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Chapter 2

THE CURATE. THE OLD LADY. THE HALF-PAY CAPTAIN

We commenced our last chapter with the beadle of our parish,
because we are deeply sensible of the importance and dignity of his
office. We will begin the present, with the clergyman. Our curate
is a young gentleman of such prepossessing appearance, and
fascinating manners, that within one month after his first
appearance in the parish, half the young-lady inhabitants were
melancholy with religion, and the other half, desponding with love.
Never were so many young ladies seen in our parish church on Sunday
before; and never had the little round angels' faces on Mr.
Tomkins's monument in the side aisle, beheld such devotion on earth
as they all exhibited. He was about five-and-twenty when he first
came to astonish the parishioners. He parted his hair on the
centre of his forehead in the form of a Norman arch, wore a
brilliant of the first water on the fourth finger of his left hand
(which he always applied to his left cheek when he read prayers),
and had a deep sepulchral voice of unusual solemnity. Innumerable
were the calls made by prudent mammas on our new curate, and
innumerable the invitations with which he was assailed, and which,
to do him justice, he readily accepted. If his manner in the
pulpit had created an impression in his favour, the sensation was
increased tenfold, by his appearance in private circles. Pews in
the immediate vicinity of the pulpit or reading-desk rose in value;
sittings in the centre aisle were at a premium: an inch of room in
the front row of the gallery could not be procured for love or
money; and some people even went so far as to assert, that the
three Miss Browns, who had an obscure family pew just behind the
churchwardens', were detected, one Sunday, in the free seats by the
communion-table, actually lying in wait for the curate as he passed
to the vestry! He began to preach extempore sermons, and even
grave papas caught the infection. He got out of bed at half-past
twelve o'clock one winter's night, to half-baptise a washerwoman's
child in a slop-basin, and the gratitude of the parishioners knew
no bounds--the very churchwardens grew generous, and insisted on
the parish defraying the expense of the watch-box on wheels, which
the new curate had ordered for himself, to perform the funeral
service in, in wet weather. He sent three pints of gruel and a
quarter of a pound of tea to a poor woman who had been brought to
bed of four small children, all at once--the parish were charmed.
He got up a subscription for her--the woman's fortune was made. He
spoke for one hour and twenty-five minutes, at an anti-slavery
meeting at the Goat and Boots--the enthusiasm was at its height. A
proposal was set on foot for presenting the curate with a piece of
plate, as a mark of esteem for his valuable services rendered to
the parish. The list of subscriptions was filled up in no time;
the contest was, not who should escape the contribution, but who
should be the foremost to subscribe. A splendid silver inkstand
was made, and engraved with an appropriate inscription; the curate
was invited to a public breakfast, at the before-mentioned Goat and
Boots; the inkstand was presented in a neat speech by Mr. Gubbins,
the ex-churchwarden, and acknowledged by the curate in terms which
drew tears into the eyes of all present--the very waiters were
melted.

One would have supposed that, by this time, the theme of universal
admiration was lifted to the very pinnacle of popularity. No such
thing. The curate began to cough; four fits of coughing one
morning between the Litany and the Epistle, and five in the
afternoon service. Here was a discovery--the curate was
consumptive. How interestingly melancholy! If the young ladies
were energetic before, their sympathy and solicitude now knew no
bounds. Such a man as the curate--such a dear--such a perfect
love--to be consumptive! It was too much. Anonymous presents of
black-currant jam, and lozenges, elastic waistcoats, bosom friends,
and warm stockings, poured in upon the curate until he was as
completely fitted out with winter clothing, as if he were on the
verge of an expedition to the North Pole: verbal bulletins of the
state of his health were circulated throughout the parish half-a-
dozen times a day; and the curate was in the very zenith of his
popularity.

About this period, a change came over the spirit of the parish. A
very quiet, respectable, dozing old gentleman, who had officiated
in our chapel-of-ease for twelve years previously, died one fine
morning, without having given any notice whatever of his intention.
This circumstance gave rise to counter-sensation the first; and the
arrival of his successor occasioned counter-sensation the second.
He was a pale, thin, cadaverous man, with large black eyes, and
long straggling black hair: his dress was slovenly in the extreme,
his manner ungainly, his doctrines startling; in short, he was in
every respect the antipodes of the curate. Crowds of our female
parishioners flocked to hear him; at first, because he was SO odd-
looking, then because his face was SO expressive, then because he
preached SO well; and at last, because they really thought that,
after all, there was something about him which it was quite
impossible to describe. As to the curate, he was all very well;
but certainly, after all, there was no denying that--that--in
short, the curate wasn't a novelty, and the other clergyman was.
The inconstancy of public opinion is proverbial: the congregation
migrated one by one. The curate coughed till he was black in the
face--it was in vain. He respired with difficulty--it was equally
ineffectual in awakening sympathy. Seats are once again to be had
in any part of our parish church, and the chapel-of-ease is going
to be enlarged, as it is crowded to suffocation every Sunday!

