/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: Cupid and the Vicar of Swale (1900)

Cupid and the Vicar of Swale (1900)

Short Stories
Swale is a place of many advantages. It is strikingly picturesque and eminently respectable; the people who live in it excite the admiration of the world in general, not only by their affluence, but by their gentility also, and in these degenerate days the one does not always accompany the other. They inhabit mansions overgrown with creepers, and they all keep a carriage. Here and there a few poor people live in artistic cottages for the special conveniences of the young ladies, who paint in water-colours. But the poor people, even, are of the nicest class, the class that looks so pleasant in Academy pictures. Alas! it is a type that is fast disappearing in England. Now the labourer is an independent creature with no feelings of gratitude; he does not touch his hat to the parson, and his wife drops no curtsey to the squire; he is full of new-fangled Radical notions, and neither looks nice in pictures nor in reality. He has become distinctly vulgar. But Swale is still different, and long may it keep free from the corruption of external influence! As I said, the cottages are delightful, with little leaded windows admitting neither light nor air–but that is a detail; they are most pleasing to the fair sketcher; honeysuckle and roses climb about the doorway, many of the roofs are thatched, and the whole appearance is exquisitely dilapidated.

One landlord, in a thoughtless moment, decided to pull down those on his own estate, and erect new ones with sanitary conveniences, and all kinds of modern improvements; but an indignation meeting was held, and a deputation of ladies called upon him to protest against the desecration. Being quite a plebeian creature, the only person in Swale history whose breeding was not irreproachable, he would not listen to their arguments on abstract beauty, and they did not even convince him by showing that he would utterly ruin the type of good honest English peasant. They appealed to his patriotism: the English countryman was the backbone of the British Army, and how could he be expected to retain his native candour, his obedience and deference to his betters, if he were born and bred, not in a picturesque old cottage covered with honeysuckle, but in a new-fangled place with a bath-room? But fortunately, Mr. Simpson, the owner of the estate in question, was called to a world where it is to be hoped horrid Radicals are in the minority, and his daughters were comparatively innocuous. The poor of Swale were left in peace and quietness, to their own content, for they looked upon it as somehow a merciful dispensation of Providence that every winter their children should die of diphtheria or typhoid. For many centuries they had been used to look upon themselves as different beings from the gentry, and they were not going to begin now to give themselves airs. The gentry were the gentry: they were only common people whose part in life it was to minister to their betters' needs, and there was an end of it. It must be said that the richer inhabitants of Swale behaved very well in any calamity. They showered jellies and port-wine and coals upon the indigent, and read the Bible to them for hours.

Now, when the old Vicar of Swale departed the life which he had thoroughly enjoyed for hard upon eighty years, there was much perturbation in the parish over the choice of his successor.

"We don't want somebody too strenuous," said Lady Proudfoot, the widow of Sir George Proudfoot, who had been given his K.C.B. after bungling some important affair in the Colonies.

Mrs. Strong was taking a cup of tea with Lady Proudfoot, while the latter's daughters were playing tennis. Mrs. Strong, having arrived perilously near the age of forty, had given up violent exercise; she thought it ugly enough for a young girl to get red in the face, but for a woman of her years, unpardonable. Besides, she did not take heat becomingly. In her youth Mrs. Strong had been rather overpowering. Her six feet of height and her generally massive proportions made her seem almost mountainous, and when she gambolled, she reminded one of a young elephant. But years had brought their chastening influence. She was still massive, but the effect now was magnificent. She was sedate, admirably self-possessed, a type of the British matron. The literary young ladies of Swale said she reminded them of Boadicea. She was undoubtedly a very fine woman, with well-cut features and clear, steady eyes. The only fault to be found with her was that, though her teeth were obviously perfect, she need not have shown them quite so much; but as she was a very good-natured creature, with an uncommon sense of humour, her constant smiles may have been due to a cause other than vanity.

"Of course," said Lady Proudfoot, "there are so many different sorts of clergymen."

"Yes," replied Mrs. Strong, smiling, "there are the parsons who are Christians, the parsons who are gentlemen, and the parsons who are neither."

"Well, the chief thing is that he should be a gentleman," said Lady Proudfoot. "If he's been to Oxford and taken his degree he'll be quite Christian enough for us."

