The Vicar and the Baroness
A cheesy romance with twisted underpinnings — In serial form.
It was a dark and stormy morning.
The rain started just as Charles bid the Rev. Arthur Chasuble, his longtime mentor and friend, goodbye at the Merton College gates.
“May God be with you, Charles.”
The aged don took Charles’ hand, and shook it with a surprising strength, considering his frail build.
“And keep out of trouble this time.”
“Yes sir,” Charles’ tone was curt.
Though he was grateful to Chasuble for persuading everyone to give him another chance, and for allowing him houseroom at his old college when Hester had refused him her home during the inquiry, he was tired of being treated like an errant schoolboy. Surely, at 35 years old, he was old enough to know his own mind?
He tamped down his indignation, and did his best to give Chasuble a genuine smile.
“Thank you again for everything. I will write very soon. Goodbye.”
Charles picked up his traveling case and hastened down Merton Street, for the rain was getting stronger. Nonetheless, he was soaked by the time he got to the train station, and happy to go inside the stationhouse to dry off a bit before his train arrived.
He was still very wet by the time the train pulled in, bellowing steam. He managed to secure an empty second-class compartment, took off his sopping coat and hat, hung them on a hook, and placed his case in the overhead rack. The Merton porter had kindly taken his trunks to the station early in the day, and Charles had tipped generously to have them hoisted onto the train. Though his broken arm was now fully mended, it wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and it ached whenever it rained.
He refused to revisit the memories of that terrible day, ensconcing himself in a window seat with a book. But he didn’t read. Instead, he stared out the window at the platform, not really seeing it.
Just as the train whistle sounded, the compartment door opened, and a couple came in. Both were neatly dressed, and the woman was carrying a baby. What sex the baby was, Charles could not be certain, but he hoped it would not cry too much. Crying babies were a bane at his services, but it always seemed ungodly to ask the mothers to keep them quiet — babies were also an important part of the flock. Charles usually contented himself by giving them a baleful stare before continuing with his sermon.
The man secured the pair’s various bits of baggage, while the wife sat herself in the window seat across from Charles and tended to the child, which was making noises like a rusty gate. The man seated himself next to his wife just as the train began pulling out of the station, and nodded affably at Charles.
The woman looked up from the now-sleeping baby and smiled.
“Good morning, madam.”
Charles hoped that was the end of it; he was tired already, and his journey had barely started. The biggest problem with the priestly profession, Charles had always thought, was being expected to listen to everyone’s troubles at the drop of a hat. He was a good listener, and members of past parishes had prized him for that reason, but the events of the past six months seemed to have drawn both the patience and empathy from his soul. He would listen to his congregants, to be sure; but anyone outside that community would not be allowed to take up much of his time. He thought God would understand, and this was a day he did not doubt God.
Fortunately, the woman went back to tending the child, and the man pulled out a soggy newspaper. Charles leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The dark morning and the rumble of the train as it moved along the track were soporific, and soon, he was asleep.
“Excuse me, Vicar?”
Charles woke up with a start. He had been dreaming of water – not the rain still slashing against the compartment window, but of a mighty torrent, brown and strong, sweeping away everything in sight, ripping away the delicate hand he was holding onto so desperately.
He could feel a thin trickle of spittle on his cheek, and reached for his handkerchief immediately. How very undignified. He hoped he had not compounded the offense by snoring, or worse – moaning.
“So sorry to wake you, Vicar.”
The man across from him sounded amused. He was now holding the baby, while his wife rummaged through a large basket.
“We thought you might like one of our sandwiches. We’ve got plenty – they’re roast mutton.”
Charles realized he must have been asleep more than two hours. The journey was just three, and it must be time for lunch.
“That would be very kind, thank you.”
He accepted the sandwich, which was generous and quite delicious, and introduced himself. His companions were a Mr. and Mrs. Peters. Mr. Peters, it transpired, was a solicitor’s clerk in Oxford.
“And where are you headed, Mr. Merriam?”
“Beltin. I am taking over the parish there, since the last Vicar died unexpectedly and they needed someone immediately.”
