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The Awful Reason Of The Vicar’s Visit
by [?]

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.