“Any idea what this be aboot, Jahn? That lal Tommy Grisedale didn’ say a lot. Just to come a two o’ th’clock, ee says.” Will Fleming, of farming stock, was more appreciated for his homespun wisdom than his grace of speech.
“No idea at all, William, I got the same message. And that little scamp tried to wheedle an extra ha’penny out of me for the errand. Packed him off smartly with a clip round the ear for his trouble. Good afternoon, Henry.” This to the next arrival, Henry Bullock, who panted slightly from his exertions over the near mile from his home up at Souterstead.
William Smith and Richard Lowther arrived together, both gentlemen equally non-plussed by the peremptory summons issued at such short notice. Atkinson knocked rather fiercely on the door, a reflection perhaps of his annoyance at being torn from his beloved garden during a rare break in the precipitous weather. The Rector’s housekeeper answered the knock and shepherded the flock straight through to the study.
“Good afternoon, Gentlemen. Thank you for arriving so promptly.” The Rector rose from his enormous desk as the elders entered, and directed them to the various chairs set about the room.
“What’s this all about, Rector?” John Atkinson was ever wont to assume the role of spokesman. “I was here not three days since. Is there a problem?”
“A very serious problem, John.” The Rector returned to his seat at the desk. “I regret to have to inform you gentlemen that we have a thief in the village.”
“I expect we have several of the blighters if the truth be known,” said Atkinson, smiling cynically, “but which particular scoundrel are we here to discuss today?”
“This is a serious matter,” the Rector continued, “and one which causes me some personal pain. Gentlemen, my bicycle has been stolen!” he paused to allow the dramatic effect of his announcement to impact on the assembled company, whilst his visitors, who had expected, at least, the Church gates or the offertory box, exchanged glances and a few impertinent smiles. “Yes, Gentlemen, my bicycle was stolen, some time during last night, from the garden shed behind the Rectory. I went to get it this morning to cycle into Coniston about my duties, and it was gone.”
“Well, have you spoken to the constable?” asked Lowther, trying to appreciate the gravity of the situation.
“No, Richard. And I do not intend to. I have no wish to see this awful business blown up, to the embarrassment of the village, by involving the authorities. Not the thing at all, I’m sure you will agree.” The Rector clearly had more to say so the company kept their silence. “I have a better plan, Gentlemen, and one which I’m sure you will appreciate. I had planned to make ‘The Quality of Mercy’ the subject of my sermon tomorrow morning, but I have changed my mind. Instead, I intend to take the lesson from Exodus chapter twenty, verses one to seventeen.”
“The Ten Commandments.” If anyone would know the reference it was bound to be the schoolmaster, Bullock. “I think I can see the basis of your plan, Rector.”
“Then you have the advantage of me, Henry.” William Smith was less well acquainted with the Good Book and perhaps a little slower on the uptake.
“I think, given what the Rector has just told us, that he has his sights set on the eighth commandment.”
“Please remind me, Henry.”
“Thou shalt not steal!”
“Precisely, Gentlemen,” the Rector cut in. “Thou shalt not steal! What I have in mind is to read the lesson, but to pause after the eighth commandment and study closely the faces of the congregation. And that’s where you gentlemen come in. I want you all to stand to either side of the pulpit, facing the congregation, and join me in studying those faces. Mark my words, gentlemen, the miscreant will reveal himself… By his shame!”
A nervous shudder swept through the company at this revelation. It all sounded slightly ridiculous and none of them relished the thought of standing like a panel of inquisitors in the Rector’s ecclesiastical courtroom. Nor was their discomfort in any way relieved by the thought of being spared a short period of posterial purgatory in the pitch-pine pews. But before they could protest, the Rector hurried on with the outline of his plan, clearly enthused by the cleverness of it. “And once the thief is properly identified, I shall preach such a sermon on the evil of thievery that the sinner, who will have my eye, gentlemen, will be shamed into returning the bicycle. I have no doubt of it.”
The meeting drew to a close and the Church elders departed to contemplate the morrow. Much as they all respected the good Rector, they shared serious misgivings concerning his judicial schemings. Somehow it didn’t seem quite… Christian. But they would, of course, obey their Rector and face the ordeal with fortitude
Morning worship was progressing to the usual form, and, with the time for the lesson approaching, the five reluctant elders rose from their pews and took their places around the pulpit for the Rector’s oration. A low murmur echoed around the Church at this curious break from traditional practice, but the elders managed to ignore it, acting as though it was all perfectly normal. An air of deep, even dark solemnity descended upon the little Church as the Rector began to read, from the King James Version, with his clear, stentorian tones.
“And God spake all these words, saying…” the lesson began as the sentinels explored the sea of faces, seeking a likely candidate for the Rector’s retribution. “Thou shalt not take the name…” he continued, steadily approaching the critical commandment. “Six days shalt thou labour…” The moment was nigh and the elders’ eyes scanned back and forth, each man giving particular attention to his chosen likely suspects. And then, the entreaty not to steal was passed and gone in a rapid babble of words, as the Rector hurried on to the end of the lesson before announcing the next hymn and retiring to his chair.
The elders glanced quickly into each other’s faces with looks of astonishment before returning to their respective pews and seizing up their hymn books, each one feeling a little foolish. The service progressed to the sermon, a remarkably short (for the Rector) treatise on ‘The Quality of Mercy’, followed by another hymn and an almost unseemly rush to the closing benediction. And as the congregation left the Church no pastoral hand was waiting to receive their compliments and bless them on their way, for the Rector had gone by another way.
“Well, what in heaven are we to make of that?” asked Atkinson, as the elders gathered ‘neath the Churchyard’s ancient, towering yews.
“I am utterly confounded,” said Bullock, shaking his head. Perhaps he just thought better of it and decided to let it be. I’d have thought he would have told us.”
It was then that Will Fleming stepped forward with a grin stretching from ear to ear. “Oi reckon I got the best o’ thissen.”
“What do you mean? You obviously know something we don’t, so come on, man. Out with it!”
“Waal, it’s loike this. I been ‘earin’ a thing or two o’late what oi’d rather not go into if i’s all the same t’you gennelmen. An’ oi were watchin’ th’ole Rector when ee was readin’ th’ lesson. See, you was watchin’ the people an’ I don’ s’pose you saw it.” Will paused, still grinning obscenely and glancing around him as though keen to ensure the privacy of the gathering.
“Well, come on, Will. Don’t keep us in suspense. What did you see?”
“Waal, it were when ee got to t’seventh commandment – that one what goes ‘tha shalt not commit adult’ry. I was watchin’ ‘im an’ oi reckon ee of a sudden remembered where ee left ‘is boike.”
The author acknowledges that the original idea for this story was not his own, the originator being unknown. He also wishes to point out that the story is set in the distant past, and that the ‘Rector’ here is in no way meant to represent the present incumbent, a man of the greatest propriety and most estimable character – as, I have no doubt, were all the past holders of this exalted office. They however are, thankfully, beyond the protection of the courts.
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