Chapter X--Our Tuneful Choir
 
'The church has been whitewashed, but right long ago,
As the cracks and the dinginess amply doth show;
About the same time that a strange petrifaction
Confined the incumbent to mere Sunday action.
So many abuses in this place are rife,
The only church things giving token of life
Are the singing within and the nettles without -
Both equally rampant without any doubt.'

F. R. HAVERGAL.

All Griff's teasing could not diminish--nay, rather increased-- Emily's excitement in the hope of seeing and identifying the sweet cottage bonnet at church on Sunday. The distance we had to go was nearly two miles, and my mother and I drove thither in a donkey chair, which had been hunted up in London for that purpose because the 'pheeaton' (as the servants insisted on calling it) was too high for me. My father had an old-fashioned feeling about the Fourth Commandment, which made him scrupulous as to using any animal on Sunday; and even when, in bad weather, or for visitors, the larger carriage was used, he always walked. He was really angry with Griff that morning for mischievously maintaining that it was a greater breach of the commandment to work an ass than a horse.

It was a pretty drive on a road slanting gradually through the brushwood that clothed the steep face of the hillside, and passing farms and meadows full of cattle--all things quieter and stiller than ever in their Sunday repose. We knew that the living was in Winslow patronage, but that it was in the hands of one of the Selby connection, who held it, together with it is not safe to say how many benefices, and found it necessary for his health to reside at Bath. The vicarage had long since been turned into a farmhouse, and the curate lived at Wattlesea. All this we knew, but we had not realised that he was likewise assistant curate there, and only favoured Earlscombe with alternate morning and evening services on Sundays.

Still less were we prepared for the interior of the church. It had a picturesque square tower covered with ivy, and a general air of fitness for a sketch; indeed, the photograph of it in its present beautified state will not stand a comparison with our drawings of it, in those days of dilapidation in the middle of the untidy churchyard, with little boys astride on the sloping, sunken lichen- grown headstones, mullein spikes and burdock leaves, more graceful than the trim borders and zinc crosses which are pleasanter to the mental eye.

The London church we had left would be a fearful shock to the present generation, but we were accustomed to decency, order, and reverence; and it was no wonder that my father was walking about the churchyard, muttering that he never saw such a place, while my brothers were full of amusement. Their spruce looks in their tall hats, bright ties, dark coats, and white trowsers strapped tight under their boots, looked incongruous with the rest of the congregation, the most distinguished members of which were farmers in drab coats with huge mother-of-pearl buttons, and long gaiters buttoned up to their knees and strapped up to their gay waistcoats over their white corduroys. Their wives and daughters were in enormous bonnets, fluttering with ribbons; but then what my mother and Emily wore were no trifles. The rest of the congregation were-- the male part of it--in white or gray smock-frocks, the elderly women in black bonnets, the younger in straw; but we had not long to make our observations, for Chapman took possession of us. He was parish clerk, and was in great glory in his mourning coat and hat, and his object was to marshal us all into our pew before he had to attend upon the clergyman; and of course I was glad enough to get as soon as possible out of sight of all the eyes not yet accustomed to my figure.

And hidden enough I was when we had been introduced through the little north chancel door into a black-curtained, black-cushioned, black-lined pew, well carpeted, with a table in the midst, and a stove, whose pipe made its exit through the floriated tracery of the window overhead. The chancel arch was to the west of us, blocked up by a wooden parcel-gilt erection, and to the east a decorated window that would have been very handsome if two side-lights had not been obscured by the two Tables of the Law, with the royal arms on the top of the first table, and over the other our own, with the Fordyce in a scutcheon of pretence; for, as an inscription recorded, they had been erected by Margaret, daughter of Christopher Fordyce, Esquire, of Chantry House, and relict of Sir James John Winslow, Kt., sergeant-at-law, A.D. 1700--the last date, I verily believe, at which anything had been done to the church. And on the wall, stopping up the southern chancel window, was a huge marble slab, supported by angels blowing trumpets, with a very long inscription about the Fordyce family, ending with this same Margaret, who had married the Winslow, lost two or three infants, and died on 1st January 1708, three years later than her husband.

Thus far I could see; but Griff was standing lifting the curtain, and showing by the working of his shoulders his amazement and diversion, so that only the daggers in my mother's eyes kept Martyn from springing up after him. What he beheld was an altar draped in black like a coffin, and on the step up to the rail, boys and girls eating apples and performing antics to beguile the waiting time, while a row of white-smocked old men occupied the bench opposite to our seat, conversing loud enough for us to hear them.

My father and Clarence came in; the bells stopped; there was a sound of steps, and in the fabric in front of us there emerged a grizzled head and the back of a very dirty surplice besprinkled with iron moulds, while Chapman's back appeared above our curtain, his desk (full of dilapidated prayer-books) being wedged in between us and the reading-desk.

The duet that then took place between him and the curate must have been heard to be credible, especially as, being so close behind the old man, we could not fail to be aware of all the remarkable shots at long words which he bawled out at the top of his voice, and I refrain from recording, lest they should haunt others as they have done by me all my life. Now and then Chapman caught up a long switch and dashed out at some obstreperous child to give an audible whack; and towards the close of the litany he stumped out--we heard his tramp the whole length of the church, and by and by his voice issued from an unknown height, proclaiming--'Let us sing to the praise and glory in an anthem taken from the 42d chapter of Genesis.'

