Matilda had fallen in love. She had had no intention of doing so, but there it was. She first saw the stranger during the reading of the first lesson by Sir Benjamin Fox, whose pompous voice, pronouncing biblical names with precise correctness, always set her thoughts wandering. She glanced along the pew at her two brothers, home for the half-term holidays, her two sisters and her mother and then allowed her gaze to wander to the manor pew at the side of the chancel, where Lady Fox sat with various members of her family. They all looked alike, she thought, with their fine beaky noses and thin mouths. She turned her head very slightly and looked across the main aisle and saw the stranger sitting by dr Bramley. He appeared a very large man with broad shoulders, fair hair which she suspected had a sprinkling of grey, and a splendid profile. A pity that he didn't look round
Sir Benjamin rolled the last unpronounceable name off his tongue and she fixed her eyes on him once moregreen eyes, shadowed by sweeping black lashes, in a lovely face crowned by a wealth of copper hair.
Her father announced the hymn and the congregation rose to sing it cheerfully, galloping ahead of the organ when it had the chance, and then sitting once more for the second lesson. The headmaster of the village infants' school read it in a clear unhurried voice and this time she listened, until something compelled her to glance across the aisle again. The stranger was looking at her and he was every bit as handsome as she had expected him to be; unsmilingit wouldn't have done in church if he had smiled anywayand somehow compelling. She went faintly pink and looked away from him quickly, feeling all at once as though she were in some kind of blissful heaven, knowing with certainty that she had fallen in love. It was a delightful sensation, and she pondered over it during her father's sermon, taking care not to look across the aisle again; the village was a small one and rather isolated, so that everyone was inclined to mind everyone else's business and turn a molehill into a mountain, preferably a romantic one, and that if a girl so much as glanced twice at the same man. She was aware that the village was disappointed that she hadn't married. She had had three proposals and although she had hesitated over them she had declined them kindly and watched her erstwhile suitors marry without regret. Twenty-six was getting on a bit, as Mrs Chump at the general stores so often reminded her, but she had waited. Now here he was, the man she wished to marry, dropped as it were from heaven into her path. He could of course be married, engaged or a confirmed bachelorshe would have to find out, but, as she was great friends with dr Bramley, it would be easy to ask him.
The last hymn sung, the congregation filed out, stopping to chat as it went, and since the rector's family were well liked their progress was slow; they arrived at the church door just in time for her to see the stranger, still with the doctor, talking to Sir Benjamin, and even as Matilda looked Lady Fox tapped him on an arm and pushed Roseanne, her eldest daughter, forwards. Matilda watched him being swept away down the tree-lined avenue which led to the manor-house from the churchyard.
She watched him go, already planning to ask who he was when she got to the manor-house in the morning. Esme, her younger sister, fourteen and as sharp as a needle, tugged her arm. 'Hey, Tillycome on,' and then, 'I bet you've fallen for himI have. A bit old for me I suppose, but he'd do nicely for you.'
'Rubbish, love. What nonsense you do talk.'
'You went all pink when he looked at youI expect it was your hairit kind of glows, you know, even under a hat!'
They started to walk along the narrow path which led to the rectory garden and Esme said, 'Hilary's seen him too, but of course she's engaged
'Let's forget him,' said Matilda cheerfully. 'We'll probably never see him again.' She uttered the remark with the heartfelt wish that it might not be true. However could she marry anyone else now that she had seen him and knew that she had fallen in love at last? She would have to stay an old maid, if there was such a thing these days, helping with the parish and wearing dreary hats and worthy undateable clothes.
She sighed heavily at the very idea and Esme said, 'I bet you'll meet againI dare say he's your fate.'
'Oh, what romantic nonsense,' said Matilda again and hurried to the kitchen to help her mother dish up the Sunday lunch.
Her mother had her head in the Aga oven, and was prodding the joint with a fork. 'Put the apples on for the sauce, will you, dear? I wonder who that giant was in church? Did you see him?' She didn't wait for an answer. 'He seemed to know the Foxes. I must keep my ears open in the village tomorrow.'
