When young Mark Robarts was leaving college, his father might well declare that all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition. This father was a physician living at Exeter. He was a gentleman possessed of no private means, but enjoying a lucrative practice, which had enabled him to maintain and educate a family with all the advantages which money can give in this country. Mark was his eldest son and second child; and the first page or two of this narrative must be consumed in giving a catalogue of the good things which chance and conduct together had heaped upon this young man's head.
His first step forward in life had arisen from his having been sent, while still very young, as a private pupil to the house of a clergyman, who was an old friend and intimate friend of his father's. This clergyman had one other, and only one other, pupil—the young Lord Lufton; and between the two boys, there had sprung up a close alliance. While they were both so placed, Lady Lufton had visited her son, and then invited young Robarts to pass his next holidays at Framley Court. This visit was made; and it ended in Mark going back to Exeter with a letter full of praise from the widowed peeress. She had been delighted, she said, in having such a companion for her son, and expressed a hope that the boys might remain together during the course of their education. Dr. Robarts was a man who thought much of the breath of peers and peeresses, and was by no means inclined to throw away any advantage which might arise to his child from such a friendship. When, therefore, the young lord was sent to Harrow, Mark Robarts went there also.
That the lord and his friend often quarrelled, and occasionally fought,—the fact even that for one period of three months they never spoke to each other—by no means interfered with the doctor's hopes. Mark again and again stayed a fortnight at Framley Court, and Lady Lufton always wrote about him in the highest terms. And then the lads went together to Oxford, and here Mark's good fortune followed him, consisting rather in the highly respectable manner in which he lived, than in any wonderful career of collegiate success. His family was proud of him, and the doctor was always ready to talk of him to his patients; not because he was a prize-man, and had gotten medals and scholarships, but on account of the excellence of his general conduct. He lived with the best set—he incurred no debts—he was fond of society, but able to avoid low society—liked his glass of wine, but was never known to be drunk; and above all things, was one of the most popular men in the University. Then came the question of a profession for this young Hyperion, and on this subject Dr. Robarts was invited himself to go over to Framley Court to discuss the matter with Lady Lufton. Dr. Robarts returned with a very strong conception that the Church was the profession best suited to his son.
Lady Lufton had not sent for Dr. Robarts all the way from Exeter for nothing. The living of Framley was in the gift of the Lufton family, and the next presentation would be in Lady Lufton's hands, if it should fall vacant before the young lord was twenty-five years of ago, and in the young lord's hands if it should fall afterwards. But the mother and the heir consented to give a joint promise to Dr. Robarts. Now, as the present incumbent was over seventy, and as the living was worth L900 a year, there could be no doubt as to the eligibility of the clerical profession. And I must further say, that the dowager and the doctor were justified in their choice by the life and principles of the young man—as far as any father can be justified in choosing such a profession for his son, and as far as any lay impropriator can be justified in making such a promise. Had Lady Lufton had a second son, that second son would probably have had the living, and no one would have thought it wrong;—certainly not if that second son had been such a one as Mark Robarts.
Lady Lufton herself was a woman who thought much on religious matters, and would by no means have been disposed to place any one in a living, merely because such a one had been her son's friend. Her tendencies were High Church, and she was enabled to perceive that those of young Mark Robarts ran in the same direction. She was very desirous that her son should make an associate of his clergyman, and by this step she would ensure, at any rate, that. She was anxious that the parish vicar should be one with whom she could herself fully co-operate, and was perhaps unconsciously wishful that he might in some measure be subject to her influence. Should she appoint an elder man, this might probably not be the case to the same extent; and should her son have the gift, it might probably not be the case at all. And, therefore, it was resolved that the living should be given to young Robarts.
He took his degree—not with any brilliancy, but quite in the manner that his father desired; he then travelled for eight or ten months with Lord Lufton and a college don, and almost immediately after his return home was ordained.
