The Pecking Order

Entry by: cathpurn

3rd June 2016

Mrs Pumfrey was a good woman. Whenever one of the villagers fell sick, you could be sure the Squire’s wife would visit and dispense broth or other sustenance. The sight of her carriage outside your door was a sure sign of sickness and often foreshadowed a death in the family. It became so common that a saying grew up in the village;
"The carriage has bin to Jo Gargery's house"
or "Mrs Pumfrey’ll be here soon", meaning a death was imminent.
She never heard the rumour and spent many hours visiting the community while wondering, sometimes, about the meagre gratitude expressed by the lower orders.

Country folk have a good idea of their proper status in life. The Gentry up at the Manor seemed superior to all. The parson's wife had precedence over the farmer's wife and she, in turn, would not consider walking behind the butcher's wife on the way to church on Sunday.

The old order was set awry when a new Vicar came to the village and took up the living at St John's. The village was agog. He was a high Churchman, with a tendency to use "Smells and Bells" in the new-fangled Popeish fashion, but people felt they could not complain since he was the candidate of the Bishop of Ely. The new wife supervised the unloading of the large wagon standing outside the Vicarage. The ladies of the High street could observe every item unloaded without seeming to quiz, as many windows looked out on the road.
"Good Heavens!" said Mrs Perkins, the butcher's wife. "I do believe that is a grand piano! What's wrong with a cottage piano? I'd like to know!"
"And what's that great big table for?" asked Mrs Potts, the baker's wife.

The lady in question seemed unaware of the interest and ordered the men about in a voice which reached the listeners clearly. Her dress was elegantly simple, her figure slim and tall. She wore her auburn hair high on her brow and a perfectly made chignon at the back of her head. There was so much to envy about her immaculate appearance that it took no more than ten minutes for the ladies of Dymchurch to decide they disliked her intensely.
"Gives herself some Grand Airs for a parson's wife." Said Mrs Gethin and the ladies from across the High Road agreed silently. But when the new parson called, they simpered and welcomed him with cups of tea and cake as if they cherished his presence. No one mentioned his wife directly, still their curiosity was acute and Mrs Perkins approached the matter with what she believed was great subtlety;
"Mayhap Mrs Peters has a liking for needle work, Vicar?
"Oh no!" he replied," I'm afraid she has no time to sew, you see she is a novelist." He seemed to believe that was a sufficient explanation, but it mystified the village.
"Readin' and writin' is not hard." said Giles Foster the farrier, "Why, my Nancy can do that and feed the bairns and the chickens as well."
But as the weeks went by, Elizabeth Peters became a force to be reckoned with.
For example, she took the front pew at church as of right. But Mrs Pumfrey had always prayed from her front pew on the other side of the aisle without competition, but now she had to move briskly to ensure she went first to the altar rails for the Communion. Very stressful.
She demanded China Tea from the grocer and white bread from the baker, which combined luxury and mystery. Worst of all, she brought soups of her own making to the homes of the deserving poor.
Mrs Pumfrey could stand it no more.
"My Dear," she mentioned to her husband, "isn't it time we had the parson and his wife to dinner?"
Squire Pumfrey took no interest in the composition of his dinner parties and muttered something in reply. Soon the invitations were posted and the date settled. Of course, the choice of guests and the menu was a work of exquisite labour. The Coulsons of Pembury Park and the Dowager Lady Freeborn had been invited and accepted. Lobsters and oysters from the harbour of Great Yarmouth arrived in baskets of straw, well iced, to preserve their costly contents. The wines, from the best vintages, were brought up from the cellar.
On the day of the dinner party, Mrs Pumfrey made sure the drive had been swept and the gravel walk was brushed as neat as a Japanese garden.
That evening, she wore a gown of grey satin, bought that very week from the haberdasher in Norwich. She put on her pearl choker and casually fanned herself with a fan made of peacock's feathers by a French milliner. Her hair had been put up by her maid in what she was told was "ze 'ighest Fashion Madame."
The first to arrive were the Coulsons. Their carriage, drawn by two matched greys, caught the last of the sunlight on its gleaming coachwork and the postillions added colour to the entourage as they jumped down to open the door for the couple. The Coulsons were the oldest family in East Anglia. Many generations had given service to the Crown and everybody knew that they owned more land than the Duke of Norwich. Then old Lady Freeborn made her entrance with the aid of two footmen who carried her from her brougham into the Hall of the Manor House. Other worthies, invited to make up numbers made their appearances in good time. Still, there was no sign of Parson Peters and his wife.
Through the open French windows of the Drawing Room on this summer evening, the party heard the sound of feet approaching across the terrace. The parson and his wife appeared suddenly at the window and walked in unannounced, as if to a picnic or a family occasion.

