The Unbearable Itch
The Reverend Zacharias Dinmore breathed deeply and attempted to steady his nerve as he made his way slowly out of the ancient church, pausing for a moment to watch the river as it slid in a turbid torrent between its grassy banks.
He had still not recovered from the shock of Lady Melville’s news. ‘It is fitting that you are to dine with us this afternoon, Mr Dinmore,’ she had said earlier at the church door. ‘My dear cousin Mrs Chetwynd is visiting with us and begs to reacquaint herself with you. I may say that she affected considerable surprise on learning that you now had the living here. She tells me that she has not seen you these fifteen years.’
‘Indeed, your ladyship, that is so,’ Zacharias had replied gravely, but he did not feel at all grave inside. On the contrary, his heart had surely turned over in his chest and his stomach squeezed itself down to the size of a walnut.
He knew, of course, what had befallen Henrietta Chetwynd in those fifteen years. She had married and had borne three children to her rake of a husband, who, when taken of a fever five years ago, had left her a virtually penniless widow. Zacharias shook his head and stared unseeingly at the graceful arches of the nearby bridge. After such a series of tragedies she must surely have changed beyond measure.
So reassuring himself he turned his steps the short distance across the road to Alingdon Park, the seat of Lord and Lady Melville. As it was Sunday, there were few people abroad. A coach skittered past at speed and he admired the handsome horses at its head, allowing a small smile of pleasure to cross his sombre features. The smile was but fleeting. As he entered the gates and began the long walk up the drive to the mansion, he longed to scratch his head, but to do so might disarrange the elaborate wig he had donned especially for this afternoon’s dinner.
The grand house loomed up before him, an imposing edifice of golden sandstone with Ionic columns guarding the entrance. He had been intimately familiar with it all those years ago, when both he and Henrietta had been one-and-twenty and the old Lord Melville had held reign.
Anxiety overtook him once again as he was shown into the drawing room and joined the impressive company that was also to dine that afternoon. He had not been the incumbent at St. Boniface’s church for long enough to have made a great many acquaintances in the locality, but it was not long before he was drawn into conversation with a doctor from Chester and a stout matron of middle years, although as a lifelong bachelor the relative merits of man-midwives was of only passing interest to him.
He scanned the room surreptitiously for Henrietta but she was clearly late in arriving below stairs. He allowed himself a small grunt of amusement at this realization, and the doctor, discoursing on a sad case which had been attended by a mere upstart calling himself a medical man, raised his eyebrows. Zacharias excused himself quickly and took a further glass of wine from a passing servant, just as Henrietta erupted into the room.
There had always been many words with which to describe Henrietta, but none among them had been elegant, demure, beautiful or graceful. Her pink satin gown, whilst stylish, appeared to be draped reluctantly over her sturdy frame, as though it were ready to leap off on to a feminine vessel more suited to its frills and fripperies. Her hair, a deep, lustrous, and unfashionably unpowdered brown, was already attempting escape from beneath a poorly aligned lace cap. It was, however, her eyes, large and dark in her round, cheerful face, that had always captured him. They had been ever brimming with amusement, often at his expense.
He lurked in a corner and observed as she began to mingle among the guests. When at last her gaze caught his, his head began to itch even more severely beneath his most prepossessing wig, and he regretted that he had ever worn it.
‘Reverend Dinmore,’ she said in a tone of mock solemnity, hastening over and surveying him from wig to stockings in a most unseemly and unfeminine fashion. ‘How pleasing to see you again after so many years.’
‘Indeed, Mrs Chetwynd,’ he said, bowing, albeit that she had neglected to curtsey. ‘You are in good health?’
‘I am in very good health. I trust that you are also?’
He was spared the necessity of a reply by the call to dinner, but was somewhat startled when Henrietta put her arm in his. ‘Lady Melville has seated you beside me. We shall become reacquainted over dinner.’
His appetite was already uncertain, but sitting beside Henrietta, listening as she boldly asserted her opinions on political matters and seemed to flaunt, indeed revel in her want of the female virtues, he felt it depart entirely. He merely picked at the fish course and enquired politely as to the health of her children.
‘Oh, they are all having a grand time at my sister’s manor in Hertfordshire, and have little need of their mama. I took the opportunity to accept Lady Melville’s invitation to visit,’ she replied. ‘I have many happy memories of Alingdon.’
‘I too,’ he murmured in agreement, his tone a little wistful.
By the time dessert arrived, the guests, buoyed by lavish quantities of liquor, were becoming quite rowdy. When at one point Henrietta’s confident tones issued loudly and argumentatively into a silence, Zacharias froze and glanced at Lady Melville. To his surprise her ladyship was regarding Henrietta with tolerant amusement.
He swirled his glass of brandy pensively and waved away a servant offering more apricots. He had barely eaten, but he had been perhaps too free with the liquor.
‘You did not marry then?’ Henrietta asked him suddenly, in an undertone.
‘No,’ he admitted.
‘You did not answer my letters.’
