The String of Pearls/Chapter 19
XIX The Strange Odour in St. Dunstan's ChurchEdit
About this time, and while these incidents of our most strange and eventful narrative were taking place, the pious frequenters of old St Dunstan's church began to perceive a strange and most abominable odour throughout that sacred edifice.
It was in vain that old women who came to hear the sermons, although they were too deaf to catch a third part of them, brought smelling-bottles, and other means of stifling their noses; still that dreadful charnel-house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and most disagreeably apparent.
And the Rev Joseph Stillingport, who was the regular preacher, smelt it in the pulpit; and had been seen to sneeze in the midst of a most pious discourse indeed, and to hold to his pious nose a handkerchief, in which was some strong and pungent essence, for the purpose of trying to overcome the terrible effluvia.
The organ-blower and the organ-player were both nearly stifled, for the horrible odour seemed to ascend to the upper part of the church; although those who sat in what may be called the pit by no means escaped it.
The churchwardens looked at each other in their pews with contorted countenances, and were almost afraid to breathe; and the only person who did not complain bitterly of the dreadful odour in St Dunstan's church, was an old woman who had been a pew-opener for many years; but then she had lost the faculties of her nose, which, perhaps, accounted satisfactorily for that circumstance.
At length, however, the nuisance became so intolerable, that the beadle, whose duty it was in the morning to open the church-doors, used to come up to them with the massive key in one hand, and a cloth soaked in vinegar in the other, just as the people used to do in the time of the great plague of London; and when he had opened the doors, he used to run over to the other side of the way.
'Ah, Mr Blunt!' he used to say to the bookseller, who lived opposite - 'ah, Mr Blunt! I is obligated to cut over here, leastways, till the atymonspheric air is mixed up all along with the stinkifications which come from the church.'
By this, it will be seen that the beadle was rather a learned man, and no doubt went to some mechanics' institution of those days, where he learned something of everything but what was calculated to be of some service to him.
As might be supposed from the fact that this sort of thing had gone on for a few months, it began to excite some attention with a view to a remedy; for, in the great city of London, a nuisance of any sort of description requires to become venerable by age before anyone thinks of removing it; and after that, it is quite clear that that becomes a good argument against removing it at all.
But at last, the churchwardens began to have a fear that some pestilential disease would be the result, if they for any longer period of time put up with the horrible stench; and that they might be among its first victims, so they began to ask each other what could be done to obviate it.
Probably, if this frightful stench, being suggestive, as it was, of all sorts of horrors, had been graciously pleased to confine itself to some poor locality, nothing would have been heard of it; but when it became actually offensive to a gentleman in a metropolitan pulpit, and when it began to make itself perceptible to the sleepy faculties of the churchwardens of St Dunstan's church, in Fleet-street, so as to prevent them even from dozing through the afternoon sermon, it became a very serious matter indeed.
But what it was, what could it be, and what was to be done to get rid of it - these were the anxious questions that were asked right and left, as regarded the serious nuisance, without the nuisance acceding any reply.
But yet one thing seemed to be generally agreed, and that was, that it did come, and must come, somehow or other, out of the vaults from beneath the church.
But then, as the pious and hypocritical Mr Batterwick, who lived opposite, said,-
'How could that be, when it was satisfactorily proved by the present books that nobody had been buried in the vault for some time, and therefore it was a very odd thing that dead people, after leaving off smelling and being disagreeable, should all of a sudden burst out again in that line, and be twice as bad as ever they were at first.'
And on Wednesdays, sometimes, too, when pious people were not satisfied with the Sunday's devotion, but began again in the middle of the week, the stench was positively horrific.
Indeed, so bad was it, that some of the congregation were forced to leave, and have been seen to slink into Bell-yard, where Lovett's pie-shop was situated, and then and there relieve themselves with a pork or a veal pie, in order that their mouths and noses should be full of a delightful and agreeable flavour, instead of one most peculiarly and decidedly the reverse.
At last there was a confirmation to be held at St Dunstan's church, and so great a concourse of persons assembled, for a sermon was to be preached by the bishop, after the confirmation; and a very great fuss indeed was to be made about really nobody knew what.
Preparations, as newspapers say, upon an extensive scale, and regardless of expense, were made for the purpose of adding lustre to the ceremony, and surprising the bishop when he came with a good idea that the authorities of St Dunstan's church were somebodies and really worth confirming.
