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    THE VERGER  by W. Somerset Maugham 

   There had been a christening that afternoon at St. Peter's, Neville 
Square, and Albert Edward Foreman still wore his verger's gown. He kept his 
new one, its folds as full and stiff though it were made not of alpaca but 
of perennial bronze, for funerals and weddings (St. Peter's, Neville Square, 
was a church much favoured by the fashionable for these ceremonies) and now 
he wore only his second-best. He wore it with complacence for it was the 
dignified symbol of his office, and without it (when he took it off to go 
home) he had the disconcerting sensation of being somewhat insufficiently 
clad. He took pains with it; he pressed it and ironed it himself. During the 
sixteen years he had been verger of this church he had had a succession of 
such gowns, but he had never been able to throw them away when they were 
worn out and the complete series, neatly wrapped up in brown paper, lay in 
the bottom drawers of the wardrobe in his bedroom. 
   The verger busied himself quietly, replacing the painted wooden cover on 
the marble font, taking away a chair that had been brought for an infirm old 
lady, and waited for the vicar to have finished in the vestry so that he 
could tidy up in there and go home. Presently he saw him walk across the 
chancel, genuflect in front of the high altar and come down the aisle; but 
he still wore his cassock. 
   "What's he 'anging about for?" the verger said to himself "Don't 'e know 
I want my tea?" 
   The vicar had been but recently appointed, a red-faced energetic man in 
the early forties, and Albert Edward still regretted his predecessor, a 
clergyman of the old school who preached leisurely sermons in a silvery 
voice and dined out a great deal with his more aristocratic parishioners. He 
liked things in church to be just so, but he never fussed; he was not like 
this new man who wanted to have his finger in every pie. But Albert Edward 
was tolerant. St. Peter's was in a very good neighbourhood and the 
parishioners were a very nice class of people. The new vicar had come from 
the East End and he couldn't be expected to fall in all at once with the 
discreet ways of his fashionable congregation. 
   "All this 'ustle," said Albert Edward. "But give 'im time, he'll learn." 
   When the vicar had walked down the aisle so far that he could address the 
verger without raising his voice more than was becoming in a place of 
worship he stopped. 
   "Foreman, will you come into the vestry for a minute. I have something to 
say to you." 
   "Very good, sir." 
   The vicar waited for him to come up and they walked up the church 
together. 
   "A very nice christening, I thought sir. Funny 'ow the baby stopped 
cryin' the moment you took him." 
   "I've noticed they very often do," said the vicar, with a little smile. 
"After all I've had a good deal of practice with them." 
   It was a source of subdued pride to him that he could nearly always quiet 
a whimpering infant by the manner in which he held it and he was not 
unconscious of the amused admiration with which mothers and nurses watched 
him settle the baby in the crook of his surpliced arm. The verger knew that 
it pleased him to be complimented on his talent. 
   The vicar preceded Albert Edward into the vestry. Albert Edward was a 
trifle surprised to find the two churchwardens there. He had not seen them 
come in. They gave him pleasant nods. 
   "Good afternoon, my lord. Good afternoon, sir," he said to one after the 
other. 
   They were elderly men, both of them and they had been churchwardens 
almost as long as Albert Edward had been verger. They were sitting now at a 
handsome refectory table that the old vicar had brought many years before 
from Italy and the vicar sat down in the vacant chair between them. Albert 
Edward faced them, the table between him and them and wondered with slight 
uneasiness what was the matter. He remembered still the occasion on which 
the organist had got in trouble and the bother they had all had to hush 
things up. In a church like St. Peter's, Neville Square, they couldn't 
afford scandal. On the vicar's red face was a look of resolute benignity but 
the others bore an expression that was slightly troubled. 
   "He's been naggin' them he 'as," said the verger to himself. "He's 
jockeyed them into doin' something, but they don't like it. That's what it 
is, you mark my words." 
   But his thoughts did not appear on Albert Edward's clean cut and 
distinguished features. He stood in a respectful but not obsequious 
attitude. He had been in service before he was appointed to his 
ecclesiastical office, but only in very good houses, and his deportment was 
irreproachable. Starting as a page-boy in the household of a merchant-prince 
he had risen by due degrees from the position of fourth to first footman, 
for a year he had been single-handed butler to a widowed peeress and, till 
the vacancy occurred at St. Peter's, butler with two men under him in the 
house of a retired ambassador. He was tall, spare, grave and dignified. He 
looked, if not like a duke, at least like an actor of the old school who 
specialised in dukes' parts. He had tact, firmness and self-assurance. His 
character was unimpeachable. 
   The vicar began briskly. 
   "Foreman, we've got something rather unpleasant to say to you. You've 
been here a great many years and I think his lordship and the general agree 
with me that you've fulfilled the duties of your office to the satisfaction 
of everybody concerned." 
   The two churchwardens nodded. 
   "But a most extraordinary circumstance came to my knowledge the other day 
and I felt it my duty to impart it to the churchwardens. I discovered to my 
astonishment that you could neither read nor write." 
   The verger's face betrayed no sign of embarrassment. 
   "The last vicar knew that, sir," he replied. "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." 
   "It's the most amazing thing I ever heard," cried the general. "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." 
   The two churchwardens gave the vicar a troubled glance and then looked 
down at the table. 
   "Well, Foreman, I've talked the matter over with these gentlemen and they 
quite agree with me that the situation is impossible. At a church like St. 
Peter's Neville Square, we cannot have a verger who can neither read nor 
write." 
   Albert Edward's thin, sallow face reddened and he moved uneasily on his 
feet, but he made no reply. 
