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A Letter from Jan Karon
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Jan Karon
Map of Mitford
CHAPTER ONE - Barnabas
CHAPTER TWO - A Dubious Gift
CHAPTER THREE - New Possibilities
CHAPTER FOUR - Company Stew
CHAPTER FIVE - The Big Six-O
CHAPTER SIX - Dooley
CHAPTER SEVEN - The One for the Job
CHAPTER EIGHT - Golden Days
CHAPTER NINE - Neighbors
CHAPTER TEN - A Grand Feast
CHAPTER ELEVEN - A White Thanksgiving
CHAPTER TWELVE - An Empty Vessel
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Issues of the Heart
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Absalom, My Son
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - The Finest Sermon
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - A Sure Reward
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - A Surprising Question
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Something to Think About
CHAPTER NINETEEN - A Love Story
CHAPTER TWENTY - Baxter Park
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - The Bells
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - A High Command
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - Homecoming
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - In New Life
Chapter One from A LIGHT IN THE WINDOW
Excerpt from COME RAIN OR COME SHINE
For Candace Freeland,
my daughter and friend
Warm thanks to Father James Harris, who inspired and encouraged me; to Jerry Burns, who published this book serially in the best of the small-town newspapers, the Blowing Rocket; to my doctor, Charles (Bunky) Davant, III, who also doctors all of Mitford; to Bonnie Setzer, Mary Richardson, and Helen Vennard for their support; to my daughter, who laughed in all the right places; to Mary Tarr and the ladies of our volunteer library; to our local police department; and to everyone who buys this book about a small town that does more than exist in the imagination—it really is out there.
He left the coffee-scented warmth of the Main Street Grill and stood for a moment under the green awning.
The honest cold of an early mountain spring stung him sharply.
He often noted the minor miracle of passing through a door into a completely different world, with different smells and attractions. It helped to be aware of the little things in life, he told himself, and he often exhorted his congregation to do the same.
As he headed toward the church office two blocks away, he was delighted to discover that he wasn’t walking, at all. He was ambling.
It was a pleasure he seldom allowed himself. After all, it might appear that he had nothing else to do, when in truth he always had something to do.
He decided to surrender himself to the stolen joy of it, as some might eat half a box of chocolates at one sitting, without remorse.
He arrived at the office, uttering the prayer he had offered at its door every morning for twelve years: “Father, make me a blessing to someone today, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
As he took the key from his pocket, he felt something warm and disgustingly wet on his hand.
He looked down into the face of a large, black, mud-caked dog, whose tail began to beat wildly against his pant leg.
“Good grief!” he said, wiping his hand on his windbreaker.
At that, the dog leaped up and licked his face, sending a shower of saliva into his right ear.
“Get away! Be gone!” he shouted. He tried to protect the notebook he was carrying, but the dog gave it a proper licking before he could stuff it in his jacket, then tried to snatch it from him.
He thought of running, but if anyone saw him fleeing before a shaggy, mud-caked dog, everybody in town would know it within the half hour.
“Down!” he commanded sharply, at which the dog leaped up and gave his chin a bath.
He tried to fend the animal off with his elbow, while inserting the key in the office door. If he were a cussing man, he reasoned, this would offer a premier opportunity to indulge himself.
“ ‘Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth,’ ” he quoted in a loud voice from Ephesians, “ ‘but that which is good to the use of edifying ...’” Suddenly, the dog sat down and looked at his prey with fond admiration.
“Well, now,” he said irritably, wiping the notebook on his sleeve. “I hope you’ve got that nonsense out of your system.” At this, the dog leaped up, stood on its hind legs, and put its vast paws on the rector’s shoulders.
“Father Tim! Father Tim!” It was his part-time secretary, Emma Garrett.
He stood helpless, his glasses fogged with a typhoon of moist exhalations.
Whop! Emma laid a blow to the dog’s head with her pocketbook. Then, blam, she hit him again on the rear flank.
“And don’t come back!” she shouted, as the yelping dog fled into a hedge of rhododendron and disappeared.
Emma gave him her handkerchief, which was heavily scented with My Sin. “That wasn’t a dog,” she said with disgust, “that was a Buick!”
In the office, he went directly to the minuscule bathroom and washed his face and hands. Emma called through the door. “I’ll have your coffee ready in a jiffy!”
“Blast! Make it a double!” he replied, combing the hairs that remained on the top of his head.
As he walked out of the bathroom, he looked at his secretary for the first time that morning. That he recognized her at all was remarkable. For Emma Garrett, full of the promise of spring, had dyed her gray hair red.
“Emma!” he said, astounded. “Is that you?”
“This,” she said with feeling, “is the most me you’ve seen in years. That ol’ gray-headed stuff is not me at all!” She turned her head both ways, so he could get the full effect.
He sighed with a mixture of delight and despair. He had hoped this might be an ordinary morning.
Harold Newland had brought the mail earlier than usual and, since Emma had gone to the bank, put it in a neat pile on the rector’s desk. At the bottom of the pile, in reverse order of its importance, was the letter from the bishop.
He had asked the bishop to take his time, not to hurry his reply, and he had not. In fact, it had been a full two months since his own letter had been so thoughtfully written and posted.
He stared at the ivory envelope. There was no return address; this was not official stationery. If one did not know that distinctive, looping handwriting so well, one would never guess the sender.
He dared not open it here. No, he wanted complete privacy in which to read it. Would it be in the bishop’s own hand? If so, he would then have a precise sense of how seriously his remarks had been taken.
Years ago, his seminary friend had been moved by the Apostle Paul’s comment that the letter he wrote to the Galatians was “by my own hand,” as if it were an act of great personal sacrifice. As a young seminarian, Stuart Cullen had taken that to heart. Since his installation as bishop, he was known to personally pen all the letters of real importance to his diocese. How did he have the time, people inevitably wondered. Well, that was the whole point. He didn’t. Which, of course, made his handwritten and reflective letters a treasure to anyone who received an example.
No, he would not open it, if only to see whether a secretary had typed it. He would wait until evening and the solitude of the rectory, and the peace of his newly dug garden.
After an early supper, he sat on the stone bench that was half-covered with a fine moss, under the overhanging branches of the rhododendron.
He read the letter, which was, indeed, handwritten in the large, exuberant style that demanded space to gallop across the page.
It is a good evening to sit in this pleasant room and write a letter. Correspondence is, for me, a luxury which stirs my sensibilities, especially if it be with an old friend.
I believe you’d enjoy the way Martha refurbished my disorderly bookshelves, and put this study into working condition. She has even had your favorite rug repaired, so that when you come again, you won’t stumble over the torn patch and go reeling headfirst into the armchair!
You ask if I have ever faced such a thing as you are currently facing. My friend, exhaustion and fatigue are a committed priest’s steady companions, and there is no way around it. It is a problem of epidemic proportions, and I ask you to trust that you aren’t alone. Sometimes, hidden away in a small parish as you are now—and as I certainly have been—one feels that the things which press in are pointed directly at one’s self.
I can assure you this is not the case.
An old friend who was a pastor in Atlanta said this: “I did not have a crisis of faith, but of emotion and energy. It’s almost impossible for leaders of a congregation to accept that their pastor needs pastoring. I became beat up, burned out, angry and depressed.”
The tone of your letter—and I presume you have been forthright with me, as always—does not indicate depression or anger, thanks be to God. But I’m concerned with you for what might follow if this goes unattended.
A few things to think on: Keep a journal and let off some steam. If that doesn’t fit with your affinities, find yourself a godly counselor and let me know the cost, for the diocese will willingly cover it.
Your mother, I believe, left a considerable sum, and perhaps you need to use a bit of it for yourself, for something other than the children’s hospital you’ve been so faithful to all these years. I know you well enough to believe I don’t have to exhort you to prayer. You always had enormous stamina in this area, and if that has changed, well, then, Timothy, make it right again.
You may not know that you are one of the strongest, most durable links in this diocesan chain. You are important to me, and firsthand inquiry informs me that you are vitally important to your flock. Do not doubt it.
Martha has come in to tell me it is bedtime. I cannot express how wonderful it is to be sometimes told, rather than always doing the telling!
I really never dreamed I would marry, and no one was more surprised than myself when, at the age of 49, I was ready and willing to take yet another lifetime vow. Others found this extraordinary, but I found it the most natural thing on earth.
I cannot exhort you to go out and marry, Timothy, but I will say that these ten years with Martha have brought an ease to the stress which was plundering my own soul. I can’t say that the pace is easier—if anything, it has accelerated—but I find the ability to bear it greatly increased.
As I recall from our days in seminary, you and I were much alike when it came to women. You were fairly smitten with Peggy Cramer, but when your feelings for her began to interfere with your calling, you broke the engagement. Even today, I feel confident in having advised you to do it. Yet I wonder—have you ever entirely reconciled this with your heart?
There she is again, my friend. And believe me, my wife does not enjoy reminding me twice. That she monitors my energy is a good thing. Otherwise, I would spill it all for Him and have nothing left with which to get out of bed in the mornings.
I exhort you to do the monitoring you so sorely need, and hang in there. Give it a year! Or, at most, give it two. If you simply cannot go the distance, Father DeWilde will be coming available in the fall and would be my choice for Lord’s Chapel.
Timothy, if you have problems with this one-sided conversation, you know how to ring me up. Please know that you are daily in my prayers.
Ever in His peace,
As the light faded, the chill of the stone bench began to creep into his bones.
He stood up and looked around the greening yard, as if seeing it for the first time. There was a certain poignancy in the shadows moving across the rose bed he had double-dug twice, and the borders he’d planted, and the dogwood he had put in himself. He felt at home in Mitford, completely and absolutely. The last thing he wanted to do was leave. Yet, the first thing he wanted to do was make a difference, be productive—and there was the rub.
Nearly every weekday at 6:45 a.m., he made calls at the hospital, then had breakfast at the Grill and walked to the church office. For the rest of the morning, he studied, wrote letters, made telephone calls, and administrated his parish of nearly two hundred.
At noon, he walked to the Grill for lunch or, if it was raining, snowing, or sleeting, ate half of Emma’s usual egg salad sandwich and shared her Little Debbies.
In the afternoon until four he worked on his sermon, counseled, and generally tidied up the affairs of his calling. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” he was known to quote from Mrs. Beeton.
At times, he was saddened by never having married and raised a family of his own. But, he had to admit, being a bachelor left him far more time for his parish family.
