The trivial round, the common task
Would furnish all we ought to ask
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God. (John Keble, from ‘Morning’)
Worcestershire. June, 1860
John got down from the cart, ungracefully, leaning on his cane, stiff from the five-mile ride from the station. The carter, Dawson, passed his bags down and John fumbled in his pocket for a sixpence.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Good to have you here, Reverend,” said Dawson. “My cousin in the village, she keeps the Red Lion. Good ale, and hot food.”
“Thank you,” said John, raising an eyebrow slightly. “I will keep it in mind. And I’ll see you in church on Sunday, doubtless?”
“Yes, sir,” said Dawson, unconvincingly. He touched his hat, whistled to his horse, and set off, the cart rattling and clinking down the narrow road towards the cluster of houses visible about half a mile away.
John breathed deeply. After the smog and gloom of London and the noise and smoke of the train, the scent of fresh country air, grass and an edge of honeysuckle and manure, was astonishing. Gleams of sunshine broke through the clouds above, touching the hedgerows scattered with creamy hawthorn flowers, campion, stitchwort, purple vetch and buttercups. John named them to himself, half-surprised to find that he remembered: it had been a long time since he’d seen English wildflowers. Mary would delight in them, he thought. And now here he was. Rather than gazing out of the garrison or a tent at a dusty plain, his view from this small rise took in fields and farms, oak trees and a cluster of elms, a small pond a couple of fields away with three white ducks in it. And the church – his church – of course, on the opposite side of the lane, grey and solid with its squat medieval tower, yew trees and gravestones marked by white and yellow lichen. And on this side of the lane, the vicarage.
John picked up his two bags with some difficulty, opened the wooden gate and walked up the short path to his new front door. The house wasn’t large, but it was attractive, as far as he could judge such things, maybe fifty years old, weathered red brick and white-painted windows, with a lawn and well-kept flower-beds around it. He tried the front door, which opened. He hoped the servant had been in to make up the beds and the fires, not that he couldn’t take care of himself if needed. He’d have to get a live-in maid after his marriage, but for now he’d rather be on his own, when he could. If he woke up in the night, throat hoarse from screaming and believing himself to back in the hell of the Mutiny, there would be no-one to hear him. By spring, I will be better, with God’s help, he told himself firmly, not for the first time since his return.
He glanced into the small drawing-room and noted that the fire was set. He’d need some more furniture – or maybe Mary would prefer to choose some, later – the room was a comfortable space, but sparsely furnished with an elderly sofa and armchairs and a faded Turkey carpet. The dining-room, across the hall, had a decent table and chairs. There were two covered plates on the table, a carafe of wine and a place set. John lifted the covers and found a plate of cold meats and fresh lettuce and some crusty bread and fresh butter, and his estimation of the service he could expect rose, hopefully. He took a piece of bread and ate it as he explored.
The back of the ground floor was a morning room, clearly used as a study by the previous occupant. John eyed the empty bookshelves that lined the room ruefully. After five years service overseas, his belongings were all in the bags he’d brought with him, and the number of books he owned currently numbered fewer than ten. He’d need to stock up: there would be a stationer in the village, perhaps. He looked into the kitchen and pantry briefly, and then went upstairs. Four bedrooms, the smallest clearly intended for a servant. Or a nursery-maid. The front bedroom would be his. His and Mary’s, eventually, he thought, disbelieving. It had a high, old-fashioned bed and the window let in a draught, but the fire was laid here too and the bed-linen was clean and scented with lavender. John set down one of his travelling bags on the bed and sighed. He took out the Bible that been his father’s and his prayer-book, and the copy of the Christian Year Mary had given him, five years ago, with its inscription, “To my dearest John. From your Mary” – all faded and worn with use, the spines cracked and some of the pages torn, Indian dust marking the pages. He set them on the bedside table, carefully, and then stood a moment.
Birds called in the trees outside, and there was the distant lowing of some cows, but otherwise all was silent. To John, used to the noise of London and before that, the cheerful and frantic bustle of a garrison full of soldiers, the quiet was oppressive. He laid his hands on his books and thought about how far they’d come, by land and sea and rail. He’d spent most of his life running away from precisely this scenario, and now here he was. He thought of the men he’d served, his men, how they would have laughed to see their grizzled, tanned army chaplain, a great deal more famous for his skill with the musket than his skill in giving sermons, settled as an archetypal English pastor. A cripple, confined to the daily round and common task. Or maybe they would have been envious. Wasn’t this most men’s fantasy, the peaceful country life, church and village and home, all carrying on as it had done for hundreds of years, barely touched by the currents of Reform and the iron rails of progress, let alone the brutality committed for and against England in her far-flung territories?
