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Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil (The Grantchester Mysteries), страница 1


Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil (The Grantchester Mysteries)

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Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil (The Grantchester Mysteries)

  For Marilyn

  ‘It is said that we are a great literary nation but we don’t really care about literature . . . we like a good murder.’

  Walter Sickert


  The Problem of Evil

  Female, Nude

  Death by Water

  Christmas, 1963

  A Note on the Author

  By the Same Author

  The Problem of Evil

  Canon Sidney Chambers was thinking about the nature of forgiveness. He was on his way to the consecration of Coventry Cathedral where he had worked shortly after the war. Now, seventeen years later, a new building had arisen from the bombed remains; a symbol of defiance against the horrors of history. How much, he wondered, could people recover from the evil of so terrible a time; and were some crimes so great that they could never be forgiven? How could a God of love have allowed such suffering and what steps could be taken to ensure that those agonies could be prevented in future?

  It was a bright afternoon in late May. Sidney had opted not to robe and process with the other priests for the service, having been specifically asked to sit beside his German wife in the nave. As a couple, he and Hildegard had been identified as a living embodiment of post-war reconciliation, proof that humanity could heal itself, recover and find love; and that a new generation could rise from the destruction.

  Although Sidney acknowledged the need for hope, he believed that it would not do to be too confident about any prolonged peace. The current tension with the Soviet Union was proof of that and he understood enough about human character and international diplomacy to recognise that ‘never again’ might prove overly optimistic. Evil could seed itself in the quietest places and grow unchecked for years, spreading its malevolent influence until it was too late to stop. Even here, in a rebuilt city centre and within a positive sign of faith at its heart, it would pay not to be complacent about the lasting power of goodness.

  Sidney was pleased and touched at the good turnout by the clergy from his own diocese. There was his former tutor Simon Opie, now principal of the theological college Westcott House. He was a small, bald man with a crumpled face like a baby who spent as much time with his budgerigars as he did on religion. Following him in the procession came Philip Agnew, a former missionary who lived a life of such simple asceticism that he carried no money and so hardly ate anything at all. Then there was Isaiah Shaw from St Bene’t’s, a great biblical scholar who was prone to depression and sought consolation in the bottle; and in the pew opposite sat Patrick Harland, a fastidiously effete lay-reader who loved suede shoes and was rather too evangelical for Sidney’s taste. This little Cambridgeshire group, Sidney mused as he watched them, were a microcosm of the Church of England as a whole, doing their best to promote the faith in different ways, sometimes serious, at other times charmingly amateur and other-worldly, ignoring the uphill nature of their struggle to bring grace to an increasingly secular world.

  Sidney explained to Hildegard that the idea behind the resurrection of the Cathedral was that the building would open out like a flower as the visitor entered, revealing beauty with gentleness. Men who had been responsible for designing camouflage in the war had contributed to the overall design, a modern variation on turning swords into ploughshares. Sidney and Hildegard had approached through the old lace-like walls towards a charred cross, then through the Queen’s Arch into the glass west front of saints and angels before spotting the great Graham Sutherland tapestry of the risen Christ above the High Altar; a figure of victory, serenity and compassion.

  ‘He has a particularly English face,’ Hildegard whispered, and she laid her head for a moment on Sidney’s shoulder, making him smile.

  The congregation of the great and the good stood to sing the hymn ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’, and the Dean gave his welcome. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached a sermon in which he argued that the building echoed the words of the prophet: ‘This house of God was glorious; now it will be more glorious still.’ The choir sang the Magnificat and the Mayor of Coventry collapsed, overcome with the emotion of the day. For Sidney the ceremony was both an affirmation of faith and a statement of national identity; and as he shared these thoughts with his wife when they made their way out of the cathedral, Hildegard reminded him that a special service was also taking place in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Prayers were being offered up to the same God, at the same time, in countries that recently had been violent enemies, in the hope of a lasting peace.

