19th February 1826
Much to my relief, Mama decided that it was best not to take the youngest children to the chapel in the first instance, ‘so as to gain a reasonable impression of the place, without any distraction.’ (I think she meant make a good impression!). Therefore, Mama, Fanny and Letty and I walked down to Red Lion Square. Papa did not accompany us, despite his solemn promise, on account of ‘an appointment with a man about a hat.’ Mama was awfully vexed and said that there was a time and place for selling hats; and that it was an insult to OUR LORD. Papa replied that he was not selling anything but merely asking for a modest testimonial; and, as for OUR LORD, perhaps if the Romans had had ventilated hats, then calmer heads might have prevailed. This atheistic notion was rather too much for Mama, who walked off in great dudgeon, with her progeny trailing behind.
We arrived just in time for the beginning of the service. The chapel itself proved quite as gloomy inside as out. There were only a trio of small round windows on each side of the hall, resembling the muddy port-holes on a Thames steamer. The Little Bethesdans, thus confined below decks, were naturally an unsmiling lot, mostly dressed in black. I tried to peer about and spot Selena and old Mrs Hathersage but the whole place seemed full of nothing but long faces and shadows. The Reverend Prater was plainly the brother of the lady who had accosted me in the square; for, as the pair of them stood at the front of the congregation, they looked so uncannily alike, barely different in age and height, with sharp noses and dark hair scraped tight back from the face, that it was a good thing one wore a hat and the other a bonnet. Fanny saw me staring at them, lent over to me and whispered, ‘Salt and Pepper! Mr and Mrs Cruet!’ I whispered back that I thought, from the look of them, they might both be the pepper.
Reverend Prater, at the very least, had a peppery temper when he stood in the pulpit. Everything seemed to rile him. He told us – in a scratchy, reedy voice, that positively screeched whenever he flared up – which was every other sentence – that we were all running to the most evil courses. Firstly, men were sinful; secondly, women were weak and sinful vessels; thirdly, children were the next best thing to diabolical imps – at which point, I will swear he stared at me! – and we had not even brought the boys!! – and not a single soul amongst us was sixpence better than a savage. The pepper continued to be sprinkled very liberally as he went on (for two hours!). The Bishop of London was a ‘great big purple humbug’ (‘Amen’ from certain members of the congregation); the metropolis was a ‘Babylon-upon-Thames’ (gasps and admiration); and – for some reason which I did not quite follow – the Commissioners of Sewers were ‘money changers in the Temple’ (I think perhaps he has been given a summons for the rates). There was a good deal of Satan; a dash of Pharisees and Sadducees; and a pinch of The Serpent in the Garden; and it was altogether a very fiery brew, and the Reverend ended up so very red-faced and overheated, that poor Letty looked positively terrified.
When it was all over, the Reverend went and stood outside by the doors, along with his sister, and seasoned the congregation with a tight-lipped blessing as they left. When he came to Mama, however, he paused, clasped her hand and grew more lively and agitated.
‘Glory be! A new addition to our flock! You are welcome amongst us, ma’am, though we are all but poor sinners. There is joy in heaven, this morn! Joy!’
Mama praised the sermon and the Reverend Prater’s face creased a little around the lips, as if commencing a journey towards a smile, without reliable map or directions. His sister then leaned forward and asked, ‘And these are your little lambs, ma’am?’
She looked kindly enough at Fanny and Letty, but bestowed upon me a glance which, I am certain, was intended to hint that I had, at best, only borrowed a fleece; and, most likely, skinned its original owner into the bargain. Mama, however, saw none of this and dutifully recounted our names, ages and virtuous dispositions – and those of her absent, even more tender lambkins – and it was soon settled between them that we would return in one week’s time, with all goodwill and best wishes.
It was then, as we stepped into the street, that I saw SELENA. I nudged Mama and she needed no encouragement to shepherd us out to where Mrs Hathersage and her niece were adjusting their bonnets and gloves. Needless to say, Mama exclaimed that this was an astonishing coincidence; that the Reverend Prater quite lived up to his reputation; that she was quite certain that we had all been thoroughly raised up in the eyes of the Lord – and had dear Mrs Hathersage been coming here long?
Mrs Hathersage replied, sternly, that she had been a Little Bethesdan since her marriage and that her late husband – God rest his soul – had been a Little Bethesdan since birth, which was good enough for anybody. This rather dumbfounded Mama and so I took the opportunity to speak.
‘Did you enjoy the service, Miss Hathersage?’
‘I dare say,’ replied Selena, without any particular show of interest, barely looking in my direction.
‘I should say,’ I replied, summoning up my courage, ‘that Reverend Prater is a beacon of light on a rocky shore.’
I looked carefully at Selena to see if she took my meaning – had she liked MY VALENTINE? – but she remained wholly – impossibly – beautifully – maddeningly – reserved.
‘What a colourful little expression, my dear!’ interposed my mother, turning things back to Mrs Hathersage. ‘Charles has recently displayed a literary bent, ma’am. We have hopes that he might one day become a playwright. Do you ever attend the play?’
‘No, ma’am,’ replied Mrs Hathersage, coldly, ‘I assuredly do not. Ah, here is our carriage, at last.’
I had not thought what I should do or say if Montague Pym’s carriage appeared, accompanied by its owner. Fortunately, it was only a regular hackney coach. Mama plainly entertained high hopes that we might receive an invitation to ride home in company. When the old lady turned around, as she was climbing the steps, Mama positively stumbled forward, tripping over herself in expectation of a carriage ride. Mrs Hathersage, however, only wished to share her thoughts on matters theatrical: ‘I would steer your family clear of such idle diversions, ma’am. They are an introduction to blasphemy and vice. Good-day.’
With that, the cabman closed the door, and the carriage rattled off. Mama said nothing but I could tell that she was smarting. Nonetheless, she had done me a great service. For, when she had spoken about my play – of all things she might have said – Miss Selena Hathersage turned and looked at me with – dare I believe it? – a glimmer of interest!
There is now nothing for it – I simply must become a playwright.