The Rector's Wife

Chapter Two

Mrs. Shockley was announced precisely at ten o'clock, and it was a rather harassed Mrs. Tilney who received her. Master Harry was being kept inside as a result of a lingering sore throat, and being a stout, active, though normally quite obedient child, his enforced imprisonment had perversely made him wild and noisy. His nurse and his mother had all they could do to get him bathed, dressed, and breakfasted, with the added nuisance of the rector's Newfoundland, Bear, who had been a faithful companion and playmate for the sick child, romping about the nursery and getting underfoot. As the hands of the clock moved inexorably to ten, Catherine had to leave the child entirely to the nurse and neaten her hair and dress before the churchwarden's wife arrived.

"Mrs. Tilney," sang out Mrs. Shockley as she sailed into the drawing-room, "I am glad to see that you have at last learnt to be prompt. I detest being kept waiting." Her gaze swept critically around the room. "If I may offer you a piece of advice, my dear, those draperies are in a frightful condition. They are positively shabby. The moths have made a feast of them, I daresay. Well, such a light fabric will never wear well, and always shows the dirt, but I suppose you knew that when you chose it, hmm? And I suppose to such a fond husband as yours, the expense of replacing them will not signify."

Catherine looked up at the gauzy, elegant draperies fearfully, but they seemed clean and in good repair to her eye. Had Mrs. Shockley but known it, her malicious little speech had delivered a direct hit to Catherine's heart. Catherine was fully aware that she had brought very little money into the marriage, and that everything in the parsonage was paid for by the fortune Henry had inherited from his mother, as well as the tithes from the living. And Mrs. Shockley's husband, as churchwarden, was the man who helped ensure that the tithes were collected. If the churchwarden's wife saw the rector's wife as a spendthrift, she might influence her husband to not be as diligent in his duty as he could be, and Catherine did not want Henry's income to suffer from her actions. And at the least, Mrs. Shockley would spread the news of Mrs. Tilney's negligent housekeeping throughout the village.

"Well, that is neither here nor there," said Mrs. Shockley briskly. She inspected a nearby sopha closely as if judging its cleanliness, and finally sat down with a slight sniff. She was a largeish woman, not tall or fat, but solidly built, with a great deal of nose and chin, and gave the impression of filling up an excess of space without actually doing so. She was the daughter of a butcher, and had managed to get herself married to a man at the very lowest edge of gentility, though of good fortune; thus she must constantly dignify her own position by finding fault in others, and in the pretty, warm-hearted young rector's wife she found an object of constant scorn.

"I have brought good news," she said. "I have decided where the school shall be located! In the gatehouse outside the village!"

Catherine brightened. "That is an excellent notion, ma'am! It is just the place! A little run-down, perhaps, but that can soon be set to rights with a little soap and whitewash."

"Indeed it can, Mrs. Tilney! I am gratified to see that we are of one mind. I have engaged some of the village women, and a few of the men, to come tomorrow and get started. I told them that you would supervise."

"Tomorrow?" said Catherine weakly. She realized with a pang how much she had been looking forward to her outing with Henry. "Tomorrow I have…an engagement that I must keep, ma'am."

"An engagement? With whom? You must break it. The arrangements have been made."

"With my husband, ma'am. We have engaged to go on a sleigh-ride together." As soon as the words left her mouth, Catherine realized how ridiculous they would seem to a woman like Mrs. Shockley.

"A sleigh-ride? Well, Mrs. Tilney, if you would prefer to go gadding about than performing your Christian duty, I am sure I shall not stand in your way. I knew this would be how it was when Shockley told me we would have a young rector, and when he took an even younger wife. Mr. Tilney is always out and about, shooting and whatnot, riding his horses willy-nilly about the village, and I daresay you cannot be expected to know any better."

Catherine knew that the "willy-nilly" rides that Henry took around the village were actually visits to the sick and indigent, and she worked hard to control her temper. Insulting her was one thing, but when this vulgar woman insulted her Henry, well--! She stared at her lap, nervously twisting the fabric of her dress between her fingers and trying to think of something cutting to say, when her Henry came into the room. He took in the situation in a single glance, in particular the haunted look in his wife's eyes.

"Good morning, Mrs. Shockley," he said politely. "I understand you are starting a school for the village children."

"Indeed, sir," said the older woman. She was a little afraid of the rector; she usually felt that he was laughing at her, no matter how grave and attentive his expression. "If their parents cannot read and write, they cannot teach the children to do so. It is our Christian duty to provide them with the means to better themselves."

