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A Fair Young Curate

Chapter Text

Marriage, thought Dr. Daly when he ought to have been thinking about next week’s sermon, agreed with him; even if his own left him somewhat mystified.

The Bishop had raised an eyebrow when he and Constance had come to him to be wed; had gone so far as to take the bride aside and question her. Constance had confided afterwards to her groom that that His Grace, who’d heard reports of the odd events connected with the Pointdexter-Sangazure betrothal, had asked if she was quite sure she wasn’t still under any supernatural influence in her choice of husband. In response, she had simply pointed to the Notary and shook her head decisively.

Poor child; she had been quite unhappy with the old man, even when the spell had compelled her affections. Dr. Daly hoped the Notary’s memories of that hour were as hazy and dreamlike as his own were on the subject of his brief and artificially-magically-induced infatuation with Aline Sangazure. Certainly the Notary, upon the cessation of the baleful influence, had fled to Mrs. Partlett’s arms with as much alacrity as Constance had run towards the Rector; and shortly afterwards the older couple had asked him to marry them. It was a trifle awkward having a father-in-law who'd once, however briefly, been engaged to one's wife — more so for Constance, of course — but he did his best, during family visits, to bear the brunt of the old man’s ill-tempered, repetitive conversations that she might not have to. No, he’d feared no rivalry with the Notary, or with any man – until this past week.

Constance had been helping him sort through some old papers; it had been a dull afternoon in the late October, and since there’d be a bonfire in a week’s time he’d decided that his study was long overdue for a good tidying. He’d knelt to light a small fire in the grate against the chill, reflecting as he got up that his knees were not what they had been; but the fire would soon warm the room and take care of that, he’d told himself. Despite the gloomy weather, he’d been happy to have his wife’s company as they sorted papers into “Important Enough to Keep,” “Might Publish One Day,” and “Bonfire.”

He’d opened a long-forgotten box, realizing too late, by the faded scent of attar-of-roses that emanated from the ribbon-tied contents, just what it was those contents were. Taking the papers out of the box a little too hastily and nervously – fearful that these relics of his long-dead past might make his bride jealous – O Irony! – had caused a small metal object to drop from out of the bundle to the floor.

“Why it’s an old-fashioned miniature,” Constance had exclaimed as she picked it up. How Dr. Daly’s soul had shook at those words -- “old-fashioned” in particular -- as she picked up the little frame and gazed upon the image within of a young man with auburn curls and a sensitive mouth.

“Who is this?” she had asked him, innocently curious.

“Myself, dear heart," he sighed, "in days long past. It was very vain and foolish of me to keep it, but as you can see, I was not so bad-looking, once upon a time.” Constance looked from her husband to the portrait, and back again, with an expression of wonder. “I do sometimes regret, my love,” Dr. Daly added wistfully, “that you never had the opportunity to see me at my best.” Constance set the miniature down on his desk.

“But I have,” she said simply, and kissed him with enough conviction to drive the phantoms from his mind, at least for that afternoon.

Afterwards, he’d burned the letters in the grate, filling the room with the scent of long-ago rose gardens, and Constance had fed him an enormous tea, with lashings of clotted cream; but though his reverend corpus was well-fed and contented, Dr. Daly’s mind and heart were still restless, and he had lain awake that night, and the two nights since, watching the rays of the moon, as that celestial body waxed fat, slant through the casement to touch Constance’s sleeping form.

Last night, it had been bright enough to wake her, and he’d got up to draw the curtains; when her young face once more relaxed in sleep, he’d come down to his study, where he sat with the curtains fully open to the pale light, his hand upon the miniature as it lay face-down upon his desk where Constance had put it. He wanted to toss the thing away; but if he picked it up the sight of those youthful lineaments would mock him once more. So he sat until dawn, and in the morning was stiff-backed and ill-tempered with the poor girl, even as his heart cried out to him silently that she deserved better. Just so, he thought. She oughtn’t to be yoked to an old fool jealous of his own shadow.

Dr. Daly glared at his shadow now, as he looked up from the blank page upon which the words of a sermon were entirely failing to congregate. His shadow did not glare back; it simply lounged smugly against the wall. It was a broad, grotesque thing.

“Tush,” the rector told himself: “This is the sort of thing Narcissus would have stooped to had he not died young. Pull yourself together, man -- after all, what does it matter so long as she’s happy with you?”