On Thursday afternoon, he was going home with a basket that a member of the Altar Guild had delivered, containing home-canned green beans, a jar of pickle relish, and a loaf of banana bread. He put his notebook on top, and covered the whole lot with a draft of Sunday’s church bulletin.
“Red Riding Hood,” he mused, as he took the key from the peg.
He stepped out and locked the door behind him, dropping the heavy key into his pocket. Then he turned around and stared in disbelief.
Coming toward him at an alarming rate of speed was something he hoped he’d never lay eyes on again.
It was the great leaping, licking, mud-caked dog.
For several days, the dog seemed to appear out of nowhere. Once, when he was walking down Old Church Lane to meet the plumber at Lord’s Chapel. Again, when he was planting a border of lavender along the walkway to the rectory. Yet again, when he went to The Local to get milk and sweet potatoes. And on two occasions, as he was leaving the Grill.
The meeting in the church lane had been fairly uneventful. After an enthusiastic hand licking and a vigorous leap that had nearly knocked him to the ground, he’d been able to repulse his attacker with a loud recitation of his laundry list. By the time he got to socks—three pairs white, four pairs black, one pair blue—the dog had wandered into the cemetery at the rear of the churchyard, and disappeared.
The meeting at the lavender bed, however, had been another matter.
He was kneeling in sober concentration on a flagstone, when suddenly he felt two large paws on his shoulders. Instantly, such a drenching bath was administered to his left ear that he nearly fainted with surprise.
“Good Lord!” shouted the rector, who had gone crashing into a flat of seedlings. He had not, however, been thrown clear of his trowel.
He turned around and raised it, as if to strike a fearsome blow, and was surprised to see the dog stand on its hind legs with a look of happy expectation.
Spurred by some odd impulse, he threw the trowel as far as he could. The excited creature bounded after it, giving forth a joyful chorus of barks, and returned to drop the trowel at the rector’s feet.
Feeling speechless over the whole incident, he threw the trowel again, and watched the dog fetch it back. He was amazed that he was able to stand there and continue such a foolish thing for twenty minutes. Actually, he realized, he hadn’t known what else to do.
At the Grill one morning, he asked around. “Has anybody ever seen that big, black dog before?”
“You mean th’ one that’s taken a likin’ to you?” asked Percy Mosely. “We never laid eyes on ’im ’til a week or two ago. A couple of times, he come by here like a freight train. But anybody tries to catch ’im, he’s gone, slick as grease.”
“We tried to feed ’im,” said Percy’s wife, Velma, “but he won’t eat Percy’s cookin’.”
“Ha, ha,” said Percy, who was working six orders of hash browns.
“You ought to lay hold of ’im sometime when he’s chasin’ you, and call th’ animal shelter,” suggested Velma.
“In the first place,” said Father Tim, “it is impossible to lay hold of that particular dog. And in the second place, I have no intention of sending him to what could be his final doom.” In the third place, he thought, that dog never chased me. I always stood my ground!
“Well, he’s sitting out there waiting for you, right now,” observed Hessie Mayhew, who had stopped in on her way to the library, with an armful of overdue books.
The rector raised up from his seat in the booth and looked through the front window. Yes, indeed. He saw the creature, staring soulfully into the Grill.
He couldn’t help thinking that it was oddly flattering to have someone waiting for him, even if it was a dog. Emma had said for years that he needed a dog or a cat, or even a bird. But no, not once had he ever considered such a thing.
“We ought to call th’ shelter,” insisted Percy, who thought that a little action would brighten the morning. “They’ll be on ’im before you get down t’ your office.”
The rector discreetly put a piece of buttered toast in a napkin and slipped it into his pocket. “Let’s wait on that, Percy,” he said, walking to the door.
He stood there for a moment, composing himself. Then he opened the door and stepped out to the sidewalk.
The village of Mitford was set snugly into what would be called, in the West, a hanging valley. That is, the mountains rose steeply on either side, and then sloped into a hollow between the ridges, rather like a cake that falls in the middle from too much opening of the oven door.
According to a walking parishioner of Lord’s Chapel, Mitford’s business district was precisely 342 paces from one end to the other.
At the north end, Main Street climbed a slight incline and circled a town green that was bordered by a hedge of hemlocks and anchored in the center by a World War II memorial. The green also contained four benches facing the memorial and, in the spring, a showy bed of pansies, which one faction claimed was the official town flower.
Directly to the left of the green was the town hall, and next to that, the First Baptist Church. Set into the center of its own display of shrubs and flowers on the front bank was a wayside pulpit permanently bearing the Scripture verse John 3:16, which the members long ago had agreed was the pivotal message of their faith.
To the right of the green, facing Lilac Road, was the once-imposing home of Miss Rose and Uncle Billy Watson, whose overgrown yard currently contained two chrome dinette chairs which they used while watching traffic circle the monument.
Visitors who walked the two-block stretch of the main business district were always surprised to find the shops spaced so far apart, owing to garden plots that flourished between the buildings. In the loamy, neatly edged beds were wooden signs:
Garden Courtesy of Joe’s Barber Shop, Upstairs to Right
Take Time to Smell the Roses, Courtesy Oxford Antiques
A Reader’s Garden, Courtesy Happy Endings Bookstore
“Mitford,” observed a travel feature by a prominent newspaper, “is a village delightfully out of step with contemporary America. Here, where streets are named for flowers, and villagers can seek the shade of a dozen fragrant rose arbors, spring finds most of the citizenry, including merchants, making gardens.
“. . . and while Mitford’s turn-of-the-century charm and beauty attract visitors like bees to honeysuckle, the town makes a conscious effort to discourage serious tourism.
" ‘We want people to come and visit,’ says Mayor Esther Cunningham, ‘but we’re not real interested in having them stick around. The college town of Wesley, just fifteen miles away, is perfect for that. They’ve got the inns and guest houses and all. Mitford would simply like to be the pause that refreshes.’ ”
Going south on Main Street to Wisteria Lane were the post office, the library, a bank, the bookstore, Winnie Ivey’s Sweet Stuff Bakery, and a new shop for men’s furnishings.
There was also a grocery store, so well-known for its fresh poultry and produce from local sources that most people simply called it The Local. For thirty-six years, The Local had provided chickens, rabbits, sausage, hams, butter, cakes, pies, free-range eggs, jams, and jellies from a farming community in the valley, along with vegetables and berries in season. In summer, produce bins on the sidewalk under the green awnings were filled each day with Silver Queen corn in the shuck. And in July, pails of fat blackberries were displayed in the cooler case.
To the left of Main Street, Wisteria Lane meandered past the Episcopal rectory, whose back door looked upon the green seclusion of Baxter Park, and then climbed the hill to the Presbyterians.
To the right of Main, Wisteria led only to Wesley Chapel, a tiny Methodist church that stood along the creek bank in a grove of pink laurel and was known for the sweetness of its pealing bells.
The second and only other business block of Main Street was lined with a hardware store, a tea shop, a florist, an Irish woolen shop, and an antique shop, with gardens in between.
Next, Main was crossed by Old Church Lane, rising steeply on the left to Church Hill Drive, where the ruined foundation of Mitford’s first Episcopal church stood in the tall grass of the upland meadow near Miss Sadie Baxter’s Fernbank.
At the opposite end of the lane was Lord’s Chapel, which stood between two vacant lots. After passing the church, which was noted for its fine Norman tower and showy gardens, the lane narrowed to a few comfortable houses on the bank of a rushing stream, where Indian Pipes were said to grow in profusion.
As the streets and lanes gave way to countryside and sloped toward the deeper valley, the rolling farmland began. Here, pastures were stocked with Herefords and Guernseys; lakes were filled with trout and brim; barnyards succored chattering guineas. And everywhere, in town or out, was the rich, black loam that made the earthworm’s toil one of unending satisfaction.
On rare occasions, and for no special reason he could think of, he imagined he was sitting by the fire in the study, in the company of a companionable wife.
He would be reading, and she would be sitting across from him in a wing chair.
In this idyll, he could not see her face, but he knew it had a girlish sweetness, and she was always knitting. Knitting, he thought, was a comfort to the soul. It was regular. It was repetitious. And, in the end, it amounted to something.
In this dream, there was always a delectable surprise on the table next to his chair, and nearly always it was a piece of pie. In his bachelor’s heart of hearts, he loved pie with an intensity that alarmed him. Yet, when he was offered seconds, he usually refused. “Wouldn’t you like another piece of this nice coconut pie, Father?” he might be asked. “No, I don’t believe I’d care for any more,” he’d say. An outright lie!
In this imaginary fireside setting, he would not talk much, he thought. But now and then, he might speak of church matters, read Blake or Wordsworth aloud, and try a sermon outline on his companion.
That would be a luxury far greater than any homemade sweet—to have someone listen to his outline and nod encouragement or, even, for heaven’s sake, disagree.
Sometimes he shared an outline or argument with his close friend Hal Owen, the country vet. But in the main, he found that a man must hammer out his theology alone.
He was musing on this one evening, shortly after he’d been to the garage to give the black dog its supper, when he was surprised by a loud, groaning yawn from the vicinity of his own stockinged feet.
He was astounded to see the maverick dog lying next to his chair, gazing up at him.
“Blast!” he exclaimed. “I must have left the garage door open.”
The usually gregarious dog not only appeared thoughtfully serene, but looked at him with an air of earnest understanding. How odd that the brown eyes of his companion were not unlike those of an old church warden he’d known as a young priest.
Feeling encouraged, he picked up a volume of Wordsworth from the table by his elbow.
" ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,’ ” he read aloud.
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder, everlastingly.
The dog appeared to listen with deep interest. And when the rector finished reading the poem Wordsworth wrote for his young daughter, he moved happily along to an essay.
" ‘Life and the world,’ ” it began without pretension, " ‘are astonishing things.’ ”
“No doubt about it,” he muttered, as the dog moved closer to his feet.
Barnabas! he thought. That had been the old warden’s name. “Barnabas,” he said aloud in the still, lamp-lit room.
His companion raised his head, alert and expectant.
“Barnabas?” The dog seemed to blink in agreement, as the rector reached down and patted his head.
“Barnabas, then!” he said, with all the authority of the pulpit. The matter was settled, once and for all.
As he rose to put out the lights in the study, Barnabas got up also, revealing a sight which caused the rector to groan. There, on the worn Aubusson carpet, lay his favorite leather slippers of twenty years, chewed through to the sole.