John closed his mind against these uncharitable thoughts. He knelt by the bed, shut his eyes, and prayed fiercely for humility, that he might learn gratitude and acceptance, that he might be worthy of his new calling, whatever challenges it might bring. It took a long time, but eventually a measure of peace descended on him, and he stood up refreshed.
After his meal, fires lit and the remainder of his bags unpacked and neatly put away, John was sitting on the bench by the front door, smoking his pipe and watching the sunset, when he heard and saw a horse and rider approaching along the lane. He narrowed his eyes – something about the rider’s gait was familiar. The horse drew up at his gate, its stout rider dismounting with a huff, clerical dress and an old-fashioned wideawake hat, and John was sure. He put out his pipe, lifted his cane and walked to greet him.
“Watson, my old friend,” said Stamford, smiling.
“You look just the same,” said John, shaking his hand. He tried not to be self-conscious.
“Apart from this,” said Stamford, patting his stomach, ruefully. “Not much rowing for me here. You’re as slim as you were in college.”
“I had the fever,” said John. “After I was – “ he gestured to his leg. The worse injury was the bayonet wound to his shoulder, of course, but it was less immediately visible.
“Mmm,” said Stamford. “We were sorry to hear of it. But, well, it was a fortunate chance that brought you here. The village is all agog to have a war hero in their midst. Your predecessor – I don’t wish to speak ill of a fellow colleague in the good fight, but he was perhaps a little elderly, a little behind the times. The dissenters brought in a thrusting young fellow and he’s been drawing the villagers into the new chapel. Not a bad sort, Vincent, for that type, you’ll doubtless come across him.” He took a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
“Will you come in and take some wine?” said John. “The housekeeper left some, and I saw some bottles in the pantry.”
“Thank you, but I must be on my way home or my wife will be anxious,” said Stamford. “I came over to invite you to dinner on Saturday, with the Archdeacon. He’s staying with us on the Saturday night before reading you in on Sunday. Will you be able to find Witley parsonage? It’s about five miles from here, but the roads are moderately good. Someone in the village could drive you, perhaps?”
“I bought my predecessor’s horse,” said John, a little stiffly, sensing a delicacy on the subject of his injured leg. “It’s stabled in the village at present, I believe. Or I can walk.”
“Excellent,” said Stamford warmly. “My wife will be delighted to meet you, she’s heard all the stories of our Oxford days. Come in the afternoon, you can meet my brood. Six of them, can you believe it.” He chuckled, proud.
John tried to look impressed.
“Well, good to see you. How the years, pass, eh? We’ll catch up properly on Saturday. Hope you settle in, and give my best to your mother when you write.” Stamford turned to his horse and pulled himself up, smiling down at John as he patted its neck.
“I will do,” said John. “Thank you for stopping by.”
“My pleasure,” said Stamford, and he trotted off, footsteps receding. John watched him go, silence and twilight closing in again, and then went inside, to sit by his fire and compose the necessary letters to Mary and his mother and sister.
By the time Saturday evening came, John had made the acquaintance of a number of key people in the village: his housekeeper, Lucy Jenkins, who lived in the nearest cottage to the church; the owner, ostler and barmaid of the Red Lion; his churchwardens, who also doubled as the local grocer and undertaker; the schoolmistress, who was alarmingly straitlaced and Evangelical, and who ran a small Sunday school with an iron hand; the doctor, an elderly man who smelt strongly of brandy; a number of middle-aged and elderly Church ladies who were indistinguishable the one from the other; a variety of small boys who wanted to ask John if he’d ever seen or shot a tiger (he rose immensely in their estimation by answering in the affirmative to both); and Mr Vincent of Bethesda Chapel, with whom he had a brief and slightly embarrassed exchange on the village green. The village was clearly curious about the Reverend John Watson, prepared to be hospitable towards their new vicar but awaiting judgment. For John, an English provincial village felt stranger than the jungles of southern India, and its customs as hard to fathom. He would have liked to share this insight with someone, but so far at least, there was no-one he could converse with freely. So he looked forward, in a small way, to Saturday.
Stamford’s wife Susan was, like him, warm and instantly likeable, and John took to her immediately. He ingratiated himself with the children by presenting them with a monkey’s foot and telling them carefully bowdlerized versions of his Indian exploits, and with Susan by dutifully admiring both the beauty of the children and the comfortable parsonage, bursting at the seams with activity.
With the younger children handed over to their nurse – the oldest boy, William, bursting with pride at being allowed to dine with the grown-ups, remained – the other guests began to arrive. Archdeacon Grantly, hawk-nosed and slightly forbidding, then the local magistrate, Mr Lestrade, and a widowed mother and daughter, Mrs and Miss Hooper. That made them seven for dinner, and John was happy to lead Miss Hooper in. He spent the first course, while the rest of the table discussed the difficulties in locating and keeping a good cook, finding out that she was a keen natural historian and in a lively discussion with her of his plans to set up a naturalists’ society for the local boys, in the empty room above the Red Lion’s stables. He noted that Lestrade, opposite him, was paying scant attention to the general conversation, and that his eyes rested on Miss Hooper more than propriety would strictly allow.