"It would certainly be terrible if we had an eager little man with a wife and a red nose."

"To say nothing of fifteen children, my dear," cried Lady Proudfoot. "And the wives that those sort of clergymen choose are too impossible; Heaven only knows where they find them! No, the fact is, Edith, that if we have a horrid creature who wants to reform everything, it will simply be the ruin of Swale. We get along very well as we are, and I'm certain that no one could find anything seriously wrong with us."

"We go to church regularly in the newest of bonnets," interrupted Mrs. Strong, "and when we call ourselves miserable sinners we know it's merely a façon de parler."

"If we have a vicar who wants to have Mothers' Meetings and Bands of Hope and all that rubbish, I really don't know what will become of us."

"Yes," replied Mrs. Strong, with a drawl which might have been sarcastic, "as long as he can play tennis and behave decently at a dinner-party, our souls can take care of themselves."

"Well, the living's worth six hundred a year and the house is in excellent condition, so I really think we ought to get someone nice."

Lady Proudfoot, and the inhabitants of Swale in general, had every reason to be pleased with the bishop's choice. The Rev. Robert Branscombe was evidently a gentleman—he was, indeed, second cousin to a peer, which necessarily inspired his parishioners with confidence. He was a bachelor, and forty years of age, tall, good-looking, with a fine presence. In ten years his presence would perhaps be a little too fine, already he gave signs of future corpulence; but at the period of which I write it was most striking. He was clean-shaven, and dressed in the latest clerical fashion. I need only add that he was High Church, as befitted so respectable a place as Swale, and had charming manners. He talked a great deal, in a loud voice and in a slightly magisterial manner. His conversation was easy, and could be understood by a child. The latest novel, the local rose-show, dances, and dinner-parties formed sufficient ground for the display of his powers. He rarely spoke of parish matters, considering it bad form to talk shop. Finally, he had a passion for Tennyson, which in a person of his cloth is a proof of much candour and purity of soul. The ladies pronounced him charming, and when an unsympathetic man suggested that his conceit was phenomenal, waxed mighty wroth in the vicar's defence.

"What I like in him," said Lady Proudfoot, "is that except for the clothes he wears, you'd never think he was a clergyman."

It was obvious that the Vicar of Swale ought to marry, and during the two years of his incumbency, the parishioners had done nothing but concoct schemes to that end. Mr. Branscombe was to the tips of his fingers a marrying man. But the choice in Swale was limited, and lay, in fact, between Mrs. Strong and Jane Simpson. The latter was the eldest daughter of the horrid Radical whom death only had prevented from disfiguring the landscape in the manner I have related. She was a rather homely young woman of nine and twenty, and harmless enough to have gained the sufferance of the other inhabitants of Swale, though they could not be expected to forget that her father had made his money in the city. Her matrimonial desires were obvious, and Lady Proudfoot was disgusted at the way in which she behaved with Mr. Branscombe. Of course she did nothing indecorous—she was the quietest and most modest of young persons—but she turned pale at his approach, and blushed at every word he said to her. She was evidently dying of love, and every one knew that he need only ask to be accorded her hand and fortune, which was at least one hundred thousand pounds in solid securities.

But the match was looked upon with disfavour, and his parishioners found much comfort in the thought that Mr. Branscombe was not mercenary. Yet though he would not marry Jane Simpson for her money, he was, after all, only human, and could not be expected to remain insensible to her evident adoration. The hopes of the ladies of Swale were centred entirely upon Mrs. Strong, whom the Fates had not favoured only in looks. Mrs. Strong was not only handsome, but a widow with fifteen hundred a year as well. Her age, appearance, and station made her appear designed by higher powers to share with Mr. Branscombe this life of woe. She was a fascinating woman, and the vicar harboured for her the sincerest admiration. The matter would doubtless have been settled in the first year of his residence at Swale, if Miss Simpson, by her sighs and blushes, had not a little disconcerted him. He was really a kind man, and did not wish to break the poor thing's heart. And the attitude of Mrs. Strong was a little embarrassing. She smiled at him, asked him to dinner, and callers found him constantly taking a cup of tea with her. She seemed to think it quite natural that amiable hostesses at luncheon parties should always pair them off together. The difficulty was that Mrs. Strong was equally amiable with every one she met, and though she evidently liked the Vicar of Swale, she had given no particular signs of desiring him to be her husband. The Rev. Robert Branscombe had too much dignity and too fine a presence to undergo the humiliation of a refusal—so he hesitated. Of course the ladies of Swale saw how things were, and they did everything to help him—but still he hesitated.

