Beginning shortly after the death of Margaret Medley at the age of eighty-four in 1905, some who happened to be out on the Cathedral green along the banks of the Saint John River in the late evening have reported seeing a figure dressed in white as in a wedding dress, sometimes carrying a plate of food, cross the green and enter the west door of the Cathedral. Some also reported seeing the same figure inside the Cathedral, in the pulpit or at the organ. These stories continue to the present day. The following is an imaginative recreation of the thoughts of the ghostly Margaret Medley, second wife and widow for more than ten years of the first Bishop of Fredericton, John Medley, who had been responsible for the building of Christ’s Church Cathedral.
He’s walled within his study now as if entombed, he’s cold himself, carved in ivory upon the stone, hands folded and in full imposing splendour, like some great medieval knight in Westminster, but he’s here instead of London, inside the church he built to all His glory (and to his glory as well). Walled inside and studying the sermon that I have written for him, amanuensis to his dwindling sight and mind.
I leave the plate upon the tomb and climb into the pulpit. They say they see me drift across the Green all dressed in wedding white, like some Wilkie Collins madwoman. If that were so, the smuts that come from pavement cinders, grit, and river damps would long have spotted it black, along with my lungs. Not so–I dress in black, from skirt to bonnet, as suits my widowed state and ecclesiastic stature. I do not glide above the ground, but like Shakespeare’s dun-breasted mistress, I too tread on the ground. Besides, a sermon declaimed in lacy frills by some floating angel is less than vanity, a mere silly song. Instead, my words ring out among the rafters and penetrate into his tomb. This is now what I was born to do, although being built “woman” it could not be, and now none of his male body or clerical privilege can prevent it.
I had an almost husband once, once long ago. He, too, would have taken orders from the Lord, from Canon or in cannon’s mouth (it’s much the same), but died in youth. Before he’d died at twenty-three, we’d staged our little plays among the love of family and friends. We’d linked our hands, climbed over walls and hedges, and skated, gliding like twin kites, laughing and singing, on the frozen River Exe. We’d made our vows to share our lot in life, and then the passion of his blood became too much and burst its walls. Later, when Florence called for likely hands, mine were already bloodied for some years with nursing’s horrors, my eyes were opened wide by watchful waiting. And at the end, which came too often in Scutari’s white-washed walls, too often too I was both priest and absent parent. Then I wore white, but spattered with the blood and bile, vile realities of the earthly management of man.
The Bishop came to woo when I was old, and he was older. John had a mission, to bring the word of the Lord to what I had thought and hoped would be the untamed wilds of the New World along the Saint John River. Instead, a found another little Britain here, of fusty men and fussy women, and no clear outlet for my strengths. A Bishop’s wife can no more skate on frozen rivers, though this wide river’s often frozen, just like the city’s heart. A Bishop’s wife holds tea parties and musical evenings, though never singing loudly, unrestrained.
I had no children of my own to care for, save those young men and women whom war, poverty, and neglect had killed before their time in youth or fast made old. He brought me to the shores of this wide river, the Rhine of North America they call it, but not along the Rhine do children live at mills where mists in river hollows attack their lungs and fogs of ignorance their souls. He built a school there for me, in Salamanca—not the centre of mediaeval learning, but a mill town south of the city where unlearning was the watchword. And so while men brought rule, brought industry, we women taught the children to remain meek and mild and to embrace their rule.
And so for nearly twenty years he taught his flock, and I schooled and was schooled in resignation. Then, at the end, for ten long years, his powers almost gone, I schooled for him. I wrote, he preached what I had written, though what he voiced, my words, were not always my own musings. His hands, made weak and trembling, were guided by my own. They sent another Bishop then, but this new world Barchester, it had a Bishop still, and Mrs. Grantham-like, I ruled and I embraced my rule.
I leave by the same door. The moon is rising in the sky like my young hopes once had, and in its light, upon the glassy river, I see a loving couple. He kneels to fasten the skates upon her feet. Then laughing, he raises her to stand and slip upon the ice, his hands about her waist, and hers about his neck. The living blood throbs through their hands, and mine are white and glossy like the frozen river.