Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
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A Visit from the Bishop

It was the kind of evening he liked best: the day’s responsibilities discharged, the congregation congratulatory, the dinner excellent . . . He sighed and lifted the cut crystal glass of single malt Scotch to his lips.

They were seated in the formal dining room off the terrace. Below them sloped the gardens, terraced down to the private beach, with its small, sharp stones.

The sea breeze came in through the casement windows carrying with it the faintly spicy scent of the massed geraniums in the window boxes.

“Shall I freshen your drink, George?” His hostess, Carolyn, reached for the square, dark bottle on its silver tray by the window.

“No, I’m fine for the moment, my dear. Thank you.”

It was the hour after dinner and the friends were savoring that interval between an excellent dinner and a crisp, perfectly made bed on a warm night toward the end of summer. He treasured these annual weekends at Carolyn’s beachfront estate in York Harbor, Maine. He had been invited to give the Sunday sermon at the church of his faith, the Protestant Episcopal, where Carolyn was the rector’s wife, and this Sunday dinner with old friends capped the weekend.

Swanwicke was an Italianate villa on fifty acres of land, the driveway half a mile long and the owners identified only by a small hand-lettered sign. The dining room was in the north wing of the house, the formal sitting room in the south wing. The two wings were connected by a central hall with a massive fireplace. In the sitting room, family portraits framed in silver stood on all the open surfaces: Carolyn and her siblings as children, Carolyn and Mark’s own grown children and their spouses—all of them educated at select New England boarding schools, well-chosen colleges, and launched into good careers, with families of their own.

They were a party of seven seated around the mahogany table: Carolyn; Mark; Warren, Mark’s accountant; his wife Cynthia; and Peter, the church organist, accompanied by his wife Elaine.

George flexed his long feet, clad in his distinctive purple socks. The purple was a mark of his office, also a private joke. In the Church, only a bishop could wear purple, and George had recently completed his tenth year as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. He and Christine lived in Cleveland. Christine had not accompanied him on this trip, but had stayed behind to supervise a new landscaping plan. He was just as happy to be on his own.

He returned his attention to the table. Carolyn sipped her coffee in its Wedgwood cup. “But is it a good investment, Warren?” she asked.

“Art of that quality is always a good investment,” Warren said. “A Picasso sketch will always increase in value. And don’t forget, the old man is still alive and creating work. When he dies, the production of Picassos will stop, and any work of his, particularly from the period you’re discussing, will appreciate rapidly.”

His wife spoke up. “And it’s such a gorgeous little piece,” she said. “The image of the mother and the child, the tenderness of the gesture. It’s beautifully realized.”

“You had an adventure with a work of art, didn’t you, George, some sort of stolen painting you got mixed up in?”

Carolyn glanced at her husband with faint disapproval. “George? Involved with a stolen painting? I hardly think so, Mark dear.”

“No, it’s quite true, though it’s not what you think. This was when I was a parish priest.”

“Well, hardly any parish priest.” This came from Cynthia, a stunning blonde whose simple pearl necklace accentuated the clean line of her collar bone.

“I was indeed a parish priest,” he began.

“Yes, at the little church around the corner.” There was general laughter among the guests. “The little church around the corner” was the nickname for a tiny, exquisite Episcopal chapel on Wall Street. Among its congregants were those who had made millions in industry and finance. To be called to such a rich, high-profile parish your first job out of seminary had been George’s amazing luck, and had occasioned his first notice by the national press.

Now Mark returned to those days, prompted by the question about the Picasso. “Tell us about that girl and the stolen painting,” he announced.

Cynthia leaned forward, avid. “A stolen painting, George? I agree with Carolyn. Or did you steal it?” Her eyes were wide; she was obviously joking.

“It wasn’t ‘that girl,’ Mark, as you know, it was one of my parishioners, a lovely young lady, who always helped enormously with our annual rummage sale. But you know, telling stories is thirsty work, do you think you could . . . ?” He tipped his glass in the general direction of the drink tray.

Mark topped off his drink.

George continued. “Gwen was a lovely girl, and she came to me in some distress, concerned that she possessed a stolen painting, a very famous stolen painting.”

He paused, took a sip. The Tobermory was indeed very, very good. “Now, I knew this girl’s character. She had been coming regularly to services; she was friendly at the coffee hour, but not overly friendly.” His audience nodded wisely. “A solid citizen, not the sort of person to be involved in something shady. And of course, as matters proved, I was correct.”

“As you so often are, George.” Carolyn was always his staunchest ally.

He nodded his thanks.

