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Title: The Bishop's Dilemma
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1202411h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2012
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The Bishop's Dilemma
by
Arthur Gask



Published in The Mail, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 7 August, 1948.



Now there could he no doubt his Right Reverence, Matthew Bossington-Brown, Bishop of Mungalatoo, was of a decided and masterful personality. Of strong evangelistic principles, he ruled his diocese, if not with the proverbial rod of iron, at least with a rod of the new plastic material in every way as hard and unbending. He exacted an implicit obedience from all his clergy, and woe betide one who wanted to wear a biretta, officiate in too ornate vestments, or indulge in any practices he considered to be too ritualistic in their tendencies.

His powers of organisation were excellent; he allowed no slackness; at all times he was grimly determined to make his denomination a vital force in the community. A strict moralist, he was old-fashioned in many of his ideas. He hated to see women smoking, he disapproved strongly of lip-stick, a painted face was his abomination. He thought short skirts cheapening to the sex and, indeed, all attenuated garments found ill-favor in his sight. Out of step with the latter-day world, he nevertheless practised all he preached, and, accordingly, if not particularly well-liked, he was greatly respected. With no children, he was married to a prim and rather austere-looking woman a few years older than himself.

In the early sixties, in appearance, Mr. Bishop was tall and gaunt. He had big fierce eyes under bushy brows and was clean-shaven except for well-trimmed short whiskers. He was always impeccably dressed as if he had just come straight from his clerical tailor.

One hot and sultry Monday morning he set out in his car to return home from a weekend spent in a small town some 200 miles up-country. He had been holding confirmation and it could not be said everything had gone off to his satisfaction. There should, he thought, have been more candidates to be confirmed, the offertories should have been larger, and altogether that the vicar was not zealous enough in his work. Apart from church matters, too, the arrangements made for his stay at the vicarage had not pleased him.

The cooking had been bad and given him indigestion, the table manners of the vicar's seven offspring had been disgusting, and, worst of all, the vicar's pigs had greatly annoyed him. Their sty was unduly close to the house, and not only did their fearsome odor penetrate strongly up to his bedroom, but also their grunting and snorting had kept him awake the greater part of the night.

On the Sunday morning he had complained about the horrid animals and been assured they should trouble him no more the next night, as they had been removed to a shed some distance away. However, the brutes had somehow managed to escape, and, unawed by the episcopal wrath, long before it was light had begun rooting noisily in the flower bed actually under his very window. There had been no more sleep for him then. The only consolation he had had was in realising what havoc the pigs must have made in the vicarage garden.

Irritable and cross, the bishop was very glad to say good-bye after breakfast, though it was certainly a dreadful morning to be starting upon his long journey back home. Not a breath of air was stirring, and, though no sun was shining, the heat was terrific. The sky was black and low, and he had been warned to get on to the bitumen, nearly 100 miles away, as quickly as possible, as there were all signs of a big rain developing.

A few miles upon his journey he was in a bath of perspiration from head to foot, and his clerical attire was altogether too much for him. So, the road being lonely and unfrequented, he pulled up his car and stripped off his outer garments, collar, episcopal gaiters, and all. These he folded tidily and thrust in his suitcase, donning in their stead a pair of rather oily overalls, which he always carried with him in case he had to change a tyre, and a light dustcoat which he buttoned up to his chin. Thus attired, he told himself he looked anything but the high and important church dignitary he was. But he did not expect to have to get out of the car again until he had driven it right into his own garage.

Much more comfortable now, he was making quick progress until a few miles farther on, when a man, standing by a stationary car, hailed him, and he had to stop. The man said his car had broken down and might take a long time to put right, so would the bishop very kindly give a lift to a young woman passenger as far as a railway station, about 10 miles up the road.

The bishop looked at the young woman who had now got out of the stranded car. His immediate impression was by no means a pleasant one. She was of the type he so disliked, very short-skirted, all painted up, and with an impudent smile upon her pert little face. Of course, he could not refuse, however, and so her suitcase was bundled into the back of the car next to his own, and with all the assurance in the world she took her seat beside him.

As he had surmised from her appearance, there was nothing backward about the young woman. She started at once to open up a lively and intimate conversation, at least on her side, as the bishop spoke as little as he could. Presently, she remarked she loved dancing, and asked him if he did not, too.

"And how do you know I have ever danced at all?" he asked with a frown.

"Of course you have," she giggled. "I'll bet you've been a gay old dog in your time. You look like one now," and she went on to expatiate upon the many dances she had been to, and the good times she had had with her boys. The bishop was scandalised, and devoutly thankful when the railway station was reached and he could drop her and her suitcase.

