The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, Part II
by George Eliot
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 81, issue 496 (1857)
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 one of George Eliot’s (given name Mary Ann Evans) earliest published works, exemplary of the Literary Realist movement, 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 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine throughout 1857 for a typically conservative audience, each a vignette addressing middle class reality through the perspective of, (though not necessarily centering on) Anglican clergymen.
This entry was published as the second of two parts:
PART II.—CHAPTER V.
The Rev. Amos Barton, whose sad fortunes I have undertaken to relate, was, you perceive, in no respect an ideal or exceptional character, and perhaps I am doing a bold thing to bespeak your sympathy on behalf of a man who was so very far from remarkable,—a man whose virtues were not heroic, and who had no undetected crime within his breast ; who had not the slightest mystery hanging about him, but was palpably and unmistakably commonplace ; who was not even in love, but had had that complaint favourably many years ago. “An utterly uninteresting character!” I think I hear a lady reader exclaim—Mrs Farthingale, for example, who prefers the ideal in fiction ; to whom tragedy means ermine tippets, adultery, and murder ; and comedy, the adventures of some personage who is “quite a character.”
But, my dear madam, it is so very large a majority of your fellow-countrymen that are of this insignificant stamp. At least eighty out of a hundred of your adult male fellow-Britons returned in the last census, are neither extraordinarily silly, nor extraordinarily wicked, nor extraordinarily wise ; their eyes are neither deep and liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms ; they have probably had no hairbreadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is more or less bald and disjointed. Yet these commonplace people—many of them—bear a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the painful right ; they have their unspoken sorrows, and their sacred joys ; their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first-born, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead. Nay, is there not a pathos in their very insignificance,—in our comparison of their dim and narrow existence with the glorious possibilities of that human nature which they share ?
Depend upon it, my dear lady, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones. In that case, I should have no fear of your not caring to know what farther befell the Rev. Amos Barton, or of your thinking the homely details I have to tell at all beneath your attention. As it is, you can, if you please, decline to pursue my story farther ; and you will easily find reading more to your taste, since I learn from the newspapers that many remarkable novels, full of striking situations, thrilling incidents, and eloquent writing, have appeared only within the last season.
Meanwhile, readers who have begun to feel an interest in the Rev. Amos Barton and his wife, will be glad to learn that Mr Oldinport lent the twenty pounds. But twenty pounds are soon exhausted when twelve are due as back payment to the butcher, and when the possession of eight extra sovereigns in February weather is an irresistible temptation to order a new greatcoat. And though Mr Bridmain so far departed from the necessary economy entailed on him by the Countess’s elegant toilette and expensive maid, as to choose a handsome black silk, stiff, as his experienced eye discerned, with the genuine strength of its own texture, and not with the factitious strength of gum, and present it to Mrs Barton, in retrieval of the accident that had occurred at his table, yet, dear me—as every husband has heard—what is the present of a gown when you are deficiently furnished with the et-ceteras of apparel, and when, moreover, there are six children whose wear and tear of clothes is something incredible to the non-maternal mind?
Indeed, the equation of income and expenditure was offering new and constantly accumulating difficulties to Mr and Mrs Barton ; for shortly after the birth of little Walter, Milly’s aunt, who had lived with her ever since her marriage, had withdrawn herself, her furniture, and her yearly income, to the household of another niece ; prompted to that step, very probably, by a slight “tiff” with the Rev. Amos, which occurred while Milly was up-stairs, and proved one too many for the elderly lady’s patience and magnanimity. Mr Barton’s temper was a little warm, but, on the other hand, elderly maiden ladies are known to be susceptible ; so we will not suppose that all the blame lay on his side—the less so, as he had every motive for humouring an inmate whose presence kept the wolf from the door. It was now nearly a year since Miss Jackson’s departure, and, to a fine ear, the howl of the wolf was audibly approaching.
It was a sad thing, too, that when the last snow had melted, when the purple and yellow crocuses were coming up in the garden, and the old church was already half pulled down, Milly had an illness which made her lips look pale, and rendered it absolutely necessary that she should not exert herself for some time. Mr Brand, the Shepperton doctor so obnoxious to Mr Pillgrim, ordered her to drink port-wine, and it was quite necessary to have a charwoman very often, to assist Nanny in all the extra work that fell upon her.
Mrs Hackit, who hardly ever paid a visit to any one but her oldest and nearest neighbour Mrs Patten, now took the unusual step of calling at the vicarage one morning ; and the tears came into her unsentimental eyes as she saw Milly seated pale and feeble in the parlour, unable to persevere in sewing the pinafore that lay on the table beside her. Little Dickey, a boisterous boy of five, with large pink cheeks and sturdy legs, was having his turn to sit with Mamma, and was squatting quiet as a mouse at her knee, holding her soft white hand between his little red black-nailed fists. He was a boy whom Mrs Hackit, in a severe mood, had pronounced “stocky” (a word that etymologically, in all probability, conveys some allusion to an instrument of punishment for the refractory) ; but seeing him thus subdued into goodness, she smiled at him with her kindest smile, and, stooping down, suggested a kiss—a favour which Dicky resolutely declined.
“Now do you take nourishing things anuff?” was one of Mrs Hackit’s first questions, and Milly endeavoured to make it appear that no woman was ever so much in danger of being over-fed and led into self-indulgent habits as herself. But Mrs Hackit gathered one fact from her replies, namely, that Mr Brand had ordered port-wine.
While this conversation was going forward, Dickey had been furtively stroking and kissing the soft white hand ; so that at last, when a pause came, his mother said, smilingly, “Why are you kissing my hand, Dickey?”
“It id to yovely,” answered Dickey, who, you observe, was decidedly backward in his pronunciation.
Mrs Hackit remembered this little scene in after days, and thought with peculiar tenderness and pity of the “stocky boy.”
The next day there came a hamper with Mrs Hackit’s respects ; and on being opened it was found to contain half-a-dozen of port-wine and two couples of fowls. Mrs Farquhar, too, was very kind ; insisted on Mrs Barton’s rejecting all arrow-root but hers, which was genuine Indian, and carried away Sophy and Fred to stay with her a fortnight. These and other good-natured attentions made the trouble of Milly’s illness more bearable ; but they could not prevent it from swelling expenses, and Mr Barton began to have serious thoughts of representing his case to a certain charity for the relief of needy curates.
Altogether, as matters stood in Shepperton, the parishioners were more likely to have a strong sense that the clergyman needed their material aid, than that they needed his spiritual aid,—not the best state of things in this age and country, where faith in men solely on the ground of their spiritual gifts has considerably diminished, and especially unfavourable to the influence of the Rev. Amos, whose spiritual gifts would not have had a very commanding power even in an age of faith.
But, you ask, did not the Countess Czerlaski pay any attention to her friends all this time? To be sure she did. She was indefatigable in visiting her “sweet Milly,” and sitting with her for hours together ; and it may seem remarkable to you that she neither thought of taking away any of the children, nor of providing for any of Milly’s probable wants ; but ladies of rank and of luxurious habits, you know, cannot be expected to surmise the details of poverty. She put a great deal of eau-de-Cologne on Mrs Barton’s pocket-handkerchief, rearranged her pillow and footstool, kissed her cheeks, wrapped her in a soft warm shawl from her own shoulders, and amused her with stories of the life she had seen abroad. When Mr Barton joined them she talked of Tractarianism, of her determination not to re-enter the vortex of fashionable life, and of her anxiety to see him in a sphere large enough for his talents. Milly thought her sprightliness and affectionate warmth quite charming, and was very fond of herdown; while the Rev. Amos had a vague consciousness that he had risen into aristocratic life, and only associated with his middle-class parishioners in a pastoral and parenthetic manner.
However, as the days brightened, Milly’s cheeks and lips brightened too ; and in a few weeks she was almost as active as ever, though watchful eyes might have seen that activity was not easy to her. Mrs Hackit’s eyes were of that kind, and one day, when Mr and Mrs Barton had been dining with her for the first time since Milly’s illness, she observed to her husband—"That poor thing’s dreadful weak an’ delicate, she won’t stan’ havin’ many more children.”