“A puppy,” pronounced Hal Owen, lighting his pipe. “Not fully grown.”
“How much bigger, do you think? This much?” Father Tim extended his hands and indicated a small distance between them.
Hal Owen grinned and shook his head.
“This much?” He held his hands even farther apart.
“Umhmm. About that much,” said Hal.
Barnabas had settled in the corner by the rector’s desk and was happily banging his tail against the floor.
Hal studied him with sober concentration as he puffed on his pipe. “A trace of sheepdog, looks like. A wide streak of Irish wolfhound. But mostly Bouvier, I’d say.”
The rector sighed heavily.
“He’ll be good for you, Tim. A man needs someone to talk to, someone to entertain his complaints and approve his foolishness. As far as background goes, I like what E. B. White said: ‘A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.’ ”
“Well, he does like eighteenth-century poetry.”
“See there?” Hal put on his tweed cap. “You bring Barnabas out to Meadowgate, and we’ll give him a good run through the fields. Oh, and Marge will bake you a chicken pie. How would that suit you?”
It suited him more than he could express.
“I’m out of here. Have to check the teeth on Tommy McGee’s horses and look up the rear of Harold Newland’s heifer.”
“I wouldn’t want to trade callings with you, my friend.”
“Nor I with you,” said the vet, amiably.
“Ah . . . what exactly shall I feed him?”
“Money,” said Hal, without any hesitation. “Just toss it in there twice a day, and he’ll burn it like a stove.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
“Tell you what. I’ll let you have his food in bulk, good stuff. It’ll hardly cost you a thing. About like keeping a house cat.”
“May the Lord bless you.”
“Thank you, Tim, I can use it.”
“May he cause his face to shine upon you!” he added with fervor.
“That would be appreciated,” said Hal, pulling on his gloves. “I’ll even see to his shots in a day or two.”
Just then, they heard the sound of Emma Garrett’s sensible shoes approaching the office door. And so did Barnabas.
With astonishing agility, he leaped over the rector’s desk chair, skidded to the door on the Persian prayer rug, and stood on his hind legs, preparing to greet Emma.
“The Altar Guild is helpin’ plant pansies on the town medium today,” said Emma, as he came in with Barnabas on a new red leash.
“Median, Emma, median.”
“Medium,” she said, brightly, “and they wondered if you could come out there after a while and direct the colors.” It certainly wasn’t that the Altar Guild couldn’t direct the colors themselves, she thought. But he had gone so far as to win some prizes for his gardening skills and had been written up in a magazine put out by the electric co-op.
He noticed Emma was clearly pretending that Barnabas did not exist, which was hard to do in an office with room for only two desks, two chairs, a visitor’s bench, four coat pegs, and a communal wastebasket.
“What do you mean, direct the colors?” he asked, sorting through his phone messages.
“Well, you know. Do the yellow ones go in the middle or around the edges or what? And where do you put the blue? Not next to the purple!” she said with conviction.
“I’ll take care of it.”
She peered at him over her glasses. “You look handsome with that tan, I must say.”
“And thank you for saying it. Compared to a golfer’s tan, a gardener’s tan is not quite so distinguished, but it has its merits. For example, you do not have to wear chartreuse golf pants in order to get it.”
Emma howled with laughter. If there was anything she liked, it was a laugh. And frankly, while he was good for a great many things, her rector was not always good for a laugh.
“You don’t look as fagged out as you looked there for a while. I thought we’d have to scrape you off the floor a time or two.”
“Spring, Emma. It medicates the bones and revives the spirit.”
“Well, let’s just hope it lasts,” she said, eyeing him as if he were a boiled potato.
She went back to posting Sunday’s checks. “It rags me good that Petrey Bostic never catches up his pledge,” she grumbled.
“You know I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to look out in the congregation and see dollar signs instead of souls.”
“You know what I think?”
He didn’t know.
“I think you live in an ivory tower. It seems to me you’d want to know the nitty gritty of what goes on. You take the Baptists; they keep up with everything.”
Emma liked to talk about the Baptists, having previously been one. “Is that so?” he said mildly.
“What comes in, what goes out, who shot Lizzie. You name it, they like to know it.”
“Aha,” he said. Ever since she got red hair, she had been living up to it.
He turned to his old Royal manual and typed with his forefingers:
Dear Walter, thnx yr letter dated march 12. garden going in, through still cold and much rain. preparations for holy week in full swing.
hope yr spirits improved. know that He will lead you to right decision. ps. 32:8 promises: i will instruct you and teach you in the way which you shall go: i will guide you with my eye. never doubt it!
ever yr fond cousin.
p.s. hope to see you this summer. lv to katherine. i keep you always in my prayers.
As he looked up from the cryptic message to his first cousin and boyhood friend, he saw it had started to rain. All morning, the fog had hung about the village as thick as soup in a bowl, causing him once again to consider buying one of those orange slickers so he could be seen walking in the fog.
“You don’t drive a car?” his former bishop once asked, incredulous. Well, and why should he, after all? The rectory was two minutes from the office and less than three from the church. The hospital was only a few blocks away, and one of the finest grocery stores in existence was right across the street.
The old gospel preacher Vance Havner had written about that very thing: “This is the day of the motorist, and anyone who walks is viewed with suspicion. You see a man coming down the road now, just meditating, and you figure he’s either out of his head or out of gas. It’s such a rarity that dogs bark as though they’d seen a ghost.”
Making his rounds on foot kept him fit and positive, if not altogether trim. And, if push came to shove, he could always get the battery charged on his Buick Riviera, back it out of the garage, and go.
Actually, he’d been thinking seriously of getting a bicycle. Only now, there was Barnabas. And a rector in a clerical collar on a bicycle, leading a great, black dog on a red leash? Well, there was no way to bring it off that he could see.
“Peedaddle!” said Emma, as she made an error in her bookkeeping.
Barnabas leaped up and bounded to her desk, where he put his paws on the ledger, leaned over, and fogged her glasses.
“My God!” she exclaimed.
Why was she always saying “My God!” in a way that had nothing whatever to do with her God? He caught Barnabas by the collar and dragged him into the corner next to his chair.
“I’m tellin’ you the truth,” Emma said, squinting as she wiped her glasses, “it’s goin’ to be either him or me.” She grabbed her sandwich bag and put it in her desk, slamming the drawer shut.
“Lie down!” he commanded. Barnabas stood and wagged his tail.
“Stay!” he said, as Barnabas ambled to the door and sniffed it.
“Then, sit!” Barnabas went to his water dish and took a long drink.
“Whatever,” he muttered, unable to look at Emma.
He sat down and turned to the Gospel reading for Sunday. As he prepared to practice reading it aloud, which was his custom, he cleared his throat.
Barnabas appeared to take that as a signal to stand by his master’s chair and place his front paws on his shoulder, giving a generous lick to the Bible for good measure.
He had just read that ignoring negative behavior and praising the positive could be a fruitful strategy. “Whatever you do,” the article had implored, “do not look your dog in the eye if you want to discourage his attentions.”
" ‘And as Jesus passed by,’ ” intoned the rector, avoiding the doleful stare, “ ‘he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” ’ ”
Barnabas sighed and lay down.
He continued, without glancing into the corner: “ ‘Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of his God should be made manifest in him.” ’ ”
He read aloud through verse five. Then, he stopped and studied Barnabas with some concentration.
“Well, now,” he said at last, “this is extraordinary.”
“What’s that?” asked Emma.
“This dog appears to be . . . ,” he cleared his throat, “. . . ah, controlled by Scripture.”
“No way!” she said with disgust. “That dog is not controlled by anything!”
Just then, the door opened, and Miss Sadie Baxter helped prove the odd suspicion.
Before she could speak, Barnabas had bounded across the room to extend his finest greeting, whereupon the rector shouted what came immediately to mind, and what Peter had told the multitude:
“ ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you!’ ”
Barnabas sprawled on the floor and sighed with contentment.
“I was baptized, thank you,” said Miss Sadie, removing her rain hat.
A Dubious Gift
Miss Sadie Baxter was the last surviving member of one of Mitford’s oldest families.
At the age of eighty-six, she occupied the largest house in the village, with the most sweeping view. And she owned the most land, much of it given over to an aged but productive apple orchard. In fact, the village cooks said that the best pies weren’t made of Granny Smiths, but of the firm, slightly tart Sadie Baxters, as they’d come to be called.
As far as anyone knew, Miss Sadie had never given away any of the money her father had earned in his lumber operation in the valley. But she dearly loved to give away apples—by the sack, by the peck, by the bushel. Clearly, the only serious maintenance she’d done around Fernbank in recent years was in the orchards, for as anyone could see from the road, the roof that showed itself above the trees was in urgent need of repair. Some said she sat in her living room, surrounded by a regiment of buckets when it rained, and that the sound of it drumming into the pails was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think.
It was, in fact, pouring when she stopped to visit her rector on Tuesday morning. “Mercy!” she said, shaking out her rain hat. “What a day for ducks!”
Father Tim hurried to help with her raincoat and kiss her damp cheek. “What in heaven’s name are you doing out in this deluge?”
“You know weather never keeps me in!” she said in a voice as fresh as a girl’s.
It was true. Everyone knew that Sadie Baxter would come down the hill in her 1958 Plymouth in a heartbeat—no matter what the weather. Ice, however, was a different story. “You can’t predict it,” she’d say, “and I dearly love the predictable.” So, on icy days, she read, played the piano, sorted through the family picture albums, or called Louella, her former maid and companion, who now lived with her grandson in Marietta, Georgia.
Father Tim could see that Miss Sadie had driven up on the sidewalk, as usual, and parked her car so close to the steps that if he opened the office door all the way, he’d take the paint off her fender.
“Sit down,” Emma said, “and have some coffee.”
“You know how I like it,” she said, settling in for a visit. “Well! Guess what?”
“I give up,” said the rector.
“I weigh exactly the same as my age!”
“No!” exclaimed Emma.
“Yes, indeed. I went to see Hoppy for a checkup, and I tip the scales at exactly eighty-six pounds. Have you ever?”
“Never!” said Father Tim.
“And you know what else?” she inquired, sitting on the edge of the visitor’s bench like a schoolgirl.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Louella is coming to see me for Easter. Her grandson is driving her up here all the way from Marietta! I certainly wouldn’t ask her to do the cooking—she’s a guest! So I thought we’d just have frozen chicken pies. Don’t you think that would be all right, Emma?”