Will she be happy with you always? came the reply, as he’d known it would. She is scarce turned eighteen, after all. How fond do you think she’ll be of married life when she is thirty and you are --

“She is as true as her name,” the clergyman retorted. The shadow laughed.

Then it’s your plan to tie her to you by the strings of her conscience and good nature? Much better than a love philtre, I agree. You’re a wiser man than people take you for.

“Tush, phantom.”

Better keep in good health, and not die, else how lonely she’ll be. Are you wise enough to outwit death, I wonder? And with that, the shadow fell liquidly across one of the dustier bookcases in the room; the one Dr. Daly had not touched, nor let Constance touch, three nights and four days past when they’d been tidying.

“The sorcerer -- Mr. Wells --” the rector said firmly to the room, “is gone. And not to a better place, I fear. Such dabblings are dangerous.” No answer came. His shadow was now giving him the cut, it seemed.

“When exactly was I cast as Dr. Faustus?”

Your words, not mine.

“Yes, well – things didn’t exactly turn out as rosy as that particular old gentleman and scholar might have hoped, did they?”

Constance, entering a few minutes later, found him gazing pensively at the dusty bookcase. He turned with a guilty start, even at the light sound of her footsteps, and upon seeing the concern in her eyes,  hurried to reassure her:

“How you startled me, my dear! Oh I have been a cross old bear today, haven’t I? Do forgive me. I get melancholy at this time of year, with the days so short.” Willingly she flung her arms about him.

She was as warm and bright and slender as a taper, and he let her lead him away from the dangerous writings.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Constance woke the next morning to rain tapping at the window, but her husband still deep asleep, she judged by his snoring. For a while she watched him fondly, then stole from the bed to put the kettle on (three spoons to the pot). Mr. and Mrs. Greep, who had taken care of the rector during the numerous years of his bachelorhood, continued in their situations following his marriage, but had never “lived in.”  Constance was glad enough of the chance to be alone with Dr. Daly, or as she was now privileged to call him, 'Georgie;' and in any case, though she would have died before admitting it, she was a little afraid of the Greeps who, being in service to the rector, had always considered themselves rather above a pew-opener. Besides, she'd been used to doing the chores for herself and her mother.

Dr. Daly liked to read aloud to Constance, and she liked to listen (for he’d a fine voice – it had been one of the first things about him to capture her affections); though she suspected sometimes he did it to keep her from worrying that there was some task, somewhere, that she ought to be doing.

Certainly, she usually knew at any time what it was that he ought to be doing, for Constance kept his memorandum book for him -- he was always forgetting it. This morning, he had three christenings. The temporary statistical increase in marriages that had followed on the heels of the Pointdexter-Sangazure Incident was now producing after-effects, and the Rector of Ploverleigh had recently had to handle a great many babies, of varying degrees of attractiveness and lung capacity. Constance liked seeing him with them, and hoped she might someday see him dandling one of their own – or more, for she’d grown up an only child and had always wished for a larger family. Though he'd said nothing on the topic, she thought he shared her hopes, for the other week, cradling Mrs. Tucker’s infant in her arms after the service, she had raised her eyes to notice Georgie regarding her with a most wistful expression.

Despite the nods and winks of onlookers, theirs was a true marriage. They'd been in one another's arms as soon after their nuptials as they could decently manage it. "Constance, dear child," he'd eventually asked, his arm around her waist, "Did your mother explain in advance about --"

"About relations between husbands and wives?" She had lifted her head from the clerical bosom and told him all, blushing slightly, while he listened gravely and nodded, for Mrs. Partlet, though respectable, was no prude.

"Quite right," he’d said when she had exhausted the little store of knowledge, "so far as it goes. But there are, er, certain additional refinements. Perhaps," he’d added, "since it seems I am to be your tutor in these matters, we ought to proceed by easy stages over several nights; I think there are some appropriate texts on the subject -- I can translate the Latin passages for you -- on the higher shelves in my study; and oh, you must promise to tell me if I am too... precipitate in my advances.”

Constance had promised, but the truth was she’d never felt so at ease with anybody as with him, and when some time later they had achieved the complete act, she was unafraid, but instead felt as though a sacred ritual had been correctly performed, to the satisfaction of all concerned. Not that they hadn’t managed to improve on it since then.  

