A Religious Picnic

Occasionally, in the summer months, Tanner’s Lane indulged in a picnic; that is to say, the principal members of the congregation, with their wives and children, had an early dinner, and went in gigs and four-wheel chaises to Shott Woods, taking hampers of bread, cake, jam, butter, ham, and other eatables with them. At Shott Woods, in a small green space under an immense oak, a fire was lighted and tea was prepared. Mr. Broad and his family always joined the party. These were the days when Dissenters had no set amusements, and the entertainment at Shott mainly consisted in getting the sticks for the fire, fetching the water, and waiting on one another; the waiting being particularly pleasant to the younger people. Dancing, of course, was not thought of. In 1840 it may safely be said that there were not twenty Independent families in Great Britain in which it would have been tolerated, and, moreover, none but the rich learned to dance.

No dancing-master ever came into Cowfold; there was no music-master there; no concert was ever given; and Cowfold, in fact, never “saw nor heard anything;” to use a modern phrase, save a travelling menagerie with a brass band. What an existence! How did they live? It’s certain, however, that they did live, and, on the whole, enjoyed their life.

The picnics were generally on a Monday, as a kind of compliment to Mr. Broad, who was supposed to need rest and change on Monday, and who was also supposed not to be able to spare the time on any other day. About a month after the conversation recorded in the previous chapter Tanner’s Lane was jogging along to Shott on one of its excursions. It was a brilliant, blazing afternoon towards the end of August. The corn stood in shocks, and a week with that sun would see it all stacked. There was no dreary suburb round Cowfold, neither town nor country, to shut out country influences. The fields came up to the gardens and orchards at the back of half the houses, and flowed irregularly, like an inundation, into the angles of the streets. As you walked past the great gate of the Angel yard you could see the meadow at the bottom belonging to Hundred Acres. Consequently all Cowfold took an interest in agriculture, and knew a good deal about it. Every shopkeeper was half a farmer, and understood the points of a pig or a horse. Cowfold was not a town properly speaking, but the country a little thickened and congested. The conversation turned upon the crops, and more particularly upon turnips and drainage, both of them a new importation. Hitherto all the parishes round had no drainage whatever, excepting along the bottoms of the ridges, and the now familiar red pipes had just made their appearance on a farm belonging to a stranger to those parts⁠—a young fellow from Norfolk. Everybody was sceptical, and called him a fool. Everybody wanted to know how water was going to get through fifteen inches of heavy land when it would lie for two days where a horse trod. However, the pipes went in, and it so happened that the first wet day after they were laid was a Sunday. The congregation in Shott Church was very restless, although the sermon was unusually short. One by one they crept out, and presently they were followed by the parson. All of them had collected in the pouring rain and were watching the outfall in the ditches. To their unspeakable amazement the pipes were all running! Shott scratched its head and was utterly bewildered. A new idea in a brain not accustomed to the invasion of ideas produces a disturbance like a revolution. It causes giddiness almost as bad as that of a fit, and an extremely unpleasant sensation of having been whirled round and turned head over heels. It was the beginning of new things in Shott, the beginning of a breakdown in its traditions; a belief in something outside the ordinary parochial uniformities was forced into the skull of every man, woman, and child by the evidence of the senses; and when other beliefs asked, in the course of time, for admittance they found the entrance easier than it would have been otherwise.