“Why, sure it would. And maybe some fruit cocktail with Jell-O.”
“Good idea! And some tea. I can still make tea. Louella likes it real sweet. And let’s see, what else?”
Emma thought, tapping her pen on the typewriter. “Ummm . . .”
“Tell you what,” said Father Tim, “I’ll bake you a ham.”
“You would? Oh, Father, that would be so . . . why, bless your heart.”
“Don’t even mention it!” he said, feeling his heart blessed already.
“Now that’s settled, you’ll never guess what else, so I’m going to tell you. Yesterday, I didn’t go out of the house at all. Why, I hate to say this, but I never even got dressed, isn’t that awful? Just went around in my wrapper all the livelong day, my mama would faint. And first thing you know, I was poking around in the attic, looking for an old baby doll I was thinking about, a baby doll that must be eighty years old if she’s a day. But we never threw anything away, so I just knew I’d find it. Oh, the dust! Why, I kicked up a regular dust storm!
“And hats! Oh, mercy, the hats I found, why there was a slew of my mama’s beautiful hats. I’m going to bring the whole lot to Sunday school one morning and let the children try them on. Would that be too sacrilegious?”
He laughed. “Certainly not!”
“So, then I got to looking for an old picture of Papa, the one with his handlebar mustache, and I was crawling around in there, back in that place where we always kept pictures standing up in little racks, and I was pulling this one out and that one, and the first thing you know, well . . .” Miss Sadie paused and looked at them intently.
“Well, what?” Emma said, leaning forward.
“Well, there was this old painting of the Blessed Virgin and the baby Jesus that Papa brought back from overseas.”
“Aha!” said Father Tim.
“And I want you to have it for the church, Father,” she said, “to hang on the wall.”
This could be perilous. He remembered two or three other gifts to the church that had caused the widest consternation. One was a mounted moose head, said by the donor to be one of God’s creatures, after all, and therefore fit for the parish house wall, if not the nave.
“Maybe I could come up to Fernbank and look at it one day, and we could just, ah, take it from there.”
“Oh, no. No need to do that, Father, I’ve brought it with me. If you’d just step out to the car . . .”
“It’s raining cats and dogs, Miss Sadie.”
“Oh, I know, so I wrapped it up in a sheet, and then I wrapped that up in some plastic, and I tied it all with a string!”
He found that he was able to open his office door exactly halfway without scraping it on the green Plymouth. Then he maneuvered an umbrella ahead of him, released it outside the door, moved sideways out of the room, drew the umbrella over his head to the drumming sound of a pouring rain, opened her rear car door, and leaned across the seat to pick the heavy painting up with his right hand while holding the umbrella with his left.
He managed to grasp the painting under his arm, shove the car door closed with the heel of his drenched shoe, push open the office door with the toe of the same shoe, then slip the painting through the door ahead of him, lower the umbrella, squeeze through the narrow opening, and stand dripping on the carpet.
“There!” said Miss Sadie with delight, as if she had just fetched the parcel herself.
He leaned the heavy bundle against the wall, quite spent.
“If you have a scissors, Emma, I’ll do the honors.” Miss Sadie pushed up the sleeves of her cardigan and addressed herself to cutting through several layers of string, cloth, and plastic.
“All right, now,” she said, “you look the other way, and I’ll say when.”
The rector turned and looked out the window behind his desk, and mopped his rain-soaked face and hands with a handkerchief. Emma stoically faced the door to the bathroom, which displayed a bulletin board of parish notices.
Get a move on, thought Emma, who had to coordinate memorials for Easter flowers.
“Now!” Miss Sadie cried.
He turned around and beheld a sight that stunned him.
The painting, in a wide, gilded frame with elaborate carving, was a rosy-hued depiction of mother and child that fairly glowed, even under years of dirt and grime. A faint halo appeared around the infant’s head, and the mother looked upon the child in her arms with a wistful tenderness. In the background, moving away from the blue and gold of her gown, was a landscape with a bright stream flowing through open countryside, and above this, a sky that blushed with the platinum, rose, and lavender of an early morning sun.
“Well, now,” he said, feeling a sudden desire to cross himself. “This is quite . . . quite beautiful. I wasn’t expecting . . .”
“Then you like it?” Miss Sadie’s eyes were dancing.
“Like it? I like it enormously! It’s a lovely thing to see.”
“I cleaned it up,” Miss Sadie told him. “Lemon Pledge.”
He squatted down for a closer look. “Any name anywhere? Do we know who did it?”
“No sign of a name. I got out my magnifying glass and went all over it, front and back.”
The office door swung open suddenly, bringing in a gust of rain and Harry Nelson in a dripping slicker.
“Occupancy by more than three persons is unlawful,” Emma said with ill humor. She could hardly bear the sight of the senior warden, and especially not in a wet slicker that was already soaking the thin carpet.
“If we ever get some real money in this place, we’ll knock these walls out and add you a thousand square feet,” he said with satisfaction.
Over my dead body, thought the rector, who loved the diminutive stone building that the parish had erected in 1879.
Harry Nelson deposited his slicker in the corner, helped himself to a cup of coffee, and joined Miss Sadie on the visitor’s bench.
“Okay, Father, here’s the scoop. We’ve looked into it, and it’s goin’ to make a bloody mess of the sanctuary to tear that cabinet out of there.”
As Father Tim and Harry Nelson talked church matters, Emma and Miss Sadie talked Easter dinner. Emma was actually going to bake cloverleaf yeast rolls from scratch, which she hadn’t done since Charlie died ten years ago. And Miss Sadie decided she would serve Louella and her grandson on the sunporch, if the weather turned off nice.
“Well, well, well, what’s this?” Harry wanted to know, peering at the painting.
“Miss Sadie is making a gift to Lord’s Chapel,” Father Tim said proudly.
Harry bent over to look closer. As Emma was seated directly behind him, it afforded her such an intriguing idea that she was nearly breathless.
Harry whistled with appreciation. “This looks mighty like a Vermeer to me,” he informed the group.
“Why, Harry Nelson, I didn’t know you were familiar with Vermeer,” said Miss Sadie.
“Familiar! Why, I reckon I am! Shirley and I’ve had all kinds of classes in art appreciation. Did you know there’s only thirty-five Vermeers in the world, except for some Dutchman in the last century who forged a whole bunch of ’em? Baked ’em in the oven to make ’em look like the real thing.”
He took his glasses off and squinted at the painting. “Is there a signature on here anywhere?”
“Not that we’ve been able to find,” the rector said.
“If this isn’t the real thing, I’ll eat my hat. Shoot, I hear that even the fakes bring a bundle. Tell you what, I have a friend who appraises this stuff, I’ll just ask him to drive up from Charlotte and take a look. He says some of the biggest art finds in history have come out of somebody’s attic.”
“That’s where it came from, all right,” Miss Sadie confessed.
“Well, let me get on the road. I’ve got to go over the mountain to see some customers. Boys howdy, this coffee’ll curl your hair.”
“Ah, Harry, about that appraiser, I don’t know that this is what we need to do just now. I think we should wait on that.”
“Wait? Wait was what broke the camel’s back!” Harry grabbed his slicker off the peg, threw it over his head, squeezed out the door, and called behind him, “Miss Sadie, you should have just drove this Plymouth on in the door.”
For some reason he couldn’t explain, the rector found Harry’s plan to involve an appraiser oddly unwelcome. Yet, something even less welcome occurred at noon.
While he waited with eager anticipation for his usual rainy-day share of cream-filled Little Debbies from Emma’s paper bag lunch, she said nonchalantly, “Little Debbies? I’ve given ’em up for Lent.”
He had just walked in the door and taken off the tweed cap Hal Owen gave him, when Percy Mosely turned around from the grill and winked. Then, he went back to frying his sausage.
That was odd, thought Father Tim, sitting down at his favorite booth and opening his newspaper. “Percy,” he said, “I believe I’ll have two over easy this morning.”
Velma came to the booth and stood there, grinning. “Gonna celebrate, are you? I’d have two eggs myself, if it wasn’t for my cholesterol.”
Cholesterol, cholesterol, thought Father Tim. He’d heard more than enough about cholesterol. It was as bad as the Hula Hoop craze.
Velma poured his coffee. He had traveled to many conferences, retreats, seminars, and workshops, and right here was the best cup of coffee he’d ever had. “What do you mean, celebrate?”
“Well, celebrate over all that money you’ll be gettin’ down at th’ chapel.”
“What money is that?” asked Father Tim, dumbfounded.
“That art money. Why, I heard you had a painting over there worth two hundred thousand dollars.”
He had just taken a mouthful of coffee and deeply regretted spitting it down the front of his shirt.
“Now, look at you!” said Velma, helping him clean up.
“Velma, whatever you’ve heard is absolutely untrue. Someone donated a painting to the church and we haven’t even had it appraised. It’s just a nice painting, that’s all.”
“We heard it was a Veneer,” said Percy, yelling from the grill.
“Yep, that’s what we heard,” agreed Mule Skinner, who sold real estate around town.
Blast! he thought, completely losing his appetite.
Miss Sadie had delivered the painting on Tuesday. By the end of the day on Thursday, he had received an unprecedented number of calls. Even Emma, who had the day off, called.
In the Grill at eight o’clock, the figure had been two hundred thousand. By three in the afternoon, he had a call from an architect who wanted to submit plans for an addition to the church, and congratulated him on the million dollars Lord’s Chapel would be getting from the sale of the old master. At three-thirty, the village newspaper called for a statement.
By four, his stomach felt painful and empty. Bleeding ulcer! he reasoned darkly.
He put the answering machine on, and left.
At five after four, Walter got this message: “Persevere in prayer, with mind awake and thankful heart. This is the office of The Lord’s Chapel. Please leave a message at the sound of the tone.”
That evening, Father Tim took the phone off the hook, gave Barnabas what was almost certainly his first bath, made a dinner of broiled chicken and packaged spinach souffle, had a glass of sherry, and went to bed.
What if the painting really were a Vermeer? He didn’t know much about art, but he did know the work had a certain power, a vitality he hadn’t found in just every depiction of the Blessed Virgin and child.
He also knew the turmoil that would ensue if they were actually in possession of such a priceless work. Hadn’t he had enough headaches over the seventeenth-century tapestry hanging in the nave? Just getting it insured had been a process that took months, endless costly phone calls, and sleepless nights. In the end, they’d been forced to keep the church doors locked, a thing he roundly despised.
