Read The Snares of Death Online
Authors: Kate Charles
âThe Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent the night in prayer â' Gwen began, but Alice interrupted.
âI'm sure that Mrs Dexter knows about the Garden of Gethsemane.' She turned to Elayne. âWe create the Garden of Repose in here, and tonight at the Maundy Thursday service the procession will end up here. With Our Lady looking on.' She pointed at the statue high up in the niche. âThe Host will be put in the tabernacle' â she indicated the box on the altar â âto represent Christ in the garden, and people will stay throughout the night in prayer, in preparation for Good Friday tomorrow. We don't stay
night,' she added practically. âThere's a rota. People come in for an hour or so at a time. But there will be someone here at all times. You're welcome to come if you like. It's really lovely with only the candles for light.'
Elayne gazed at the garden, so beautiful but so alien. âI'd like to see it, but I â I don't think Bob would want me to,' she replied doubtfully.
In the end, Bob went to tea at Monkey Puzzle Cottage on his own. Elayne had intended to accompany him, but when it was time to leave she was in the midst of preparing a casserole to put in the oven for their evening meal. âCan't you wait until I've finished with this?' she asked.
âI'm afraid not. They said half past three, and Bob Dexter is not in the habit of being late.'
âOh, all right. I suppose you'd better go on without me, then. Or why don't you take Becca?'
âBecca is arranging my books on the shelves in my office. I'll just have to go by myself.' He sighed a martyr's sigh as he took his keys from his pocket.
âAre you going in the car, then? It's not far, is it?'
Dexter glared at his wife. âOf course it's not far,' he explained to her in a patronising voice. âNothing in the village is far. But I have something heavy to take with me. This morning when I was unpacking my papers I found a huge box of Noah Gates's tracts â you know, those ones he did called “Jesus: the only way to God”. That curate told me last night that Miss Barnes and Miss Vernon produce and distribute their own tracts, so I thought I'd take them some of Noah's. Perhaps they can take some of them round at the same time.'
Elayne looked doubtful. Somehow from what she'd seen of Miss Barnes and Miss Vernon, she didn't think they'd be very interested in Noah Gates's tracts. But Bob seemed to know what he was talking about, so she held her tongue.
As Dexter stowed the box in the passenger seat, he took one of the tracts out and looked at it approvingly, then put it in his pocket to show the ladies. So often these leaflets were poorly printed and badly presented, but Noah knew how to do things properly. He always said, âIf you can't give your best to Jesus, who can you give it to?' And so they were of a very high quality, printed on glossy paper.
Now that he was living in the neighbourhood, Dexter thought, he ought to pay a call on Noah and see if there might be any way he could be of help to him. Perhaps he could write a few tracts, something that they could distribute to the misguided at Walsingham. Next week he might have time for a trip to Fakenham.
The visit to Monkey Puzzle Cottage did not have a propitious beginning, had Dexter believed in such superstitious nonsense as portents. He took the wrong turning by the Two Magpies, and soon found himself out of the village. By the time he had corrected the error, and located the cottage, he knew that he would not be on time.
Dexter spotted the monkey puzzle trees and pulled his car up on the verge. The lace curtains twitched, then parted as he approached the front door, and frantic gestures indicated that he was to go around to his left. Dexter scowled as he fought his way around the house, past the car and under the monkey puzzle tree, finally arriving at the back door. Uncivilised, that's what it was. Why on earth couldn't they open the front door?
Among the greetings, Gwen Vernon fluttered with apologies. âI'm so sorry, Father. We don't use the front door. A nuisance, I know. But there's such a draught . . .' She indicated the ancient thick velvet curtain that hung across the inside of the front door.
Dexter forced a smile. âI quite understand.' In a moment he found himself in the sitting room, ensconced on the dralon sofa in the seat of honour. No sooner had he sat down than the door was pushed open and two dogs appeared, eager to investigate the intruder. They snuffled round his trouser legs with enthusiasm while Dexter sat stiffly.
âBabs! Nell! You mustn't bother Father,' Gwen protested half-heartedly, then added, âYou don't mind, do you, Father?'
He forced a smile to take the sting out of his words. âI don't like dogs,' he admitted.
