The Thorn

The Rt. Rev. Barnabas P. Whittlesworth, M.A., D. Div. (Oxon.), was fortunate enough to possess an appearance that suited him precisely.  It was as if Nature had become tired of college dons who resembled prizefighters, and sweet-shop owners with the visages of undertakers, and had decided to make a man who looked exactly like what he was.  And so the Reverend had the face of an elderly cherub, complete with wings of white hair over his ears and small square glasses on the end of his nose.  He was short and comfortably rounded, and invariably dressed in a baggy tweed suit and brogues.  In fine weather he would add gaiters, a tattered cap, and goggles to this uniform, and go peddling around the countryside on his huge pre-War bicycle—a sight that never failed to cause great hilarity among the smaller village boys.  Far from being offended, the Reverend always made a point to wobble comically as he passed them.

You would have to be very observant to notice the Reverend’s hands, but if you were and you did, you might wonder if Nature hadn’t been distracted for a moment, for they were the hands of a much taller and bonier man, the sort of man who wears loud suits and frequents the company of bookies.  The Reverend tended to keep his hands tucked in his waistcoat, or, on Sundays, clasped inside the wide sleeves of his vestments, nodding and bowing his welcomes and farewells, which was perfectly in keeping with his station, and with the expectations of his parishioners, who, after all, did not count many close observers among them.  There were only three educated men in this village, the Reverend himself, Dr. Rust the GP, and Mr. Pusey, the solicitor, and only the latter two had ever noticed the Reverend’s hands, or thought to ask him why a man of his qualifications was not in a bishopric somewhere, instead of a tiny country parish.  To this, the Reverend had replied with a twinkle (and he could twinkle with the best of them), “Oh, but then I would be chained to a desk all day, sorting out disputes and debates and cleaning up all sorts of messes, and I would have no time at all to spend with pleasant persons such as yourselves.”

If this was the Reverend’s mind, well, his parishioners were not going to complain.  Ann Dobbs, abandoned by a drunken husband so many years ago, had seen all three of her sons put through school at the Reverend’s expense.  Old Lame Jed’s new roof owed its existence to a collection organized by the Reverend.  Issy Parker and Bob Shank were married and on speaking terms with their families because of the Reverend’s intercession.  And when little Mary O’Shea ran away because her mum wanted to drown their new litter of puppies, it was the Reverend who had found her, installed the puppies in his garden-shed, and assured Mary she could visit whenever she wanted.  And so perhaps this was why, in a place where everyone knew everything about everyone else’s great-great-grandfather, the Reverend was allowed to have one secret.

Once a year, on no regular date but usually in the spring, a stout, distinguished, vaguely Teutonic-looking fellow with pince-nez and a clipped beard would arrive on the train and disappear into the Reverend’s house.  He never stayed long, never stopped off anywhere, and never carried more than a Gladstone bag, which contained no new bulges at his departure.  The Reverend always saw him off with every appearance of amicability, yet somehow the two did not seem like old friends.  And if you met the Reverend on his way home from the station, he would have many pleasant things to say about yourself, and your family, and the weather, but not one word about his visitor.  Rather than speculating, however, the townspeople would spend the rest of the week fiercely telling each other that the Reverend gentleman’s business was none of theirs.  Not even Dr. Rust and Mr. Pusey, who might’ve been expected to feel less constrained, would inquire.  Perhaps this was their way of acknowledging how much they, too, benefited from the Reverend’s mild presence in their midst.

Take, for example, the problem of Miss Earlham.   Dr. Rust and Mr. Pusey must surely have breathed prayers of thanks for the Reverend whenever they thought of Ermintrude Earlham.  Not that the lady was fearsome; on the contrary, she was quite pitiful.  This was exactly what terrified everyone.  She was a faded spinster with a life-history made up of small, pathetic disappointments: caring for an ailing mother until any claim of youth or beauty was gone; fobbed off as companion to an ancient cantankerous aunt; slighted in that lady’s will; forced to move in with a niece who possessed two-year-old twins and a colicky infant.  Miss Earlham had finally suffered a nervous collapse.  She now resided in a boardinghouse, suffering arthritis in the winter and dyspepsia in the summer.  In any other village, Dr. Rust and Mr. Pusey would have received a call from her every few days—some mysterious pain or tremor that required immediate attention, some ambiguous legal wording that was making her fearful for her tiny annuity.  Once captured, they would have had to sit for hours in her room, drinking stale tea out of cups that hadn’t been washed, while Miss Earlham twitted on with desperate self-importance.  But, ah!— in this village, there was the Reverend, and he called upon the lady every Friday, rain or shine.