When the second course was served, the Archdeacon, now deep in a discussion of hunting in the area with Stamford, broke off abruptly and turned to John.
“Well, Reverend Watson,” he said, severely. “I trust you are settling in to your new home? Rather different from your previous career, if I may say so.”
“Indeed,” said John. He was conscious that the rest of the table was listening. “This is a beautiful part of England, and I am well aware of my good fortune.” He smiled politely.
“It was your great-uncle who nominated you for the living, was it not? I believe I met him once. A good judge of horseflesh.”
“Yes,” said John. “Though I’m afraid I know him very little. My mother’s family was originally from these parts, but my father moved to London for his business when I was five. I have not met Sir Henry since my childhood. Though my mother corresponded with him about my – career, of course. He helped to sponsor me through Oxford. I hope to be able to visit him this summer, to thank him in person.”
“Hmm,” said the Archdeacon. “He could have chosen worse, I suppose. I trust your extended stay in heathen parts hasn’t led you to pick up any newfangled doctrine.”
“Come, come, Grantly,” said Stamford. “Don’t subject poor Watson to one of your catechisms.”
“Did you really meet some heathens, sir?” said William Stamford. His mother gave him a quelling look, and he turned red with embarrassment.
“Yes, indeed,” said John to him, gravely. “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and men of many other religions.” He turned to Grantly. “And I am afraid I have not been much concerned with doctrine, sir. Learned debates are of little use when comforting dying men on the battlefield.”
“It must have been very shocking,” said Susan Stamford. “We followed the news with great interest, even in this quiet part of the world.”
“Where were you based?” said Lestrade.
“I was with the 84th, in Lucknow, and when we recaptured Cawnpore,” said John. Miss Hooper gasped. William’s eyes were like saucers. “It was certainly – certainly shocking, though I saw some great deeds of courage.” And of atrocity, on both sides, he thought. “But we should not speak of it over this good meal, perhaps.”
“We must give thanks to Him who preserved you from those savages,” said Mrs Hooper, suddenly. “Animals!”
John looked down at his plate and restrained himself, with some little difficulty, from telling Mrs Hooper of some of the savagery he had witnessed, and which side had had the greater hand in it.
“Just so,” said the Archdeacon. “Well, Watson, you will find things quite different here. The Church is in sad disarray, sir, from all sides. Flowers on the altar and chanted psalms, indeed. The Oxford men of today are a disgrace to our profession, in my view, determined to head straight for Rome by the swiftest route. We’ve several of them in the diocese, I’m sorry to say, writing poetry and encouraging the young women in their foolishness. And as for these sneaking, low fellows – ”
John caught Lestrade rolling his eyes, out of the Archdeacon’s line of sight. He was going to like Lestrade, he thought.
“I shall hope to avoid controversy, where I can,” he said gravely, when the Archdeacon paused for a mouthful of wine.
“It’s a quiet parish,” Stamford added, beckoning to the maid to pour more.
“Apart from that heretic Holmes, of course,” said the Archdeacon.
There was a murmur round the table.
“Holmes?” John asked.
“Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford. “Lord Holmes’s younger brother. They own the big manor house, a couple of miles from you. Mr Holmes is not a, well, not a churchgoer, and spends much of his time abroad or in London. We’ve only met him a handful of times, and Susan and I have lived here for ten years now.”
“Not a churchgoer!” said the Archdeacon, working himself up again. “The man’s a full-blown atheist, judging from the filth he publishes. A disgrace to his family. I wonder how his brother allows it: Lord Holmes is a most respectable gentleman.”
“Mr Holmes is very learned,” said Miss Hooper, timidly but with courage. “He assisted me with some, umm, some work I was engaged in, last Christmas. I thought the reviews of his last book were decidedly unjust. It is a work of considerable scholarship.”
Lestrade raised both eyebrows. The Archdeacon stared at her with disbelief, and then gave Mrs Hooper an accusing look, to which she was oblivious.
“I have not read his publications, naturally,” he said stiffly. “I would not have such things in my house. God forbid my wife and daughters should encounter such opinions as I and all the world believe him to hold. Besides which, I understand him to be a notorious – “ he coughed. “That is, I believe his private life to be such that no young woman should associate with him.”
Stamford and Susan both started to speak, but John, feeling sorry for Miss Hooper, interjected first.
“You say you have daughters, sir? May I enquire after your family?”
“Three,” said the Archdeacon gloomily, accepting the change of subject. John felt Miss Hooper let out a breath, beside him. “My oldest is eighteen. And two younger boys, though they are away at Harrow, of course. You are unmarried, Watson?"