The bottom line, however, was pretty simple. God would, indeed, be faithful to instruct and guide. As the evening progressed, he grew confident that he’d be led to act in the interest of all concerned.
On the way to the church office the next morning, there was a quickness in his step. Of course, he must never tell a soul. But last night, for the first time in his life, he had allowed a dog to sleep on the foot of his bed. And he’d found it an incomparably satisfactory experience.
“There!” said Emma, plunking a box of Little Debbies on his desk. “You weren’t the one who gave these up for Lent. You can have my supply.” She wondered what he did give up for Lent, anyway, but didn’t think it was proper to ask.
He put the box in his top right desk drawer, “You,” he said with feeling, “are a pearl above price.”
“It was a landmark day. Petrey Bostick called to say we ought to use part of the money to put air-conditioning in the church.”
Emma rolled her eyes. That old business. What was the point of living at an elevation of 5,000 feet if you had to install air-conditioning? Every year, people got lathered up about air-conditioning.
In the course of the morning, a real estate agent called to suggest they buy the property on either side of the churchyard, which would quietly be made available, if they were interested. The rector was not surprised that the price had gone up fifty percent since the vestry made an inquiry just two years ago.
The newspaper called to ask if they could photograph the painting with Miss Sadie standing on one side and Father Tim on the other. The appraiser called and said he’d be there Monday at 9:30. And, they heard that the vestry had scheduled a meeting to discuss the purchase of a steel columbarium painted to look like walnut, brass collection plates instead of the traditional Lord’s Chapel baskets, and a floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window for the narthex.
After two parishioners called to remind him of the hungry around the world, another dropped by to remind him of the hungry here at home.
During a lull, he turned to Emma and said simply, “We must not let this destroy the joy of Easter.”
“Amen,” she said with conviction.
There was only one problem. He couldn’t figure out how to prevent that from happening.
A Canadian cold front was sending streams of icy air along the ridges and into the coves surrounding Mitford.
After walking Barnabas through Baxter Park, attending to his hospital rounds, and counseling a parishioner over breakfast at the Grill, he was profoundly ready for a peaceful time at his desk. Now he needed to catch up the loose strings of the two approaching Easter services. Perhaps he could do this, he thought, after the appraiser’s visit at nine-thirty. If he had any lingering anxiety about the outcome of the painting’s appraisal, he was blessedly unaware of it.
He saw Winnie Ivey sweeping the sidewalk in front of her Sweet Stuff Bakery, as she did each and every morning. It was one of the sights he liked most to see: someone putting their affairs in order.
“Good morning, Winnie!”
Winnie was bundled warmly. He could see only plump cheeks and bright eyes above her scarf. “Father, I’m glad to catch you! I saved yesterday’s napoleons just for you!”
Hoppy had recently warned him, “Stay away from that stuff, pal. Carry raisins in your pocket.” Raisins, indeed. Worse yet, he’d recently overheard someone refer to him as “that portly priest at Lord’s Chapel.”
“Winnie,” he said, following her inside and taking a deep breath of the cinnamon-scented air, “Hoppy tells me I’ve got to go easy on sweets.”
“He’s been telling me that for years, and I sure do wish I could mind him,” she said affably, removing three napoleons from the case.
“Maybe you could give those to Miss Rose and Uncle Billy when they come in.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that! They get yesterday’s oatmeal cookies. Good fiber, you know.”
He wondered why he felt helpless as she handed him the paper bag and patted his arm.
In case Hoppy should drive by on his way to the hospital, he carefully stuffed the bag into his coat pocket. He would not eat one bite, he told himself, not even one. They would go immediately to Emma, who could make her own peace with the seductive charm of Winnie Ivey’s napoleons.
As he came within sight of his office, he was startled to see a small group waiting at the door. It appeared to be Harry Nelson, Bud Simmons, and Maude Beatty. Also, two cars were parked at the sidewalk, with their motors running.
He felt a reckless desire to step behind a laurel bush and eat the entire contents of the bag in his pocket.
He was relieved that he’d left Barnabas sleeping in the garage, for the crowd had literally packed the office. He opened the bathroom door, which made room for two, shoved the communal wastebasket under his desk, which made room for another, and let the rest of the group shift for itself.
“Father,” Harry said sheepishly, “I know you didn’t expect such a big whang-do here this mornin’, but we thought the vestry ought to see what this appraiser fellow has to say.”
“As you can see, Harry, there’s no room left for the appraiser to get in here and say anything.”
Harry laughed weakly and stood closer to the wall.
The rector turned on the electric heater, then went about his coffee making. “With patience, forbearing one another in love,” he reminded himself. Funny how his morning readings often went out to greet the circumstances of the day.
In a few minutes, the smell of coffee filled the little room and began to warm the hearts of the entire assembly. But since the pot only made four cups, and there were seven people, he proceeded cautiously with the pouring.
Emma opened the front door with a glower and squeezed inside. She did not like cold spring mornings, dimly feeling they were some sort of betrayal.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she said, seeing that Maude Beatty was sitting in her chair like she owned it.
The appraiser arrived at nine-thirty sharp, removed his coat, handed it to Harry Nelson, and went straight to work.
He hummed vaguely to himself and clicked his teeth. No one spoke.
“Hmmmm,” he said occasionally.
He took out a magnifying glass and went over every inch of the canvas, which he had propped against a stack of books on the rector’s desk.
Then he opened a small black box and removed a pair of pliers and a hammer. “Looking for a signature,” he informed the fascinated onlookers.
In a moment, the frame was off, and the appraiser was holding the canvas up to the natural light. “Hmm,” he said.
Father Tim thought it a wonderful thing that a man could say only “Hmm,” and gain the fixed attention of an entire roomful of people. Even his pithiest sermons failed to accomplish this.
“Use your bathroom?” asked the appraiser. The two vestry members moved out of the minuscule room, which was scarcely the size of a cupboard, and flattened themselves against Harry Nelson.
The appraiser took the canvas under one arm and went in, searching the walls and baseboards. “Got an outlet in here?”
“You’ll have to unplug the heater,” said Emma, testily. Why in God’s name was Bud Simmons sitting on the recipes she’d torn out of Southern Living and put on her desk, was he blind?
The appraiser shut the bathroom door, and everyone looked around with faint smiles.
If there was anything Harry Nelson didn’t like, it was a nervous silence. “Did you hear the one about the funeral procession?” he wanted to know.
Oh my aching back, thought Emma.
“Well, this funeral procession was goin’ up the hill to the church and the back door of the hearse flew open and out shoots the casket and, blametty blam, down the hill it goes through the intersection with horns blowin’ and people dodgin’ out of the way, and it runs on down the street and jumps up on the sidewalk and busts in through the pharmacy door and shoots down the aisle to the druggist and the lid pops up and this guy sits up and says: ‘Got anything to stop this coffin?’ ”
I wouldn’t laugh if my life depended on it, Emma thought, as the appraiser came out of the bathroom.
“This may be a Vermeer,” he said drily. A little gasp went up.
“And then again, it may not. I feel reasonably confident that it could have been painted during the mid- to late seventeenth century, by any one of a dozen people working under Vermeer’s influence.
“There is no signature that I can find and no evidence of restoration. I recommend that the canvas be shipped at once to New York, to a team of experts who can research the matter fully and apply more scholarship than I am able to provide.”
The appraiser had finished his report. In fact, he didn’t even wait for a response from the astonished gathering, but began to repack his toolbox and wind up the cord of his black light.
A murmur ran through the group. Bud Simmons got up, scattering recipes to the floor, and spoke in a low voice to Harry Nelson. The others waited.
“We think it ought to be sent to New York,” Harry said, considerably louder than was necessary in the small room.
“Agreed!” said Lester Shumaker, looking around for support.
The appraiser produced a sheaf of papers and had Harry Nelson sign every one. Then, he put on his coat and muffler, wrapped the painting in bubble plastic, slipped it into a large sack, picked up his toolbox, bowed briefly from the waist, and was gone.
In a few minutes, so were the others.
“Emma,” said the rector, with a trace of weariness, “let’s have another pot of coffee.”
“Great!” said Emma, who, on those rare occasions when he wanted a second pot, considered it a small celebration.
He looked at the visitor’s bench. There, propped against the wall just under the coat pegs, was the empty frame.
He squeezed by Emma, who was measuring out the Maxwell House, and took the frame into the bathroom. It fit perfectly behind the shower stall.
“There!” he said with satisfaction. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
At eleven o’clock, he had a welcome phone call. “Tim, Hal here. I heard what’s going on with the painting, and in case you’re feeling sick and tired of the whole thing, I’d like to give you a prescription.”
He didn’t know how he felt about receiving medical care from a vet.
“Here it is: Be ready at eight o’clock in the morning, and I’ll pick you and Barnabas up in the truck. We’ll spend the day at Meadowgate, chasing rabbits and looking for woodchucks. For supper, Marge’ll make a big chicken pie, and I’ll bring you back in time to get your beauty sleep for church on Sunday.”
If he had gotten a call to say he’d won the lottery, he couldn’t have been happier. Thank heaven he’d worked all week on his sermon, thereby giving him the freedom of an entire Saturday.
He drank two full mugs of coffee, which was unusual, with cream, which was even more unusual, and, according to Emma, spent the rest of the morning “chattering like a magpie.”
Meadowgate Farm was situated in one of the most beautiful valleys around Mitford. Just ten miles from the village, the land began to roll steeply, looking like the pictures he had seen of Scotland.
A flock of sheep grazed in one green pasture, across the fence from a herd of contented Guernseys. The white blossoms of wild bloodwort gleamed along the roadsides, and here and there the bank of an old farmplace was massed with creeping pink phlox.
You leadeth me beside still waters! he thought happily. You restoreth my soul!
It was a glorious morning, drenched with birdsong, and as they turned into the drive, a horde of farm dogs came bounding toward the red truck. There was Buckwheat, an English foxhound. Bowser, a chow. Baudelaire, a soulful dachshund. Bodacious, a Welsh corgi. And Bonemeal, a mixed-breed foundling who, as a puppy, had dug up the new tulip bulbs in order to eat the fertilizer.
The rector opened his door cautiously, and Barnabas dived into the barking throng. Was it possible his hearing could be permanently impaired? “Let ’em get acquainted,” Hal said.
