The Petty Sessions court at Linstowe was crowded. Miracles do not happen every day, nor are rectors frequently charged with larceny. The interest roused would have relieved all those who doubt the vitality of our ancient Church. People who never went outside their farms or plots of garden, had walked as much as three miles to see the show. Mrs. Gloyn, the sandy-haired little keeper of the shop where soap and herrings, cheese, matches, boot-laces, bulls'-eyes, and the other luxuries of a countryside could be procured, remarked to Mrs. Redland, the farmer's wife, ''Tis quite a gatherin' like.' To which Mrs. Redland replied, ''Most like Church of a Sunday.'
More women, it is true, than men, were present, because of their greater piety, and because most of them had parted with pounds of butter, chickens, ducks, potatoes, or some such offertory in kind during the past two years, at the instance of the rector. They had a vested interest in this matter, and were present, accompanied by their grief at value unreceived. From Trover, their little village on the top of the hill two miles from Linstowe, with the squat church-tower, beautifully untouched, and ruined by the perfect restoration of the body of the building, they had trooped in; some even coming from the shore of the Atlantic, a mile beyond, across the downs, whence other upland square church-towers could be viewed on the sky-line against the grey January heavens. The occasion was in a sense unique, and its piquancy strengthened by that rivalry which is the essence of religion.
For there was no love lost between Church and Chapel in Trover, and the rector's flock had long been fortified in their power of 'parting' by fear lest 'Chapel' (also present that day in court) should mock at his impecuniousness. Not that his flock approved of his poverty. It had seemed 'silly-like' ever since the news had spread that his difficulties had been caused by a faith in shares. To improve a secure if moderate position by speculation, would not have seemed wrong, if he had not failed instead, and made himself dependent on their butter, their potatoes, their eggs and chickens. In that parish, as in others, the saying 'Nothing succeeds like success' was true, nor had the villagers any abnormal disposition to question the title-deeds of affluence.
But it is equally true that nothing irritates so much as finding that one of whom you have the right to beg is begging of you. This was why the rector's tall, thin, black figure, down which a ramrod surely had been passed at birth; his narrow, hairless, white and wasted face, with red eyebrows over eyes that seemed now burning and now melting; his grizzled red hair under a hat almost green with age; his abrupt and dictatorial voice; his abrupt and mirthless laugh—all were on their nerves. His barked-out utterances, 'I want a pound of butter—pay you Monday!' 'I want some potatoes—pay you soon!' had sounded too often in the ears of those who had found his repayments so far purely spiritual. Now and then one of the more cynical would remark, 'Ah! I told un my butter was all to market.' Or, 'The man can't 'ave no principles—he didn't get no chicken out o' me.' And yet it was impossible to let him and his old mother die on them—it would give too much pleasure 'over the way.' And they never dreamed of losing him in any other manner, because they knew his living had been purchased. Money had passed in that transaction; the whole fabric of the Church and of Society was involved. His professional conduct, too, was flawless; his sermons long and fiery; he was always ready to perform those supernumerary duties—weddings, baptisms, and burials—which yielded him what revenue he had, now that his income from the living was mortgaged up to the hilt. Their loyalty held as the loyalty of people will when some great institution of which they are members is endangered.
Gossip said that things were in a dreadful way at the Rectory; the external prosperity of that red-brick building surrounded by laurels which did not flower, heightened ironically the conditions within. The old lady, his mother, eighty years of age, was reported never to leave her bed this winter, because they had no coal. She lay there, with her three birds flying about dirtying the room, for neither she nor her son would ever let a cage-door be shut—deplorable state of things! The one servant was supposed never to be paid. The tradesmen would no longer leave goods because they could not get their money. Most of the furniture had been sold; and the dust made you sneeze 'fit to bust yourself like.'
With a little basket on his arm, the rector collected for his household three times a week, pursuing a kind of method, always in the apparent belief that he would pay on Monday, and observing the Sabbath as a day of rest. His mind seemed ever to cherish the faith that his shares were on the point of recovery; his spirit never to lose belief in his divine right to be supported. It was extremely difficult to refuse him; the postman had twice seen him standing on the railway line that ran past just below the village, 'with 'is 'at off, as if he was in two minds-like.' This vision of him close to the shining metals had powerfully impressed many good souls who loved to make flesh creep. They would say, 'I wouldn' never be surprised if something 'appened to 'im one of these days!' Others, less romantic, shook their heads, insisting that 'he wouldn' never do nothin' while his old mother lived.' Others again, more devout, maintained that 'he wouldn' never go against the Scriptures, settin' an example like that!'