There was an outburst of bassoon, clarionet, and fiddle, and the performance that followed was the most marvellous we had ever heard, especially when the big butcher--fiddling all the time--declared in a mighty solo, 'I am Jo--Jo--Jo--Joseph!' and having reiterated this information four or five times, inquired with equal pertinacity, 'Doth--doth my fa-a-u-ther yet live?' Poor Emily was fairly 'convulsed;' she stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth, and grew so crimson that my mother was quite frightened, and very near putting her out at the little door of excommunication. To our last hour we shall never forget the shock of that first anthem.

The Commandments were read from the desk, Chapman's solitary response coming from the gallery; and while the second singing--four verses from Tate and Brady--was going on, we beheld the surplice stripped off,--like the slough of a May-fly, as Griff said,--when a rusty black gown was revealed, in which the curate ascended the pulpit and was lost to our view before the concluding verse of the psalm, which we had reason to believe was selected in compliment to us, as well as to Earlscombe, -

'My lot is fall'n in that blest land
   Where God is truly know,
He fills my cup with liberal hand;
   'Tis He--'tis He--'tis He--supports my throne.'

We had great reason to doubt how far the second line could justly be applied to the parish! but there was no judging of the sermon, for only detached sentences reached us in a sort of mumble. Griff afterwards declared churchgoing to be as good as a comedy, and we all had to learn to avoid meeting each other's eyes, whatever we might hear. When the scuffle and tramp of the departing congregation had ceased, we came forth from our sable box, and beheld the remnants of a once handsome church, mauled in every possible way, green stains on the walls, windows bricked up, and a huge singing gallery. Good bits of carved stall work were nailed anyhow into the pews; the floor was uneven; no font was visible; there was a mouldy uncared-for look about everything. The curate in riding-boots came out of the vestry,--a pale, weary-looking man, painfully meek and civil, with gray hair sleeked round his face. He 'louted low,' and seemed hardly to venture on taking the hand my father held out to him. There was some attempt to enter into conversation with him, but he begged to be excused, for he had to hurry back to Wattlesea to a funeral. Poor man! he was as great a pluralist as his vicar, for he kept a boys' school, partially day, partially boarding, and his eyes looked hungrily at Martyn.

If the 'sweet cottage bonnet' had been at church there would have been little chance of discovering her, but we found that we were the only 'quality,' as Chapman called it, or things might not have been so bad. Old James Winslow had been a mere fox-hunting squire till he became a valetudinarian; nor had he ever cared for the church or for the poor, so that the village was in a frightful state of neglect. There was a dissenting chapel, old enough to be overgrown with ivy and not too hideous, erected by the Nonconformists in the reign of the Great Deliverer, but this partook of the general decadence of the parish, and, as we found, the chapel's principal use was to serve as an excuse for not going to church.

My father always went to church twice, so he and Clarence walked to Wattlesea, where appearances were more respectable; but they heard the same sermon over again, and, as my father drily remarked, it was not a composition that would bear repetition.

He was much distressed at the state of things, and intended to write to the incumbent, though, as he said, whatever was done would end by being at his own expense, and the move and other calls left him so little in hand that he sighed over the difficulties, and declared that he was better off in London, except for the honour of the thing. Perhaps my mother was of the same opinion after a dreary afternoon, when Griff and Martyn had been wandering about aimlessly, and were at length betrayed by the barking of a little terrier, purchased the day before from Tom Petty, besieging the stable cat, who stood with swollen tail, glaring eyes, and thunderous growls, on the top of the tallest pillar of the ruins. Emily nearly cried at their cruelty. Martyn was called off by my mother, and set down, half sulky, half ashamed, to Henry and his Bearer; and Griff, vowing that he believed it was that brute who made the row at night, and that she ought to be exterminated, strolled off to converse with Chapman, who was a quaint compound of clerk and keeper--in the one capacity upholding his late master, in the other bemoaning Mr. Mears' unpunctualities, specially as regarded weddings and funerals; one 'corp' having been kept waiting till a messenger had been sent to Wattlesea, who finding both clergy out for the day, had had to go to Hillside, 'where they was always ready, though the old Squire would have been mad with him if he'd a-guessed one of they Fordys had ever set foot in the parish.'

The only school in the place was close to the meeting-house, 'a very dame's school indeed,' as Emily described it after a peep on Monday. Dame Dearlove, the old woman who presided, was a picture of Shenstone's schoolmistress,--black bonnet, horn spectacles, fearful birch rod, three-cornered buff 'kerchief, checked apron and all, but on meddling with her, she proved a very dragon, the antipodes of her name. Tattered copies of the Universal Spelling-Book served her aristocracy, ragged Testaments the general herd, whence all appeared to be shouting aloud at once. She looked sour as verjuice when my mother and Emily entered, and gave them to understand that 'she wasn't used to no strangers in her school, and didn't want 'em.' We found that in Chapman's opinion she 'didn't larn 'em nothing.' She had succeeded her aunt, who had taught him to read 'right off,' but 'her baint to be compared with she.' And now the farmers' children, and the little aristocracy, including his own grand-children,--all indeed who, in his phrase, 'cared for eddication,'--went to Wattlesea.