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Saturday, July 14, 2007
Chapter 4: After Dinner

Wisdom and Youth

"Now, Prince, do be honest," urged the Vicar of Vilka. "Was not that meal somewhat superior to what you would have eaten alone at your table this evening?"

"Vicar, that meal excelled above what we eat at my table most evenings, but you must promise not to tell my dear wife that I ever conceived such a thought, let alone uttered it. We dine very well, thanks to her."

"As we well know. Fear not, our lips are sealed. If you cannot trust your Vicar and his wife . . ." A smile accompanied the unfinished thought.

"You did not tell me your son was cooking an entire pig."

"I did not tell you we would try to eat the entire pig tonight, either, but I feel as if I gave my all to the project. In any case, I did advise you that our son is a fine chef."

"And you spoke the unvarnished truth in doing so," said the Prince. " I suspect that he is a fine husband, too, since he is presently helping his wife clean up the dishes, rather than sitting here making witty conversation with his elders."

The Vicar's wife looked up from her reading and smiled gently. "We may hope that he is such a husband, Prince, but I am not certain your evidence proves that point."

"What you you mean?" asked the Prince.

"How can I put this gently? If you were he, whether a good or merely fair husband, where would you rather be? Alone in the kitchen with your charming and beautiful wife, with the children already in bed and the old people safely in the other room? Or sitting here imbibing the wisdom of the ages?"

"I see your point, madam," said the Prince, nodding.

"Do you, Prince?" she asked, and her eyes suggested laughter. "And have you also noticed the increasingly lengthy silences between the sounds of dishes, and that we have heard no sound at all from the kitchen in at least half a minute? We have not heard the door, either, mind you."

The Prince blushed slightly. "I had not noticed."

The Vicar chuckled, then said to his wife, "My dear, if you are suggesting that the young people in the kitchen grow increasingly distracted from their task, perhaps you should go to them and attempt to focus their attention."

"I think not, husband. They will finish the dishes soon enough. Let them be young and in love. You yourself have stolen kisses enough in the kitchen, and much more recently than your advanced years would suggest. Truly, one's vicar should not be a hypocrite."

"Ah, Prince," said the Vicar expansively, "I married well, did I not? Perhaps even as well as you."

"To our wives," said the Prince, lifting his glass. "May they never be burdened with illusions of our perfection."

"Hear, hear!" said the Vicar. The Prince thought he heard the Vicar's wife murmur, "Have no fear," but he might have been mistaken.

The Vicar's Tale of Fire and Faith

"Prince, do you care to hear a tale?" asked the Vicar.

"If you care to tell one, I believe you will find me neither inclined nor able to flee."

"Very well. This tale took place in the City by the Lake, where I was assigned shortly after my ordination to assist the vicar of a new cathedral. I was some four decades his junior, and our ways of thinking diverged more than our ages.

"As you know, the City by the Lake has had fire safety regulations for many years. There must be a certain minimum number of water barrels in or near a building, depending on its size, and buckets kept with each barrel, for the purpose of extinguishing fires. If a building is ever found with too few barrels, or with empty barrels or missing buckets, fines are levied, and the building is closed by order of the City until the problem is resolved. These rules were quite a boon for the barrel and bucket makers at first, as I recall, but that is not my point.

"I was younger than my years, quite unacquainted with the ways of the world, and rather zealous and simplistic in my piety, but this vicar boggled even my fervent young mind. I had not thought of the matter of water barrels as I helped him supervise the cathedral's completion. But when the Fire Marshal came one morning to inspect and approve the structure for large gatherings, he found that we had only one barrel and two buckets, instead of the required 10 and 30, respectively. He threatened to disapprove the building.

"'This is the house of God,' the vicar kept insisting. 'God will not let it burn.'

"'It won't be of much use to God or to the Church, either,' said the Fire Marshal at last, 'because this building is disapproved. You will hold no services here so long as you are in violation.' And he turned on his heel and marched out the door.

"'We shall see,' said the vicar. 'Have faith, my assistant,' he said to me. Then he hastily scrawled a message, folded the paper, sealed it with his personal seal, and summoned his messenger.

"'There,' he said, with a satisfied smile. 'The Grand Prince will be waiting for the Fire Marshal when he returns from his midday meal, and his decision will be reversed immediately. We shall worship in our new cathedral quite legally tomorrow, and the Fire Marshal may even find it necessary to find other employment.'

"About two hours later, the Grand Prince and a small entourage arrived at the cathedral. He reported that the Fire Marshal had stubbornly refused to acquiesce and had been dismissed. The Grand Prince announced that he had come to approve the building on his own authority. He affixed his signature and seal to the necessary document, in duplicate, and left a copy for the vicar to post in a visible place in the building.

"In parting, the Grand Prince said to the vicar, "Please accept my apologies for my former Fire Marshal's belligerent unbelief. We try to employ people of faith in our government, but sometimes we find that, when tested, their faith is merely a facade. I shall be here on the Sabbath to worship in this beautiful new cathedral.'"

"Now, Prince," said the Vicar of Vilka, "you are perhaps wondering why I would tell this tale. Does it anger you?"

"Yes, it does, in some measure," replied Vilka's Prince.

"Are you angered by the Fire Marshal's lack of faith or by his dismissal? By the vicar's and the Grand Prince's disregard for the law, perhaps?"

"Now that you ask, I m uncertain what angers me. What should it be, do you think?"

"I suppose that depends on what you believe. Is religious faith a requirement for civic service? Does religious fervor trump the rule of law? Would you care to hear the end of the story?"

"There is more?" asked the Prince.

"Oh, yes. Here is the end of the story. The former Fire Marshal left the City by the Lake to seek his fortune elsewhere. Three months later, after evening mass, when the cathedral was nearly empty, it caught fire. Everything was destroyed, excepting the stone walls. Thank heaven, no one was killed. The vicar blamed the catastrophe on the wickedness of his parishoners. Had they had sufficient faith, he said, and had they not somehow offended God Almighty, who sits on his throne in the highest heaven, the fire would never have occurred. He proclaimed himself disillusioned by parish work, and sought and obtained an administrative post in the Church hierarchy. I was left in charge of rebuilding the cathedral, which required the next four years."

"And did you have more water barrels the second time?"

"The second time, we complied with the regulation, yes. And when the next Fire Marshal came to inspect, he shook his head. He approved the building, to be sure, but chided me for my lack of faith. He said it was the first church building he had ever inspected where the priest in charge was so faithless that he complied with the fire code. I was the first priest he had encountered in his work who did not insist that God would not let a church building burn, and he counseled me to find something to which I was more suited than I am to clerical robes."

"Vicar, do you know where I might find that original fire inspector, the one who, you said, left the City by the Lake to seek his fortunes elsewhere?"

"I do not, but it may be possible to locate him. Why do you wish to?"

"He strikes me as someone I should very much like to have in my employ."

"I will be pleased to make inquiries, then."

The Prince nodded his thanks.

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