There had been a christening that afternoon at St. Peter's Church, and Albert Edward Foreman still wore his verger's gown. He kept his new gown for funerals and weddings (St. Peter's, Neville Square, was a church often chosen by fashionable people for these ceremonies) and now he wore only his second-best. He wore it with pride, for it was the dignified symbol of his office. He took pains with it; he pressed it and ironed it himself. During the sixteen years that he had been verger of this church he had had a number of such gowns, but he had
never been able to throw them away when they were worn out, and all of them, neatly wrapped up in brown paper, lay in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe in his bedroom.
The verger was waiting for the vicar to have finished in the vestry so that he could tidy up in there and go home.
"What's he 'anging about for?" the verger said to himself. "Doesn't he know I want my tea?"
The vicar had been appointed only recently, a red-faced energetic man in the early forties, and Albert Edward still regretted the last vicar, a clergyman of the old school who never fussed and was not like this new man who wanted to have his finger in every pie.
Presently he saw the vicar coming up.
"Foreman, will you come into the vestry for a minute. I have something to say to you."
"Very good, sir."
They walked up the church together, and the vicar preceded Albert Edward into the vestry. Albert Edward was a trifle surprised to find the two churchwardens there. He had not seen them come in. They gave him pleasant nods.
"Good afternoon, my lord. Good afternoon, sir," he said to one after the other.
They were elderly men, both of them, and they had been churchwardens almost as long as Albert Edward had been verger. They were sitting now at a handsome table that the old vicar had brought many years before from Italy and the vicar sat down in the vacant chair between them. Albert Edward faced them, the table between him and them, and wondered with slight uneasiness what was the matter. He remembered still the occasion on which the organist had got into trouble and how difficult it was to hush things up. In a church like St. Peter's, Neville Square, they couldn't afford a scandal. On the vicar's red face was a look of resolute kindness, but the others had an expression that was slightly troubled.
"He's been trying to make them do something, but they don't like it," said the verger to himself, "that's what it is, you mark my words.''
But his thoughts did not appear on Albert Edward's face. He stood in a respectful, but dignified attitude. He had been in service before he was appointed verger, but only in very good houses. Starting as a pageboy in the household of a rich merchant, he had risen by degrees to the position of butler to a widowed peeress, then, till the vacancy occurred at St. Peter's he had been butler with two men under him in the house of a retired ambassador. He was tall, thin, grave and dignified. He looked, if not like a duke, at least like an actor of the old school who specialized in dukes' parts. He had tact, firmness and self-assurance.
The vicar began briskly.
"Foreman, we've got something rather unpleasant to say to you. You've been here a great many years and you've fulfilled your duties quite satisfactorily."
The two churchwardens nodded.
"But a most extraordinary fact came to my knowledge the other day and I felt it my duty to inform the churchwardens. I discovered to my astonishment that you could neither read nor write."
The verger's face showed no sign of embarrassment.
"The last vicar knew that, sir," he replied. "He said it made no difference. He always said there was a great deal too much education in the world for his taste."
"It's the most amazing thing I ever heard," cried one of the churchwardens. "Do you mean to say that you've been verger of this church for sixteen years and never learned to read or write?"
"I went into service when I was twelve, sir. The cook in the first place tried to teach me once, but I didn't seem to have the knack for it and later on I never seemed to have the time. I've never really found the want of it." "But don't you want to know the news?" said the other churchwarden. "Don't you ever want to write a letter?"
"No, sir, I seem to manage very well without. Now they've all these pictures in the papers so I know what's goin' on pretty well. If I want to write a letter my wife writes it for me."
The two churchwardens gave the vicar a troubled glance and then looked down at the table.
"Well, Foreman, I've talked the matter over with these gentlemen and they quite agree with me that the situation is impossible. At a church like St. Peter's we cannot have a verger who can neither read nor write."
Albert Edward's thin, pale face reddened and he moved uneasily on his feet, but he made no reply.
"But couldn't you learn, Foreman?" asked one of the churchwardens.
"No, sir, I'm afraid I couldn't, not now. You see I'm not as young as I was and if I couldn't get the letters in my head when I was a boy I don't think there's much chance of it now."
"We don't want to be harsh with you, Foreman," said the vicar. "But the churchwardens and I have quite made up our minds. We'll give you three months and if at the end of that time you cannot read and write I'm afraid you'll have to go."
Albert Edward had never liked the new vicar. He'd said from the beginning that they'd made a mistake when they gave him St. Peter's. He knew his value, and now he straightened himself a little.