Still, happy as the two of them were, they were still but two; and there were no signs as yet that this might change. Privately, Constance was beginning to worry that they might not be going about it the right way, though she told herself that they’d only been wed ten months and lots of marriages went a year or more before children came along.

The rain was still coming down, but the hob was hot and cheerful and the kettle would soon be boiling and hissing steam. A pot that’s watched will never boil, she’d been told. Resolutely, she sat down, determined to test this saw. Two minutes later, it had come to a boil before her eyes and the tea was steeping. Her confidence reinforced, she decided to consult the tomes on the upper shelf that Georgie had mentioned on their wedding night. Perhaps they would offer some further instruction to couples desirous of children.

Entering the study -- how cold and damp it was on this rainy morning! -- Constance picked up the miniature, glanced at the whey-faced youth she could hardly believe was the same person as her own dear husband, and shut it in the writing-desk. Looking along at the bookcases, she rapidly concluded they’d been built to keep books out of reach of young persons and anyone else of small stature. For a moment she considered asking Georgie to get the book in question down for them; but she hesitated at disturbing him. With a little moue that would have been charming had anyone else been there to see it, she went to fetch a chair and was soon nimbly balanced atop it and peering along the top row of shelves.

Aristotle’s Great Work.  Clavicule of Solomon.  Liber Juratis. Hadn’t Georgie said that the texts might be in Latin and that he’d translate them for her? Cautiously she eased the last book from the shelf. It was heavy and dusty, and its leather bindings were half-rotted, but then she supposed that as a bachelor he’d never had much call to read it.

 

So it happened that Dr. Daly, a minute or so later, felt a light touch on his shoulder and sat up to find his wife shyly asking him to translate an antique manuscript. Being a doting husband, and an obliging gentleman by nature, he fumbled for his spectacles and without questioning the situation, began to read aloud from the page to which the book had fallen open.

Also, he was still befuddled with sleep.

He had read quite halfway down the page before his brain woke up sufficiently to realize that this was not a text to be taken lightly; but by then it was too late. There was a distant hubub of mocking laughter, and the two mortals felt a sensation as if the breath had been knocked out of them, or perhaps as if all the air had left the room.

The rector was the first to recover -- indeed once his immediate shock had passed, he found himself quite unharmed. Scrambling to his feet was remarkably easy, save that his centre of balance seemed to have shifted just enough to render him a trifle unsteady on his feet and to require him to put his hand down rather abruptly upon the top of the washstand to prevent himself falling to the floor again. His hand looked oddly wavery as he glanced downwards, like a starfish in a tidal pool. Adjusting his spectacles, he found he could see better if he removed them entirely; this puzzled him, as did the sense that something was present, or perhaps missing, around the edges of his field of vision.  At last, placing his index finger upon his right temple (his usual gesture in thinking), he discovered that his right -- and, confirmed a moment later -- left cheeks, normally framed by a distinguished set of side-whiskers, were now quite smooth.

A small cry from the corner of the room curtailed further self-study as he hurried to the assistance of Constance, only to find his bride strangely and sadly changed -- her face suddenly grown haggard and her long brown hair grey. Worse yet, she did not seem to know him but shrieked to his face:

“Who are you, intruder?! What have you done with my darling husband?!” Despite her transformation she was able to land a couple of sturdy blows to his person before she harkened to his pleading that he was her darling husband, long enough to gaze wildly upon him and to clap her withered hand over her mouth in shock:

“The miniature,” she gasped. “Why, it is you! But what in the world has happened?” He embraced her; cautiously, in case she tried striking him again.

“Constance, my dear,” he said, “we have both been subject to a most…. inopportune translation.”

Chapter Text

Dr. Daly dressed hastily. His clothes hung a trifle loose on his suddenly-slimmer form, but, he thought, the cassock would hide that. Meanwhile Constance had brushed her hair with a little sigh at the faded colour, put on her most subdued frock -- fortunately her figure was fated to only shrink a little with the years, and everything still fit -- and now looked a most comely as well as respectable old lady. No sooner had they completed their toilets than the rector started guiltily at a sound from the back door:

“Mrs. Greep,” he told his wife, “is nearly upon us.” Constance took his hand:

“My dear, I think we must resort to a deception, though it pain you.” The young curate furrowed his bland smooth brow:

“It more than pains me, child -- it goes quite against my conscience, as the shepherd of this flock.”