"Upon my word," said Lady Proudfoot, "I don't know what more encouragement he can want. He can't expect Edith to propose to him herself."

Lady Proudfoot, more than any one else in Swale, was con- cerned with the matrimonial affairs of Robert Branscombe. She was of the opinion that it was as improper for a clergyman to be unmarried as for a doctor, and, besides that, Mrs. Strong was her bosom friend. She knew very well in what state of mind the vicar was, and decided at length to speak with Mrs. Strong on the subject. One day she attacked her by leading the conversation to Jane Simpson.

"I really don't see why she shouldn't marry Mr. Branscombe if she wants to, poor thing," said Mrs. Strong. "She's a nice quiet girl, and she'd make an admirable wife for a clergyman."

"My dear Edith," rejoined Lady Proudfoot, "I think it would be most disagreeable for all of us. You know she's inclined to be frightfully religious already."

"Oh, six months of marriage with the vicar would quite cure her of that."

"Besides, I don't think she's the sort of wife for Mr. Branscombe. He likes to have everything so nice, and she's terribly homely. I noticed last time I called there that she—that she wore knitted stockings, my dear."

Mrs. Strong laughed, showing her beautiful teeth. "I dare say the poor girl's circulation is bad and she has cold feet."

"I have no patience with you, Edith," said Lady Proudfoot, abruptly coming to the point. "Can't you see that he wants to marry you?"

Mrs. Strong was not at all disconcerted. "He has never said so."

"I wish you would make up your mind. I think it's absurd for a woman like you, without any encumbrances, to remain unmarried." Mrs. Strong made no answer, and Lady Proudfoot added, "I wonder if you'd accept him if he proposed?"

"Has he commissioned you to find out?"

"Not directly," said Lady Proudfoot; "I know he thinks you very charming."

"I'm afraid I don't think him very courageous."

"That sounds like encouragement."

"It does a little," agreed Mrs. Strong, smiling.

Lady Proudfoot rose to go, and kissed her friend.

"I dare say he'll come and see you to-morrow," she added. Mrs. Strong was not particularly anxious to get married. The Vicar of Swale was rather a pleasant man, and it was flattering to know that he wished to make her his wife. She wondered that he had not already become engaged to Jane Simpson. Anyhow, he might come; she had committed herself to nothing, and would listen to what he had to say.

Next day at three o'clock the Rev. Robert Branscombe was shown into her boudoir. Mrs. Strong received him with her usual easy amiability, and his self-assurance did not desert him. There was nothing in their behaviour to show that either was love-sick; so far as concerned the man, his presence was the only sign that Lady Proudfoot had delivered any message. His confidence slightly irritated Mrs. Strong. She wished he were a little less at ease. She offered him some tea, which he refused.

"Of course," she thought, "he has too much humour to be sentimental with a cup of tea in his hand."

Meanwhile Mr. Branscombe talked of the weather.

"It really is very hot," he said. "Everything in the vicarage garden is quite parched. You've not seen it since I altered the path on the west side, have you?"

Mrs. Strong divined at once that he was leading the conversation to the vicarage in order to suggest that she should become its mistress. She took a malicious pleasure in veering away. Mr. Branscombe was very self-assured, and she felt it her duty to show him it was not so easy as he thought to win such a charming woman as herself.

"Oh yes," she replied. "Miss Simpson told me you'd been making alterations. I see they're rebuilding the lodge at Manor House." She plunged into a description of the operations. But Mr. Branscombe did not lose his self-possession. He conversed fluently of the lodge at Manor House.

"It's a charming old place," he said, when the conversation of itself gave him the opportunity. "But of course I like nothing better than my own vicarage."

He had brought his own house up again. Mrs. Strong commented upon the unoriginality of man; but with a beautiful smile, like a hare doubling, broke into an account of a delightful vicarage she had taken one summer at Blackstable. It was rather exciting to see Mr. Branscombe driving steadfastly to one point, while she did her best to keep away from it. But at last she was cornered.

