BEGUILE ME NOT
After a long walk that took her all the way up to the north end of the beach and back, Anna took one last look at the ocean, pushed down the boisterous waves’ beguiling whispers one last time, and turned back into the sand dunes. She had better hurry. Mr Sleighman would be here for afternoon tea any minute. It was not proper to keep one’s future husband waiting.
A hurried change out of her wrinkled sand-and-seawater covered muslin dress and into a large-bustled lavender one later, and Anna was seated in the front parlour.
She smoothed her gown, picked up a magazine, threw it back down, checked the clock. Ten minutes past four. She sighed fitfully and rose. A few turns up and down the empty parlour, and then she paused before the mirror above the mantelpiece.
Yes, that fair skin was still pale pink despite the harsh light out here. She turned her head to the side, tilted it up again, relaxed her rosebud lips into the moody, ponderous expression they looked so well in. That blush pink skin really was something to be proud of…
Suddenly, Anna realised the sounds of a visitor being shown in were coming from the hall.
A moment later and ‘Mr Sleighman!’ announced the maid.
The said man entered the room and the parlour door shut behind him. ‘Hello,’ murmured the new arrival.
‘Good afternoon,’ replied a politely but stiffly smiling Anna.
With a round-shouldered, clumsy gait, Mr Sleighman made his way towards her. She resisted the urge to climb up onto the highest table in the room, and instead kept a china-doll smile fixed on her face.
Upon reaching her, he placed on her lips a hesitant and bumbling but eager kiss. She did not kiss him back. The roughness of the small patch just above his mouth he had missed in shaving rasped harshly against her lip. She almost stepped back.
He seemed to have noticed her frowning face and rigid body. ‘Sorry…’ he murmured, moving his face past hers.
She swept over to the large bay windows and looked out.
He padded cautiously after her. ‘How’re you?’
‘I remain well. And how are you?’
‘Good…good…sorry I was late. I’m not usually late…’
She felt a stab of conscience. The heat might have given her a slight headache and a significant moodiness, but it was not fair to be mean to poor Mr Sleighman. He really was trying his best, was he not? A young lady must always be nice to people no matter what. Unless they were Russian, of course.
Anna coaxed the china-doll smile back into place. ‘Did you have a satisfactory morning?’
He seated himself in the chair she had indicated. ‘Yes. I worked on my sermon and then paid a visit to Dean Station…’
Although her face smiled and nodded, Mr Sleighman’s quiet tones soon faded from Anna’s ears as her mind wondered off. She found herself mulling on the particulars of the reverend’s features. He looked far too boyish for his thirty-five years. He was slightly built and shorter than her, even though she herself was only a little above average height for a woman. His hair was dark and close-cropped. The thought that it was also coarse and wiry presented itself to her, but she killed it. Dark and close-cropped. Anything else would just not be nice, and she was a nice girl. The skin was swarthy. Very practical in such a sunny climate. The bone structure was reasonably pleasing, although it lacked a certain refinement and the chin was rather long and weak. The eyes were light brown - when one could see them. Which was not often, for Mr Sleighman tended not to look one in the eye when he was speaking to one. Like the way he was looking over her head and out the window at this very moment.
The lips. Perhaps she was not quite so nice today. The top lip looked well enough. But the bottom one. The bottom one was too full, too engorged. It reminded her of a brown pear that had become over-ripe and was on the verge of decay. The sort of pear one sometimes innocently closes one’s hand around only to one’s finger sinking into browned, slimy mushiness. Today she was truly vile. Then there was the nose. The nose did not bear thinking about.
She moved her attention onto the large fly monotonously, lazily, droning about overhead. She eyed it intently, willing the offending insect to settle somewhere within reach so she could squash it. But the lazy, monotonous droning just went on. And on. And on.
Gritting her teeth, she moved her eyes onto the view out the window. The bright blue sea shimmered and sparkled in the sunlight beating down on it. It seemed so happy, so playful. As if the waters were laughing with joy. What did the ocean know that she did not? What happy secret was it concealing from her?
Presently, the tea things were brought in and placed on the low table in the centre of the room. Fine china platters piled with cheese and cucumber club sandwiches, scones, teacakes and lady’s finger biscuits accompanied the finest tea set of bone china.