“But consider -- the Greeps are unlikely to believe the truth if we tell it them.” He considered this, and admitted:

“They are somewhat inclined to suspicion towards strangers,”

“And what use will you be to your flock, if they don’t believe you’re you?”

Dr. Daly took a moment to follow the logic of this statement, then sighed.

“What is it you suggest we do?” he asked.

“That I represent myself as your sister; tell the Greeps we have both fallen ill and are confined to our bedroom; and that you are the young man sent to replace you as curate until we are recovered. Now you, dear, had better go out the window, so she doesn’t see.”

“Mrs. Daly? Is all well with -- Hi now! Who’s that there?!” The housekeeper’s voice turned from indifferently respectful to alarmed and aggressive at the sight of an unfamiliar figure.

“Mrs. Greep, I presume?” It was easier to sound stern in her older form, Constance noted with some satisfaction. “Don’t come any further. The Rector and his wife were both taken ill yesterday, shortly after my arrival. Nothing serious, but I fear it might be catching. I am Dr. Daly’s sister, Miss Daly.”

“They never said anything to me about a visitor.” Mrs. Greep lowered her brows, but a deferential instinct was coming over her at the thought of any relation of Dr. Daly.

“My dear brother, you may have noticed, is the most absent-minded of men. Even as a child, he was always forgetting things. I believe Mrs. Daly herself was caught off guard by my arrival.”

“That’s true enough-- the Rector's a good man, but he'd forget his own head if it weren't fastened on. But whatever is the church to do with him unwell? There’s services to do this morning, and a proper lot of infants need christening, and him ever so gentle with the young’uns.” Constance had won the opening skirmish, and she pushed on:

“Fear not, Mrs. Greep -- I took the liberty last night of sending for a temporary replacement; quite a young man, but they tell me he’s very well-read and mild-spoken.” To herself she hoped that this would be but a temporary situation. “He should be arriving forthwith.”

 

This conversation, though scarcely two minutes long, had given the transformed Dr. Daly ample time to open his bedroom window and scramble out; fortunately, the Rectory was but a cottage, though a large one; and the now-youthful rector, though not particularly robust, was spry enough to make the hasty exit without any particular difficulty. He hurried 'round to the front door and knocked upon it. Constance opened it, doing her best to look as though she’d never seen him before. In a way, he supposed, she hadn’t.

“Young man,” she said, “you are late. We must hurry. Mrs. Greep, you may accompany us.” Lowering her voice she whispered, “I forgot to give you a name. You’d better be --” she glanced about and her eye fell upon a small mossy statue in their sere and autumnal garden -- “Mr. Cherub.”

“Why Mr. Cherub,” Mrs. Greep asked, “whatever happened to your hat? Were you in such a hurry to get here?”

“Yes -- but, that is to say,” the transformed clergyman stammered, “I did have my hat, but the wind blew it away.” Despite his nervousness he did not fail to notice that Mrs. Greep had made her inquiry with a look of concern rather than disapproval.

“My brother,” Constance interrupted him kindly, “I can say without prejudice, would hardly mind you borrowing his hat, since he is not at present using it.” Mrs. Greep fairly ran to the hat-rack and fetched the hat for the professed Mr. Cherub. His handsome looks, he realized in horror, were once again influencing female hearts -- now, now that there was only one such whose affections mattered to him. Thanking Mrs. Greep and Constance, he offered his old wife his arm and wondered to himself how he could possibly restore things to their usual order.


 

For Dr. Daly, that morning passed in a sort of dazed whirl. Fortunately Constance had had the presence of mind to retrieve his sermon before leaving the cottage -- she was, he thought absently, handling things with an admirable equanimity, for which he really must congratulate her later. However, upon seeing her mother at the church, she showed some evidence of emotion, and he hastened to steer Mrs. Partlet (as he still thought of her) away with a quick explanation and a reassurance that things were “catching, but not serious.” A murmur of concern went around the congregation at this explanation for the Rector’s absence; together with a rapid assessment of his replacement. Nervously “Mr. Cherub” hesitated over the words he’d composed the night before; but this seemed to only endear him to the one-half of his listeners already predisposed towards him. The men seemed a bit fidgety.

