After a while, as it was getting lighter and lighter, I said, ‘I must ask your father’s permission.’ She nodded. ‘And there’s a couple of other phone-calls I must make.’ Then I slid my left arm below her shoulders, holding her waist, and we stayed like that for some while.
‘Fotheringham 234? Richard… Oh, hello, Padre. Good to hear you: how’re things?’
‘What? A question? Ask away: I’m not the brightest, but if I don’t know, Ysobel might, and if not…’
‘What? Did I hear correctly?’
I was beginning to sense refusal.
‘I just don’t know quite what to say: so, so unexpected – delighted, of course – but well, what d’you say? I… Let me get Ysobel…’ There was a long-ish silence, then I could hear approaching whispers, then the rattle of the phone being picked up.
‘I don’t understand all this, but if Lo wants it, I want it for her – we want it for her: so yes –with my blessing – or is that the wrong way round? What about our grandson?’
‘What: adopt him? Take him as if he were your own?’Let both her and him keep the Conyngham name? I’m dumb-struck! So kind, so good, so understanding! Ysobel, stop wailing, I can’t hear!’
They were going to come down, but I suggested we could make the journey instead (‘You’re sure she’ll be up to it? – sure the lad’ll be all right? Then we’d love to see you here: you’ll all stay the night, at least…?’ ‘He says, yes, Ysobel.’).
I felt a bit guilty after my next call, and went to confess to Laura:
‘I’ve just been speaking to Cambridge – don’t look cross, don’t hit me! – and after months got through to the Registrar, who turned out to be a woman. I outlined the situation – quite hypothetically: what would the College’s view be of .. and all that. Suppose an Undergraduate became pregnant, would she be able to continue her studies, if suitable arrangements could be made. She said that as the Statutes had all been drafted when the entire College was exclusively Male, she was pretty sure that no such contingency had been provided for and therefore there could be no bar to it; she’d look into it and she would personally work hard to ensure that Common Room accepted this. But then she said, ‘And Laura’s Scholarship will continue to be held for her: I do hope the suitable arrangements can be made.’ I didn’t mention a name: how did she know?’
Laura thought for a few seconds than said: ‘Well, there were only six of us in College, and I must have been the only one to disappear without trace in Sixth Week: maybe someone had noticed my size after all.’
‘A tiny bit at first, when I thought you’d gone over my head: then I realised how selfish – and foolish that was, when all you were doing was thinking of me…’
‘I must get off this steed.’ I said.
‘Knight in shining armour?’
‘Knight errant, more like!’ So we kissed and made up.
The other call had been hanging over me for days and days now. I told Laura what I thought needed to be said, and to whom.
‘Bishop’s Office? Good morning.’
‘Oh. hello: how’re things?’
‘I’m afraid the Bishop is away at the moment.’
‘You could try the Archdeacon, he should be at home, he’s your next port of call really. Do you want to outline the problem to me, and I can make sure the Bishop knows as soon as he’s back.’
‘Some time next week, I’m afraid: and, of course, there’ll be quite a lot of things in his in-tray.’
‘I see. Of course, I can’t possibly pre-empt any decision, even pretend to know what the Bishop might think. Do you think you might write a provisional letter of resignation, which we can always tear up. What I can do, meanwhile, is put out some feelers to see if there’s anything going in the vicinity of Cambridge, then, if there is, I’m sure you would be able to count on the Bishop’s very active support. It might, whatever happens, be awkward to continue where you are; people will think the worst in these kind of situation…’ I don’t know which I hated most, his oily smoothness, his poor Grammar, or his presumption that there was anyone else in the world like Laura, any other situation like ours; I very nearly told him so.
Another call was less worrying, much more hopeful:
‘You’ve found a few dozen bottles in your cellar, one of which is a Chateau d’Yquem, another a Petrus? Can we send someone – no! Can I come down in person to have a look? I’d like ideally, to come tomorrow, if that’s o.k.?’
‘May I ?’
‘No: I’ll find it – I’ve got the scent of a pretty good sale in my nose already from what you’ve said!. Tomorrow, then, and thank you so much. Oh Hell! (whoops!) my P.A. will kill me if I don’t do the boring bit: where did you hear about us.’
