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CHAPTER III



There was excitement in the parish of Narrobourne one day. The
congregation had just come out from morning service, and the whole
conversation was of the new curate, Mr. Halborough, who had
officiated for the first time, in the absence of the rector.

Never before had the feeling of the villagers approached a level
which could be called excitement on such a matter as this. The
droning which had been the rule in that quiet old place for a century
seemed ended at last. They repeated the text to each other as a
refrain: 'O Lord, be thou my helper!' Not within living memory till
to-day had the subject of the sermon formed the topic of conversation
from the church door to church-yard gate, to the exclusion of
personal remarks on those who had been present, and on the week's
news in general.

The thrilling periods of the preacher hung about their minds all that
day. The parish being steeped in indifferentism, it happened that
when the youths and maidens, middle-aged and old people, who had
attended church that morning, recurred as by a fascination to what
Halborough had said, they did so more or less indirectly, and even
with the subterfuge of a light laugh that was not real, so great was
their shyness under the novelty of their sensations.

What was more curious than that these unconventional villagers should
have been excited by a preacher of a new school after forty years of
familiarity with the old hand who had had charge of their souls, was
the effect of Halborough's address upon the occupants of the manor-
house pew, including the owner of the estate. These thought they
knew how to discount the mere sensational sermon, how to minimize
flash oratory to its bare proportions; but they had yielded like the
rest of the assembly to the charm of the newcomer.

Mr. Fellmer, the landowner, was a young widower, whose mother, still
in the prime of life, had returned to her old position in the family
mansion since the death of her son's wife in the year after her
marriage, at the birth of a fragile little girl. From the date of
his loss to the present time, Fellmer had led an inactive existence
in the seclusion of the parish; a lack of motive seemed to leave him
listless. He had gladly reinstated his mother in the gloomy house,
and his main occupation now lay in stewarding his estate, which was
not large. Mrs. Fellmer, who had sat beside him under Halborough
this morning, was a cheerful, straightforward woman, who did her
marketing and her alms-giving in person, was fond of old-fashioned
flowers, and walked about the village on very wet days visiting the
parishioners. These, the only two great ones of Narrobourne, were
impressed by Joshua's eloquence as much as the cottagers.

Halborough had been briefly introduced to them on his arrival some
days before, and, their interest being kindled, they waited a few
moments till he came out of the vestry, to walk down the churchyard-
path with him. Mrs. Fellmer spoke warmly of the sermon, of the good
fortune of the parish in his advent, and hoped he had found
comfortable quarters.

Halborough, faintly flushing, said that he had obtained very fair
lodgings in the roomy house of a farmer, whom he named.

She feared he would find it very lonely, especially in the evenings,
and hoped they would see a good deal of him. When would he dine with
them? Could he not come that day--it must be so dull for him the
first Sunday evening in country lodgings?

Halborough replied that it would give him much pleasure, but that he
feared he must decline. 'I am not altogether alone,' he said. 'My
sister, who has just returned from Brussels, and who felt, as you do,
that I should be rather dismal by myself, has accompanied me hither
to stay a few days till she has put my rooms in order and set me
going. She was too fatigued to come to church, and is waiting for me
now at the farm.'

'Oh, but bring your sister--that will be still better! I shall be
delighted to know her. How I wish I had been aware! Do tell her,
please, that we had no idea of her presence.'

Halborough assured Mrs. Fellmer that he would certainly bear the
message; but as to her coming he was not so sure. The real truth
was, however, that the matter would be decided by him, Rosa having an
almost filial respect for his wishes. But he was uncertain as to the
state of her wardrobe, and had determined that she should not enter
the manor-house at a disadvantage that evening, when there would
probably be plenty of opportunities in the future of her doing so
becomingly.

He walked to the farm in long strides. This, then, was the outcome
of his first morning's work as curate here. Things had gone fairly
well with him. He had been ordained; he was in a comfortable parish,
where he would exercise almost sole supervision, the rector being
infirm. He had made a deep impression at starting, and the absence
of a hood seemed to have done him no harm. Moreover, by considerable
persuasion and payment, his father and the dark woman had been
shipped off to Canada, where they were not likely to interfere
greatly with his interests.

