Finding love is easier than you think in this charming short story by H. Johnson-Mack.
Reverend Claife was looking for someone loving and giving, but he couldn’t see what was right in front of him . . .
WITH a sigh, Reverend William Claife lowered his pen and stared bleakly out of his study window.
Normally, the view of the rambling garden running down to the stream was enough to fire his imagination, but today the words of his sermon refused to come.
He clicked his tongue at the collie dog lying in the shaft of sunlight before the hearth rug.
“I’m struggling, Eric,” he said softly. “Let’s see if a walk will inspire me.”
The pup crossed to Claife’s side, prompting a smile. Eric’s unconditional love was a balm to his soul.
He’d been a gift from Dora at Ashridge Farm, too small for a working sheepdog, but perfect for a lonely reverend and his empty vicarage. Well, not quite empty.
As he came down the passage towards the pantry, Claife could hear the voice of Meriel, his housekeeper and former school-fellow, singing an old rhyme.
“Monday’s child is fair of face; Tuesday’s child is full of grace . . .”
She broke off with a smile as the reverend appeared in the doorway.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“I’m having trouble with the Sunday sermon,” Claife admitted. “So I’m taking Eric for some air. Would you care to join us?”
Meriel’s round face lit up with delight.
“I’d love to.”
They struck out round the moss-pocketed wall surrounding St Mary’s church towards the hills behind the vicarage, Eric darting ahead, snuffling out scents with a wet nose.
Meriel watched him, a smile in her eyes, then turned to study the slim figure of the vicar walking distractedly at her side.
“Is it helping?” she asked after a while. “The air.” Claife shook his head. “No, not really.”
“It’s unlike you to be stuck for a subject to reprove us with. You must have something playing on your mind.”
Claife had come to an abrupt halt.
“Is that what you think of me? That I put myself above my congregation?”
Meriel gaped at him, taken aback by the earnestness in his normally docile features.
“Of course not! It was my poor attempt at a joke. Something is bothering you, though. Surely it’s not your aunt coming to stay this weekend? You adore Beatrix.”
Claife shook his head, disturbed by his response to Meriel’s innocent attempt at cajolery.
He frowned as the rhyme Meriel had been singing echoed through his head and a pair of bewitching, blue eyes swam before him.
Monday’s child is fair of face. Oh, yes, most definitely fair . . .
Eric, having realised that his shadows had fallen behind, came bounding back down the hill to dance around their legs.
Meriel laughed and, bending to root around in the tangle of grass and wildflowers, unearthed a stick to throw for him.
As Eric chased off in pursuit, she tipped a considering head at Claife.
“Perhaps you’re not focusing on your goal,” she mused. “What’s that Bible saying about the harvest of perseverance?”
“We will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
“That’s the one. Or take a tip from Moses on the mount, and let inspiration mould itself.”
“Moses had forty days to be inspired. I have two.”
Meriel smiled as she threw Eric’s stick for him.
“Oh, ye of little faith.”
The last thing he wanted, Claife reflected later, was time in which to think.
He’d done too much of that since losing his heart to the loveliest young woman he’d ever seen, then losing her to Thomas Haynes, the local doctor, when he’d had to join them in holy matrimony.
He’d been in a strange mood ever since, unable to lift his spirits except when out walking or playing with Eric.
It was funny how he was quite capable of advising his parishioners on affairs of heart and mind, yet so unwise when it came to dealing with them on a personal level.
Aunt Beatrix, when she’d arrived, deposited her bags in the front bedroom and shared Claife’s light supper, agreed with him.
“For such an empathetic soul, you are abysmal at recognising your own feelings,” she scolded him as they traversed the path curving round St Mary’s on an evening stroll.
Seeing the crestfallen look in his eyes, she patted his arm.
“So many of us don’t know our own minds; you mustn’t berate yourself for that. But you’ve been over-analysing, if I know you. Remember the maxim we’ve always lived by: everything happens for a reason.”
