A statue of Thrush Green’s famous son Nathaniel Patten has graced the village green for years, but little is actually known of him among present-day residents until an unexpected letter arrives.
About the Author
Miss Read (1913-2012) was the pseudonym of Mrs. Dora Saint, a former schoolteacher beloved for her novels of English rural life, especially those set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. The first of these, Village School, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write until her retirement in 1996. In the 1998, she was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to literature.
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One Wet Day
One wet November morning, Winnie Bailey stood at her bedroom window and surveyed the rain-drenched view of Thrush Green.
Usually at this time of the morning, a little past nine o'clock, things were stirring. One or two late arrivals at the school across the green would be running in breathlessly. Percy Hodge's milk float would be making its slow way from house to house. A few housewives would be hurrying downhill to the shops in Lulling, baskets in hand.
But today there was little movement. A wet umbrella passed below, its carrier hidden from Winnie's view. A duster flapped from an upstairs window of the Two Pheasants across the green, hard by the school, and two excited dogs cavorted by the deserted and dripping children's play area.
Winnie Bailey had lived at Thrush Green for over fifty years, ever since she arrived as the bride of young Dr Bailey. He had died some years before, but Winnie stayed on in the house she loved, sharing it with Jenny, her friend, companion and maid.
She could hear Jenny now, singing some unrecognizable tune as she washed up the breakfast things. And here she was, Winnie told herself briskly, supposed to be dusting bedrooms, and instead she was idling her time away gazing at the rain!
She was about to turn to her duties when she saw a small black car moving decorously along the road opposite, skirting the Two Pheasants and the school and finally drawing up outside Harold Shoosmith's house.
Surely, it was the rector's car, thought Winnie, peering again through the rain-spotted window, dusting forgotten.
A small chubby man emerged from the driver's seat and hurried through the downpour to the shelter of the Shoosmiths' porch.
The Reverend Charles Henstock, rector of Thrush Green and vicar of Lulling, was paying an early morning call on his old friend.
Winnie took up her duster again, and speculated.
'Come in! Come in!' cried Harold. 'Good grief, man, haven't you got a raincoat?'
'I didn't think I'd need it,' replied Charles.
'Let's have your jacket,' said his host, stripping it from the rector's back and shaking it energetically.
'Isobel's away for two nights, in Sussex. Come into the kitchen, it's warmer.'
The two men settled at the kitchen table. Outside the rain lashed at the window, and gurgled in the gutter. A pigeon sat hunched on the bird-table, presumably seeking shelter rather than food, raindrops dripping from the little roof above it.
'Coffee?' asked Harold.
The rector shook his head. He had turned round to try to extricate an envelope from the inside pocket of his wet jacket.
'Such a strange letter,' he said, puffing slightly as he pulled it free. 'It arrived yesterday but I didn't have a chance to get in touch with you.'
He handed it to Harold and sat back to watch his friend's reaction as he read.
Harold skipped the preliminaries and perused the second paragraph onward with growing concentration. He read:
I have been clearing up my late aunt's effects recently, and came across some letters and a diary among her papers. The letters are from one Nathaniel Patten and are addressed to the Reverend Octavius Fennel of Thrush Green. The diary, which also appears to he an account hook, is that of Mr Fennel.
I have no idea how these papers came into my aunt's possession, but she lived for a time near Thrush Green, and only moved here to the Lake District a few years ago to be near her daughter, as she was becoming infirm.
It seems right to me that these papers should be returned to the church, and I shall be pleased to let you have them if you send word.
Harold peered closely at the signature. 'Can't make out the chap's name. "Wellbeloved"? "Wobblefoot"?'
'Wilberforce,' said the rector. 'And isn't it extraordinary?'
'It is indeed,' agreed Harold warmly. 'We must get hold of these letters. To think that we shall see Nathaniel's actual handwriting after all this time.'
The rector smiled indulgently upon his friend. He knew how much Nathaniel Patten meant to him.
