Friday, 20 April 2007

Mrs Baines's tea party

I have met Mr Porteous. And am obliged to report , with some embarrassment, that I found myself just as much affected by him as every other woman apparently was, who attended Mrs Baines’s tea party the other day. So entirely unexpected a response was this, on my part (and so much surreptitious glee has it prompted, on Bill’s ), that I am resolved to try to ignore it for the moment if I can, and dwell on other aspects of the little party instead.

In the first place there was Mrs Baines herself. Or Pamela, as she condescended at once to entreat me to call her. What can I tell you about Pamela, I wonder, that wouldn’t be altogether uncharitable on the part of one who has after all enjoyed her hospitality? Suffice it to say that she is a large lady, just as Bill said; and that her manner is one of great stateliness. She’s a stately woman altogether, indeed; who wore, or rather was contained within, a voluminous dress in some kind of blue chiffon, which rustled a good deal when she moved. The dress was amplified, in front, to accommodate her bosom; and had been cleverly conjured, behind, into something softly draped and gently flowing, almost in the manner of a train; and it was this perhaps, which gave her the rustling effect.

Frances has told me that Pamela is known for the constancy of her opinions, and her composure under fire. She is never angry, never extreme, and almost never ruffled, Frances says. Though she has been known to expostulate a little, when talking about the current Labour government, and the iniquity of its policies on immigration and taxation. And it has to be said that I heard her come near to something which almost resembled conversational violence, on Tuesday, when the subject of the Chancellor of the Exchequer just happened to come up.

That was the exception though. For the most part she was hostessly moderation itself, and kept her little party moving forward at a perfectly judged pace. She had earlier greeted me at the cottage door, and kept me standing a while in the tiny hall, where she relieved me of my jacket and performed the essential opening functions of a hostess. There too, she introduced me to Roland, a small man posted somewhere in her wake; whose function it seemed to be to receive the coats of arriving guests, and whom I’d have taken, had she not immediately identified him as Roland, for some kind of visiting functionary. The man who was to oversee the cloakroom arrangements, perhaps; or someone she’d got in from a catering company to hand the plates

My welcome having been accomplished, and Roland having seemed to bow over my hand a little, by way of greeting, she shepherded me into what I can only describe as a sea of chintz; with a great many over-sized bowls of flowers, and padded footstools, and prim little ‘occasional tables’ (and as many as a dozen benignly smiling faces), floating in it. I was conducted about the crowded room and presented individually to her guests, for each of whom she provided a name, and a little potted history, which I suspect her of having prepared in advance. Frances was there of course, perched on the edge of an ottoman, trying to balance her cup. And Mrs Rose Mountjoy; who remained seated when presented to me; who gave me a distant smile, and struck me as being on the glamorous, and exceedingly well made-up side of sixty. Even Bill’s brigadier was there. He sprang to attention before me – it was almost a salute. He mentioned Bill and Monty; and introduced his very small wife, and said his name was Bernard.

The ceremony of tea itself remains something of a blur in my memory. Roland handed plates of tiny, triangular sandwiches, I seem to remember; and buttered scones, and many-coloured cakes. But nobody was able to eat very much, for the difficulty of locating their own allotted occasional tables, and keeping them within reach. There was a great deal of subdued chatter, but very little conversation possible. It was only when the tea things had been cleared away, and Pamela, in a gesture of mercy, had thrown open the doors to the garden, that I found myself suddenly in the presence of Mr Porteous.

He had come up to me very quietly, from behind, and while I was admiring a specially fragrant flowering wisteria, that covered an old shed at the bottom of the garden. “Ah, wisteria…” he said. “It’s early this year, I think – but there’s nothing quite like it, in the right spot, is there?” I‘m not aware that he said anything much else. He had put out his hand, and mentioned that his name was David – but I fear that any chattering which took place between us was likely to have been my own. He has that effect, you see. He has a palpable presence, and looks at you with a quiet grey eye. He’s clearly a man who is not afraid of silences; he has the gift, if you can call it that, of reducing any woman in his presence (even me) to inane babbling, in the space of about two minutes flat. He's smooth as velvet (that image of Bill's, of the gentleman priest in the velvet jacket, is ever present to my mind); and I can quite see how it was that he had all the women of his parish falling at his feet.

I have talked him over with Bill since then, however, and we are agreed that his effects are probably very carefully studied, and that beneath them beats a heart of flint. I’m going to try to hold on to that concept, at any rate. For nothing seems more certain than that David Porteous will work his charm to the utmost here, and almost certainly wreak considerable havoc in the process. To dear little Frances, who is already under the spell, I said only that I had found him perfectly charming, just as she said. But I fear for her more than ever now, and shall make her personal safety the object of my most astute concern.

Monday, 16 April 2007

What Mr Porteous told Miss Fanshawe

I’m just a little worried about Frances. She has acquainted herself with Mr Porteous with what seems to me to to be some precipitancy. She has dispatched her basket, and had it returned; and is now on such terms with him as wouldn’t have seemed possible only three short days ago. She seems to have out-stripped even Mrs Baines, on the getting-to-know-Mr-Porteous front ; so that I have had to go back to Bill, for a re-appraisal of the question of her unworldliness.