“She came to see me in my office at the church. She was wearing a gabardine coat and cotton gloves. She sat with her knees pressed together, leaning forward, with a death grip on her pocketbook. To tell this story was clearly an effort for her. Briefly, she had found this painting in the trash, on the sidewalk in New York. A small canvas. She had been drawn to it by the exquisite nature of the color.”

He paused, and Mark said, “Go on, George.”

“The problem developed when she took an art class at City College and the professor showed the class a larger version of the very same painting. The painting in her possession was a small study done by the artist in preparation for a larger work. It had been reported stolen, and the FBI had been called in to investigate.”

“No,” Carolyn protested. “The poor girl.”

George nodded. “You can imagine her distress.”

“But who was the artist?” This came from Peter’s wife. “If he was so famous and the painting so valuable, how could she not have known?”

George’s eyes took on a peculiar glint. “The artist was Rufino Tamayo. Can you tell me anything about him, my dear?”

“Rufino Tamayo. Never heard of him.”

“Exactly. An accomplished Mexican artist. He taught in Manhattan for nine years at The Dalton School.”

“Well, of course I’ve heard of The Dalton School.”

The guests at the table glanced at each other. Those with friends in Manhattan knew all the private schools.

“So he had been an art teacher. That must have been how the painting ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side.” Peter nodded at his wife’s astuteness.

“Indeed,” George continued. “He taught at Dalton between 1938 and 1947.”

“So the painting might have been acquired sometime in that period.”

George nodded. “He might have given it to a parent or a student who admired it, since it was only a study for a larger work.”

“Well, and has he become famous?”

“He’s not as well known in this country as he is in Europe,” George conceded. “But I became interested in him after this incident, and just this year he was named Officier d’Honneur in France.”

“Wow,” Peter said. “And how old a man is he?”

“Born in 1899,” George said.

“So eleven years older than yourself, George,” put in Carolyn.

“Yes,” agreed George. “Seventy this year, whereas I’m 59 in August.”

“So what happened with the painting?”

“Gwen took me to her apartment to show it to me. She had taken elaborate precautions. Off her bedroom was a small closet. In the back corner, under a folded Hudson’s Bay blanket, was a small box. The painting was inside, wrapped in a clean sheet. She showed this to me in her living room, but only after checking that we were not visible from any window.

“The painting itself, once unwrapped, was extraordinary. A design of blue, like the night sky, with brilliant white dots for stars, and narrow white lines connecting them, as in a child’s drawing, but more sophisticated. In the right foreground, the face of a man, elongated, a profile, but also the suggestion of his full face, like a Cubist treatment, with his eyes and mouth open in wonder, or astonishment.

“A hint of red color on his cheek that balanced and almost reflected a slash of red on the opposite side of the painting, above the hills, a suggestion, perhaps, of the setting sun. I could almost feel the power of it, if you don’t find that a blasphemous thing to say.”

“Not at all, George,” spoke up Carolyn. “We’ve all had the feeling of being powerfully moved by a work of art. Haven’t we?” She looked around the table. Her guests nodded their assent.

“But, beautiful as it was, it was still a stolen piece of art.”

“A ‘hot’ property, then, George, wasn’t it?” The party laughed at Peter’s witticism.

“Hot as a firecracker. I had to sit down and have myself a serious think,” George admitted. “And the FBI is not anybody you want to fool around with.”

“Especially with J. Edgar in charge,” put in Carolyn.

“Especially,” Peter agreed.

“So what did you do?” asked Carolyn.

“Well, I remembered Christine had a classmate at Miss Porter’s, who, through her husband, had made a substantial gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I telephoned her and she arranged a meeting for us with the director of acquisitions at the Metropolitan. Gwen agreed to go with me, but was still afraid. She rewrapped the painting, put it into a Saks Fifth Avenue bag and I hailed a cab outside her apartment.” He broke off to laugh. “She sat in the back seat of the cab cradling that Saks bag as if it were the Christ child. We arrived at The Met, had our meeting with Christine’s friend and the director of acquisitions. He called the New York City police and a contact he had in Washington, and the painting was safely delivered to the proper authorities.”

“But where had it come from, and what was it doing on the curb?”

“An interesting question.” George stroked the side of his jaw with one long finger. “We at last found out that Tamayo had indeed given it to the parents of one of his pupils at The Dalton School, and they had asked their staff to clean after they left for their summer home on Nantucket. It must have been discarded by mistake.”

“Can someone really make a mistake like that?” Mark asked.