‘Well, exactly: has anybody not heard of this long-established Vintners?’
Sister Jessop came in, uncharacteristically quietly, almost hang-dog; Bathsheba was still inert.
‘I think I might have been out of turn last night, and there’s something I don’t quite fathom about you two. I was going to suggest I had a quick look at you, but I reckon everything’s fine, going back into place… (Laura looked very relieved)… still feeding all right?’ (Laura nodded).
‘I can see I said far too much, went far, far too far yesterday evening, I…’
‘Sister Jessop,’ I said, getting up and guiding her towards my chair ‘I for one shall be eternally in your debt.. After you had gone last night your words sank in; Laura brought the infant down for his feed, and we talked (‘Talked!’ I thought). I needed that nudge, that ever-so-gentle shove, from you. Until you said what you did, I never dreamt that Laura thought of me other than as a vaguely helpful being she’d known, as it were, in a former life… So when she said that she thought you were right… anyway, we talked a bit, and thought a bit…’
‘And kissed a bit, I dare say?’ I could see across from Sister Jessop that Laura was hiding a blush. I looked down at my shoes.
‘Any way, this morning, quite early, I asked Laura Conygnham if she’d marry me, and she did me the honour of saying yes; so I rang her parents, and I have her Father’s permission – and blessing: and we’re all going up there tomorrow.’
There was a silence before she said, ‘Well, well, well: once you do get going, you can work pretty fast! I was afraid it might never happen, and that would have been tragic, tragic. Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations’ – pumping my hand very hard as she got up, her eyes shining with triumphant vindication, and something more than just that. Then turning to Laura, ‘I hoped so hard that I was right! When I saw I had been right about its being a boy, I felt even more right: certain. Of course there’s a difference in your ages, but I’ve known people ruin their lives through being put off by something like that. As to different strata of society – poof! – what does that mean these days! Dear girl: here, let me just give you a big, big hug to wish you well – the wellest poss.. I know you’re not the luckiest girl in the world (a toss of the head to me), but you can make something of him, I reckon, poor material though it is you’ve got to work with. Now, I’ll slip up and peep at the infant. (At the door) I shan’t be more than a moment, so behave yourselves, children.’ With a rather more knowing grin than either of us would have liked, she was off.
We were decorously holding hands, even before she had coughed distinctly before coming back in. Turning from us to the rug, she looked hard at the still slumbering Bathsheba puzzled. ‘What’ve you been feeding that cat on, for heaven’s sake Vicar?’
‘I thought you knew I starved the hateful little beast, even taking mice away from her to eat myself…?’ She made a face, then bent down, stroked the little cat, and gently tickled her front. Bathsheba opened an eye, and purred as the midwife’s hand touched her little round belly.
‘H’m’ she said, straightening up and looking at Laura, ‘You seem to have started a fashion here: I reckon that little cat’s full of kittens!’ Then she plumped almost wearily down and said, cheerily, ‘I can hang up my cap now; I reckon my job’s done: two pregnancies in one household is more than I can cope with, Vicar. I can retire, fulfilled – depart in peace!.
After she’d left us, declining all offers of food or drink, Laura said to me: ‘What an amazing woman.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Mind you, I know another amazing woman too; perhaps you’d like to meet her one day.’ She smacked my hand, but smiled contentedly all the same. ‘Time for tuppence.’
Once more she brought him down and suckled him in the shabby old kitchen, while I sat and – gawped is probably the word.
‘What is it?’ she said, after a while. I was momentarily afraid that she was irked by my presence, found my presence intrusive – voyeuristic, even.
‘I… I…, I was going to say it is so beautiful,’ trying to indicate the whole situation by a wave of the hands, ‘and it is, Laura, almost unbearably so; but the real thing is that you are so beautiful, and you look even lovelier…’ I ran out of words: how can the ineffable be spoken? ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof it behoves one to be silent.’ went through my mind.
We put the babe into her bed, and watched as he settled, before creeping out.
‘We must be good.’ I said.
‘Yes.’ She said.
‘No dreaming, tonight.’
‘No, no dreams tonight.’
Yet I led her by the hand into my room.
And I know that I dreamt.
The morning turned out to be quite frantic: ‘tuppence’ as were now calling him, was fretful, perhaps sensing a journey, perhaps because we were, or because Laura and he had to hide (‘He might know Daddy…’ ‘What if he cries?’ ‘I can think of two pretty things you can give him to play with, he’ll be happy as a duck and quiet as a mouse’ – which earned a look both coy and reproving) when the rather florid man from the Auction-house arrived. I was expecting a very Savile Row chalk-stripe suit, but I suppose he’d reckoned ‘Country’, so was in a well-cut hacking-jacket, faded ochre corduroys, a coloured shirt and a properly-tied silk bow-tie: shiny brown brogues completed the ensemble. I wondered if he also had spats and leggings in his wardrobe. The car was an up-to-the-minute German estate: I’d half-expected, from the voice on the phone, a Bentley.
‘Yes, I definitely scent not only fine wine, but a very good sale here.’ He surveyed the dilapidated Vicarage. ‘Nice house: if only the C. of E. would look after its portfolio – nurture its assets!’
‘I know.’, I said with gloom. ‘I’ve been here nearly two years and they haven’t got a penny to spend on it: look at the gates! But I know that the newly-appointed Suffragan Bishop’s house is costing them thousands: he must have this, has got to have that, his wife insists on such-and-such!…yet when they sold the Parsonage of the parish next door, it went for far below its true value, and, of course, ‘By Private Treaty’.
‘Well,’ he said cheerily, ‘let me know if they’re ever putting this place on the market: I’d definitely like the chance to put in a bid for it. Now; can we go and look at these more liquid assets?’.
I led him down into the cellar (he had a much more powerful torch than mine) and towards the rack I’d found, when trying to blot out those heart-rending cries. He homed in, as I imagined a Pointer would do, crouching down and letting the beam play all over the stack of bottles. Then he crept closer, selecting a single bottle for the torch’s unflickering beam (I said to Laura, when we were in the car later, that he was as I imagined a bomb-disposal officer would be, inching closer to a ‘UXB’). He wouldn’t touch a single bottle, casting the brilliant torch-light on them one by one. Noticing the clean gap where our half-bottle had come from, he said, ‘You’ve had one?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘somebody said I ought to open it: I quite expected it to be disgusting…’
‘It was almost the finest thing I’ve ever tasted.’
‘Mmmh: only ‘almost’, Vicar: you must have a very discriminating palate. I reckon you drank between £500 and £1000.’
‘No, no.’ I said – feeling slightly traitorous. ‘I’m not that skilled or experienced – I was probably just thinking of something else…’ Indeed, I was.
Propping his torch up on a breast-high brick column, he took a smart leather cover out of his waistcoat pocket, opened it up to reveal a calculator (with its own internal illumination) and began to punch in numbers. Eventually, he said, ‘Well, I’ll give you a conservative estimate in a few minutes, but tell me about that Champagne: did you really down up to 1K of very fine champagne all on your own? I hand it to you if you did!’
‘Not quite’, I said, ‘Someone I know, said she thought her father (how could I have got round that ‘her’? Why didn’t I?) had some like this … which came out only rarely.’
‘You need to cultivate a friend like that, Vicar.’ he said, with a slight overemphasis on ‘friend’, that I didn’t like. ‘Could prove a very rewarding friendship.’
‘Now, as to figures: last time we had some of this in a sale, it went for about £3000 a bottle: it all went to Japan, you know – apparently they buy the stuff, and only drink it when they reckon the price is at its highest, or the Nikkei’s at its lowest – or something. Whether they really appreciate it or not, who can tell! Not my job, anyway: my job is to maximise prices for clients, maximise percentage for the business, etcetera, etcetera. Oddly enough, the half-bottles are likely to fetch, proportionately, rather more than the bottles. But I’d say, …after Commission – hammer-fees, … VAT, and all that, you’re probably going to go home with a cheque for…’ he checked his calculator again, and once more, by eye, counted up the bottles, ‘say 48, or 50 K: and that’s just the Petrus and the d’Yquem.’
I must have rocked from this, for he clapped me on the shoulder – ‘Say £500 for a half-bottle, that’s about four glasses, say six sips a glass. That works out at almost £21 a sip… now if it were to go for £1000 a half, as well it might, you and your friend were burning twenty-pound notes – like that!’ he said, with a snap of finger and thumb. At the top of the stairs, he said, with a huge wink, ‘Now, Vicar: will you tell the Diocesan authorities, or shall I?’
Then, going back to his earlier quite sober self, he said: ‘Just joking. We have an unbroken tradition of absolute client-confidentiality – after all, it’s as much what our reputation is founded on, as good sales – going back well over a century and a half: being a wine-merchant wasn’t altogether easy in the Napoleonic era. No, I reckon this is a fortuitous find, besides, if I know anything about the dear old C. of E. it would just fritter away money of this sort in a month or two, and then look up bemusedly, and say ‘Where’s the money all gone…?’
‘I’d like to send down a small team of chaps, who’ll remove this with the utmost care (even the dust and cobwebs are worth money, you know!), transport it in a temperature-controlled, shock-proofed van to our House… and so on, and so forth. You might want to get another auction-house to have a look at it, and of course that’s your absolute right: and, believe me, our client-confidentiality extends even to those who may decide to follow another course. But, I have to say, and I suspect you already know this, we really are the best-placed to do the best for you, get the maximum value for you here.’ I merely nodded.
‘I ought to give you a business card – my P.A. will kill me yet again, but I gauge that, if you entrust this to us, you won’t need a card, you’ll just come back! If, however, your friend’s father should … but then, again, with any luck, you’ll be able to suggest us again! So, pleasant – I hope! – doing business with you. I’ll be on my way.’
It was turning to dusk when we arrived at Laura’s home; the infant had settled down once we were all in the car – he seemed to like speed, sleeping his soundest when I was at the maximum permitted speed, beginning to fret and burble at red-lights, and to cry at level-crossings. She had fed him a couple of times, and he had obligingly sicked on her shoulder once, before producing a long belch that had reduced both Laura and me to infantile giggles. We had stopped briefly at a service-station (for wees – one each, I don’t know about the babe).
Now, we were turning in between stone pillars topped with Gryphons, or Martlets, or some heraldic beast, and then setting off up what seemed an immensely long drive, with an oval of lawn at the top, and beyond, an enormous house. I must have sounded quite terrified, when I whispered, ‘But Laura, you said ‘like home’?’
‘You’ll see.’ Is all she said. I could tell there was an element of Mole in ‘Dulce Domum’ about her: this was her home; where she was born, where she belonged, where she truly belonged.
‘Come in, come in… my little Lo… and Padré, good drive, I hope?’ He was beaming, pressing Laura to him, then grasping my hand firmly, shaking it vigorously, and looking at me with an expression I couldn’t quite divine; meanwhile Lady Conyngham had prized the infant from Laura’s arms, kissed his oblivious little face, murmured ‘Richard, Richard!’ and swept into the house with him. ‘Come on in, come on in,’ he continued, standing between us, holding both our hands – ‘You see what she’s like!’ with a chuckle which, though almost an octave deeper than hers, told me whence Laura had learned that inimitable sound.
The hallway of the Vicarage could have been put into this hall about six times, and with space left over: it was vast, cathedral-high (or so it seemed), with a double-staircase that curved up in a near-ellipse, mirroring the lawn in front of the house. There were pieces of armour on the walls, and a Polar-bear which held out a paw with a small silver tray in it. There were oak chests with linen-fold panelling, and an oak settle, with plum-coloured velvet cushions, on which Lady Conyngham was sitting, clasping the infant, bouncing him up and down, cooing at him, and behaving in the utterly irresponsible way people tend to, when in the company of the fortunately not impressionable very young. She looked up as we appproached – and I hardly recognised her: ‘Laura, he’s beautiful, just beautiful: just look at his fingernails! – his hair!’ and she clutched him to herself again.
Her father had freed us from his purposeful grasp, and I was holding Laura’s hands now. He coughed. ‘Ysobel: Can’t we get something for our guests?’
She stood up, handed the still slumbering baby back to Laura, and resumed her old magisterial self: ‘Richard, why don’t you all go into the drawing-room?’ We went.
© Jethro 2022