An incident borne out of an innocent remark can inflame old resentments among a confined people. ‘Folk will have their ways’, goes the old saying. Such was the occasion of the spread of the accusation in the little parish of Saint Paul’s in our little Mallee town of Sandleton a long while ago and it became for a time the mainstay of undertone gossip did the eroticism of Hildegarde Hempel.
I have to say that the suspicion of Hildegarde Hempel’s eroticism did not become talked about until after her passing … indeed, it was a slip of the tongue of Pastor Noske at Hilda’s funeral that started the chatter … the slip came at the mention of a collection of Spanish veils, mantillas and combs, that Hilda had proudly collected over the years and would put out on display at times of community shows or church fundraising events.
Having survived her husband by more than a decade, Hildegarde Hempel devoted her time to church events and fundraising. Being childless, she was capable of devoting many hours of volunteering to that end … and her tireless activities were held in high esteem by the Pastor of that church … even if she did have a certain wearing effect upon those more taken up with family life and farm than she herself .. some even found her requests upon their valued spare time a little tiresome and wished she had found another husband to occupy herself with … But it was also with a certain sadness and shock that her death by heart attack was announced one day around the gossip pools of the small town.
It was in the eulogy that Pastor Noske was waxing lyrical about Hilda’s achievements and works for the church community that the mention of her being proud of her collection of Spanish veils and the combs that went with the veils that the slip of the tongue was made …
“Hilda can also be remembered by us all with her generosity at fund raising, where she would proudly put on display her collection of seven Spanish veils and combs … Hilda was very proud of her veils … and it has to be said the she had a taste for the erotic … pardon … the exotic … ” and the Pastor went on to further deliver his panegyric … but it was too late … the voicing of the word “erotic” just after the mention of the seven veils conjured up in more than one mind of those whose bible was closely studied in prayer and Bible classes as a testament of blind faith, the story of John the Baptist, King Herod and Salome’s dance of the seven veils … a most lustful evocation mistakenly, but believed to derive from their most holy book … and no matter the trying, the image of Hildegarde Hempel doing the dance of the seven veils could not be removed from the thoughts of many of the congregation.
So the idle chatter began among the hatted and gloved men and ladies of the congregation outside St. Pauls church on that Sunday morning .. their heads all leaning in to hear while the ladies taffeta skirts and soft silken scarves floated on the rising air of the spring day, their corsages of new blooms dancing with each excited opinion …
“A slip of the tongue is no fault of the mind” … Silvie Tempke judiciously remarked .. ”none the less, you have to be wondering just where pastor’s mind was wandering to.” Other members of that little gathering pinched their lips and nodded their heads in cautious agreement.
And it wasn’t long before the memory of certain moments concerning Hilda were recalled with a leaning toward the possibility of salacious intent. And one has to keep in mind that those veils of Hilda’s were not just any old veils, but rather exquisite pieces of the finest silken Spanish lace … seven mantillas of the finest quality with their accompanying combs … peinetas of finely carved ivory … a world of conjured images of dark-haired Spanish ladies dancing a lustful flamenco with swirling abandon … Whenever they were on display, many visitors to her stall couldn’t help but touch those finely carved combs or run the soft flowing silken veils over their hands … the electric sensation of the finely laced craftmanship sending a thrill through the skin …
There was that time at one of those shows where Hilda, in a moment of delightful abandon ala Isadora Duncan, upon a request did throw one of the veils across her body and do a pirouette with a snap of her fingers held high so that she made to be a Flamenco dancer in an exotic pose … a picture of just this moment was taken by the enthusiastic Norman Ziedel with his “Kodak Brownie” camera that was brought out of his archives and passed around, now that there was an interest in more than just the everyday display of veils … and as is sometimes the unfortunate situation with such candid snaps, they can capture one in a most undignifying pose or facial expression … and in this photo too, was Hilda caught expressing a most vampish look in her eyes coupled with an alluring twist of her body … while suitable for that particular moment as wanting to demonstrate the voluptuousness of the pose, the ramifications of that picture spread even more the luridness of the rumours.