George continued. “Perhaps there was an attempted theft. Suppose one of the staff had an unscrupulous husband, who prevailed upon his wife to steal the painting, but perhaps she got cold feet and left it by the trash bag. Who knows? In any event, Gwen was able to return a valuable object to its rightful owners, and was not implicated in any wrongdoing.”

“A happy ending for all,” Peter remarked.

“Indeed,” assented Carolyn. “And how good of you, George, to extend yourself to that poor young girl.”

“Yes, indeed,” assented Mark. “Not everyone would have done so. You’re a good man, George. A good man.”


Later, Mark brought up the subject again. He was already in bed in their room with the wide view of the Atlantic Ocean outside the bay windows. Carolyn was at her dressing table, brushing her hair, a hundred strokes each night, as her mother and grandmother had taught her. She loved this bedtime ritual. It was at this time that Mark was at his most unguarded and self-revelatory. Perhaps it was the comfort of the familiar sheets and pillow; perhaps it was that he could speak to her and not see her face, for she was looking in the mirror, away from him.

“He’s a good man, George,” Mark said. “He really stuck his neck out for that girl.”

“What do you mean?” she asked as an idle question to keep the conversation going.

“She could well have been the thief. He had no proof of her story. And it’s a preposterous story, isn’t it? Finding a valuable painting next to a trash bag on the street. She probably took the painting herself, and once she knew the FBI was involved, got frightened and used George as a cover story.”

“Must you always be so distrustful!” She turned to him as she spoke and then immediately bit her lip. Her sharpness registered too late and she was unable to modify it. This was his quality that most annoyed her, his view that people were predatory, mendacious, crafty. Women especially. She couldn’t stand it when he got started on the individual women in his parish and their various sins, real or imagined. She turned again to the mirror and resumed brushing her hair.

“Think about it, Carolyn.” His tone was mild. He was mollifying her, but he wanted to make his point. “Couldn’t it have happened that way? What well-brought-up girl would go rooting around in the trash? And if she didn’t get it in the trash, then she stole it. Why else would she need a clergyman to intercede on her behalf?”

“Precisely because of what you just suspected! She was terribly at risk. You men just don’t understand. A single woman alone, with a valuable painting; she couldn’t have just gone to the police. Of course she needed a protector.”

“My point exactly. Innocent or guilty, she needed a protector.”

“You still think she was the guilty party!” She knew it was pointless, but she could not let go of the argument.

“I’m not saying she was, Carolyn.” Now his tone was aggrieved. It was clearly past time for her to drop the subject. “Just think about it for a minute. Don’t women mostly conceal more than they reveal? I mean, isn’t that their nature?”

She was so furious she could not speak. She concentrated on brushing her hair, remembering to pull the brush through carefully, so that in her rage she did not injure herself.

“Aren’t you ever coming to bed?” His tone was inviting. The thought of being close to him nearly made her gag.

“In a minute,” she said. She cast around in her mind for a pretext. “I forgot to leave a note for CaraLee about George’s breakfast in the morning.” CaraLee was their kitchen staff and general factotum. She came in each morning at six and stayed till noon, helping with cooking and cleaning.

“If you must.” His tone was mock resigned, but she could also tell he was falling asleep. If she stayed out of the bed a little longer, she could escape unwanted intimacies.

She pulled her silk dressing gown around her and quietly stepped out the door. The house had two staircases. There was the formal central stair with the twin banks of steps, one leading from the landing to the north wing and the other leading from the landing to the south wing. A second set of narrower stairs led from her study, curled around in a tight, small space, and let out into the kitchen. These were the stairs she habitually used. But tonight she wanted to use up more time; she would take the central stairs.

She was at the head of the stairs when she heard George’s voice. His tone was bright, wide awake, almost aggressive. She stepped closer, silent in her satin mules until she had crossed the center upstairs library and stood close to the wall of the guest room wing.

This wing of the house, the north wing, had four bedrooms, two large, two small, each sharing a small, utilitarian bathroom. George was their only houseguest, and was housed in one of the larger rooms. She took a step closer and realized he was talking on the hall telephone. Then she felt foolish. He was talking to Christine. A husband away from home, certainly he would call his wife.

“Well, of course she’s crying.” George’s voice was impatient. “She’s playing you, Christine. She knows how worked up you get when she cries!”

Carolyn stopped.

“Christine, you have to toughen up. Haven’t I told you this before? Janey’s torn it this time and she has to do what we tell her. She has to pay the consequences.”

Janey was their youngest daughter. Of the three daughters of George and Christine, it was Janey who tugged at her heart. The older daughters had turned out well. Sara a graduate of Radcliffe College, now well settled in Boston with her handsome, lawyer husband. She presided confidently over their growing household of a boy, and a girl, both beautiful children. There was talk that her husband might go to into politics. Carolyn could see it; Sara had poise and confidence, would make an ideal governor’s wife.