He wore a simple coat of black with a pure white stock of finest silk and carried his wideawake hat in his hand. His long fair hair was brushed back from his face. He surveyed the company calmly as if accustomed to the highest social occasions and he bowed to Mrs Pumfrey with an elegant short bow.
"Such a lovely evening! We felt it would be a shame to miss the last rays of sunshine, so we walked across."
There was a short silence as the pair arrived, not so much because of their casual entrance but to allow the party to examine the assemblage of the new arrivals. Mrs Peters walked with the confidence of a young princess. She dazzled the men with her enchanting smile and her blue eyes radiated gaiety which filled the room. Her auburn hair fell about her shoulders in glistening folds and quite ignored the fashion that dictated hers should be "up" for such occasions. Her pale skin seemed as fragile as Sevre china with just a touch of pink on her cheeks to hint at a lively spirit.
The ladies noted the dress, fashioned from yellow silk with a style showing the grace of her slim waist and her beautiful shoulders. The men were charmed to catch her attention when she smiled at them; each man felt her eyes were on him alone.

Mrs Pumfrey rose to introduce "The Parson and his wife" and the couple moved round the room with each introduction. The ladies observed more unpleasant details of Mrs Peter's attire; her magnificent pearl necklace; the rings she wore -plain emerald and diamond stones set in platinum. The men stood like simpletons bewitched with the gaiety of her eyes and the charm of her presence.

The party moved on to the dining room and conversation ranged from local matters to the state of the Queen's health. Mrs Peters felt that not enough care was taken with Her Majesty's welfare.
"How thoughtful of you!" said Mrs Pumfrey with a kindly smile, "have you intelligence on the subject?" Her query was noted by Mrs Coulson as an elegant stroke at a social adversary.
"It may be so," chimed in the new parson, “My brother in law Sir Peter Chimes has attended at Osborne on several recent occasions." Mrs Peters said nothing but turned and engaged the guest to her left as if she missed the remark.
Mrs Pumfrey sat in a thunderous silence for a short time and chided the butler over some perceived fault that no one else had noted.
At the same time, Squire Pumfrey leant across the table towards the young wife and invited her to join him when the hunting season started in November.
Her eyes opened with delight. "Nothing would be more exciting," she said, "but at present all we have is old Bones our trap pony who is adorable but no hunter."
"But that's no problem," said the Squire. "I can lend you Bess. She can lepp the biggest brook in the county!"
Mrs Pumfrey broke in; "Shall we ladies adjourn and leave the hunting chatter to the gentlemen?" She looked hard at the Squire and he shrugged in mute submission.
Upstairs, the old Lady Freeborn sat in state upon a gilt chair raised a little to ease her poor aching bones.
"I see you are a lively gel," she said as she caught the sleeve of the young wife, "but watch out, there are more snares in the countryside than just to catch rabbits!"
Elizabeth Peters winked at the old Dowager and pressed her hand.
"You and I think alike, Lady Freeborn, but isn't it fun?"
For once the old lady felt again the thrill of a young girl among the company of her elders, shocking the staid opinions of society; it was fun, as she watched their envy and exciting to turn men's heads.
"Yes, my dear," said the Dowager, “the pecking order needs a jolt from time to time and you and I know it!"
Months after, the Pumfreys and the Coulsons accepted the fact that the Dowager Lady Freeborn was a regular visitor to the Vicarage and they were privileged if they were asked to tea on the same occasion.