Mr Barton, meanwhile, had been indefatigable in his vocation. He had preached two extemporary sermons every Sunday at the workhouse, where a room had been fitted up for divine service, pending the alterations in the church ; and had walked the same evening to a cottage at one or other extremity of his parish to deliver another sermon, still more extemporary, in an atmosphere impregnated with spring-flowers and perspiration. After all these labours you will easily conceive that he was considerably exhausted by half-past nine o’clock in the evening, and that a supper at a friendly parishioner’s, with a glass, or even two glasses, of brandy-and-water after it, was a welcome reinforcement. Mr Barton was not at all an ascetic ; he thought the benefits of fasting were entirely confined to the Old Testament dispensation ; he was fond of relaxing himself with a little gossip ; indeed, Miss Bond, and other ladies of enthusiastic views, sometimes regretted that Mr Barton did not more uninterruptedly exhibit a superiority to the things of the flesh. Thin ladies, who take little exercise, and whose livers are not strong enough to bear stimulants, are so extremely critical about one’s personal habits! And, after all, the Rev. Amos never came near the borders of a vice. His very faults were middling—he was not very ungrammatical. It was not in his nature to be superlative in anything ; unless, indeed, he was superlatively middling, the quintessential extract of mediocrity. If there was any one point on which he showed an inclination to be excessive, it was confidence in his own shrewdness and ability in practical matters, so that he was very full of plans which were something like his moves in chess—admirably well calculated, supposing the state of the case were otherwise. For example, that notable plan of introducing anti-dissenting books into his lending library did not in the least appear to have bruised the head of Dissent, though it had certainly made Dissent strongly inclined to bite the Rev. Amos’s heel. Again, he vexed the souls of his churchwardens and influential parishioners by his fertile suggestiveness as to what it would be well for them to do in the matter of the church repairs, and other ecclesiastical secularities.
“I never saw the like to parsons,” Mr Hackit said one day in conversation with his brother churchwarden, Mr Bond ; “they’re al’ys for meddlin’ wi’ business, an’ they know no moor about it than my black filly.”
“Ah,” said Mr Bond, “they’re too high learnt to have much common-sense.”
“Well,” remarked Mr Hackit, in a modest and dubious tone, as if throwing out a hypothesis which might be considered bold, “I should say that’s a bad sort o’ eddication as makes folks onreasonable.”
So that, you perceive, Mr Barton’s popularity was in that precarious condition, in that toppling and contingent state, in which a very slight push from a malignant destiny would utterly upset it. That push was not long in being given, as you shall hear.
One fine May morning, when Amos was out on his parochial visits, and the sunlight was streaming through the bow-window of the sitting-room, where Milly was seated at her sewing, occasionally looking up to glance at the children playing in the garden, there came a loud rap at the door, which she at once recognized as the Countess’s, and that well-dressed lady presently entered the sitting-room, with her veil drawn over her face. Milly was not at all surprised or sorry to see her ; but when the Countess threw up her veil, and showed that her eyes were red and swollen, she was both surprised and sorry.
“What can be the matter, dear Caroline?”
Caroline threw down Jet, who gave a little yelp ; then she threw her arms round Milly’s neck, and began to sob ; then she threw herself on the sofa, and begged for a glass of water ; then she threw off her bonnet and shawl ; and by the time Milly’s imagination had exhausted itself in conjuring up calamities, she said,—
“Dear, how shall I tell you? I am the most wretched woman. To be deceived by a brother to whom I have been so devoted—to see him degrading himself—giving himself utterly to the dogs!”
“What can it be?” said Milly, who began to picture to herself the sober
Mr Bridmain taking to brandy and betting.
“He is going to be married—to marry my own maid, that deceitful Alice, to whom I have been the most indulgent mistress. Did you ever hear of anything so disgraceful? so mortifying? so disreputable?”
“And has he only just told you of it?” said Milly, who, having really heard of worse conduct, even in her innocent life, avoided a direct answer.
“Told me of it! he had not even the grace to do that. I went into the dining-room suddenly and found him kissing her—disgusting at his time of life, is it not?—and when I reproved her for allowing such liberties, she turned round saucily, and said she was engaged to be married to my brother, and she saw no shame in allowing him to kiss her. Edmund is a miserable coward, you know, and looked frightened ; but when she asked him to say whether it was not so, he tried to summon up courage and say yes. I left the room in disgust, and this morning I have been questioning Edmund, and find that he is bent on marrying this woman, and that he has been putting off telling me—because he was ashamed of himself, I suppose. I couldn’t possibly stay in the house after this, with my own maid turned mistress. And now, Milly, I am come to throw myself on your charity for a week or two. Will you take me in?”
“That we will,” said Milly, “if you will only put up with our poor rooms and way of living. It will be delightful to have you!”
“It will soothe me to be with you and Mr Barton a little while. I feel quite unable to go among my other friends just at present. What those two wretched people will do I don’t know—leave the neighbourhood at once, I hope. I entreated my brother to do so, before he disgraced himself.”
When Amos came home, he joined his cordial welcome and sympathy to Milly’s. By-and-by the Countess’s formidable boxes, which she had carefully packed before her indignation drove her away from Camp Villa, arrived at the vicarage, and were deposited in the spare bedroom, and in two closets, not spare, which Milly emptied for their reception. A week afterwards, the excellent apartments at Camp Villa, comprising dining and drawing rooms, three bedrooms and a dressing-room, were again to let, and Mr Bridmain’s sudden departure, together with the Countess Czerlaski’s installation as a visitor at Shepperton Vicarage, became a topic of general conversation in the neighbourhood. The keen-sighted virtue of Millby and Shepperton saw in all this a confirmation of its worst suspicions, and pitied the Rev. Amos Barton’s gullibility.
But when week after week, and month after month, slipped by without witnessing the Countess’s departure—when summer and harvest had fled, and still left her behind them occupying the spare bedroom and the closets, and also a large proportion of Mrs Barton’s time and attention, new surmises of a very evil kind were added to the old rumours, and began to take the form of settled convictions in the minds even of Mr Barton’s most friendly parishioners.
And now, here is an opportunity for an accomplished writer to apostrophise calumny, to quote Virgil, and to show that he is acquainted with the most ingenious things which have been said on that subject in polite literature.
But what is opportunity to the man who can’t use it? An unfecundated egg, which the waves of time wash away into nonentity.1Unfecundated is an original George Eliot-ism, and to extrapolate from the word’s context and etymology, means “unproductive.” So, as my memory is ill-furnished, and my notebook still worse, I am unable to show myself either erudite or eloquent à propos of the calumny whereof the Rev. Amos Barton was the victim. I can only ask my reader, did you ever upset your ink-bottle, and watch, in helpless agony, the rapid spread of Stygian blackness over your fair manuscript or fairer table-cover? With a like inky swiftness did gossip now blacken the reputation of the Rev. Amos Barton, causing the unfriendly to scorn and even the friendly to stand aloof, at a time when difficulties of another kind were fast thickening around him.
One November morning, at least six months after the Countess Czerlaski had taken up her residence at the vicarage, Mrs Hackit heard that her neighbour Mrs Patten had an attack of her old complaint, vaguely called “the spasms.” Accordingly, about eleven o’clock, she put on her velvet bonnet and cloth cloak, with a long boa and muff large enough to stow a prize baby in ; for Mrs Hackit regulated her costume by the calendar, and brought out her furs on the first of November; whatever might be the temperature. She was not a woman weakly to accommodate herself to shilly-shally proceedings. If the season didn’t know what it ought to do, Mrs Hackit did. In her best days, it was always sharp weather at “Gunpowder Plot,” and she didn’t like new fashions.
And this morning the weather was very rationally in accordance with her costume, for as she made her way through the fields to Cross Farm, the yellow leaves on the hedge-girt elms, which showed bright and golden against the low-hanging purple clouds, were being scattered across the grassy path by the coldest of November winds. “Ah,” Mrs Hackit thought to herself, “I dare say we shall have a sharp pinch this winter, and if we do, I shouldn’t wonder if it takes the old lady off. They say a green Yule makes a fat churchyard ; but so does a white Yule too, for that matter. When the stool’s rotten enough, no matter who sits on’t.”