   "Understand me, Foreman, I have no complaint to make against you. You do 
your work quite satisfactorily; I have the highest opinion both of your 
character and of your capacity; but we haven't the right to take the risk of 
some accident that might happen owing to your lamentable ignorance. It's a 
matter of prudence as well as of principle." 
   "But couldn't you learn, Foreman?" asked the general. 
   "No, sir, I'm afraid I couldn't, not now. You see, I'm not as young as I 
was and if I couldn't seem able to get the letters in me 'ead when I was a 
nipper I don't think there's much chance of it now." 
   "We don't want to be harsh with you, Foreman," said the vicar. "But the 
churchwardens and I have quite made up our minds. We'll give you three 
months and if at the end of that time you cannot read and write I'm afraid 
you'll have to go." 
   Albert Edward had never liked the new vicar. He'd said from the beginning 
that they'd made a mistake when they gave him St. Peter's. He wasn't the 
type of man they wanted with a classy congregation like that. And now he 
straightened himself a little. He knew his value and he wasn't going to 
allow himself to be put upon. 
   "I'm very sorry sir, I'm afraid it's no good. I'm too old a dog to learn 
new tricks. I've lived a good many years without knowin' 'ow to read and 
write, and without wishin' to praise myself, self-praise is no 
recommendation, I don't mind sayin' I've done my duty in that state of life 
in which it 'as pleased a merciful providence to place me, and if I could 
learn now I don't know as I'd want to." 
   "In that case, Foreman, I'm afraid you must go." 
   "Yes sir, I quite understand. I shall be 'appy to 'and in my resignation 
as soon as you've found somebody to take my place." 
   But when Albert Edward with his usual politeness had closed the church 
door behind the vicar and the two churchwardens he could not sustain the air 
of unruffled dignity with which he bad borne the blow inflicted upon him and 
his lips quivered. He walked slowly back to the vestry and hung up on its 
proper peg his verger's gown. He sighed as he thought of all the grand 
funerals and smart weddings it had seen. He tidied everything up, put on his 
coat, and hat in hand walked down the aisle. He locked the church door 
behind him. He strolled across the square, but deep in his sad thoughts he 
did not take the street that led him home, where a nice strong cup of tea 
awaited; he took the wrong turning. He walked slowly along. His heart was 
heavy. He did not know what he should do with himself. He did not fancy the 
notion of going back to domestic service; after being his own master for so 
many years, for the vicar and churchwardens could say what they liked, it 
was he that had run St. Peter's, Neville Square, he could scarcely demean 
himself by accepting a situation. He had saved a tidy sum, but not enough to 
live on without doing something, and life seemed to cost more every year. He 
had never thought to be troubled with such questions. The vergers of St. 
Peter's, like the popes Rome, were there for life. He had often thought of 
the pleasant reference the vicar would make in his sermon at evensong the 
first Sunday after his death to the long and faithful service, and the 
exemplary character of their late verger, Albert Edward Foreman. He sighed 
deeply. Albert Edward was a non-smoker and a total abstainer, but with a 
certain latitude; that is to say he liked a glass of beer with his dinner 
and when he was tired he enjoyed a cigarette. 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 fag," 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." 
   He turned, walked home, and had his tea. 
   "You're very silent this afternoon, Albert," his wife remarked. 
   "I'm thinkin'," he said. 
   He considered the matter from every point of view and next day he went 
along the street and by good luck found a little shop to let that looked as 
though it would exactly suit him. Twenty-four hours later he had taken it 
and when a month after that he left St. Peter's, Neville Square, for ever, 
Albert Edward Foreman set up in business as a tobacconist and newsagent. His 
wife said it was a dreadful come-down after being verger of St. Peter's, but 
he answered that you had to move with the times, the church wasn't what it 
was, and 'enceforward he was going to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's. 
Albert Edward did very well. He did so well that in a year or so it struck 
him that he might take a second shop and put a manager in. He looked for 
another long street that hadn't got a tobacconist in it and when he found it 
and a shop to let, took it and stocked it. This was a success too. Then it 
occurred to him that if he could run two he could run half a dozen, so he 
began walking about London, and whenever he found a long street that had no 
tobacconist and a shop to let he took it. In the course of ten years he had 
acquired no less than ten shops and he was making money hand over fist. He 
went round to all of them himself every Monday, collected the week's takings 
and took them to the bank. 
   One morning when he was there paying in a bundle of notes and a heavy bag 
of silver the cashier told him that the manager would like to see him. He 
was shown into an office and the manager shook hands with him. 
   "Mr. Foreman, I wanted to have a talk to you about the money you've got 
on deposit with us. D'you know exactly how much it is?" 
   "Not within a pound or two, sir; but I've got a pretty rough idea." 
   "Apart from what you paid in this morning it's a little over thirty 
thousand pounds. That's a very large sum to have on deposit and I should 
have thought you'd do better to invest it." 
   "I wouldn't want to take no risk, sir. I know it's safe in the bank." 
   "You needn't have the least anxiety. We'll make you out a list of 
absolutely gilt-edged securities. They'll bring you in a better rate of 
interest than we can possibly afford to give you." 
   A troubled look settled on Mr. Foreman's distinguished face. "I've never 
'ad anything to do with stocks and shares and I'd 'ave to leave it all in 
your 'ands," he said. 
   The manager smiled. "We'll do everything. All you'll have to do next time 
you come in is just to sign the transfers." 
   "I could do that 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." 
   The manager stared at him 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." 



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