October 7th 1860
Last night was the queerest of evenings. It is probably far too soon for me to give a proper account of it, but since I have been thinking of nothing else since I waved the vicar off down the approach, I have decided to write down my thoughts as they tumble from me.
The new vicar of Blindingham is a strange fish. If I discover nothing else about him, I have discovered that. He hasn’t yet been in post for a full year, yet he seems to know everything about the village and all its foibles – such that he had felt confident enough to warn me not to expect success at the Harvest judging, and indeed to show humility in the face of defeat, whether I felt it or not.
How dare he presume to dictate my behaviour in this, or any other matter?
He arrived, as invited, at 7pm. He may be well versed in matters of the church and ecclesiastical protocols, but he clearly has not moved in the same social circles as I have. I had expected him to arrive at 7.30 – as any other guest would have known to do – so when Villiers leapt upstairs to tell me he was waiting in the breakfast room I was not yet fully dressed, and had to rush my hair. I do so hate meeting new people without properly dressed hair, it implies a lack of self-respect. So I was already slightly off guard when he greeted me and I could not stop myself from exclaiming on the softness of his hands.
“Oh Goodness!” I said, like a ninny, ” I expected your hands to have seen more of life than this!” What did I mean by this? I am not sure I know – just that whatever work a vicar does in his week it clearly does not involve anything heavy or outdoors.
“Mrs Hatherwick, may I extend my deepest gratitude for this invitation. I confess I am giddy with anticipation of a repast prepared by the famous Blindingham Cook!”
I gathered from this fulsome first sentence that the vicar has not been apprised of the story of our previous Cook, whose notoriety was not confined to the quality of her suppers.
I immediately regretted not inviting someone else to join us, to dilute the atmosphere a little. The Reverend Dibleigh, new to the combined parishes of Blindingham and All Stokes, took to gazing a little too intently at me for my comfort.
We were part way through the fish course when the Reverend’s intentions became apparent. “My dear Lady,” he said, with a sliver of salmon just sidling onto his lower lip, “I have heard a great deal about your family, what a wonderful man your father was, may he rest among us, and how you have triumphed over the frailties of marriage and subsequent rebirth as a single woman”
I was annoyed at the way he seemed to have summed me up in one sentence, but I said nothing. I looked at him, noticing yet more softness in his features than I would have expected.
“I wish not to appear over intimate” – it was too late for that, but no matter – “but I feel I must discuss a delicate subject with you. Experience tells me that honesty and openness are twin bedfellows, both adept at drawing out the essence of an issue. Would you not agree?”
‘Intimate’? ‘bedfellows’? ‘Essence’? What on earth could the man be about to discuss? I was on the point of reaching for the bell to summon Villiers for protection, such was my alarm at this approach.
“Reverend Dibleigh, I pride myself on my ability to speak plainly and truthfully – it is a matter of great importance to me that people deal directly with one another and not dress up a situation to be something it is not.”
“I knew it!” he shouted. “I knew you to be a woman of integrity and compassion!”
His excitement in the wake of what I considered to be a basic stepping stone of conversation was quite overwhelming. I found myself unable to respond in a like manner, so remained quiet, at considerable personal cost.
“My dear, please allow me to abuse my position as a member of the clergy to broach a subject about which many dare not speak. My role – as a conduit between our community and Our Lord – affords me the confidence to ask you a question outright. One which many in the village wish to ask, but their station prevents them.”
What question? Does he know something I do not – I find that hard to believe. What possible question could this man have for me that is shared with everyone else in the village, people who have known me since Papa was an Alderman, generations of whom have served us at the Hall?
What is it?