The Reverend Marcus Dunn was a serious young man, short of stature and high in self regard. The younger son of a family of modest means, it had long been supposed that he should enter either the church or the navy - for the cost of his brother’s education in Law could not be matched for a second son. The church had the twin advantages of being less demanding of both strength and courage, for if there was one commodity which the younger Mr Dunn lacked more woefully than pounds, shillings and pence, it was resilience.
He had met the McKinnie family the previous summer, and Mrs McKinnie in particular took to the young fellow, charmed by his flattery. His tenancy there had been brief and transitory, as in common with many young curates, he had been sent by the diocese to fill in such gaps as arose through ill health among his fellow clergymen and was soon on his way to another appointment, but he had befriended Serena’s mother to such a degree that she had kept in correspondence with him.
Upon William’s death, he had proved a great solace to the widow, whose own powers of imagination were no greater than his own, and his stolid presence and well worn platitudes brought her a measure of comfort during that bewildering time. In recent weeks, he had at last been gifted a living of his own in one of the smaller parishes neighbouring Holby, and Mrs McKinnie saw a way to repay his kindness.
“Mr Dunn, I am so pleased that the Bishop has at last recognised your worth and seen fit to reward you with your own parish,” she exclaimed when she called upon him in the little cottage by the church. The sign upon the door boldly declared it to be the Parsonage, though a humbler parsonage it would be hard to find.
Nevertheless, Mr Dunn was exceedingly pleased with his new parish, his new parsonage, and most of all with himself. It was pleasing, too, that the Widow McKinnie, to whose assistance he had so gallantly and eloquently applied himself in her hour of need, should recall his services to her so glowingly. He had felt not a little put out by her daughter’s cool reception of his sympathetic attentions, and positively offended (on the church’s behalf, of course - not his own) at what he felt sure was her mockery of him - though it could not have been at his own person, for he knew himself to be a fine figure of a man. It was with that certainty that he stood a little taller than his five foot two and, with the air of a king bestowing a great favour upon an undeserving subject, accepted the widow’s offer to introduce him to a family of her acquaintance, who rejoiced in - she was not certain of the precise number - of daughters of a marriageable age.
The family were seated together in the drawing room taking their rest after a hearty luncheon (for since the Colonel’s retirement, there had been no other kind) when there came the most thunderous knocking at the door. Mrs Wolfe looked at her husband in alarm.
“My dear, fetch your bag and your cloak, for there is surely some emergency at which your presence is sorely required! Digby, pray make haste to answer the door!”
But when the door was opened, it was not to a supplicant in distress, nor yet a messenger come to beg the Colonel’s attendance at the scene of an accident, but a short, stocky young man in raised shoes with a startled expression upon his pale face. The latter might be explained by the sight of the Colonel hastily bearing down upon him in his billowing cloak, but to the doctor’s mind there could be no excuse for the former.
“What the devil is it, man? Where’s the victim? Carriage overturned, is it? Man been gored by a bull? Or is your lady wife in the throes of bringing forth an heir, eh? Come come, speak up, man - speed is everything when lives are at stake!”
Mopping his face with a large white kerchief, the young man huffed and blustered for a moment, but soon recollected himself.
“No lives at stake, sir, I assure you. Only, perhaps, the happiness of more than one life,” he said with what Colonel Wolfe supposed might be an approximation of a smile.
“No lives at… No accident? No illness? No injury? Then what the devil do you mean by that noise, sir? I’ve heard canons make less racket, what!”
Far from chastened by this gruff tirade, the young man stood a little - a very little - taller in his elevated shoes and remonstrated smoothly with his host.
“Let us have no more talk of the devil, sir, I pray. Are there not, after all, ladies in the house?”
Seeing that his employer was gearing up to respond to this affront with even greater energy than his previous demand, Arthur Digby cleared his throat softly but with great feeling, and the Colonel took his meaning at once (for Digby had been schooled by his mistress in the management of her husband’s temper - and so, too - to his chagrin - had the Colonel).