A pity her appetite had quite left her by now.
She reached over to pour the tea. Mr Sleighman reached over too. Her reluctance to give the task up was matched by his determination to take it over. Each with a hand on the teapot, they poured the tea out. Almost as much tea found itself on the tray as in the cups while the teapot was wrestled over. He beat her to the sugar. She gave a little sigh as two lumps instead of one were deposited in her cup. Six months and still he did not remember. While he was busy with the sugar, she took the chance to seize the milk jug.
But her victory was not complete. Mr Sleighman still insisted on putting his hand over hers as the milk was poured. A grimace escaped her, but it was too late. There was already far too much milk in her tea.
Holding her cup in bitterly tight fingers, she took a pinched little sip. And set the cup back down. Did he think her so feeble and helpless she could not even make tea without his help, or did he merely believe he could do everything better than she? Well he couldn’t. The tea was foul.
She took a deep breath. What had got into her today? Mr Sleighman was only being gentlemanly. He merely wished to help.
Mr Sleighman appeared to have sensed Anna’s displeasure. He frowned worriedly across at her. ‘I really think people are often too critical of their spouse. Always wanting them to change, always wanting them to be perfect.’
She regarded him sourly over the tea things. Vagueness and inaccuracy annoyed her. Why did he not say ‘you’ instead of ‘people’ and ‘me’ in place of ‘their spouse’? For that was what he truly meant. Because he was criticising her.
‘I would not wish anyone to change themselves just for me,’ she replied coldly. ‘The betterment of one’s character is a moral duty, not a favour to others.’
Mr Sleighman cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes at her in the way he always did when he was about to flatter her. ‘You look beautiful today- you look beautiful every day.’
She snapped a lady’s finger biscuit in half. He only ever said things like that when he suspected she was cross with him.
‘Thank you.’ Her tone was flat and emotionless.
Being complimented by him meant little to her. She really was far out of his league. He may well be a bishop one day, but at present he was merely a lowly vicar. Moreover, he was completely desperate to marry. Even more desperate than she.
A stiff silence reigned for a brief while before Mr Sleighman spoke again.
‘If you say five hundred things to a woman, she will only remember the one bad thing you said and forget the other four hundred and ninety-nine good things.’
Anna carefully placed the piece of biscuit into her mouth and slowly, deliberately, sunk her teeth into it. The man could be such a chicken. Why did he not ask what he really wanted to?
She over-carefully wiped away the crumbs at the corners of her lips. ‘Do you mean to tell me, Mr Sleighman, that you believe women are unforgiving and lacking in generosity?’
He wilted like a weed in the midday sun beneath the grim glare she had fixed on him. ‘No, not at all! When God created woman, I believe he gave them all the best qualities! A woman has emotions and sensitivities which a man can’t feel. She is able to do so many things at once- mind the children, instruct the maids, organise the cooking in kitchen, while a man just sits and reads the paper.’
Anna looked at him with a face that was as unreadable as a blank page. ‘If, as you claim, God created the man and this laziness and coldness were a part of his being before the fall, I really do hope you can provide me with a postal address at which I might reach God, for I heartily desire to write to him and complain.’
Mr Sleighman almost spilt his tea. ‘Anna, you - you don’t understand my meaning correctly! While a woman has some nice emotional qualities, she lacks the rational mind God has endowed the man with. Difficult theological questions are beyond her mental faculties.’
Anna did not reply. She instead carefully placed the second half of the lady’s finger biscuit into her mouth and bit down hard.
Mr Sleighman was of course right, she told herself. The weaker sex are indeed scatty-minded, over-emotional creatures. Strange then that she was nearly always so calm, so cold, so emotionally reserved. The only time she had ever cried in front of someone was on the hot summer’s day in the park beneath the spreading elm tree. That day when Sasha Ivanovsky came to her…That silver-maned Russian with his heavy-lidded dark eyes and sad, tender smile - what was wrong with her!
She started to her feet and almost knocked the tea tray off the table. Giving the startled Mr Sleighman a reassuring little smile that she hoped did not look as forced as it felt, she walked over to the window.