Quote of the Day: The Verger

 

“I can tell you that, sir…I’d be verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”–W. Somerset Maugham, The Verger

It’s from one of my all-time favorite short stories, The Verger, by W. Somerset Maugham.

Now I’m not–intuitively–much of a fan of Somerset Maugham, but The Verger, a little story I was introduced to by a British neighbor, probably around 1963, recounts the tale of  Albert Edward Foreman, the verger (a layperson who works under the director of the Vicar in the Church of England) of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.

It’s brought to the attention of the church’s newly-appointed vicar that Albert Edward can neither read nor write. So, following a christening in the church one afternoon, the vicar, alongside two elderly churchwardens, tackles him (metaphorically speaking.)

Albert Edward smells a rat, sensing that the churchwardens aren’t quite on board with the program which–it soon becomes clear–is to give him the boot due to his illiteracy.

Foreman points out that “the last vicar knew that [I couldn’t read or write].”

“He said it didn’t make no difference. He always said there was a great deal too much education in the world for ‘is taste.”

The current vicar is appalled:

 “Do you mean to say that you’ve been verger of this church for sixteen years and never learned to read or write?”

“I went into service when I was twelve, sir. The cook in the first place tried to teach me once, but I didn’t seem to ‘ave the knack for it, and then what with one thing and another I never seemed to ‘ave the time. I’ve never really found the want of it. I think a lot of these young fellows waste a rare lot of time readin’ when they might be doin’ something useful.”

“But don’t you want to know the news?” said the other churchwarden. “Don’t you ever want to write a letter?”

“No, me lord, I seem to manage very well without. And of late years now they’ve all these pictures in the papers I get to know what’s goin’ on pretty well. Me wife’s quite a scholar and if I want to write a letter she writes it for me. It’s not as if I was a bettin’ man.”

Long story short, the vicar gives Foreman three months to learn to read and write.  Foreman rejects his offer and resigns.

Gosh, he was sad.  And, very glumly, he went for a walk:

It occurred to him now that one would comfort him and since he did not carry them he looked about him for a shop where he could buy a packet of Gold Flakes. He did not at once see one and walked on a little. It was a long street, with all sorts of shops in it, but there was not a single one where you could buy cigarettes.

“That’s strange,” said Albert Edward.

To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked reflectively up and down.

“I can’t be the only man as walks along this street and wants a [cigarette],” he said. “I shouldn’t wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little shop here. Tobacco and sweets, you know.”

He gave a sudden start.

“That’s an idea,” he said. “Strange ‘ow things come to you when you least expect it.”

Long story short, Albert Edward Foreman opens a tobacconist shop, does extraordinarily well, and then buys up and opens a whole chain of the things until he was “making money hand over fist.”

His bank manager, while encouraging him to invest the thirty-thousand-odd pounds Albert Edward has deposited in his institution, offers him a contract detailing his options for gilt-edge securities.

Foreman admits the problem:

“I could [sign it] all right,” said Albert uncertainly. “But ‘ow should I know what I was signin’?”

“I suppose you can read,” said the manager a trifle sharply.

Mr. Foreman gave him a disarming smile.

“Well, sir, that’s just it. I can’t. I know it sounds funny-like, but there it is, I can’t read or write, only me name, an’ I only learnt to do that when I went into business.”

The manager was so surprised that he jumped up from his chair.

“That’s the most extraordinary thing I ever heard.”

“You see, it’s like this, sir, I never ‘ad the opportunity until it was too late and then some’ow I wouldn’t. I got obstinate-like.”

By this time, the manager is apoplectic, and “[stares at Foreman] as though he were a prehistoric monster.”

“And do you mean to say that you’ve built up this important business and amassed a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?”

“I can tell you that, sir,” said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still aristocratic features. “I’d be verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”

William Somerset Maugham was born 150 years ago, on January 25, 1874.

P.S. I’ve known quite a few men like Albert Edward Foreman in my life.  Some of them were–in modern sensibilities–illiterate.  Others had one-or-another degree of competence at reading and writing.  A few of them were among the smartest folks I’ve ever known.  And I’m grateful to Dad, and to the neighbor (Jan J) who introduced me to this story, both of whom instilled in me at a very early age the idea that formal credentials are not always those which make the man.

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  1. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    She: And I’m grateful to Dad, and to the neighbor (Jan J) who introduced me to this story, both of whom instilled in me at a very early age the idea that formal credentials are not always those which make the man.

    So very true!

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A perfectly lovely little story of Maugham’s. Thanks!

    • #2
  3. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    She:

    “I can’t be the only man as walks along this street and wants a [cigarette],” he said.

    Hardly material to the stories, yours or Maugham’s, but I can’t help what wonder what word Maugham used instead of “cigarette.” I can guess, but please don’t violate the CoC by telling me!

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    She: And I’m grateful to Dad, and to the neighbor (Jan J) who introduced me to this story, both of whom instilled in me at a very early age the idea that formal credentials are not always those which make the man.

    Amen to that.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    John H. (View Comment):
    Hardly material to the stories, yours or Maugham’s, but I can’t help what wonder what word Maugham used instead of “cigarette.” I can guess, but please don’t violate the CoC by telling me!

    Probably a perfectly good word that means “bundle of sticks.” Or maybe “loose piece, last remnant of cloth” (late 14c., as in [REDACTED]-end “extreme end, loose piece.”

    Well, looks like the auto-redact doesn’t allow one to use words with their original meanings.

    • #5
  6. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    Thanks for sharing the quote and this story!

    This post is part of the Quote of the Day group writing project on Ricochet. The rest of the month is open for contributions if you’d like to signup here.

    For QOTD regulars and any other members who read QOTD posts: do we need to continue having a signup sheet? I have noticed some members like to arrange posts around a quote, or several, without designating it a QOTD post. That seems to me to work well enough and potentially draws readers who don’t seek out the QOTD posts. And in the case of this post, @She decided to write this and sign up on the same day. I’m in favor of encouraging such spontaneity.

    If any of you are QOTD signup sheet loyalists, would you be willing to take in the role of signup manager?

    • #6
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