Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 3: The Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit

The revolt of Matter against Man (which I believe to exist) has now
been reduced to a singular condition. It is the small things rather
than the large things which make war against us and, I may add,
beat us. The bones of the last mammoth have long ago decayed, a
mighty wreck; the tempests no longer devour our navies, nor the
mountains with hearts of fire heap hell over our cities. But we are
engaged in a bitter and eternal war with small things; chiefly with
microbes and with collar studs. The stud with which I was engaged
(on fierce and equal terms) as I made the above reflections, was
one which I was trying to introduce into my shirt collar when a
loud knock came at the door.

My first thought was as to whether Basil Grant had called to fetch
me. He and I were to turn up at the same dinner-party (for which I
was in the act of dressing), and it might be that he had taken it
into his head to come my way, though we had arranged to go
separately. It was a small and confidential affair at the table of
a good but unconventional political lady, an old friend of his. She
had asked us both to meet a third guest, a Captain Fraser, who had
made something of a name and was an authority on chimpanzees. As
Basil was an old friend of the hostess and I had never seen her, I
felt that it was quite possible that he (with his usual social
sagacity) might have decided to take me along in order to break the
ice. The theory, like all my theories, was complete; but as a fact
it was not Basil.

I was handed a visiting card inscribed: "Rev. Ellis Shorter", and
underneath was written in pencil, but in a hand in which even hurry
could not conceal a depressing and gentlemanly excellence, "Asking
the favour of a few moments' conversation on a most urgent
matter."!

I had already subdued the stud, thereby proclaiming that the image
of God has supremacy over all matters (a valuable truth), and
throwing on my dress-coat and waistcoat, hurried into the
drawing-room. He rose at my entrance, flapping like a seal; I can
use no other description. He flapped a plaid shawl over his right
arm; he flapped a pair of pathetic black gloves; he flapped his
clothes; I may say, without exaggeration, that he flapped his
eyelids, as he rose. He was a bald-browed, white-haired,
white-whiskered old clergyman, of a flappy and floppy type. He
said:

"I am so sorry. I am so very sorry. I am so extremely sorry. I come
--I can only say--I can only say in my defence, that I come--upon
an important matter. Pray forgive me."

I told him I forgave perfectly and waited.

"What I have to say," he said brokenly, "is so dreadful--it is so
dreadful--I have lived a quiet life."

I was burning to get away, for it was already doubtful if I should
be in time for dinner. But there was something about the old man's
honest air of bitterness that seemed to open to me the
possibilities of life larger and more tragic than my own.

I said gently: "Pray go on."

Nevertheless the old gentleman, being a gentleman as well as old,
noticed my secret impatience and seemed still more unmanned.

"I'm so sorry," he said meekly; "I wouldn't have come--but for--
your friend Major Brown recommended me to come here."

"Major Brown!" I said, with some interest.

"Yes," said the Reverend Mr Shorter, feverishly flapping his plaid
shawl about. "He told me you helped him in a great difficulty--and
my difficulty! Oh, my dear sir, it's a matter of life and death."

I rose abruptly, in an acute perplexity. "Will it take long, Mr
Shorter?" I asked. "I have to go out to dinner almost at once."

He rose also, trembling from head to foot, and yet somehow, with
all his moral palsy, he rose to the dignity of his age and his
office.

"I have no right, Mr Swinburne--I have no right at all," he said.
"If you have to go out to dinner, you have of course--a perfect
right--of course a perfect right. But when you come back--a man
will be dead."

And he sat down, quaking like a jelly.

The triviality of the dinner had been in those two minutes dwarfed
and drowned in my mind. I did not want to go and see a political
widow, and a captain who collected apes; I wanted to hear what had
brought this dear, doddering old vicar into relation with immediate
perils.

"Will you have a cigar?" I said.

"No, thank you," he said, with indescribable embarrassment, as if
not smoking cigars was a social disgrace.

"A glass of wine?" I said.

"No, thank you, no, thank you; not just now," he repeated with
that hysterical eagerness with which people who do not drink at
all often try to convey that on any other night of the week they
would sit up all night drinking rum-punch. "Not just now, thank
you."