Bill sticks to his guns though. It is just her very unworldliness, don’t I see, that enables her to plunge in like that, where wiser, worldlier women would have feared to tread. She’ll come through unscathed, just wait and see: not even a clergyman of what he is convinced is Mr Porteous’s ilk, being quite so cynical as to take advantage of so clearly artless a little woman. I do hope he’s right; though I question his ability to judge Mr Porteous fairly on so brief an acquaintance. And I can’t help fearing a little for Frances. I am impatient for Mrs Baines’s tea-party now; wishing to be in a position to judge Mr Porteous for myself, so as to assess the possible degree of risk for Frances.

I have learnt a good deal about the man myself, by way of Frances. I just happened to have called on her last night, on my way home from a late walk with Florence, and she asked me to come in and have a glass of wine with her. The glass of wine led to a salad and sandwich supper, which we prepared ourselves in the rather cavernous manor house kitchen; Mrs Meade being what Frances called “generally just a little incapacitated” by that time of the evening. And it was over coffee later, in the splendid, panelled library that Frances still seems to speak and think of as her father’s , that she told me how Mr Porteous had come in with her there that morning to look at the books, and had seemed so pleased with her suggestion that it would be an admirable place for him to work and study in, whilst making the initial preparations for his book.

“He plans to write a comparative history of the three great Abrahamic faiths, you see” she explained. I thought she blushed a little for it - for the speed, that is, with which all of this must seem to me to have been accomplished. Pamela had rebuked her for it a little already, as a matter of fact; had said she ought to have waited a little, before rushing in with what might seem to Mr Porteous to be somewhat undue haste.

“But after all” as she was quick to try to explain. “It’s really no more than Pamela herself has done, is it? Inviting him to tea and arranging a party, and all that sort of thing… Though as she points out, she doesn’t do these things alone. She has Roland with her. For backup, she says - though what I think she really means is for propriety. And I daresay she’s right. I have been a little hasty perhaps. But you see, I had sent Mr Jessop round with a basket: no impropriety in that, I thought. And then Mr Porteous called so promptly to return it. And seemed so interested in everything here. I showed him the knot garden, and he loves a knot garden above all things - he had one himself, in the garden of the old rectory in Stroud, though he grew mostly lavender there... Asparagus too. He was most impressed with Mr Jessop’s asparagus bed; he has never managed to grow it successfully himself. One thing seemed to lead to another, at any rate, and before we knew it, we had come in here to the library, and Mrs Meade had been thoughtful enough to prepare coffee …. And it was over coffee that he told me about his book, which was his real reason for retiring rather early from the ministry. Though of course retirement would never have been possible for him, had it not been for his aunt’s unexpected bequest of the house…….. The house had made all the difference in the world. He had only his stipend, you know, so little. And life can be very difficult for a clergyman, still - it isn’t only in the pages of Trollope - when he hasn’t private means ……….. “

I did not think this a very encouraging beginning, and was still more dismayed to learn the further extent of Mr Porteous’s confidences. The idea for the book had evidently been floating in his mind for years. He had actually begun a doctoral thesis on the theme, in his post-graduate days at Cambridge years ago; but had forsaken it then in favour of ordination. It had been only recently, and with the influence of what he called ‘the new kind of terrorism that had begun to stalk the Western world” (so eloquently put, Miss Fanshawe thought), that the idea had begun to re-surface. There was every kind of precedent for such a book, Mr Porteous thought: the Bible – the Old Testament in particular – resounding so, with battles of every kind. The Jews of the Old Testament had actually plundered and slewn their way to Jerusalem – and generally with God to one extent or other at their head. It was very discouraging, Mr Porteous thought, to see how little two thousand years had done, to improve or simplify matters there.

“He has such a clever, and original way of expressing himself” Miss Fanshawe interposed at this point. “He can be quite amusing, even when talking about the Old Testament - he must have been very moving, in his robes and surplice, from the pulpit…”

It is seldom necessary – or indeed possible – to break in on Frances when she is in full narrative flight. She seems to gather an impetus of her own along the way. But I thought she had begun to flounder a little here, so I intervened, to try to bring her back on course. “And his book, then?” I gently prompted her. “Is that to be about the Middle East situation too?”

“Well, not directly of course…..” She seemed grateful for my interest, and able to take up her theme again with renewed eagerness. “What he wants to point up are the similarities, not the differences – he thinks that’s probably where a solution will be found to lie. And he dares to think that he might be able to do it better, or less explosively anyway, than some others who are more directly involved. I think he meant army personnel, you know; and politicians, and people of that general sort…. Meaning no disparagement of dear Bill, of course – whose own contributions have been so very wonderful! But Mr Porteous, being a retired priest, and really quite obscure and elderly … “Putting his grisled head above the parapet for an hour”, was the way he expressed it, to me. So very self-effacing, I thought! What could there possibly be that was risky, or politically volatile, in that…..? “

The evening came to an end soon after that, and I confess that I left her with misgivings very little allayed. It seemed a great deal to have learnt from a man in the course of one short visit. Now, I learn that he is to come to the manor house one morning soon, to try out the experiment of working in her father’s library. I wonder why he can’t set up a study of his own, in old Miss Porteous’s house; he must have rooms enough there, heaven knows! But I have made up my mind to say nothing of all this for the present, to Bill - since who knows what precipitate action of his own he might feel impelled to take?