The Story of St Vespaluus

‘Tell me a story,’ said the Baroness, staring out despairingly at the rain; it was that light, apologetic sort of rain that looks as if it was going to leave off every minute and goes on for the greater part of the afternoon.

‘What sort of story?’ asked Clovis, giving his croquet mallet a valedictory shove into retirement.

‘One just true enough to be interesting and not true enough to be tiresome,’ said the Baroness.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

‘Have I ever told you the story of St Vespaluus?’ he asked.

‘You’ve told me stories about grand-dukes and lion-tamers and financiers’ widows and a postmaster in Herzegovina,’ said the Baroness, ‘and about an Italian jockey and an amateur governess who went to Warsaw, and several about your mother, but certainly never anything about a saint.’

‘This story happened a long while ago,’ he said, ‘in those uncomfortable piebald times when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess. There was a certain king called Hkrikros, who had a fearful temper and no immediate successor in his own family; his married sister, however, had provided him with a large stock of nephews from which to select his heir. And the most eligible and royally-approved of all these nephews was the sixteen-year-old Vespaluus. He was the best looking and the best horseman and javelin-thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous “had I but known you were in need of funds” air that is really rather a triumph in audacity. Now Hkrikros was a Pagan of the first water, and kept the worship of the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace, up to a high pitch of enthusiasm. The common people were allowed to please themselves, within certain discreet limits, in the matter of private religion, but any official in the service of the Court who went over to the new cult was looked down on, literally as well as metaphorically, the looking down being done from the gallery that ran round the royal bear-pit. Consequently there was considerable scandal and consternation when the youthful Vespaluus appeared one day at a Court function with a rosary tucked into his belt, and announced in reply to angry questionings that he had decided to adopt Christianity, or at any rate to give it a trial. If it had been any of the other nephews the king would possibly have ordered something drastic in the way of scourging and banishment, but in the case of the favoured Vespaluus he determined to look on the whole thing much as a modern father might regard the announced intention of his son to adopt the stage as a profession. He sent accordingly for the Royal Librarian. The royal library in those days was not a very extensive affair, and the keeper of the king’s books had a great deal of leisure on his hands. Consequently he was in frequent demand for the settlement of other people’s affairs when these strayed beyond normal limits and got temporarily unmanageable.

‘ “You must reason with Prince Vespaluus,” said the King, “and impress on him the error of his ways. We cannot have the heir to the throne setting such a dangerous example.”

‘ “But where shall I find the necessary arguments?” asked the Librarian.

‘ “I give you free leave to pick and choose your arguments in the royal woods and coppices,” said the king; “if you cannot get together some cutting observations and stinging retorts suitable to the occasion you are a person of very poor resource.”

‘So the Librarian went into the woods and gathered a goodly selection of highly argumentative rods and switches, and then proceeded to reason with Vespaluus on the folly and iniquity and above all the unseemliness of his conduct. His reasoning left a deep impression on the young prince, an impression

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