Then, only a few miles farther on, his troubles began. The skies opened and the rain came down, almost in a solid sheet of water so it seemed. Very soon the car began to slither and slide, and the bishop had the greatest difficulty in keeping to the road. Every minute the going got worse and worse, and in the two ensuing hours he barely made 30 miles. Twice he got stuck, and with difficulty extricated himself in reverse and went on again.

At length, just as he was realising he would not be able to plough his way through the heavy going much longer, he saw a small hotel just beyond a wide sheet of water covering the entire breadth of the road. He thought it was impossible for him to get through, but, accelerating fiercely, he just managed it, and drew up in a state of exhaustion before the hotel door.

Quite a number of people on the hotel verandah had been watching him and shouting encouragement to come on, with one of them, he saw, taking snaps of him as he arrived. The landlord of the hotel came forward and told him where his car should be parked.

"You're lucky I can give you a room," said the man. "I've got a crowd stuck up here already and you're about the last I can take in."

"But I only want to stop until the rain is over," frowned the bishop, "I hope to go on again this afternoon."

"You won't do that," laughed the man grimly, "and I shouldn't like to say when the roads'll be fit for motors again. We've been having tremendous rain. Some of the telephone poles are already down and we're cut off from everywhere. What is your name?" He caught the last syllable. "Then come in, Mr. Brown, I'll show you to your room." Carrying his suit case, the bishop followed him to the back of the building.

Left to himself, the bishop took off his dustcoat with the intention, after a good wash, of resuming his clerical clothes. Then, suddenly, he smelt a peculiar odor, one he had smelt so often upon hot evenings in the cathedral, the smell of face powder and scent.

It seemed to come from the direction of his suitcase which he had thrown upon the bed. Very puzzled, he proceeded to undo the straps. Throwing back the lid, right on the top was a woman's nightdress, blue with dainty pink ribbons. Not crediting the evidence of his eyes, he snatched up the garment, and to his horror came upon two pairs of scanties underneath. He knew what they were instantly from the obscene advertisements of certain city departmental stores which had often caught his eyes in the daily newspapers.

His breath almost choked as he realised what had happened. He had given that horrid girl his suitcase instead of hers. They were so much alike, and in his haste to get rid of her he could understand the mistake. Great heavens! then he was landed among strange people in this awful little public house with nothing but the things he stood up in—no clerical clothes, no shaving apparatus, no comb or hairbrush, nothing at all!

But his equanimity soon returned. It was most annoying, but really what did it matter? He would have to go on wearing just what he had got on, but in all probability, among the other people held up in the hotel his attire would be nothing out of the way. They would be just country folk who were accustomed to go about in anything and, not crediting the hotel-keeper's gloomy forecast of the weather, it might be only for a few hours and he would be off again in the morning. He would tell no one who he was, and so far from the city, particularly as he was not in clerical clothes, it was hardly likely he would be recognised. He would not say anything about the changed suitcases either, because if it got in the newspapers it might easily bring ridicule upon the cloth.

The midday meal was taken at a long table in the crowded little dining room. There were 10 others there, and though some of them were well dressed, as he had expected, they looked just very ordinary people, and not of the cultured class. He was just given a general good-day, and then no one took any more notice of him. He made no attempt to join in the conversation as it didn't interest him, being all about the splendid rain, crops, the price of sheep, and horse racing.

He spent a very boring afternoon, looking out of the window at the still pouring rain. There appeared to be no books in the hotel, no reading matter at all except some out-of-date daily newspapers. Some of the others played cards, but not being a card player, he did not join in. To the few remarks made to him, he gave only curt responses, and continued to be left alone.

One of the other people staying there was a stout, red-faced man, who, the landlord whispered, was one of the most important men in the State, "Sid Stevens, our biggest bookmaker! You could win a couple of thousand from him and he wouldn't turn a hair," the landlord said. The bishop sighed deeply as he thought of the public estimation of the values of the various services rendered to them.

The next morning the rain was still falling, and the hotel was now surrounded by a wide belt of water. It was an uncomfortable day for the bishop. He was unkempt and unshaven because, fearful of infection, he would not beg the loan of a razor from anyone. He knew from their covert glances in his direction that some of the other guests were becoming curious about him. He was quite aware his was a face which looked shocking when he had not shaved, even for one day.

That evening came a dreadful happening. For a few minutes the bishop experienced perhaps the most worried moments of his life.