It went like this: the Reverend would just happen to be passing.  Miss Earlham would just happen to be standing in the door.  They would exchange neighborly greetings.  The Reverend would suddenly feel the need for refreshment.  Miss Earlham would suddenly remember she had the kettle on.  Alas, she would say, it was the maid’s day off (in fact the boardinghouse had no maid, only a daily woman who flatly refused to wait on the lodgers), and she, Miss Earlham, was such a poor cook (in fact she could not cook at all, having been Brought Up A Lady), but if the Reverend did not mind bread and butter…?  And the Reverend would reply, “Madame, in your presence, bread and butter is a dish for a king.”

Then they would go up to Miss Earlham’s sad little room, where she would fuss with her gas-ring while the Reverend sat with hands clasped on his knee, looking around as if it had been an age since he’d last visited.  There was a window which overlooked the neighbor’s wash-line, a sofa in an unfortunate chintz, and a lamp that was shedding silk fringes.  Miss Earlham’s bed was decorously hidden behind a painted Japanese screen of the sort manufactured by the thousand in Brighton.  Along the mantel of the boarded-up fireplace were ranged Miss Earlham’s few earthly treasures: a workbasket, an ivory-framed photograph of her mother, a souvenir fan, a porcelain shepherdess, and her father’s silver fob watch.

The Reverend was often invited to examine this watch, to note the detail of the inlay, to marvel at its accuracy, and to view the inscription, which commended Miss Earlham’s father for his many years of civil-service work.  It was undoubtedly worth a good bit of money—but of course it was unthinkable that Miss Earlham would sell it.  The fond remembrances: the pride of heritage: the Reverend would understand.  And the Reverend, testing the watch’s pleasant weight, feeling the watery slide of the fob chain through his fingers, would agree; the satisfaction of possessing such an item would well outweigh monetary value.

And then they would drink tea, and perhaps eat a few poppy-seed biscuits that Miss Earlham had unearthed from the pocket of her dressing-gown, and chat for a few more hours, and then the Reverend, with a sigh, would wrench himself away: Goodness, was that the time?  How it flew in pleasant company!  Alas, sermons do not write themselves.  Until we meet again, dear lady, etc, etc.  And Miss Earlham would wave him to the end of the road.  It was a perfect arrangement: the doctor and solicitor were released from their obligations, Miss Earlham was distracted from her troubles, the Reverend stored up treasure in heaven, and everyone was happy.

Now, life in this village had a way of going on for decades without any appreciable change.  On one particular Friday, there was no reason to believe it would be any different.  The Reverend’s customary visit had come and gone.  The town had heaved a collective sigh, and set about forgetting Miss Earlham for another week.  PC Bagsley was wheeling his bicycle toward the pub for his evening pint, when whom should he see but that very lady flying down the street, all a-dither.  The shopkeepers, in the process of closing their shutters, stopped and stared: Miss Earlham never came out without her gloves.  PC Bagsley felt a thrill go down his spine.  This was the sort of thing he had been hoping for ever since receiving his badge last year.

By the time he’d gotten out his notebook, and licked his pencil, and said “Now then, now then,” and “See here, see here,” a goodly crowd had gathered around Miss Earlham.  The milliner was propping her up, and the florist was fanning her, and the pubkeeper’s wife had brought out brandy for the shock, and then cold water for the shock of the brandy.  The tradesmen of the town were standing by, looking like men determined to do their duty by England’s fair womanhood, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.   

Miss Earlham had been robbed.

