It’s a mystery

Blindinham Hall

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?

Dr Hatherwick, I presume?

October 6th 1860

Blindingham Hall

I have laughed more today than in the whole of the year thus far – I can hardly hold my pen to record the cause of my amusement, so this entry may be brief. But record it I must – posterity will thank me!

Josiah has announced his wish to become a learned man. He wrote to me from London to inform me that he wishes to study with the Greatest Minds in the Country. Quite why he thinks I care, I do not know.

He says in his letter, amongst other ramblings,

“Eff, I find myself more free, now that I am without the constant bind of having to consider your happiness, to nurture my intellect. Your abandonment was a cruel and selfish act. The act of a woman who has lost her wits and I will never forgive you for it.

But I wish to thank you for releasing me to be able to concentrate on myself, for once. You have my eternal gratitude for the time and independence I now enjoy. Ha! You didn’t expect that, did you? You did not want for me to find happiness in your departure, quite the contrary. Well you are to be disappointed! Ha!”

He blathers on for a while in this vein, I confess my eyes glazed over for much of it, but he ends his letter with this:

“So, before long, I shall be the cleverest of men. I have embraced a world of which you know nothing – I revel in the company of educated men whose boots you are unfit to polish. I shall soon be awarded the highest academic title and the greatest academic respect. My subject is, as you may expect, Business and the Swift Acquisition of Wealth.”

He suggests that I may be so enraptured by his success that I will beg him to return – “A vain hope, Eff, I will tell you this minute. Do not wait for me to come back to you”. At the very least he seems confident that I will approach him for money when he is rich – “I accepted your help when we first married because I knew the giving of it made you happy. I did not and do not need financial help from you and will never offer any in reparation.”

Villiers knocked on my door to ask what I could possibly find so amusing, since I was alone in the room. I chose not to share the reason for my laughter, indeed I could barely speak because of it.

This evening I have invited the vicar to supper. His attitude towards me since Harvest has cooled and I wish to know why. I care little for his actual opinion of me, of course, but his good word stands for much in the village and beyond. I wish not to be dismissed by those who have respect for him. Cook is preparing a stuffed duck, I believe. Duck is far too dry for my preference, but I agree with her that it shows restraint.

Sore Loser

Blindingham Hall

October 4th 1860

The Harvest celebrations were a marvel! Villiers surpassed even his own expectations concerning the refreshments and the entertainment – indeed he was so pleased with his success in arranging the music, the decorations and the dancing that I fear I may lose him to the travelling circus.

For my first appearance in the village as an unwed woman, I chose the brightest of dresses and the sturdiest of shoes. I intended to walk as often and as far as I wished and dance whenever I fancied, instead of the customary few steps to my top table to sit slightly behind Josiah. If anyone wondered where he was they did not show it and I felt no need to apprise them of the reason for his absence. I hardly noticed it myself.

I was displeased not to be awarded the jugged fruit prize, if truth be known. My apricots are the talk of the County, but the annual rosette ceremony always leaves me on the outer edge of the crowd. I am led to understand – after a gentle word from the vicar, who seems to know what everyone is thinking whether they tell him or otherwise – that the villagers would see a prize for me as an act of dastardly corruption by the parish elders. How ridiculous! If I were to solicit preferential treatment in return for my considerable contribution to Blindingham’s economy and quality of life, it would not take the form of a pat on the back for my preserves.

Still, I was welcomed warmly and royally distracted by the whole event. A triumphant start to my new life, despite the stiffness in my knees and the pain on the soles of my feet. Robust shoes can only mitigate so far when one is determined to make the most of an outing.

Hoedown

September 18th 1860 Blindingham Hall

I have been remiss of late, I apologise!

I recently gave reason for a reader – should there ever be any – to expect a detailed treatise on the demise of my marriage – I teased and made reference to events and conversations which would later be fully documented here. I intended to explain why I am in such haste to extricate myself from this desperately unhappy union now that I have legal recourse.

I have since made no attempt to explain myself, or justify my actions. I wake up with Dauncey every day and feel no compunction to consult anyone on my choice of breakfast, where I might walk, to whom I might speak and which events of the world I should know or care about. I have so much more time now I do not need to tend to Josiah, or wait for word of him. Or consider what his opinion might be of how I spend my day.

The joy in this freedom has been such a revelation to me that I no longer wish to revisit my previous prison, to describe its confinement or recount my escape!

So there it is – I will not go back there in person or in thought and thus you will never know what happened. I will not sit at this desk – with Dauncey twitching to be taken out, and Villiers pacing the landings waiting for my instruction – and waste my time on such a fruitless pursuit.

In order for me to make space for my new life to begin, you will remain knowledgeless about the way in which my marriage eroded and crumbled like a cliffside.

I am of the opinion that Josiah shares that ignorance with you. He seems to think I have simply run mad – no woman in her right mind would wish to be rid of him. I am sure he believes that.

I am off now to check on the preparations for the Blindingham Harvest Celebrations which will happen in the village in a week or so. I have pledged my usual selection of jams and jugged apricots and am thinking this year of suggesting we bring musicians in from Horsham to play for us. It has been too long since I danced.