"Nothing else I can get for you?" I said, feeling genuinely sorry
for the well-mannered old donkey. "A cup of tea?"

I saw a struggle in his eye and I conquered. When the cup of tea
came he drank it like a dipsomaniac gulping brandy. Then he fell
back and said:

"I have had such a time, Mr Swinburne. I am not used to these
excitements. As Vicar of Chuntsey, in Essex'--he threw this in
with an indescribable airiness of vanity--'I have never known
such things happen."

"What things happen?" I asked.

He straightened himself with sudden dignity.

"As Vicar of Chuntsey, in Essex," he said, "I have never been
forcibly dressed up as an old woman and made to take part in a
crime in the character of an old woman. Never once. My experience
may be small. It may be insufficient. But it has never occurred
to me before."

"I have never heard of it," I said, "as among the duties of a
clergyman. But I am not well up in church matters. Excuse me if
perhaps I failed to follow you correctly. Dressed up--as what?"

"As an old woman," said the vicar solemnly, "as an old woman."

I thought in my heart that it required no great transformation to
make an old woman of him, but the thing was evidently more tragic
than comic, and I said respectfully:

"May I ask how it occurred?"

"I will begin at the beginning," said Mr Shorter, "and I will tell
my story with the utmost possible precision. At seventeen minutes
past eleven this morning I left the vicarage to keep certain
appointments and pay certain visits in the village. My first visit
was to Mr Jervis, the treasurer of our League of Christian
Amusements, with whom I concluded some business touching the claim
made by Parkes the gardener in the matter of the rolling of our
tennis lawn. I then visited Mrs Arnett, a very earnest
churchwoman, but permanently bedridden. She is the author of
several small works of devotion, and of a book of verse, entitled
(unless my memory misleads me) Eglantine."

He uttered all this not only with deliberation, but with something
that can only be called, by a contradictory phrase, eager
deliberation. He had, I think, a vague memory in his head of the
detectives in the detective stories, who always sternly require
that nothing should be kept back.

"I then proceeded," he went on, with the same maddening
conscientiousness of manner, "to Mr Carr (not Mr James Carr, of
course; Mr Robert Carr) who is temporarily assisting our organist,
and having consulted with him (on the subject of a choir boy who
is accused, I cannot as yet say whether justly or not, of cutting
holes in the organ pipes), I finally dropped in upon a Dorcas
meeting at the house of Miss Brett. The Dorcas meetings are
usually held at the vicarage, but my wife being unwell, Miss
Brett, a newcomer in our village, but very active in church work,
had very kindly consented to hold them. The Dorcas society is
entirely under my wife's management as a rule, and except for Miss
Brett, who, as I say, is very active, I scarcely know any members
of it. I had, however, promised to drop in on them, and I did so.

"When I arrived there were only four other maiden ladies with Miss
Brett, but they were sewing very busily. It is very difficult, of
course, for any person, however strongly impressed with the
necessity in these matters of full and exact exposition of the
facts, to remember and repeat the actual details of a
conversation, particularly a conversation which (though inspired
with a most worthy and admirable zeal for good work) was one which
did not greatly impress the hearer's mind at the time and was in
fact--er--mostly about socks. I can, however, remember distinctly
that one of the spinster ladies (she was a thin person with a
woollen shawl, who appeared to feel the cold, and I am almost sure
she was introduced to me as Miss James) remarked that the weather
was very changeable. Miss Brett then offered me a cup of tea,
which I accepted, I cannot recall in what words. Miss Brett is a
short and stout lady with white hair. The only other figure in the
group that caught my attention was a Miss Mowbray, a small and
neat lady of aristocratic manners, silver hair, and a high voice
and colour. She was the most emphatic member of the party; and her
views on the subject of pinafores, though expressed with a natural
deference to myself, were in themselves strong and advanced.
Beside her (although all five ladies were dressed simply in black)
it could not be denied that the others looked in some way what you
men of the world would call dowdy.

"After about ten minutes' conversation I rose to go, and as I did
so I heard something which--I cannot describe it--something which
seemed to--but I really cannot describe it."

"What did you hear?" I asked, with some impatience.