"Yes, I have always considered your industry to be motivated by Christian principles, madam." Mrs. Shockley looked up sharply at this remark, but the rector's face was expressionless. "And once they can read, perhaps we can get up a subscription for a circulating-library. You would like that, Catherine, would not you?" Catherine glanced up to see Henry's dark eyes twinkling at her, and she smiled. Henry could always make her feel better.

Mrs. Shockley was revolted both by his words and by what she considered amorous looks being exchanged by a couple married a good five years, who should be well past common passion. "A circulating-library? With novels and such? Certainly not. You would countenance such trash in the parish, Mr. Tilney?"

"I do not consider novels to be 'trash,' Mrs. Shockley. I have enjoyed many a novel myself. Mrs. Tilney enjoys them as well; do not you, my sweet? She just read Tom Jones last month, and I believe found it quite edifying."

Catherine blushed and tried not to laugh. Tom Jones indeed! She admired her husband's courage in teasing Mrs. Shockley to her face, something Catherine would never dare to do, and was not a fraction of what the woman truly deserved.

The older woman's face was a mask of astonishment. "You allow your wife to read such things?"

"Catherine is a grown woman, and is capable of making her own decisions. I trust her judgment and her taste implicitly."

There was a message in Henry's words, and Mrs. Shockley received it. She was abashed, but only for a moment. "Mr. Tilney, I am glad you are here, for I have something to say to you. You know the stained-glass window that my husband is donating to the church, the one of St. George and the dragon? Well, since Shockley is paying for it, and very dear it is I do assure you, do not you think that the countenance of St. George should resemble that of my husband? It is only fair."

"Indeed," said the rector, all polite attention. "And whom do you see as the dragon?"

At that moment the door to the drawing-room burst open and Harry ran in, followed by his sister, Bear, several terriers, and the nurse, the humans shouting and the dogs barking.

"I am sorry, Mrs. Tilney," cried the nurse over the din, "but Master Harry got out of the nursery when Miss Kitty brought the terriers in."

"Harry! Harry!" cried his sister, chasing him behind the sopha where Mrs. Shockley sat, stunned at the intrusion. "Come back here right now!"

The terriers followed them, barking excitedly, but Bear stopped in front of Mrs. Shockley. He wagged his tail at her in a friendly way, but she did not deign to notice him. Unaccustomed to such a cold reception, he barked; she still ignored him, and driven to his last extremity, he jumped upon her, placing his large, shaggy paws on her shoulders and licking her face enthusiastically.

"Bear, no! Bad dog! Down! Henry, help me!" cried Catherine, trying to drag the Newfoundland away from the shrieking woman.

Mr. Tilney was already much engaged in trying to extract his son from behind the sopha, but relinquished that duty and managed to pull Bear away and banish him from the drawing-room. He regarded his visitor for a moment, and then silently held out his handkerchief.

"I have my own, thank you," said Mrs. Shockley coldly, mopping at her face and dress, which showed the signs not only of Bear's affectionate greeting but also of the extraneous saliva that always seemed to be present on the fur of the Newfoundland's throat and chest.

Kitty had brought her brother forward and the nurse quickly led them away, followed by the yapping terriers, and the room became silent as quickly as it had been disrupted.

"My apologies, madam, for the commotion," said Henry. His countenance showed no remorse whatsoever. "We have an active family."

"Your children are wild and impulsive, and I am not surprised at it," cried Mrs. Shockley, collecting her reticule and rising to leave. "They can have no example from their parents. I am of a mind to write to General Tilney and tell him of these shocking events. I am sure he would have a great deal to say about it!"

Henry, knowing full well what his father would think of the pretensions of a butcher's daughter, even a rich one, said only, "If you feel that you must, madam, then you must."

Mrs. Shockley did not answer him, but swept toward the door in magisterial dignity, throwing over her shoulder, "Noon tomorrow, Mrs. Tilney. Please be prompt." The door shut behind her, and Catherine sagged into a chair and put her head in her hands.

"What is at noon tomorrow?" asked Henry curiously. "What of our holiday?"

"I cannot go," said Catherine, raising her head. "I am sorry, Henry. I must go to the gatehouse, which is to be used for the school, and supervise the cleaning and painting."

"You must not do anything, Catherine. Or do you consider Mrs. Shockley's claim to be superior to mine?"

"Of course not," she cried. "But you know how she will talk about me if I do not go! She already talks about me. What happened here today will not help." Her face crumpled and tears began to make their way down her face. "I so want to be a credit to you, Henry!"

He knelt next to her and cradled her in his arms, soothing her as she sobbed gently against his chest. It was impossible to be angry with her; he could only feel sympathy for her circumstances. She has taken on so much! How can I help her? How can I show her that the children and I love her, and the rest does not signify?

~ Continued in next chapter