermon on Christmas Day. It has been printed in The Pulpit, and I thought you might like a copy.”
“That indeed I shall. I shall quite value the opportunity of reading that sermon. There was such depth in it!—such argument! It was not a sermon to be heard only once. I am delighted that it should become generally known, as it will be, now it is printed in The Pulpit.”
“Yes,” said Milly, innocently, “I was so pleased with the editor’s letter.” And she drew out her little pocket-book, where she carefully treasured the editorial autograph, while Mr Barton laughed and blushed, and said, “Nonsense, Milly!”
“You see,” she said, giving the letter to the Countess, “I am very proud of the praise my husband gets.”
The sermon in question, by the by, was an extremely argumentative one on the Incarnation; which, as it was preached to a congregation not one of whom had any doubt of that doctrine, and to whom the Socinians therein confuted were as unknown as the Arimaspians, was exceedingly well adapted to trouble and confuse the Sheppertonian mind.
“Ah,” said the Countess, returning the editor’s letter, “he may well say he will be glad of other sermons from the same source. But I would rather you should publish your sermons in an independent volume, Mr Barton; it would be so desirable to have them in that shape. For instance, I could send a copy to the Dean of Radbrough. And there is Lord Blarney, whom I knew before he was chancellor. I was a special favourite of his, and you can’t think what sweet things he used to say to me. I shall not resist the temptation to write to him one of these days sans façon, and tell him how he ought to dispose of the next vacant living in his gift.”
Whether Jet the spaniel, being a much more knowing dog than was suspected, wished to express his disapproval of the Countess’s last speech, as not accordant with his ideas of wisdom and veracity, I cannot say; but at this moment he jumped off her lap, and turning his back upon her, placed one paw on the fender, and held the other up to warm, as if affecting to abstract himself from the current of conversation.
But now Mr Bridmain brought out the chess-board, and Mr Barton accepted his challenge to play a game, with immense satisfaction. The Rev. Amos was very fond of chess, as most people are who can continue through many years to create interesting vicissitudes in the game, by taking long-meditated moves with their knights, and subsequently discovering that they have thereby exposed their queen.
Chess is a silent game; and the Countess’s chat with Milly is in quite an under-tone—probably relating to women’s matters that it would be impertinent for us to listen to; so we will leave Camp Villa, and proceed to Millby Vicarage, where Mr Farquhar has sat out two other guests with whom he has been dining at Mr Ely’s, and is now rather wearying that reverend gentleman by his protracted small-talk.
Mr Ely was a tall, dark-haired, distinguished-looking man of three-and-thirty. By the laity of Millby and its neighbourhood he was regarded as a man of quite remarkable powers and learning, who must make a considerable sensation in London pulpits and drawing-rooms on his occasional visits to the metropolis; and by his brother clergy he was regarded as a discreet and agreeable fellow. Mr Ely never got into a warm discussion; he suggested what might be thought, but rarely said what he thought himself; he never let either men or women see that he was laughing at them, and he never gave any one an opportunity of laughing at him. In one thing only he was injudicious. He parted his dark wavy hair down the middle; and as his head was rather flat than otherwise, that style of coiffure was not advantageous to him.
Mr Farquhar, though not a parishioner of Mr Ely’s, was one of his warmest admirers, and thought he would make an unexceptionable son-in-law, in spite of his being of no particular “family.” Mr Farquhar was susceptible on the point of “blood,”—his own circulating fluid, which animated a short and somewhat flabby person, being, he considered, of very superior quality.
“By the by,” he said, with a certain pomposity counteracted by a lisp, “what an ath Barton makth of himthelf, about that Bridmain and the Counteth, ath she callth herthelf. After you were gone the other evening, Mithith Farquhar wath telling him the general opinion about them in the neighbourhood, and he got quite red and angry. Bleth your thoul, he believth the whole thtory about her Polish huthband and hith wonderful ethcapeth; and ath for her—why, he thinkth her perfection, a woman of motht refined fellingth, and no end of thtuff.”
Mr Ely smiled. “Some people would say our friend Barton was not the best judge of refinement. Perhaps the lady flatters him a little, and we men are susceptible. She goes to Shepperton church every Sunday—drawn there, let us suppose, by Mr Barton’s eloquence.”
“Pshaw,” said Mr Farquhar: “Now to my mind, you have only to look at that woman to thee what she ith—throwing her eyth about when she comth into church, and drething in a way to attract attention. I should thay, she’th tired of her brother Bridmain, and looking out for another brother with a thtronger family likeneth. Mithith Farquhar ith very fond of Mithith Barton, and ith quite dithtrethed that she should athothiate with thuch a woman, tho she attacked him on the thubject purpothly. But I tell her it’th of no uthe, with a pig-headed fellow like him. Barton’th well-meaning enough, but tho contheited. I’ve left off giving him my advithe.”