"Are you fond of vicarages?" he asked.

The question was inane, but required an answer.


"How do you like mine," he asked.

Such an inquiry insisted on a civil answer. "Of course it's charming." It amused her to know herself caught.

"It would be ten times more charming if— if you adorned it." He was distinctly clumsy. Mrs. Strong expected better things of clerical gentlemen of forty.

"Would you put me in a niche in the wall like an Italian saint?"

"You wilfully misunderstand me," he replied with a gently patronising smile.

"I'm so sorry," she murmured.

He looked at her for one moment, and Mrs. Strong thought that his appearance was too impressive for any one less than an archdeacon.

"Lady Proudfoot sent for me yesterday," he said. "And—she told me I might call upon you."

"I didn't know you required permission to do that," she said with her frank smile, looking steadily at him without the least embarrassment. He was not embarrassed either. He smiled back upon her benignly.

"Will you share my vicarage with me, Mrs. Strong?"

He had evidently made up his mind beforehand how to express himself, and he could not allow the accidents of social chatter to disturb his ordered course. "I've come here to-day," he added, raising his voice a little and speaking with the same solemnity as he used in church on Sundays—"I have come here to-day to ask you to become my wife."

Mrs. Strong looked down. After what Lady Proudfoot had told him it would be ridiculous to seem surprised. She was not certain that so matter-of-fact a proposal pleased her. Notwithstanding her massive proportions, she had a certain tenderness for sentiment, and she would have liked him to hesitate bashfully. A spark of poetry would not have been out of place, nor even some indication of suppressed passion. His certainty of success in the suit was irritating. She felt inclined to refuse him to see how he would take it.

"I feel very much flattered, Mr. Branscombe," she said slowly, to gain time.

"Won't you call me Robert?" he said, patting her hand.

Mrs. Strong looked up quickly, and, bending over, the clergyman kissed her on the cheek.

"I thank you with all my heart," he said. "I will endeavour to perform my duty to you as a Christian husband."

Mrs. Strong was surprised. He evidently was under the impression that she had accepted him, and she was still considering whether she should or not. Surely when you tell a man that his offer flatters you, it is not equivalent to an acceptance? But there was no doubt in Mr. Branscombe's mind. He even asked her to name the day upon which he would become the happiest of men. He vowed he must immediately impart the good news to Lady Proudfoot.

"What an excitement it will cause in the parish," he said, laughing. When he was going away he urged her again to fix a day for the ceremony.

"Till then," he said, "you will find me a most impatient man."

"It's nice of you to be so eager," she said, showing her beautiful teeth. "But you know there is no end of legal things which will want settling." It seemed as if she had definitely surrendered.

"If there is anything I can do to help you," he replied gallantly, "command me."

"How kind you are! You know I have an income of fifteen hundred a year."

"My dear Edith!" He waved his hand in deprecation. He was not the man to listen to gross monetary details.

"I think it right to tell you at once," she said, in answer to his gesture. "My income— is contingent on my widowhood."

"I beg your pardon?" he said.

She smiled. "It ceases on my marrying again."

She watched him closely as she made the statement. Mr. Branscombe started; but his discomposure was momentary.

"My dear Edith," he said, "you will be more precious to me with the thought that I alone am providing for you. If I have hesitated to ask you to become my wife, it was because your greater income might have—cast suspicion on the purity of my have motives."

He kissed her gravely on the forehead and went away.

"I wonder," said Mrs. Strong, "how he'll get out of it?"

Next day Mr. Branscombe came to luncheon. He advanced to Mrs. Strong solemnly and kissed her forehead. He was not a very ardent lover.

"Did you pass a good night?" he asked.

"Oh yes," she replied, smiling. "I always do."

"Ah!" He paused, and then with a slight effort broke into ecstasies with the view from Mrs. Strong's windows.

"I can never be sufficiently grateful to you for abandoning all this for my humble vicarage."

"I'm not cynical," said Mrs. Strong. "I believe in love in a cottage."

"Ah well, it has its disadvantages."

