English Literature

The Bishop’s Secret by Fergus Hume

The Bishop's Secret by Fergus Hume.jpg



Of late years an anonymous mathematician has declared that in the British Isles the female population is seven times greater than the male; therefore, in these days is fulfilled the scriptural prophecy that seven women shall lay hold of one man and entreat to be called by his name. Miss Daisy Norsham, a veteran Belgravian spinster, decided, after some disappointing seasons, that this text was particularly applicable to London. Doubtful, therefore, of securing a husband at the rate of one chance in seven, or dissatisfied at the prospect of a seventh share in a man, she resolved upon trying her matrimonial fortunes in the country. She was plain, this lady, as she was poor; nor could she rightly be said to be in the first flush of maidenhood. In all matters other than that of man-catching she was shallow past belief. Still, she did hope, by dint of some brisk campaigning in the diocese of Beorminster, to capture a whole man unto herself.

Her first step was to wheedle an invitation out of Mrs Pansey, an archdeacon’s widow—then on a philanthropic visit to town—and she arrived, towards the end of July, in the pleasant cathedral city of Beorminster, in time to attend a reception at the bishop’s palace. Thus the autumn manœuvres of Miss Norsham opened most auspiciously.

Mrs Pansey, with whom this elderly worshipper of Hymen had elected to stay during her visit, was a gruff woman, with a scowl, who ‘looked all nose and eyebrows.’Few ecclesiastical matrons were so well known in the diocese of Beorminster as was Mrs Pansey; not many, it must be confessed, were so ardently hated, for there were few pies indeed in which this dear lady had not a finger; few keyholes through which her eye did not peer. Her memory and her tongue, severally and combined, had ruined half the reputations in the county. In short, she was a renowned social bully, and like most bullies she gained her ends by scaring the lives out of meeker and better-bred people than herself. These latter feared her ‘scenes’ as she rejoiced in them, and as she knew the pasts of her friends from their cradle upwards, she usually contrived, by a pitiless use of her famous memory, to put to rout anyone so ill-advised as to attempt a stand against her domineering authority. When her tall, gaunt figure—invariably arrayed in the blackest of black silks—was sighted in a room, those present either scuttled out of the way or judiciously held their peace, for everyone knew Mrs Pansey’s talent for twisting the simplest observation into some evil shape calculated to get its author into trouble. She excelled in this particular method of making mischief. Possessed of ample means and ample leisure, both of these helped her materially to build up her reputation of a philanthropic bully. She literally swooped down upon the poor, taking one and all in charge to be fed, physicked, worked and guided according to her own ideas. In return for benefits conferred, she demanded an unconditional surrender of free will. Nobody was to have an opinion but Mrs Pansey; nobody knew what was good for them unless their ideas coincided with those of their patroness—which they never did. Mrs Pansey had never been a mother, yet, in her own opinion, there was nothing about children she did not know. She had not studied medicine, therefore she dubbed the doctors a pack of fools, saying she could cure where they failed. Be they tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, Mrs Pansey invariably knew more about their vocations than they themselves did or were ever likely to do. In short, this celebrated lady—for her reputation was more than local—was what the American so succinctly terms a ‘she-boss’; and in a less enlightened age she would indubitably have been ducked in the Beorflete river as a meddlesome, scolding, clattering jade. Indeed, had anyone been so brave as to ignore the flight of time and thus suppress her, the righteousness of the act would most assuredly have remained unquestioned.

Now, as Miss Norsham wanted, for her own purposes, to ‘know the ropes,’ she was fortunate to come within the gloom of Mrs Pansey’s silken robes. For Mrs Pansey certainly knew everyone, if she did not know everything, and whomsoever she chaperoned had to be received by Beorminster society, whether Beorminster society liked it or not. All protégées of Mrs Pansey sheltered under the ægis of her terrible reputation, and woe to the daring person who did not accept them as the most charming, the cleverest, and in every way the most desirable of their sex. But in the memory of man, no one had ever sustained battle against Mrs Pansey, and so this feminine Selkirk remained monarch of all she surveyed, and ruled over a community consisting mainly of canons, vicars and curates, with their respective wives and offsprings. There were times when her subjects made use of language not precisely ecclesiastic, and not infrequently Mrs Pansey’s name was mentally included in the Commination Service.

