« PreviousContinue »
A LIVING IN LINCOLNSHIRE.
WHEN Mr. Ashton, the Vicar of Oakhurst, asked me, Caroline Greybrook, to be his wife, I was more happy than I cared to confess; and besides this inner brightness which was quite my own affair, everything was bright outwardly as well; I had not even a separation before me, for Oakhurst was only six miles from my own home, and my own people were living near it on all sides. Mr. Ashton was not rich, but his income would be amply sufficient for his wants and mine, in the pretty parsonage at Oakhurst; I was not to be empty-handed either, though I was a long way from being an heiress.
My father was a man spending a large income over a large family, and holding a good position as a country gentleman, though not as a great squire, in a neighbourhood where the society was chiefly composed of people like ourselves, and the clergy and their families, forming, with occasional additions from a Cathedral town on one side, and a wateringplace on the other, a large and very sociable circle. Thus our life, though not a gay and dissipated round, was varied and cheerful, our excellent mother took care it should not be an idle or frivolous one; after my sisters and I left the school-room, she helped us to replace our regular studies with solid reading, and to spend some of our newly-acquired leisure in parish work of different kinds, so that our whole time might not be given up to the course of amusement that threatened to consume it, in the usual country round of visits and visitors, archery in the summer, skating or walking in the winter, riding and dinner parties all the year round, with a few balls and gayer parties at longer intervals.
There was nothing in this life, happy as it was, that I regretted when I promised to marry John Ashton; to be a clergyman's wife appeared to me a high and enviable post, I thought of the change that was before me very seriously, I believe; not without prayer, and much mistrust of myself, but I was proud and happy in the prospect.
Oakhurst was my airy castle and my day-dream, and even my imagination could hardly give a charm that it did not possess in reality; it was a small parish, that had been so long cared for by watchful pastors and judicious squires, that it was considered a model, even in a neighbourhood that I now know to be a highly favoured one; nowhere were the children so orderly, the men so sober and industrious, their wives so careful, or the old women so nearly approaching the ideal of village dames, as at Oakhurst. There was a beautiful little church, which had never been restored, apparently because there had never been a time when it had been so neglected or misused as to require restoration ; it stood on the top of a short steep hill, and the parsonage near it, a compact and comfortable house, with a pretty old-fashioned garden. I always think of Oakhurst as it was one day that we all paid a visit to Mr. Ashton about two months before our marriage; the view from the parsonage windows was fit for a picture, gentle hills clothed with thick wood in all the fresh luxuriance of early June, the church near at hand, and several more towers and spires in the distance, glimpses of a white road sometimes bordered with wide green turf with cow or donkey grazing, sometimes lost between high fern-covered banks, topped with rather untidy but most picturesque hedges of hornbeam and silver birch; here and there a cottage with white walls, thick moss-grown thatch, and dark brick chimneys, clustered or built with large overhanging tops, from which the light wood smoke rose blue against the noble trees. The hay was not yet cut, and the meadows in the sunshine were silver-grey, yellow, pink, or delicate fawn colour as the soft wind moved the ripe grass, making it look almost like a lake in its wide expanse of ripple or silky lustre. A fair prospect of a goodly land, such as you will hardly find but in the southern counties : there are beauties enough and to spare in the north ; but this rich, almost heavy, warm luxuriance is only found in the tamer landscapes of the south. I am happier now than then, with a happiness that the elders among my readers know to be better even than that of youth; but when I hear anyone speak of the happiest day of their lives, the remembrance of that day comes into my
mind. My mother and sisters, and some of the younger branches, had driven from Wellhurst; my father and I rode, as we both liked best; we were dear companions always, and now our rides together would be few. Mr. Ashton was ready for us; he had lunch prepared for us under the trees on the vicarage lawn, bee-haunted lime trees, fragrant with flower; after lunch we sat in the shade and talked, and then while my dear mother went with the housekeeper for a critical survey of the house and its contents, John took me into the kitchen-garden for a little talk to ourselves. We walked up and down on the broad gravel path at the bottom of the garden, turning at the sunny corner where Mr. Ashton kept his bees, and lavender, thyme, and balm grew for them. I remember telling him I was almost frightened at the prospect of so much prosperity, everything being just to my taste; he laughed, and said he meant to work me so hard that I should regret my leisurely young-ladyhood. I did not quite see what he would find for me to do, his three hundred parishioners were already well cared for, and yet he had plenty of leisure, while the perfections of choir and schools rather awed me. Then he said a few graver words on the uses we were to make of our prosperity, and of the dangers, worse than cares, that we might find in it-words that touched me greatly; what was I, that this good man should think me worthy to share his work and care!