Mrs. Strong had never realised before that her fiancé's conversation was sometimes painfully obvious. They went in to luncheon, and the presence of the butler confined them to commonplaces. But Mrs. Strong was in high spirits. She saw that Mr. Branscombe was somewhat embarrassed. She had never seen him in such a condition before, and it delighted her.

"You know," he said, when they returned to the drawing-room, "life will be very different for you as chatelaine of Swale Vicarage. I'm afraid we shall not be able to afford a carriage."

"Oh, a pony-cart fulfils all my aspirations."

"What a charming character you have," he said.

He was becoming more and more ill at ease. Mrs. Strong's humourous eyes were upon him, and he was afraid of looking foolish. He made an effort to be gallant.

"I've never seen any one with such beautiful hair as you have," he said.

She laughed, and he felt his remark absurd.

"Have you told Lady Proudfoot of our engagement?" she asked.

At last he positively blushed. "No. On second thoughts I fancied I had better not. After all, it's no business of hers. And besides, the date of our marriage is so very uncertain, isn't it?" Mrs. Strong had the charity not to look at him. But he took his courage in both hands. "I won't conceal from you that what you told me yesterday has made some alteration in the matter—not in my feelings, of course; your poverty can only make my love the greater."

Now Mrs. Strong looked at him, and he faltered. She at last had seen the Rev. Robert Branscombe lose his self-assurance.

"Of course," he said, "I know my behaviour is liable to misconstruction. It looks as if—as if I were mercenary. Yesterday I asked you to marry me as quickly as possible. I know it sounds funny when I ask you to-day to wait."

"Oh, not at all," said Mrs. Strong, encouragingly.

He took her hands, but Mrs. Strong gently withdrew them. He was talking very quickly, nervously.

"I feel," he said, "that my duty to you counterbalances everything. I hope you understand that it's entirely for your sake that I want you to wait."

"Oh, you want me to wait?"

"In three or four years all sorts of things may happen. I have a good deal of influence in clerical quarters, and I have been given to understand that I'm my Uncle George's sole heir. Of course he's only sixty-five. He may live another ten years; but even then I should only be fifty." He took her hand again. "I know I'm asking a great deal; but will you wait for me, Edith, say five years? I'm certain to get a better living by then."

"Are you sure," she asked quietly, "that you wouldn't prefer not to be bound by an engagement? As you suggest, so much may happen in five years."

"Oh, Edith, surely you have not so poor an opinion of me as to suppose me capable of breaking off our engagement because—because—"

"You know, Robert, you are a young man, and in ten years you'll only be fifty; but I shall be fifty too! And you have a great future before you. I'm sure you'll end up as a bishop. A man of your calibre is wasted on a little country parish. I don't feel myself justified in hampering you."

"I should be contemptible if I asked you to give me back my word." The Vicar of Swale was genuinely disturbed; he was a gentleman, and he could not stoop to a discreditable action. "But it is I who ask you, Robert. I do not feel myself justified in standing in your way. It is no sacrifice to me when I think of your future."

"I can't accept your sacrifice," he said solemnly. "I should feel such a—such a cad."

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Strong, changing her tone. "We will forget our interview of yesterday. You may be quite certain that I will say nothing about it."

"Ah, Mrs. Strong, you are a truly Christian woman."

The Vicar of Swale was humbled, but Mrs. Strong was a woman, and she could not let him go without a small revenge. "I hope," she murmured with a smile, as she shook his hand, "I hope I haven't made you feel very ridiculous? I really haven't tried to."

Next morning Lady Proudfoot rushed into Mrs. Strong's drawing-room.

"Oh, Edith, what have you done?"

"Good Heavens! what's the matter?"

"I've just had a letter from Mr. Branscombe, and he tells me—"

"What?" Surely the Vicar of Swale had not betrayed their secret.

"He tells me that he's engaged to Jane Simpson."

Mrs. Strong did not move a muscle.

"Oh, is that all?" she said. "I knew he meant to propose to her. He came to see me two days ago, and I told him she'd make a pattern wife."

"But he wanted to propose to you."

"Oh, dear no. You're completely mistaken," she replied, calmly. "He thinks I'm really too Low Church."

She smiled her most fascinating smile.

"You certainly have got beautiful teeth," said Lady Proudfoot, rather sourly.
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