And Margaret, who had graduated from Sarah Lawrence, had a more artistic side, had studied in Italy for a time, and they had worried about her, but she was now back in the United States, settled on the North Shore. She had not married as well; her husband was a master at a boys’ preparatory school and Margaret was a docent at the museum of fine arts, so it wasn’t the state or the national stage for her, but still it was a good solid life.

Janey had always been the problem child. She had been born when Christine was nearly forty, clearly an afterthought—no one ever used the word “mistake”—but she was ten years younger than Margaret and twelve years younger than Sara. She had great difficulty reading and hated school. Christine had wanted her to be the daughter who followed her footsteps to her alma mater, Wellesley; it was clearly not to be.

But it was this child whom Carolyn loved. Awkward, graceless, sometimes slow of speech and thought, she nevertheless had a spark the other girls lacked. It was almost as though she felt and expressed the thoughts and feelings others around her would not or could not say.

Carolyn knew George, and Mark, too, for that matter, did not share her thoughts. George was ashamed of the girl and never spoke of her. She had spent the most recent academic year at a junior college in New York State, Cazenovia. It was an embarrassment to the family that she was not at a four year college. There apparently she had met a young man she liked. George and Christine had said nothing about it, but now, perhaps, there was trouble? Carolyn edged closer to the hall where George stood, clutching the phone. He could not see her; he was facing away and she was hidden by the wall.

“We have to do it this way, Christine, you know we do. You remember how long it took to arrange weddings for Sara and Margaret. We don’t have time for a six-month engagement and a formal wedding at the Bishop’s palace with her grandfather giving her away and with me presiding. She would be going into labor as she waddled down the aisle! We just can’t have it.”

Carolyn’s hand flew to her mouth.

“Nor can we have a quiet, private ceremony at home or in the chapel of the cathedral because the child would be born six months later and everyone would know that was why we had a quiet wedding. Either way people will talk, and I can’t have it.”

There was a pause. “God damnit, Christine! We can’t have it. None of us can have it.”

Carolyn stifled a gasp.

“And that begs the question what kind of husband he would be! With that dead-end job opening boxes in a warehouse! No, it’s best we nip this in the bud. We take care of things on our end, and he’ll turn tail and run, I can assure you of that!

“You know I’ve been invited to the Lambeth Conference. And my commission on racial equality will present its findings to the Presiding Bishop. This all came out of the fund-raising I did in for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and those meetings I had with Martin before his assassination. This is something I’ve worked toward for years. We can’t let Janey’s carelessness interfere.

“She knows our views on this kind of behavior. Her two sisters waited until they were decently married. Why couldn’t she?

“We’ll go ahead with the plans. She can stay with my brother Charley in California. He will find someone, yes, a doctor, do you think I’ve totally lost my mind? And Janey and that boyfriend will split the cost and pay us in cash before we put her on the plane for the West Coast. Yes, Charley’s a good man. He’ll take care of her. He’ll take care of the details. Christine, it’s the only thing. It’s the right thing.”

Carolyn’s heart was pounding so she could hardly breathe.

“Yes, I’ll be in Cleveland on the two o’clock plane. Yes, you can meet me then. All right.”

She heard him place the phone back in its cradle, turn, and go into his room.

She stood where she was, her hands clenched to her chest, her breathing restricted. She had to get outside, go somewhere she could think. She turned silently back to her study and descended the back stairs to the kitchen. She took a light woolen shawl from its peg in the downstairs closet and went through the dining room and into the center hall, opened the door to the terrace, and stepped out into the moonlight.

The expanse of the ocean had always soothed and comforted her. The moon was low and full, having just risen over the water. It cast its light on the bosom of the ocean and illuminated the twisted pine trees at the south end of the terrace.

She sank down onto a chair and rocked back and forth.

First she recalled the upwelling joy that filled her with each of her pregnancies. The fact of pregnancy was sacred to her, that she could be the vehicle through which another person could enter the world. In her heart, she knew that men were to be pitied. They could never experience this power, this gift, this joy. It was this lack that caused them to be so hateful and oppressive to women.

Other women spoke of dreading pregnancy, seeing it as a duty, a nuisance; she had never had these thoughts. Of course there had been discomfort, and the pains of labor, but she had been healthy, had minimal problems, sailed through each nine-month spell, “like a trouper” as Mark had said, so admiringly.