Thus it chanced that Daisy, the spinster, found herself in Mrs Pansey’s carriage on her way to the episcopalian reception, extremely well pleased with herself, her dress, her position, and her social guardian angel. The elder lady was impressively gloomy in her usual black silk, fashioned after the early Victorian mode, when elegance invariably gave place to utility. Her headgear dated back to the later Georgian epoch. It consisted mainly of a gauze turban twinkling with jet ornaments. Her bosom was defended by a cuirass of cold-looking steel beads, finished off at the throat by a gigantic brooch, containing the portrait and hair of the late archdeacon. Her skirts were lengthy and voluminous, so that they swept the floor with a creepy rustle like the frou-frou of a brocaded spectre. She wore black silk mittens, and on either bony wrist a band of black velvet clasped with a large cameo set hideously in pale gold. Thus attired—a veritable caricature by Leech—this survival of a prehistoric age sat rigidly upright and mangled the reputations of all and sundry.

Miss Norsham, in all but age, was very modern indeed. Her neck was lean; her arms were thin. She made up for lack of quality by display of quantity. In her décolletécostume she appeared as if composed of bones and diamonds. The diamonds represented the bulk of Miss Norsham’s wealth, and she used them not only for the adornment of her uncomely person, but for the deception of any possible suitor into the belief that she was well dowered. She affected gauzy fabrics and fluttering baby ribbons, so that her dress was as the fleecy flakes of snow clinging to a well-preserved ruin.

For the rest she had really beautiful eyes, a somewhat elastic mouth, and a straight nose well powdered to gloss over its chronic redness. Her teeth were genuine and she cultivated what society novelists term silvery peals of laughter. In every way she accentuated or obliterated nature in her efforts to render herself attractive.

Ichabod was writ large on her powdered brow, and it needed no great foresight to foresee the speedy approach of acidulated spinsterhood. But, to do her justice, this regrettable state of single blessedness was far from being her own fault. If her good fortune had but equalled her courage and energy she should have relinquished celibacy years ago.

‘Oh, dear—dear Mrs Pansey,’ said the younger lady, strong in adjectives and interjections and reduplication of both, ‘is the bishop very, very sweet?’

‘He’s sweet enough as bishops go,’ growled Mrs Pansey, in her deep-toned voice. ‘He might be better, and he might be worse. There is too much Popish superstition and worship of idols about him for my taste. If the departed can smell,’ added the lady, with an illustrative sniff, ‘the late archdeacon must turn in his grave when those priests of Baal and Dagon burn incense at the morning service. Still, Bishop Pendle has his good points, although he is a time-server and a sycophant.’

‘Is he one of the Lancashire Pendles, dear Mrs Pansey?’

‘A twenty-fifth cousin or thereabouts. He says he is a nearer relation, but I know much more about it than he does. If you want an ornamental bishop with good legs for gaiters, and a portly figure for an apron, Dr Pendle’s the man. But as a God-fearing priest’ (with a groan), ‘a simple worshipper’ (groan) ‘and a lowly, repentant sinner’ (groan), ‘he leaves much—much to be desired.’

‘Oh, Mrs Pansey, the dear bishop a sinner?’

‘Why not?’ cried Mrs Pansey, ferociously; ‘aren’t we all miserable sinners? Dr Pendle’s a human worm, just as you are—as I am. You may dress him in lawn sleeves and a mitre, and make pagan genuflections before his throne, but he is only a worm for all that.’

‘What about his wife?’ asked Daisy, to avert further expansion of this text.

‘A poor thing, my dear, with a dilated heart and not as much blood in her body as would fill a thimble. She ought to be in a hospital, and would be, too, if I had my way. Lolling all day long on a sofa, and taking glasses of champagne between doses of iron and extract of beef; then giving receptions and wearing herself out. How he ever came to marry the white-faced doll I can’t imagine. She was a Mrs Creagth when she caught him.’

‘Oh, really! a widow?’

‘Of course, of course. You don’t suppose she’s a bigamist even though he’s a fool, do you?’ and the eyebrows went up and down in the most alarming manner. ‘The bishop—he was a London curate then—married her some eight-and-twenty years ago, and I daresay he has repented of it ever since. They have three children—George’ (with a whisk of her fan at the mention of each name), ‘who is a good-looking idiot in a line regiment; Gabriel, a curate as white-faced as his mother, and no doubt afflicted as she is with heart trouble. He was in Whitechapel, but his father put him in a curacy here—it was sheer nepotism. Then there is Lucy; she is the best of the bunch, which is not saying much. They’ve engaged her to young Sir Harry Brace, and now they are giving this reception to celebrate having inveigled him into the match.’

‘Engaged?’ sighed the fair Daisy, enviously. ‘Oh, do tell me if this girl is really, really pretty.’

‘Humph,’ said the eyebrows, ‘a pale, washed-out rag of a creature—but what can you expect from such a mother? No brains, no style, no conversation; always a simpering, weak-eyed rag baby. Oh, my dear, what fools men are!’