Lestrade choked on a mouthful of mutton at this segue and hid his face in his napkin.
“I am engaged to be married,” said John. “My fiancée, Miss Morstan, lives in London. We have been engaged since before I left for India. I hope to bring her here in the spring.”
“Good,” said the Archdeacon. “I approve of long engagements, and a country clergyman needs a wife. You must bring her over to meet Mrs Grantly, after the wedding.”
“So how did you and Miss Morstan meet?” said Miss Hooper to John, gratefully, and the conversation subsided into less dangerous channels.
John was burning with curiosity to learn more about the mysterious Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps in deference to William’s youth, Stamford kept the conversation on neutral topics after the ladies retired, and the party broke up at eleven without John learning anything more. It was a wet night, and when Lestrade offered John a ride home in his carriage he accepted gratefully.
Lestrade was silent as they drove off, seemingly lost in thought.
“Miss Hooper seems a most pleasant young lady,” John observed, to break the ice.
Lestrade smiled, fond. “Molly Hooper? Yes, indeed. And full of spirit too. Standing up to Grantly like that. She’s a splendid girl.”
“Ah,” said John, letting Lestrade decide whether to say more.
“Wasted on caring for her mother, of course, though it’s just the sort of dutiful behaviour one might expect from her.”
“She is not spoken for, I take it?”
“No.” Lestrade spoke curtly, and then sighed deeply. “If my situation were otherwise – well. You might as well hear this from me as from village gossip, if you haven’t already done so. My wife is dead, but before she died she left me – eloped to France with her second cousin, Colonel Hathaway. You might recall the divorce case.”
“I would have been in India, I expect,” said John, with sympathy. He wondered if Lestrade was speaking to him in a friendly or a professional capacity, and hoped unprofessionally for the former.
“It was damn - dashed painful at the time, but now I feel sorry for her,” said Lestrade. “And for my children – a girl and a boy. It will come hard on them, growing up with this.” He turned to look at John.
“That’s one of the reasons I like Holmes, you know. He doesn’t give a fig for propriety. Everyone else here treated me as though I were made of cut-glass for a year after Lucinda left, stopped speaking as soon as I entered the room, all that sort of thing, and he acted as though it had never happened. You shouldn’t listen to everything Grantly tells you. I can’t speak to his religious opinions, but Holmes is a great man, if not always what you might call a good one. When he’s at the Manor, he helps me with trials. Says he enjoys it. Last autumn we had a local man accused of murdering a maidservant – terrible case, that was – and he’d have hanged for it if Holmes hadn’t proved he was two villages away committing a robbery on the same night.” Lestrade frowned. “Of course, he was still transported.”
“You're friends with Mr Holmes, I take it?” John asked.
“Not friends exactly. Acquaintances. I doubt that Holmes would consider himself a man who needs friends, frankly. And as Stamford said, he usually spends the winter and spring travelling. I believe he returned from the Continent recently, but he rarely attends social occasions, or desires company.”
“Oh,” said John, a little disappointed. “Well, he certainly sounds like an interesting character. Though perhaps I ought not to think so, given my profession.”
Lestrade grunted. “Not like most clergymen, are you?” he said. “You’ve seen a bit of the world. And you haven’t said anything preachy to me yet about Lucinda.”
“I found that soldiers are disinclined to listen to someone preaching hellfire and damnation, on the whole. Though if you wish me to counsel you as your minister – “
“No, no,” said Lestrade hastily. “I’m glad to have you in the parish, though. And I’ll be in church tomorrow, with the children. Here, we’re at your lane.”
The bulk of the church loomed up ahead of them, and Lestrade called to the coachman to stop.
“Thank you,” said John, and hesitated. “And for your confidences. I’m afraid I have not the means to issue dinner invitations at present, but perhaps in a month or two.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” said Lestrade. “You must come to my house. A bachelors’ dinner, eh? We can settle on a day tomorrow.”
“I’d be happy to,” said John, warmly, picking up his cane and stepping down from the carriage.
He went to bed that night conscious that he should be anxious about his reading-in tomorrow, about what the Archdeacon and congregation would think of his preaching. But even with his constant prayers and efforts, it still seemed to him that his life as a parish clergyman of the Church of England held little of importance, nothing that really mattered. Flowers on the altar, indeed – in John’s service, altars themselves had been rare. He had set his hand to this task, here in this parish of Astley, in Worcestershire, and he would accomplish it. God had chosen this path for him. And Harry and his mother would be provided for. Yet he could not bring himself to care very much about the details of the task, as yet. Despite everything, despite the horror, he had felt himself doing God’s work in India as he had not, as yet, felt it in England. These were not comfortable thoughts. He fell asleep thinking, instead, about Sherlock Holmes, and wondering what kind of man he was, and whether he would ever have the chance to judge for himself.