Mr Ely smiled inwardly and said to himself, “What a punishment!” But to Mr Farquhar he said, “Barton might be more judicious, it must be confessed.” He was getting tired, and did not want to develop the subject.
“Why, nobody vithit-th them but the Bartonth,” continued Mr Farquhar, “and why should thuch people come here, unleth they had particular reathonth for preferring a neighbourhood where they are not known? Pooh! it lookth bad on the very fathe of it. You called on them, now; how did you find them?”
“O!—Mr Bridmain strikes me as a common sort of man, who is making an effort to seem wise and well-bred. He comes down on one tremendously with political information, and seems knowing about the king of the French. The Countess is certainly a handsome woman, but she puts on the grand air a little too powerfully. Woodcock was immensely taken with her, and insisted on his wife’s calling on her, and asking her to dinner; but I think Mrs Woodcock turned restive after the first visit, and wouldn’t invite her again.”
“Ha, ha! Woodcock hath alwayth a thoft place in hith heart for a pretty fathe. It’th odd how he came to marry that plain woman, and no fortune either.”
“Mysteries of the tender passion,” said Mr Ely. “I am not initiated yet, you know.”
Here Mr Farquhar’s carriage was announced, and as we have not found his conversation particularly brilliant under the stimulus of Mr Ely’s exceptional presence, we will not accompany him home to the less exciting atmosphere of domestic life.
Mr Ely threw himself with a sense of relief into his easiest chair, set his feet on the hobs, and in this attitude of bachelor enjoyment began to read Bishop Jebb’s Memoirs.
I am by no means sure that if the good people of Millby had known the truth about the Countess Czerlaski, they would not have been considerably disappointed to find that it was very far from being as bad as they imagined. Nice distinctions are troublesome. It is so much easier to say that a thing is black, than to discriminate the particular shade of brown, blue, or green, to which it really belongs. It is so much easier to make up your mind that your neighbour is good for nothing, than to enter into all the circumstances that would oblige you to modify that opinion.
Besides, think of all the virtuous declamation, all the penetrating observation, which had been built up entirely on the fundamental position that the Countess was a very objectionable person indeed, and which would be utterly overturned and nullified by the destruction of that premiss. Mrs Phipps, the banker’s wife, and Mrs Landor, the attorney’s wife, had invested part of their reputation for acuteness in the supposition that Mr Bridmain was not the Countess’s brother. Moreover, Miss Phipps was conscious that if the Countess was not a disreputable person, she, Miss Phipps, had no compensating superiority in virtue to set against the other lady’s manifest superiority in personal charms. Miss Phipps’s stumpy figure and unsuccessful attire, instead of looking down from a mount of virtue with an auréole round its head, would then be seen on the same level and in the same light as the Countess Czerlaski’s Diana-like form and well-chosen drapery. Miss Phipps, for her part, didn’t like dressing for effect—she had always avoided that style of appearance which was calculated to create a sensation.
Then what amusing inuendoes of the Millby gentlemen over their wine would be entirely frustrated and reduced to nought, if you had told them that the Countess had really been guilty of no misdemeanours which need exclude her from strictly respectable society; that her husband had been the veritable Count Czerlaski, who had had wonderful escapes, as she said, and who, as she did not say, but as was said in certain circulars once folded by her fair hands, had subsequently given dancing lessons in the metropolis; that Mr Bridmain was neither more nor less than her half-brother, who, by unimpeached integrity and industry, had won a partnership in a silk-manufactory, and thereby a moderate fortune, that enabled him to retire, as you see, to study politics, the weather, and the art of conversation at his leisure. Mr Bridmain, in fact, quadragenarian bachelor as he was, felt extremely well pleased to receive his sister in her widowhood, and to shine in the reflected light of her beauty and title. Every man who is not a monster, a mathematician, or a mad philosopher, is the slave of some woman or other. Mr Bridmain had put his neck under the yoke of his handsome sister, and though his soul was a very little one—of the smallest description indeed—he would not have ventured to call it his own. He might be slightly recalcitrant now and then, as is the habit of long-eared pachyderms, under the thong of the fair Countess’s tongue; but there seemed little probability that he would ever get his neck loose. Still, a bachelor’s heart is an outlying fortress that some fair enemy may any day take either by storm or stratagem; and there was always the possibility that Mr Bridmain’s first nuptials might occur before the Countess was quite sure of her second. As it was, however, he submitted to all his sister’s caprices, never grumbled because her dress and her maid formed a considerable item beyond her own little income of sixty pounds per annum, and consented to lead with her a migratory life, as personages on the debatable ground between aristocracy and commonalty, instead of settling in some spot where his five hundred a-year might have won him the definite dignity of a parochial magnate.