His voice caught a little as he replied. ‘It was not becoming.’ That was not what he wanted to say, but it was as much as he could bring himself to utter.
Henrietta did not appear at all fazed. ‘Your taste in wigs has become more elaborate over the years, Mr Dinmore,’ she remarked, with a provocative lift of her eyebrows.
He pressed his lips together. ‘Indeed, madam, as has your taste in gowns.’
He looked aside at her, and into her eyes, and saw the spark of merriment there. An ache formed in his chest and he could not look away. It was only Lady Melville calling for the ladies to withdraw that forced them to break the contact.
When both parties were reunited in drawing room, the group was invited to admire the novel pianoforte. Certainly Zacharias had never seen one before, and he was anxious to hear it played.
‘Come, Henrietta,’ Lady Melville said, indicating the piano stool. Some in the company exchanged glances of surprise, and even dismay, but the parson suppressed a smile, and watched with anticipation as she seated herself before the keys.
Whatever else she may have been, Henrietta was a talented musician. During their two summers together as guests at Alingdon, she had often entertained both family and visitors with her harpsichord playing. Her musical passion was wholly at variance with her gauche exterior.
To his surprise, the first piece she played was his favourite Mozart concerto; one he had heard her play countless times on the harpsichord those many years past. She sought his gaze across the room and her expression was full of mischief as she launched into the first notes.
By the time she stood up to give her place to someone far less able he had become immersed in her musical world, just as he had done all those years ago.
He couldn’t help himself; he rose from his seat and intercepted her. ‘Perhaps you would care to take a walk in the Park, Mrs Chetwynd?’
She smiled at him, her eyes crinkling. ‘Indeed, Mr Dinmore. That would be most pleasant.’
Early autumn leaves were already beginning to drift from the horse chestnuts in the Park, and the ground was wet from the recent rain that had so swelled the river. Zacharias felt the pesky itch beneath his wig yet again, and began to wonder whether he had picked up a louse.
‘It is so good to breathe the fresh air,’ Henrietta said. ‘I care not to be within doors for too long.’
He nodded. ‘I remember well.’ There was little of the Cheshire countryside that they had not explored together on horseback in those long-distant summers.
They reached a small bridge over a stream and Henrietta stopped, eyeing him determinedly. ‘Why did you not answer my letters?’
He leaned against the parapet and folded his arms. ‘I saw no purpose in it. You had married another.’
‘And did you, perhaps, wish that I had not?’ she asked, her voice carrying an unusual tension.
‘I regret many things; I have but this day realized how many.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘We were both fools, were we not?’ she said softly.
‘We were young.’
‘As I recall I described you as an odious, bookish, prosy bore.’
He smiled grimly. He was unlikely to have forgotten. ‘And I you as brazen, mannish and unseemly.’
She stared at him, her deep brown eyes full of unspoken feeling. ‘Has your opinion altered?’
‘It has not,’ he said firmly, and at last allowed a smile of warmth to cross his features. ‘I have, however, considered the matter most seriously, and I believe that these deficiencies are of a less significant nature than I at first supposed.’
‘Is that so, Mr Dinmore? And what of your own deficiencies?’
‘You are so certain that I was ever sombre? Did we not once laugh much together?’
‘That was before you became a curate and assumed a manner as weighty as your wig.’
‘Did I indeed? Perhaps I was mistaken. I had always imagined that a parson should behave with utmost gravity.’
‘And that a parson’s wife should complement her husband?’
He crossed the bridge and reached for her hand, taking heart when she surrendered it without protest. ‘I believe that a parson’s wife should love her husband.’
She squeezed his hand. ‘And the parson?’
‘Has never stopped loving you.’
Her round face, rosy from their walk, reddened still further. She gave him a frank look. ‘I am still wont to tease you about your affectations, appraise your sermons with a critical eye, and appear far from elegant in any setting.’
He gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘These are difficulties I shall have to endure.’
‘Shall? Is this a proposal, sir?’
‘It is a proposal I should have made fifteen years ago.’
‘Then it is one I should have accepted.’
Zacharias smiled more broadly than he could recall doing in many a year. Indeed, his face protested stiffly at the unaccustomed exercise.
Henrietta watched this miracle occur with a slight uplift of her eyebrows. ‘I fear that we have wasted a great deal of time,’ she said, and put her arms around him, pulling him close.
He remained rigid, his own arms by his sides. ‘My dear, it is not seemly,’ he said, glancing around the empty Park in alarm.
‘Are we not affianced?’ she demanded, a glint of amusement lighting her eyes.
‘Indeed, but –’
‘Then it is seemly,’ she stated firmly, and pressed her lips to his. Her reward, though slow to arrive, was his arms tightening around her in a most satisfactory embrace, and his lips reciprocating the contact, almost against his will.
It was some minutes later, as hand in hand they resumed their walk in the Park, that Zacharias realized the unbearable itch was gone. He had, at very long last, scratched it.
Copyright Jill Rowan 2013