The living of Framley is in the diocese of Barchester; and, seeing what were Mark's hopes with reference to that diocese, it was by no means difficult to get him a curacy within it. But this curacy he was not allowed long to fill. He had not been in it above a twelvemonth, when poor old Dr. Stopford, the then vicar of Framley, was gathered to his fathers, and the full fruition of his rich hopes fell upon his shoulders.
But even yet more must be told of his good fortune before we can come to the actual incidents of our story. Lady Lufton, who, as I have said, thought much of clerical matters, did not carry her High Church principles so far as to advocate celibacy for the clergy. On the contrary, she had an idea that a man could not be a good parish parson without a wife. So, having given to her favourite a position in the world, and an income sufficient for a gentleman's wants, she set herself to work to find him a partner in those blessings. And here also, as in other matters, he fell in with the views of his patroness—not, however, that they were declared to him in that marked manner in which the affair of the living had been broached. Lady Lufton was much too highly gifted with woman's craft for that. She never told the young vicar that Miss Monsell accompanied her ladyship's married daughter to Framley Court expressly that he, Mark, might fall in love with her; but such was in truth the case.
Lady Lufton had but two children. The eldest, a daughter, had been married some four or five years to Sir George Meredith, and this Miss Monsell was a dear friend of hers. And now looms before me the novelist's great difficulty. Miss Monsell—or, rather, Mrs. Mark Robarts—must be described. As Miss Monsell, our tale will have to take no prolonged note of her. And yet we will call her Fanny Monsell, when we declare that she was one of the pleasantest companions that could be brought near to a man, as the future partner of his home, and owner of his heart. And if high principles without asperity, female gentleness without weakness, a love of laughter without malice, and a true loving heart, can qualify a woman to be a parson's wife, then was Fanny Monsell qualified to fill that station. In person she was somewhat larger than common. Her face would have been beautiful but that her mouth was large. Her hair, which was copious, was of a bright brown; her eyes also were brown, and, being so, were the distinctive feature of her face, for brown eyes are not common. They were liquid, large, and full either of tenderness or of mirth. Mark Robarts still had his accustomed luck, when such a girl as this was brought to Framley for his wooing. And he did woo her—and won her. For Mark himself was a handsome fellow. At this time the vicar was about twenty-five years of age, and the future Mrs. Robarts was two or three years younger. Nor did she come quite empty-handed to the vicarage. It cannot be said that Fanny Monsell was an heiress, but she had been left with a provision of some few thousand pounds. This was so settled, that the interest of his wife's money paid the heavy insurance on his life which young Robarts effected, and there was left to him, over and above, sufficient to furnish his parsonage in the very best style of clerical comfort, and to start him on the road of life rejoicing.
So much did Lady Lufton do for her protégé, and it may well be imagined that the Devonshire physician, sitting meditative over his parlour fire, looking back, as men will look back on the upshot of their life, was well contented with that upshot, as regarded his eldest offshoot, the Rev. Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley.
But little has as yet been said, personally, as to our hero himself, and perhaps it may not be necessary to say much. Let us hope that by degrees he may come forth upon the canvas, showing to the beholder the nature of the man inwardly and outwardly. Here it may suffice to say that he was no born heaven's cherub, neither was he a born fallen devil's spirit. Such as his training made him, such he was. He had large capabilities for good—and aptitudes also for evil, quite enough: quite enough to make it needful that he should repel temptation as temptation only can be repelled. Much had been done to spoil him, but in the ordinary acceptation of the word he was not spoiled. He had too much tact, too much common sense, to believe himself to be the paragon which his mother thought him. Self-conceit was not, perhaps, his greatest danger. Had he possessed more of it, he might have been a less agreeable man, but his course before him might on that account have been the safer. In person he was manly, tall, and fair-haired, with a square forehead, denoting intelligence rather than thought, with clear white hands, filbert nails, and a power of dressing himself in such a manner that no one should ever observe of him that his clothes were either good or bad, shabby or smart.