The babes being christened that day were all three reasonably pleasant children, and he carried out his duties with the assurance of many years’ practice; but as he held each one, he was uncomfortably aware of expressions softening; could almost hear female hearts fluttering.

Then, afterwards, Mrs. Greep insisted upon accompanying them home and making him a luncheon while Constance slipped into the bedroom to "check on her brother and sister-in-law." At last, when Mrs. Greep had cleared away and left the cottage, he was free to examine the book that was the source of their troubles -- except that visitors would keep coming by. It seemed half the village was camped out in front like a besieging army. He forced himself to focus on the old manuscript pages with their cramped writing; meanwhile he could overhear his poor “sister” fielding the enquiries after the health of the invalids, and the enquiries after “that nice young man who did the christenings so well this morning, and upon such short notice.”  At last there came a knock on his study door.

“My dear --” It was Constance, looking somewhat tired from her labours as hostess. “An invitation has come from the Poindexters, for Mr. Cherub to visit them this evening.”

“They invited you as well, of course. No? How rude of them. I ought to have words with young Alex when --”

“Still, it might help to clear matters up -- after all, they have had experience with this sort of thing.”

“Not really, I’m afraid. He only hired magical assistance -- knows nothing of the art himself -- not that it would be suitable to his station in any case.”

“I had quite forgotten to ask -- how did you come to have such materials in your possession?” She did not sound angry, merely curious.

“Left by my predecessor; I suppose he had them on hand for emergencies, and I’ve been examining this one in the hopes that it contains its own remedy.” He sighed and embraced her. How frail she felt in his arms. “You’ve had a very trying day,” he said. “Not only on your own account but -- well, in my foolish reminiscences I’d forgotten how inconvenient universal adoration can be.” Constance gave a wry little laugh.

“Have you found a way to put a stop to it?” she asked.

“Perhaps,” the rector said evasively. “But you’re right; I ought to examine it carefully before trying it. One wouldn’t want to make matters worse.” The trouble – or at least a good part of the trouble -- was that whomever had written the manuscript hadn’t actually been an ancient Roman, or even a classical scholar, and the Latin was… very hard to decipher. Half of it wasn’t real Latin, even. The note (or a fragment of a note?) at the bottom of the page he’d read aloud, though -- that, Dr. Daly was certain, had been intended as instructions; or at least advice:


prima opere destruitur destructo

Chapter Text

Dr. Daly made his way towards the half-timbered mansion in which Sir Marmaduke and Lady Sangazure now lived happily as man and wife, and where Alexis and Aline were staying for the week.

“For,” Constance had said, “it will hardly do for you to refuse your friends’ invitation, even if they do not at present realize that they are your friends and not offering hospitality to a visiting clergyman.”

The gloom of the early twilight was no darker than his thoughts as he walked pensively, considering the scrawled note in the book of spells that had, that morning, returned to him an all-too-attractive youthfulness of appearance (twice on the way to the Pointdexter estate he had to escape earnest conversation with village maidens, and after that he left the highroad and walked across the fields to avoid meeting any further company) -- while prematurely aging his young wife. This was not a state of affairs that could be allowed to continue, but so far the only clue as to how the spell might be broken had left him in a state of near-despair:

Prima opere destruitur destructo, read the crabbed writing. It seemed to him that someone had been trying to indicate that the operation of the charm could be ended by the destruction of its origins. But had they meant the written spell, or the one who had cast it?

The love-philtre, he recalled, had required the death of either Alexis or that Wells fellow, the sorcerer who’d cast it for him, to free those under its influence; and the village unanimously had chosen Wells to make the sacrifice. He’d been a single man, after all, whereas young Pointdexter had Aline (as soon as the charm was lifted and her natural inclinations returned). The reverend himself had voted for Wells to die; it would be hypocrisy to flee such a fate himself if it would free Constance from this new enchantment.

The trees around Sir Marmaduke’s mansion were leafless, and the surface of the little ornamental pool steel-gray and ruffled by a cold breeze -- but the diamond-pane windows glowed a cheerful amber and Dr. Daly was offered a welcome as warm (though rather more formal) as he always did when he came by in his own person.

“Why it’s young Alsop, isn’t it?” he said to the footman who showed him in. “I didn’t know you’d a place here. Are your family well?”

