The Vicar and the Baroness

It was half past ten already, he still had a mile to go, and the sheep were really beginning to be a problem.

One large ewe was nuzzling his elbow, while what he presumed was her lamb rubbed its fuzzy head against his knee. And the rest of the flock – about three dozen, most white except for one or two black – were edging ever nearer, eager to get to know him as well. A large ram was eyeing him beadily, but had yet to approach.

Charles backed against the closed stile, cursing himself and the woolly creatures at the same time. So much for saving time by taking a shortcut through the pasture.

It had seemed such a good idea, particularly since the clouds were getting thicker and darker, and thunder was rumbling in the distance. But there he was, unable to get into the lane behind him because the maddening creatures were blocking the stile. Even if he was able to shoo enough out of the way, there was a chance some would wander out into the lane with him, and he had neither the strength nor the inclination to round them up and push them back into the pasture.

He cursed himself again. It had seemed so generous earlier to let the O’Keefes have the trap for the morning, so Mrs. O’Keefe could go to a neighboring village to help an ailing friend.

“But Mr. Merriam, ‘tis five miles by the road, and it looks like rain.”

Mrs. O’Keefe had looked worried as she stood in his study, where he had called her after breakfast to ask for directions.

“Please don’t worry about me, Mrs. O’Keefe,” he’d told her firmly. Though he had known the lady for less than a day, he had already learned that firmness was called for when dealing with her. She was very kind, to be sure, and efficient, but she was also a force – someone whose strength of character did not match her small form. Had that been the case, she would have been seven foot tall. As it was, just an hour in her presence made him feel small.

When she had first taken him through the Vicarage, he had fought to get a word in. True, he had been tired from his journey, and frankly downright impressed by how well-appointed and comfortable his new home seemed. Most vicarages, in Charles’ experience, were draughty and a bit dank, and poorly furnished – the Church usually did not see any need for their clergy to live in luxury. But the Beltin Vicarage was warm – fires burned merrily in several rooms – well-lit with gaslight, and furnished simply but very comfortably. Charles was astounded to see bathing facilities rivaling those of a luxury London hotel.

When he had expressed his surprise to Mrs. O’Keefe, she had told him it was all Lady Augusta’s doing – “well, she and the Baron of Beltin, of course, bless his departed soul” – and he had been treated for the next half hour to a sermon on the goodness of the couple, who, it seemed, were worthy of sainthood.

It had also quickly become apparent that, in order not to commit a grievous social blunder, Charles was to call on Lady Augusta before anyone else in the parish. Annoyed, but bowing to the inevitable, Charles had hoped to put off this daunting call for at least a day.

But as he sat later in the cozy, well-appointed dining room finishing a delicious supper (Mrs. O’Keefe was an excellent cook), he had been interrupted by Thomas, who solemnly presented him with a letter, then retreated back to the kitchen.

Charles opened the creamy linen envelope, noting the heavy seal, embossed with a crest showing a griffin clutching a single rose. Inside was a single sheet of heavy notepaper.

September 21, 1882.

Dear Mr. Merriam,
Welcome to Beltin! We are all very pleased you could take up the post at such short notice. Bishop Warren recommends you highly, and assures me you are eager to continue the good works this Parish has become known for in Oxfordshire, which is a delight to hear.
If it is not inconvenient, I would like you to call at the Manor tomorrow at 11 o’clock. We have much to discuss. Please send word with young Thomas as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

Augusta Maria, 23rd Baroness of Beltin

Charles snorted. Considering Lewis Warren had been hell-bent on defrocking him just a fortnight ago, and had made it clear being sent to Beltin was a punishment, not a privilege, he had to wonder whether the Baroness was indeed as formidable as everyone had made her out to be. Or was it the good Bishop’s way of evening several scores at the same time?

Charles had called Thomas back into the room, and told him to please send word to Lady Augusta that he was accepting her invitation.

“Invitation, indeed!” Charles had thought bitterly as the boy once again left for the kitchen. “More like a royal command!”