Claife squeezed her hand, comforted by her presence.
Since his childhood, Aunt Beatrix had been his unfailing harbour in a storm, sweeping in to take him under her wing and into her home and heart when his parents’ tragic death in a motor accident had left him an orphan.
Even now, when he’d long been independent and returned as rector to the village of his birth, she was still that safe port.
They finished their walk, Claife now able to appreciate the sweet lullaby of the songbirds as he pointed out the last of the trumpeted foxgloves decorating the south wall.
Once they were back in the vicarage and Beatrix was ensconced by the fire with the radio, sherry in hand, he retired to the study, Eric at his heels, and finally began to write.
There was a magical mist veiling the hills and sweeping down into the churchyard as the villagers came to the service.
Once he was assured that Aunt Beatrix was comfortably seated, her nephew took his place in the pulpit, and she was able to look at her surroundings.
As ever, she was pleased that William had found such a pleasant parish and church in which to spend his days. Now all he needed was the right woman to share it with.
She knew instantly who the doctor’s new wife was, and why William had been so attracted to her. Elizabeth Haynes had an ethereal beauty, a fairy quality that was almost impossible to ignore.
She wasn’t ostentatious, either, but even so, Beatrix found herself wondering why William had considered her as his perfect match.
Unfair, perhaps, but Beatrix had lived her life being guided by instinct, and she found herself adding in a little extra thanks to her prayers that Elizabeth had preferred a doctor’s surgery to the vicarage.
She noticed, too, the way the housekeeper Meriel had greeted her nephew, the light in her eyes when they’d rested on his face, and drew her own conclusions.
As she revelled in William’s service, she soon forgot all other thoughts, in awe as always that such a shy boy could have grown into this dignified orator.
“That was a wonderful sermon,” she told him as they enjoyed afternoon tea in the shade of a sprawling sycamore in the vicarage garden. “I don’t know why you were worried.”
“I’ve been wallowing,” Claife confessed. “It was only the second time I’ve seen Elizabeth since she became Mrs Haynes, which was playing on my mind. But I was fine, and I’m glad you enjoyed the service.
“The subject was mostly thanks to Meriel, and something she said about not giving up.”
“An intelligent young lady,” Beatrix remarked. “A sweet one, too.”
“Yes,” Claife agreed absently. “She takes good care of me, and Eric, too. And she makes delicious cakes. Quite a few of my favourites, as it happens.”
“I wonder why she does all that,” Beatrix prompted, carefully watching his face. Claife shrugged.
“Just helping out an old friend, I suppose.”
He bit into a slice of Meriel’s thick sponge cake with a contented sigh.
Beatrix shook her head and sighed to herself.
When it came to any kind of personal relationship, her nephew didn’t have a clue.
“Don’t despair,” she told him as she prepared to head home that night. “Often we can look too far ahead, when what we are seeking is right in front of our faces.”
With one last hug, she joined all her baggage on the back seat of the taxi and waved goodbye.
Claife thought about her cryptic parting words over the next couple of weeks, as the last shades of summer faded into the fire-coloured palette of the new season.
He remembered them as he went about his duties and took walks through the hills, accompanied by his faithful hound and Meriel, who threw Eric sticks and talked about gardening and the day’s newspapers with him.
He found himself starting to miss her when she wasn’t around, and leaving the study door open so he could hear her singing as she flitted round the vicarage.
“Friday’s child is loving and giving; Saturday’s child works hard for a living . . .”
When he began altering his days for shopping at Mrs Wickham’s stores so that he would bump into Meriel on her way back from her housekeeping duties up at the Old Hall, he finally understood Aunt Beatrix’s meaning, and to whom she’d been referring.
“What do you think, Eric?” he asked the pup one night. “I’m not good at this sort of thing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have the custody of my parishioners’ hearts when I am so uncertain of my own.”
