From Tom Brown at Oxford by Thomas Hughes, pub.1861
Chapter XVIII, Englebourn village
…The figure of fun was a middle-aged man of small stature, and very bandy-legged, dressed in a blue coat and brass buttons, and carrying a great bass-viol bigger than himself, in a rough baize cover. He came out of a footpath into the road just before them, and, on seeing them, touched his hat to Miss Winter, and then fidgeted along with his load, and jerked his head in a deprecatory manner away from them as he walked on, with the sort of look and action which a favourite terrier uses when his master holds out a lighted cigar to his nose. He was the village tailor and constable, also the principal performer in the church-music which obtained in Englebourn. In the latter capacity he had of late come into collision with Miss Winter.
For this was another of the questions which divided the parish — The great church-music question. From time immemorial, at least ever since the gallery at the west end had been built, the village psalmody had been in the hands of the occupiers of that Protestant structure. In the middle of the front row sat the musicians, three in number, who played respectively a bass-viol, a fiddle, and a clarionet. On one side of them were two or three young women, who sang treble—shrill, ear-piercing treble—with a strong nasal Berkshire drawl in it. On the other side of the musicians sat the blacksmith, the wheelwright, and other tradesmen of the place. Tradesmen means in that part of the country what we mean by artisan, and these were naturally allied with the labourers, and consorted with them. So far as church-going was concerned, they formed a sort of independent opposition, sitting in the gallery, instead of in the nave, where the farmers and the two or three principal shopkeepers—the great landed and commercial interests—regularly sat and slept, and where the two publicans occupied pews, but seldom made even the pretence of worshipping.
The rest of the gallery was filled by the able-bodied male peasantry. The old worn-out men generally sat below in the free seats; the women also, and some few boys. But the hearts of these latter were in the gallery—a seat on the back benches of which was a sign that they had imbued the toga virilis, and were thenceforth free from maternal and pastoral tutelage in the matter of church-going. The gallery thus constituted had gradually usurped the psalmody as their particular and special portion of the service: they left the clerk and the school children, aided by such of the aristocracy below as cared to join, to do the responses; but, when singing time came, they reigned supreme. The slate on which the Psalms were announced was hung out from before the centre of the gallery, and the clerk, leaving his place under the reading desk, marched up there to give them out. He took this method of preserving his constitutional connection with the singing, knowing that otherwise he could not have maintained the rightful position of his office in this matter. So matters had stood until shortly before the time of our story.
The present curate, however, backed by Miss Winter, had tried a reform. He was a quiet man, with a wife and several children, and small means. He had served in the diocese ever since he had been ordained, in a hum-drum sort of way, going where he was sent for, and performing his routine duties reasonably well, but without showing any great aptitude for his work. He had little interest, and had almost given up expecting promotion, which he certainly had done nothing particular to merit. But there was one point on which he was always ready to go out of his way, and take a little trouble. He was a good musician, and had formed choirs at all his former curacies.
Soon after his arrival, therefore, he, in concert with Miss Winter, had begun to train the children in church-music. A small organ, which had stood in a passage in the Rectory for many years, had been repaired, and appeared first at the school-room, and at length under the gallery of the church; and it was announced one week to the party in possession, that, on the next Sunday, the constituted authorities would take the church-music into their own hands. Then arose a strife, the end of which had nearly been to send the gallery off, in a body, headed by the offended bass-viol, to the small red-brick little Bethel at the other end of the village. Fortunately the curate had too much good sense to drive matters to extremities, and so alienate the parish constable, and a large part of his flock, though he had not tact or energy enough to bring them round to his own views. So a compromise was come to; and the curate’s choir were allowed to chant the Psalms and Canticles, which had always been read before, while the gallery remained triumphant masters of the regular Psalms.
My readers will now understand why Miss Winter’s salutation to the musical constable was not so cordial as it was to the other villagers whom they had come across previously.
Indeed, Miss Winter, though she acknowledged the constable’s salutation, did not seem inclined to encourage him to accompany them, and talk his mind out, although he was going the same way with them; and, instead of drawing him out, as was her wont in such cases, went on talking herself to her cousin.
The little man walked out in the road, evidently in trouble of mind. He did not like to drop behind or go ahead without some further remark from Miss Winter and yet could not screw up his courage to the point of opening the conversation himself. So he ambled on alongside the footpath on which they were walking, showing his discomfort by a twist of his neck every few seconds, and perpetual shiftings of his bass-viol, and hunching up of one shoulder.
The conversation of the young ladies under these circumstances was of course forced; and Miss Mary, though infinitely delighted at the meeting, soon began to pity their involuntary companion. She was full of the sensitive instinct which the best sort of women have to such a marvellous extent, and which tells them at once and infallibly if anyone in their company has even a creased rose-leaf next their moral skin.
Before they had walked a hundred yards she was interceding for the rebellious constable.
“Katie,” she said softly, in French, “do speak to him. The poor man is frightfully uncomfortable.”
“It serves him right,” answered Miss Winter, in the same language: “you don’t know how impertinent he was the other day to Mr. Walker. And he won’t give way on the least point, and leads the rest of the old singers, and makes them as stubborn as himself.”