The confirmation was to take place at twelve o'clock, and the bells ushered in the morning with their most pious tones, for it was not every day that the authorities of St Dunstan's succeeded in catching a bishop, and when they did so, they were determined to make the most of him.
And the numerous authorities, including churchwardens, and even the very beadle, were in an uncommon fluster, and running about and impeding each other, as authorities always do upon public occasions.
But of those who only look to the surface of things, and who come to admire what was grand and magnificent in the preparations, the beadle certainly carried away the palm, for that functionary was attired in a completely new cocked hat and coat, and certainly looked very splendid and showy upon the occasion. Moreover, the beadle had been well and judiciously selected, and the parish authorities made no secret of it, when there was an election for beadle, that they threw all their influence into the scale of that candidate who happened to be the biggest, and, consequently, who was calculated to wear the official costume with an air that no smaller man could possibly have aspired to on any account.
At half-past eleven o'clock the bishop made his gracious appearance, and was duly ushered into the vestry, where there was a comfortable fire, and on the table in which, likewise, were certain cold chickens and bottles of rare wines; for confirming a number of people, and preaching a sermon besides, was considered no joke, and might, for all they knew, be provocative of a great appetite in the bishop.
And with a bland and courtly air the bishop smiled as he ascended the steps of St Dunstan's church. How affable he was to the church-wardens, and he actually smiled upon a poor, miserable charity boy, who, his eyes glaring wide open, and his muffin cap in his hand, was taking his first stare at a real live bishop.
To be sure, the beadle knocked him down directly the bishop had passed, for having the presumption to look at such a great personage, but then that was to be expected fully and completely, and only proved that the proverb which permits a cat to look at a king, is not equally applicable to charity boys and bishops.
When the bishop got to the vestry, some very complimentary words were uttered to him by the usual officiating clergyman, but, somehow or another, the bland smile had left the lips of the great personage, and, interrupting the vicar in the midst of a fine flowing period, he said,-
'That's all very well, but what a terrible stink there is here!'
The churchwardens gave a groan, for they had flattered themselves, that perhaps the bishop would not notice the dreadful smell, or that, if he did, he would think it was accidental and say nothing about it; but now, when he really did mention it, they found all their hopes scattered to the winds, and that it was necessary to say something.
'Is this horrid charnel-house sort of smell always here?'
'I am afraid it is,' said one of the churchwardens.
'Afraid!' said the bishop, 'surely you know; you seem to me to have a nose.
'Yes,' said the churchwarden, in great confusion, 'I have that honour, and I have the pleasure of informing you, my lord bishop - I mean I have the honour of informing you, that this smell is always here.'
The bishop sniffed several times, and then he said, 'It is very dreadful; and I hope that by the next time I come to St Dunstan' s you will have the pleasure and the honour, both, of informing me that it has gone away.'
The churchwarden bowed, and got into an extreme corner, saying to himself,-
'This is the bishop's last visit here, and I don't wonder at it, for as if out of pure spite, the smell is ten times worse than ever today.'
And so it was, for it seemed to come up through all the crevices of the flooring of the church with a power and perseverance that was positively dreadful.
'Isn't it dreadful? - did you ever before know the smell in St Dunstan's so bad before?' and everybody agreed that they had never known it anything like so bad, for that it was positively awful - and so indeed it was.
The anxiety of the bishop to get away was quite manifest, and if he could decently have taken his departure without confirming anybody at all, there is no doubt but that he would have willingly done so, and left all the congregation to die and be - something or another.
But this he could not do, but he could cut it short, and he did so. The people found themselves confirmed before they almost knew where they were, and the bishop would not go into the vestry again on any account, but hurried down the steps of the church and into his carriage, with the greatest precipitation in the world, thus proving that holiness is no proof against a most abominable stench.
As may be well supposed, after this, the subject assumed a much more serious aspect, and on the following day a solemn meeting was held of all the church authorities, at which it was determined that men should be employed to make a thorough and searching examination of all the vaults of St Dunstan's, with the view of discovering, if possible, from whence particularly the abominable stench emanated.
And then it was decided that the stench was to be put down, and that the bishop was to be apprised it was put down, and that he might visit the church in perfect safety.