Nathaniel had been a Thrush Green boy born and bred in Queen Victoria's reign, and had travelled to Africa as a missionary. There Nathaniel had set up a church, a mission hall, a school and the beginnings of a medical centre.
His project flourished, and Nathaniel Patten was greatly loved by the people he cared for.
His reputation grew over the years. His devotion, wisdom and sound common sense were widely recognized for miles around his settlement, but those in Thrush Green had forgotten the young man who had left his home.
He never in his lifetime returned. His duties and shortage of funds kept him at his post. But at his death his body was returned, at the express wish and expense of the Reverend Octavius Fennel, who himself conducted the funeral service.
Elderly inhabitants of Thrush Green and Lulling had memories of their parents' respect for the former rector. The Reverend Octavius Fennel had befriended the young Nathaniel, encouraging him in his missionary work and helping, it was believed, with financial support.
It was known that Octavius dearly wished Nathaniel to take Holy Orders, but the strongly evangelical nature of the younger man would not allow him to accept all the tenets of the established Church of England, and he was never ordained.
Over the years, Nathaniel was forgotten by Thrush Green. It was not until Harold Shoosmith had arrived some years before that Thrush Green folk became aware that it was the birthplace of their most distinguished son.
In a strange way it was Nathaniel Patten who had brought Harold Shoosmith to Thrush Green. Harold had lived near the community in Africa where the Victorian missionary had worked, bringing spiritual comfort and practical help to hundreds of his flock. By the time Harold was there, Nathaniel was dead, but his work still thrived and the small stone cross which was his memorial was kept immaculate with lime-wash, and flowers always lay at its foot.
The tales of the villagers about their hero moved Harold deeply, and when he had decided to retire he was excited to find that a house in Nathaniel's birthplace was on the market.
It suited him well, and he had become one of Thrush Green's most active and well-liked residents.
It was something of a shock to him to realize that Nathaniel meant nothing to his neighbours. His tombstone was overgrown, the inscription indecipherable. No one, it seemed, had heard of him. The parish register noted his birth and burial, and that seemed to be the only mention of the great man.
Harold set about remedying this matter, and was instrumental in getting a statue put up on the green on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Nathaniel's birth. It now stood, a matter of pride and affection, and Nathaniel had been restored to the hearts of those in Thrush Green.
Harold and the rector had worked hard to trace any descendants of Nathaniel when the business of the memorial statue was afoot. Evidently he had married whilst abroad. His wife, debilitated by the rigours of the climate, had died giving birth to a daughter.
When the child was old enough, she had been sent to friends in Yorkshire to be housed and educated. She had married a man called Michael Mulloy, borne a son and daughter, and the family had moved to Pembrokeshire to work on a farm.
Times were hard in the 1930s, and the Mulloys lived in poverty. The son, William, grew up to be a wild youth. The daughter, Mary, never married.
William married in the 1950s and his wife soon discovered that she had made a serious mistake. He was a drunkard, and violent when in his cups. She lived in daily fear of his attacks upon her and upon their young daughter Dulcie, named after Nathaniel's daughter.
Fortunately, his sister Mary, who lived near by, was a strong character who had no time for William, but gave support to his wife and child. It was she who had kept Nathaniel's letters to her mother, and who told Dulcie of the wonderful work he had done. Mary had died when Dulcie was a grown woman.
Harold and Charles had met William briefly in Wales where he farmed a few acres. He was a dissolute uncouth fellow who had no time for Nathaniel's memory. At the time of their meeting he had left his wife and daughter, Dulcie, and was living with a woman near by.
What had happened to William Mulloy, his poor wife and little Dulcie? the kind-hearted rector often wondered. Harold, of sterner stuff, did not waste his energies in thinking about them.
Harold continued to hold the letter, his face alight with enthusiasm. 'I can't believe it!'
'I thought I would reply to Mr Wilberforce today,' said Charles, 'and say how glad we would be to have these papers, and perhaps he would be kind enough to post them to us.'