However, on her arrival at Cross Farm, the prospect of Mrs Patten’s decease was again thrown into the dim distance in her imagination, for Miss Janet Gibbs met her with the news that Mrs Patten was much better, and led her, without any preliminary announcement, to the old lady’s bedroom. Janet had scarcely reached the end of her circumstantial narrative how the attack came on and what were her aunt’s sensations—a narrative to which Mrs Patten, in her neatly plaited night-cap, seemed to listen with a contemptuous resignation to her niece’s historical inaccuracy, contenting herself with occasionally confounding Janet by a shake of the head—when the clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the yard pavement announced the arrival of Mr Pillgrim, whose large, top-booted person presently made its appearance upstairs. He found Mrs Patten going on so well that there was no need to look solemn. He might glide from condolence into gossip without offence, and the temptation of having Mrs Hackit’s ear was irresistible.
“What a disgraceful business this is turning out of your parson’s,” was the remark with which he made this agreeable transition, throwing himself back in the chair from which he had been leaning towards the patient.
“Eh, dear me!” said Mrs Hackit, “disgraceful enough. I stuck to Mr Barton as long as I could, for his wife’s sake ; but I can’t countenance such goings on. It’s hateful to see that woman coming with ‘em to service of a Sunday, and if Mr Hackit wasn’t churchwarden and I didn’t think it wrong to forsake one’s own parish, I should go to Knebley Church. There’s a many parish’ners as do.”
“I used to think Barton was only a fool,” observed Mr Pillgrim, in a tone which implied that he was conscious of having been weakly charitable. “I thought he was imposed upon and led away by those people when they first came. But that’s impossible now.”
“O, it’s as plain as the nose in your face,” said Mrs Hackit, unreflectingly, not perceiving the equivoque in her comparison,—“coming to Millby, like a sparrow perchin’ on a bough, as I may say, with her brother, as she called him ; and then all on a sudden, the brother goes off wi’ himself, and she throws herself on the Bartons. Though what could make her take up wi’ a poor notomise of a parson, as hasn’t got enough to keep wife and children, there’s one above knows—I don’t.”
“Mr Barton may have attractions we don’t know of,” said Mr Pillgrim, who piqued himself on a talent for sarcasm. “The Countess has no maid now, and they say Mr Barton is handy in assisting at her toilette—laces her boots, and so forth.”
“Tilette, be fiddled!” said Mrs Hackit, with indignant boldness of metaphor ; “an’ there’s that poor thing a-sewing her fingers to the bone for them children—an’ another comin’ on. What she must have to go through ! It goes to my heart to turn my back on her. But she’s i’ the wrong to let herself be put upon a’ that manner.”
“Ah ! I was talking to Mrs Farquhar about that the other day. She said, ‘I think Mrs Barton a v-e-r-y w-e-a-k w-o-m-a-n.’” (Mr Pillgrim gave this quotation with slow emphasis, as if he thought Mrs Farquhar had uttered a remarkable sentiment.) “They find it impossible to invite her to their house while she has that equivocal person staying with her.”
“Well!” remarked Miss Gibbs, “if I was a wife, nothing should induce me to bear what Mrs Barton does.”
“Yes, it’s fine talking,” said Mrs Patten, from her pillow ; “old maids’ husbands are al’ys well-managed. If you was a wife you’d be as foolish as your betters, belike.”
“All my wonder is,” observed Mrs Hackit, “how the Bartons make both ends meet. You may depend on’t she’s got nothing to give ‘em ; for I understand as he’s been having money from some clergy charity. They said at first as she stuffed Mr Barton wi’ notions about her writing to the Chancellor an’ her fine friends, to give him a living. Howiver, I don’t know what’s true an’ what’s false. Mr Barton keeps away from our house now, for I gave him a bit o’ my mind one day. Maybe he’s ashamed of himself. He seems to me to look dreadful thin an’ harassed of a Sunday.”
“O, he must be aware he’s getting into bad odour everywhere. The clergy are quite disgusted with his folly. They say Carpe would be glad to get Barton out of the curacy if he could ; but he can’t do that without coming to Shepperton himself, as Barton’s a licensed curate ; and he wouldn’t like that, I suppose.”
At this moment Mrs Patten showed signs of uneasiness, which recalled Mr Pillgrim to professional attentions ; and Mrs Hackit, observing that it was Thursday, and she must see after the butter, said good-by, promising to look in again soon, and bring her knitting.
This Thursday, by the by, is the first in the month—the day on which the clerical meeting is held at Millby Vicarage ; and as the Rev. Amos Barton has reasons for not attending, he will very likely be a subject of conversation amongst his clerical brethren. Suppose we go there, and hear whether Mr Pillgrim has reported their opinion correctly.
There is not a numerous party today, for it is a season of sore throats and catarrhs ; so that the exegetical and theological discussions, which are the preliminary of dining, have not been quite so spirited as usual ; and although a question relative to the Epistle of Jude has not been quite cleared up, the striking of six by the church clock, and the simultaneous announcement of dinner, are sounds that no one feels to be importunate.
Pleasant (when one is not in the least bilious) to enter a comfortable dining-room, where the closely-drawn red curtains glow with the double light of fire and candle, where glass and silver are glittering on the pure damask, and a soup-tureen gives a hint of the fragrance that will presently rush out to inundate your hungry senses, and prepare them, by the delicate visitation of atoms, for the keen gusto of ampler contact ! Especially if you have confidence in the dinner-giving capacity of your host—if you know that he is not a man who entertains grovelling views of eating and drinking as a mere satisfaction of hunger and thirst, and, dead to all the finer influences of the palate, expects his guest to be brilliant on ill-flavoured gravies and the cheapest Marsala. Mr Ely was particularly worthy of such confidence, and his virtues as an Amphitryon had probably contributed quite as much as the central situation of Millby to the selection of his house as a clerical rendezvous.2To be an Amphitryon in this context means to be the host of a dinner or feast. Source: “Amphitryon,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, 2021 He looks particularly graceful at the head of his table, and, indeed, on all occasions where he acts as president or moderator—a man who seems to listen well, and is an excellent amalgam of discrepant ingredients.
At the other end of the table, as “Vice,” sits Mr Fellowes, rector and magistrate, a man of imposing appearance, with a mellifluous voice, and the readiest of tongues. Mr Fellowes once obtained a living by the persuasive charms of his conversation, and the fluency with which he interpreted the opinions of an obese and stammering baronet, so as to give that elderly gentleman a very pleasing perception of his own wisdom. Mr Fellowes is a very successful man, and has the highest character everywhere except in his own parish, where, doubtless because his parishioners happen to be quarrelsome people, he is always at fierce feud with a farmer or two, a colliery proprietor, a grocer who was once churchwarden, and a tailor who formerly officiated as clerk.
At Mr Ely’s right hand you see a very small man with a sallow and somewhat puffy face, whose hair is brushed straight up, evidently with the intention of giving him a height somewhat less disproportionate to his sense of his own importance than the measure of five feet three accorded him by an oversight of nature. This is Rev. Archibald Duke, a very dyspeptic and evangelical man, who takes the gloomiest view of mankind and their prospects, and thinks the immense sale of the “Pickwick Papers,” recently completed, one of the strongest proofs of original sin. Unfortunately, though Mr Duke was not burdened with a family, his yearly expenditure was apt considerably to exceed his income ; and the unpleasant circumstances resulting from this, together with heavy meat breakfasts, may probably have contributed to his desponding views of the world generally.
Next to him is seated Mr Furness, a tall young man, with blond hair and whiskers, who was plucked at Cambridge entirely owing to his genius ; at least I know that he soon afterwards published a volume of poems, which were considered remarkably beautiful by many young ladies of his acquaintance. Mr Furness preached his own sermons, as any one of tolerable critical acumen might have certified by comparing them with his poems : in both, there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared.
On Mr Furness’s left you see Mr Pugh, another young curate, of much less marked characteristics. He had not published any poems ; he had not even been plucked ; he had neat black whiskers and a pale complexion ; read prayers and a sermon twice every Sunday, and might be seen any day sallying forth on his parochial duties in a white tie, a well-brushed hat, a perfect suit of black, and well-polished boots—an equipment which he probably supposed hieroglyphically to represent the spirit of Christianity to the parishioners of Whittlecombe.
