Story Excerpt

Parson Pennywick Talks to the Bees

by Amy Myers
 

PennyWick_Final_Eckhardt
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

The bees are murmuring, Parson,” Jacob Bush warned me soberly.

My misgivings were reinforced. Bees and their moods are much respected in Cuckoo Leas, as they are everywhere. We know little of what governs their lives, but they are creatures of peace and react fiercely when they sense all is not well with the household of which they consider themselves a part. Diplock Manor bade fair to be an unhappy place on the morrow.

I saw Miss Evelina’s face fall, but then she smiled. “Let us give them the good news, Parson. You shall tell them of my forthcoming wedding.”

I chuckled. “You must talk to them yourself, Miss Evelina, for I do not dwell here.”

“But they know you as a friend, dear Parson Pennywick.”

That was true. I knew her father Squire Holby’s bees as well as my own, for they came originally from the parsonage and my man Barnabas and I had trained Jacob as the beemaster here when he married Clara, the squire’s housekeeper, last summer. A soldier from Bristol town back from the American war, he had been an eager pupil and kept his bees well. If he said there was trouble afoot, he was right.

I tried to warn Miss Evelina of the risks, as the bees might be about to swarm, late in the summer though it was. She would have none of it, however, and ran into the manor to fetch not only her own but her father’s bee hat for me, one of his old tricornes to which Clara had attached stout veils. Miss Evelina had brought white ribbons too, which we could attach to the hives after their bees had heard the news, and thus equipped we set forth to the bee yard, followed by a reluctant Jacob.

We could hear the distressed—or angry—bees as we approached, and I feared that not even Miss Evelina’s joyous news would calm them. I managed to affix a ribbon to each hive and then began whispering my speech to them all: “Great happiness has come to this house,” I told them. “Miss Evelina is shortly to be wed to Mr. Dacres, and tomorrow the great painter Mr. Thomas Gainsborough arrives at Diplock Manor to paint her portrait at the request of her betrothed. She wishes you, Wise Ones, to share her happiness.”

My words went to the bees, but my prayers were directed to a higher authority, for wise though the bees are, there is one above who is wiser by far. The Lord will bless this marriage, but I feared the bees were also right. Tomorrow would bring trouble in the form of Mr. Gainsborough.

 

Early the next morning I greeted Miss Evelina and her father at the gateway to Diplock Manor to await the great painter’s arrival. The squire, usually a rumbustious man, was in sombre mood, which increased my own anxiety.

“He is here,” she cried, dancing up and down with joy as the carriage passed under the archway. The reins were held by Mr. Dacres, looking as excited as Miss Evelina herself, and beside him sat Mr. Thomas Gainsborough. I studied the famous artist with dismay as he descended from the carriage. He looked about thirty years of age, and was dressed à la mode with silken coat and fantail hat. He removed the latter in a sweeping bow to Miss Evelina, revealing a spiky wig.

“Miss Holby,” he greeted her, “I am honoured indeed.”

“You are most welcome here,” her father replied on her behalf. He spoke somewhat grimly, I noted.

“Let me show you your studio, Mr. Gainsborough,” Miss Evelina said eagerly.

She led him to Parson Pennywick’s Folly, as she had dubbed it as a child. The gateway was flanked on both sides by a stone folly with a small turret atop its crenellated roof; one of them was named after myself, the other was Papa’s Folly. Papa’s Folly served a grim purpose: It was the village lockup, as the squire is our local magistrate and those who offend must be restrained. It was “my” folly, however, that Mr. Gainsborough would be using as his studio, although he was to lodge at the village alehouse—an unusual arrangement, as the squire is known for his hospitality at the manor.