'Post!' cried Harold. 'Dear old Nathaniel's letters? I wouldn't trust those to the post!'
'Oh, come,' responded the rector. 'Do be fair. How often does the post go astray?'
'When the post does go astray,' replied his friend forcefully, 'I don't know about it, do I? No, I'm not risking this lot to the post. If it comes to that I'll go up myself and fetch them.'
'Then what do you suggest I write?'
'Don't write. Telephone. Let's do it now.'
'But it's scarcely nine thirty! He'll be at work.'
'Then we'll ring him at work.'
Charles felt helpless in the face of such ruthlessness. He watched Harold lift a hand telephone from its bracket and settle down at the kitchen table.
'I'll get through, then pass it over,' he told Charles. 'It's an Ambleside number.'
Charles watched him pressing buttons on this new contraption. At Lulling's vicarage no such modern equipment was in use. A venerable instrument stood on the chest in the hall, and when it rang one simply hurried to it from the bedroom, the kitchen or the garden and announced oneself with as much breath as was left.
'Can I speak to Mr Wilberforce?' said Harold, and handed the telephone to Charles.
A woman was speaking. 'At work,' said the voice, 'but if it is urgent I could give you his number at the office, or I can leave a message for him.'
'Get the number,' whispered Harold.
'If you would be kind enough to give us his office number,' said the rector diffidently, 'if you think he will be free, of course. I should not like to interrupt any business matters he may be engaged upon, but it really is rather urgent.'
Harold was drumming his fingers on the table, but stopped as Charles wrote the number at the head of the letter in front of him.
'Most kind, most kind, Mrs Wilberforce,' he said. Something was said at the other end, and Charles's chubby face grew pink.
'I apologize, Mrs Er — er —' he said. 'And many thanks again.'
'Who was it?'
'His housekeeper. I didn't catch her name. Shall we try the office?'
'Certainly. I'll get it, shall I?'
'Please do. I don't think I have quite mastered it.'
He watched Harold as he tapped briskly at the buttons, then took the telephone from his hand.
'Is Mr Wilberforce free?' he began. 'My name is Charles Henstock, and I am the rector of Thrush Green. He wrote to me about some documents of his aunt's.'
There was a pause.
'He's coming,' Charles whispered excitedly. He held up a hand as a voice spoke at the other end.
'I must apologize for troubling you at work,' began the rector, but then became silent and attentive. 'That would be most kind. Yes, the post can be a little unreliable. In that case, perhaps after your meeting? For dinner, say? We can easily put you up overnight. I can't tell you how much this means to us. I will give you my telephone number, and look forward to hearing from you this evening.'
When Charles had finished he was smiling. Harold was fidgeting with impatience.
'Sounds a very sensible chap,' said Charles. 'He has to come to Ealing some time on business, and will bring the papers with him. He promises to deliver them to me personally, as he can come via Thrush Green. He doesn't seem to rely on the post.'
Harold forbore to remark that most people, less trusting than the good rector, felt the same.
'I shall know when he's coming this evening,' continued Charles. 'He is making arrangements, so I'll be in touch with you as soon as I've heard from him.'
'Marvellous!' said Harold. 'I can't wait to get my hands on all this material. We shall have to find a very safe place to store it.'
'I've no doubt that this house would provide the best possible shelter,' said Charles, 'and the most loving care.'
'You can be assured of that,' agreed Harold.
* * *
When his wife Isobel returned from her visit to Sussex Harold told her the great news even before she had put the kettle on for a reviving cup of tea.
Weary though she was from her long drive, she did her best to match his enthusiasm. 'What will you do with the letters?' she enquired.
'Put them in our safe,' he replied.
'No, I meant permanently. Will you give them to the county archives?'
Harold looked dismayed. 'I can't say I'd got that far.' A note of doubt became evident in his speech. 'I suppose that would be the correct thing to do, but I'm jolly well going to keep them here at Thrush Green for as long as I can.'