Mr Pugh’s vis-a-vis is the Rev. Martin Cleves, a man about forty —middle-sized, broad-shouldered, with a negligently tied cravat, large irregular features, and a large head, thickly covered with lanky brown hair. To a superficial glance, Mr Cleves is the plainest and least clerical looking of the party ; yet, strange to say, there is the true parish priest, the pastor beloved, consulted, relied on by his flock ; a clergyman who is not associated with the undertaker, but thought of as the surest helper under a difficulty, as a monitor who is encouraging rather than severe. Mr Cleves has the wonderful art of preaching sermons which the wheelwright and the blacksmith can understand, not because he talks condescending twaddle, but because he can call a spade a spade, and knows how to disencumber ideas of their wordy frippery. Look at him more attentively and you will see that his face is a very interesting one—that there is a great deal of humour and feeling playing in his grey eyes, and about the corners of his roughly-cut mouth :—a man, you observe, who has most likely sprung from the harder working section of the middle class, and has hereditary sympathies with the checkered life of the people. He gets together the working men in his parish on a Monday evening, and gives them a sort of conversational lecture on useful practical matters, telling them stories, or reading some select passages from an agreeable book, and commenting on them ; and if you were to ask the first labourer or artisan in Tripplegate what sort of man the parson was, he would say,—“a uncommon knowing, sensible, free-spoken gentleman ; very kind an’ good-natur’d too.” Yet for all this, he is perhaps the best Grecian of the party, if we except Mr Baird, the young man on his left.
Mr Baird has since gained considerable celebrity as an original writer and metropolitan lecturer, but at that time he used to preach in a little church something like a barn, to a congregation consisting of three rich farmers and their servants, about fifteen labourers, and the due proportion of women and children. The rich farmers understood him to be “very high learnt ;” but if you had interrogated them for a more precise description, they would have said that he was “a thinnish-faced man, with a sort o’ cast in his eye, like.”
Seven, altogether : a delightful number for a dinner party, supposing the units to be delightful, but everything depends on that. During dinner Mr Fellowes took the lead in the conversation, which set strongly in the direction of mangold-wurzel and the rotation of crops ; for Mr Fellowes and Mr Cleves cultivated their own glebes. Mr Ely, too, had some agricultural notions, and even the Rev. Archibald Duke was made alive to that class of mundane subjects by the possession of some potato ground. The two young curates talked a little aside during these discussions, which had imperfect interest for their unbeneficed minds ; and the transcendental and near-sighted Mr Baird seemed to listen somewhat abstractedly, knowing little more of potatoes and mangold-wurzel than that they were some form of the “Conditioned.”
“What a hobby farming is with Lord Watling !” said Mr Fellowes, when the cloth was being drawn. “I went over his farm at Tetterley with him last summer. It is really a model farm ; first-rate dairy, grazing and wheat land, and such splendid farm-buildings ! An expensive hobby, though. He sinks a good deal of money there, I fancy. He has a great whim for black cattle, and he sends that drunken old Scotch bailiff of his to Scotland every year, with hundreds in his pocket, to buy these beasts.”
“By the by,” said Mr Ely, “do you know who is the man to whom Lord
Watling has given the Bramhill living?”
“A man named Sargent. I knew him at Oxford. His brother is a lawyer, and was very useful to Lord Watling in that ugly Brounsell affair. That’s why Sargent got the living.”
“Sargent,” said Mr Ely. “I know him. Isn’t he a showy, talkative fellow ; has written travels in Mesopotamia, or something of that sort?”
“That’s the man.”
“He was at Witherington once, as Bagshawe’s curate. He got into rather bad odour there, through some scandal about a flirtation, I think.”
“Talking of scandal,” returned Mr Fellowes, “have you heard the last story about Barton? Nisbett was telling me the other day that he dines alone with the Countess at six, while Mrs Barton is in the kitchen acting as cook.”
“Rather an apocryphal authority, Nisbett,” said Mr Ely.
“Ah,” said Mr Cleves, with good-natured humour twinkling in his eyes, “depend upon it, that is a corrupt version. The original text is, that they all dined together with six—meaning six children—and that Mrs Barton is an excellent cook.”
“I wish dining alone together may be the worst of that sad business,” said the Rev. Archibald Duke, in a tone implying that his wish was a strong figure of speech.
“Well,” said Mr Fellowes, filling his glass and looking jocose, “Barton is certainly either the greatest gull in existence, or he has some cunning secret,—some philtre or other to make himself charming in the eyes of a fair lady. It isn’t all of us that can make conquests when our ugliness is past its bloom.”
“The lady seemed to have made a conquest of him at the very outset,” said Mr Ely. “I was immensely amused one night at Granby’s when he was telling us her story about her husband’s adventures. He said, ‘When she told me the tale, I felt I don’t know how,—I felt it from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet.’”
Mr Ely gave these words dramatically, imitating the Rev. Amos’s fervour and symbolic action, and every one laughed except Mr Duke, whose after-dinner view of things was not apt to be jovial. He said :
“I think some of us ought to remonstrate with Mr Barton on the scandal he is causing. He is not only imperilling his own soul, but the souls of his flock.”
“Depend upon it,” said Mr Cleves, “there is some simple explanation of the whole affair, if we only happened to know it. Barton has always impressed me as a right-minded man, who has the knack of doing himself injustice by his manner.”
“Now I never liked Barton,” said Mr Fellowes. “He’s not a gentleman. Why, he used to be on terms of intimacy with that canting Prior, who died a little while ago;—a fellow who soaked himself with spirits, and talked of the Gospel through an inflamed nose.”
“The Countess has given him more refined tastes, I daresay,” said Mr
“Well,” observed Mr Cleves, “the poor fellow must have a hard pull to get along, with his small income and large family. Let us hope the Countess does something towards making the pot boil.”
“Not she,” said Mr Duke ; “there are greater signs of poverty about them than ever.”
“Well, come,” returned Mr Cleves, who could be caustic sometimes, and who was not at all fond of his reverend brother, Mr Duke, “that’s something in Barton’s favour at all events. He might be poor without showing signs of poverty.”
Mr Duke turned rather yellow, which was his way of blushing, and Mr Ely came to his relief by observing:
“They’re making a very good piece of work of Shepperton Church. Dolby, the architect, who has it in hand, is a very clever fellow.”
“It’s he who has been doing Coppleton Church,” said Mr Furness. “They’ve got it in excellent order for the visitation.”
This mention of the visitation suggested the Bishop, and thus opened a wide duct, which entirely diverted the stream of animadversion from that small pipe—that capillary vessel, the Rev. Amos Barton.
The talk of the clergy about their Bishop belongs to the esoteric part of their profession ; so we will at once quit the dining-room at Millby Vicarage, lest we should happen to overhear remarks unsuited to the lay understanding, and perhaps dangerous to our repose of mind.
I dare say the long residence of the Countess Czerlaski at Shepperton Vicarage is very puzzling to you also, dear reader, as well as to Mr Barton’s clerical brethren ; the more so, as I hope you are not in the least inclined to put that very evil interpretation on it which evidently found acceptance with the sallow and dyspeptic Mr Duke, and with the florid and highly peptic Mr Fellowes. You have seen enough, I trust, of the Rev. Amos Barton, to be convinced that he was more apt to fall into a blunder than into a sin—more apt to be deceived than to incur a necessity for being deceitful : and if you have a keen eye for physiognomy, you will have detected that the Countess Czerlaski loved herself far too well to get entangled in an unprofitable vice.
How, then, you will say, could this fine lady choose to quarter herself on the establishment of a poor curate, where the carpets were probably falling into holes, where the attendance was limited to a maid of all work, and where six children were running loose from eight o’clock in the morning till eight o’clock in the evening? Surely you must be misrepresenting the facts.
Heaven forbid ! For not having a fertile imagination, as you perceive, and being unable to invent thrilling incidents for your amusement, my only merit must lie in the faithfulness with which I represent to you the humble experience of an ordinary fellow-mortal. I wish to stir your sympathy with commonplace troubles—to win your tears for real sorrow : sorrow such as may live next door to you—such as walks neither in rags nor in velvet, but in very ordinary decent apparel.