A few days after this, Mr. Ashton came over to Wellhurst, earlier in the day than was his custom, and with a graver face than usual. Of course I was in a fidget to find out what was the matter, and was easily drawn into the garden ; as soon as we were alone, Mr. Ashton shewed me a letter which he had that morning received from a nobleman who had long been acquainted with him and his family, offering him the living of Willowden, in Lincolnshire; it was a short letter, saying that of all Lord Milchester's clerical acquaintance Mr. Ashton was the man he should like best to entrust the parish to; he did not know exactly how Mr. Ashton was situated at present, but hoped he would undertake it; then a few particulars-population eleven hundred, chiefly agricultural, the income about eight hundred a year, with a new house, the church and schools in fair order ; Lord Milchester would be happy to further any improvements Mr. Ashton sbould undertake; and the note closed with an invitation to his house in town when the decision had been made.
‘Lincolnshire, John?' I said when I had read the letter.
“Yes, Carrie, I have looked out the place in map and gazetteer; it is not in the fens, indeed I believe it is a healthy district; but it is unmitigated Lincolnshire; there is a town, Market Fenton, eight miles off, and a station within five miles.'
“What will you do about it?'
'I must go and see the place first; but if there be no serious objection, I think, Carrie dear, I do think I ought to accept the living. Lord Milchester is not a man to do this lightly, or even for old friendship’s sake; if he did not think I should suit Willowden he would not offer it to me: is that very conceited, Carrie ?'
“But in Lincolnshire, and to leave Oakhurst and home, we never could!'
“Ah, Carrie, did not you say that Oakhurst seemed too good to be true? and I think Oakhurst and you together would be too good for me; it is too easy and pleasant for a life work; a place for an old man, who is not yet past light work, to retire to; a place for a peaceful evening, not for the laborious day; I am not old enough for it yet, there is a great deal more work in me than it requires, though I would not be ungrateful for the last four happy years; and I trust I have been learning how to work, better perhaps in some ways than in the hurry of a large town parish; and then, Carrie, if I were always to live there and to have you to spoil me, I should most likely grow fat and lazy, and what would you do with
me then ?'
I had no answer for him then, and he went on : Oakhurst would suit you well, the very place I should like to take you to; but you know I belong to the Church first, then to you, and I believe it will be my duty to accept this heavier and less pleasant charge; therefore, my own Carrie, I must give you back your promise, and ask you over again, will you marry the Vicar of Willowden ? will you go with me, even into Lincolnshire, Carrie ?'
"Oh yes; oh, don't speak so, John, you know I will go with you anywhere, I am very selfish to mind at all, when you are ready for the sacrifice-I know it will be a sacrifice to you; please don't mind what I
said, it is only the first surprise; I am afraid, too, I only thought of it as a matter of choice and of pleasing ourselves, and that, except for that, one living was much the same as another ; you have a great deal to teach me, John; if I begin by holding you back from your duty-trying to do so, at least-I do not believe I could succeed the least bit.
If you will go it will be all right; and then there is the money.' 'I don't believe you have thought of it till this minute.
“Yes, I have; if we go there we must have some holidays, and some day we may want another five hundred a year more than we do now, and with that population I may want a curate; we shall not be too rich, I dare say.'
It will be nice to come here for holidays; and then how were you to find out that I preferred you to my own people, if we never went further away than Oakhurst ?'
