The Rector's Wife
~ Based very loosely on the film "The Bishop's Wife," with some lines gacked directly from the film. If you haven't seen the film, do so, it's wonderful. ~
Henry Tilney, the rector of Woodston, opened his eyes and squinted against the bright sunlight that filtered through the openings in the bed-curtains. The soft sound of the maidservant closing the door behind her had awakened him; he heard the gentle shuffling and popping that meant she had started a fire, for which he was grateful. Their bedroom was always chilly in the morning, and it was December, after all. Woodston was in the grip of a cold spell that had frozen solid the pond near the green and laid a blanket of snow across the meadows.
The rector turned his head and gazed lovingly upon his wife, Catherine. The subdued but necessary noise made by the servant tending to their needs, opening the window curtains and building the fire, had not disturbed her slumber. Not so long ago, Henry would have wakened her with a gentle kiss, but now he let her sleep. Mrs. Tilney took seriously the responsibilities of the rector's wife, and despite her husband's gentle hints, she did not delegate as much of the work to the servants as she might, and with the demands of running a large parsonage and seeing to two children, lately she had fallen into bed at night in such a state of exhaustion that she was asleep before her husband had a chance to kiss her goodnight. And now I shall not be able to kiss her good morning, thought the rector regretfully. After five years of marriage he still had a great deal of affection for his young wife, and he missed the loving closeness of their early days together, a closeness which had produced little Catherine after a year or so and young Henry not quite two years later. There had been no sign of another child since, although little Kitty had asked for another baby brother for a Christmas present, a request that had amused her father greatly and caused him to declare that she grew more like her mamma every day.
Henry sighed and reached for his watch; eight o'clock, time for him to rise. He reached out as if to stroke Catherine's hair, then pulled his hand away; let her sleep, poor girl. He slipped out of bed as quietly as possible and went into his dressing-room, and his wife slumbered on unknowing.
He took his time with his morning ablutions, and by the time he went down to breakfast, Catherine was already there. Her hair showed signs of hasty brushing and arranging, and she said to her husband rather impatiently, "Why did you not wake me, Henry? You knew I was to meet with Mrs. Shockley today at ten!" Mrs. Shockley was the churchwarden's wife, and the bane of Mrs. Tilney's existence.
"In truth, I had forgotten, my sweet. What does she want now?"
Catherine had poured a cup of coffee, which she set in front of him. She sat down and rested her elbow on the table, rubbing her forehead tiredly. "She wants to set up a school for the village children, so they can learn to write and read and do sums." She glanced up at her husband half-fearfully and added, "She wants me to take a turn teaching two days a week."
"No," said Henry firmly. "You shall not. You have responsibilities enough here in our home, and sufficient children to teach with Kitty and Harry. It is well enough for Mrs. Shockley, whose children are grown and gone."
"I must," Catherine said weakly. "You know how she shall talk about me if I do not. 'Mrs. Tilney is too young for her position,'" she said, in a fair imitation of Mrs. Shockley's high-pitched, strident voice. "'She cannot faithfully discharge the Christian duties of the rector's wife. She does not understand her responsibilities.' She sounds like my mother when I was first married, saying what a sad, heedless young housekeeper I should be. I've proven her wrong, have not I, Henry?" She looked at her husband pleadingly. "I am a good wife, and a good mother, am not I?"
Henry leaned across the table and covered Catherine's hand with his own. "You are a wonderful wife, my dearest girl," he said soothingly. "And a wonderful mother. Our children love you, and I love you."
Catherine squeezed his hand and smiled. "I love you, too, Henry," she said, and rose with a tired sigh. "I must go and see that Kitty and Harry are awake and dressed and have had their breakfast."
"The nurse can see to that," said Henry. "And you should put off that Shockley woman until tomorrow. It is abominably rude of her to call so early in any event. If she has anything to say about it, she may repeat it to me, and I shall deal with her." He would not release her hand. "Let us take a holiday, Catherine. We shall go for a sleigh ride, and take an early dinner at that inn you like so much. We will leave the children with the nurse, and go off together for an afternoon, like when we were first married. If you are too nice for a scheme of such blatant dissipation, we can pay a call at the toymakers' shop near the inn and get Christmas presents for the children."
Catherine wavered a moment, sorely tempted by Henry's scheme, then pulled her hand from his and turned away. "I cannot," she said simply. "I have responsibilities."
"Tomorrow, then," he persisted. "We shall go tomorrow."
"Very well," she said without much enthusiasm, and left the breakfast-room, leaving her husband staring sadly after her.
The lady made her way up the main street of the village, passing the little chandler's shops with a firm and authoritative step that made the dawdlers give way before her. She was dressed plainly, in a long skirt with a rather mannish riding jacket and hat, under which her hair blazed coppery red. She nodded to many of the passersby, greeting several by their Christian names, a liberty that, strangely, none of them took amiss, although if asked they would not have been able to give the lady's name in return.
A group of ladies stood in front of the milliner's gossiping; one of them held the hand of a small boy. The lady's grip was negligent, however; the child, seeing something of interest on the other side of the street, snatched his hand away from his mamma and ran into the roadway, heedless of a chaise and four approaching at a high rate of speed.
"Richard!" cried the woman in considerable alarm; she started after him, but the red-haired lady was quicker. She strode fearlessly into the street before the oncoming team; onlookers gasped, certain she would be trampled. To everyone's surprise, the horses immediately stopped, not with rearing and snorting as might be expected, but smoothly and calmly.
The lady smiled down at the little boy, who had frozen in terror in front of the onrushing team. "Well, Richard?" she asked him amiably. "Are you ready to go back to mamma?"
The boy made an affirmative noise and held his arms up to her trustingly. She laughed, scooped him up, and carried him to the side of the roadway, where she restored him to his weeping mother.
"Thank you, thank you," the woman sobbed, clutching the laughing child to her breast.
"It was my pleasure, Frances," said the red-haired lady. "But do try to keep him under better control, will you?"
"Yes, yes, of course," the woman babbled, leading the boy away, her relief so great that she did not question how the red-haired lady, whom she had never before met, knew her name.
The red-haired lady nodded in satisfaction and continued on her way. Her destination stood at the far end, tolerably disengaged from the village. The lady gazed approvingly upon the large, stone house, with its circular sweep and green gates. "A fine parsonage," she said to herself.