This fact, stammered out between sobs and gulps, shocked the gathering into a sharp, collective inspiration of breath.  There was a moment’s silence while each person thought of just how to spread this choice news as soon as they could get away.  Then everyone began to shout at once.  PC Bagsley shooshed the crowd, and embarked on a series of professional questions.

What had ma’am been robbed of?

A watch—a very valuable watch—had belonged to her dear papa (an empathetic murmur went through the listeners).   

When had the robbery taken place?

She didn’t know—couldn’t be sure—sometime this afternoon perhaps.  Yes, yes, she thought the watch had still been there when the Reverend had visited, and that had been at four (the Reverend: boys were dispatched to fetch him, and Mr. Pusey and Dr. Rust, too).

Were there any signs of forced entry, e.g., broken glass, boot prints, stray hairs, or cigarette ash?


Had ma’am been away from her room at all?

Well—(Miss Earlham colored)—perhaps—a few times.

Where had she been, and for how long?

Well—(Miss Earlham’s voice grew strained)—nature—occasionally—had to be—er—answered—.

PC Bagsley hastily discarded that avenue of questioning.  He stated his intention of visiting Miss Earlham’s place of residence, and interviewing the staff.  The pubkeeper and the greengrocer deputized themselves to go along.

The doctor and the solicitor arrived at a clip and took over in a professional way.  Miss Earlham was prescribed chamomile tea and rest.  Mrs. Dawlish, the most prominent matron in the town, opened her home to the poor lady, leaving Mrs. Mott, the second most prominent matron, rather put out that she hadn’t thought of it first.  A Citizens’ Watch was appointed to patrol the streets.  A collection for reward monies was begun.  By the time the Reverend appeared, rather pale and out of breath, there was nothing left to do.  Miss Earlham wrung his hand gratefully all the same, just before being borne away by Mrs. Dawlish.

The crowd lingered for some time.  Judicial punishment was the main topic of conversation.  Hanging and penal servitude were discussed.  The laxness of modern courts was deplored.  Modern morals were bemoaned.  The three educated men were much in demand, to give opinions here, to answer questions there, to support or refute various positions.  Mr. Pusey and Dr. Rust replied in measured tones and often at great length, but the Reverend managed little more than strained monosyllables.  His distress was noted, and credited to his account.  Of course a man as good as the Reverend would be greatly sorrowed, when faced with evidence of the evil that lurks in men’s hearts.

The town had a late night.  Nevertheless, the ladies were out on their morning errands early, and when the Reverend’s housekeeper reported that he had spent the evening pacing his study, respect for the cleric went up even further.  Mr. Pusey was investigating, with a gimlet eye, the whereabouts and activities of the rowdier boys of the village, while PC Bagsley had wired the constabulary of the next-town-down to watch for a suspicious commercial traveler.  Dr. Rust was in attendance on Miss Earlham, to see that the constant stream of visitors did not tire her.  But the Reverend remained out of sight.  Had anyone been uncouth enough to peep through the keyhole to his study, they would have seen him seated at his desk, opening, from time to time, a drawer, looking at its contents, and then passing a large, trembling, incongruously bony hand across his face.

He had indigestion on Sunday morning, and did not take breakfast.  It was his stomach, surely, that prevented him from showing pleasure at the packed pews and attentive faces.  Miss Earlham was sitting up front in her outmoded hat, her eyes shining with fortitude.  The choir was a bit ragged, since some of the trebles were still sulking from Mr. Pusey’s investigations, and the Reverend kept coughing and fumbling with his book, but the spirit was willing, insofar as the inhabitants of the pews were concerned.

They really expected a sermon full of smiting and woe-unto-ye, or perhaps a homily on “where moth and rust doth not corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal”; but the Reverend chose instead to expound on the doctrine of Divine Grace.  He began with the teachings of St. Paul and rambled down through Augustine of Hippo, St. Anselm, and the Church Fathers, inserting additional considerations raised by Modern Psychology.