"I'm very sorry, sir, I'm afraid it's no good. I'm too old a dog to leam new tricks. I've lived a good many years without knowin' 'ow to read and write and if I could leam now I can't say I'd want to."
"In that case, Foreman, I'm afraid you must go."
"Yes, sir, I understand. I shall be 'appy to 'and in my resignation as soon as you've found somebody to take my place."
But when Albert Edward with his usual politeness had closed the church door behind the vicar and the two churchwardens he could not keep up the air of dignity any longer and his lips quivered. He walked slowly back to the vestry and hung up on the peg his verger's gown. He sighed as he thought of all the grand funerals and weddings it had seen. He tidied everything up, put on his coat, and hat in hand walked out of the church. He locked the church door behind him. He strolled across the square, but deep in his sad thoughts he did not take the street that led him home, where a nice strong cup of tea awaited him; he took the wrong turning. He walked slowly along. His heart was heavy. He did not know what he should do with himself. He did not like the idea of going back to domestic service. After being his own master for so many years he could not become a servant again. He had saved a tidy sum, but not enough to live on without doing something, and life seemed to cost more every year. He had never thought to be troubled with such questions. The vergers of St. Peter's, like the popes of Rome, were there for life. He sighed deeply. Albert Edward was a non-smoker and a total abstainer, but he liked a glass of beer with his dinner and when he was tired he enjoyed a cigarette. It occurred to him now that a cigarette would comfort him and since he did not carry them he looked about him for a shop where he could buy a packet of cigarettes. He did not at once see one and walked on a little. It was a long street, with all sorts of shops in it, but there was not a single one where you could buy cigarettes.
"That's strange," said Albert Edward.
To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked thoughtfully up and down.
"I can't be the only man. that walks along this street and wants a smoke," he said. "If some fellow opened a little shop here he might make good money. Tobacco and sweets, you know."
He gave a sudden start.
"That's an idea," he said. "Strange 'ow things come to you when you least expect it."
He turned, walked home, and had his tea.
"You're very silent this afternoon, Albert," his wife remarked.
"I'm thinkin'," he said.
He considered the matter from every point of view and next day he went along the street and by good luck found a little shop to let.3 Twenty-four hours later he had taken it and a month later set up in business as a tobacconist and news-agent. His wife said it was a dreadful come-down after being verger of St. Peter's, but he answered that you had to move with the times and that the church wasn't what it had been.
Albert Edward did very well. He did so well that in a year or so it struck him that he could take a second shop and put a manager in. He looked for another long street that hadn't got a tobacconist in it and when he found it, and a shop to let, he took it. This was a success too. Then it occurred to him that if he could run two shops he could run half a dozen. He began walking about London, and whenever he found a long street that had no tobacconist and a shop to let he took it. In the course of ten years he was running no less than ten shops and he was making money hand over fist. He went round to all of them himself every Monday, collected the week's takings and took them to the bank.
One morning when he was there paying in a bundle of notes and a heavy bag of silver the cashier told him that the manager would like to see him. He was shown into an office and the manager shook hands with him.
"Mr. Foreman, I wanted to have a talk to you about the money you've got on deposit in our bank. D'you know exactly how much it is?"
"Not within a pound or two, sir; but I have a pretty rough idea."
"Apart from what you paid in this morning it's a little over thirty thousand pounds. That's a very large sum to have on deposit and it is better to invest it."
"I don't want to take any risks, sir. I know it's safe in the bank."
"You needn't have the «least worry. We'll make you out a list of absolutely safe securities. They will bring you in a better rate of interest5 than the bank can afford to give you."
A troubled look settled on Mr. Foreman's aristocratic face.
"I've never had anything to do with stocks and shares, and I'd like to leave it all in your 'ands," he said.
The manager smiled. "We'll do everything. All you'll have to do next time you come in is to sign the transfers."
"I could do that all right," said Albert uncertainly. "But 'ow should I know what I was signin'?"
"I suppose you can read," said the manager a trifle sharply.
Mr. Foreman gave him a disarming smile.
"Well, sir, that's just it. I can't. I know it sounds funny, but I can't read or write, only my name, and I only leamt to do that when I went into business."
The manager was so surprised that he jumped up from his chair.
"That's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard." The manager stared at him as though he were a prehistoric monster.
"And do you mean to say that you've built up this important business and made a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?"
"I can tell you that, sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still aristocratic features, "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."