The cathedral was silent now. The echoes of the sonorous Latin phrases died away, vanishing into the murk of the domed ceiling. With both hands, the Bishop closed the huge bible, and, with a ritual gesture, swept the giant candlestick to the ground. The golden wax candle was broken and extinguished. As the flame died, the great bell, as if by a hidden signal, boomed out from the tower, tolling its message to the whole world: EXCOMMUNICATION. The bishop turned his back on the silent penitent. The disgraced man, no longer a priest, made his long way to the exit, but the silent congregation averted their eyes as he passed, refusing to acknowledge his continued existence.
The officer stood strictly to attention in front of the whole battalion as the small party approached. The colonel, with drawn sword, led the wedge of men, the adjutant, and provost marshal immediately to his rear. These were followed by a bugler, flanked by two drummers who beat the time crisply, each stroke cracking like a gunshot. With clockwork precision, the party halted three paces from the disgraced officer. A deathly silence descended on the parade ground as the colonel spoke the required words. The man stood absolutely rigid as the Provost Marsha! now approached him to remove his ceremonial helmet and cast it on the ground. His badges of rank were ripped off, his medals were torn from his chest and joined the helmet. With a swift movement, the sword belt was unbuckled, the sword drawn. There was a hiss of indrawn breath from a thousand men as the sword was broken. The shards were added to the pathetic heap at the ex-officer’s feet. At a murmured instruction from the Colonel, the Adjutant barked an order. The bandsmen turned and in single file marched to the side and turned to face the party. The bugler blew a call and the drummers started the long drum roll which lasted until the condemned man, the civilian, had walked the long walk past his former comrades. Their eyes stared straight ahead, not even a furtive glance sped him on his way.
He entered the factory canteen and approached the counter. The woman assistant looked up and with one smooth motion locked the till and moved into the back kitchen. The plastic doors flapped shut behind her. The man paused for a moment, indecisive, then reached for a cup and filled it with coffee from the urn. He threw some coins on the counter and walked across the room to sit at a table at which three men were seated. Without a word they rose and left the canteen. He glanced down the room, where a watching group of men and women quickly averted their gaze and broke the silence with animated conversation between themselves. There was a sudden burst of laughter, and a flurry of action, as the people facing in his direction rose and dragged their seats round to join their fellows with their backs to him. Now they were all facing the rear window as though it was a cinema screen. The man made a pretence of reading his newspaper. Then he drained his cold coffee and left. As the door closed behind him he heard the word “Scab!” He smiled ruefully; at last, they had spoken.
“But Honey,” he pleaded, “Just tell me why. What am I supposed to have done?”
“That’s rich! You know what you’ve done. I never want to speak to you again!” Her voice was bitter.
“Don’t you honey me, you low life! Goodbye!” and before he could speak further the phone clicked in his ear. She had hung up.
The book is closed. The candle is extinguished. But still the bell tolls.
H.St.V.Beechey Sept. 1993.