‘Ah, you may well say that, dear Mrs Pansey,’ assented the spinster, thinking wrathfully of this unknown girl who had succeeded where she had failed. ‘Is it a very, very good match?’

‘Ten thousand a year and a fine estate, my dear. Sir Harry is a nice young fellow, but a fool. An absentee landlord, too,’ grumbled Mrs Pansey, resentfully. ‘Always running over the world poking his nose into what doesn’t concern him, like the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman. Ah, my dear, husbands are not what they used to be. The late archdeacon never left his fireside while I was there. I knew better than to let him go to Paris or Pekin, or some of those sinks of iniquity. Cook and Gaze indeed!’ snorted Mrs Pansey, indignantly; ‘I would abolish them by Act of Parliament. They turn men into so many Satans walking to and fro upon the earth. Oh, the immorality of these latter days! No wonder the end of all things is predicted.’

Miss Norsham paid little attention to the latter portion of this diatribe. As Sir Harry Brace was out of the matrimonial market it conveyed no information likely to be of use to her in the coming campaign. She wished to be informed as to the number and the names of eligible men, and forewarned with regard to possible rivals.

‘And who is really and truly the most beautiful girl in Beorminster?’ she asked abruptly.

‘Mab Arden,’ replied Mrs Pansey, promptly. ‘There, now,’ with an emphatic blow of her fan, ‘she is pretty, if you like, though I daresay there is more art than nature about her.’

‘Who is Mab Arden, dear Mrs Pansey?’

‘She is Miss Whichello’s niece, that’s who she is.’

‘Whichello? Oh, good gracious me! what a very, very funny name. Is Miss Whichello a foreigner?’

‘Foreigner? Bah!’ cried Mrs Pansey, like a stentorian ram, ‘she belongs to a good old English family, and, in my opinion, she disgraces them thoroughly. A meddlesome old maid, who wants to foist her niece on to George Pendle; and she’s likely to succeed, too,’ added the lady, rubbing her nose with a vexed air, ‘for the young ass is in love with Mab, although she is three years older than he is. Mr Cargrim also likes the girl, though I daresay it is money with him.’

‘Really! Mr Cargrim?’

‘Yes, he is the bishop’s chaplain; a Jesuit in disguise I call him, with his moping and mowing and sneaky ways. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth; oh, dear no! I gave my opinion about him pretty plainly to Dr Graham, I can tell you, and Graham’s the only man with brains in this city of fools.’

‘Is Dr Graham young?’ asked Miss Norsham, in the faint hope that Mrs Pansey’s list of inhabitants might include a wealthy bachelor.

‘Young? He’s sixty, if you call that young, and in his second childhood. An Atheist, too. Tom Payn, Colonel Ingersoll, Viscount Amberly—those are his gods, the pagan! I’d burn him on a tar-barrel if I had my way. It’s a pity we don’t stick to some customs of our ancestors.’

‘Oh, dear me, are there no young men at all?’

‘Plenty, and all idiots. Brainless officers, whose wives would have to ride on a baggage-waggon; silly young squires, whose ideal of womanhood is a brazen barmaid; and simpering curates, put into the Church as the fools of their respective families. I don’t know what men are coming to,’ groaned Mrs Pansey. ‘The late archdeacon was clever and pious; he honoured and obeyed me as the marriage service says a man should do. I was the light of the dear man’s eyes.’

Had Mrs Pansey stated that she had been the terror of the late archdeacon’s life she would have been vastly nearer the truth, but such a remark never occurred to her. Although she had bullied and badgered the wretched little man until he had seized the first opportunity of finding in the grave the peace denied him in life, she really and truly believed that she had been a model wife. The egotism of first person singular was so firmly ingrained in the woman that she could not conceive what a scourge she was to mankind in general; what a trial she had been to her poor departed husband in particular. If the late Archdeacon Pansey had not died he would doubtless have become a missionary to some cannibal tribe in the South Seas in the hope that his tough helpmate would be converted into ‘long-pig.’ But, unluckily for Beorminster, he was dead and his relict was a mourning widow, who constantly referred to her victim as a perfect husband. And yet Mrs Pansey considered that Anthony Trollope’s celebrated Mrs Proudie was an overdrawn character.

As to Miss Norsham, she was in the depths of despair, for, if Mrs Pansey was to be believed, there was no eligible husband for her in Beorminster. It was with a heavy heart that the spinster entered the palace, and it was with the courage born of desperation that she perked up and smiled on the gay crowd she found within.


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