"I heard," said the vicar solemnly, "I heard Miss Mowbray (the
lady with the silver hair) say to Miss James (the lady with the
woollen shawl), the following extraordinary words. I committed
them to memory on the spot, and as soon as circumstances set me
free to do so, I noted them down on a piece of paper. I believe I
have it here." He fumbled in his breast-pocket, bringing out mild
things, note-books, circulars and programmes of village concerts.
"I heard Miss Mowbray say to Miss James, the following words:
`Now's your time, Bill.'"

He gazed at me for a few moments after making this announcement,
gravely and unflinchingly, as if conscious that here he was
unshaken about his facts. Then he resumed, turning his bald head
more towards the fire.

"This appeared to me remarkable. I could not by any means
understand it. It seemed to me first of all peculiar that one
maiden lady should address another maiden lady as `Bill'. My
experience, as I have said, may be incomplete; maiden ladies may
have among themselves and in exclusively spinster circles wilder
customs than I am aware of. But it seemed to me odd, and I could
almost have sworn (if you will not misunderstand the phrase), I
should have been strongly impelled to maintain at the time that
the words, `Now's your time, Bill', were by no means pronounced
with that upper-class intonation which, as I have already said,
had up to now characterized Miss Mowbray's conversation. In fact,
the words, `Now's your time, Bill', would have been, I fancy,
unsuitable if pronounced with that upper-class intonation.

"I was surprised, I repeat, then, at the remark. But I was still
more surprised when, looking round me in bewilderment, my hat and
umbrella in hand, I saw the lean lady with the woollen shawl
leaning upright against the door out of which I was just about to
make my exit. She was still knitting, and I supposed that this
erect posture against the door was only an eccentricity of
spinsterhood and an oblivion of my intended departure.

"I said genially, `I am so sorry to disturb you, Miss James, but I
must really be going. I have--er--' I stopped here, for the words
she had uttered in reply, though singularly brief and in tone
extremely business-like, were such as to render that arrest of my
remarks, I think, natural and excusable. I have these words also
noted down. I have not the least idea of their meaning; so I have
only been able to render them phonetically. But she said," and Mr
Shorter peered short-sightedly at his papers, "she said: `Chuck it,
fat 'ead,' and she added something that sounded like `It's a kop',
or (possibly) `a kopt'. And then the last cord, either of my sanity
or the sanity of the universe, snapped suddenly. My esteemed friend
and helper, Miss Brett, standing by the mantelpiece, said: `Put 'is
old 'ead in a bag, Sam, and tie 'im up before you start jawin'.
You'll be kopt yourselves some o' these days with this way of coin'
things, har lar theater.'

"My head went round and round. Was it really true, as I had
suddenly fancied a moment before, that unmarried ladies had some
dreadful riotous society of their own from which all others were
excluded? I remembered dimly in my classical days (I was a scholar
in a small way once, but now, alas! rusty), I remembered the
mysteries of the Bona Dea and their strange female freemasonry. I
remembered the witches' Sabbaths. I was just, in my absurd
lightheadedness, trying to remember a line of verse about Diana's
nymphs, when Miss Mowbray threw her arm round me from behind. The
moment it held me I knew it was not a woman's arm.

"Miss Brett--or what I had called Miss Brett--was standing in front
of me with a big revolver in her hand and a broad grin on her face.
Miss James was still leaning against the door, but had fallen into
an attitude so totally new, and so totally unfeminine, that it gave
one a shock. She was kicking her heels, with her hands in her
pockets and her cap on one side. She was a man. I mean he was a
wo--no, that is I saw that instead of being a woman she--he, I
mean--that is, it was a man."

Mr Shorter became indescribably flurried and flapping in
endeavouring to arrange these genders and his plaid shawl at the
same time. He resumed with a higher fever of nervousness:

"As for Miss Mowbray, she--he, held me in a ring of iron. He had
her arm--that is she had his arm--round her neck--my neck I mean--
and I could not cry out. Miss Brett--that is, Mr Brett, at least Mr
something who was not Miss Brett--had the revolver pointed at me.
The other two ladies--or er--gentlemen, were rummaging in some bag
in the background. It was all clear at last: they were criminals
dressed up as women, to kidnap me! To kidnap the Vicar of Chuntsey,
in Essex. But why? Was it to be Nonconformists?