Eric, laid out across his master’s feet, thumped his tail, then turned over for a tummy rub. Smiling, Claife bent down to oblige.
They were interrupted by the doorbell. Going to answer it, Claife was surprised to find Elizabeth Haynes on his porch, her features pale and troubled.
He led her into the parlour.
“How can I be of service?” he asked her once they were seated.
“I think I may have been hasty in my marriage,” she confessed to Claife’s surprise, taking the handkerchief he offered. “Thomas is not the man I believed him to be.”
“Is he cruel to you?”
“What we are seeking is right in front of our faces”
“Only in his neglect,” she answered, sobbing. “And we’re hardly out of our honeymoon period! If this is what he’s like now, how bad will things become later on?”
“A doctor’s life is not his own,” Claife ventured delicately. “His duties can be time-consuming.”
“It’s not just that,” Elizabeth interrupted. “I’m doubting my own heart. I find myself looking at another man . . .”
Claife’s heart skipped as the large eyes she now raised to his held an unmistakable message.
She was lovely, but another face tugged at his heartstrings, with eyes not quite so large, but ones he would never grow tired of.
He had a duty of care to all of his parishioners, including Doctor Haynes.
“Married life is difficult,” he told Elizabeth with a smile. “Especially in the early days. You must remember the things about Thomas that drew you to him in the first place.”
Elizabeth inched nearer, her smile impossibly sweet and suggestive.
“Love is confusing,” she murmured. “It is so easy to misconstrue.”
Fervently, Claife agreed, reflecting on his own entangled feelings over the past few months.
“You are fond of me, aren’t you, William?” Elizabeth continued.
“As my parishioner and my friend,” Claife said.
“Then you’ll help me get through this.”
“Of course,” he replied, but the smile Elizabeth bestowed on him did not fill him with the delight that it would once have done.
It was a few weeks later, and Claife was giving Eric a much-needed scrubbing in a tin bath in the pantry, his mind dwelling on the letter the postman had brought that morning.
Elizabeth had written from London, where she was staying for a while, to invite him to visit.
Despite all his efforts to reconcile her to her marriage, it wasn’t just a sympathetic ear she was interested in.
Taking advantage of Claife’s distraction, Eric flung himself out of the tub, spraying soapsuds everywhere as he made a dash for freedom.
Claife was about to give chase when he caught sight of Meriel outside. She was suspended from the branches of an apple tree reaching for fruit, and as he watched, she pitched forward before crashing to the ground.
Claife changed direction, flying out through the back door and across the grass to skid to his knees at the side of her.
“Meriel!” he cried as he pulled her against his chest. “Are you all right?” She blinked up at him. “William,” she muttered, a frown between her brows. “Why are you wet?”
His laugh was a sob of relief.
“Thank the Lord you’re OK, my darling!” He flushed as he realised what he’d said.
Meriel’s voice was strained.
“Aren’t you talking to the wrong girl?”
“No,” he murmured. “It’s the right girl, only I’ve been too afraid to tell you so.”
There was a smile in Meriel’s eyes as she said, “Tell me what?”
“I am in love with you,” Claife confessed in a rush. “I have been blind in the past. But now all I see is brown eyes instead of blue, and how beautiful my best friend is, as well as funny and kind. My very own Friday’s Child.
“Do you think you could love me, too, one day? Make a life with me in this quiet corner of the world?” Meriel sighed.
“Why do you think I’ve been haunting this place for months, spending longer here than I needed and making all these cakes every week just because they’re your favourites?”
Claife eased her upright, keeping her tight within the circle of his arms.
“Will you marry me, Meriel?”
Then he gasped as a flying bundle of wet fur hurled itself upon them.
Meriel laughed as Claife tried to fend off Eric and, thinking it a game, the dog came back for more.
But the vicar didn’t mind, for somewhere among the flailing fur, limbs and soapsuds, he heard Meriel say the magical words.
“I’d love to, William.”