The elderly occupants of the Tanner’s Lane gigs and chaises talked exclusively upon these and other cognate topics. The sons and daughters talked about other things utterly unworthy of any record in a serious history. Delightful their chatter was to them. What does it signify to eighteen years what is said on such an afternoon by seventeen years, when seventeen years is in a charming white muslin dress, with the prettiest hat? Words are of importance between me and you, who care little or nothing for one another. But there is a thrice blessed time when words are nothing. The real word is that which is not uttered. We may be silent, or we may be eloquent with nonsense or sense⁠—it is all one. So it was between George Allen and Miss Priscilla Broad, who at the present moment were sitting next to one another. George was a broad, hearty, sandy-haired, sanguine-faced young fellow of one and twenty, eldest son of the ironmonger. His education had been that of the middle classes of those days. Leaving school at fourteen, he had been apprenticed to his father for seven years, and had worked at the forge down the backyard before coming into the front shop. On weekdays he generally wore a waistcoat with sleeves and a black apron. He was never dirty; in fact, he was rather particular as to neatness and cleanliness; but he was always a little dingy and iron-coloured, as retail ironmongers are apt to be. He was now in charge of the business under his father; stood behind the counter; weighed nails; examined locks brought for repair; went to the different houses in Cowfold with a man under him to look at boiler-pipes, the man wearing a cap and George a tall hat. He had a hard, healthy, honest life, was up at six o’clock in the morning, ate well, and slept well. He was always permitted by his father to go on these excursions, and, in fact, they could not have been a success without him. If anything went wrong he was always the man to set it right. If a horse became restive, George was invariably the one to jump out, and nobody else thought of stirring. He had good expectations. The house in which the Allens lived was their own. Mr. Allen did a thriving trade, not only in Cowfold, but in all the country round, and particularly among the village blacksmiths, to whom he sold iron. He had steadily saved money, and had enlarged the original little back parlour into a room which would hold comfortably a tea-party of ten or a dozen.

Miss Priscilla Broad was framed after a different model. Her face was not much unlike that of one of those women of the Restoration so familiar to us in half a hundred pictures. Not that Restoration levity and Restoration manners were chargeable to Miss Priscilla. She never forgot her parentage; but there were the same kind of prettiness, the same sideways look, the same simper about the lips, and there were the same flat unilluminated eyes. She had darkish brown hair, which fell in rather formal curls on her shoulder, and she was commonly thought to be “delicate.” Like her sister and brother, she had never been to school, on account of the “mixture,” but had been taught by her mother. Her accomplishments included Scripture and English history, arithmetic, geography, the use of the globes, and dates. She had a very difficult part to play in Cowfold, for she was obliged to visit freely all Tanner’s Lane, but at the same time to hold herself above it and not to form any exclusive friendships. These would have been most injudicious, because, in the first place, they would have excited jealousy, and, in the next place, the minister’s daughter could not be expected to be very intimate with anybody belonging to the congregation. She was not particularly popular with the majority, and was even thought to be just a bit of a fool. But what could she have been with such surroundings? The time had passed when religion could be talked on weekdays, and the present time, when ministers’ children learn French, German, and Latin, and read selected plays of Shakespeare, had not come. Miss Priscilla Broad found it very difficult, also, to steer her course properly amongst the young men in Cowfold. Mrs. Broad would not have permitted any one of them for a moment to dream of an alliance with her family. As soon might a Princess of the Blood Royal unite herself with an ordinary knight. Miss Broad, however, as her resources within herself were not particularly strong, thought about little or nothing else than ensnaring the hearts of the younger Cowfold males⁠—that is to say, the hearts which were converted, and yet she encouraged none of them, save by a general acceptance of little attentions, by little mincing smiles, and little mincing speeches.

“Such a beautiful day,” said George, “and such pleasant company!”

“Really, Mr. Allen, don’t you think it would have been pleasanter for you in front?”

“What did you say, my dear?” came immediately from her mother, the ever-watchful dragon just before them. She forthwith turned a little round, for the sun was on her left hand, and with her right eye kept Priscilla well in view for the rest of the journey.

In the chaise behind pretty much the same story was told, but with a difference. In the back part were Mr. Thomas Broad and Miss Fanny Allen. The arrangement which brought these two together was most objectionable to Mrs. Broad; but unfortunately she was a little late in starting, and it was made before she arrived. She could not, without insulting the Allens, have it altered; but she consoled herself by vowing that it should not stand on the return journey in the dusk. Miss Fanny was flattered that the minister’s son should be by her side, and the minister’s son was not in the least deterred from playing with Miss Fanny by the weight of responsibility which oppressed and checked his sister. He did not laugh much; he had not a nature for wholesome laughter, but he chuckled, lengthened his lips, half shut his eyes; asked his companion whether the rail did not hurt her, put his arm on the top, so that she might lean against it, and talked in a manner which even she would have considered a little silly and a little odd, if his position, that of a student for the ministry, had not surrounded him with such a halo of glory.