The Petty Sessions court that morning resembled Church on the occasion of a wedding; for the villagers of Trover had put on their black clothes and grouped themselves according to their religious faiths—'Church' in the right, 'Chapel' in the left-hand aisle. They presented all that rich variety of type and monotony of costume which the remoter country still affords to the observer; their mouths were almost all a little open, and their eyes fixed with intensity on the Bench. The three magistrates—Squire Pleydell in the chair, Dr. Becket on his left, and 'the Honble' Calmady on his right—were by most seen for the first time in their judicial capacity; and curiosity was divided between their proceedings and observation of the rector's prosecutor, a small baker from the town whence the village of Trover derived its necessaries. The face of this fellow, like that of a white walrus, and the back of his bald head were of interest to everyone until the case was called, and the rector himself entered. In his thin black overcoat he advanced and stood as if a little dazed. Then, turning his ravaged face to the Bench, he jerked out:
'Good morning! Lot of people!'
A constable behind him murmured:
'Into the dock, sir, please.'
Moving across, he entered the wooden edifice.
'Quite like a pulpit,' he said, and uttered his barking laugh.
Through the court ran a stir and shuffle, as it might be of sympathy with his lost divinity, and every eye was fixed on that tall, lean figure, with the shaven face, and red, grey-streaked hair.
Entering the witness-box, the prosecutor deposed as follows:
'Last Tuesday afternoon, your Honours, I 'appened to be drivin' my cart meself up through Trover on to the cottages just above the dip, and I'd gone in to Mrs. 'Oney's, the laundress, leavin' my cart standin' same as I always do. I 'ad a bit o' gossip, an' when I come out, I see this gentleman walkin' away in front towards the village street. It so 'appens I 'appened to look in the back o' my cart, and I thinks to meself, That's funny! There's only two flat rounds—'ave I left two 'ere by mistake? I calls to Mrs. 'Oney, an' I says, "I 'aven't been absent, 'ave I, an' left ye two?" "No," she says, "only one—'ere 'tis! Why?" she says. "Well," I says, "I 'ad four when I come in to you, there's only two now. 'Tis funny!" I says. "'Ave you dropped one?" she says. "No," I says, "I counted 'em." "That's funny," she says; "perhaps a dog's 'ad it." "'E may 'ave," I says, "but the only thing I see on the road is that there." An' I pointed to this gentleman. "Oh!" she says, "that's the rector." "Yes," I says, "I ought to know that, seein' 'e's owed me money a matter of eighteen months. I think I'll drive on," I says. Well, I drove on, and come up to this gentleman. 'E turns 'is 'ead, and looks at me. "Good afternoon!" he says—like that. "Good afternoon, sir," I says. "You 'aven't seen a loaf, 'ave you?" 'E pulls the loaf out of 'is pocket. "On the ground," 'e says; "dirty," 'e says. "Do for my birds! Ha! ha!" like that. "Oh!" I says, "indeed! Now I know," I says. I kept my 'ead, but I thinks: "That's a bit too light-'earted. You owes me one pound, eight and tuppence; I've whistled for it gettin' on for two years, but you ain't content with that, it seems! Very well," I thinks; "we'll see. An' I don't give a darn whether you're a parson or not!" I charge 'im with takin' my bread.'
Passing a dirty handkerchief over his white face and huge gingery moustache, the baker was silent. Suddenly from the dock the rector called out: 'Bit of dirty bread—feed my birds. Ha, ha!'
There was a deathly little silence. Then the baker said slowly:
'What's more, I say he ate it 'imself. I call two witnesses to that.'
The Chairman, passing his hand over his hard, alert face, that of a master of hounds, asked:
'Did you see any dirt on the loaf? Be careful!'
The baker answered stolidly:
'Not a speck.'
Dr. Becket, a slight man with a short grey beard, and eyes restive from having to notice painful things, spoke.
'Had your horse moved?'
''E never moves.'
'Ha, ha!' came the rector's laugh.
The Chairman said sharply:
'Well, stand down; call the next witness.—Charles Stodder, carpenter. Very well! Go on, and tell us what you know.'
But before he could speak the rector called out in a loud voice: 'Chapel!'
'Hsssh! Sir!' But through the body of the court had passed a murmur, of challenge, as it were, from one aisle to the other.
The witness, a square man with a red face, grey hair, whiskers, and moustache, and lively excitable dark eyes, watering with anxiety, spoke in a fast soft voice:
'Tuesday afternoon, your Worships, it might be about four o'clock, I was passin' up the village, an' I saw the rector at his gate, with a loaf in 'is 'and.'
'Show us how.'
The witness held his black hat to his side, with the rounded top outwards.
'Was the loaf clean or dirty?'
Sweetening his little eyes, the witness answered:
'I should say 'twas clean.'
The Chairman said sternly:
'You mustn't interrupt, sir.—You didn't see the bottom of the loaf?'
The witness's little eyes snapped.
'Did the rector speak to you?'
The witness smiled. 'The rector wouldn' never stop me if I was passin'. I collects the rates.'
The rector's laugh, so like a desolate dog's bark, killed the bubble of gaiety rising in the court; and again that deathly little silence followed.