"The brute leaning against the door called out carelessly, `'Urry
up, 'Arry. Show the old bloke what the game is, and let's get off.'

"`Curse 'is eyes,' said Miss Brett--I mean the man with the
revolver--`why should we show 'im the game?'

"`If you take my advice you bloomin' well will,' said the man at
the door, whom they called Bill. `A man wot knows wet 'e's doin' is
worth ten wot don't, even if 'e's a potty old parson.'

"`Bill's right enough,' said the coarse voice of the man who held
me (it had been Miss Mowbray's). `Bring out the picture, 'Arry.'

"The man with the revolver walked across the room to where the
other two women--I mean men--were turning over baggage, and asked
them for something which they gave him. He came back with it across
the room and held it out in front of me. And compared to the
surprise of that display, all the previous surprises of this awful
day shrank suddenly.

"It was a portrait of myself. That such a picture should be in the
hands of these scoundrels might in any case have caused a mild
surprise; but no more. It was no mild surprise that I felt. The
likeness was an extremely good one, worked up with all the
accessories of the conventional photographic studio. I was leaning
my head on my hand and was relieved against a painted landscape of
woodland. It was obvious that it was no snapshot; it was clear that
I had sat for this photograph. And the truth was that I had never
sat for such a photograph. It was a photograph that I had never had
taken.

"I stared at it again and again. It seemed to me to be touched up a
good deal; it was glazed as well as framed, and the glass blurred
some of the details. But there unmistakably was my face, my eyes,
my nose and mouth, my head and hand, posed for a professional
photographer. And I had never posed so for any photographer.

"`Be'old the bloomin' miracle,' said the man with the revolver,
with ill-timed facetiousness. `Parson, prepare to meet your God.'
And with this he slid the glass out of the frame. As the glass
moved, I saw that part of the picture was painted on it in Chinese
white, notably a pair of white whiskers and a clerical collar. And
underneath was a portrait of an old lady in a quiet black dress,
leaning her head on her hand against the woodland landscape. The
old lady was as like me as one pin is like another. It had required
only the whiskers and the collar to make it me in every hair.

"`Entertainin', ain't it?' said the man described as 'Arry, as he
shot the glass back again. `Remarkable resemblance, parson.
Gratifyin' to the lady. Gratifyin' to you. And hi may hadd,
particlery gratifyin' to us, as bein' the probable source of a
very tolerable haul. You know Colonel Hawker, the man who's come
to live in these parts, don't you?'

"I nodded.

"`Well,' said the man 'Arry, pointing to the picture, `that's 'is
mother. 'Oo ran to catch 'im when 'e fell? She did,' and he flung
his fingers in a general gesture towards the photograph of the old
lady who was exactly like me.

"`Tell the old gent wot 'e's got to do and be done with it,' broke
out Bill from the door. `Look 'ere, Reverend Shorter, we ain't
goin' to do you no 'arm. We'll give you a sov. for your trouble if
you like. And as for the old woman's clothes--why, you'll look
lovely in 'em.'

"`You ain't much of a 'and at a description, Bill,' said the man
behind me. `Mr Shorter, it's like this. We've got to see this man
Hawker tonight. Maybe 'e'll kiss us all and 'ave up the champagne
when 'e sees us. Maybe on the other 'and--'e won't. Maybe 'e'll be
dead when we goes away. Maybe not. But we've got to see 'im. Now as
you know, 'e shuts 'isself up and never opens the door to a soul;
only you don't know why and we does. The only one as can ever get
at 'im is 'is mother. Well, it's a confounded funny coincidence,'
he said, accenting the penultimate, `it's a very unusual piece of
good luck, but you're 'is mother.'

"`When first I saw 'er picture,' said the man Bill, shaking his
head in a ruminant manner, `when I first saw it I said--old
Shorter. Those were my exact words--old Shorter.'

"`What do you mean, you wild creatures?' I gasped. `What am I to
do?'

