This sort of thing was not entirely unexpected, ever since that fateful day a few weeks before when he had been summoned to the Bishop's residence. Since there was no obvious reason for the meeting, Belcher had feared the worst, a reprimand for Lax Oratory perhaps, or anonymous accusations of Conduct Unbecoming. (He had only the vaguest notion of what the punishable offenses were for men of the cloth.) At the same time, he had to admit, trembling with barely concealed trepidation as he knocked on the door, he would not mind being tossed out of the clergy. Certainly the outlandish schemes being proposed now by Godfrey Egan were of the type a true minister should not even consider. Yet a close reading of the Scriptures actually seemed to buttress the Anarchist case. Being defrocked would solve things for him, admittedly in a rather brutal way, but without having to make the decision himself. If you even think about leaving the ministry you should do it, part of him argued. A minister's faith should be absolute. Yours is wavering, flickering, wishy-washy at best. A candle in a hurricane. What kind of an example are you presenting your parishioners? But the other side of him recoiled at the very concept of quitting anything. He had a passive, enduring tenacity. There were oaths he had taken, precepts he had sworn to in all seriousness, which he did not wish to break simply because he was unhappy. He would doubtless be unhappy in whatever he was doing. He was an unhappy man. At least in his present employment he had the chance to do some small good. His Grace will decide for me, he consoled himself, trying to conceal a poorly mended collar.
But rather than be subjected to reprimand or censure, he had been bewildered to find himself treated like a visiting dignitary.
"Ah, Reverend Belcher!" the Bishop cried, rushing forward to greet him with extended arms. "How go things at Saint Eustace's?"
Before the Reverend could answer, his Grace, a garrulous old man, was pushing him toward a decanter of sherry, reminiscing about his own days as "a toiler in the vineyard."
"Carbolic soap," he recalled. "I would go through a cake of it a week. My wife would simply not allow me further in than the vestibule without having a hot basin brought out. The smell of poverty, you know. She simply could not abide it. Though I," he confided, twinkling over his glass, "was far beyond such fastidiousness. Why there was not a staircase I would not climb, a bedbug I would not crush, to save a soul from Jesus."
"For Jesus, certainly," the Reverend murmured.
"Well that is neither here nor there," the senile episcopant burped, using his crozier like a cane to stagger out of his chair. "You, my boy" he raised his eyebrows playfully, "have friends in high places."
"I am grateful for the interest your Grace takes," Belcher said humbly.
The old man looked at him a moment.
"Oh no, not I," he said. "To be honest, I don't know you from damn. No sir, even higher places than here." He held up an envelope boasting a thick black seal veined with real gold.
"A relative?" he teased. "Some 'uncle' who used to hold hands with your mother while your father was carving at the sideboard? A godparent you never met but whose gifts outshone all others?"
"I do not know what you are talking about," the Reverend said.
"You have a protector, sir. A friend in Royal circles. You have been plucked from obscurity. I am ordered to permit your preaching at the Palace, at a date to be specified later. A clean, or perhaps altogether new collar, is recommended."
"Surely there is a mistake," Belcher frowned, hefting the weighted, engraved command.
"His Majesty, or, at this date, more likely the Heir Apparent, does not make mistakes," the Bishop replied sententiously. "Were he to remark the sky was purple we would all have to get up on ladders and scrub it with porphyry."
"Preach before His Majesty?" The Reverend shook his head. "What could I possibly tell him?"
"Oh, the usual stuff." The Bishop began stumping off. Belcher got up to follow. "That we are going to Hell in a handbasket. That the only hope is to follow the teachings of...of..."
"Jesus?"
"Him, yes," the old man waved. "What are you following me for, sir?"
"I thought we were--"
"No, I am through with you. Off you go. Damn sherry," he complained, already speaking as if he were alone. "Courses through me like the Danube."
Though he was too terrified to even mention this thunderbolt of preferment, word had obviously leaked out. He had already received several other invitations. None so exalted, though, as to the Duchess' dinner party. To calm himself, he walked the distance, slowing his eager feet, reassuring his nervous mind. You will know no one, he said. And no one will know you. It will just be a bunch of curious snobs. Nibble the food, appreciate the wine, and steal something for Mrs. Hatchitt. A napkin ring, perhaps. Or one of the doilies.
The Duchess lived in Knightsbridge, and was thus one of the unfortunate residents whose house was flooded with Saint Steven's Fire, as it had come to be known. Reverend Belcher, unprepared, gave a little cry as he rounded the corner. "Good Christ," he said.