The best known and most respected among our parishioners, is an old
lady, who resided in our parish long before our name was registered
in the list of baptisms. Our parish is a suburban one, and the old
lady lives in a neat row of houses in the most airy and pleasant
part of it. The house is her own; and it, and everything about it,
except the old lady herself, who looks a little older than she did
ten years ago, is in just the same state as when the old gentleman
was living. The little front parlour, which is the old lady's
ordinary sitting-room, is a perfect picture of quiet neatness; the
carpet is covered with brown Holland, the glass and picture-frames
are carefully enveloped in yellow muslin; the table-covers are
never taken off, except when the leaves are turpentined and bees'-
waxed, an operation which is regularly commenced every other
morning at half-past nine o'clock--and the little nicknacks are
always arranged in precisely the same manner. The greater part of
these are presents from little girls whose parents live in the same
row; but some of them, such as the two old-fashioned watches (which
never keep the same time, one being always a quarter of an hour too
slow, and the other a quarter of an hour too fast), the little
picture of the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold as they
appeared in the Royal Box at Drury Lane Theatre, and others of the
same class, have been in the old lady's possession for many years.
Here the old lady sits with her spectacles on, busily engaged in
needlework--near the window in summer time; and if she sees you
coming up the steps, and you happen to be a favourite, she trots
out to open the street-door for you before you knock, and as you
must be fatigued after that hot walk, insists on your swallowing
two glasses of sherry before you exert yourself by talking. If you
call in the evening you will find her cheerful, but rather more
serious than usual, with an open Bible on the table, before her, of
which 'Sarah,' who is just as neat and methodical as her mistress,
regularly reads two or three chapters in the parlour aloud.

The old lady sees scarcely any company, except the little girls
before noticed, each of whom has always a regular fixed day for a
periodical tea-drinking with her, to which the child looks forward
as the greatest treat of its existence. She seldom visits at a
greater distance than the next door but one on either side; and
when she drinks tea here, Sarah runs out first and knocks a double-
knock, to prevent the possibility of her 'Missis's' catching cold
by having to wait at the door. She is very scrupulous in returning
these little invitations, and when she asks Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so,
to meet Mr. and Mrs. Somebody-else, Sarah and she dust the urn, and
the best china tea-service, and the Pope Joan board; and the
visitors are received in the drawing-room in great state. She has
but few relations, and they are scattered about in different parts
of the country, and she seldom sees them. She has a son in India,
whom she always describes to you as a fine, handsome fellow--so
like the profile of his poor dear father over the sideboard, but
the old lady adds, with a mournful shake of the head, that he has
always been one of her greatest trials; and that indeed he once
almost broke her heart; but it pleased God to enable her to get the
better of it, and she would prefer your never mentioning the
subject to her again. She has a great number of pensioners: and
on Saturday, after she comes back from market, there is a regular
levee of old men and women in the passage, waiting for their weekly
gratuity. Her name always heads the list of any benevolent
subscriptions, and hers are always the most liberal donations to
the Winter Coal and Soup Distribution Society. She subscribed
twenty pounds towards the erection of an organ in our parish
church, and was so overcome the first Sunday the children sang to
it, that she was obliged to be carried out by the pew-opener. Her
entrance into church on Sunday is always the signal for a little
bustle in the side aisle, occasioned by a general rise among the
poor people, who bow and curtsey until the pew-opener has ushered
the old lady into her accustomed seat, dropped a respectful
curtsey, and shut the door: and the same ceremony is repeated on
her leaving church, when she walks home with the family next door
but one, and talks about the sermon all the way, invariably opening
the conversation by asking the youngest boy where the text was.

Thus, with the annual variation of a trip to some quiet place on
the sea-coast, passes the old lady's life. It has rolled on in the
same unvarying and benevolent course for many years now, and must
at no distant period be brought to its final close. She looks
forward to its termination, with calmness and without apprehension.
She has everything to hope and nothing to fear.

A very different personage, but one who has rendered himself very
conspicuous in our parish, is one of the old lady's next-door
neighbours. He is an old naval officer on half-pay, and his bluff
and unceremonious behaviour disturbs the old lady's domestic
economy, not a little. In the first place, he WILL smoke cigars in
the front court, and when he wants something to drink with them--
which is by no means an uncommon circumstance--he lifts up the old
lady's knocker with his walking-stick, and demands to have a glass
of table ale, handed over the rails. In addition to this cool
proceeding, he is a bit of a Jack of all trades, or to use his own
words, 'a regular Robinson Crusoe;' and nothing delights him better
than to experimentalise on the old lady's property. One morning he
got up early, and planted three or four roots of full-grown
marigolds in every bed of her front garden, to the inconceivable
astonishment of the old lady, who actually thought when she got up
and looked out of the window, that it was some strange eruption
which had come out in the night. Another time he took to pieces
the eight-day clock on the front landing, under pretence of
cleaning the works, which he put together again, by some
undiscovered process, in so wonderful a manner, that the large hand
has done nothing but trip up the little one ever since. Then he
took to breeding silk-worms, which he WOULD bring in two or three
times a day, in little paper boxes, to show the old lady, generally
dropping a worm or two at every visit. The consequence was, that
one morning a very stout silk-worm was discovered in the act of
walking up-stairs--probably with the view of inquiring after his
friends, for, on further inspection, it appeared that some of his
companions had already found their way to every room in the house.
The old lady went to the seaside in despair, and during her absence
he completely effaced the name from her brass door-plate, in his
attempts to polish it with aqua-fortis.

But all this is nothing to his seditious conduct in public life.
He attends every vestry meeting that is held; always opposes the
constituted authorities of the parish, denounces the profligacy of
the churchwardens, contests legal points against the vestry-clerk,
will make the tax-gatherer call for his money till he won't call
any longer, and then he sends it: finds fault with the sermon
every Sunday, says that the organist ought to be ashamed of
himself, offers to back himself for any amount to sing the psalms
better than all the children put together, male and female; and, in
short, conducts himself in the most turbulent and uproarious
manner. The worst of it is, that having a high regard for the old
lady, he wants to make her a convert to his views, and therefore
walks into her little parlour with his newspaper in his hand, and
talks violent politics by the hour. He is a charitable, open-
hearted old fellow at bottom, after all; so, although he puts the
old lady a little out occasionally, they agree very well in the
main, and she laughs as much at each feat of his handiwork when it
is all over, as anybody else.

Charles Dickens