Such was Mark Robarts when, at the age of twenty-five, or a little more, he married Fanny Monsell. The marriage was celebrated in his own church, for Miss Monsell had no home of her own, and had been staying for the last three months at Framley Court. She was given away by Sir George Meredith, and Lady Lufton herself saw that the wedding was what it should be, with almost as much care as she had bestowed on that of her own daughter. The deed of marrying, the absolute tying of the knot, was performed by the Very Reverend the Dean of Barchester, an esteemed friend of Lady Lufton's. And Mrs. Arabin, the dean's wife, was of the party, though the distance from Barchester to Framley is long, and the roads deep, and no railway lends its assistance. And Lord Lufton was there of course; and people protested that he would surely fall in love with one of the four beautiful bridesmaids, of whom Blanche Robarts, the vicar's second sister, was by common acknowledgement by far the most beautiful. And there was there another and a younger sister of Mark's—who did not officiate at the ceremony, though she was present—and of whom no prediction was made, seeing that she was then only sixteen, but of whom mention is made here, as it will come to pass that my readers will know her hereafter. Her name was Lucy Robarts. And then the vicar and his wife went off on their wedding tour, the old curate taking care of the Framley souls the while. And in due time they returned; and after a further interval, in due course a child was born to them; and then another; and after that came the period at which we will begin our story. But before doing so, may I not assert that all men were right in saying all manner of good things to the Devonshire physician, and in praising his luck in having such a son?
"You were up at the house to-day, I suppose?" said Mark to his wife, as he sat stretching himself in an easy chair in the drawing-room, before the fire, previously to his dressing for dinner. It was a November evening, and he had been out all day, and on such occasions the aptitude for delay in dressing is very powerful. A strong-minded man goes direct from the hall door to his chamber without encountering the temptation of the drawing-room fire.
"No; but Lady Lufton was down here."
"Full of arguments in favour of Sarah Thompson?"
"Exactly so, Mark."
"And what did you say about Sarah Thompson?"
"Very little as coming from myself: but I did hint that you thought, or that I thought that you thought, that one of the regular trained schoolmistresses would be better."
"But her ladyship did not agree?"
"Well, I won't exactly say that;—though I think that perhaps she did not."
"I am sure she did not. When she has a point to carry, she is very fond of carrying it."
"But then, Mark, her points are generally so good."
"But, you see, in this affair of the school she is thinking more of her protégée than she does of the children."
"Tell her that, and I am sure she will give way." And then again they were both silent. And the vicar having thoroughly warmed himself, as far as this might be done by facing the fire, turned round and began the operation a tergo.
"Come, Mark, it is twenty minutes past six. Will you go and dress?"
"I'll tell you what, Fanny: she must have her way about Sarah Thompson. You can see her to-morrow and tell her so."
"I am sure, Mark, I would not give way, if I thought it wrong. Nor would she expect it."
"If I persist this time, I shall certainly have to yield the next; and then the next may probably be more important."
"But if it's wrong, Mark?"
"I didn't say it was wrong. Besides, if it is wrong, wrong in some infinitesimal degree, one must put up with it. Sarah Thompson is very respectable; the only question is whether she can teach."
The young wife, though she did not say so, had some idea that her husband was in error. It is true that one must put up with wrong, with a great deal of wrong. But no one need put up with wrong that he can remedy. Why should he, the vicar, consent to receive an incompetent teacher for the parish children, when he was able to procure one that was competent? In such a case—so thought Mrs. Robarts to herself—she would have fought the matter out with Lady Lufton. On the next morning, however, she did as she was bid, and signified to the dowager that all objection to Sarah Thompson would be withdrawn.
"Ah! I was sure he would agree with me," said her ladyship, "when he learned what sort of person she is. I know I had only to explain;"—and then she plumed her feathers, and was very gracious; for to tell the truth, Lady Lufton did not like to be opposed in things which concerned the parish nearly.
"And, Fanny," said Lady Lufton, in her kindest manner, "you are not going anywhere on Saturday, are you?"
"No, I think not."