“Well, well, I dare say the same devil tempts the ladies as tempts the gents, sir, and better they know his name when he does, I should say, but no matter. Ah - but you are a man of the cloth, I see. Should have thought you could bear hearing it better than most, what? Tut tut!”
Sensing Digby readying for another paroxysm of coughing, Colonel Wolfe relented.
“Very well, very well. Will you come in, sir? If it is not my medical expertise you come for, then I imagine you have another reason, what? What’s that?” He took the proffered card and glanced at it.
Reverend Marcus Dunn, Parish of St Henrik the Wise at Lesser Chiltern, he read with mounting confusion.
“Reverend Dunn - good lord, they’re calling choir boys Reverend now, are they? Well, what’s to do, sir? What brings you to my door as though the hounds of hel-- the Wyvershire Hunt were at your heels, hmm? I declare, you gave my wife and my daughters quite the start.”
Undaunted - for Marcus Dunn was a man quite unattuned to criticism - the young reverend seized his moment.
“Indeed, sir, your wife and daughters - the very purpose of my call! I bear a letter of introduction from my former parishioner, Mrs William McKinnie, who tells me that you are endowed with a veritable embarrassment of daughters. I should be delighted to meet them and consider whether my affections and duty might be rightfully bestowed upon one or another of them.” He beamed, aware of the munificence of his offer.
Digby’s eyes had widened in alarm, and he was prepared to throw himself to the floor in facsimile of an apoplexy should the need arise, but the Colonel, to his credit, took no offence, but rather, saw an opportunity for some good sport - and he knew just the opponent for this puffed up parson.
Bernie and her sisters looked up with curiosity as their father ushered their guest into the drawing room, a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, which only Bernie and her mother noticed.
“Zelda, my dear, girls - allow me to present Reverend Dunn. He is the new parson at Lesser Chiltern - a most prestigious appointment, as you will agree.”
Jasmine made a peculiar sound, as though she had been about to speak but had received a sharp kick in the ankle from her eldest sister. The parish of Lesser Chiltern, barely more than a few cottages and a flock of sheep, had long been known as the last resort for the Bishop to rid himself of the dullest of his clergy, but it seemed that Mr Dunn was blissfully ignorant of the fact. Mrs Wolfe gave a small sigh, for she recognised her husband’s playful mood at once, and she prepared herself to play referee and attempt to curb his worst excesses.
Bernie, however, had inherited her father’s capricious spirit, and rose at once to the game.
“Lesser Chiltern? My! Then you must be a scholar indeed, Mr Dunn! For St Henrik’s has always been a great seat of learning - it has traditionally been quite the home of the most philosophical priests. Might I ask whence you have your divinity degree? No - wait - do not tell me - it must be Oxford, I am sure, or perhaps Christ Church?”
She did not miss the look of discomfiture on his face, but neither did Mrs Wolfe, and she intervened swiftly to prevent his instant humiliation.
“My dear, let us complete our introductions before we speak further - do not forget that Mr Dunn is a guest and a newcomer to the district, and will not know us yet - or our reputation,” she added darkly, as a warning.
“Of course, Mama,” Bernie replied with apparent timidity, belied by the mischievous look in eyes she had inherited from her father.
The Colonel cleared his throat. “Mr Dunn, may I introduce my wife, Mrs Griselda Wolfe?” She inclined her head in acknowledgement and murmured a greeting.
“And my girls - ah, I see the younger ones are returned to the nursery for their afternoon sleep, but here are Jasmine, Donatella, Chloë -” each sister greeted Mr Dunn politely and with varying degrees of grace - “and my eldest, Bernie.”
“Berenice,” interpolated Mrs Wolfe firmly.
“Ah, Berenice, the bringer of victory,” oiled Mr Dunn, delighted to have an opportunity to display the scholarship of which that young lady had spoken. “I quite agree, Mrs Wolfe - a barbarian name though it might be, far better to hear it in full than to abbreviate it so cruelly to a masculine denominator! Berenice it shall be,” he said unctuously, turning to her.
“Oh, Mr Dunn, really, there is no need,” Bernie said sweetly. “Miss Wolfe will do perfectly well, thank you.”