At the back door, Marge gave Father Tim a vigorous hug, which he returned with feeling.
“Tim! You’ve got your annual planting tan!”
“And you’ve got your perennial joi de vivre!”
In the center of the kitchen was a large pine table, bleached by age, with benches on either side. A Mason jar of early wildflowers sat in the center, along with a deep-dish apple pie, fresh from the oven. A dazzling beam of light fell through the windows that looked out to the stables.
Their guest stood transfixed. “A foretaste of heaven!” he said, feeling an instant freshness of spirit.
“Sit,” said Marge, whose blonde hair was captured in a bandanna the color of her dress. “We’ll start with freshly ground coffee and cinnamon stickies. Then, I’ve packed lunches, because I hear you guys are going tromping in the woods.”
" ‘Til we drop,” promised Hal, lighting his pipe. “Tim has some heavy-duty stress to contend with. Holy Week, two Easter services, a Vermeer, a new dog the size of a Buick, fourteen azaleas to get in the ground, and,” he looked at Father Tim, “there must be something else.”
“A bone spur in my left heel,” he said, cheerfully.
At two-thirty, Marge rang the farm bell, and the men came at a trot across the early spring field with Barnabas, Bowser, and Buckwheat dashing ahead. The bell rang only for an emergency.
“Trissie Steven’s pony. Caught in a barbed wire fence. Bleeding badly,” Marge said in the telegraphic way she had of communicating urgent news to her husband.
“Want to come or stay, Tim? Your call.”
“Oh, stay!” said Marge. “We haven’t had a good visit in a hundred years. Besides, you’ve been talking man talk all day. Let’s talk peonies and rosebushes, for heaven’s sake.”
His breathing was ragged from the trot across the field. “Well,” he said, lamely, thinking of downing a glass of Marge’s sweetened iced tea.
“I’m off,” Hal said, kissing his wife on the cheek.
Marge cleared the remains of the pastry she’d rolled out for the pie, while the chicken simmered on the stove. “Sit down and talk to me while I finish up. The tea’s in the pitcher, and fresh peppermint. A few shoots are already out; that tall grass by the garden shed kept it protected over the winter.”
He poured the tea, got ice from the refrigerator, and sat down in the rocking chair that had belonged to Marge’s father.
It was balm to his soul to sit in this beamed, high-ceilinged room, with its wonderful smells and golden, heart-of-pine floors. At Meadowgate Farm, he mused, nothing terribly dramatic ever seemed to happen. Life appeared to flow along sweetly, without many surprises or obstacles to overcome.
Marge sat down on the window seat and tucked her hair into the bandanna. He thought she looked unusually bright, radiant.
“Did Hal tell you?”
“Tell me? Tell me what?”
Perhaps their Annie was getting engaged, he thought. Or maybe Hal had finally come across with their much-discussed vacation in France, to celebrate her fiftieth birthday.
“I’m pregnant,” she said simply, wiping her hands on her apron.
After dinner, which the rector pronounced “the finest yet,” the men washed the dishes. Then they all gathered before a small fire on the kitchen hearth.
Hal and Marge sat on the slouchy, chintz-covered sofa, which the dogs usually favored, and held hands like sweethearts. Bowser and Baudelaire slept peacefully by the fire, and Barnabas slept with his head on his master’s feet.
The rector lifted a glass of Hal’s oldest port.
“To Marge, the bravest of the brave! May you be blessed with a child who is full of grace and merriment, and endowed with the countenance of its lovely mother.”
“Thanks, but I’m not brave, at all. I’m scared silly. I keep thinking Hoppy will call and say, ‘Ha, ha, just kidding. You can go back to your real life, now.’”
Barnabas gave a little dream bark.
“Chasing squirrels,” said Hal. “You know, I think you’ve got yourself a fine dog, there. His character appears to reveal the wolfhound in him. There’s an old story that says a wolfhound can tell by looking on a man’s face whether his intentions are good or evil.”
“A trait devoutly to be desired by the rest of us,” said the rector, with a new pride in his companion.
“Read to us, Timothy. You’ll have to be leaving in an hour or so, and you know how I covet a read before you go.” Marge fluffed up the pillow behind her and leaned cozily against her husband’s shoulder.
She had put several books on the table next to his chair. “First come, first served,” he said cheerfully, and opened a volume at random.
“ ‘Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books,’ ” he read from Wordsworth, “ ‘Or surely you’ll grow double: Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble?’ ”
The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
through all the long green fields has spread
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet
How sweet his music! on my life,
there’s more of wisdom in it.
As Father Tim read, Barnabas awoke, yawned, and began to listen with rapt attention.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
our meddling intellect/mis-shapes the
beauteous forms of things
we murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art
Close up those barren leaves
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Barnabas sighed with what appeared to be satisfaction, and gazed at the reader as if waiting for more.
“Remarkable dog,” said Hal.
Much to his relief, little mention of the painting came to his ears during Holy Week.
Palm Sunday had been a blessing to the congregation, and on Maundy Thursday, he had truly experienced a deep and enriching mournfulness. On Good Friday he fasted, and on Holy Saturday felt much the better for it in every way.
Easter morning dawned bright and clear. “Dazzling to the senses!” said one parishioner. The beautiful old church was full for both services, and the tremor of joy that one always hoped for on this high day was decidedly there.
Perhaps one of the highest points, for him, had been looking out into the eleven o’clock congregation and seeing Miss Sadie sitting with Louella and her grandson. The countenances of all three were radiant, which created a special pool of light on the gospel side.
After church, Louella grabbed him and gave him a bosomy hug.
“That’s some good ham you baked,” she said. “We got into it las’ night, with the Jell-O. An’ Miss Sadie goin’ to run it by us again today.”
Hal and Marge were there, their good news shining in their eyes.
Emma wore a hat with a Bird of Paradise on one side and was proudly showing off her daughter from Atlanta. And Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, usually partial to the Presbyterians, attended their first service at Lord’s Chapel.
He saw faces he’d never seen before, and would never see again, and faces that had become as familiar as his own. It had been a good twelve years in Mitford.
During the days following Easter Sunday, he noticed a certain lassitude of spirit in himself. He would go to his back door and gaze at the azaleas, which he’d left sitting along the bank in their potting cans.
There was still a flat of pansies to be planted, and a dozen rare, pink daylilies.
But the joy he’d felt in gardening, only days before, seemed to have vanished. A letdown was to be expected after the intense activities of high holy days.
He went to the library at noon and sat, idly reading, wanting a nap, forgetting to have lunch. At last, he forced himself to check out the latest Dick Francis, a book on dog breeds, a volume of Voltaire, and Maeterlinck’s Intelligence of the Flowers. He felt so exhausted from selecting the books that he did something entirely out of the ordinary: he phoned Emma to say he was going home.
“I’m calling Hoppy this minute,” she said, alarmed.
“There’s nothing to worry about in the least. I’m just a little tired, that’s all. I expect to be there bright and early in the morning.”
“Well, it’s my day off, you know, but I’ll come in at ten to check on you. I’ve found us a new kind of Little Debbies, and I’ll bring you a box.”
He couldn’t summon the energy to argue with her. He also noted, vaguely, that her offer of one of his favorite sweets had no appeal.
By the time he reached the new men’s store a block away, he regretted having checked out the books he was carrying, especially the Voltaire, which suddenly felt like the complete works.
Miss Rose and Uncle Billy lived on Mitford’s Main Street, in one room of a house that was variously called “a disgrace,” “an eyesore,” and “a crying shame.”
The house had been built in the late 1920s by Miss Rose’s brother, Willard Porter, who invented and sold pharmaceuticals.
His biggest seller, a chest rub, had added the second story, the wooden shutters with cutouts of a dove, a wraparound porch, and a widow’s walk. There was an ornate gazebo, large enough for dances, that had commemorated the success of a flavored lip balm. And four sculptured stone garden benches with carved angels’ heads, sitting in what once was a majestic rose garden, had marked the debut of a cough syrup containing mountain herbs.
The house had historically been the pride of the village, sitting as it did on the edge of the old town green, across from the war monument, and displaying the finest architecture of its time.
In recent years, however, all that had changed. The stone benches with carved angels’ heads were crumbling to dust. Many of the shutters lay in the grass where they had fallen. And Uncle Billy had nailed a No Trespassing sign on the widow’s walk.
A decorator from Raleigh had often tried to buy the Porter place for a second home, thinking how spectacular it would be for parties. When all efforts to buy it through Mule Skinner had failed, she took it upon herself personally to visit Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, who were sitting in the backyard in two chrome dinette chairs, at a wooden spool previously used to roll up electric wiring. They were eating bologna sandwiches and drinking iced tea from jelly glasses.
Miss Rose wiped her mouth on a threadbare T-shirt that said I surfed Laguna Beach.
“I’m Susan Parnell Phillips,” the intruder informed them, with more eagerness than was necessary.
“This is Rose,” said Uncle Billy, “and I’m the thorn.”
At that, Uncle Billy grinned broadly, showing all three of his teeth, one of which was “covered with enough gold to reroof the house,” as a neighbor once said.
Miss Rose glowered at the visitor. “I’m not selling.”
“Selling? But how did you—I mean, what makes you think I’m buying?”
“I can always tell,” Miss Rose snapped.
Recently, the new men’s store had tried to buy the place. And so had a dozen others over the years. But Miss Rose stood her ground.
“Home is where the heart is,” she said to one prospective buyer who knocked on their door in January and found her in a chenille robe, a World War II trench coat, a pair of rubber garden boots, a man’s felt hat, and what appeared to be Uncle Billy’s flannel pajama bottoms.
As far as the frozen caller could tell, there was no heat in the house. Being a caring soul, he inquired around and was told that the Presbyterian church had filled up Miss Rose’s oil tank in November, and, on last inspection, it was still full.
Most people knew, too, that the old couple walked to Winnie Ivey’s bake shop every afternoon, always hand in hand, to pick up what was left over. Winnie, however, was not one to give away the store. She carefully portioned out what she thought they would eat that night and the next morning, and no more. She didn’t like the idea of Miss Rose feeding her perfectly good day-old Danish to the birds.
After their visit to the bake shop, Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, walking very slowly due to arthritis and a half dozen other ailments, dropped by to see what Velma had left at the Main Street Grill.
Usually, it was a few slices of bacon and liver mush from breakfast, or a container of soup and a couple of hamburger rolls from lunch. Occasionally, she might add a little chicken salad that Percy had made, himself, that very morning.