"Then you must come to us. Justinia is to be here, you know"—Lady Meredith was named Justinia—"and you and Mr. Robarts had better stay with us till Monday. He can have the little book-room all to himself on Sunday. The Merediths go on Monday; and Justinia won't be happy if you are not with her." It would be unjust to say that Lady Lufton had determined not to invite the Robartses if she were not allowed to have her own way about Sarah Thompson. But such would have been the result. As it was, however, she was all kindness; and when Mrs. Robarts made some little excuse, saying that she was afraid she must return home in the evening, because of the children, Lady Lufton declared that there was room enough at Framley Court for baby and nurse, and so settled the matter in her own way, with a couple of nods and three taps of her umbrella. This was on a Tuesday morning, and on the same evening, before dinner, the vicar again seated himself in the same chair before the drawing-room fire, as soon as he had seen his horse led into the stable.
"Mark," said his wife, "the Merediths are to be at Framley on Saturday and Sunday; and I have promised that we will go up and stay over till Monday."
"You don't mean it! Goodness gracious, how provoking!"
"Why? I thought you wouldn't mind it. And Justinia would think it unkind if I were not there."
"You can go, my dear, and of course will go. But as for me, it is impossible."
"But why, love?"
"Why? Just now, at the school-house, I answered a letter that was brought to me from Chaldicotes. Sowerby insists on my going over there for a week or so; and I have said that I would."
"Go to Chaldicotes for a week, Mark?"
"I believe I have even consented to ten days."
"And be away two Sundays?"
"No, Fanny, only one. Don't be so censorious."
"Don't call me censorious, Mark; you know I am not so. But I am so sorry. It is just what Lady Lufton won't like. Besides, you were away in Scotland two Sundays last month."
"In September, Fanny. And that is being censorious."
"Oh, but, Mark, dear Mark; don't say so. You know I don't mean it. But Lady Lufton does not like those Chaldicotes people. You know Lord Lufton was with you the last time you were there; and how annoyed she was!"
"Lord Lufton won't be with me now, for he is still in Scotland. And the reason why I am going is this: Harold Smith and his wife will be there, and I am very anxious to know more of them. I have no doubt that Harold Smith will be in the government some day, and I cannot afford to neglect such a man's acquaintance."
"But, Mark, what do you want of any government?"
"Well, Fanny, of course I am bound to say that I want nothing; neither in one sense do I; but, nevertheless, I shall go and meet the Harold Smiths."
"Could you not be back before Sunday?"
"I have promised to preach at Chaldicotes. Harold Smith is going to lecture at Barchester, about the Australasian archipelago, and I am to preach a charity sermon on the same subject. They want to send out more missionaries."
"A charity sermon at Chaldicotes!"
"And why not? The house will be quite full, you know; and I dare say the Arabins will be there."
"I think not; Mrs. Arabin may get on with Mrs. Harold Smith, though I doubt that; but I'm sure she's not fond of Mrs. Smith's brother. I don't think she would stay at Chaldicotes."
"And the bishop will probably be there for a day or two."
"That is much more likely, Mark. If the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Proudie is taking you to Chaldicotes, I have not a word more to say."
"I am not a bit more fond of Mrs. Proudie than you are, Fanny," said the vicar, with something like vexation in the tone of his voice, for he thought that his wife was hard upon him. "But it is generally thought that a parish clergyman does well to meet his bishop now and then. And as I was invited there, especially to preach while all these people are staying at the place, I could not well refuse." And then he got up, and taking his candlestick, escaped to his dressing-room.
"But what am I to say to Lady Lufton?" his wife said to him, in the course of the evening.
"Just write her a note, and tell her that you find I had promised to preach at Chaldicotes next Sunday. You'll go of course?"
"Yes: but I know she'll be annoyed. You were away the last time she had people there."
"It can't be helped. She must put it down against Sarah Thompson. She ought not to expect to win always."
"I should not have minded it, if she had lost, as you call it, about Sarah Thompson. That was a case in which you ought to have had your own way."
"And this other is a case in which I shall have it. It's a pity that there should be such a difference; isn't it?"
Then the wife perceived that, vexed as she was, it would be better that she should say nothing further; and before she went to bed, she wrote the note to Lady Lufton, as her husband recommended.