Rosa came out to meet him. 'Ah! you should have gone to church like
a good girl,' he said.

'Yes--I wished I had afterwards. But I do so hate church as a rule
that even your preaching was underestimated in my mind. It was too
bad of me!'

The girl who spoke thus playfully was fair, tall, and sylph-like, in
a muslin dress, and with just the coquettish desinvolture which an
English girl brings home from abroad, and loses again after a few
months of native life. Joshua was the reverse of playful; the world
was too important a concern for him to indulge in light moods. He
told her in decided, practical phraseology of the invitation.

'Now, Rosa, we must go--that's settled--if you've a dress that can be
made fit to wear all on the hop like this. You didn't, of course,
think of bringing an evening dress to such an out-of-the-way place?'

But Rosa had come from the wrong city to be caught napping in those
matters. 'Yes, I did,' said she. 'One never knows what may turn
up.'

'Well done! Then off we go at seven.'

The evening drew on, and at dusk they started on foot, Rosa pulling
up the edge of her skirt under her cloak out of the way of the dews,
so that it formed a great wind-bag all round her, and carrying her
satin shoes under her arm. Joshua would not let her wait till she
got indoors before changing them, as she proposed, but insisted on
her performing that operation under a tree, so that they might enter
as if they had not walked. He was nervously formal about such
trifles, while Rosa took the whole proceeding--walk, dressing,
dinner, and all--as a pastime. To Joshua it was a serious step in
life.

A more unexpected kind of person for a curate's sister was never
presented at a dinner. The surprise of Mrs. Fellmer was unconcealed.
She had looked forward to a Dorcas, or Martha, or Rhoda at the
outside, and a shade of misgiving crossed her face. It was possible
that, had the young lady accompanied her brother to church, there
would have been no dining at Narrobourne House that day.

Not so with the young widower, her son. He resembled a sleeper who
had awaked in a summer noon expecting to find it only dawn. He could
scarcely help stretching his arms and yawning in their faces, so
strong was his sense of being suddenly aroused to an unforeseen
thing. When they had sat down to table he at first talked to Rosa
somewhat with the air of a ruler in the land; but the woman lurking
in the acquaintance soon brought him to his level, and the girl from
Brussels saw him looking at her mouth, her hands, her contour, as if
he could not quite comprehend how they got created: then he dropped
into the more satisfactory stage which discerns no particulars.

He talked but little; she said much. The homeliness of the Fellmers,
to her view, though they were regarded with such awe down here, quite
disembarrassed her. The squire had become so unpractised, had
dropped so far into the shade during the last year or so of his life,
that he had almost forgotten what the world contained till this
evening reminded him. His mother, after her first moments of doubt,
appeared to think that he must be left to his own guidance, and gave
her attention to Joshua.

With all his foresight and doggedness of aim, the result of that
dinner exceeded Halborough's expectations. In weaving his ambitions
he had viewed his sister Rosa as a slight, bright thing to be helped
into notice by his abilities; but it now began to dawn upon him that
the physical gifts of nature to her might do more for them both than
nature's intellectual gifts to himself. While he was patiently
boring the tunnel Rosa seemed about to fly over the mountain.

He wrote the next day to his brother, now occupying his own old rooms
in the theological college, telling him exultingly of the
unanticipated debut of Rosa at the manor-house. The next post
brought him a reply of congratulation, dashed with the counteracting
intelligence that his father did not like Canada--that his wife had
deserted him, which made him feel so dreary that he thought of
returning home.

In his recent satisfaction at his own successes Joshua Halborough had
well-nigh forgotten his chronic trouble--latterly screened by
distance. But it now returned upon him; he saw more in this brief
announcement than his brother seemed to see. It was the cloud no
bigger than a man's hand.





Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
Category:
19th century fiction

Short stories
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