Breakfast finds us calm but grave. My mother is allowed to accompany us to church. My father's clothing and general demeanour. Remark of Simeon Whey on my father's hat. First impression of the new lectern. Unmistakable evidences of guilt. The vicar's feeble apologia. A devilish device and its disastrous results. I race with Corkran for half-a-crown. My poor father is three times dropped.
Impeccable in logic, as I have already said, succinct in argument, and perfect in phrasing, it is with the profoundest regret that I have been obliged to omit from these pages the actual words of my father's denunciation; and I should like to make it quite clear that for the inevitable disappointment my publishers alone must bear the blame. Bitterly as I have protested, however, they have replied to every argument with sordid references to the cost of production, and this volume has in consequence been rushed through the press deprived of my poor father's terrible indictment.* Nor is this the less deplorable because at the last moment my father himself was prohibited from uttering it, owing to an intervention of Providence as little to have been expected as it has always appeared to me inexplicable. Indeed, had we foreseen it, I doubt if either my father or myself would have been able to retain his sanity, and we should certainly not have met, as we did the next morning, in a comparatively cheerful frame of mind.
Yet this was the case, and although, as each of us remarked, the expression of the other was unwontedly grave, it was a relief to us both to learn that neither of us had spent a bad, or even indifferent, night. Considering the circumstances, indeed, we had slept remarkably well, and in view of the tremendous task that now certainly awaited us, each of us was scrupulous to fortify his person with as large and nourishing a meal as possible. As we sang the morning hymn, too, I was glad to perceive that my father's voice was in exceptional condition, while the sunshine and soft air augured well for a particularly large congregation.
`The more, the better,' said my father, and he even went so far as to permit the attendance of my mother, thereby excusing her from her usual task of preparing our midday meal or dinner.
`We'll have something cold,' he said, `middle day, and she shall give us a good hot meal after evening service.'
With myself on his right, then, and my mother on his left, we left the house at 10.45, and I have never, I think, seen my father so meticulously dressed as on this stern but necessary occasion. Wearing his longest frock-coat. a double-breasted gentian waistcoat, faultlessly creased trousers, and the glossiest of brown boots, his collar was encircled with a cream-coloured velvet tie, held in position by a single Cape garnet. By a happy circumstance, too, his bowler hat had only been purchased the week before; and indeed, as Simeon whispered to me, it might rather have been that of some French aristocrat mounting the tumbril than of a Xtian sidesman of the United Kingdom on his way to denounce a lectern. Nor did he hesitate to lift it when we met Mr and Mrs Carkeek, accompanied by Cosmo and Corkran, although I have seen nothing more distant than the inclination of the head with which he signified consciousness of their presence., As Simeon said to me: `Your father may be a Xtian, but he never forgets that he's a gentleman.'
We were now on the brink, however, of the church porch - a couple of steps and the effigy would be in sight - and deeply as we had impressed upon each other the necessity for self-command, I could not help staggering a little and leaning against Simeon. My father staggered too, leaning against Mr Balfour Whey, while my mother staggered against Mrs Meatson, the obliging wife of Mr Meatson, the editor of the parish magazine. Then with a supreme effort we recovered our equilibria, and in the next moment - albeit at a distance - we were facing an image that, for malignant effrontery, was surely unparalleled in Church history.
I say facing, for although its actual countenance was turned, as I have said, towards the left, its malevolent bosom as well as its right eye were directly focussed upon our persons. Nor can I trust myself, even now, to describe its effect upon us as we moved up the aisle, although every detail of its repulsive appearance was indelibly graved upon my memory. Suffice it to say, therefore, that it gave the general impression of a vulture rather than an eagle; that it appeared to have robbed an arsenal of a medium-sized cannon-ball, upon which it now stood poised on the summit of a mast; and that its outspread wings had been blasphemously converted into a support for the Holy Scriptures. Nor was that all, for at each corner of the pedestal, in which the mast had been embedded, was an additional claw with projecting talons of undisguised ferocity - the total effect from the bottom of the aisle being that of a six-clawed monster about to expectorate.
Repellent as was its appearance, however, even at a distance, it was not until we drew nearer to it up the central aisle that I suddenly became aware in it of a quite unforeseen and infinitely sinister significance. For now, as we approached our pew, which was the front one on the right, it was perfectly clear that its eyes had been so fashioned as to be capable of regarding us, either separately or in unison, with an almost unbelievable degree of venom. But they could do more, for what was my horror, just as we were about to turn into our pew, to perceive that my father, whose colour had visibly deepened, was still holding on towards the chancel. Nay, to be exact, he was still holding on towards the very image that he had come to condemn, with his two eyes fixed and slowly converging upon the baleful eyeball of the bird itself. For a moment I stood spellbound. What was he about to do? And then, as the pew rocked beneath my feet, I suddenly realized that my poor father had been foully and deliberately hypnotized.
