Of two vessels, one for honour and the other for dishonour, surely nature never made so complete a contrast as Matilda Tipping and her sister, Mary Mesurier. Both country girls, born in a humble, though defiantly respectable, stratum of society, the ways of the two sisters had already parted in childhood. Mary was studious, neat, and religious; Matilda was tomboyish, impatient of restraint, and fond of unedifying associates.
“Your aunt never aspired,” Mrs. Mesurier would say of Aunt Tipping sometimes to her children; and, while still a child, she had often reproached her with her fondness for gossiping with companions “beneath her.” Matilda could never be persuaded to care for books. She was naturally illiterate, and even late in life had a fixed aversion to writing her own letters; whereas, at the age of seven, Mary had been public scrivener for the whole village. But with these regrettable instincts, from the first Matilda had also manifested a whimsical liveliness, an unconquerable lightheartedness which made you forgive her anything, and for which, poor soul, she had use enough before she was done with life. At seventeen, added to good looks, of which at fifty there was scarcely a trace in the thin and meanly worn face, this vivacity had proved a tragic snare. A certain young capitalist—known as a great gentleman—of that countryside had pounced down on the gay and careless young Matilda, and had at once provided her life with its formative tragedy and its deathless romance. Even at fifty, hopelessly buried among the back streets and pawnshops of life, heaven still opened in the heart of Matilda Tipping at the mention of the name of William Allsopp. For several years she had lived with the Mesuriers, as general help to her sister, between whom and her, in spite of surface disparities, there was an indissoluble bond of affection; till, at thirty-five or so, she had suddenly won the heart of a sad old widower of fifty-five, named Samuel Tipping.
Samuel Tipping was no ordinary widower. As you looked at his severe, thoughtful face, surmounted by a shock of beautiful white hair, you instinctively respected him; and when you heard that he lived by cobbling shoes by day and playing a violin in the Theatre Royal orchestra by night, occasionally putting off his leather apron to give a music lesson in the front parlour of an afternoon, you respected him all the more. There had been but one thing against Mr. Tipping’s eligibility for marriage, Matilda Tipping would tell you, even years after, with a lowering of her voice: he was said to be an “atheist,” and a reader of strange books. Yet he seemed a quiet, manageable man, and likely—again in Mrs. Tipping’s phrase—to prove a “good provider;” so she had risked his heterodoxy, which indeed was a somewhat fanciful objection on her part, and made him, as he declared with his dying breath, the best of wives.