On balance, it was said, Miss Rose and Uncle Billy fared pretty well in Mitford. And many were pleased to see that they provided for their spiritual nourishment, as well, by going to church on Sunday.
Recently, that very thing had been a matter for conversation around the village, since they’d been over to The Chapel of Our Lord and Savior, as it was properly called, four Sundays in a row, including Easter.
“Are you going to visit Miss Rose and Uncle Billy?” Emma asked one morning as Father Tim came in with Barnabas.
He hung his hat on a peg. “Do I need to?”
“Well, you usually do go visit after somebody’s been to church a few times.”
“Yes, I’ll do that. Soon. Remind me to do that.”
“Don’t eat anything while you’re there,” she warned. “They say Miss Rose cooks, sometimes.”
He was going through the mail that Harold Newland, the postman, had just handed him, since the mailbox was too small to hold this morning’s bundle. He spied a letter from Walter.
“Are you pale today?” Emma demanded.
“Pale? Do I look pale?”
“As a ghost.”
He slowly opened the letter, stared at what appeared to be a blur, then sat down heavily on the corner of his desk.
“Something . . .” he said vaguely. “Something is . . . not right.”
Emma rose to steady him. “Don’t move,” she said, afraid he might crash to the floor. “I’m bringing the car to the door and we’re going to the hospital.”
“This,” said Dr. Walter Harper, who was known to the village as Hoppy, “is where the rubber hits the road.”
“Meaning the party’s over, pal. You’ve got to make some changes, big-time.”
He sighed. Change! If there was anything he didn’t like, that was it, right there in a nutshell.
Emma, who had left her glasses at the office, was squinting at cartoons in an old New Yorker, when Hoppy and Father Tim came out to the waiting room.
Hoppy Harper was tall, slim, and even handsome with his piercing green eyes, intense gaze, and determined jaw.
Only last September, his wife of sixteen years had died of cancer, and the grief had aged him noticeably. Those who cared about him enough to look closely, and these were quite a few, saw that grief had also done something else. It had deepened him.
“Emma,” he said, “let’s have a talk.”
Oh, God! Emma thought, using the proper meaning of the phrase, Let everything be all right.
“I’ve already been over this with Tim. But I think someone close to him should also know the score.”
“This is a dark day, Emma,” said the rector, managing a weak smile.
“Diabetes,” Hoppy said. “That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’s non-insulin dependent. Which means he won’t require regular insulin shots. What he will require is a change of diet. Little Debbies, pies, cakes, candy—outta here.
“We stuck his finger for blood sugar, and it’s over 350. Not good. And he’s got four-plus sugar in the urine. So, here’s the scoop.”
There was something in the doctor’s green eyes that made Emma concentrate on every word.
“Exercise. Jogging is what I recommend. Three times a week, and no less. Morning, noon, night, whenever. But he’s got to do it.”
The rector looked anguished.
“Less fat in his diet, juice, a lot of fresh fruit. And no skipping meals.”
Hoppy grinned and looked at his patient. “Now, the most important thing of all. And that’s changing your schedule. You haven’t had a real vacation in twelve years, and you usually work seven days a week. I can’t tell you how to change that, but it’s got to change. Think about it, pal.” Hoppy ran his fingers through his unruly hair. Emma thought he looked tired, and wondered who was taking care of him.
He had a hurried lunch of Percy’s soup of the day, with a salad, and went home to say a word to Barnabas. This took him past the new men’s store, which he had failed to stop and inspect since it opened with some fanfare before Easter. The Collar Button, it was called.
It had been a long time, indeed, since he’d gone into a clothing store. In the first place, he didn’t like to shop. In the second place, the prices for clothes these days were absolutely—yes, he thought he could honestly say it—sinful. And in the third place, what was the going fashion for a rector who didn’t wish to appear conspicuously well-dressed?
He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and felt his mended gloves, which he still needed from time to time on cold mornings. He must not get carried away in this place, he thought. He would say he was just looking.
The Collar Button was new, but it seemed old. The walls were dark, burnished panels of mahogany, a low fire burned in a grate, and a large golden retriever, lying by the hearth, opened one eye as he came in.
“Good heavens!” he said with earnest appreciation. This was like walking into a study in some far reach of Cambridge, where he had once gone to research a paper on the life and works of C. S. Lewis.
“Father Tim, I believe!” boomed a deep voice, and from behind a wall of brocade curtains stepped the new proprietor, extending his hand to the rector.
“That’s right. How did you know?”
“Oh, I’ve seen you pass now and again, and I thought to myself, there goes a proper candidate for the Collar Button style!”
“And what, ah, style is that, exactly?”
“English gentleman, country squire, village rector, the man of thoughtful reflection and quiet taste.”
“What can I show you? Oh, and would you care for a dash of sherry?”
His head was fairly swimming with the unexpected dazzle of the modern shopping experience.
When he left the Collar Button, he was carrying a large bag with two jogging suits and a box with a new spring sport coat.
For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how it had all come about.
He had mentioned jogging and then, before he knew what was happening, he was standing before a mirror in a turquoise jogging outfit, trying to hold his stomach in.
He had to admit he would need something to run in. He certainly could not do it in a jacket, trousers, and shirt with a clerical collar. As he hurried toward home, clutching his packages, he muttered all the excuses he could possibly think of for having spent such a large sum of money on himself.
On Saturday morning, he put on the forest green running suit and a pair of old Nikes that he’d worn for several years in the garden.
Running shoes was a category he dreaded investigating. Someone had recently told him that shoes these days had parts that you literally pumped up. It was an esoteric realm, and so for now, he concluded, it would have to be his old garden shoes or nothing.
He was smitten at once with the comfort of the new outfit he was wearing. In fact, he praised it aloud.
“Why, this feels just like pajamas,” he said into the full-length mirror behind the guest room door.
Barnabas barked and leaped backward when he saw the rector come into the hall.
“You’ll have to get used to it, old fellow. If I do what the doctor ordered, I’ll be looking like this three times a week. So, pipe down.”
Barnabas, however, couldn’t contain his excitement over something new in the air. He leaped up and put his forepaws on his master’s chest and cocked his head to one side.
“ ‘Jesus said to the disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” ’ ” The rector looked Barnabas squarely in the eye.
Barnabas sighed heavily and lay down at his master’s feet.
“And don’t let it happen again,” he said, brushing off his new jogging suit.
He knew he didn’t want to be seen doing this. First, he wanted to try it out, in a place where there was no traffic. And while he’d seen countless others running heedlessly along Main Street, he felt, somehow, that jogging was an intimate activity, accompanied by snorts, sweating, hawking and spitting, and an inordinate amount of huffing and puffing. Why in the world anyone would want to do that up and down the center of town was beyond him.
He went to the study window at the back of the rectory and peered across his greening yard into Baxter Park. As far as he could see, the coast was clear.
He began in a kind of lope, along the flagstones by his perennial beds, through the space in the hedge and out to Baxter Park, where he turned left and ran close to the hemlock border.
By the time he reached the middle of the park, he was winded. “Take it easy,” Hoppy had told him. “Don’t try to do Boston the first time out.”
He had already broken a light sweat.
A squirrel chattered by one of the ancient park benches. A chipmunk dashed across the grass. And the old fountain, now green with moss and algae, made a sweet, pattering sound.
A bronze plaque on the fountain read: Given in loving memory of Rachel Livingstone Baxter, 1889 - 1942. Miss Sadie’s mother, he thought, thankful for such an oasis of peace. He wondered why he hadn’t been in this wonderful old park in several years, even though it bordered his yard and he looked into it nearly every day.
Starting again, he jogged over to Old Church Lane. Then, he ran with surprising ease up the hill toward the meadow where the remains of the ruined Lord’s Chapel stood.
Panting and soaked with sweat, his heart pounding furiously, he sat on a crumbling stone wall that bordered the old churchyard and saw what lay before him as if for the first time.
It was, he thought, the Land of Counterpane.
The view swept down to a small valley with church spires, orderly farms, and freshly planted fields. Then, the far walls of the valley rose steeply and rolled away to ridge upon ridge, wave upon wave of densely blue, mist-cloaked mountains.
He sat as if stunned for a long moment. Then, he tried to recall when he’d been up here last.
It had been seven or eight years, he figured, since he’d climbed the steep lane with Walter and Katherine and a picnic basket. He wondered who he might share it with now, but could think of no one. Except, of course, Barnabas.
His heart had ceased its thundering, and a light breeze coming up from the valley seemed sweet with the fragrance of earth and manure, leaf mold and blossoming trees.
He got up from the wall, idly wondering how long he had sat there, and began his jog down Old Church Lane.
He was no longer trying to hide himself along the hedges. In fact, he discovered that he was suddenly feeling absolutely “top notch,” as Walter might say.
As he ran, he became aware that he was thinking the oddest thoughts. Thoughts of how he might look in his new spring sport coat; about the little girl’s pony that had got caught in the barbed wire fence; whether Emma had dyed her hair at home or had it done by Fancy Skinner. Also, he hoped the pink daylilies would not disappoint him and bloom out orange.
He turned out of the bright sun into the cool morning shade of Baxter Park and paused again to rest at the fountain.
Maybe this jogging business wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
New possibilities lay before him, it seemed, though he couldn’t yet tell what they were. Perhaps it was time to make some other changes, as well, to do something fresh, something different and unexpected.
The idea came upon him quite suddenly.
He would give a dinner party.
In the little village of less than a thousand, everyone’s dinner—party or otherwise—began at The Local, unless they wanted to make the fifteen-mile drive to Food Value. Of course, they could go out on the highway to Cloer’s Market, but Hattie Cloer was so well-known for telling customers her aches and pains that hardly anyone ever did that.
“See this right here?” she might say, pointing to her shoulder. “Last night somethin’ come up there big as a grapefruit. I said, ‘Clyde, put your hand right here and feel that. What do you think it is?’
“And Clyde said, ‘Why, law, that feels like some kind of a golf ball or somethin’ in there,’ and don’t you know, Darlene took to barkin’, and that thing took to hurtin’, and I never laid my head on th’ pillow ’til way up in the mornin’. Wouldn’t you like a pound or two of these nice snap beans?”
Worse than that, according to some, was Darlene, Hattie’s Chihuahua, who lay on a sack by the cash register. Every time Hattie rang up a sale, the dog growled and snapped at the customer.