Then the Chairman said:
'Do you want to ask him anything?'
The rector turned. 'Why d' you tell lies?'
The witness screwing up his eyes, said excitedly:
'What lies 'ave I told, please?'
'You said the loaf was clean.'
'So 'twas clean, so far as I see.'
'Come to Church, and you won't tell lies.'
'Reckon I can learn truth faster in Chapel.'
The Chairman rapped his desk.
'That'll do, that'll do! Stand down! Next witness.—Emily Bleaker. Yes? What are you? Cook at the rectory? Very well. What do you know about the affair of this loaf last Tuesday afternoon?'
The witness, a broad-faced, brown-eyed girl, answered stolidly: 'Nothin', zurr.'
'Hssh! Did you see the loaf?'
'What are you here for, then?'
'Master asked for a plate and a knaife. He an' old missus ate et for dinner. I see the plate after; there wasn't on'y crumbs on et.'
'If you never saw the loaf, how do you know they ate it?'
'Because ther' warn't nothin' else in the 'ouse.'
The rector's voice barked out:
The Chairman looked at him fixedly.
'Do you want to ask her anything?'
The rector nodded.
'You been paid your wages?'
'Noa, I 'asn't.'
'D'you know why?'
'Very sorry—no money to pay you. That's all.'
This closed the prosecutor's case; and there followed a pause, during which the Bench consulted together, and the rector eyed the congregation, nodding to one here and there. Then the Chairman, turning to him, said:
'Now, sir, do you call any witnesses?'
'Yes. My bell-ringer. He's a good man. You can believe him.'
The bell-ringer, Samuel Bevis, who took his place in the witness-box, was a kind of elderly Bacchus, with permanently trembling hands. He deposed as follows:
'When I passed rector Tuesday arternoon, he calls after me: "See this!" 'e says, and up 'e held it. "Bit o' dirrty bread," 'e says; "do for my burrds." Then on he goes walkin'.'
'Did you see whether the loaf was dirty?'
'Yaas, I think 'twas dirrty.'
'Don't think! Do you know?'
'Yaas; 'twas dirrty.'
'Which saide? I think 'twas dirrty on the bottom.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yaas; 'twas dirrty on the bottom, for zartain.'
'Very well. Stand down. Now, sir, will you give us your version of this matter?'
The rector, pointing at the prosecutor and the left-hand aisle, jerked out the words:
'All Chapel—want to see me down.'
The Chairman said stonily:
'Never mind that. Come to the facts, please.'
'Certainly! Out for a walk—passed the baker's cart—saw a loaf fallen in the mud—picked it up—do for my birds.'
'Magpie and two starlings; quite free—never shut the cage-door; well fed.'
'The baker charges you with taking it from his cart.'
'Lie! Underneath the cart in a puddle.'
'You heard what your cook said about your eating it. Did you?'
'Yes, birds couldn't eat all—nothing in the house—Mother and I—hungry.'
'No money. Hard up—very! Often hungry. Ha, ha!'
Again through the court that queer rustle passed. The three magistrates gazed at the accused. Then 'the Honble' Calmady said:
'You say you found the loaf under the cart. Didn't it occur to you to put it back? You could see it had fallen. How else could it have come there?'
The rector's burning eyes seemed to melt.
'From the sky. Manna.' Staring round the court, he added: 'Hungry—God's elect—to the manna born!' And, throwing back his head, he laughed. It was the only sound in a silence as of the grave.
The magistrates spoke together in low tones. The rector stood motionless, gazing at them fixedly. The people in the court sat as if at a play. Then the Chairman said:
Jerking out that short thanksgiving, the rector descended from the dock, and passed down the centre aisle, followed by every eye.
From the Petty Sessions court the congregation wended its way back to Trover, by the muddy lane, 'Church' and 'Chapel,' arguing the case. To dim the triumph of the 'Church' the fact remained that the baker had lost his loaf and had not been compensated. The loaf was worth money; no money had passed. It was hard to be victorious and yet reduced to silence and dark looks at girding adversaries. The nearer they came to home, the more angry with 'Chapel' did they grow. Then the bell-ringer had his inspiration. Assembling his three assistants, he hurried to the belfry, and in two minutes the little old tower was belching forth the merriest and maddest peal those bells had ever furnished. Out it swung in the still air of the grey winter day, away to the very sea.
A stranger, issuing from the inn, hearing that triumphant sound, and seeing so many black-clothed people about, said to his driver:
'What is it—a wedding?'
'No, zurr, they say 'tis for the rector, like; he've a just been acquitted for larceny.'
On the Tuesday following, the rector's ravaged face and red-grey hair appeared in Mrs. Gloyn's doorway, and his voice, creaking like a saw, said:
'Can you let me have a pound of butter? Pay you soon.'
What else could he do? Not even to God's elect does the sky always send down manna.
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