"`That's easy said, your 'oldness,' said the man with the revolver,
good-humouredly; `you've got to put on those clothes,' and he
pointed to a poke-bonnet and a heap of female clothes in the corner
of the room.

"I will not dwell, Mr Swinburne, upon the details of what followed.
I had no choice. I could not fight five men, to say nothing of a
loaded pistol. In five minutes, sir, the Vicar of Chuntsey was
dressed as an old woman--as somebody else's mother, if you
please--and was dragged out of the house to take part in a crime.

"It was already late in the afternoon, and the nights of winter
were closing in fast. On a dark road, in a blowing wind, we set out
towards the lonely house of Colonel Hawker, perhaps the queerest
cortege that ever straggled up that or any other road. To every
human eye, in every external, we were six very respectable old
ladies of small means, in black dresses and refined but antiquated
bonnets; and we were really five criminals and a clergyman.

"I will cut a long story short. My brain was whirling like a
windmill as I walked, trying to think of some manner of escape. To
cry out, so long as we were far from houses, would be suicidal, for
it would be easy for the ruffians to knife me or to gag me and
fling me into a ditch. On the other hand, to attempt to stop
strangers and explain the situation was impossible, because of the
frantic folly of the situation itself. Long before I had persuaded
the chance postman or carrier of so absurd a story, my companions
would certainly have got off themselves, and in all probability
would have carried me off, as a friend of theirs who had the
misfortune to be mad or drunk. The last thought, however, was an
inspiration; though a very terrible one. Had it come to this, that
the Vicar of Chuntsey must pretend to be mad or drunk? It had come
to this.

"I walked along with the rest up the deserted road, imitating and
keeping pace, as far as I could, with their rapid and yet lady-like
step, until at length I saw a lamp-post and a policeman standing
under it. I had made up my mind. Until we reached them we were all
equally demure and silent and swift. When we reached them I
suddenly flung myself against the railings and roared out: `Hooray!
Hooray! Hooray! Rule Britannia! Get your 'air cut. Hoop-la! Boo!'
It was a condition of no little novelty for a man in my position.

"The constable instantly flashed his lantern on me, or the
draggled, drunken old woman that was my travesty. `Now then, mum,'
he began gruffly.

"`Come along quiet, or I'll eat your heart,' cried Sam in my ear
hoarsely. `Stop, or I'll flay you.' It was frightful to hear the
words and see the neatly shawled old spinster who whispered them.

"I yelled, and yelled--I was in for it now. I screamed comic
refrains that vulgar young men had sung, to my regret, at our
village concerts; I rolled to and fro like a ninepin about to fall.

"`If you can't get your friend on quiet, ladies,' said the
policeman, `I shall have to take 'er up. Drunk and disorderly she
is right enough.'

"I redoubled my efforts. I had not been brought up to this sort of
thing; but I believe I eclipsed myself. Words that I did not know I
had ever heard of seemed to come pouring out of my open mouth.

"`When we get you past,' whispered Bill, `you'll howl louder;
you'll howl louder when we're burning your feet off.'

"I screamed in my terror those awful songs of joy. In all the
nightmares that men have ever dreamed, there has never been
anything so blighting and horrible as the faces of those five men,
looking out of their poke-bonnets; the figures of district visitors
with the faces of devils. I cannot think there is anything so
heart-breaking in hell.

"For a sickening instant I thought that the bustle of my companions
and the perfect respectability of all our dresses would overcome
the policeman and induce him to let us pass. He wavered, so far as
one can describe anything so solid as a policeman as wavering. I
lurched suddenly forward and ran my head into his chest, calling
out (if I remember correctly), `Oh, crikey, blimey, Bill.' It was
at that moment that I remembered most dearly that I was the Vicar
of Chuntsey, in Essex.

"My desperate coup saved me. The policeman had me hard by the back
of the neck.

"`You come along with me,' he began, but Bill cut in with his
perfect imitation of a lady's finnicking voice.

"`Oh, pray, constable, don't make a disturbance with our poor
friend. We will get her quietly home. She does drink too much, but
she is quite a lady--only eccentric.'