Then there was that dread word—abortion. Only to think this word caused her heart to constrict. She could not imagine ever having to consider it for herself. The very word sounded like the evil that it contained. She rocked back and forth, suddenly nauseated, remembering a story she had read of a woman who had been left to bleed to death alone when the abortionist himself, horrified and sickened, abandoned her to flee.

And then, unbidden, an image in her mind of little Janey, as she had been at four or five, a family picnic with herself, Mark, George, and Christine. Is it possible that was now fifteen years ago? Janey, with her tousled blonde curls, the chubby hand, holding out a daisy. “Look, Aunt Carolyn. Fower.” The child had trouble pronouncing her “Ls.” “Fower for you.” She was not, of course, the child’s aunt, but was called that, as a friend of the family, to avoid the formality of “Mrs.”

As she recalled that scene she remembered the look on George’s face that day. It should have been happy, indulgent; but instead it was dark, stern, aloof. Even as the child gave a gift, he was unforgiving, ashamed of his youngest child.

And the older girls, Sara and Maggie. Were they really so well settled as she imagined? There had been a disturbance, glossed over, but something: Sara had wanted to take a leave of absence from Radcliffe, there was some unexplained illness . . . but then she had subsided, re-enrolled in school. Each girl had married young. Were there not times when young women escaped oppressive families into early marriage?

And now Janey, little Janey with her open, trusting face, pregnant with her first child, and George and Christine’s awful plan. “Nip this in the bud,” and “I can’t have it.” And the cruel calculation: “She and that boy will each pay half, in cash, before she leaves for California.”

A desperate idea: could she contact Janey, call her directly, tell her what she knew, had overheard, help her to escape?

Carolyn rocked back and forth under the moonlight, and hot tears scalded her cheeks.


Upstairs, George lay troubled in his bed. The evening had been ruined. He was far too upset to sleep. With an irritated gesture, he threw off the sheet and got out of bed. He went to the window that overlooked the terrace, and looked out at the moonlight. That was part of his problem; the rising moon flooded his room like a searchlight. Who could sleep with that light pouring in like an alien influence?

A movement on the terrace drew his attention and he looked more closely. It was Carolyn, wrapped in a light dressing gown, hunched over, on one of the wicker chairs on the terrace, rocking back and forth. Was she laughing? What was that noise? He listened harder. No, she was weeping.

What could it be? Could she have received some bad news? But the telephone had not rung; his was the only telephone call and he had called out.

Her robe had fallen open and he saw clearly the line of her leg. Her dark hair gleamed in the moonlight. Now her sobs began to subside and she raised her face, wet with tears, to the light of the moon. He caught his breath. Did she know how alluring she was? There in the moonlight she seemed suddenly to embody all that was desirable in a woman. He looked at her and felt desire take root and grow in his mind and in his body. He was gripped with a sudden, hot lust. She was alone, in a light wrap, the house was asleep, he could . . . surely she would want . . . In the heat of the summer and in the moonlight . . .

He put his hand to his forehead, took some deep breaths, sought for a centering prayer. This was wrong. She was his colleague’s wife. One of his and Christine’s oldest friends. And besides, she was weeping. Wasn’t this a call for help? To leave the house and weep out on the terrace?

He searched his memory. Could there be trouble in Carolyn and Mark’s marriage? Had he detected tension during dinner? He did not remember any. Could there be a problem with the children? Money or marital trouble?

He cursed himself for his earlier impure thoughts. How could such thoughts come upon a man, unbidden, absolutely unbidden? It showed how deeply sin was rooted in the soul of man. The tempter was always at work. He was glad that his ally, prayer, had helped him to regain his self-control.

Now he saw her as she was, not as a temptress, an object of lust, but a suffering human being, a sister in Christ. He could extend a helping hand. Those thoughts, those treacherous thoughts, had only been a momentary lapse. He breathed deeply of the night air. These trips away from home were always a challenge. He missed, he deeply missed, the solaces of his marriage bed. Nights away from his wife were torture. Even if they did not avail themselves nightly of the pleasures of the married state, just to lie next to her, to know she was there, was a comfort.

He could take charge. He would take charge. He breathed deeply again, said a steadying prayer, reached for his bathrobe, and went out of the room.


Carolyn sat quietly, watching the moonlight on the water. Could there be a person with whom she could share these awful thoughts, this dreadful realization? It was impossible for her to see George any more as she had. He was, as her mother often said, a pillar of the church. His twelve years in the Manhattan parish had been exemplary. The congregation had doubled under his leadership, as had the endowment.