Avis Packard once said that Hattie Cloer had sent more business to The Local than any advertising he’d ever run in the paper.
Two weeks after his first jog up to Church Hill, Father Tim made an early Saturday call at The Local.
Since Barnabas was running with him these days, he found it convenient that The Local had an old bike rack near the front door, where the dog could be tied on a short leash.
He was still out of breath, and Barnabas was panting with some exhaustion himself. The route had by now fallen into place. They ran through Baxter Park and up to Church Hill, then along the quiet road by Miss Sadie’s apple orchards, past the Presbyterian Church, three times around the parking lot, down Lilac Road to Main Street, and then to Wisteria Lane where they turned toward home.
“Two miles, right on the money,” he discovered with immense satisfaction.
“Mornin’, Father,” said Avis, who was sitting at the cash register. “How does joggin’ compare to workin’ up a sermon?”
“Well, Avis, I can’t see as there’s much difference. I dread both, but once I get started, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”
“We got those fine-lookin’ brown eggs you like. And Luther Lovell’s boys delivered the nicest bunch of broilers you ever seen. You ought to look at those, and check that pretty batch of calf liver while you’re at it.”
One thing Father Tim liked about Avis Packard was the way he got excited about his groceries. He could rhapsodize about the first fresh strawberries from the valley in a way that made him a veritable Wordsworth of garden fare. “We got a special today on tenderloin that’s so true to the meanin’ of th’ name, you can cut it with a fork.”
"Well, now, I’m not shopping, Avis. I’m looking.”
“What’re you lookin’ for?” Avis cocked his head to one side like he always did when he asked a question.
“Ideas. You see, I’ve decided to give a dinner party.”
“You don’t mean it!”
“Oh, I do. But the thing is, I don’t know what to cook.”
“Well, sir, that’s a problem, all right. I’ll be thinkin’ about it while you look around,” Avis assured him.
A little line was forming at the cash register, so the rector moved away, greeting shoppers as he went.
He stopped to talk to everyone, taking note that four people wondered where his collar was, and only one inquired about the painting, for which he was grateful.
At the produce bins, he admitted he was feeling slightly nervous over his idea. First of all, he didn’t even have a guest list.
Of course, he was going to ask Emma, and yes, Miss Sadie. He thought she would make a splendid contribution. Besides, he had heard she once went to school in Paris, and he wanted to know more about it.
Hal and Marge, of course. No doubt about that. Hoppy Harper, now there was a thought, his wife gone and no one to look after him but that old housekeeper. That made six, including himself.
Six. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of another soul that would fit in just right with that particular group.
Perhaps he should invite Winnie Ivey, since she was always feeding everybody else. Maybe he would do that.
Avis came down the aisle with a gleam in his eye. “I turned the register over to my boy. I want to help you get your party goin.’ What do you think about beef stroganoff, a salad with bibb lettuce, chickory, slices of navel orange and spring onions, and new potatoes roasted with fresh rosemary? ’Course, I’d put a nice bottle of cabernet behind that. 1982.”
He sat with Barnabas one evening with a lapful of cookbooks. As much as he appreciated Avis Packard’s menu planning, beef stroganoff seemed too ordinary. He wanted something that spoke of spring, that made people feel there was a celebration going on, and that would fill them up without being too heavy.
“This is a lot of work,” he confided to Barnabas, who appeared to understand, “and I haven’t even started yet.”
He wondered why he had waited so long to entertain. It was clear to him that he had gotten completely out of the notion, although once he had loved doing it. He’d had the bishop and his wife for tea three times and twice for dinner, the vestry had come for a light supper on at least four occasions, and, once, he had the courage to give a luncheon for the members of the Altar Guild, who had such a good time they didn’t leave until four o’clock.
Not that he was a great cook, of course. Still, he wasn’t half bad at barbecued short ribs, an occasional sirloin tip roast that would melt in your mouth, if he did say so himself, and, in the summer, Silver Queen corn, cooked in milk for precisely sixty seconds. Of course, there was always the economical Rector’s Meatloaf, as he’d come to call it, which he usually made at least once a week.
He’d even been known to bake his own bread, but the interest these days somehow eluded him. Gardening had taken over. And where once he had sat and read cookbooks, he now read catalogs from Wayside Gardens and White Flower Farms, not to mention Jackson and Perkins.
“And another thing,” he said to Barnabas, who raised one ear in response, “is the cost. Do you realize what entertaining costs these day?”
“Lamb, I think it should be lamb,” he mused to himself after going to bed. And he didn’t think it should take the form of anything nouvelle.
The thought came to him as he laid his head on the pillow. Company Stew! It was an old recipe, nearly forgotten, but one that had always brought raves.
He got out of bed and put on his faded burgundy dressing gown. Noticing that the clock said eleven, he slipped his feet into the chewed leather slippers and went downstairs to look for the recipe.
The search revealed how vagrant his closets had become, so he began rearranging the one in the hall, which, very likely, his guests might see.
When he finished, he was surprised to find that it was two o’clock in the morning, and he’d collected a boxful of odds and ends for the “Bane and Blessing” sale.
It was rather a free feeling, he noticed, prowling about the house at such an odd hour. To explore this strange freedom even further, he went into the kitchen, made himself a meatloaf sandwich with no mayonnaise, and sat at the table reading Bon Appétit, which he had bought for ideas and inspiration.
“No wonder I haven’t done this sort of thing in years,” he muttered. “It’s too demanding.”
He was feeling the way he’d felt when they asked him to be on the Garden Tour.
Though the tour was to be of gardens only, he’d given the rectory a room-by-room inspection. It was as if he were seeing it for the first time.
To his amazement, every ceiling corner seemed to have a spiderweb, there was clearly a ring in his bathtub, the shower tiles were mildewed, and the kitchen cabinets were in such a tangle of confusion, it had taken a full half hour to locate his double boiler.
At what point things had fallen into this state, he couldn’t say. But fallen they had, and by the time of the tour, he was so exhausted from making both house and garden ready, that he went to Meadowgate Farm for the entire weekend, inviting a retired priest from Wesley to conduct Sunday services.
Now, he found himself compulsively cleaning out drawers his guests would never open and closets they would never see, and polishing silver they would never use. But, he assured himself, it was a perfect time to get caught up. A dinner party provided the most excellent of excuses.
“You need house help,” Emma had told him, again and again.
But then, he was often told that he needed one thing or another: a cat, a bird, a gazebo, earmuffs, English garden tools, a word processor, a vacation, a bicycle, a wife, and, until Barnabas, a dog. Several people had even made the unwelcome suggestion that he get himself a microwave.
When he invited Emma on Monday morning, she was inspired at once to submit plans of her own.
“I’ll bring the potato salad,” she said happily. “And make a batch of yeast rolls.”
“No, you won’t bring a thing. This is a bona fide party where all you have to do is show up.”
“Why not make it a covered dish? You don’t need to do all that cookin’ by yourself. Marge could bring her chocolate cake they wrote up in the newspaper, and Hoppy Harper’s house help could make somethin’ for him to bring . . .”
She was doing it again—treating him like a ten-year-old.
“Emma, no one is to bring anything. And that’s final.”
It was indeed final, as she could plainly tell.
He washed the slipcover on the sofa in his study, dusted books on the shelves that were low enough for anyone to reach, ordered four pounds of Avis Packard’s valley-grown lamb and two bottles of a ridiculously expensive cabernet, asked Winnie Ivey to bake a special triple-chocolate cake with raspberry filling, hung a new bird feeder outside the dining room windows, and pondered washing the study window that overlooked the best part of the garden. At this, however, he balked.
As he might have guessed, everyone in the village seemed to know about the evening, which was now only a few days away. It amazed him that a man couldn’t have a simple dinner party without attracting the attention of everybody from the postal clerk to the dry cleaner. “We hear you’re havin’ a big blow-out,” his barber said, while taking a little more off the sides than they’d discussed. Were people looking at him as if they should have been invited? Couldn’t a man have a few friends over without asking the whole blasted town?
Though he still wanted to invite two others, he couldn’t decide who they should be. In the meantime, he had ordered for eight and was preparing for eight, and was relieved that everyone not only could come, but seemed pleased at the prospect.
He’d also given some thought to Barnabas. Perhaps he would allow his friend into the study after dinner. Which meant, of course, that Barnabas would need a bath.
At the office one morning, it occurred to him that, instead of bathing Barnabas in the guest room shower stall, he would stop by the hardware store and buy a large tin tub. That way, he could begin the practice of bathing him in the garden and avoid the clean-up in the bathroom.
After a quick lunch with Harry Nelson, who reported that the origin of the painting still hadn’t been verified, he went to the hardware.
One of his favorite smells was that of an old hardware store. In fact, it was right up there with the smell of wood smoke, leather-bound books, and leaf mold after a rain. More than that, it unfailingly brought back a rush of memories from his Mississippi boyhood.
As a 4-H rabbit grower for two years, he had often traded at the local hardware for hutch materials and feed. He could even remember the time he picked out six yellow goslings from a box kept warm by a lightbulb.
He decided on a tin tub for $22.95, and took it to Dora Pugh at the cash register.
“You want to drive around for this, Father?”
“No, Dora, this is cash and carry.”
“I see you walk by here every day, and I still forget you don’t drive a car. How in the nation do you make out?”
“Not too bad, actually. Nearly everything I could want, and some things I don’t, are all right here in these two town blocks.”
“I guess you’re goin’ to tote this tub on your head like in Africa?”
He gave her cash to the penny. “I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it till I get started.”
He tried to hold the tub under his arm, but that didn’t seem to work, so he took it by one of the handles and was disappointed to note that the rim of it banged against his ankle as he walked to the door.
Turning to say goodbye, he saw that Dora had ducked down behind the pocketknife display case, shaking with laughter.
“Dora, I see you back there laughing! You better quit that and show some respect to the clergy!”
He waved cheerfully and stepped out on the sidewalk, pleased with both his idea and his purchase. He just hoped that people did not think him eccentric. He would far rather be thought ingenious or practical.
By the time he turned the corner at the bank and headed home, he was willing to admit that a car provided something more valuable than convenience. It provided privacy. Otherwise, he reasoned, everyone passing by could stare into your business, which one and all seemed to be doing.
He hurried the last half block to the rectory, set the tub down in a clearing amid some laurel, and unwound the garden hose to make certain it would reach. “Perfect!” he exclaimed, warming to his task on Friday.