'And why not?' agreed Isobel, pouring boiling water into the teapot. 'After all, without you Thrush Green would have remained completely ignorant of Nathaniel.'
Harold carried the tea tray into the sitting-room, followed by Isobel. Outside the rain still fell relentlessly, but it was snug by the fire, and soon they would draw the curtains against the unkind world outside.
It was beginning to grow dark but the bronze statue of Harold's hero was discernible through the window. Drops dripped from the Bible which Nathaniel held before him, and there was a steady trickle from his frock-coat tails. An impertinent sparrow was perched upon his shining head, but Nathaniel continued to smile benignly upon the rain-lashed scene of his birth.
'Will you meet this Mr Wilberforce?' asked Isobel.
'I intend to,' replied Harold. 'He sounds a very public-spirited sort of chap. After all, most people would have thrown the stuff away, and not bothered to get in touch with the rector.'
'How did he know about the rector?'
'Well, the letters were addressed to this fellow Octavius Fennel who was rector here when Nathaniel went away, so Wilberforce simply wrote to the present rector of Thrush Green, and our postman Willie Marchant took it up to Lulling, and that's that.'
'We shall have to have a celebration of some kind.'
Isobel refilled her husband's cup. 'Let's get the letters first,' she advised.
Winnie Bailey, on the other side of Thrush Green, did not see the rector hurry to his car through the driving rain to return to his vicarage a mile away in Lulling. Charles Henstock served several parishes, but he lived in a beautiful house close by the magnificent church of St John's in the little town, with his wife Dimity.
She had lived in Thrush Green for several years with her old friend Ella Bembridge, and the two spinsters had been very busy and happy. Dimity's marriage to the widowed rector left Ella alone at Thrush Green, but the two remained close friends and met often.
On this particular morning of portentous news, Ella had called at Winnie's to return a library book.
'Thought I'd better do it while I remembered,' she explained, when Winnie remonstrated with her about venturing forth in such weather. 'Don't want to let you in for a hefty fine.'
She followed Winnie into the kitchen and greeted Jenny who was chopping up onions.
'By the way, Jenny,' she added, 'did you go to Thrush Green school as a child?'
'I did indeed,' said Jenny.
'Then you know it's a hundred years old next year?'
'Never!' said Jenny.
'So there'll be some high jinks, I gather. I saw the headmaster at the newsagent's yesterday, and he told me.'
'I wonder what they'll do?' said Jenny, scraping the chopped onion into a neat pile with her knife.
'A party, I expect,' said Winnie. 'We'll probably have to make a cake.'
'I'm quite happy to make a cake,' replied Ella. 'Anything rather than sitting through a concert on those uncomfortable chairs.'
'Perhaps they'll have both,' said Jenny. 'A hundred years is quite something, isn't it? I wonder if Miss Watson and Miss Fogerty will come back for all the fun?'
'I'm sure they will,' said Ella. 'Mr Lester said as much yesterday. They taught here for so long.'
'I can see some excitement in our midst,' commented Winnie. 'Coffee, Ella?'
But she refused, saying that she had left a piece of gammon simmering, and by now it was probably splashing all over the stove.
She plunged homeward through the rain.
As the day ended, the rain began to die away, but little rivulets continued to trickle down the sides of the hill leading down to the town of Lulling, and on roads around Thrush Green vast puddles caught the light of the rising moon.
Winnie Bailey, early in bed, was glad to rest. Although she had not ventured out for her usual afternoon walk, she felt as though she had been buffeted by the wind which had rattled round the house all day.
Tomorrow, she told herself, she would do some gardening and take a walk. It was time she went to see her old friend Dotty Harmer who lived near Lulling Woods some half-mile distant.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Celebrations at Thrush Green"
Copyright © 1992 Miss Read.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One Wet Day,
The Search Begins,
A Memorable Evening,
Harold Is On The Trail,
New Light On Old Times,
Comings and Goings,
Plans Go Ahead,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,