“But do look how he is winking and jerking his head at you. You really mustn’t be so cruel to him, Katie. I shall have to begin talking to him if you don’t.”
Thus urged, Miss Winter opened the conversation by asking after his wife, and when she had ascertained “that his missus wur pretty middlin,” made some other common-place remark, and relapsed into silence. By the help of Mary, however, a sort of disjointed dialogue was kept up till they came to the gate which led up to the school, into which the children were trooping by twos and threes. Here the ladies turned in, and were going up the walk, towards the school door, when the constable summoned up courage to speak on the matter which was troubling him, and, resting the bass-viol carefully on his right foot, called out after them,
“Oh, please marm! Miss Winter!”
“Well,” she said quietly, turning round, “what do you wish to say?”
“Why, please marm, I hopes as you don’t think I be any ways unked ‘bout this here quire-singin’ as they calls it— I’m sartin you knows as there ain’t amost nothing I wouldn’t do to please ee.”
“Well, you know how to do it very easily,” she said when he paused. “I don’t ask you even to give up your music and try to work with us, though I think you might have done that. I only ask you to use some psalms and tunes which are fit to be used in a church.”
“To be sure us ool. ‘Taint we as wants no new-fangled tunes; them as we sings be aal owld ones as ha’ been used in our church ever since I can mind. But you only choose thaay as you likes out o’ the book, and we be ready to kep to thaay.”
“I think Mr. Walker made a selection for you some weeks ago,” said Miss Winter; “did not he?”
“’Ees, but ‘tis narra mossel o’ use for we to try his ‘goriums and sich like. I hopes you wunt be offended wi’ me, miss, for I be telling nought but truth.” He spoke louder as they got nearer to the school door, and, as they were opening it, shouted his last shot after them, “’Tis na good to try thaay tunes o’ his’n, miss. When us praises God, us likes to praise un joyful. “
“There, you hear that, Mary,” said Miss Winter. “You’ll soon begin to see why I look grave. There never was such a hard parish to manage. Nobody will do what they ought. I never can get them to do anything. Perhaps we may manage to teach the children better, that’s my only comfort.”
“But, Katie dear, what do the poor things sing? Psalms, I hope.”
“Oh yes, but they choose all the odd ones on purpose, I believe. Which class will you take?”
And so the young ladies settled to their teaching, and the children in her class all fell in love with Mary before church-time.
The bass-viol proceeded to the church and did the usual rehearsals, and gossiped with the sexton, to whom he confided the fact that the young missus was “terrible vexed.” The bells soon began to ring, and Widow Winburn’s heart was glad as she listened to the full peal, and thought to herself that it was her Harry who was making so much noise in the world, and speaking to all the neighbourhood. Then the peal ceased as church-time drew near, and the single bell began, and the congregation came flocking in from all sides. The farmers, letting their wives and children enter, gathered round the chief porch and compared notes in a ponderous manner on crops and markets. The labourers collected near the door by which the gallery was reached. All the men of the parish seemed to like standing about before church, until they had seen the clergyman safely inside. He came up with the school children and the young ladies, and in due course the bell stopped and the service began. There was a very good congregation still at Englebourn; the adult generation had been bred up in times when every decent person in the parish went to church, and the custom was still strong, notwithstanding the rector’s bad example. He scarcely ever came to church himself in the mornings, though his wheel-chair might be seen going up and down on the gravel before his house or on the lawn on warm days, and this was one of his daughter’s greatest troubles.
The little choir of children sang admirably, led by the schoolmistress, and Miss Winter and the curate exchanged approving glances. They performed the liveliest chant in their collection, that the opposition might have no cause to complain of their want of joyfulness. And in turn Miss Winter was in hopes that, out of deference to her. the usual rule of selection in the gallery might have been modified. It was with no small annoyance, therefore, that, after the Litany was over, and the tuning finished, she heard the clerk give out that they would praise God by singing part of the ninety-first Psalm. Mary, who was on the tiptoe of expectation as to what was coming, saw the curate give a slight shrug with his shoulders and lift of his eyebrows as he left the reading-desk, and in another minute it became a painful effort for her to keep from laughing as she slyly watched her cousin’s face; while the gallery sang with vigour worthy of any cause or occasion —
“On the old lion He shall go,
The adder fell and long;
On the young lion tread also,
With dragons stout and strong.”
The trebles took up the last line, and repeated —
“With dragons stout and strong,”
and then the whole strength of the gallery chorused again —
and the bass-viol seemed to her to prolong the notes and to gloat over them as he droned them out, looking triumphantly at the distant curate. Mary was thankful to kneel down to compose her face. The first trial was the severe one, and she got through the second psalm much better; and by the time Mr. Walker had plunged fairly into his sermon she was a model of propriety and sedateliness again. But it was to be a Sunday of adventures. The sermon had scarcely begun when there was a stir down by the door at the west end, and people began to look round and whisper.
Presently a man came softly up and said something to the clerk; the clerk jumped up and whispered to the curate, who paused for a moment with a puzzled look, and, instead of finishing his sentence, said in a loud voice, “Farmer Groves’ house is on fire!”
The curate probably anticipated the effect of his words; in a minute he was the only person left in the church except the clerk and one or two very infirm old folk. He shut up and pocketed his sermon, and followed his flock.