“That is where we are going. My wife’s sister owns the village dress shop, and we got a chance to visit at last. Rosie’s never met her auntie.”
Mr. Peters propped the infant up on his knee, and she glared at Charles, crinkling her startlingly blue eyes.
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Beltin,” Charles heard himself confess. “This appointment was rather rushed.”
“It’s a lovely place.” Mrs. Peters smiled at him reassuringly. “My sister is very happy there.”
“It is,” agreed her husband. “Just make sure you don’t get on the wrong side of the Baroness.”
Mr. Peters ignored his indignant wife.
“She’s a dragon, she is. You wouldn’t think it to look at her – plain as custard – though she is taller than most women. But the males in Beltin are terrified of her.”
“The females, too, though I daresay they like a lot of her ideas.”
Mrs. Peters’ glare was ten times as formidable as her daughter’s.
“Please do not listen to my husband, Mr. Merriam. The Baroness of Beltin is a fine woman, and has done more for the parish than most ladies in her position.”
“Abusing her position, more like,” piped up Mr. Peters.
“Not at all! She is merely fulfilling her husband’s wishes.”
Mrs. Peters appealed to Charles again.
“The Baron of Beltin was a great man. He helped the poor, not just in Beltin but in other villages near it, and was a great champion for the rights of women and children. Losing him was a great blow for the Baroness, but she is fighting on.”
“You just like her because she…”
But the Peters’ bickering was cut short by Rosie, who decided she had been ignored enough for the time being. Charles took the child’s screeching as a cue to excuse himself. He thought it would be best to relieve his full bladder before arriving at his alarming new destination.
When Charles returned to the compartment, it appeared that the Peters family had had it out with itself. And, from the sour look on Mr. Peters’ face, he had not won the argument. His penance was to hold Rosie while his wife read the paper. Thankfully, the child was asleep, and her father didn’t seem to want to converse, lest the noise wake her.
Charles thanked God he was a bachelor. True, there were many excellent women in the world; he had been fortunate to meet quite a few. But none had stimulated his intellect (his loins were another matter) enough for him to give up his single bed. Well, that was not entirely true. But he didn’t want to think about it. Possibly not forever. He rubbed his aching arm.
Fortunately, working abroad had made it difficult to find time – or socially accepted candidates – for courtship. He expected that, once settled in Beltin, the pressure would begin, with hopeful mammas looking to foist their old-maid daughters on the amiable Vicar. True, a vicar’s financial prospects were not impressive, but the job usually came with a large home and plenty of virtue and respectability.
The importance of virtue and respectability had been drilled into Charles from birth. So had his destiny as a clergyman. Both Father and Uncle George had gifted him to God early – one look at his stocky build, patrician nose and blond curls, and they had assumed he shared his papa’s avocation as much as his looks.
Mr. Charles Merriam, Sr., had practically achieved sainthood in his parish before choking to death on a walnut tart at the village fete at age 44. So Uncle George – beg his pardon – the Earl of Bedford, had made sure that Charles, who was in college at the time, got a post in the Church of England upon completing his degrees. Mother had been so proud when he took his vows, though sadly she succumbed to consumption two months later.
Charles sighed, and picked up the book he hoped would help him while away the rest of the journey. He saw Mr. Peters eye the spine and frown slightly. Charles smiled inwardly. No, vicars didn’t always read the Bible. But perhaps “The Origin of the Species” was a somewhat unorthodox choice.
“And keep out of trouble this time.”
“That might be easier if I hadn’t seen another world,” Charles replied to the voice in his head. “Or if I had been given a choice at the start.”
It was close to two o’clock when they arrived at Beltin, and the rain had stopped, though clouds still hung, thick and dark, overhead.
The Beltin station was hardly more than a platform with a small hut for the stationmaster. There was no sign of any sort of village nearby. Charles made sure his trunks were taken out of the luggage van, and bid the Peters family goodbye. As his traveling companions walked down the wooden steps to a seemingly deserted country lane, little Rosie turned in her mother’s arms and beamed at him. Suddenly, he felt a little happier.
“Excuse me, Sir, but are ye our new Vicar?”