The Countess had her views in choosing a quiet provincial place like Millby. After three years of widowhood, she had brought her feelings to contemplate giving a successor to her lamented Czerlaski, whose fine whiskers, fine air, and romantic fortunes had won her heart ten years ago, when, as pretty Caroline Bridmain, in the full bloom of five-and-twenty, she was governess to Lady Porter’s daughters, whom he initiated into the mysteries of the pas de bas, and the lancers’ quadrilles. She had had seven years of sufficiently happy matrimony with Czerlaski, who had taken her to Paris and Germany, and introduced her there to many of his old friends with large titles and small fortunes. So that the fair Caroline had had considerable experience of life, and had gathered therefrom, not, indeed, any very ripe and comprehensive wisdom, but much external polish, and certain practical conclusions of a very decided kind. One of these conclusions was, that there were things more solid in life than fine whiskers and a title, and that, in accepting a second husband, she would regard these items as quite subordinate to a carriage and a settlement. Now she had ascertained, by tentative residences, that the kind of bite she was angling for was difficult to be met with at watering-places, which were already preoccupied with abundance of angling beauties, and were chiefly stocked with men whose whiskers might be dyed, and whose incomes were still more problematic; so she had determined on trying a neighbourhood where people were extremely well acquainted with each other’s affairs, and where the women were mostly ill-dressed and ugly. Mr Bridmain’s slow brain had adopted his sister’s views, and it seemed to him that a woman so handsome and distinguished as the Countess must certainly make a match that might lift himself into the region of county celebrities, and give him at least a sort of cousinship to the quarter-sessions.
All this, which was the simple truth, would have seemed extremely flat to the gossips of Millby, who had made up their minds to something much more exciting. There was nothing here so very detestable. It is true, the Countess was a little vain, a little ambitious, a little selfish, a little shallow and frivolous, a little given to white lies. But who considers such slight blemishes, such moral pimples as these, disqualifications for entering into the most respectable society? Indeed, the severest ladies in Millby would have been perfectly aware that these characteristics would have created no wide distinction between the Countess Czerlaski and themselves; and since it was clear there was a wide distinction—why, it must lie in the possession of some vices from which they were undeniably free.
Hence it came to pass, that Millby respectability refused to recognise the Countess Czerlaski, in spite of her assiduous church-going, and the deep disgust she was known to have expressed at the extreme paucity of the congregations on Ash-Wednesdays. So she began to feel that she had miscalculated the advantages of a neighbourhood where people are well acquainted with each other’s private affairs. Under these circumstances, you will imagine how welcome was the perfect credence and admiration she met with from Mr and Mrs Barton. She had been especially irritated by Mr Ely’s behaviour to her; she felt sure that he was not in the least struck with her beauty, that he quizzed her conversation, and that he spoke of her with a sneer. A woman always knows where she is utterly powerless, and shuns a coldly satirical eye as she would shun a Gorgon. And she was especially eager for clerical notice and friendship, not merely because that is quite the most respectable countenance to be obtained in society, but because she really cared about religious matters, and had an uneasy sense that she was not altogether safe in that quarter. She had serious intentions of becoming quite pious—without any reserves—when she had once got her carriage and settlement. Let us do this one sly trick, says Ulysses to Neoptolemus, and we will be perfectly honest ever after—
all hdn gar toi kthma th? nikh? labea tolma dikaioi d’anqanonmeqa.1Sophocles, Philoctetes, “But what a glorious prize is victory! / Therefore be bold; we will be just hereafter” (The Internet Classics Archive, Ed. Daniel C. Stevenson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994-2009, http://classics.mit.edu/index.html.).
The Countess did not quote Sophocles, but she said to herself, “Only this little bit of pretence and vanity, and then I will be quite good, and make myself quite safe for another world.”
And as she had by no means such fine taste and insight in theological teaching as in costume, the Rev. Amos Barton seemed to her a man not only of learning—that is always understood with a clergyman—but of much power as a spiritual director. As for Milly, the Countess really loved her as well as the preoccupied state of her affections would allow. For you have already perceived that there was one being to whom the Countess was absorbingly devoted, and to whose desires she made everything else subservient—namely, Caroline Czerlaski, née Bridmain.
Thus there was really not much affectation in her sweet speeches and attentions to Mr and Mrs Barton. Still their friendship by no means adequately represented the object she had in view when she came to Millby, and it had been for some time clear to her that she must suggest a new change of residence to her brother.
The thing we look forward to often comes to pass, but never precisely in the way we have imagined to ourselves. The Countess did actually leave Camp Villa before many months were past, but under circumstances which had not at all entered into her contemplation.
(To be continued.)
This story is continued in The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, Part II.
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9 March 2023
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