  There was the usual bun-fight at the deanery afterwards. The Coronation Chicken was washed down with a Riesling that some of the guests considered to be taking Anglo-German relations a little too far, and Sidney was able to see a few old friends, show off his new wife (they had not yet reached their first anniversary) and quell any speculation that he was considering leaving the Church for a career in criminal detection. Those rumours, he insisted, when his fellow clerics teased him and clinked their wine glasses in salutation, were unfounded. All he wanted was a simple life in a small parish and soon, perhaps, he said, glancing at Hildegard, a family of his own.

  His wife smiled quietly. She had already reminded her husband that she was in her mid to late thirties and the odds of having more than one child were long; almost as unlikely as Sidney refusing to involve himself in any more of Inspector Keating’s inquiries. She had tolerated the continuation of the two men’s weekly backgammon sessions at the Eagle, but had asked that any subsequent investigation would need to be approved by her in advance. She was prepared to accept that she might, at times, have to come second after God in Sidney’s life but she was not sure that she was going to take third place after petty criminals and felons.

  In the secular world, at least, she was always to be considered first. There were to be no secrets between them. Sidney could preach about forgiveness for as long as he liked in the pulpit but he would not find it at home if he ever deviated from the straight path of his marriage.

  ‘Is there to be no let up?’ he had asked in a tone that was mock forlorn.

  ‘I need to know everything you are thinking, meine Liebe. And if your conscience is clear then you have nothing to worry about.’

  ‘I think I’ll always worry about something.’

  ‘But not ever, I hope, about my love.’

  ‘Sometimes I can’t believe my luck in finding you.’

  ‘Then imagine what it is like for me, Sidney.’

  Hildegard’s first husband, Stephen Staunton, had been murdered by his first lover after dallying with a second, and she had never expected to marry again. Now she had done so she was determined to enjoy the happiness of their union; even if others had warned her that no marriage was ever plain sailing.

  Mrs Maguire, for example, Sidney’s former housekeeper, had already given Hildegard a crash course on the inadequacies of her new husband. He was, allegedly, prone to dreaming, hopeless at cooking, vague, untidy, and he spoilt his dog. He was easily bored, too often distracted and never appreciated the food she provided although he did like a pork pie, preferably with a gherkin, as well as sausage and mash, fish on a Friday and lamb on a Sunday and that was helpful because it would always do for the shepherd’s pie the following day and she would show Hildegard how the mincer worked. Mr Chambers had to be made to sit down for meals because otherwise he forgot or lost his appetite and then he went and bought a bun at Fitzbillies cake shop (because he had too much of a sweet tooth) which filled him up so much he then either left his dinner or burnt it. He liked his tea milky, hated cabbage and Brussels sprout
s although he would manage carrots and peas, and he never ate much fruit because his friend Amanda Kendall couldn’t tolerate bananas not that they would be seeing so much of her these days. His curate, Leonard Graham, was apparently no better and even though, Mrs Maguire was at pains to point out, no one would call him a ladies’ man, he was pale from being indoors and not taking any exercise, he smoked a pipe that was bad for his asthma and he kept referring to books in Russian about which no person in their right mind could make neither head nor tail. Both men needed watching, she had opined. They could not be trusted.

  Hildegard had thanked Mrs Maguire for the information and quietly decided how different things would be without fully explaining what her plans were. Although she was prepared to support her husband, she intended both to continue her career as a piano teacher and retain a little bit of mystery to keep him interested.

  Simon Opie gave the couple a lift home from Coventry, driving erratically in an excess of clerical absent-mindedness, dawdling at thirty miles an hour through Warwickshire and into Northamptonshire, passing Kettering and then on to Huntingdon with an alarmingly sudden turn of speed as the afternoon drew to a close. Hildegard had announced her intention of having a little sleep in the back seat while the two men talked shop about the order of service and their expectations of the forthcoming Vatican Council.