And then there was his recent work as bishop of Ohio, with Dr. King. He had indeed befriended the Negro orator, had cajoled and bullied his moneyed parish into an unprecedented outpouring of financial support. He had told the donors that the money was for an inner city tutoring program, and indeed it was, but not for the city of Cleveland. He deposited all the many gifts he received directly to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Later he had told Mark that these donations had come at a critical time for that controversial organization. Carolyn had marveled at his nerve.

His staff had arranged for Martin Luther King, Jr., where the great man himself said that he would eat only a hot dog, as that was the only dinner his people would get, his people who lived in the inner cities of Cleveland, of Memphis, of so many American cities. So George and every other donor, many who had paid $1,000 per plate, had only a hot dog for dinner. There had been press coverage—Mark treasured the photo of George and Martin Luther King, Jr. together.

Carolyn could never tell Mark what she had overheard. It would kill him to know this about a man whom he so revered. And she had to think also of his position. Could Mark function as a rector of a church knowing this about a bishop, a prince of the church, a leader on the national stage?

Would Mark believe her? This thought took her breath away. He might not. It might be too difficult for him. Were there not rulers who killed the messenger who brought bad news? Mark might close his mind to what she said, might disbelieve. He might blame her; after all, she had been eavesdropping on a private conversation. If she told Mark and he disbelieved her, if he belittled her . . . if he shamed and blamed her . . . the blood rushed to her face as if he had already.

And yet, she longed for him. If only he would wake up and notice her absence in their bed. Would he care enough to get out of bed and come to find her in the night? If she sent a thought to him, would he hear it in his heart? Even if she never told him, and she knew she could keep a secret, keep it to her grave if necessary, if he would just wake up, stretch out his arm, find her gone, if he would just get up, put on his dressing gown, and search through the house until he found her on the terrace . . . she heard a step. It was he! She half turned; a tall, masculine silhouette was at the door to the terrace; the door opened and she turned, gladly . . .

“George!” The name flew from her lips and she drew back in horror. “George!”

“Carolyn,” he began, then reacted to the look of horror on her face. “Carolyn, what is it?” He advanced with his hand outstretched to her.

“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” She hated herself for her loss of control.

“Carolyn, it’s just my hand. Whatever is the matter? I saw you out here, and I thought there might be something wrong.”

“Something wrong!” she repeated. “Something wrong?”

“Can I help in some way?” It was an appeal, in his most imploring, most inviting, most mellifluous tone, that voice that had charmed and appeased so many suffering congregants over the years.

“Can you help?” With one part of her mind she knew she sounded an imbecile, but what he said was so horrible to her it seemed all she could do was to repeat the worst of the syllables she heard.

Suddenly she was overcome by nausea. She pushed past him and lunged across the room for the door of the downstairs powder room.

He stood staring after her. The sound of her retching came across the polished center hall and he smelled the acrid vomit. What on earth could be the matter?

He steeled himself and went to the closed bathroom door. He tapped it with his knuckles. “Carolyn? Are you ill? Shall I get Mark?”

“Go away. For God’s sake, go away.” The voice was high with hysteria.

He stood outside the door opening and closing his fists. What an awful night this had turned out to be. The day had been splendid. The dinner had gone so well. Then there had been that awful conversation with Christine and now this. The day was ruined. He was very upset. It was all too awful. He turned and went up the marble stairs to his room, the best of the four guest rooms in the north wing of the house.


In the morning the downstairs hall was transformed in the bright sunshine. CaraLee had already been out to the garden with her shears. A fresh bouquet of gladiolus stood on the table before the gilt-framed mirror.

Mark was seated at the massive dining room table, and sunlight glinted on the Revere ware silver coffee service. There was only one other place laid on the damask tablecloth.

“George!” Mark’s smile was warm and welcoming. He laid aside the missal he was reading and stood. “How did you sleep?”

“Topping,” George said. “Never better. Slept the sleep of the righteous. It must be the sea air.”

“Good, good man.”

“Have you been waiting long?”

“Only a few minutes. Would you like some water before we begin?”

“Yes, please.”

Mark poured him a glass from the chased silver pitcher. The water was so cold that condensation had gathered on the outer edge of the silver.

“Will Carolyn be joining us?”

“Carolyn asked me to make her excuses. She’s not up to par this morning. She was up in the night sick, she tells me. I slept through it, I’m ashamed to say. She thinks it might be something she ate at dinner, but we all ate the same thing, and I’m fine.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t much help to her, I’m afraid. I woke up when she got back into bed and I asked her what was wrong, she said it was nothing and not to bother. She gets these migraines from time to time . . . ” He spread his hands, a gesture of gentle bafflement.