"`She butted me in the stomach,' said the policeman briefly.

"`Eccentricities of genius,' said Sam earnestly.

"`Pray let me take her home,' reiterated Bill, in the resumed
character of Miss James, `she wants looking after.' `She does,'
said the policeman, `but I'll look after her.'

"`That's no good,' cried Bill feverishly. `She wants her friends.
She wants a particular medicine we've got.'

"`Yes,' assented Miss Mowbray, with excitement, `no other medicine
any good, constable. Complaint quite unique.'

"`I'm all righ'. Cutchy, cutchy, coo!' remarked, to his eternal
shame, the Vicar of Chuntsey.

"`Look here, ladies,' said the constable sternly, `I don't like the
eccentricity of your friend, and I don't like 'er songs, or 'er
'ead in my stomach. And now I come to think of it, I don't like the
looks of you I've seen many as quiet dressed as you as was wrong
'uns. Who are you?'

"`We've not our cards with us,' said Miss Mowbray, with
indescribable dignity. `Nor do we see why we should be insulted by
any Jack-in-office who chooses to be rude to ladies, when he is
paid to protect them. If you choose to take advantage of the
weakness of our unfortunate friend, no doubt you are legally
entitled to take her. But if you fancy you have any legal right to
bully us, you will find yourself in the wrong box.'

"The truth and dignity of this staggered the policeman for a
moment. Under cover of their advantage my five persecutors turned
for an instant on me faces like faces of the damned and then
swished off into the darkness. When the constable first turned his
lantern and his suspicions on to them, I had seen the telegraphic
look flash from face to face saying that only retreat was possible
now.

"By this time I was sinking slowly to the pavement, in a state of
acute reflection. So long as the ruffians were with me, I dared not
quit the role of drunkard. For if I had begun to talk reasonably
and explain the real case, the officer would merely have thought
that I was slightly recovered and would have put me in charge of my
friends. Now, however, if I liked I might safely undeceive him.

"But I confess I did not like. The chances of life are many, and
it may doubtless sometimes lie in the narrow path of duty for a
clergyman of the Church of England to pretend to be a drunken old
woman; but such necessities are, I imagine, sufficiently rare to
appear to many improbable. Suppose the story got about that I had
pretended to be drunk. Suppose people did not all think it was
pretence!

"I lurched up, the policeman half-lifting me. I went along weakly
and quietly for about a hundred yards. The officer evidently
thought that I was too sleepy and feeble to effect an escape, and
so held me lightly and easily enough. Past one turning, two
turnings, three turnings, four turnings, he trailed me with him,
a limp and slow and reluctant figure. At the fourth turning, I
suddenly broke from his hand and tore down the street like a
maddened stag. He was unprepared, he was heavy, and it was dark.
I ran and ran and ran, and in five minutes' running, found I was
gaining. In half an hour I was out in the fields under the holy
and blessed stars, where I tore off my accursed shawl and bonnet
and buried them in clean earth."

The old gentleman had finished his story and leant back in his
chair. Both the matter and the manner of his narration had, as
time went on, impressed me favourably. He was an old duffer and
pedant, but behind these things he was a country-bred man and
gentleman, and had showed courage and a sporting instinct in the
hour of desperation. He had told his story with many quaint
formalities of diction, but also with a very convincing realism.

"And now--" I began.

"And now," said Shorter, leaning forward again with something like
servile energy, "and now, Mr Swinburne, what about that unhappy
man Hawker. I cannot tell what those men meant, or how far what
they said was real. But surely there is danger. I cannot go to the
police, for reasons that you perceive. Among other things, they
wouldn't believe me. What is to be done?"

I took out my watch. It was already half past twelve.

"My friend Basil Grant," I said, "is the best man we can go to. He
and I were to have gone to the same dinner tonight; but he will
just have come back by now. Have you any objection to taking a
cab?"

"Not at all," he replied, rising politely, and gathering up his
absurd plaid shawl.

