MORGAN FOSTER, THE NEW CURATE

In the golden harvest time, just after they had celebrated Nelly’s
nineteenth birthday, a new face appeared in Huntsdean, and a new
influence began to work among the villagers. The rector, who had grown
old and feeble, was at last induced to secure the services of a curate.
And Robert Channell, having been a good friend to the people for many a
day, felt almost disposed to look jealously upon the stranger.

But before a month had passed by, Mr. Channell and the curate had
found out that they were of one mind. The new-comer did not want to
upset any of the old plans, but he showed himself capable of improving
them. He was no shallow boy, inflated with vast notions of his own
self-importance, but a thoughtful, active man, whose wisdom and
experience were far beyond his years. And Robert liked Morgan Foster
all the better because he was the son of poor parents, and had worked
hard all his days, first as a grammar-school boy, and then as a sizar
at Cambridge.

Nelly liked his sermons, which were never above her comprehension; and
yet she liked him none the less, perhaps, because her instincts told
her that he could have soared higher if he had chosen. She fell into
the habit of comparing him with all the men she had ever known, and
found that he always gained by the process.

Even in person this son of the people could hold his own against the
descendants of the old county families. He was a tall, broad-shouldered
man; and Nelly, whose stature was above middle height, secretly took
a pleasure in feeling that she must look up to him. They were seen
walking side by side along the Huntsdean lanes, and folks began to say
that they were a fine couple.

Those calm autumn days were very sweet days to Nelly Channell. The
summer lingered long; no wild winds suddenly stripped the trees, and
so the woods kept their leafiness, and stood, in all their gorgeous
apparel, under the pale blue skies. Nelly thought it must be the peace
of this slow decay and tranquil sunshine that made her life so happy at
this time. She did not own to herself that every bit of the old scenery
had become dearer because Morgan Foster was learning to love it too.
Her father and mother discovered the secret long before she had found
it out; and they smiled over it together, not ill-pleased.

She had more than one offer just at this period. The neighbouring
country houses were full of men who had come to Huntsdean for the
shooting. They admired Nelly riding by her father’s side, and looking
vigorous and blooming in her habit and hat. They met her now and then
at a dinner-party, and straightway fell in love with her chestnut
hair and brown eyes, and were not unmindful of the handsome dowry
that would go with these charms. She was wont to say, long afterwards,
that her unconscious attachment to another was a safeguard of God’s
providing. Many a woman speaks the fatal Yes, because her heart
furnishes her with no reason for saying No.




Robert Channell encouraged the curate to come often to his house; but
no one hinted that he thought of him as a possible son-in-law. It was
too absurd to suppose that he would give his Nelly to a man who had
only a hundred-and-fifty a year, and was encumbered with an old father
and mother, living in obscurity. Some of the disappointed suitors
remarked that Channell was a fool to have the parson hanging about the
place;–there was no counting on the whims of a spoiled beauty, who
might take it into her head to fling herself away on a curate. But
this notion was not generally entertained, and the intimacy increased
without exciting much notice.

Christmas had come and gone. It was the last day of the old year;
Nelly, sitting alone by the drawing-room fire, was seriously taking
herself to task, and asking her own heart why the world was so very
desolate that day? True, the ground was covered with snow; but the
afternoon sky was bright with winter sunshine. The brown woodlands took
rich tinges from the golden rays that slanted over them, and scarlet
berries glistened against the garden wall. Nelly had wrapped a shawl
round her shoulders, and had laid the blame of her low spirits on a
cold.

“But the cold is not to blame,” owned the girl to herself. “When one
has a friend–such a friend as Mr. Foster–one does not like him to
stay away from the house for a week; and one cannot bear to hear that
he is always at the rectory when Miss White is there! And yet it ought
not to matter to me!”

It mattered so much that the tears in Nelly’s brown eyes began to run
down her cheeks. At that very moment the drawing-room door was thrown
open, and the page announced Mr. Foster.

The curate advanced a few paces, and stopped in sudden dismay. There
was something so pathetic in Nelly’s pale, tearful face, that he was
stricken speechless for a moment. And then he recovered himself, and
began to make anxious inquiries which she scarcely knew how to answer.

“Nothing has happened, Mr. Foster,” she sobbed. “I am only crying
because I am in low spirits.”

“Shall I go away now, and call to-morrow?” asked the bewildered young
man in his embarrassment.

“No,” said Nelly, suddenly looking up through her tears; “I shall be a
great deal worse if you leave me to myself!”

Her face told him more than her words. In a moment the truth flashed
upon him, and covered him with confusion. A vainer man, or one less
occupied in earnest work, would have seen it far sooner. Morgan Foster
took a chair by her side, and felt his heart throbbing as it had
seldom throbbed before. There was but one thing to be done, and he was
going to do it.

There is no need to tell what he said. Perhaps it was not a very
impassioned declaration; but it made a happy woman of Nelly. And
only a few minutes later Mr. Channell and his wife returned from a
wintry walk, and found the two young people together. There were no
concealments; Morgan was too honourable, and Nelly too simple-hearted,
to make a secret of what had taken place. It was all talked over
quietly, but with a good deal of restrained feeling; and, then, having
declined an invitation to dinner, the curate went his way.

He scarcely knew himself in the character of an engaged man. He had
been working so hard all his life that marriage had been a very distant
prospect to him. While there were the dear old parents to be helped,
how could he think of taking a wife? And now, here was a rich girl
willing to marry him; and here was her father actually consenting to
the match with evident satisfaction! But Nelly was something better
than an heiress; she was a very sweet woman; such a woman as any man
would have been proud to win.

So Morgan Foster, as he walked back to his lodging over the frozen
snow, began to wonder at the good gifts that Heaven had showered upon
him. It was a strange fact that he was more inclined to wonder than to
rejoice.