“Christine gets them, too.” George drank the water, put the glass down and glanced at Mark. Mark’s expression was calm and peaceful.

He held up his missal. “Shall we begin?”

“After you.”

Mark crossed into the center hall and opened the door to the terrace. The two men walked out into the light; it promised to be a hot day and heat already rose from the paving stones. They took their seats in the wicker chairs, and George took the small prayer book from his breast pocket.

Mark began with the bidding prayer of the morning service. The two men had begun this habit when they knew each other in seminary, and now whenever they were together they began their day with what the monks had called, in Latin, “matins,” the daily morning prayer service.

The familiar words and ritual had the hoped-for calming effect. When the last prayer had been finished they sat in companionable silence looking out on the ocean. Mark broke the silence. “Well, George, you must be hungry. Come back in and we can have some breakfast.”

When they returned to the dining room they found a platter on the sideboard with sliced blueberry coffee cake. Mark indicated it with a smile. “CaraLee’s best. Made in your honor, George. She said she picked the blueberries herself.”

“Nothing better than fresh picked local berries in season,” George said. “One of the Creator’s better ideas.”

They served themselves coffee and cake.

Mark leaned forward in his chair. His demeanor turned grave. “I have something I want to ask you about George, one priest to another.” He spread his hands. “Not exactly a confession, in the standard sense of the word, but a concern.”

George looked up from his plate with interest. Would this solve the mystery of the night, the incident of Carolyn’s tears, her inexplicable response to him, some secret of their marriage?

“Certainly, Mark, I will try to help. I am your friend.”

“It’s difficult, I don’t know where to start . . . ”

“At the beginning is always best.”

Mark fiddled with his coffee cup. “I was called to a parishioner’s house because of a death.”

George exhaled. This was not going to be personal.

“The widow is a young woman, not one of our wealthier members, a housewife, two small children, and her husband a plumber. Both children were baptized in the church. He was in a boating accident, earlier this summer. Left them all bereft. No life insurance.”

George shook his head. People just didn’t think.

“I was there to comfort her, George, and she was just so distraught. The kitchen table was full of food, you know the way people bring casseroles, and cakes, and there was a chocolate cake—as if a person would want chocolate cake! With a cover on it that the giver had labeled with her name, so she could later retrieve the cover and the plate. And,” he paused. “All of a sudden I was angry.”

He turned his face to George, as distraught as the woman he was describing.

“I was angry, I was actually angry at God for doing this to this good woman. If God is a personal God, and always knows what is best for us, if we are meant to trust and love him as we love a loving father . . . how could this happen to her? What sin did she ever do beyond loving her husband and being a mother to his children? What could she possibly have done to deserve that her husband should die like this? Now there is no income to speak of. I can’t help her; the church can’t help her. And what is she going to do? The words just felt hollow in my mouth.” Mark bent over in his chair, staring at the floor. “I suddenly thought, what good is it, what good is any of it, if life can be taken away like that, so suddenly, so wantonly.”

“You didn’t let her know, of course.”

“I covered up as well as I could. I said all the proper things. I read to her from the service. We bowed our heads and prayed together. I wasn’t sure she even knew what she was saying, and there were other people all around. They all said, ‘Thank you, Father’ and ‘So good of you to come, Father’ and ‘You’re such a comfort, Father.’ But I felt a fraud. I had nothing to give her. How can I be a leader of a flock, so called, a group of Christians, if I have no idea how and why God lets these terrible things happen to good people?”

George’s attention was wandering. Would this man never shut up? There were things he had to do this morning. He had packed, of course, and he knew, or he hoped Mark would pull himself together to get him to the airport in Portland, because the plane left at . . .

“Carolyn’s bible verse this morning was kind of startling.”

George began to listen again.

“She and I began a devotion recently where we each choose a Bible verse for daily study.” He looked at George and George made himself smile encouragingly.

“It’s a way to anchor ourselves and to increase our knowledge and understanding of the Bible, and it’s a way we can help each other. She really takes her job seriously—her job, I mean, of being my wife, the minister’s wife. She tries so hard to be supportive. I think she knows how fragile my faith is, but I would never talk to her like this, you know, George, it’s only because I’ve known and trusted you for so long. I mean, we were in seminary together, and now you’re a bishop. You’re not my bishop, thank God.” Mark smiled ruefully. “I mean . . . ”

“I know what you mean,” George said gently. The thoughts Mark had spoken were not thoughts he wanted to bring to his own bishop.