A rattle in a hansom brought us underneath the sombre pile of
workmen's flats in Lambeth which Grant inhabited; a climb up a
wearisome wooden staircase brought us to his garret. When I
entered that wooden and scrappy interior, the white gleam of
Basil's shirt-front and the lustre of his fur coat flung on the
wooden settle, struck me as a contrast. He was drinking a glass
of wine before retiring. I was right; he had come back from the
dinner-party.

He listened to the repetition of the story of the Rev. Ellis
Shorter with the genuine simplicity and respect which he never
failed to exhibit in dealing with any human being. When it was
over he said simply:

"Do you know a man named Captain Fraser?"

I was so startled at this totally irrelevant reference to the
worthy collector of chimpanzees with whom I ought to have dined
that evening, that I glanced sharply at Grant. The result was
that I did not look at Mr Shorter. I only heard him answer, in
his most nervous tone, "No."

Basil, however, seemed to find something very curious about his
answer or his demeanour generally, for he kept his big blue eyes
fixed on the old clergyman, and though the eyes were quite quiet
they stood out more and more from his head.

"You are quite sure, Mr Shorter," he repeated, "that you don't
know Captain Fraser?"

"Quite," answered the vicar, and I was certainly puzzled to
find him returning so much to the timidity, not to say the
demoralization, of his tone when he first entered my presence.

Basil sprang smartly to his feet.

"Then our course is clear," he said. "You have not even begun your
investigation, my dear Mr Shorter; the first thing for us to do is
to go together to see Captain Fraser."

"When?" asked the clergyman, stammering.

"Now," said Basil, putting one arm in his fur coat.

The old clergyman rose to his feet, quaking all over.

"I really do not think that it is necessary," he said.

Basil took his arm out of the fur coat, threw it over the chair
again, and put his hands in his pockets.

"Oh," he said, with emphasis. "Oh--you don't think it necessary;
then," and he added the words with great clearness and
deliberation, "then, Mr Ellis Shorter, I can only say that I would
like to see you without your whiskers."

And at these words I also rose to my feet, for the great tragedy
of my life had come. Splendid and exciting as life was in
continual contact with an intellect like Basil's, I had always the
feeling that that splendour and excitement were on the borderland
of sanity. He lived perpetually near the vision of the reason of
things which makes men lose their reason. And I felt of his
insanity as men feel of the death of friends with heart disease.
It might come anywhere, in a field, in a hansom cab, looking at a
sunset, smoking a cigarette. It had come now. At the very moment
of delivering a judgement for the salvation of a fellow creature,
Basil Grant had gone mad.

"Your whiskers," he cried, advancing with blazing eyes. "Give me
your whiskers. And your bald head."

The old vicar naturally retreated a step or two. I stepped
between.

"Sit down, Basil," I implored, "you're a little excited. Finish
your wine."

"Whiskers," he answered sternly, "whiskers."

And with that he made a dash at the old gentleman, who made a dash
for the door, but was intercepted. And then, before I knew where I
was the quiet room was turned into something between a pantomime
and a pandemonium by those two. Chairs were flung over with a
crash, tables were vaulted with a noise like thunder, screens were
smashed, crockery scattered in smithereens, and still Basil Grant
bounded and bellowed after the Rev. Ellis Shorter.

And now I began to perceive something else, which added the last
half-witted touch to my mystification. The Rev. Ellis Shorter, of
Chuntsey, in Essex, was by no means behaving as I had previously
noticed him to behave, or as, considering his age and station, I
should have expected him to behave. His power of dodging, leaping,
and fighting would have been amazing in a lad of seventeen, and in
this doddering old vicar looked like a sort of farcical
fairy-tale. Moreover, he did not seem to be so much astonished as
I had thought. There was even a look of something like enjoyment
in his eyes; so there was in the eye of Basil. In fact, the
unintelligible truth must be told. They were both laughing.

At length Shorter was cornered.

"Come, come, Mr Grant," he panted, "you can't do anything to me.
It's quite legal. And it doesn't do any one the least harm. It's
only a social fiction. A result of our complex society, Mr Grant."

"I don't blame you, my man," said Basil coolly. "But I want your
whiskers. And your bald head. Do they belong to Captain Fraser?"

"No, no," said Mr Shorter, laughing, "we provide them ourselves.
They don't belong to Captain Fraser."