It was the stationmaster, a small, wiry man with bushy brown hair and impressive sideburns. He was small enough that Charles, who was not a tall man, felt he towered over him.
“Yes, my name is Charles Merriam.”
“Me name’s Matthew Jenkin. Ye’ll find Beltin Village is about two miles from here, and the Church and the Vicarage are right in the middle, off the village square.”
Charles’ heart sank. There was no way he would be able to drag both trunks – one was filled with books – that distance. He opened his mouth to ask Jenkin to keep the trunks until he could find transport for them, but Jenkin wasn’t finished.
“And there’s Thomas with the pony trap. Quite punctual for a change. ‘Ere, Thomas, give us a hand with them trunks. Mr. Merriam, this is Thomas O’Keefe. He be the Vicarage housekeeper’s son. He’ll drive ye to the Vicarage.”
Thomas was a slender lad with thick curly brown hair and bright green eyes. He looked about 16. He gave Charles a smile and short bow before helping Jenkin haul the trunks down the steps.
Charles followed them, and saw the trap in question in the narrow lane. A small but sturdy brown pony was tethered to it. Once the baggage was secure, Charles pushed a few coins into Jenkin’s monkey-like paw. He thanked the man and told him he hoped to see him at the next service, and climbed into the narrow seat next to Thomas.
They set off. The lane soon widened into a road, and then forked. The pony took a right without any direction from Thomas.
“There it is, Vicar.” The boy gestured to a cluster of buildings in the distance. “Beltin Village.”
Charles had no trouble spotting the church spire, pointing at the cloudy sky like a reproachful finger.
“How long have you lived at the Vicarage, Thomas?”
“Almost eleven years. Mother and I came here when I was six. My father was killed in a railway accident, and we had no family and no place to go. Then Mr. Tuttle was offered this parish, and gave my mother a post as his housekeeper. It was the Baron of Beltin’s suggestion.”
“I’m so sorry about your father. What was his profession?”
“He was a bank clerk.”
“Are you interested in banking?”
“Not me. I’m going to be a doctor.”
“Really?” Charles took another look at this surprising young man, who looked far more like a farmhand than a physician.
“I hope so. Lady Augusta is arranging for me to go to Edinburgh in January. It will be a wrench leaving mother behind, but you’ll take care of her, won’t you, Mr. Merriam?”
“I… well, of course.” Charles was a bit flustered all of a sudden. How could he make a promise about someone he had yet to meet?
“She’ll take care of you, more like. Mr. Tuttle couldn’t do a thing without her. She’s been feeling underused since he died. Poor mother. Well, poor Mr. Tuttle, really.”
“Did you like him?”
“He was always kind. Bit of a mouse, though he and Lady Augusta would get into it on occasion. He had a bad heart, and it caught up with him at last. That’s one thing I want to do as a doctor – help mend bad hearts.”
“That is a noble ambition. Who is Lady Augusta?”
“I beg your pardon. I should give her her full title. She’s the Baroness of Beltin.”
Charles noted no rancour in the boy’s voice, and no fear. Mr. Peters may have been talking out of turn after all. Then again, what did Thomas mean by Lady Augusta “getting into it?” Charles decided not to press the issue for the moment, and they kept chatting amiably about Thomas’ studies as they got closer and closer to the village.
Soon, they were driving through the square, past a small park with a handsome fountain, and to the small church. The vicarage was across the street, a largish stone structure, three stories, with dormer windows and a peaked slate roof. Rose bushes grew in profusion on each side of the front door, softening the building’s severity.
The pony trap had barely stopped when the door flew open, and a woman bustled out. Mrs. O’Keefe had her son’s curly brown hair and bright green eyes, but she was tiny. Once Charles had gotten out of the carriage and stood right next to her, she barely came up to his shoulder. But she exuded so much energy, Charles had little time to notice.
“Welcome to Beltin, Mr. Merriam! Did you have a good journey? I hope you are not too tired. Please, let me show you around the vicarage. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Charles felt as though he were swept up in a strong whirlwind, but allowed himself to be pulled toward the house.
All text copyright of A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission