The curate was one of those people who liked to be on time; he liked to be on time so much that he would arrive early, often much, much too early. It had happened at the Glendenburg’s dinner party when Mrs Glandenburg, in the middle of preparations still – she had to arrange with the chef which dessert was most suitable, she had to ensure the seating plan took account of precedence of office, birth and gender, she had to decide which floral accompaniment to wear with her cerise dress (unless she opted for the lavender and blue confection that her husband liked so much, and indeed liked to remove later so much, she shivered with future pleasure and chose that instead) – in short, she was far too busy to entertain Rev. Markham and brusquely sent him for a walk in the park. He didn’t mind this unfriendly treatment, he was used to it. He had arrived at his graduation fully two hours early and his professor had advised, none too kindly, that he needed to buy a better watch and get out of the way.
But on this day the curate had arrived at the railway station so early he found himself boarding the earlier train. The guard looked at his ticket and confirmed that it was suitable for the journey, he should change at Bowton for the stopping train to Cobbley Morton (which, for reasons which only a geographical lexicographer would be able to fully explain, was pronounced Co’lley’Ton). His original plan would have taken the slow train all the way, direct, but stopping at every small town from the Capital to the halt that was ostensibly Cobbley Morton village’s station, but was in fact more conveniently sited for the great house. The neighbouring village – Cobbley Morton Parva (which, again for reasons that no-one would ever properly understand, was pronounced Cobbley Morton Parva, and not, as locals found most amusing, ColleyTon Parva. Between Christmas and Easter laughing at the visitors was the only entertainment available) – had a vacancy for a curate, the gift of which was in the hands of the lords of Cobbley Morton. Marquess Deverre – the ninth Lord Cobble Morton – was by reputation sour, bad tempered, difficult, argumentative, and curmudgeonly. If this description seems to include words that overlap in meaning, it perhaps emphasises the nature of the man.
In Rev. Markham’s mind this all meant he must make sure he was not late in arriving for the house party. If he did but know it, arriving early to an interview with Lord C. was like a cow volunteering to go early to the slaughterhouse or a zebra wandering up to pride of lions and shouting ‘get me while I’m fresh’. Lord C. hated business, organisation, anything that required thought and planning. He loved hunting, shooting, fishing. Anything that involved visiting death on defenceless creatures was to be welcomed as a diversion now he was too old to lead his regiment into battle and kill soldiers (enemy or his own, it was all one to him really)
The journey was a combination of delightful scenery and manic fear; his friend, the Hon. Harry Peach, with whom he had been at Queen’s College, had heard of the vacancy and had pulled a few strings to get him listed. The normal incumbent was usually a priest looking for a quiet sinecure prior to retirement. Nominally the church was the mother church for the three Cobbley villages, but now that each their own place of worship, and Cobbley Magna (note, no Morton in this one – an historical accident due to the Morton family being out of favour when this village was established in 1459) had all but disappeared after the plague of 1667 (only a working farm and some mounds showed where it had been), now the church did not really need a vicar and a curate; but the grand family had endowed it with the funds for both and so both it would have. At the last appointment the bishop had mildly suggested some of the money might go to support one of the peripheral churches; Lord Cobble Morton’s response was rude, offensive, probably physically impossible for a man of the bishop’s age, and (it has to be admitted) very, very, funny. Since the vicar had had a stroke last year he had taken fewer services, the retiring curate had found himself worked harder than expected in that ensuing year, in one week he had taken 2 funerals and a wedding in addition to the standard Sunday morning service, the vicar insisted on still taking the evening service; no that was all too much so he, the curate, was retiring.
Josiah Markham was quiet, and retiring in the original sense of the word. He was not one to argue, hence he dreaded his meeting with Lord C. He did have strong, clear views on religion and his sermons bordered on the type often called ‘blood and thunder’, if blood and thunder could be delivered in a quiet reasonable voice. He generally believed that the logic and sanctity of his beliefs would be enough to win the day in any discussion and was surprised when people failed to be swayed despite his clear rightness. In short he was a true believer. His heart told him that he should be looking to spread the word in some city centre parish full of the great unwashed; but his head had persuaded himself that he needed more experience in a more peaceful parish first. That was why he was travelling to this backwater in the country. The countryside was beautiful though. As he looked out of the window, in between panic attacks at what he had chosen to undertake he rejoiced in the rightness of creation. Not the beauty of creation you will note, for there was a slight tendency to arrogance in the man, he was pleased to agree with God that He had created the world in the right way.
Instead of arriving on the 7pm stopping train as arranged (though no-one had suggested he would be collected, the letter he had received had suggested the best walking route to the house), he pulled in to the single platform on this branch line off another branch line at 2pm. He rejoiced to be fully 5 hours early! Yet when he walked across the fields to the house, he found it deserted. Lady C. was apparently visiting Earl deBank, who had recently buried his daughter, she was not expected back until 6pm; Lord C. was out hunting on the North Estate and not expected back before dinner; one of the servants suggested he might take a walk in the estate. So that was what he did, walking was something at which he was good, nay, excelled.
The estate seemed to stretch to the horizon and beyond. Small wooded valleys gave way to farms nestling below the hills that lead up to the moors. Someone who appreciated beauty would simply have sat and drunk in the bucolic scene, Josiah walked on. In one valley was a building, which from a distance looked more substantial. He walked down towards to it. There was something about it, it was out of place, neither a farmhouse surrounded by workaday buildings, nor a residence of some upcoming member of the middle class. Indeed he could not even see an access road or track to it. Yet as he got within 50 yards, he heard voices, female voices! Shrill and laughing. He found suddenly he craved some company, even that of empty headed, gossipy females. A gay shriek of pleasure erupted. Now he could see the frontage was plain in an impressively well-built way. Higher than one storey, yet not fully two storeys; to the sides the building continued for 20 feet or so, reduced to single floor. But wait! There were no windows. That was the oddest thing. Beyond the side wings a tall hedge encircled an oblong space perhaps 40 feet wide (the width of the frontage) by 60 feet long. The hedge was well tended and thick, but he could see there was a slight gap where the hedge abutted the wall end. Here the vegetation had retreated from the stone slightly. He edged up to see who were the denizens enjoying themselves with such excitement in this strangely built edifice.
.... There is more of this story ...