Presently Shott Woods were reached; the parcels and hampers were unpacked, the fire was lit, the tea prepared, and the pastor asked a blessing. Everybody sat on the grass, save the reverend gentleman and his wife, who had chairs which had been brought on purpose. It would not have been considered proper that Mr. or Mrs. Broad should sit upon the grass, and indeed physically it would have been inconvenient to Mr. Broad to do so. He ate his ham in considerable quantities, adding thereto much plumcake, and excusing himself on the ground that the ride had given him an appetite. The meal being over, grace was said, and the victuals that were left were repacked. About an hour remained before the return journey began. This was usually passed in sauntering about or in walking to the springs, a mile away, down one of the grass drives. Mrs. Broad never for a moment lost sight of Thomas, and pressed him as much as possible into her service; but when Mrs. Allen announced that the young people had all determined to go to the springs, Mrs. Broad could not hold out. Accordingly off they started, under strict orders to be back by eight. They mixed themselves up pretty indiscriminately as they left their seniors; but after a while certain affinities displayed themselves, George being found with Priscilla, for example, and Thomas with Fanny. The party kept together; but Thomas and Fanny lagged somewhat till they came to a little opening in the underwood, which Thomas said was a shortcut, and he pressed her to try it with him. She agreed, and they slipped out of sight nearly, but not, quite, unobserved. Thomas professed himself afraid Fanny might be tired, and offered his arm. She again consented, not without a flutter, and so they reached a clearing with three or four paths branching from it. Thomas was puzzled, and as for Fanny, she knew nothing. To add to their perplexity some drops of rain were felt. She was a little frightened, and was anxious to try one of the most likely tracks which looked, she thought, as if it went to the springs, where they could take shelter in the cottage with the others. Thomas, however, was doubtful, and proposed that they should stand up in a shed which had been used for faggot-making. The rain, which now came down heavily, enforced his arguments, and she felt obliged to stay till the shower had ceased.

“Only think, Fanny,” he said, “to be here alone with you!”

He called her Fanny now; he had always called her Miss Allen before.

“Yes,” said she, not knowing what answer to make.

“You are cold,” he added, with a little trembling in his voice and a little more light than usual in his eyes.

“Oh no, I am not cold.”

“I know you are,” and he took her hand; “why, it is quite cold.”

“Oh dear no, Mr. Thomas, it is really not cold,” and she made a movement to withdraw it, but it remained.

The touch of the hand caused his voice to shake a little more than before.

“I say you are cold; come a little closer to me. What will your mamma say if you catch a chill?” and he drew Fanny a little nearer to him. The thick blood now drove through him with increasing speed: everything seemed in a mist, and a little perspiration was on his forehead. His arm found its way round Fanny’s waist, and he pressed her closer and closer to him till his hot lips were upon her cheek. She made two or three futile attempts to release herself; but she might as well have striven with that brazen, red-hot idol who was made to clasp his victims to death. She was frightened and screamed, when suddenly a strong man’s voice was heard calling “Fanny, Fanny.” It was her brother. Knowing that she and Thomas had no umbrellas, he had brought them a couple.

“But, Fanny,” he cried, “did I not hear you scream? What was the matter?”

“Nothing,” hastily interposed Thomas; “she thought she saw it lighten.” Fanny looked at Thomas for a moment; but she was scared and bewildered, and held her peace.

The three went down to the rendezvous together, where the rest of the party had already assembled. Mrs. Broad had been very uneasy when she found that Thomas and Fanny were the only absentees, and she had urged George the moment she saw him to look for his sister without a moment’s delay. The excuse of the rain was given and accepted; but Mrs. Broad felt convinced from Fanny’s forward look that she had once more thrown herself in the way of her beloved child, her delicate Samuel. She was increasingly anxious that he should go to college, and his papa promised at once to transmit the application. Meanwhile, in the few days left before the examination, he undertook to improve Thomas where he was weakest, that is to say, in Systematic Theology, and more particularly in the doctrine of the Comforter.