She emerged and closed the oven door, an older version of her lovely daughter although the hair was streaked with grey. 'That was a frightful hat Lady Fox was wearingI wonder where she buys them?'
'Probably makes them herself.' Matilda was peeling apples and biting at the cores.
She was up early the next morning and while her mother cooked the breakfast she sorted the wash, got the machine going, made sure that Esme was up and had everything she needed before catching the bus to Sherborne where she was having extra coaching for her O Levels, and then roused the two boys. Hilary, her other sister, was going to stay with her fiance and was already up, doing the last of her packing. They all sat down to breakfast presently, a meal taken with the minimum of conversation since everyone there had his or her plans for the day. Esme was the first to go, then the boys on a fishing expedition, the rector to visit a parishioner in hospital at Salisbury and then Hilary, leaving Mrs ffinch and Matilda to clear the table and leave the dishes for Mrs Coffin, who came three times a week to help in the house.
'Don't be late,' warned Mrs ffinch as Matilda got Nelson the cat's breakfast. She sighed as she said itit irked her that her beautiful daughter should have to go to work each day. Not that it wasn't a suitable job for the daughter of the rectorsocial secretary to Lady Foxeven though it was badly paid and covered a multitude of odd jobs which no social secretary cognisant with her normal duties would have countenanced. But, as Matilda pointed out, it paid for her clothes, and the fees for Esme's coaching, and helped towards the upkeep of the rectory, a large, rambling house with out-of-date plumbing always going wrong, draughty rooms and a boiler which swallowed coke by the ton. All the same, it was comfortable in a shabby way and the family was a happy one.
It was only a few minutes' walk to the manor-house; Matilda nipped smartly through the light rain and went in through the side-doornot that she wasn't expected to use the front entrance, but the polished floor of the wide hall showed every mark from damp feet and she was aware that Mrs Fletcher from the village, who obliged each day at the manor-house, would have just finished polishing it. She went along the passage to the kitchen, wished Cook and the kitchen maid good morning and made her way through the baize door into the front of the house. Lady Fox was coming down the staircase, holding a handful of letters.
'Good morning, Matilda.' She glanced at the long case clock in the hall, but since Matilda was exactly on time and she had no cause to find fault she went on, 'Such a number of letters this morning; really, my days are so busy.'
Lady Fox gave Matilda a faintly disapproving look; there was nothing wrong with her appearancethe striped shirt, navy pleated skirt and sensible shoes were, to say the least, not worthy of a second glancebut dowdy clothes couldn't dim the brightness of Matilda's hair or the sparkling green of her eyes, and those allied to a delightful nose, a curving mouth and a complexion as smooth and fresh as a child's. Lady Fox frowned slightly, remembering Roseanne's regrettable spots and unfortunate nose. 'I have guests for lunch,' she observed. 'I had better see Cook at once while you deal with these.' She handed the letters to Matilda and hurried away kitchenwards.
Matilda, sorting out butcher's and grocer's bills from invitations to dinner and requests from charities, reflected that Lady Fox wasn't in a very good mood and, since there was no sign of that lady, she put the letters on the desk in Lady Fox's sitting-room and went along to the chilly little room where she arranged the flowers. The gardener had brought in early tulips and daffodils and some rather overpowering greenery and she was trying to decide what to do with them when Lady Fox's voice, high and penetrating, reached her. 'You might do a small centre-piece for the table, Matildago into the garden and see what you can find.'
Matilda, well brought up as she had been, allowed herself the comfort of a childish grimace; if it hadn't been for the useful money needed at the rectory, she would have liked to flounce out of the manor-house and never go back.
The garden was soothing, if chilly, and she took a basket with her and picked primulas and grape-hyacinths, late Christmas roses, lily of the valley and a handful of brightly coloured polyanthus and bore the lot back through the garden door and into the hall, intent on fetching a particular bowl which would look just right on the dining-room table.
Lady Fox was in the hall, talking animatedly to the stranger. She paused to look at Matilda and her companion looked too; Matilda, her fiery head a little untidy, her pretty face glowing from the fresh air, clutching her basket of flowers, was worth looking at.
'There you are,' observed Lady Fox with distinctly false bonhomie, 'but shouldn't you be arrangin...