He had made up his mind then and there to take a firm hand with Lady Augusta when he met her. But as he stood against the stile, thunder rumbling in the distance, surrounded by bleating and eating creatures – the lamb was now chewing on his trouser leg – he despaired of meeting Lady Augusta in any fit state at all.

“The new Vicar is meeting the flock, I see.”

Charles turned around in surprise. The amused drawl had come from somewhere over his left shoulder. It was a young man astride a large chestnut mare. He was of slender build, with a long nose, pointed chin and piercing brown eyes. A tall riding hat was pulled down low and hid his hair, but a lock had escaped, showing it was the same colour as the mare. His riding habit was not ornate, but clearly of quality, and his highly polished boots shone.

Charles had not heard any clatter of hooves coming up the lane, but then again, he had been too busy being deafened by the lamb’s bleating – it had not liked being deprived of its meal.

“You are the new Vicar of Beltin, are you not?”

The young man’s voice was not deep, but quite pleasant. He spoke like an educated person, and Charles assumed he must belong to one of the wealthier families in the parish – Mrs. O’Keefe had mentioned one named Featherstone and another named Warwick. They were next on the list after the Baroness.

“Yes, my name is Charles Merriam. I arrived in Beltin yesterday.”

Charles paused to give the young man – who couldn’t have been more than 20 – a chance to introduce himself.

“And you’re on your way to the Manor?”

“Well, yes, I am, but …” Charles gestured to the creatures around him, which had yet to budge an inch. “I didn’t wish to let them out by opening the stile, and the shepherd is nowhere to be seen, and I don’t even know who they belong to.”

“They’re from the Manor farm. I expect the shepherd will be along soon – he likes to get them into shelter when there’s thunder.”

“I see.” The young man’s unwillingness to introduce himself, as well as his supercillious manner, were really getting on Charles’ nerves.

“But perhaps Gwenog can be of help?”

Before Charles could ask who Gwenog was, the young man whistled sharply. A small Welsh border collie trotted up the lane and cocked its head at its master.

“Gwenog, you know what to do.” The young man gestured towards the sheep.

The collie barked happily, and wriggled its way under the lowest bar of the fence. In a trice, it was in the middle of the flock, nudging and nipping them. It only took a few minutes for the collie to herd the sheep – including the suspicious ram – into the middle of the pasture.

Charles took the first opportunity to unlatch the stile, and opened it enough so he could squeeze through. As soon as he was in the lane, the young man – who had stayed astride the horse the whole time – whistled for the dog, who came bounding back. Charles hastened to thank him and the canine.

“That’s all right. Gwenog lives for herding, though I don’t allow her to do it enough, do I, Gwenog?”

Gwenog barked at her master, who reached down to scratch the dog’s ear affectionately with his riding crop.

“Now, Mr. Merriam,” the young man turned his attention once more to Charles. “If you want a shortcut with fewer farm creatures blocking it, may I suggest you go through the wood that’s farther up the lane? It will be on your left, and should save you at least 20 minutes.”

“Thank you again. Erm, I didn’t quite catch –”

“You’re welcome. Just one question, Vicar – why didn’t you just climb over?”

Charles, affronted, tried to formulate a reply, but before he could say a word, the impossible young man laughed nastily, jerked the reins and galloped off, Gwenog running valiantly behind.

Charles glared them until they disappeared. Well, of course he could have climbed over the stile, but his arm was aching more than ever this morning, and he didn’t fancy getting a splinter, and – this was the most shameful part – it was quite a high stile and Charles was afraid of heights.

Thunder rumbled again, this time closer, and Charles hastened up the lane. He come upon the wood, and despite his wish to disregard the young man’s suggestion, he decided to try the shortcut.

In a surprisingly short time, he saw the manor, sitting in a shallow valley surrounded by a vast silken green meadow. The manor was four stories, built of grey stone in the Georgian style, gracious and practical. The ruin of Beltin Castle lay elsewhere on the site, Mrs. O’Keefe had informed him. It was a fortress from Norman times, of great interest to historians.