Therefore, that you may dismiss your suspicions of my veracity, I will beg you to consider, that at the time the Countess Czerlaski left Camp Villa in dudgeon, she had only twenty pounds in her pocket, being about one-third of the income she possessed independently of her brother. You will then perceive that she was in the extremely inconvenient predicament of having quarrelled, not indeed with her bread and cheese, but certainly with her chicken and tart—a predicament all the more inconvenient to her, because the habit of idleness had quite unfitted her for earning those necessary superfluities, and because, with all her fascinations, she had not secured any enthusiastic friends whose houses were open to her, and who were dying to see her. Thus she had completely checkmated herself, unless she could resolve on one unpleasant move—namely, to humble herself to her brother, and recognise his wife. This seemed quite impossible to her as long as she entertained the hope that he would make the first advances ; and in this flattering hope she remained month after month at Shepperton Vicarage, gracefully overlooking the deficiencies of accommodation, and feeling that she was really behaving charmingly. “Who indeed,” she thought to herself, “could do otherwise with a lovely, gentle creature like Milly? I shall really be sorry to leave the poor thing.”
So, though she lay in bed till ten, and came down to a separate breakfast at eleven, she kindly consented to dine as early as five, when a hot joint was prepared, which coldly furnished forth the children’s table the next day ; she considerately prevented Milly from devoting herself too closely to the children, by insisting on reading, talking, and walking with her ; and she even began to embroider a cap for the next baby, which must certainly be a girl, and be named Caroline.
After the first month or two of her residence at the Vicarage, the Rev. Amos Barton became aware—as, indeed, it was unavoidable that he should—of the strong disapprobation it drew upon him, and the change of feeling towards him which it was producing in his kindest parishioners. But, in the first place, he still believed in the Countess as a charming and influential woman, disposed to befriend him, and, in any case, he could hardly hint departure to a lady guest who had been kind to him and his, and who might any day spontaneously announce the termination of her visit ; in the second place, he was conscious of his own innocence, and felt some contemptuous indignation towards people who were ready to imagine evil of him ; and, lastly, he had, as I have already intimated, a strong will of his own, so that a certain obstinacy and defiance mingled itself with his other feelings on the subject.
The one unpleasant consequence which was not to be evaded or counteracted by any mere mental state, was the increasing drain on his slender purse for household expenses, to meet which the remittance he had received from the clerical charity threatened to be quite inadequate. Slander may be defeated by equanimity ; but courageous thoughts will not pay your baker’s bill, and fortitude is nowhere considered legal tender for beef. Month after month the financial aspect of the Rev. Amos’s affairs became more and more serious to him, and month after month, too, wore away more and more of that armour of indignation and defiance with which he had at first defended himself from the harsh looks of faces that were once the friendliest.
But quite the heaviest pressure of the trouble fell on Milly—on gentle, uncomplaining Milly—whose delicate body was becoming daily less fit for all the many things that had to be done between rising up and lying down. At first, she thought the Countess’s visit would not last long, and she was quite glad to incur extra exertion for the sake of making her friend comfortable. I can hardly bear to think of all the rough work she did with those lovely hands—all by the sly, without letting her husband know anything about it, and husbands are not clairvoyant—how she salted bacon, ironed shirts and cravats, put patches on patches, and redarned darns. Then there was the task of mending and eking out baby linen in prospect, and the problem perpetually suggesting itself how she and Nanny should manage when there was another baby, as there would be before very many months were past.
When time glided on, and the Countess’s visit did not end, Milly was not blind to any phase of their position. She knew of the slander ; she was aware of the keeping aloof of old friends ; but these she felt almost entirely on her husband’s account. A loving woman’s world lies within the four walls of her own home ; and it is only through her husband that she is in any electric communication with the world beyond. Mrs Simpkins may have looked scornfully at her, but baby crows and holds out his little arms none the less blithely ; Mrs Tomkins may have left off calling on her, but her husband comes home none the less to receive her care and caresses ; it has been wet and gloomy out of doors to-day, but she has looked well after the shirt buttons, has cut out baby’s pinafores, and half finished Willy’s blouse.
So it was with Milly. She was only vexed that her husband should be vexed—only wounded because he was misconceived. But the difficulty about ways and means she felt in quite a different manner. Her rectitude was alarmed lest they should have to make tradesmen wait for their money ; her motherly love dreaded the diminution of comforts for the children, and the sense of her own failing health gave exaggerated force to these fears.
Milly could no longer shut her eyes to the fact, that the Countess was inconsiderate, if she did not allow herself to entertain severer thoughts ; and she began to feel that it would soon be a duty to tell her frankly that they really could not afford to have her visit farther prolonged. But a process was going forward in two other minds, which ultimately saved Milly from having to perform this painful task.
In the first place, the Countess was getting weary of Shepperton—weary of waiting for her brother’s overtures which never came ; so, one fine morning, she reflected that forgiveness was a Christian duty, that a sister should be placable, that Mr Bridmain must feel the need of her advice, to which he had been accustomed for three years, and that very likely “that woman” didn’t make the poor man happy. In this amiable frame of mind she wrote a very affectionate appeal, and addressed it to Mr Bridmain, through his banker.
Another mind that was being wrought up to a climax was Nanny’s, the maid of all work, who had a warm heart and a still warmer temper. Nanny adored her mistress : she had been heard to say, that she was “ready to kiss the ground as the missis trod on”; and Walter, she considered, was her baby, of whom she was as jealous as a lover. But she had from the first very slight admiration for the Countess Czerlaski. That lady, from Nanny’s point of view, was a personage always “drawed out i’ fine clothes,” the chief result of whose existence was to cause additional bed-making, carrying of hot water, laying of table-cloths, and cooking of dinners. It was a perpetually heightening “aggravation” to Nanny that she and her mistress had to “slave” more than ever, because there was this fine lady in the house.
“An, she pays nothin’ for’t neither,” observed Nanny to Mr Jacob Tomms, a young gentleman in the tailoring line, who occasionally—simply out of a taste for dialogue—looked into the vicarage kitchen of an evening. “I know the master’s shorter o’ money than iver, an’ it maks no end o’ difference i’ th’ housekeepin’—her bein’ here, besides bein’ obliged to have a charwoman constant.”
“There’s fine stories i’ the village about her,” said Mr Tomms. “They say as Muster Barton’s great wi’ her, or else she’d niver stop here.”
“Then they say a passill o’ lies, an’ you ought to be ashamed to goo an’ tell ‘em o’er again. Do you think as the master, as has got a wife like the missis, ‘ud go running arter a stuck-up piece o’ goods like that Countess, as isn’t fit to black the missis’s shoes? I’m none so fond o’ the master, but I know better on him nor that.”
“Well, I didn’t b’lieve it,” said Mr Tomms, humbly.
“B’lieve it? You’d ha’ been a ninny if yer did. An’ she’s a nasty stingy thing, that Countess. She’s niver giv me a sixpence nor an old rag either, sin’ here’s she’s been. A-lyin’ a bed an’ a-comin’ down to breakfast when other folks wants their dinner !”
If such was the state of Nanny’s mind as early as the end of August, when this dialogue with Mr Tomms occurred, you may imagine what it must have been by the beginning of November, and that at that time a very slight spark might any day cause the long smouldering anger to flame forth in open indignation.
That spark happened to fall the very morning that Mrs Hackit paid the visit to Mrs Patten, recorded in the last chapter. Nanny’s dislike of the Countess extended to the innocent dog Jet, whom she “couldn’t a-bear to see made a fuss wi’ like a Christian. An’ the little ouzle must be washed, too, ivery Saturday, as if there wasn’t children enoo to wash, wi’out washin’ dogs.”
Now this particular morning it happened that Milly was quite too poorly to get up, and Mr Barton observed to Nanny, on going out, that he would call and tell Mr Brand to come. These circumstances were already enough to make Nanny anxious and susceptible. But the Countess, comfortably ignorant of them, came down as usual about eleven o’clock to her separate breakfast, which stood ready for her at that hour in the parlour ; the kettle singing on the hob that she might make her own tea. There was a little jug of cream, taken according to custom from last night’s milk, and specially saved for the Countess’s breakfast. Jet always awaited his mistress at her bedroom door, and it was her habit to carry him down stairs.
“Now, my little Jet,” she said, putting him down gently on the hearth-rug, “you shall have a nice, nice breakfast.”