  ‘I have always wondered,’ Simon Opie mused, ‘how the Pope can have both a piscatorial ring, representing St Peter’s trade as a fisherman, and the good shepherd’s pallium, woven of white lamb’s wool from sheep raised by Trappist monks. How can the supreme pontiff be both shepherd and fisherman?’

  ‘Ah . . . you are worried about the mixing of metaphors?’ Sidney asked.

  ‘Exactly. Surely they need to make their minds up? You can no more catch fish with a crook than you might herd sheep with a fishing rod.’

  ‘Perhaps you are able to do so if you are the Pope; although that might be taking infallibility a little far.’

  ‘At least he’s not an aviculturist as well. I’d find that very irritating.’ (Simon Opie kept his own private aviary in the grounds of Westcott House.)

  ‘No,’ Sidney concurred. ‘That’s best left to St Francis; and, of course his contemporary successors, Simon.’

  ‘I wouldn’t put myself in the same bracket as the humble St Francis, Sidney.’

  ‘Of course not,’ his colleague smiled. ‘But we can all aim low.’

  After two hours they reached the outskirts of Cambridge. Sidney was looking forward to a consoling whisky after a long day. Hildegard woke and told them that she had dreamed of planes flying low over Berlin and dropping children in parachutes rather than bombs. What could it mean? Sidney wondered silently if it was a sign that she wanted a child of her own more keenly than she had previously admitted.

  Simon Opie pulled up outside the vicarage, applied the handbrake, and stepped round to the back to let Hildegard out as Sidney collected their things from the boot. After bidding them a fond farewell, and vowing to see them again before too long, he started the car once more and prepared to drive off. The sound of the engine almost obscured the little cry, halfway between a gasp and a scream, that Hildegard made.

  On the doorstep of the vicarage lay two dead doves.

  Sidney put his arm round his wife, looked down, and then turned to see Simon Opie’s Humber recede into the distance. He told Hildegard to go into the house. He did not want her to be distressed. He tried to think of the most natural and least upsetting explanation for the dead birds at his front door. Perhaps his beloved Labrador Dickens had found them, or they had been left as a present from Jerome Benson, the local taxidermist? Did people eat doves? he thought wildly. Perhaps they were like quail or duck? Could he separate the idea of a dove as a symbol of peace from its culinary potential? He inspected the birds for signs of shot but there were none; nor were their necks broken. In fact it was no clearer how they had died than why they were on his doorstep. The only certainty was that this was not an accident: two doves, slain and laid out for discovery. There was no note.

  He fetched a spade from the shed and buried the birds in the garden, praying not only for their souls but also, as he remembered the solemn ceremony of dedication that afternoon, for peace; in his own life and in the wider world.

  Hildegard tried to banish the vision of the doves, so still and dead, by making some ham sandwiches and a pot of tea. A cheerful Leonard Graham had popped in to see how the day had gone. He asked if Sidney had ‘passed on the news’.

  ‘What news?’ Hildegard asked, having been unable to concentrate on anything Sidney’s curate had said.

  ‘I’m going to be a vicar.’

  ‘Where?’ Hildegard asked.

  ‘It’s a parish in North London. Holloway. A bit different from here.’

  ‘I had no idea.’

  ‘Didn’t Sidney tell you?’

  His colleague looked abashed. ‘I was waiting for the right moment.’

  ‘You forgot.’

  ‘Of course I didn’t forget.’

  ‘Cup of tea, Leonard?’ Hildegard asked. She stood by the window, unable to settle.

  Sidney looked at the book his curate was carrying. ‘You’ll have to pack up your Dostoevsky in your old kit bag.’

  ‘But I don’t think I’ll be smiling.’

  ‘No, perhaps not.’ Sidney could not forget the dead birds. ‘Leonard, there’s something I need to ask you. Is this the first time you’ve been to the vicarage today?’

  ‘I was here earlier. Why?’