Charles walked down the grassy incline and around the side of the house, making for the front. A short flight of stone steps led to a massive front door, flanked by two stone griffins. The enormous knocker was in the shape of a rose. Charles reached up for it, but could barely lift it. Then he noticed the bell pull on the side. He gave that a tug, and as he waited for someone to open the door, he pulled out his pocket watch and looked at it. It was 11 o’clock sharp. As if on cue, the rain started.

“Good morning.”

A young footman had opened the door and was looking out at him.

“Good morning. My name is Charles Merriam. I am the new Vicar of Beltin.”

“M’lady is expecting you. Please come in.”

The footman led the way into a cavernous hall, whose centerpiece was a magnificent double staircase. Portraits – Charles assumed of family – took up most of the available wall space.

The footman ushered him into a largish room on the left of the staircase. It was a pleasant little parlor, lined with books, furnished with squashy chairs, and best of all, a large fire burning in the grate. Charles went to it eagerly, and warmed his hands.

As he thawed, he studied the largish portrait hanging over the mantelpiece. It was clearly in the modern style, and its subject was a smallish man in his forties, with red-brown hair receding at the temples. There was something elfin about him, with his narrow brown eyes and slightly pointed ears. But there was no denying this man was someone to be reckoned with.

“I see you’ve met my husband the Baron.”

The voice was startlingly familiar, and Charles turned around, only to see a slender young woman standing in the parlor doorway. She was elegantly clad in a green silk dress, and her reddish-brown hair fell in lavish curls around her face. With her hair down, her nose seemed a bit shorter, her chin less pointed, but the brown eyes were sharp as ever.

She came towards him, and he realized Mr. Peters was quite correct. This was a tall woman – she must be at least six foot.

“I am so glad you took my suggestion to go through the wood. It’s really raining hard now. And please accept my apologies – it was rude not to introduce myself earlier. My name is Augusta Maria, Baroness of Beltin.”

She extended her hand, but he didn’t take it. He was rooted to the spot, flushed with embarrassment. His eyes felt very dry suddenly, and he blinked repeatedly to moisten them.

“Mr. Merriam?”

“Errrm… where’s Gwenog?”

It was not what he’d meant to say, and he blushed harder. Unlike in their recent encounter in the lane, however, Lady Augusta didn’t laugh at him. instead, she smiled, and the smile was not unkind.

“I left her in the stables. She is madly in love with one of the horses, and likes to keep him company every day. Do you like dogs, Mr. Merriam?”

“Very much, actually, but I haven’t had one since I was a boy.”

“Perhaps you’ll be able to get one once you’ve gotten more settled in Beltin.”

“Perhaps.”

“Please sit, Mr. Merriam.” Lady Augusta gestured to a squashy wingback chair by the fire, and Charles went to it gratefully. He waited for her to seat herself in the armchair opposite, then sat down. It was marvelously comfortable.

“It’s gotten rather cold, hasn’t it? Robert will be along shortly with hot drinks. Would you like a coffee or a tea?”

“Coffee would be delightful, thank you.” Charles felt himself relaxing, even as a small voice at the back of his mind told him that was a bad idea.

“Very good.” Lady Augusta leaned forward and gave him her full attention. Now that he could see her up close, he realized she was not as young as he’d thought. She was definitely at least 30. The baron must have been considerably older.

“So, Mr. Merriam – what do you think of Beltin?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it all yet, but the vicarage and the church are most satisfactory.”

“Of course – forgive me, you have not been here quite a day, have you? It was kind of you to call here so quickly. I should have given you a chance to get your bearings. I wasn’t thinking.”

Lady Augusta’s face showed concern, but Charles doubted this swift summons to the Manor was anything but deliberate. Still, he did his best to give her a reassuring smile. Years of ministry had honed that smile well, and it slid onto his face like a well-worn mask.

