This story is about a shop: many stories are. One Sunday evening this Bishop had to preach a sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The occasion was a very special and important one, and every God-fearing newspaper in the kingdom sent its own special representative to report the proceedings.
Now, of the three reporters thus commissioned, one was a man of appearance so eminently respectable that no one would have thought of taking him for a journalist. People used to put him down for a County Councillor or an Archdeacon at the very least. As a matter of fact, however, he was a sinful man, with a passion for gin. He lived at Bow, and, on the Sabbath in question, he left his home at five o’clock in the afternoon, and started to walk to the scene of his labours. The road from Bow to the City on a wet and chilly Sunday evening is a cheerless one; who can blame him if on his way he stopped once or twice to comfort himself with “two” of his favourite beverage? On reaching St. Paul’s he found he had twenty minutes to spare—just time enough for one final “nip.” Half way down a narrow court leading out of the Churchyard he found a quiet little hostelry, and, entering the private bar, whispered insinuatingly across the counter:
“Two of gin hot, if you please, my dear.”
His voice had the self-satisfied meekness of the successful ecclesiastic, his bearing suggested rectitude tempered by desire to avoid observation. The barmaid, impressed by his manner and appearance, drew the attention of the landlord to him. The landlord covertly took stock of so much of him as could be seen between his buttoned-up coat and his drawn-down hat, and wondered how so bland and innocent-looking a gentleman came to know of gin.
A landlord’s duty, however, is not to wonder, but to serve. The gin was given to the man, and the man drank it. He liked it. It was good gin: he was a connoisseur, and he knew. Indeed, so good did it seem to him that he felt it would be a waste of opportunity not to have another twopen’orth. Therefore he had a second “go”; maybe a third. Then he returned to the Cathedral, and sat himself down with his notebook on his knee and waited.
As the service proceeded there stole over him that spirit of indifference to all earthly surroundings that religion and drink are alone able to bestow. He heard the good Bishop’s text and wrote it down. Then he heard the Bishop’s “sixthly and lastly,” and took that down, and looked at his notebook and wondered in a peaceful way what had become of the “firstly” to “fifthly” inclusive. He sat there wondering until the people round him began to get up and move away, whereupon it struck him swiftly and suddenly that be had been asleep, and had thereby escaped the main body of the discourse.
What on earth was he to do? He was representing one of the leading religious papers. A full report of the sermon was wanted that very night. Seizing the robe of a passing wandsman, he tremulously inquired if the Bishop had yet left the Cathedral. The wandsman answered that he had not, but that he was just on the point of doing so.
“I must see him before he goes!” exclaimed the reporter, excitedly.
“You can’t,” replied the wandsman. The journalist grew frantic.
“Tell him,” he cried, “a penitent sinner desires to speak with him about the sermon he has just delivered. To-morrow it will be too late.”
The wandsman was touched; so was the Bishop. He said he would see the poor fellow.
As soon as the door was shut the man, with tears in his eyes, told the Bishop the truth—leaving out the gin. He said that he was a poor man, and not in good health, that he had been up half the night before, and had walked all the way from Bow that evening. He dwelt on the disastrous results to himself and his family should he fail to obtain a report of the sermon. The Bishop felt sorry for the man. Also, he was anxious that his sermon should be reported.
“Well, I trust it will be a warning to you against going to sleep in church,” he said, with an indulgent smile. “Luckily, I have brought my notes with me, and if you will promise to be very careful of them, and to bring them back to me the first thing in the morning, I will lend them to you.”
With this, the Bishop opened and handed to the man a neat little black leather bag, inside which lay a neat little roll of manuscript.
“Better take the bag to keep it in,” added the Bishop. “Be sure and let me have them both back early to-morrow.”
The reporter, when he examined the contents of the bag under a lamp in the Cathedral vestibule, could hardly believe his good fortune. The careful Bishop’s notes were so full and clear that for all practical purposes they were equal to a report. His work was already done. He felt so pleased with himself that he determined to treat himself to another “two” of gin, and, with this intent, made his way across to the little “public” before-mentioned.
“It’s really excellent gin you sell here,” he said to the barmaid when he had finished; “I think, my dear, I’ll have just one more.”
At eleven the landlord gently but firmly insisted on his leaving, and he went, assisted, as far as the end of the court, by the potboy. After he was gone, the landlord noticed a neat little black bag on the seat where he had been lying. Examining it closely, he discovered a brass plate between the handles, and upon the brass plate were engraved the owner’s name and title. Opening the bag, the landlord saw a neat little roll of manuscript, and across a corner of the manuscript was written the Bishop’s name and address.
The landlord blew a long, low whistle, and stood with his round eyes wide open gazing down at the open bag. Then he put on his hat and coat, and taking the bag, went out down the court, chuckling hugely as he walked. He went straight to the house of the Resident Canon and rang the bell.
“Tell Mr. ---,” he said to the servant, “that I must see him to-night. I wouldn’t disturb him at this late hour if it wasn’t something very important.”
The landlord was ushered up. Closing the door softly behind him, he coughed deferentially.
“Well, Mr. Peters” (I will call him “Peters”), said the Canon, “what is it?”
“Well, sir,” said Mr. Peters, slowly and deliberately, “it’s about that there lease o’ mine. I do hope you gentlemen will see your way to makin’ it twenty-one year instead o’ fourteen.”
“God bless the man!” cried the Canon, jumping up indignantly, “you don’t mean to say you’ve come to me at eleven o’clock on a Sunday night to talk about your lease?”
“Well, not entirely, sir,” answered Peters, unabashed; “there’s another little thing I wished to speak to you about, and that’s this”—saying which, he laid the Bishop’s bag before the Canon and told his story.
The Canon looked at Mr. Peters, and Mr. Peters looked at the Canon.
“There must be some mistake,” said the Canon.
“There’s no mistake,” said the landlord. “I had my suspicions when I first clapped eyes on him. I seed he wasn’t our usual sort, and I seed how he tried to hide his face. If he weren’t the Bishop, then I don’t know a Bishop when I sees one, that’s all. Besides, there’s his bag, and there’s his sermon.”
Mr. Peters folded his arms and waited. The Canon pondered. Such things had been known to happen before in Church history. Why not again?
“Does any one know of this besides yourself?” asked the Canon.
“Not a livin’ soul,” replied Mr. Peters, “as yet.”
“I think—I think, Mr. Peters,” said the Canon, “that we may be able to extend your lease to twenty-one years.”
“Thank you kindly, sir,” said the landlord, and departed. Next morning the Canon waited on the Bishop and laid the bag before him.
“Oh,” said the Bishop cheerfully, “he’s sent it back by you, has he?”
“He has, sir,” replied the Canon; “and thankful I am that it was to me he brought it. It is right,” continued the Canon, “that I should inform your lordship that I am aware of the circumstances under which it left your hands.”
The Canon’s eye was severe, and the Bishop laughed uneasily.
“I suppose it wasn’t quite the thing for me to do,” he answered apologetically; “but there, all’s well that ends well,” and the Bishop laughed.
This stung the Canon. “Oh, sir,” he exclaimed, with a burst of fervour, “in Heaven’s name—for the sake of our Church, let me entreat—let me pray you never to let such a thing occur again.”
The Bishop turned upon him angrily.
“Why, what a fuss you make about a little thing!” he cried; then, seeing the look of agony upon the other’s face, he paused.
“How did you get that bag?” he asked.
“The landlord of the Cross Keys brought it me,” answered the Canon; “you left it there last night.”
The Bishop gave a gasp, and sat down heavily. When he recovered his breath, he told the Canon the real history of the case; and the Canon is still trying to believe it.