Monday, 21 May 2012

The Devil is Doubt - a short story - Part I

I stood on the vicarage lawn, holding a glass of white wine and marvelling at the day. The late-May sun was strong and low, illuminating the house, the garden-party guests, and behind the vicarage, banks of dark clouds brooding in the eastern sky. I believed I could discern the merest trace of a rainbow. Somewhere over distant Northamptonshire, a cloudburst; but here in my native corner of rural Warwickshire, it was a blissful sunny and warm evening. Alone at the edge of the garden, I was enraptured by the sight. It took me back to my last days in India not so long ago; suddenly an evening just like this one came forcefully to mind – low sun to the west and high, dark storm clouds retreating eastwards. Bombay, the Esplanade Park by Victoria Terminus. It was early in the monsoon season; mid-June 1909. I'd soon be heading back to England, my tour of duty in India complete.

Some children were playing on the vicarage lawn. I noticed a girl running with a hoop, following the neat lines made by the roller on the wet grass. She was 11 years old or so, wearing a gold silk turban; yes, I'd heard about her. Her hair had started falling out as a small child; a reaction, I was told, to news of her father's death in the Second Boer War. It had started growing back recently, but in unsightly clumps. Yes, I had served in South Africa too. A dreadful war that shook my belief in God and Empire – for whose God were we fighting? Protestants both, Boer and Britisher. So much cruelty and so many deaths. My wine glass empty, I surveyed the scene with a sense of contemplation, not unduly wishing to talk to people, not just yet, anyway.

And now, the vicar comes towards me, he's smiling, holding out a half-empty wine bottle in my direction; I force a smile in return. “What a splendid vicarage!” I observe. Indeed, how beautifully located it was, with such a delightful and well-maintained garden sloping down to the riverbank. “And what an exquisite wine!” “Yes, it's French, actually.” I let the vicar pour me another glass.

As he does so, I'm minded of the sadhus, the Hindu holy-men of India, who bestow blessings upon the faithful in absolute poverty, having renounced all worldly goods. Here, back home, the Church of England, the Established Church, could afford to keep its ministers in comfort, an agreeable vicarage, wife, children, servants, horse and carriage... The vicar and I exchanged pleasantries. It struck me there and then as the effects of that glass of wine coursed through my bloodstream, that the Indian holy-men were poor because they believed in the wrong God; our vicar here believed in the One God, the one who was supervising the manifest destiny of the British Empire, under our King and Emperor, Edward VII. There can be no doubt here. And yet there was; there was very real doubt, but it was not a doubt that I'd dare enunciate to anyone.

“Our duty – Oh yes, I've served my King and Country – South Africa,” I told the vicar.

I had returned from Bombay in the autumn; my father had secured me a job in the Colonial Office, though this would not commence until September. So I had a few months of comfortable ease on the family estate before setting off to London.

My sister-in-law, a good friend of the Reverend Whyteside’s wife, had engineered to have me invited to a garden party at the vicarage at Priors Marston, eight miles distant. Together with my brother, we took the dog-cart, and together we trotted over past Fenny Compton, talking all the way about improvements to the drainage in the lower fields and the new pig house that would help him double pork production. I was more interested in just gazing at the landscape of my childhood, the gently undulating hills, the railway line, the canal, Wormleighton, just as I remembered it; it was so good to be home after more than a decade in Africa and India.

“Let me introduce you to Mrs. Frobisher,” said the the vicar. “Her husband died for his country in South Africa, you know...” He was referring to the mother of the girl in the gold turban. We walked up to a woman in her mid-30s, illuminated by the sun, wearing a long white dress, quite lovely yet sombre, not long out of mourning. Having introduced us to one another, the vicar moved on.

Part Two here.

This time last year:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time two years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Coal line rarity

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