Mrs Wolfe did not chide her on this reply, being in perfect agreement. She could already see where Henry’s mood had sprung from.
But Mr Dunn was as tone deaf as he was confident.
“Oh, of course, of course - Miss Wolfe it shall be - for now.” His face contorted into what Bernie supposed was intended to be a smile, and suspected that he had practiced this expression in a mirror - though perhaps one which gave an imperfect reflection.
“Are you quite well, sir?” she enquired gravely. “Papa, do you think perhaps a touch of palsy?”
The Colonel peered at the young man’s face, now fallen into something more akin to a pout than a smile, and shook his head reassuringly.
“Trick of the light, my dear, trick of the light.”
Mrs Wolfe’s tone was conciliatory as she shot a dark glance at her husband and daughter.
“Mr Dunn, tell us, what brings you to our corner of the country? I believe Mrs McKinnie told us she met you first in Lyme Regis?”
The young clergyman had raised a hand to his face as though to feel for an indication of the malady Miss Wolfe had suggested, but at this prompting, he leaned forward eagerly.
“Ah, Lyme! Such a pleasant town, and such pleasant people. I spent the most pleasant time there,” he said warmly.
Bernie was all polite interest as she commented, “How very pleasant for you, Mr Dunn.”
“I spent the summer there at the request of the Rural Dean,” he said importantly, “as the vicar of Ware was indisposed for some weeks.”
“The vicar of where?” Bernie enquired innocently.
“Yes, the very same. Do you know him?”
“Know whom?” She affected puzzlement.
“Why, the vicar of Ware, of course.”
“The Reverend Wye? And of where is he the vicar?”
Mr Dunn was starting to feel a little dizzy.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Wolfe - who is the Reverend Wye?”
“Why, Wye, the vicar of Ware, what?” the Colonel added helpfully.
“What?” Mr Dunn was starting to perspire, and he looked uncertainly from father to daughter, both of whom were frowning in consternation at him.
“Oh, Watt, is it? I thought you said Wye. Goodness, Lyme sounds quite the hive of ecclesiastical enquiry, eh?”
Mrs Wolfe, deciding that the poor fellow had had more than enough, took pity upon him, and encouraged him to tell them more of his acquaintance with Serena and her mother. Bernie, having had her fun, listened intently and read between the lines as he let the odd detail slip - a sharp word here, a hurt feeling there - and deduced that Mr Dunn had attempted and failed to court her friend. She could profess no great surprise at this, as surely any gentleman would consider her Serena a lady worth courting. She resolved to quiz her at their next meeting.
She was brought from her musings with a shock when it became apparent that Mr Dunn was paying her very particular attention.
“... and so I said to myself, it is incumbent upon me to provide a strong arm upon which you might lean, for every wallflower needs a firm support in order to display their true beauty,” he said with an air of great condescension.
Bristling with outrage, Bernie opened her mouth to remonstrate, but her mother caught her eye, shook her head minutely, and laid a restraining hand upon her arm.
“You are very kind, Mr Dunn, but if my daughter will permit me to speak for her, your offer is quite unnecessary. She has, of course, an invitation of her own to the ball, as do all my older daughters, and I fear it would seem churlish to the lady of the manor to imply that she should have invited them as mere decoration for a gentleman’s arm. No, I thank you for your generosity, sir, but you will know, I am sure, that your invitation to the ball is for you alone: her ladyship is most particular regarding her guests.”
Although Mrs Wolfe’s words had been nothing but courteous, Mr Dunn seemed strangely diminished, even from his already diminutive status, and it was a far less pompous man who left Keller Hall shortly after than had arrived an hour before. The Colonel thanked him for his visit, and in rising, made it clear that his audience with the ladies was at an end. He showed him to the door, and as it closed firmly behind him, the ladies heard a gruffly muttered “Impudent whelp!” before their father returned to the drawing room with a look of irritation, which swiftly transformed to laughter when he caught Bernie’s eye.
“My dear, I do declare you worse than your old father! Well played, ma’am, well played, what!”
“Watt? Who is he?” Berenice teased, to the great mirth of even Mrs Wolfe.