It was a critical instant. Another couple of steps, and one of two things must inevitably have happened. He would either have dashed his forehead against the bird's bosom, or his abdomen would have collided with the mast. Nor was the danger less real because it was as yet unperceived either by my mother or the rest of the congregation. With an enormous effort, however, I succeeded in rallying myself and, seizing and compressing my father's right elbow, steering him half-conscious into his usual place, where he immediately fell forward upon his knees. Then I bent down. `It was the bird's eye,' I said. `Whatever you do, avoid the bird's eye,' and ample was my reward in the immensely powerful squeeze which was the only thanks he was able to bestow.
But the danger was not over, for, now that we were in our pew, we were being permanently impinged upon by the bird's full visage, and I saw at once that we should be taxed to the uttermost to sustain its gaze until the end of the service. Regarded from this aspect, however, in which its competing tongue masked the malignity of its eyes, its expression was less menacing than insolent, albeit to an almost intolerable extent. And it was obviously in the exposed eye, solitary and unchallenged, with which it had followed us up the aisle, that its concentrated malice had found the weapon most effective for its purpose. Temporarily released, therefore, from the acutest personal anxiety, I was at last in a position to observe my fellow-worshippers, and I would that I could record even some semblance of resentment at the loathsome object with which they had been confronted. Upon no face, however, could I see anything inscribed beyond an unintelligent curiosity, while upon many I could not fail to observe an even more lamentable admiration.
Indeed I could hear actual whispers, indicative of approval, such as `Did you ever, now?' or `Isn't it handsome?' while some put such queries to one another as: `What do you suppose it cost?' `Whoever could have paid for it?' and `Hasn't it got a polish?' Nor have I seen anything, I think, quite so nauseating to a sensitive Xtian stomach as the scarcely-concealed triumph so smugly discernible upon the faces of the four Carkeeks. My only reassurance, in fact, lay in the reflection that my father's denunciation had yet to come; that in so large an assembly there must surely be one or two to whom the bird's true character must have been obvious; and that the vicar and his curate, who were now nervously entering, had not finally committed themselves. Then the organ ceased playing, the vicar, who was plucking at his surplice, hastily glanced at my father, and the curate, whom I had never seen paler, tremblingly embarked upon the service.
Pale as was the curate, however, and staccato as was the utterance, he was the very embodiment of self-confidence compared with the vicar when the latter first approached the lectern under the steadfast gaze of my dear father; and I have seldom seen the consciousness of guilt take such visible toll of an alleged Xtian clergyman as when this weak prelate staggered from his corner and clung tottering to Carkeek's eagle. Nor had I perceived until then - or not so fully - the profound wisdom that had been my father's in concealing from these men the exact moment at which he intended to make his protest. For they were thus proceeding in the devastating knowledge that at any syllable they might be cut short, and publicly arraigned before the whole congregation for their base act of betrayal.
In spite of my anxiety, therefore, I could scarcely suppress a smile, and I was glad to observe, as I glanced at my father, that he was once more in complete command both of himself and the situation. Indeed I had never heard him in such stupendous voice as during the hymn that preceded the sermon, and it was obvious that the vicar conceived this to be the prelude to the actual deliverance of the indictment. It was at any rate some moments before he was able to speak, and I have never, I think, heard a more pitiable noise than the quavering tones in which he uttered the words of Jeremiah: `Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird.'*
Spoken by the prophet, he said, under conditions of considerable stress - and who had known more stress than the prophet Jeremiah? - it might also be rendered, as the margin so beautifully reminded us, as a bird having talons. Mine heritage is unto me as a bird having talons - here he paused for a moment, avoiding my father's eye - or might he not say, perhaps, using the plural, our heritage is a bird having talons? For in this great gift, this unique gift, that few of us could have failed, he thought, to have noticed, we were all participators, even the most degraded of us, thanks to the generosity of Mr Carkeek. Yes, it was indeed our heritage, ours, a speckled bird, a bird having talons. And who could say that the care-stricken prophet had not foreseen this beautiful lectern?
For it was a beautiful lectern - few, he thought, could deny this - this speckled bird, this bird having talons. And yet it might well be that, owing to its very unexpectedness, it should give rise to differing opinions. Nay, he would go further. He would hope that it might, for they were all there, he trowed, in a double capacity - as human beings, overflowing with gratitude, but also as trustees for the church's furniture.