Mr. Gainsborough inspected the folly without great enthusiasm but announced that it would serve. My misgivings about the gentleman were reinforced and I longed to return to the tranquillity of the parsonage. I could not do so, however, for if there was indeed trouble brewing, I should remain here. The parson in me must lead, not cower, and Caleb Pennywick the man must hide his private fears. I therefore returned to the manor with the squire, leaving Mr. Gainsborough to discuss the portrait with Miss Evelina and Mr. Dacres.

“What think you of this Gainsborough fellow, Caleb?” the squire asked, handing me a glass of Clara’s mulberry wine.

“A no-doubt charming young gentleman,” I said sadly. I had known of Mr. Gainsborough’s work for many a year and indeed seen it with my own eyes on my rare visits to London town.

“Alas,” I continued, “the artist Thomas Gainsborough was born about the time of the accession of His Majesty’s late father, and in this year of seventeen eighty-three will have passed fifty years of age some long time since. I am of the opinion, however, that the gentleman come to paint Miss Evelina is scarcely thirty.”

A look of anguish crossed the squire’s face. “I feared as much when Mr. Dacres told me he had met this so-called Mr. Gainsborough in Tunbridge Wells.”

He walked over to a fine oaken chest and produced from it a painting in oils. It displayed the Walks at the Wells and a most regal lady, judging by her large crown. It was a pleasant daub but not to be compared with the works of Mr. Gainsborough that I had seen in the Royal Academy’s rooms.

“This rogue has cut me a sham, Caleb,” the squire continued gloomily. “Jacob drove me to the Wells last week, where this villain was calling himself Amadeus Packman, purveyor of paintings. He sold me this work by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci.”

“Who died,” I told him reluctantly, “some two hundred years before Queen Anne ordered the creation of the Walks.”

The squire’s face grew as purple as our mulberry wine. “Zounds, Caleb,” he roared in fury. “The villain is all gammon and patter.”

“We must warn Mr. Dacres and Miss Evelina.”

The squire groaned. “No, Caleb. That we cannot do. It would break their hearts, so set are they upon this portrait, and I’ll not spoil his wedding gift to her. But there is worse, I fear. My own gift to them. Today, the rogue is to paint the Corn Dance.”

I stared at him aghast. It was little wonder the bees were murmuring.

 

This day was 1st August, the holiday of Lammas. Lammas is traditionally the day on which a sheaf of the first corn to be cut is laid upon the altar to give thanks to our Lord for the harvest ahead. I hold a service in the church, after which the procession to the manor presents another sheaf to the squire as lord of the manor. The village fiddler leads the procession; drums are beaten, washboards played, and songs are sung behind him, and I follow at the rear. After the presentation, the festivities open with the traditional Corn Dance, held on the lawn in front of the two follies. This most important of village events was apparently now to be commemorated by a charlatan.

Full of foreboding, I stole a look at Parson Pennywick’s Folly as the Lammas procession passed it on its way to the manor, and I wept to see that outside it stacks of paintings were piled against its walls, as though they were a pedlar’s poor offerings. I had seen no sign of the great artist in the church or in the procession, but after the procession returned from the manor to begin the Corn Dance I could see him all too clearly. He had set himself up at the front of the gathering with a chair, table, and easel beside the small rickety dais on which the squire stood, with Jacob at its side to steady it. At one point this process involved Jacob backing into “Mr. Thomas Gainsborough’s” table, to which the artist took great exception. It was a bad omen of what might be to come.

“Let the Corn Dance begin,” roared the squire without enthusiasm—and it did.

Miss Evelina began the dancing with her beloved Mr. Dacres, the squire danced with his dairy maid, Jacob bounded over the grass with his wife Clara. People jumped around, danced and sang, flying here, there, and everywhere in their eagerness to enjoy their holiday to the full.

I took part in what my dear late wife had called the whirligig, twirling in and out of the lines of the dance with great zest. Today sheaves of corn laid between the lines provided an extra challenge for the dancers, who spread themselves out even further. This muddled our lines into a general joyful noisy whole and brought the dancing closer and closer to the so-called Mr. Gainsborough until he was almost in the middle of us rather than at our head. I could see him with furrowed brow covering the precious paper with bold lines of charcoal as an outline for the painting.