Jet indicated that he thought that observation extremely pertinent and well-timed, by immediately raising himself on his hind-legs, and the Countess emptied the cream-jug into the saucer. Now there was usually a small jug of milk standing on the tray by the side of the cream, and destined for Jet’s breakfast, but this morning Nanny, being “moithered,”3moithered, likely of Welsh origin, meaning bothered. had forgotten that part of the arrangements, so that when the Countess had made her tea, she perceived there was no second jug, and rang the bell. Nanny appeared, looking very red and heated—the fact was, she had been “doing up” the kitchen fire, and that is a sort of work which by no means conduces to blandness of temper.
“Nanny, you have forgotten Jet’s milk ; will you bring me some more cream, please?”
This was just a little too much for Nanny’s forbearance.
“Yes, I dare say. Here am I wi’ my hands full o’ the children an’ the dinner, and missis ill a-bed, and Mr Brand a-comin’ ; and I must run o’er the village to get more cream, ‘cause you’ve give it to that nasty little blackamoor.”
“Is Mrs Barton ill?”
“Ill—yes—I should think she is ill, an’ much you care. She’s likely to be ill, moithered as she is from mornin’ to night, wi’ folks as had better be elsewhere.”
“What do you mean by behaving in this way?”
“Mean? Why I mean as the missis is a slavin’ her life out an’ a-sittin’ up o’nights, for folks as are better able to wait of her, i’stid o’ lyin’ a-bed an’ doin’ nothin’ all the blessed day, but mek work.”
“Leave the room, and don’t be insolent.”
“Insolent! I’d better be insolent than like what some folks is,—a-livin’ on other folks, an’ bringin’ a bad name on ‘em into the bargain.”
Here Nanny flung out of the room, leaving the lady to digest this unexpected breakfast at her leisure.
The Countess was stunned for a few minutes, but when she began to recall Nanny’s words, there was no possibility of avoiding very unpleasant conclusions from them, or of failing to see her position at the Vicarage in an entirely new light. The interpretation too of Nanny’s allusion to a “bad name” did not lie out of the reach of the Countess’s imagination, and she saw the necessity of quitting Shepperton without delay. Still, she would like to wait for her brother’s letter—no—she would ask Milly to forward it to her—still better, she would go at once to London, inquire her brother’s address at his banker’s, and go to see him without preliminary.
She went up to Milly’s room, and, after kisses and inquiries, said—"I find, on consideration, dear Milly, from the letter I had yesterday, that I must bid you good-bye and go up to London at once. But you must not let me leave you ill, you naughty thing.”
“Oh no,” said Milly, who felt as if a load had been taken off her back, “I shall be very well in an hour or two. Indeed, I’m much better now. You will want me to help you to pack. But you won’t go for two or three days?”
“Yes, I must go to-morrow. But I shall not let you help me to pack, so don’t entertain any unreasonable projects, but lie still. Mr Brand is coming, Nanny says.”
The news was not an unpleasant surprise to Mr Barton when he came home, though he was able to express more regret at the idea of parting than Milly could summon to her lips. He retained more of his original feeling for the Countess than Milly did, for women never betray themselves to men as they do to each other ; and the Rev. Amos had not a keen instinct for character. But he felt that he was being relieved from a difficulty, and in the way that was easiest for him. Neither he nor Milly suspected that it was Nanny who had cut the knot for them, for the Countess took care to give no sign on that subject. As for Nanny, she was perfectly aware of the relation between cause and effect in the affair, and secretly chuckled over her outburst of “sauce” as the best morning’s work she had ever done.
So on Friday morning, a fly was seen standing at the Vicarage gate with the Countess’s boxes packed upon it ; and presently that lady herself was seen getting into the vehicle. After a last shake of the hand to Mr Barton, and last kisses to Milly and the children, the door was closed ; and as the fly rolled off, the little party at the Vicarage gate caught a last glimpse of the handsome Countess leaning and waving kisses from the carriage window. Jet’s little black phiz was also seen, and doubtless he had his thoughts and feelings on the occasion, but he kept them strictly within his own bosom.
The schoolmistress opposite witnessed this departure, and lost no time in telling it to the schoolmaster, who again communicated the news to the landlord of “The Jolly Colliers,” at the close of the morning school-hours. Nanny poured the joyful tidings into the ear of Mr Farquhar’s footman, who happened to call with a letter, and Mr Brand carried them to all the patients he visited that morning, after calling on Mrs Barton. So that before Sunday, it was very generally known in Shepperton parish, that the Countess Czerlaski had left the Vicarage.
The Countess had left, but alas ! the bills she had contributed to swell still remained ; so did the exiguity of the children’s clothing, which also was partly an indirect consequence of her presence ; and so, too, did the coolness and alienation in the parishioners, which could not at once vanish before the fact of her departure. The Rev. Amos was not exculpated—the past was not expunged. But, what was worse than all, Milly’s health gave frequent cause for alarm, and the prospect of baby’s birth was overshadowed by more than the usual fears. The birth came prematurely, about six weeks after the Countess’s departure, but Mr Brand gave favourable reports to all inquirers on the following day, which was Saturday. On Sunday, after morning service, Mrs Hackit called at the Vicarage to inquire how Mrs Barton was, and was invited up-stairs to see her. Milly lay placid and lovely in her feebleness, and held out her hand to Mrs Hackit with a beaming smile. It was very pleasant to her to see her old friend unreserved and cordial once more. The seven months’ baby was very tiny and very red, but “handsome is that handsome does”—he was pronounced to be “doing well,” and Mrs Hackit went home gladdened at heart to think that the perilous hour was over.
The following Wednesday, when Mr and Mrs Hackit were seated comfortably by their bright hearth, enjoying the long afternoon afforded by an early dinner, Rachel, the housemaid, came in and said—
“If you please ‘m, the shepherd says, have you heard as Mrs Barton’s wuss, and not expected to live?”
Mrs Hackit turned pale, and hurried out to question the shepherd, who, she found, had heard the sad news at an ale-house in the village. Mr Hackit followed her out and said, “Thee’dst better have the pony-chaise, and go directly.”
“Yes,” said Mrs Hackit, too much overcome to utter any exclamations. “Rachel, come an’ help me on wi’ my things.”
When her husband was wrapping her cloak round her feet in the pony-chaise, she said—
“If I don’t come home to-night, I shall send back the pony-chaise, and you’ll know I’m wanted there.”
It was a bright frosty day, and by the time Mrs Hackit arrived at the Vicarage, the sun was near its setting. There was a carriage and pair standing at the gate, which she recognized as Dr Madeley's, the physician from Rotherby. She entered at the kitchen door, that she might avoid knocking, and quietly question Nanny. No one was in the kitchen, but, passing on, she saw the sitting-room door open, and Nanny, with Walter in her arms, removing the knives and forks, which had been laid for dinner three hours ago.
“Master says he can’t eat no dinner,” was Nanny’s first word. “He’s never tasted nothin’ sin’ yesterday mornin,’ but a cup o’ tea.”
“When was your missis took worse?”
“O’ Monday night. They sent for Dr Madeley i’ the middle o’ the day yesterday, an’ he’s here again now.”
“Is the baby alive?”
“No, it died last night. The children’s all at Mrs Bond’s. She came and took ‘em away last night, but the master says they must be fetched soon. He’s up-stairs now, wi’ Dr Madeley and Mr Brand.”
At this moment Mrs Hackit heard the sound of a heavy, slow foot, in the passage ; and presently Amos Barton entered, with dry despairing eyes, haggard and unshaven. He expected to find the sitting-room as he left it, with nothing to meet his eyes but Milly’s work-basket in the corner of the sofa, and the children’s toys overturned in the bow-window. But when he saw Mrs Hackit come towards him with answering sorrow in her face, the pent-up fountain of tears was opened ; he threw himself on the sofa, hid his face, and sobbed aloud.
“Bear up, Mr Barton,” Mrs Hackit ventured to say at last, “bear up, for the sake o’ them dear children.”
“The children,” said Amos, starting up. “They must be sent for. Some one must fetch them. Milly will want to . . . . . .”
He couldn’t finish the sentence, but Mrs Hackit understood him and said, “I’ll send the man with the pony-carriage for ‘em.”