“They are, sir.” The youth hesitated. “My apologies, Reverend, but how do you know my name? I’m sure I don’t recall our having met, though of course I heard you preach this morning.”

“Oh -- er, the Rector insisted on giving me some advice from his sickbed before doing so many christenings today -- 'Be sure you don’t lose any' he told me. 'I almost dropped one in the font some fifteen years ago -- James Hector Alsop, was the infant’s name; but he’s grown up to be a strapping tow-headed fellow, and I trust that his escape from drowning so early in life is no sign that he was born to be hanged.' ” The footman blushed and smiled.

“Indeed I have heard that story from Dr. Daly. Though it’s seventeen years now,” he added with a touch of pride.

“Dear me, ‘Time like an ever-rolling stream,’ eh?” said the clergyman, forgetting that in his current state he hardly looked much older than Alsop, who resumed his duties thinking to himself that Mr. Cherub, though a very nice fellow, was a bit odd and fusty in his ways.

Arriving in the sitting room, Dr. Daly was uncertain whether or not to reveal his predicament; and indeed, with all the Pointdexters and Pointdexters-by-marriage greeting him, he hardly had the opportunity. It warmed his heart that his hosts did seem to be genuinely concerned for the Rector and his wife, whose health formed the primary topic of their questioning; even if Aline did give him an assessing glance that nearly frightened him into stammers before her gaze returned to her husband. From the little he could recall of it, being in love with and loved by that lady had not been at all unpleasant, but, well, things were different now; and furthermore he knew from experience that Alexis Pointdexter had a jealous temper. Indeed the incident was what convinced him at last to confide in his hosts.

“But my dear Dr. Daly,” cried Aline as soon as she and her spouse had been enlightened as to the misadventure of the past twelve hours, “if neither you nor poor Constance intended to cast any spell, I don’t see how either of you could fairly be considered as the cause of the trouble.”

“She’s right, you know,” agreed Alexis, who’d been working it through in his head. “Why, you’re both as innocent in this case as you, sir, were last year when you made the tea without knowing that Wells had enchanted the pot by my instructions. The question of your life being forfeit never came up then.”

“I wish I could trust that my conscience is as clear as you believe,” answered the clergyman, running one hand distractedly through his hair (goodness, there is a lot of it, thought part of his brain), “But I have at times wished -- I’d even felt tempted -- how can I be certain that I really chose that particular page of the book by coincidence and without sorcerous intent?”

“But if your death is uncalled-for, and you die anyway, that would leave the spell unbroken, and it would hardly be fair to leave Constance a widow, much less an elderly one, at the tender age of eighteen,” Aline argued.

“You are right, my dear, but at present I can see no other course open to me,” said Dr. Daly miserably. Just then Alsop returned, announcing the Bishop.

“Why what could bring him here at this time of day?” young Pointdexter asked.

“He says one of his horses has gone lame,” the footman replied, “and he asks leave to stop here while his coachman checks its hoof.”

“Tell his Grace he is very welcome, and ask him to join us.”

Chapter Text

Moments later the Bishop stepped through the doorway. When he’d been greeted and offered refreshments, Aline, having glanced towards Dr. Daly for confirmation, took the senior churchman’s hand and began:

“Your visit, though unexpected, is fortuitous. We’ve… had another of those little problems with otherworldly powers.”

“Dear madam,” said the Bishop sternly, “it grieves me to hear this -- I had thought your husband --”

“He has learned his lesson,” Dr. Daly interrupted, though humbly. “This mishap concerns others; I had just been speaking about it to my hosts when your Grace arrived on the scene, and indeed, my heart is somewhat the lighter for your presence.” The Bishop sighed, and took a seat.

“I do sometimes wonder what it is in the air of Ploverleigh that leads to such rash experimentation; although, since one such incident was the cause of my own present matrimonial attachment, it might be churlish to complain; yet it’s seldom enough that things turn out so felicitously. Well -- what has happened this time, young man?”

The “young man” shuffled his feet and cleared his throat nervously.

“It is I, your Grace,” he answered. “George Daly.”

“Good Heavens, man, what have you done to yourself?”

“I read the wrong text out loud.” He handed over the book in question.

“He didn’t mean to,” Aline hastened to add.