For example, the Reverend said, perspiring freely (the day was warm), for example, suppose a person suffered from a compulsion to pilfer small items—not for profit, nor to cause damage, nor out of envy or spite or any other malicious purpose, but simply from an overwhelming psychological urge—an urge this person constantly strove to govern, but with mixed success—might this person, though living as it appeared in transgression, still experience a Christian blessing—“where sin abounded, grace did much more abound?  Here the Reverend peered intently at the polite faces of his parishioners.  Was it possible, he said, blotting his brow, that the Almighty values us more for our weaknesses than for our strengths?—since our strengths make us proud, but our failings and weak moments let us truly see His compassion?

The Reverend paused helplessly, as if he’d forgotten his lines and was hoping someone in the pews would prompt him.  When no one did, he fell to coughing, and the service continued apace with the Creed.  At its end, the prayers were read, and there was a satisfied stir in the pews at the mention of ‘succor and sustainment for our dear sister Ermintrude.’  Miss Earlham bowed her pink face while her fellow parishioners raised fervent voices in unison for the Confession.  No one, of course, was so impious as to open his eyes and look around.  One or two choirboys peeked under their lids (which didn’t count), and from their vantage point in the stalls saw the Reverend fumbling within the breast of his vestments.  Something about the way his shoulders were hunched made them screw their eyes shut and not look again until they heard him hoarsely giving out the absolution.

The organ thundered.  The choir rose.  Men and women stirred stiffly in their seats, releasing the odor of mothballs and lavender, and reached for their pocket-books.  The sexton walked to the front of the church and took up the collection plates.  Something clanked as he handled them—clanked as if a small but weighty object had already been deposited in offering.

The sexton was a dry, papery man not known for much display or demonstration, but he rose to the occasion now.  The sight of him striding down the aisle, sunlight from the transept windows illuminating Miss Earlham’s father’s watch held high in his hand, was a vision that brought tears even to the eyes of Mr. Pusey.  The story would be much repeated in the weeks to come: how the sexton put the watch in Miss Earlham’s trembling hands; how she clasped it to her bosom with a transfigured face; how she suddenly opened her eyes and said, in her timid voice, that as thankful as she was to have her possession restored, the theft had taught her that some things have a far greater value: the kindness, for example, and compassion of her dear friends and neighbors.  At this there was much reaching for handkerchiefs, and the organist, unable to contain himself, burst into a jubilant anthem.  In all the commotion, the Reverend very quietly handed the rest of the service over to his curate, and slipped unnoticed out the vestry door.

He must, everyone agreed later, have had something to do with the restoration, some part he was too modest to admit.   Who could know how many dark lanes and slums he had trod to find those rough thieving youths, or that passing desperate vagabond; who could know with what stern and eloquent words he had addressed them until they had repented and promised to return their ill-gotten gains?  In more embellished versions of the story, the unknown offender or offenders made a complete change under the Reverend’s ministration, and went into missions-work.  But there were other, more verifiable effects in the aftermath.  The florist’s assistant, a quite attractive young lady, was impressed by PC Bagsley’s demeanor during the affair and agreed to marry him.  Dr. Rust wrote a comic poem about the incident, and had it published in Punch, satisfying a lifelong ambition.  Mrs. Dawlish’s housekeeper retired on a small pension at the end of the month, and invited Miss Earlham to share a cottage with her.  They adopted two cats.  And the Reverend took an extended vacation to Majorca, for his health.

The story, by rights, ends here; but some readers may be interested in these lines from a letter of the Reverend’s, written en route to Majorca and addressed to an old college friend:

Well, old chap I slipped up again: it’s always the shiny stuff that undoes me.  I don’t even know how it happens but suddenly the thing’s in my pocket.  Remember how the Dean used to say “What’s Barney going to do when he gets to heaven, where the streets are paved in gold?” and you joking that was why I went into the Church.  The psycho-analyst that young bishop sends around has some interesting theories on the problem, but I confess I still find more comfort from St. Paul: he had his own thorn in the flesh to contend with, you know.  Ah well, it all worked out all right in the end—the young bishop might frown on the way I handled it, but by the time one gets to our age, old bean, one realizes that discretion can be the better part of religion.

My regards to the family. 

Sincerely &etc,

Yr old chum,

Barnabas P. “Magpie” Whittlesworth


BIO: Jessamy Dalton lives in rural Virginia.

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