They had just sat down to the evening meal when the last to arrive was a flashy, overdressed woman, whose make-up had often offended the bishop's eye. She came in with a white and frightened face, closely followed by the landlord. The latter pushed to the door behind him and announced hoarsely, "Ladies and gentlemen, a dreadful thing has happened in my hotel. Someone has stolen this lady's pearl necklace, which she values at £700. We have a thief among us here."

A startled silence filled the room. All eyes were upon the landlord. He went on sternly. "Yes, I regret to say the thief must be one of you here. It is impossible my wife or I could have taken the necklace, and our two helps are my cousins, and have been with me for more than 10 years. Also——"

"One moment," broke in the bookmaker, sharply, "when was the necklace stolen?"

"It must have been this afternoon," said the owner of the necklace, almost in tears. "I saw it in the drawer in my wardrobe just after lunch, and 10 minutes ago I found it had gone."

The landlord went on. "Now, no one from outside the hotel can have taken it, because the floodwaters would have prevented anyone getting near the place." He looked most distressed. "So I must ask you all to allow yourselves and your luggage to be searched."

"Well, that's simple," said a commercial traveller, "and no one can object."

The bishop went icy cold in horror. Search the suitcase in his room and find him in possession of those awful female garments! Suppose it came out later who he was and the newspapers got hold of the story—what a disgrace it would be to the church!

He spoke up quickly, to scotch the idea at once. "Nonsense," he exclaimed, "the necklace can't have been taken! The lady has just mislaid it. Let her look again." His voice was firm. "I, for one, refuse to be searched."

Everyone looked astounded and several called out at once, "But why not?"

"Because," said the bishop coldly—he looked round scornfully—"I am a clergyman and the search would be degrading to my cloth."

A moment's gasp of astonishment, and the atmosphere of the room became almost hilarious. What, this unshaven, unkempt fellow a clergyman! This grubby-looking extraordinary dressed individual a——!

"Unfrocked?" asked one man, trying to be funny.

"Test him out," cried another. "Let him say the Ten Commandments."

The bishop's face was black with anger, but what his retort would have been will never be known, for the door burst open and the landlord's wife came running quickly into the room. "It's found!" she exclaimed excitedly. "My little girl—she's only three—had taken it to bed with her. Oh, I'm so sorry."

It was some minutes before anyone had quietened down, except the bishop, who had at once calmly resumed his soup. The bookmaker spoke up smilingly. "Look here," he said, indicating the bishop, "whoever this gentleman may be, some of us have not been over-polite to him, and I should like to make some amends." He raised his voice. "Landlord, bring half a dozen bottles of your best champagne." The commercial traveller led the applause which followed.

The bishop had full command of the occasion. "And let this be a lesson to you good people," he said, in his best pontifical manner, "not to judge anyone by appearances. You see me as I am now, because, unhappily, I lost my luggage in that storm." And that was all they could get out of him, even after two glasses of champagne.

The rain stopped at last and a strong, drying wind sprang up. With all prospects of resuming his journey the following afternoon, the bishop thought his troubles were practically over. Alas, however, another bad one was yet come. In the morning after breakfast all the marooned travellers were standing about on the verandah, rejoicing in a hot sun which was quickly drying up the roads, when a horse and trap with four people headed past the hotel.

Suddenly an excited voice called shrilly, "Stop, stop, there's the old guy who went off with my beautiful nightie and all my other things." The bishop, to his horror, realised the voice came from the girl whose suitcase he had got in his room.

Very red in the face, he brought the suitcase out, but the excited girl would insist upon opening it then and there in front of them all to make sure her belongings were intact. In a loud voice and to a highly interested audience, she proceeded to relate what had happened. However, she accompanied the explanation with so many nods and grins that several of those present were half inclined to believe she was not telling the whole story.

Then, to crown all, the man who had been driving the trap, after staring hard at the bishop for some minutes, suddenly recognised him and addressed him by name. He assured him that the episcopal suitcase was quite safe and at a certain railway station all ready to be despatched to the city. The hotel guests were staggered, but several of them were quick to try to make out to one another that all along they had thought the ill-dressed stranger was no ordinary man.

THE poor bishop arrived home that evening, devoutly hoping nothing of his adventure would become public property. Alas, it did, and the following week the issue of a scandal-loving newspaper proceeded to entertain its readers with a spicy story of a highly placed ecclesiastic—it mentioned no name—who was found in possession of certain most intimate female garments upon arriving solo at a country hotel.

The bishop was certain everyone guessed who the ecclesiastic was, and, in consequence, was by no means gratified at the large congregations which, for many weeks after, gathered in every church where it had been announced he was going to preach.


THE END

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