âOut, girls!' Alice ordered, and the dogs obeyed grudgingly. She followed them to shut them in the kitchen.
Dexter smiled again at Gwen, a bit more convincingly. âSo, Miss Vernon â may I call you Gwen?'
It seemed a bit precipitate, if not actually improper â Father Mark
called her Miss Vernon â but she nodded.
âIt's a very pretty name,' he added ingratiatingly. âGwendolyn, is it?'
âActually, it's short for Guinevere,' she explained. âMy father was the foremost authority of his generation on Tennyson.
Idylls of the King
, you know.' She indicated the bookshelf over the desk. âThose are his books. And his desk. He was a very noted academic. At Cambridge.'
Alice re-entered the room. âOh, Gwen. You're not on about your father again, are you? I'm sure that Father Dexter isn't interested.'
Gwen shot her a hurt look and subsided into one of the chairs.
âGwen was just telling me about her name,' Dexter said easily. âAnd you, Alice â were you named for Alice in Wonderland, then?' He smiled again.
Alice looked shocked. âI should think not. I was named for my godmother.'
Gwen leaned forward. âAnd what shall we call you?' she asked shyly. âFather Bob or Father Dexter? We call Father Mark Father Mark, but we always called Father Lyons Father Lyons, if you understand what I mean.'
Dexter drew back, controlling his expression. âYou may call me Bob,' he said with forced heartiness. âOr if that seems too disrespectful, “Pastor” will do.'
Alice and Gwen looked at one another. Neither could bring herself to look at Bob Dexter.
It went from bad to worse. Over tea, Gwen mentioned Elayne. âWe were expecting Mrs Dexter to be with you,' she said.
âShe was tied up at home and couldn't get away,' Dexter explained.
âBut she told us this morning that she'd be coming.'
âThis morning? You saw Elayne this morning?'
âWhy, yes. We met her in church. We were working on the Garden of Repose, and she . . .' Gwen tailed off as she saw the expression on Dexter's face.
âElayne didn't tell me she'd been in church this morning.' His voice was quiet and flat.
âGwen . . .' Alice said warningly.
âOh, dear. Well, I'm sure I didn't mean any harm . . .'
Alice jumped in and changed the subject abruptly. âWe know that you won't be instituted until next week, and that you're not officially our Vicar until then, but Gwen and I were wondering if you would be willing to hear our confessions tomorrow morning â we like to make our confession on Good Friday before the Three Hours.'
âCertainly not,' he said, far too forcefully. The very idea filled him with horror. Even if he had believed in such popish nonsense, he couldn't imagine a bigger waste of time than listening to saintly old women bleating about their imagined sins. And if their sins were real â if, indeed, Miss Barnes and Miss Vernon enjoyed carnal knowledge of each other â he most assuredly did not want to know about it. It didn't bear thinking about.
âBut it's a Sacrament of the Church!' Alice reminded him sharply.
âPerhaps Father Mark . . .' Gwen interposed.
âYes,' he said. âI think you should ask him.'
Father Mark's name came up again a few minutes later. âI was told by â that young curate, Mark, that you ladies produced religious tracts,' Dexter probed. âDo you have some sort of a printing press?'
Alice and Gwen exchanged glances. âI don't know what Father Mark told you, but perhaps he's given you the wrong idea,' Alice replied at last, cautiously. âI wouldn't exactly call them religious tracts.'
âWe don't have a printing press. We do them by hand,' explained Gwen. âI do the calligraphy and Alice does the illustrations. Decorations, really.'
âAnd you distribute them in the parish?'
âWell, yes, and beyond. We go round once a week on our bicycles with them. As far as we can get on our bicycles.' Gwen smiled tentatively. Perhaps if she kept on talking he wouldn't ask to see them, and a crisis could be averted.
âDo you think I might see?'
Again the women looked at each other. âWell, we work in the dining room,' Gwen replied elliptically. âThat's where we work.'
Dexter rose to his feet. âPlease lead the way. I'd quite like to see what you do.'
There was nothing for it. Alice shot Gwen a look of reproach, as though she might have stopped it, and crossed the hall to the dining room with Gwen and Dexter behind her.