She went out to give the order, and encountered Dr Madeley and Mr Brand, who were just going.
Mr Brand said : “I am very glad to see you are here, Mrs Hackit. No time must be lost in sending for the children. Mrs Barton wants to see them.”
“Do you quite give her up, then?”
“She can hardly live through the night. She begged us to tell her how long she had to live ; and then asked for the children.”
The pony-carriage was sent ; and Mrs Hackit, returning to Mr Barton, said she would like to go up-stairs now. He went up-stairs with her and opened the door. The chamber fronted the west ; the sun was just setting, and the red light fell full upon the bed, where Milly lay with the hand of death visibly upon her. The feather-bed had been removed, and she lay low on a mattress with her head slightly raised by pillows. Her long fair neck seemed to be struggling with a painful effort ; her features were pallid and pinched, and her eyes were closed. There was no one in the room but the nurse, and the mistress of the free school, who had come to give her help from the beginning of the change.
Amos and Mrs Hackit stood beside the bed, and Milly opened her eyes.
“My darling, Mrs Hackit is come to see you.”
Milly smiled and looked at her with that strange, far-off look which belongs to ebbing life.
“Are the children coming?” she said, painfully.
“Yes, they will be here directly.”
She closed her eyes again.
Presently the pony-carriage was heard ; and Amos, motioning to Mrs Hackit to follow him, left the room. On their way downstairs, she suggested that the carriage should remain to take them away again afterwards, and Amos assented.
There they stood in the melancholy sitting-room—the five sweet children, from Patty to Chubby—all, with their mother’s eyes—all, except Patty, looking up with a vague fear at their father as he entered. Patty understood the great sorrow that was come upon them, and tried to check her sobs as she heard her papa’s footsteps.
“My children,” said Amos, taking Chubby in his arms, “God is going to take away your dear mamma from us. She wants to see you to say good-by. You must try to be very good and not cry.”
He could say no more, but turned round to see if Nanny was there with Walter, and then led the way up-stairs, leading Dickey with the other hand. Mrs Hackit followed with Sophy and Patty, and then came Nanny with Walter and Fred.
It seemed as if Milly had heard the little footsteps on the stairs, for when Amos entered her eyes were wide open, eagerly looking towards the door. They all stood by the bedside—Amos nearest to her, holding Chubby and Dickey. But she motioned for Patty to come first, and clasping the poor pale child by the hand, said,—
“Patty, I’m going away from you. Love your papa. Comfort him ; and take care of your little brothers and sisters. God will help you.”
Patty stood perfectly quiet, and said, “Yes, mamma.”
The mother motioned with her pallid lips for the dear child to lean towards her and kiss her ; and then Patty’s great anguish overcame her, and she burst into sobs. Amos drew her towards him and pressed her head gently to him, while Milly beckoned Fred and Sophy, and said to them more faintly :—
"Patty will try to be your mamma when I am gone, my darlings. You will be good, and not vex her.”
They leaned towards her, and she stroked their fair heads, and kissed their tear-stained cheeks. They cried because mamma was ill and papa looked so unhappy ; but they thought, perhaps next week things would be as they used to be again.
The little ones were lifted on the bed to kiss her. Little Walter said, “Mamma, mamma,” and stretched out his fat arms and smiled ; and Chubby seemed gravely wondering ; but Dickey, who had been looking fixedly at her, with lip hanging down, ever since he came into the room, now seemed suddenly pierced with the idea that mamma was going away somewhere ; his little heart swelled, and he cried aloud.
Then Mrs Hackit and Nanny took them all away. Patty at first begged to stay at home and not go to Mrs Bond’s again ; but when Nanny reminded her that she had better go to take care of the younger ones, she submitted at once, and they were all packed in the pony-carriage once more.
Milly kept her eyes shut for some time after the children were gone. Amos had sunk on his knees, and was holding her hand while he watched her face. By-and-by she opened her eyes, and, drawing him close to her, whispered slowly,—“My dear—dear—husband—you have been—very—good to me. You—have—made me—very—happy.”
She spoke no more for many hours. They watched her breathing becoming more and more difficult, until evening deepened into night, and until midnight was past. About half-past twelve she seemed to be trying to speak, and they leaned to catch her words.
“Music—music—didn’t you hear it?”
Amos knelt by the bed, and held her hand in his. He did not believe in his sorrow. It was a bad dream. He did not know when she was gone. But Mr Brand, whom Mrs Hackit had sent for before twelve o’clock, thinking that Mr Barton might probably need his help, now came up to him, and said,—
“She feels no more pain now. Come, my dear sir, come with me.”
“She isn’t dead?” shrieked the poor desolate man, struggling to shake off Mr Brand, who had taken him by the arm. But his weary, weakened frame was not equal to resistance, and he was dragged out of the room.
They laid her in the grave—the sweet mother with her baby in her arms—while the Christmas snow lay thick upon the graves. It was Mr Cleves who buried her. On the first news of Mr Barton’s calamity, he had ridden over from Tripplegate to beg that he might be made of some use, and his silent grasp of Amos’s hand had penetrated like the painful thrill of life-recovering warmth to the poor benumbed heart of the stricken man.
The snow lay thick upon the graves, and the day was cold and dreary ; but there was many a sad eye watching that black procession as it passed from the vicarage to the church, and from the church to the open grave. There were men and women standing in that churchyard who had bandied vulgar jests about their pastor, and who had lightly charged him with sin ; but now, when they saw him following the coffin, pale and haggard, he was consecrated anew by his great sorrow, and they looked at him with respectful pity.
All the children were there, for Amos had willed it so, thinking that some dim memory of that sacred moment might remain even with little Walter, and link itself with what he would hear of his sweet mother in after years. He himself led Patty and Dickey ; then came Sophy and Fred ; Mr Brand had begged to carry Chubby, and Nanny followed with Walter. They made a circle round the grave while the coffin was being lowered. Patty alone of all the children felt that mamma was in that coffin, and that a new and sadder life had begun for papa and herself. She was pale and trembling, but she clasped his hand more firmly as the coffin went down, and gave no sob. Fred and Sophy, though they were only two and three years younger, and though they had seen mamma in her coffin, seemed to themselves to be looking at some strange show. They had not learned to decipher that terrible handwriting of human destiny, illness and death. Dickey had rebelled against his black clothes, until he was told that it would be naughty to mamma not to put them on, when he at once submitted; and now, though he had heard Nanny say that mamma was in heaven, he had a vague notion that she would come home again tomorrow, and say he had been a good boy, and let him empty her work-box. He stood close to his father, with great rosy cheeks and wide open blue eyes, looking first up at Mr Cleves and then down at the coffin, and thinking he and Chubby would play at that, when they got home.
The burial was over, and Amos turned with his children to re-enter the house—the house where, an hour ago, Milly’s dear body lay, where the windows were half darkened, and sorrow seemed to have a hallowed precinct for itself, shut out from the world. But now she was gone ; the broad snow-reflected daylight was in all the rooms ; the Vicarage again seemed part of the common working-day world, and Amos, for the first time, felt that he was alone—that day after day, month after month, year after year, would have to be lived through without Milly’s love. Spring would come, and she would not be there ; summer, and she would not be there ; and he would never have her again with him by the fireside in the long evenings. The seasons all seemed irksome to his thoughts ; and how dreary the sunshiny days that would be sure to come ! She was gone from him ; and he could never show her his love any more, never make up for omissions in the past by filling future days with tenderness.
O the anguish of that thought, that we can never atone to our dead for the stinted affection we gave them, for the light answers we returned to their plaints or their pleadings, for the little reverence we showed to that sacred human soul that lived so close to us, and was the divinest thing God had given us to know !
Amos Barton had been an affectionate husband, and while Milly was with him, he was never visited by the thought that perhaps his sympathy with her was not quick and watchful enough ; but now he re-lived all their life together, with that terrible keenness of memory and imagination which bereavement gives, and he felt as if his very love needed a pardon for its poverty and selfishness.
