The New Rector
“LE ROI EST MORT!”
The king was dead. But not at once, not until after some short breathing-space, such as was pleasant enough to those whose only concern with the succession lay in the shouting, could the cry of “Long live the king!” be raised. For a few days there was no rector of Claversham. The living was during this time in abeyance, or in the clouds, or in the lap of the law, or in any strange and inscrutable place you choose to name. It may have been in the prescience of the patron, and, if so, no locality could be more vague, the whereabouts of Lord Dynmore himself, to say nothing of his prescience, being as uncertain as possible. Messrs. Gearns & Baker, his solicitors and agents, should have known as much upon this point as any one; yet it was their habit to tell one inquirer that his lordship was in the Cordilleras, and another that he was on the slopes of the Andes, and another that he was at the forty-ninth parallel—quite indifferently—these places being all one to Messrs. Gearns & Baker, whose walk in life had lain for so many years about Lincoln’s Inn Fields that Clare Market had come to be their ideal of an uncivilized country.
And more, if the whereabouts of Lord Dynmore could only be told in words rather far-sounding than definite, there was room for a doubt whether his prescience existed at all. For, according to his friends, there never was a man whose memory was so notably eccentric—not weak, but eccentric. And if his memory was impeccable, his prescience--. But we grow wide of the mark. The question being merely where the living of Claversham was during the days which immediately followed Mr. Williams’s death, let it be said at once that we do not know.
Mr. Williams was the late incumbent. He had been rector of the little Warwickshire town for nearly forty years; and although his people were ready enough to busy themselves with the question of his successor, he did not lack honor in his death. His had been a placid life, such as suited an indolent and easy-going man. “Let me sit upon one chair and put up my feet on another, and there I am,” he was once heard to say; and the town repeated the remark and chuckled over it. There were some who would have had the parish move more quickly, and who talked with a sneer of the old port-wine kind of parson. But if he had done little good, he had done less evil. He was kindly and open-handed, and he had not an enemy in the parish. He was regretted as much as such a man should be. Besides, people did not die commonly in Claversham. It was but once a year, or twice at the most, that any one who was any one passed away. And so, when the event did occur the most was made of it in an old-fashioned way. When Mr. Williams passed for the last time into his churchyard, there was no window which did not, by shutter or blind, mark its respect for him, not a tongue which wagged foul of his memory. And then the shutters were taken down and the blinds pulled up, and every one, from Mr. Clode, the curate, to the old people at Bourne’s Almhouses, who, having no affairs of their own, had the more time to discuss their neighbors’, asked, “Who is to be the new rector?”
On the day of the funeral two of these old pensioners watched the curate’s tall form as he came gravely along the opposite side of the street, to fall in at the door of his lodgings with two ladies, one elderly, one young, who were passing so opportunely that it really seemed as if they might have been waiting for him. He and the elder lady—she was so plump of figure, so healthy of eye and cheek, and was dressed besides with such a comfortable richness that it did one good to look at her—began to talk in a subdued, decorous fashion, while the girl listened. He was telling them of the funeral, how well the archdeacon had read the service, and what a crowd of Dissenters had been present, and so on; and at last he came to the important question.
“I hear, Mrs. Hammond,’ he said, “that the living will be given to Mr. Herbert of Easthope, whom you know, I think? To me? Oh, no, I have not, and never had, any expectation of it. Please do not,” he added with a slight smile and a shake of the head,” mention such a thing again. Leave me in my content.”
“But why should you not have it?” said the young lady, with a pleasant persistence. “Everyone in the parish would be glad if you were appointed. Could we not do something or say something—get up a petition or anything? Lord Dynmore ought, of course, to give it to you. I think some one should tell him what are the wishes of the parish. I do indeed!”
She was a very pretty young lady, with bright brown eyes and hair and rather arch features, and the gentleman she was addressing had long found her face pleasant to look upon; but at this moment it really seemed to him as the face of an angel. Yet he only answered with a kind of depressed gratitude. “Thank you, Miss Hammond,” he said. “If good wishes could procure me the living, I should have an excellent reason for hoping. But as things are, it is not for me.”
“Pooh! pooh!” said Mrs. Hammond cheerily, “who knows?” And then, after a few more words, they went on their way, and he turned into his rooms.
The old women were still watching. “I don’t well know who’ll get it, Peggy,” said one, “but I be pretty sure of this, as he won’t! It’ isn’t his sort as gets ‘em. It’s the lord’s friends, bless you!”
So it appeared that she and Mr. Clode were of one mind on the matter. But was that really Mr. Clode’s opinion? It was when the crow opened its beak that it dropped the piece of cheese; and so to this day the wise man has no chance or expectation of this or that until he gets it. And if a patron or a patron’s solicitor has for some days had under his paperweight a letter written in a hand that bears a strange likeness to the wise man’s—a letter setting forth the latter’s claims and wisdom—what of that? That is a private matter, or course.
Be that as it may, there was scarcely a person in Claversham who did not give some time that evening, and on subsequent evenings too, to the interesting question who was to be the new rector. The rector was a big factor in the town-life. Girls wondered whether he would be young, and hoped he would dance. Their mothers were sanguine that he would be unmarried, and their fathers that he would play whist. And one questioned whether he would buy Mr. Williams’s stock of port, and another whether he would dine late. And some trusted that he would let things be, and some hoped that he would cleanse the stables. And only one thing was certain and sure and immutably fixed—that, whoever he was, he would not be able to please everybody.
Nay, the ripple of excitement spread far beyond Claversham. Not only at the archdeacon’s at Kingsford Carbonel, five miles away among the orchards and hopyards, was there much speculation upon the matter, but even at the Homfrays’, of Holberton, ten miles out beyond the Baer Hills, there was talk about it, and bets were made across the billiard-table. And in more distant vicarages and curacies, where the patron was in some degree known, there were flutterings of heart and anxious searchings of the “Guardian” and Crockford. Those who seemed to have some chance of the living grew despondent, and those who had none talked the thing over with their wives after the children had gone to bed, until they persuaded themselves that they would die at Claversham Rectory. Middle-aged men who had been at college with Lord Dynmore remembered that they had on one occasion rowed in the same boat with him; and young men who had danced with his niece thought secretly that, dear little woman as Emily or Annie was, they might have done better. And a hundred and eleven letters, written by people who knew less than Messrs. Gearns & Baker of the Andes, seeing that they did not know that Lord Dynmore was there or thereabouts, were received at Dynmore Park and forwarded to London, and duly made up into a large parcel with other correspondence by Messrs. Gearns & Baker, and so were dispatched to the forty-ninth parallel—or thereabouts.