I tried to laugh, but it was not easy, my heart was torn in two, I could not do without him now, but how was I to leave my father and the rest ? I had never even thought of a separation before. Mr. Ashton understood how it was, and was very kind; after a little more talk he went to consult my father, and I took my trouble to Mamma.
In less than a week it was all settled, and the little rebellious hope at the bottom of my heart was extinguished; Mr. Ashton was to be Vicar of Willowden, and I, of course, was going with him. I begged to be allowed to superintend the furnishing of the vicarage, and John was not very anxious to undertake it by himself; besides, as it was to be, and he must go quickly, I did not like to let him go alone, as he evidently dreaded it; so we were to be married at the time originally fixed. This once arranged, the next two months passed in a whirl of business and a tumult of feeling that I should be very sorry to go through again; then we were married, the terrible parting was over, and we passed a quiet fortnight in Switzerland, and a hard but enjoyable week in London, where we accumulated a goodly array of packages, and then we set out for our new home. Mr. Ashton had spent a fortnight at Willowden before our marriage, and his Oakhurst belongings and some servants were awaiting us there, as he hoped, in some degree of order; and he had written to announce our coming.
We were both tired with all we had done in the past ten days; John went prosaically to sleep as soon as he had settled me in the railway carriage; I did the same for a little time, and then watched the country we passed through ; about Peterborough my heart began to sink, I had never travelled on the Great Northern before, and was unfamiliar even with the aspect of the flat country; things did not improve much as we went on, but I said nothing, I was determined to make the best of everything, and I thought I was prepared to live in a desert.
At last we alighted at the little station that was nearest to Willowden, a very little station, the smallest I had ever seen in England, consisting of a tiny booking-office, like a good-sized summer-house, and a narrow plats form; there was no village in sight, and there seemed no reason for a station being there at all, for, except that a road crossed the line, there was no sign of habitation: I stood on the little platform, looking after the vanishing train as if it were a departing friend, while my husband inquired for the carriage that he expected to meet us; with a dismayed face he came to tell me that it was not there; we found afterwards that John's letter had not been posted at our London hotel until two days after it should have been received. Our case would have been very awkward, had not a farmer from Willowden come to meet that very train; his little carriage had not left the station, and the boy who drove it, happily recognizing the new parson, was easily persuaded to drive us back to Willowden.
What a drive it was! I shall never forget that long, straight, hedgeless road; the wide corn-fields on either side, that were now only acres of whitened stubble; divided by the wide deep ditches, in which, as we crossed them, the water seemed to flash cold and pale to the very
horizon. We met no one, no cart nor gig, no strolling children nor hedge-side cow nor hoppled donkey; if there were villages we did not see them, only a farm-house here and there, so walled in by substantial barns as to look like a little fort, with a pigeon cote by way of watch-tower. It was not a favourable time for seeing a new country, the autumn evening was grey and chill, the clouds came down and hid the level colourless horizon, and a light rain began to fall; my husband wrapped me up from it as well as he could ; he had proposed to drive, but the boy had respectfully but firmly declined the offer, (John admired him for it,) so he sat behind, striving to accommodate his legs to our more necessary baggage, and we could only exchange an encouraging word now and then, hypocritical little sentences on both sides, for he was seeing all with my eyes, and feeling more for me than I did for myself, besides being terribly vexed to find that we were not expected.
At last we left the straight road, turning at right angles on to another, equally straight, and into the village of Willowden, brick-built and slated, the better houses standing with one blank end to the road, the cottages in rows, mostly without gardens at all; the straight upright houses looking very bare to my eyes after the wooden or striped plaster walls, deep thatch, and luxuriant gardens, of south country villages. I did not see the church, and as I was about to ask for it we stopped at the vicarage gate, a hand-gate leading into a square of garden ground, planted with vegetables, before the house, which was quite new, only having been finished a few months before the late vicar's death, and the garden had never been laid out.
I could hardly see the house in the dusk ; John hurried me up to the door, the rain now falling fast, and left me with one astonished maid while he went back to the carriage with the other to fetch our things, and dismiss the friendly driver with a message of thanks and explanation to his mistress. Quite taken by surprise, the maid shewed me into the