  ‘It’s just that Hildegard found a couple of doves on the doorstep.’

  ‘A gift?’

  Hildegard handed him his tea. ‘Not a very welcome one.’

  ‘I think you can cook doves, you know. The Russians have a dove-like dish with white cabbage. Golubtsy, I think it’s called . . .’

  ‘Yes, I can believe that,’ Sidney cut in. ‘But this looked very different.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘I’m not sure.’

  ‘An omen? Surely not?’

  ‘Possibly, but I can’t imagine why. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong; at least not recently.’

  ‘Are you going to tell Inspector Keating?’

  ‘I thought I might.’

  ‘Sidney . . .’ Hildegard interjected.

  ‘Just to be on the safe side. Even if we have to solve the mystery ourselves.’

  Hildegard put her arms round her husband’s neck. ‘Perhaps we should ignore them. I don’t want you getting into any trouble, meine Liebe. I know what you’re like.’

  Sidney kissed his wife on the cheek, and held a lock of her hair in his hand. ‘Please don’t worry, my darling.’

  Leonard was always touched by these small demonstrations of love between Sidney and his new wife. He saw that it was time to go. ‘I am sure there’s a perfectly plausible explanation. But I should leave you love-birds to it,’ Leonard observed before realising, as he walked down the vicarage path, that it was not the most helpful remark he could have made in the circumstances.

  It was almost eleven o’clock. Sidney turned on the wireless and listened to the news on the Home Service. As well as telling listeners that it was Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia’s birthday, that Soviet ships were monitoring nuclear testing by the United States at Christmas Island, and that Sussex had beaten Pakistan by seven wickets, there was also a report of the Queen’s attendance, accompanied by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden, at the service they had attended that very morning.

  Sidney sat at his desk in his study, looked over his correspondence, and then knelt at his prie-dieu to say his prayers. He asked for mercy, forgiveness and understanding, and prayed that the birds that had been left on his doorstep were not a sign of more ominous things to come.

  ‘O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto Thy servants that peace which the world cannot give . . .’

  Hildegard always liked to be first in
to bed and Sidney listened to her humming as she climbed the stairs; at first he thought it was a German folk song until he recognised ‘The man I love’. It was extraordinary that he was that man. No matter how badly a day went, or how worried he was, he knew that she loved him absolutely and that he loved her. It was the most precious thing in his life and he would do nothing to harm it.

  Hildegard was almost asleep when he finally came upstairs, giving her husband a drowsy kiss before turning away from him, on to her side. Sidney listened to his wife’s breathing as she fell asleep. It was erratic and rose in volume the deeper she slept (had she begun to snore?) and Sidney worried then that one day he might be in her presence when her breathing stopped altogether. They had only been married for six months but he could no longer bear any time they spent apart. He had never felt that his existence on this earth could be so complete. He was even afraid of his own happiness. He worried that it might not endure; he almost expected it not to last, perhaps believing that he didn’t deserve it, and it was all an elaborate joke to make the pain of any eventual loss far worse. Strange, he thought, that a man could not trust contentment or appreciate it for what it was.

  Sidney tried to let his own breathing fall in with hers, imagining his wife’s rhythm could help him sleep and they would be synchronised through the night. But Hildegard’s breathing was fitful, filled with long silences that were then broken by a loud shudder as if she was dreaming so deeply she had forgotten how to inhale and only remembered just in time. Sometimes she gave a little cry, or adjusted her position, lying first on her back before turning towards him, oblivious, lost in dreams or the past, unaware of any waking present, safe from danger, warm in the half-light.

  It was love, he thought, to lie like this, listening to his wife so near.

  Contentment was a gift that Sidney knew was hard won, but he was grateful for it, and he fell asleep musing on other small areas of life where he felt simply, and easily, at peace with the world; not least the regular Thursday evening backgammon session in the RAF bar of the Eagle with Inspector Keating.

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