"What the deuce does all this mean?" I almost screamed. "Are you
all in an infernal nightmare? Why should Mr Shorter's bald head
belong to Captain Fraser? How could it? What the deuce has Captain
Fraser to do with the affair? What is the matter with him? You
dined with him, Basil."

"No," said Grant, "I didn't."

"Didn't you go to Mrs Thornton's dinner-party?" I asked, staring.
"Why not?"

"Well," said Basil, with a slow and singular smile, "the fact is I
was detained by a visitor. I have him, as a point of fact, in my
bedroom."

"In your bedroom?" I repeated; but my imagination had reached that
point when he might have said in his coal scuttle or his waistcoat
pocket.

Grant stepped to the door of an inner room, flung it open and
walked in. Then he came out again with the last of the bodily
wonders of that wild night. He introduced into the sitting-room,
in an apologetic manner, and by the nape of the neck, a limp
clergyman with a bald head, white whiskers and a plaid shawl.

"Sit down, gentlemen," cried Grant, striking his hands heartily.
"Sit down all of you and have a glass of wine. As you say, there is
no harm in it, and if Captain Fraser had simply dropped me a hint I
could have saved him from dropping a good sum of money. Not that
you would have liked that, eh?"

The two duplicate clergymen, who were sipping their Burgundy with
two duplicate grins, laughed heartily at this, and one of them
carelessly pulled off his whiskers and laid them on the table.

"Basil," I said, "if you are my friend, save me. What is all this?"

He laughed again.

"Only another addition, Cherub, to your collection of Queer Trades.
These two gentlemen (whose health I have now the pleasure of
drinking) are Professional Detainers."

"And what on earth's that?" I asked.

"It's really very simple, Mr Swinburne," began he who had once
been the Rev. Ellis Shorter, of Chuntsey, in Essex; and it gave
me a shock indescribable to hear out of that pompous and familiar
form come no longer its own pompous and familiar voice, but the
brisk sharp tones of a young city man. "It is really nothing very
important. We are paid by our clients to detain in conversation,
on some harmless pretext, people whom they want out of the way
for a few hours. And Captain Fraser--" and with that he hesitated
and smiled.

Basil smiled also. He intervened.

"The fact is that Captain Fraser, who is one of my best friends,
wanted us both out of the way very much. He is sailing tonight for
East Africa, and the lady with whom we were all to have dined is--
er--what is I believe described as `the romance of his life'. He
wanted that two hours with her, and employed these two reverend
gentlemen to detain us at our houses so as to let him have the
field to himself."

"And of course," said the late Mr Shorter apologetically to me, "as
I had to keep a gentleman at home from keeping an appointment with
a lady, I had to come with something rather hot and strong--rather
urgent. It wouldn't have done to be tame."

"Oh," I said, "I acquit you of tameness."

"Thank you, sir," said the man respectfully, "always very grateful
for any recommendation, sir."

The other man idly pushed back his artificial bald head, revealing
close red hair, and spoke dreamily, perhaps under the influence of
Basil's admirable Burgundy.

"It's wonderful how common it's getting, gentlemen. Our office is
busy from morning till night. I've no doubt you've often knocked
up against us before. You just take notice. When an old bachelor
goes on boring you with hunting stories, when you're burning to be
introduced to somebody, he's from our bureau. When a lady calls on
parish work and stops hours, just when you wanted to go to the
Robinsons', she's from our bureau. The Robinson hand, sir, may be
darkly seen."

"There is one thing I don't understand," I said. "Why you are both
vicars."

A shade crossed the brow of the temporary incumbent of Chuntsey, in
Essex.

"That may have been a mistake, sir," he said. "But it was not our
fault. It was all the munificence of Captain Fraser. He requested
that the highest price and talent on our tariff should be employed
to detain you gentlemen. Now the highest payment in our office goes
to those who impersonate vicars, as being the most respectable and
more of a strain. We are paid five guineas a visit. We have had the
good fortune to satisfy the firm with our work; and we are now
permanently vicars. Before that we had two years as colonels, the
next in our scale. Colonels are four guineas."

 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Sorry, no summary available yet.