Yes, they were trustees. They must never forget that. That was a distinction that he would have them remember. They were not only human beings, but they were churchmen and trustees - church-beings, trustees and human men - yea, and women also, churchees and trust-men; furniture-women, church-trusts and humanees. They were all those things, and they would remember the old saying, so many men, so many opinions. Thus it might be argued -and very reasonably argued - that the present reading-desk was sufficient, and that the very magnificence of this noble bird might a little detract from its holy purpose. As for that, the congregation must judge. He would welcome the opinion of each one of them. There was not one of them whose opinion he would not welcome, even the lowliest and most sinful. For though our heritage had come unto us as a speckled bird, as a bird having talons, it did not necessarily follow that it was our Xtian duty to take it up and enter into it. Many great men, as they were doubtless aware, had given up heritages of considerable value, and who should say that they had not been actuated by the highest and most holy considerations? But others like Esau had lived to regret it. It was a matter for the congregation to decide, united though they would be in their undying appreciation of the splendid munificence of Mr Carkeek. A speckled bird, a bird having talons - let them not lightly discard their heritage. But let them not, on the other hand, too lightly accept it as a bird of no moment. Then, with obvious relief, and indeed a certain amount of complacence, he hurriedly backed down the pulpit steps, just as the curate, leaping to his feet, gave out the number of the closing hymn.
But my father was not perturbed. Throughout the whole service, indeed, he had sat there expressionless as a sphinx, but none the less terrible, because his unwinking eyes had given no hint of their ultimate purpose. Then he rose to his feet, carrying his offertory plate, and it was only in the very deliberateness with which he did so that the most discerning might have gathered a hint, perhaps, of the stupendous judgement about to fall from him. Nor did he allow the task, which was now so imminent, to interfere with his usual custom of joining in the hymn to his uttermost capacity as he moved from pew to pew collecting the offertory.
But the great moment was now close at hand, and I could not forbear turning for a moment in my place and glancing down the aisle at the procession of sidesmen, already formed and waiting my father's signal. For from now onwards even I myself was a little uncertain of my father's intentions, although I did not apprehend that he would begin his denunciation before the last of the sidesmen had yielded up his plate. Then I glanced at the vicar, who had come to the chancel steps; at the curate, who was plucking at his stole; and finally at the bird, with its brazen eye fixed as before on my approaching father. For the hymn had come to an end now and the procession was in motion, with my father in the van carrying his plate, followed by Alexander Carkeek, Mr Balfour Whey, Mr Meatson, Cosmo and Corkran. Slowly they proceeded, with Mr Carkeek, as usual, chafing at the necessity of having to march second, but obviously intoxicated with pride and self-satisfaction as the people in the pews craned their heads to look at him. So disgusting indeed did I find the spectacle that I was obliged for some seconds to close my eyes, and it was during this brief interval that there happened the awful thing that was finally to shatter my father's health. For when I opened them again, pale and petrified, it was once more to behold my father caught and transfixed and stertorously advancing into the same ingenious and devilish trap.
But now it was too late, though I gave a great cry, and yet that cry, perhaps, may have modified the disaster. For at the last instant, as though he had half-regained consciousness, my father swerved a little to the right, albeit only to stumble and fall at full length over the south-west talons of the pedestal. And yet even then the sidesman in him remained uppermost. For though a half-crown had been jerked from his plate, he never let this go until he had safely grounded it at the very feet of the vicar. Nay, he rose higher. For observing that the half-crown was hurrying towards a grating at the end of the transept, and perceiving that Corkran Carkeek, obeying his family's instinct, had suddenly leapt forward and was hastening after it, he bade me try and secure it before the young Caledonian had succeeded in capturing it for his own box.
`But your poor self?' I cried.
`Never mind me,' he said, `or he'll get his foot on that half-crown.'
And it was then, and only then, that he yielded to Nature with shriek after shriek of unutterable pain.
It was an astounding moment. For there were thus two spectacles competing for the attention of the congregation, most of whom had now risen and were standing on their seats in the natural desire to observe events. For in the first place there was my father, writhing on his abdomen at the foot of the lectern, and in the second there were Corkran and myself engaged in the bitterest of races to save and recapture the half-crown. Nor did I win. For though I managed to overtake him, he got his boot upon it at the last moment, just as I had stooped and was about to lift it up at the very brink of the grating. Choking as I was, however, and in spite of his exceptional height, I was able to look him full in the collar and assure him that from that moment I should cease to number him amongst even the most distant of my acquaintances. Then, dumb with wrath and blinded with tears, I managed to swing round upon my heels as the remaining sidesmen, assisted by the vicar and curate, succeeded in raising my poor father.
But the ordeal was not over. Nay, it had hardly begun. For not only did they drop him in the south transept, but they dropped him a second time in the side aisle, and again upon the threshold of the vestry. Whether this was intentional will never be known, or not until that Day when all shall be made clear. But I cannot help mentioning that the Carkeeks were among the bearers, and that I had never seen the curate looking so cheerful.