It was a small room with a red Turkey carpet, dominated by a very large round rosewood table. Crowded around the table were five chairs, and a rosewood chiffonier was backed against one wall. Dexter noticed immediately the large print of Our Lady of Walsingham hanging on the wall, and his face stiffened into disapproval even before, with a half-hearted gesture, Gwen indicated the array of hand-lettered prayer cards spread out all over the table. Dexter picked one up. âHail to thee, O Queen of Heaven,' he read with mounting fury. Queen of Heaven! âLadies, I'm afraid this just won't do!'
Alice pressed her lips together, and Gwen crossed her arms across her narrow chest.
The battle lines were drawn.
Â Â Â Â
They made a calf in Horeb: and worshipped the molten image.
Bob Dexter attended the Maundy Thursday service at St Mary's as a guest; since his institution and installation as Vicar would not take place until the following Monday, he had no official right to be there. He arrived shortly after the service began, and sat by himself in the back pew.
Elayne had wanted to come with him, but he'd insisted that she stay at home and continue with the unpacking. He'd been rather cross with Elayne: his discovery that she'd been in the church that morning without telling him was most disturbing. But he'd believed her explanation that she'd merely forgotten to mention it, and had let her off with a warning about her faulty memory. She'd been suitably penitent, and had meekly accepted his edict that she remain at home that evening.
There was a fairly full church tonight, he noted â more people than on Wednesday evening. The sense of anticipation was almost as heavy in the air as the smell of the incense, which Dexter found overpoweringly noxious. Although he had not intended to draw attention to himself, he was unable to stifle a rather ostentatious cough as the Gospel procession brought the incense out into the nave of the church, and several people looked at him curiously.
The service began as a normal communion service. But after Owen Osborne's brief meditation (Dexter wouldn't dignify so short a talk by calling it a sermon) on the Upper Room, strange things began to happen. Osborne and the curate, Mark Judd, tied towels around their waists and moved out into the centre aisle, followed by servers with basins and ewers. The two clergymen knelt beside the people seated on either side of the aisle, Osborne on the left and Judd on the right, and carefully washed the bare feet of each, dried them carefully with the towels, then moved on to the people behind. This was done in total silence, and was repeated until twelve parishioners had been so treated.
The rest of the service followed its normal course, but at the conclusion, instead of the blessing and dismissal, there were signs of other unusual events. Dexter sat up straight and watched very carefully as the servers mobilised and Owen Osborne took the lidded, pierced silver pot which held the incense and swung it by its chain towards the chalice that had been left on the altar. One of the servers put a piece of cloth around Osborne's shoulders, and with the edges of it the clergyman lifted the chalice from the altar.
The man with the large processional cross turned towards the congregation and moved out into the aisle, flanked by the two acolytes with their candles. But the young man with the incense walked backwards, swinging it at the chalice which was reverently borne in Osborne's outstretched hands. As the procession passed along the aisle the members of the congregation knelt, their faces averted. They sang quietly âOf the glorious Body telling', and over the sound of their song could be heard the chink of the chains of the swinging thurible. The procession turned and went along the back of the church, right past Dexter, who choked violently at the proximity of the incense, puffing out in clouds and wreathing Osborne's head in smoke. The old man's face seemed transfigured as he gazed at the chalice which he bore before him, and Dexter could see the same awed, adoring look on the faces of the congregation. âTherefore we, before him bending, this great Sacrament revere', they sang in unison plainsong, joining on the end of the procession until the entire congregation was moving, following the procession around the side of the church to the chapel.
Fascinated in spite of himself, Dexter followed at the rear. As he entered the chapel he saw the artificially created garden, now lit only by candles, with all the people gathered around. At the end of the song Osborne moved up to the altar and put the chalice into the metal box which stood open to receive it, then took the incense and swung it repeatedly. Finally he knelt down before the altar and quietly read out Psalm 22: âMy God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me: and art so far from my health, and from the words of my complaint?' At the end of the Psalm he rose and left quickly; the congregation melted away without a word, and Dexter found himself standing alone in the chapel, staring with horror at the idolatrous abomination.