“All the same, Daly, you ought to have taken this one off the shelves years ago,” chided the Bishop as he examined the tattered page and snorted: “I take it some unfortunate in the vicinity has been prematurely withered as well?”

“Constance,” groaned Dr. Daly. The Bishop whistled.

“Poor child. Mind you, at least you can thank Providence it was someone young enough to survive the change -- she is otherwise unharmed, I trust? Good. Now, let me see… you appear to have lost --” here he peered at the Rector over his spectacles, “Twenty-five or, say, thirty years? Together with the additional ten that the spell extracts -- that would make your Constance sixty-eight now. That’s not so bad, you know.”

“It is when she didn’t get to live the intervening fifty years,” replied Dr. Daly with uncharacteristic sharpness. “Really, your Grace, I can’t leave her in that state --”

“Where do the extra ten years go?” Aline asked suddenly.

“Ah,” said the Bishop. “Finally, someone’s asking the right questions.” His Grace, it transpired, had made some study (theoretical, of course) of the logic of spell-casting, “for in our line of work you never know what you might have to deal with,” he said. “The first thing you must understand is that being unnatural, anything constructed by magic can never be considered a fait accompli. Take the one we’re seeking to undo: right now, it’s still held taut between two people. Lose one end or the other,” (he tapped Dr. Daly’s shoulder lightly), “or cut it in the middle, and everything will snap back into place.”

“Well, since I’d prefer not to lose either of us, how do we cut the middle?”

“First you have to find it. What was the origin of this conjuring? I mean, what motivated you to read the page out loud in the first place?”

“Constance asked me to translate a passage.”

“Why?” Dr. Daly rubbed his temple thoughtfully.

“Do you know, I’ve been too distracted to ask.” The Bishop rose from his seat.

“You and I,” he said, “had better have a talk with your wife. Or rather you had. I’ll come along, of course. The Rectory, I seem to recall, is no so far from here that I won’t be able to manage the walk; and you, Daly, ought to be safe enough from the young maidens of the village by this time of night.” Chuckling, he picked up his hat and bowed to his hosts.

 


 

On the way out, the Bishop stopped and asked after his coachman. “He’s in the servants’ hall,” Alsop said. “It proved to be a lost shoe, so we’ve made your man welcome till the farrier gets here.”

“Ah, excellent. Let him know I’ve gone to visit Dr. Daly, but that I ought to be back before we’re ready to leave.”

Back at the Rectory, they found Constance in the parlour, curled up in the big armchair where her husband usually sat, but she hastily got up to greet them both. Dr. Daly thought her eyes looked a bit red in the lamplight, though her expression was determinedly dauntless and cheerful.

“Dearest,” he said, embracing her, “his Grace thinks he might be able to help the….. situation.”

“This page, you see,” the Bishop held it out, “deals with the materialization of unspoken wishes. Now, Mrs. Daly, your husband has confided to me that ever since you found that old miniature, he’s been worrying that you might be dissatisfied with what three additional decades have made of the youth it depicts.”

“But today’s events have quite cured me of that foolishness,” Dr. Daly shuddered.

“And yet the spell is not lifted. Tell us,” asked the Bishop gently, “was it your desire that he be younger?” Constance hesitated, and turned to the Rector.

“It’s quite alright, child, I won’t be angry -- after all what could be more natural --”

“No, Georgie” cried his wife, “that’s not it. That’s not it at all.” She flung her arms about him, weeping, and between sobs choked out how she’d feared they’d never have a child; how she’d blamed her youthful inexperience; how she’d sought knowledge -- “and now,” she added, “I’m old enough to be a grandmother and we’ll never have one of our own.”

“Oh my dear…” Dr. Daly fished out his handkerchief, dried her eyes, and kissed her. And did not stop kissing her.

The Bishop politely looked the other way. Thus he did not see the outlines of the couple waver as they embraced; but he was not particularly surprised to find, when he glanced back, that his curate was once more grey and stout and comfortable, while little Constance was now brown-haired and fair-cheeked. Eyes closed, lost in each others’ arms, the two had not yet noticed the change themselves;  and, smiling to himself, he decided it would be best to leave them alone together.

Dr. and Mrs. Daly did not even hear the churchman as, taking the spell-book with him, he shut the cottage door and made his way back through the November night to the Pointdexter mansion, where his coach and re-shod horse awaited.