“I’m sure I will like it very much once I get to meet more of the parish. I’m afraid I do not know as much about Beltin as I’d like. It was rather a last minute arrangement..”

“Indeed. Poor Mr. Tuttle – he was not an old man, you know. But he had a groggy heart. It had been a problem for years – ever since he was struck by lightning as a boy.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s true. He was just 10, taking a short-cut through a pasture on his way home from the village. The next thing he knew, he was on his back, his clothes had all been burnt off, and he was surrounded by curious sheep.”

He looked at her skeptically. This sounded a little too familiar for his comfort.

“No, no, Mr. Merriam – I promise I am not ridiculing your earlier situation. It really is true. Angus Tuttle was struck by lightning that day, and somehow managed to find his way home, even though his heart had been damaged and his right side partly paralyzed. He would use a cane the rest of his life. And the incident was enough to convince his father, a lifelong atheist, to make sure his son became a priest.“

“That is quite a story.’

“Yes, isn’t it? My husband became acquainted with Mr. Tuttle through Peter Marsters, an Oxford don who is one of England’s most knowledgeable experts on lightning. You are an Oxford man, are you not?”

“Yes, I went to Merton.”

“James got his degree from Cambridge. Beltins have been attending Cambridge for generations.“

“My family has done the same, but at Oxford. Father was a Merton man also, though my older brother went to Balliol.”

“And are you all clerics?”

“My father was. My brother William is an inventor. He moved to America 10 years ago after securing a patent on an engine design, and now works at Boston Tech. He was at Harvard before.”

“They are much more open to industrial innovation in America. Great pity they don’t allow women to be scholars at Harvard, though I applaud the women’s colleges that have opened recently. Of course, Oxford and Cambridge are the same. I was at Girton, but Cambridge doesn’t accept women’s degrees. Perhaps they will someday. Oxford seems more open to the notion.”

“I heard some talk of it, yes.”

Charles didn’t add that the talk had largely been scornful, though he honestly couldn’t think why women’s scholarship shouldn’t be acknowledged the same as men’s. Granted, this was a notion he had adopted rather recently.

“Did you? Oh, that’s right – you lived in Oxford before coming here, didn’t you?”

“Just since I returned from Bombay a month ago. I was in Bombay for two years before that, and travelling as a missionary before that.”

“I always enjoy Bombay. The last time I was there was in ‘78. Before your tenure, I’m afraid. But tell me, Mr. Merriam,” here Lady Augusta leaned forward a little further, so her hair tumbled over her cheek. “What on earth did you do in India to make Bishop Warren so determined to defrock you?”

Shocked by her bluntness, Charles was saved from answering by a discreet knock on the door, and there was the young footman pushing a laden trolley.

“Ah, Robert. Mr. Merriam and I would both like some coffee.”

Robert bowed slightly and set about his task, pouring the fragrant brown liquid into two sturdy blue and white cups.

“I hope you will try some of the shortbread? My cook is particularly fond of baking, and sadly does not get much scope for her talents here, though I have an awful sweet tooth.”

Charles nodded, and Robert set a small plate with two biscuits on the table next to him. they smelled delicious. He responded to Robert’s inquiry about milk and sugar, then accepted his cup.

He took a sip of coffee, hoping it would brace him for the barrage of questions bound to assault him the moment the footman left the room. Suddenly, he felt his temper rising, thought he tried to tamp it down. Shouting at the parish’s chief benefactress on his first day on the job was not a good idea, and certainly not a way to keep out of trouble.

But really! What an indelicate way to ask! And for that matter, what an indelicate woman overall! She may have lovely clear skin, and soft shiny hair, and an enviable figure (though no corset that he could ascertain),. But her manner was most offensive. So direct, so unladylike, almost man-like. So man-like, in fact, that she thought it quite proper to wear a man’s riding habit and ride astride instead of side-saddle!

He watched her take her coffee cup and dismiss the servant. He took another sip and prepared for battle.

All text copyright of A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.