Letter Opener

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July 12th 1860

This journal entry will, I fear, be unreadable. My hands shake such that I wonder who is master of them – it is certainly not me!

I saw the envelope on the salver in the entrance. Boo had at last written to me. I ran down the staircase – wondering as I went why Villiers had not brought the letter direct to my rooms. As I thought that, it was clear to me that Villiers had not, for that matter, undertaken any of his daily duties by the time my breakfast was cleared. Where could he be?

No matter. I was sure he would appear soon. I seized Boo’s missive and ran back to my desk. Papa had given me a sharp implement meant for dealing with correspondence which seemed to me quite dangerous. But it was effective, and I sliced through Boo’s seal as easily as if it had already been opened.

When I saw what she had sent me. I fell into a fit of weeping and dismay. My plea to my oldest and closest friend  had resulted in the most egregious response.

She had enclosed, with no note of explanation,  a likeness of  her children – Little Bradstone and Angelina –  both looking sullen, as if the person taking the picture had frightened them into unnatural stillness.

But why did she do that? Had she not comprehended my request for evidence of Josiah’s betrayal? Boo knows that I have always hoped to be a mother myself. Why would she be so cruel as to reply with the very image of my inability to achieve my wish.

I am shocked at Boo’s cruelty.  Shocked and saddened. I had thought her my friend, one who would help me in my quest to rid myself of Josiah’s stifling presence. Instead she torments me with my own failings.

 

I shall have to look elsewhere for the evidence I seek.

Villiers is on Fire

July 4th 1860, Blindingham Hall

 

Villiers is such a thoughtful servant! How lucky I am that Papa brought him back to the Hall. He has, of late, become a little slower and more pensive – I notice this in myself, too, of course. I suppose I must acknowledge that increasing age brings with it more experiences, not all of which are welcome, so perhaps Villiers and I are feeling our losses more keenly than we would wish. I wonder also whether the duties involved in running the Hall and grounds are weighing heavy on him – I do often hear him say aloud that he wishes Jennet were still here, and he has that stupid boy at his heels much of the day. I must ask him whether he feels the burden is too much. I have no notion, however, what I could do if my guess is correct.

I digress. What brought me to write this entry was a thought he came to me with today which was like the Villiers of old – it was such a joy to see him bright-eyed and full of fun again. He opened my curtains this morning with these words:

‘Ma’am! I have had the best of good ideas! Today it is eighty-four years since the day  your new adopted friends across the sea cut themselves adrift from our ancestors. We simply must mark the occasion. I have hatched a plan which I should like to discuss with you after breakfast!’  He ran from my rooms on light feet and with a laugh in his throat, I swear if he could have danced down the stairs he would have.

I was not so enamoured of my time in America to want to share their delight at being free of people like me, and I am not aware that eighty-four is a significant number, being at neither end nor the middle of a decade. But I was intrigued to hear his plans.

As my breakfast was cleared and before I could get up from the table, Villiers skipped into the dining room and shouted ‘Gunpowder, Ma’am! We must use gunpowder!’ He paused, clearly expecting me to know of which he spoke, but I did not. I waited.

‘Tonight, the groundsmen and I would like to entertain you with a display of firepower and colour, to mark your time abroad and your welcome return’. I asked whether he had put this idea to Mr Hatherwick – he should at least be made to feel he has some influence over what happens here (I did not say those words to Villiers, naturally). Villers gave me one of his looks and said ‘I asked the master for his opinion, but he gave none save for telling me he has an appointment in the village this evening and that we are free to do as we wish in this regard’.

So it seems that this evening, at dusk, Josiah will be in the village – in some commercial pursuit, I expect – and I will be seated on the terrace while Villiers and the grounds staff set fire to things in front of me. I will set my face to be pleased, for Villiers’ sake. I may even actually enjoy it!

Golden

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June 27th 1860, Blindingham Hall

I pace these rooms like a trapped cat.

I sent word to Boo that if she did indeed have any thoughts on what I might set before a Judge I should be pleased to hear them. I must, must be a free woman by the Autumn, I can bear it no longer!

I have not explained myself fully yet – nor can I think how I might – but my marriage to Josiah has come to an end  in all but the most administrative of senses. He is here at the Hall this summer, during what he calls a ‘lull’ in his business dealings. Our paths do not cross during the day and I find I no longer seek him out in the evenings, to talk to him or sit while he smokes and tells me what’s what with the World. As a young bride I loved nothing more than to listen to him as he explained things to me – how men do politics, what the Vicar believes and why he might be misguided,  how best to polish the silver – he knows so much about everything, I thought, and how lucky I am he has chosen me to be his student as well as his wife!

I learned from him and tried so hard to understand more so that I might be a suitable companion to him, intellectually. I found myself frequently distracted, though, by the need to issue orders to the servants, or wondering what new fabric had arrived from London. I was – and possibly still am – such a feather-headed piece that many a time I would drift away even while Josiah was talking directly to me. Poor man –  I would suddenly become aware that the talking had stopped and that, whilst I was stroking Dauncey or thinking about the fish we had had for supper, Josiah had paused to hear an answer from me.

“Effie! I asked you whether or not you thought I was right! Well, do you?” he would bark, and my fingers would clasp Dauncey’s fur so hard that he bared his teeth at me. There, the two creatures I loved most in the world angry with me for not knowing what to say. I would touch Josiah’s knee and say “My darling of course you are right – would that others could see it!” which always seemed to please him.

Over time I came to see that he talked about the same subjects, night after night. I learned the rhythm of his arguments such that I knew when he was about to pause – at that point I would let out a sound which he interpreted as agreement. He did not actually need me to speak – it was enough that I was there at all.

In truth I cannot say exactly when the talking stopped. But I do remember realising that the silence became preferable.

 

If I do not hear back from Boo by the end of the month I shall press on with my quest to find evidence which might set me free. My old Clacton detective skills have not deserted me yet, I trust!

 

 

 

Curiouser

 

June 10th, Blindingham Hall

I have had the strangest of replies from Boo. She sent a brief note in which she expressed sympathy for my plight, but cautioned me against further action. Here is a little of what she wrote,

“….I wonder, Eff, whether you are quite ready for what may transpire if you pursue this notion to rid yourself of Josiah. You know what sort of man he is. He is proud and careful of his reputation. And he does love you, as far as he is able. You are lucky not to need him for his connections and wealth, but to be loved – even by one such as he – must surely be preferable to having no-one?”

I do not know why she says I will have no-one, I have my best friend – Boo herself – and am not afraid of walking without a strong and proud man by my side. I have Villiers, should it come to it.

She goes on to say,

“I urge you to reconsider this path, for once you embark upon it you will be unable to retrace your steps.”

I wonder – are her warnings a sign that she does have the evidence I need, or no?

 

Mensa et thoro

May 24th 1860, Blindingham Hall

 

My Dearest Boo

I trust this letter does not find you as it leaves me – sad and unsure of what is to come but keen to be done with what has gone before.

Boo, do you remember how we loved to address each other thus? How amused we were to mock the formal convention of greeting by declaring ourselves to be in the most egregious of circumstances and wishing the other would never know such times? You would make me laugh like a flock of birds when you wrote hoping that I was not unhappily married and without children, as you yourself pretended to be, you dear thing!

On this instance, I am sad to reveal that my opening greeting is not a joke – would that it were.

There is not enough ink in the well for me to explain much in this note – I trust we can speak in person before long. I have gifts for LB, who I suppose is still B but much less L, and Angelina, brought from America – but until that time I write this in the hope that you might be able to provide more of your wisdom to help me in my current fog.

I learn that an Act of Parliament has now been passed under which I might claim my freedom from Josiah. Those in London knew of this three years ago – but those of us out in the country, it seems,  were not informed by our husbands returning home from their business. I have only just been made aware – from reports that reached the Inn last week and were discussed freely and loudly amongst the menfolk and overheard by the girls in the kitchen, one of whom passed it to Cook, but it matters not how I heard, forgive me  – that I might be in a position to declare our marriage over.

Over! I can hardly believe I am writing such a thought. But I must, and I wish for your thoughts on the matter, Boo.

I am happily of independent wealth. Though I would rather Papa were still with me, of course, I am pleased to have his support in the form of the funds I require.

Were I in a position to show evidence that Josiah has been unfaithful to me, I should be able to ask for a Judge to rule that I no longer wish or need to remain his wife.

Boo, how may I come across such evidence – do you know? Has he been unfaithful to me? I am loath to ask him outright for fear he will be made angry and guess my purpose. But simply by the lengthy absence of any approach to me in that regard – I can tell you this Boo you are my oldest and closest friend – I feel sure Josiah has met his needs by other means. Am I correct in this, do you think? Do you know of any way I can be sure that a Judge would believe me?

Please, Boo – if you have any thoughts as to how I might prove adultery on his part, he can certainly not prove any such thing on mine, I would be forever grateful. Any thoughts at all.

I will wait to hear from you. And will wait even longer to tell you why I wish so dearly to be free of him.

 

Yrs

 

E x

 

 

 

 

 

Small Pond

May 23rd 1860, Blindingham Hall

News has come from the village that the Welshwoman is to marry! Not five years after the loss of Papa she has turned her affection to the Cornbench’s farrier – a man more like a weasel than a husband. Villiers came to my rooms before breakfast to tell me – he was clearly exercised by it all, he is such a sensitive servant and was right to fear my response. The tears in his eyes and the redness in his cheeks were enough for me to suppose that before he knocked on my outer door he had endured some sort of seizure.

I do not know whether she and Papa would have progressed to the altar had he been spared, but I do not mourn the loss of her as a regular visitor here. I wonder that in a village so underpopulated as Blindingham, where most people are already related to most others,  it can be possible to find more than one person suited to oneself in marriage – but I suppose I must accept that I have been lucky in my position. I married Josiah because I wished to, not for need of  a roof or food.

I will not accept an invitation to the nuptials, should I receive one.