No outward solace could counteract the bitterness of this inward woe. But outward solace came. Cold faces looked kind again, and parishioners turned over in their minds what they could best do to help their pastor. Mr Oldinport wrote to express his sympathy, and enclosed another twenty-pound note, begging that he might be permitted to contribute in this way to the relief of Mr Barton’s mind from pecuniary anxieties, under the pressure of a grief which all his parishioners must share ; and offering his interest towards placing the two eldest girls in a school expressly founded for clergymen’s daughters. Mr Cleves succeeded in collecting thirty pounds among his richer clerical brethren, and, adding ten pounds himself, sent the sum to Amos, with the kindest and most delicate words of Christian fellowship and manly friendship. Miss Jackson forgot old grievances, and came to stay some months with Milly’s children, bringing such material aid as she could spare from her small income. These were substantial helps, which relieved Amos from the pressure of his money difficulties ; and the friendly attentions, the kind pressure of the hand, the cordial looks he met with everywhere in his parish, made him feel that the fatal frost which had settled on his pastoral duties, during the Countess’s residence at the Vicarage, was completely thawed, and that the hearts of his parishioners were once more open to him.
No one breathed the Countess’s name now ; for Milly’s memory hallowed her husband, as of old the place was hallowed on which an angel from God had alighted.
When the spring came, Mrs Hackit begged that she might have Dickey to stay with her, and great was the enlargement of Dickey’s experience from that visit. Every morning he was allowed—being well wrapt up as to his chest by Mrs Hackit’s own hands, but very bare and red as to his legs—to run loose in the cow and poultry yard, to persecute the turkey-cock by satirical imitations of his gobble-gobble, and to put difficult questions to the groom as to the reasons why horses had four legs, and other transcendental matters. Then Mr Hackit would take Dickey up on horseback when he rode round his farm, and Mrs Hackit had a large plumcake in, cut ready to meet incidental attacks of hunger. So that Dickey had considerably modified his views as to the desirability of Mrs Hackit’s kisses.
The Miss Farquhars made particular pets of Fred and Sophy, to whom they undertook to give lessons twice a-week in writing and geography ; and Mrs Farquhar devised many treats for the little ones. Patty’s treat was to stay at home, or walk about with her papa; and when he sat by the fire in an evening, after the other children were gone to bed, she would bring a stool, and placing it against his feet, would sit down upon it and lean her head against his knee. Then his hand would rest on that fair head, and he would feel that Milly’s love was not quite gone out of his life.
So the time wore on till it was May again, and the church was quite finished and reopened in all its new splendour, and Mr Barton was devoting himself with more vigour than ever to his parochial duties. But one morning—it was a very bright morning, and evil tidings sometimes like to fly in the finest weather—there came a letter for Mr Barton, addressed in the Vicar’s handwriting. Amos opened it with some anxiety—somehow or other he had a presentiment of evil. The letter contained the announcement that Mr Carpe had resolved on coming to reside at Shepperton, and that, consequently, in six months from that time Mr Barton’s duties as curate in that parish would be closed.
O, it was hard! Just when Shepperton had become the place where he most wished to stay—where he had friends who knew his sorrows—where he lived close to Milly’s grave. To part from that grave seemed like parting with Milly a second time ; for Amos was one who clung to all the material links between his mind and the past. His imagination was not vivid, and required the stimulus of actual perception.
It roused some bitter feeling, too, to think that Mr Carpe’s wish to reside at Shepperton was merely a pretext for removing Mr Barton, in order that he might ultimately give the curacy of Shepperton to his own brother-in-law, who was known to be wanting a new position.
Still, it must be borne ; and the painful business of seeking another curacy must be set about without loss of time. After the lapse of some months, Amos was obliged to renounce the hope of getting one at all near Shepperton, and he at length resigned himself to accepting one in a distant county. The parish was in a large manufacturing town, where his walks would lie among noisy streets and dingy alleys, and where the children would have no garden to play in, no pleasant farm houses to visit.
It was another blow inflicted on the bruised man.
At length the dreaded week was come, when Amos and his children must leave Shepperton. There was general regret among the parishioners at his departure : not that any one of them thought his spiritual gifts pre-eminent, or was conscious of great edification from his ministry. But his recent troubles had called out their better sympathies, and that is always a source of love. Amos failed to touch the spring of goodness by his sermons, but he touched it effectually by his sorrows ; and there was now a real bond between him and his flock.
“My heart aches for them poor motherless children,” said Mrs Hackit to her husband, “a-going among strangers, an’ into a nasty town, where there’s no good victuals to be had, and you must pay dear to get bad ‘uns.”
Mrs Hackit had a vague notion of a town life as a combination of dirty backyards, measly pork, and dingy linen.
The same sort of sympathy was strong among the poorer class of parishioners. Old stiff-jointed Mr Tozer, who was still able to earn a little by gardening “jobs,” stopped Mrs Cramp, the charwoman, on her way home from the Vicarage, where she had been helping Nanny to pack up the day before the departure, and inquired very particularly into Mr Barton’s prospects.
“Ah, poor mon,” he was heard to say, “I’m sorry fur ‘im. He hedn’t much here, but he’ll be wuss off theer. Half a loaf’s better nor ne’er ‘un.”
The sad good-byes had all been said before that last evening ; and after all the packing was done and all the arrangements were made, Amos felt the oppression of that blank interval in which one has nothing left to think of but the dreary future—the separation from the loved and familiar, and the chilling entrance on the new and strange. In every parting there is an image of death.
Soon after ten o’clock, when he had sent Nanny to bed, that she might have a good night’s rest before the fatigues of the morrow, he stole softly out to pay a last visit to Milly’s grave. It was a moonless night, but the sky was thick with stars, and their light was enough to show that the grass had grown long on the grave, and that there was a tombstone telling in bright letters, on a dark ground, that beneath were deposited the remains of Amelia, the beloved wife of Amos Barton, who died in the thirty-fifth year of her age, leaving a husband and six children to lament her loss. The final words of the inscription were, “Thy will be done.”
The husband was now advancing towards the dear mound from which he was so soon to be parted, perhaps for ever. He stood a few minutes reading over and over again the words on the tombstone, as if to assure himself that all the happy and unhappy past was a reality. For love is frightened at the intervals of insensibility and callousness that encroach by little and little on the dominion of grief, and it makes efforts to recall the keenness of the first anguish.
Gradually, as his eye dwelt on the words, “Amelia, the beloved wife,” the waves of feeling swelled within his soul, and he threw himself on the grave, clasping it with his arms, and kissing the cold turf.
“Milly, Milly, dost thou hear me? I didn’t love thee enough—I wasn’t tender enough to thee—but I think of it all now.”
The sobs came and choked his utterance, and the warm tears fell.
Only once again in his life has Amos Barton visited Milly’s grave. It was in the calm and softened light of an autumnal afternoon, and he was not alone. He held on his arm a young woman, with a sweet, grave face, which strongly recalled the expression of Mrs Barton’s, but was less lovely in form and colour. She was about thirty, but there were some premature lines round her mouth and eyes, which told of early anxiety.
Amos himself was much changed. His thin circlet of hair was nearly white, and his walk was no longer firm and upright. But his glance was calm, and even cheerful, and his neat linen told of a woman’s care. Milly did not take all her love from the earth when she died. She had left some of it in Patty’s heart.
All the other children were now grown up, and had gone their several ways. Dickey, you will be glad to hear, had shown remarkable talents as an engineer. His cheeks are still ruddy, in spite of mixed mathematics, and his eyes are still large and blue ; but in other respects his person would present no marks of identification for his friend Mrs Hackit, if she were to see him ; especially now that her eyes must be grown very dim, with the wear of more than twenty additional years. He is nearly six feet high, and has a proportionately broad chest ; he wears spectacles, and rubs his large white hands through a mass of shaggy brown hair. But I am sure you have no doubt that Mr Richard Barton is a thoroughly good fellow, as well as a man of talent, and you will be glad any day to shake hands with him, for his own sake as well as his mother’s.
Patty alone remains by her father’s side, and makes the evening sunshine of his life.
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9 March 2023
16 March 2023
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|↑1||Unfecundated is an original George Eliot-ism, and to extrapolate from the word’s context and etymology, means “unproductive.”|
|↑2||To be an Amphitryon in this context means to be the host of a dinner or feast. Source: “Amphitryon,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, 2021|
|↑3||moithered, likely of Welsh origin, meaning bothered.|