Another, a drinking mate of Hilda’s long deceased husband; Herbert Hempel, recalled being told by Herbert, with accompanying wink of confederacy, that Hilda was an excellent dancer in her day … but that “day” being so long ago, none could recall. And that left Hildegarde Hempel out on a limb with none to defend her honour or reputation … such is the form of small town gossip that relies on a healthy diet of rumour, envy and schadenfreude to thrive.
Layered on top of the salacious rumours now circulating among the congregation, was the curious fact that Hilda only had those seven veils … and a niggling reference to the Bible story of John the Baptist, King Herod and Salome dancing the “dance of the seven veils” was resurrected time and again and washed the whole episode with fantastic colours and intense gossip … THEN, when it was heard that Hilda had bequeathed her collection of Spanish veils and combs to the church fete committee under the care of Pastor Noske … well … didn’t the tongues really start to wag!
Of course, Pastor Noske never heard any of the gossip or rumours surrounding Hildegarde Hempel and her collection of veils … indeed, he wasn’t even aware that he had started the whole thing off with his miss-reading of the word “exotic” for “erotic” in his eulogy, so was delighted to announce to the congregation one Sunday later that month of the fortunate and generous benevolence of Ms Hempel’s bequeath and those veils would be, as per usual, on display for public gaze the next month’s Strawberry Fete … a not too small rumbling of disquiet erupted from the pews of the church gathering … Pastor Noske took this as a murmur of approval and beamed a satisfied smile from the pulpit.
“I will ask Mrs. Appelt if she could arrange and attend to the display of those most exotic items on the day … ” the pastor continued innocently … There was again a frantic rumbling of turned bodies and all faces now fixed upon Mrs. Appelt in wide-eyed inquiry … Mrs. Appelt blushed and twisted her hands together in anxiety and blurted out ..
”Oh … oh really, Pastor, I don’t know … I don’t think … ” the congregation again turned as one to look to the Pastor …
“No, no … I can assure you, Mrs. Appelt, we have the greatest confidence in your capability to “man” the stall … after all, I believe YOU were one of the greatest admirers of Hildegarde’s collection.” The congregation instantly as one spun to gaze upon the hapless and now shocked Mrs. Appelt.
“Oh but Pastor … only in admiration of the craftmanship … I can assure you!” … she protested loudly and she gazed appealingly to all around her.
But in the end, it all turned out for the best, as the hint of eroticism now attached to those exquisite veils drew more visitors to the stall and by consequence, the sale of raffle-tickets from that one stall outsold more than several other stalls combined … and such an inquisitive crowd as gathered at Mrs. Appelt’s stall brought a cheerful smile to the cheeks of Pastor Noske as he did his rounds.
“Quite the interest in the veils today, Mrs. Appelt?” the Pastor enquired.
“Yes … it seems there has been an upshot of interest in them this year … and several strangers have commented on how they certainly DO have an erotic appeal.”
Pastor Noske blinked and squinted at the mention of “erotic” … and he looked deeply at Mrs. Appelt.
“I’m sorry … did you say ‘erotic’? … I … I don’t understand … ,” and he stood there, hands clasped behind his back bending toward Mrs. Appelt with his right ear listening ..
“Yes … erotic, Pastor” … and Mrs Appelt pointed to a small hand written sign that said: “Erotic Spanish silk veils and peinetas, worn by Spanish women when dancing to attract their menfolk” …
Pastor Noske immediately stiffened in shock and surprise, his hands raised up in front of him …
“Oh good heavens, NO! … Mrs. Appelt … not erotic … but exotic! .. EXOTIC, Mrs. Appelt! … good heavens … no!” … and he snatched the sign away … and it has to be noted that on replacing the sign with more subdued though accurate wording, the attendance at the stall soon dropped away … but that did not stop any future reference to those veils among the small congregation as being of the collection of the eroticism of Hildegarde Hempel.
Folk will have their ways …
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