“So Carolyn, as I was saying, she wants to be the best minister’s wife she can be, so this morning, even though she was sick in the night, like I told you, she was awake before I was and she reached for her Bible—she keeps hers by the side of the bed—and she said she wanted to read to me her Bible verse. So she did.”

George waited for him to continue.

Mark seemed to be suffering some kind of internal struggle.

“Yes,” George said, encouraging.

“She’d found an Old Testament verse this time. You know, George, sometimes I wish we could just dispense with that Old Testament altogether. Didn’t Christ bring us a new covenant? Why can’t we just all be New Testament Christians?”

“What was the verse?”

Mark lowered his head. “It was Isaiah: ‘The heart of man is dreadfully wicked. Who can know it?’”

George looked out past the glimmering coffee service, over the massed geraniums in their window boxes and toward the ocean. The verse was certainly apropos. He thought immediately of his youngest daughter and her seducer and the mess they had created. It was their haste and their stupidity that angered him the most. If they were going to break the rules, why on earth couldn’t they have taken precautions? It was simple enough. And what an effort it was going to be to clean it all up and be quiet about it. He would always worry that news of this might leak out. He would never be free of it. And if it did leak out—the newspapers, the scandal, the opinion of his fellow bishops! For a moment he caught his breath. But he would be safe if she went quietly to California to be with his brother. He could trust Charley, Charley would take care of it.

Mark was still talking.

“Am I wicked, George? Did Carolyn somehow sense my own sin? Did Carolyn somehow intuit that I had failed in my ministry, that I couldn’t console this widow, that I was angry at God for taking her husband, her livelihood, the father of her children? Because I was, George, I was angry. Angry at God! Surely that’s a sin, isn’t it? To be angry at the All-Powerful? Am I courting punishment of my own?”

There were tears in Mark’s eyes. George was horrified. He was also relieved. None of this was about him.

“Of course not, Mark.” He put his voice on automatic. “It may be misguided to be angry. It may indeed. But you were only angry for a moment, weren’t you? I’m sure you repented immediately. The bereavement calls we have to make, why, those are the worst of all, aren’t they? To go into a home right after a tragedy? Nothing can prepare you.

“I think our Father is large enough that he will allow us our momentary angers. We have to go forward in faith. We can’t know how and why things happen. Would it help to remember Job? How the devil made him suffer, how he tempted him? And when he was angry and cried out to our Lord God don’t you remember God’s rebuke to Job: ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’”

Like an obedient student Mark finished the verse. “‘. . . Declare if thou hast understanding.’ I guess that’s it, in a nutshell, George. I have no understanding.”

“You were always too self-critical, my friend. It was your weakness when we were students; it’s still an area where you need help. But it’s a good weakness. It keeps you humble. I’m sure the widow you consoled had no inkling of the thoughts in your mind. I’m sure you kept your professional demeanor. You still have her on your prayer list, don’t you?”

Mark nodded, his face downcast, one hand gripping the other.

“Take specific action. Keep her in your prayers. Make an appointment to see her. Be sure she is receiving the sacrament. Find a way to keep her included in the life of the parish. You’re a good man, you’re a good priest. You can help her, in spite of your doubts. We all have doubts.”

“Do you have doubts, George?”

The question was almost pathetic.

“What do you think?”

“George, would you give me your blessing? Can I ask you that? As a friend, as a fellow seminarian, as a priest?”

“Of course.”

Mark bowed his head and George placed both hands on the crown of Mark’s head and spoke a simple blessing. “Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.”

He removed his hands and Mark sat up. “Thank you, George. That means so much to me.”

“Of course. Now, how about more of that excellent coffee cake?”


At the airport they were brisk with each other, the morning’s exchange diminished in memory; the demands of the day taking precedence. Mark rocked back on his heels and extended his hand. “So, we’ll be seeing you again next year? Your visits are always a boost for our small seaside community.”

“Of course, wouldn’t miss it.”

“Thank you, George. We appreciate it. You’re a good man, George. We’re happy to have you, any time.”

He waved and George moved forward through the door and out onto the tarmac to board the waiting plane. He settled himself in the window seat, his preferred place, and took out a paperback. But his mind was not on the Simeon novel in his hand. Instead he was thinking about Christine, and of the plan they had for Janey. He would put the call through to his brother as soon as he arrived home.

He opened the novel but the words on the page did not cast their familiar spell, did not draw him into the comfortable world of the Parisian inspector of police. He thought for a moment, then closed the book and took out his breviary. There was a sermon to prepare after all, and he had a long flight. He opened to the appointed text for the day on which he would be preaching and was pleased to see that it was one of his favorites, St. Paul, on charity. A happy choice. There was always so much you could say about charity.  

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