As the dancing grew ever more energetic, Mr. Gainsborough became entirely surrounded, and was therefore the focus of attention from the dancers who flew around him.

“Lawks, it’s my Joe,” shrieked a woman in fury. Her indignation was heard even over the general noise and music. I knew her, of course. It was the Widow Chapman. She had been a respectable widow these last few years, but had been most anxious to marry again.

Mr. Gainsborough peered up at the lady from his seat and went very white. “Madam, I regret I have no knowledge—”

“Promised to wed me, you did,” she snarled at him. “We had a contract. And to think I gave you all that money. I’ll put a rope round your neck myself, I will.”

The widow was a stout and sturdy lady and Mr. Gainsborough had good reason to fear her. The squire and I remembered all too well that she had demanded her missing betrothed be arrested and forced into marriage, but he could not be found. Some of the assembly were still dancing on their merry way, but others were taking a great interest in the artist, especially when the widow grasped him by his silken collar and hauled him to his feet.

The village baker, Timothy Tucker, immediately recognised Mr. Gainsborough, pulled him away from the widow’s grasp, and roared: “You’re that crippled seaman from Dover. You was in Hawkhurst market. Took my money for a business you was trying to set up and never heard another word from you.”

“Not me, mister. Not me—” Mr. Gainsborough whimpered.

In answer Timothy aimed a hefty punch at him, resulting in the artist staggering back, falling over his chair, and landing up on the ground. He was hauled to his feet by the angry Timothy Tucker, who yelled, “Where’s my money? I’ll see you swing from the nearest tree if I don’t get it!”

The squire and I were helpless to intervene, as we were outside the mob that surrounded the terrified Mr. Gainsborough, but we could all too clearly hear another contender for his blood. George Goodenough, a farmer from our neighbouring village Frogshole, was advancing on the stricken artist. At first I thought he meant to come to his aid, for he and Tucker were known to be sworn enemies, but that was of little import in this greater issue. He wrested Mr. Gainsborough out of Tucker’s grasp and held him firmly in his own.

“He’s no matelot,” Goodenough roared to the mob. All the dancing had stopped now, for there was more entertainment here. “He’s a lawyer man. You married my daughter, mister, that’s what you did. She never came back, not her nor the gold bracelet she let you have. It’s the rope for you, my lad, and I’ll be the man fixing it round your neck.”

“I couldn’t have married her. I was already wed,” Mr. Gainsborough mistakenly bleated.

A shriek from Widow Chapman. “I’ll kill you, like I said!” she cried. “Deceiving a respectable widow woman.”

Faced with three apparent assassins, Mr. Gainsborough managed to regain some confidence. “Who dares cast the first stone?” he asked righteously. “I am come amongst a whole village of murderers.”

The whole village took exception to this, and a roar went up that unfortunately made the squire recall his own grievance. “Amadeus Packman, you sold me a fakery!” he yelled. “I’m coming for you.” And in determined fashion he began to push his way through the crowd.

Miss Evelina burst into tears, Mr. Dacres immediately set off to “punch the villain’s nose,” he told me to my concern, and I tried to follow them to plead for calm. My voice was lost in the overall noise and I had not the strength to push further.

By now everyone hitherto at the back of the crowd decided to have a closer look at Mr. Gainsborough in case they too recognised him. He had now vanished from my sight and I began to fear for his life. The hubbub continued and I realised that Mr. Gainsborough must once more be taking shelter on the ground.

The mob was so busy deciding who Mr. Gainsborough really was, however, that no one kept an eye on the great artist himself. There was no sign of the noise abating, as Goodenough was still roaring out his fury.

Then: “Where is he . . . ?”

 

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Copyright © 2017. Parson Pennywick Talks to the Bees by Amy Myers

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