Behold, the Face of God!
Emily and Violet's new knickerbockers and overblouses with matching silk scarves, which announced their privileged status like pennants in the light Spring breeze, were guaranteed to attract the whistles and crude comments of street urchins as they pedalled sedately past.
The day was too bright and balmy for the friends to be upset by such local riffraff envious of their expensive bicycles and aloof manner.
The train would take them well away from all this to the quiet hamlet of Violet's maiden aunt where they could explore the twisting lanes and byways of the peaceful countryside. Ideally they should have been chaperoned but, at the ages of 18, were deemed to be sensible and safe enough in each other's company during daylight.
Emily and Violet were very prim and proper young ladies, educated in the best finishing school where they had learnt to avoid ideas that challenged the strict hierarchy and protocols of their upbringing. If the hedgehogs or badgers in the countryside had subversive points of view, they would only come out at night to air them. Embroidery, setting banquet menus, and finding suitable husbands were the aspirations expected of these young women.
The light midday meal prepared by Aunt Henrietta’s cook restored their energy sufficiently for a few hours cycling before the carriage Emily's father was sending arrived to collect them. They had to avoid the home-commuting workers on the returning train at all costs. Such close proximity to the lower orders, if only on the platform before boarding a first-class carriage, was not desirable.
The cowslips were just passing their best and red squirrels busy raising young in newly constructed dreys as the Spring sunshine cast a crisp radiance over the patchwork of fields, copses and country lanes. The ground was firm and the newfangled pneumatic tyres of their bicycles absorbed the jolts from the ruts iron-wheeled wagons had made. The piles of horse dung did cause Emily and Violet to swerve once or twice, but they had been braced to encounter such unpleasant inconveniences.
The peasants labouring in the fields could barely be seen over the hedgerows, and their bantering was far away. The girls could have gone on cycling for miles without encountering a living soul.
Then the rough track suddenly dipped.
Emily managed to freewheel down the slope without mishap, but the front wheel of Violet's bicycle struck a large stone and she was catapulted over her handlebars. Emily immediately dismounted and dashed to her friend who was furious that better care had not been taken of the narrow thoroughfare. The wheel of her bicycle was buckled beyond remedy and the fact that they were miles from any sensible, civilised hamlet compounded their predicament.
‘Oh my goodness, Violet! We will have to walk now.’
‘You could cycle back and send assistance.’
‘Goodness no! We must stay together. Your Papa would never forgive me if I left you here. Can you stand?’
As Violet was helped to her feet she realised that her ankle had been sprained. There was nothing else for it - Emily would have to summon help from the peasants weeding spring crops.
Satisfied that her friend was comfortable, sitting on the grassy verge, she went to a nearby stile which gave access to the fields beyond the hedgerow.
Before Emily could climb over it a strange woman walked up the track towards them. She was dressed in a patchwork over-gown and wore a brimmed hat crowned with pheasant tail feathers. She had to be a witch or herbalist. At that moment it hardly mattered as long as she could help them.
‘Can you assist us, my good woman?’ Violet demanded haughtily.
‘What? Me?’ The older woman's eyes were filled with mischief. ‘I'm no good woman, so can't be sure.’
‘If you cannot supply a bandage for my ankle, could you at least summon help,’ the young woman ordered.
Emily realised that Violet's high-handed manner was getting nowhere. ‘We are rather stuck here, and would greatly appreciate any help you could offer. We will naturally ensure that you are recompensed for your trouble.’
The eccentric woman scratched her weather-beaten chin. ‘Now you seem like the one with manners.’
‘Oh really!’ Violet's response to such insolence was heartfelt. ‘I'm sure one of those peasants would be far more helpful!’
‘You could ask them, but out here they might not speak the same language.’
The woman viewed the friends too objectively for comfort. ‘Now here's an odd thing. Two young ladies with the same privileged upbringing - should be like peas in a pod, yet one of them turned out to be a maggot.’
‘How dare you!’ screeched Violet.
Emily tried to calm her friend. ‘The lady is only joking.’ She turned to the stranger. ‘My friend’s name is Violet, and I am Emily.’
‘My name’s Hecuba – but call me Hetty.’
‘Please, Hetty, are you sure you cannot do anything about Violet's ankle?’
‘Probably. If we can get her to my home it can be bandaged.’
‘How far is it?’
‘If you wheel her there on your bicycle it shouldn't take too long.’
‘No,’ protested Violet. ‘I forbid it.’
‘There is nothing else we can do,’ Emily insisted. ‘Do you really want me to call someone from the fields over to carry you?’
Violet had no choice. Her ruined bicycle left by the verge, they made their laborious way along the track to a gap in the trees. As they reached it the two young women stopped in amazement. They were looking down into a quarry with steep walls of pink sedimentary rock. Some layers were being newly worked. Spoil was piled at regular intervals, and wooden crates were stacked nearby.
‘It gets a bit tricky going down, but it's quicker than taking the carriage route,’ announced Hetty.
Violet was predictably horrified. ‘You live down there!’
Emily was more intrigued by the tall, conical building planted like a huge crystal outcrop at the centre of the quarry. ‘Do the carriages visit to see that strange building?’
‘Yes, and to collect our latest finds. Some of them can only be lifted out by horse and cart.’
‘You surely can't be mining feldspar for the potteries, Hetty?’
‘Not down there. Something far more valuable.’
Emily was too intrigued to stop now and, despite Violet's protests, wheeled her after their escort down a perilously narrow path that took them to the quarry floor.
‘Is this limestone?’ she asked as they reached the lower level.
Hetty was impressed. ‘You are interested in stones, then?’
‘My father imports Italian marble and brother studies geology.’
Violet obviously did not approve. ‘The young man is one of that tribe of nonconformists who refuse to believe God made the Earth in seven days.’
‘Violet's father is a bishop.’
Hetty’s home was surrounded by a rickety lean-to shelter containing the various sized rocks she was working on.
Emily was delighted. ‘You discover fossils, Hetty! How wonderful!’
Violet was more inclined to believe that she had been wheeled into the lower depths of the Devil's lair, but knew nothing she said would dampen her friend's enthusiasm. But even she was impressed by the strange, conical building sitting in the middle of the quarry, its triangular, stained-glass windows radiating down from its summit as the sun's rays were reflected from an oval device on its apex.
‘What is that?’ asked Emily.
‘What an odd church,’ added Violet.
‘What an odd place for a church, Hetty?’
‘Not at all, Emily. This quarry is filled with relics of the creator.’
Emily was baffled and hoped Violet hadn't heard. Her friend had the embarrassing tendency to jump to conclusions before knowing the facts.
The fossil hunter's home was surprisingly tidy inside. Both young women had been expecting something far more chaotic. Fortunately Violet was distracted from thinking too hard about why anyone interested in investigating the Earth before the Biblical creation, and familiar with Mr Darwin's and Mr Wallace's theories, would have been a member of any church, let alone live so close to one.
Hetty bandaged Violet's ankle so well the young woman was able to put a little weight on it. She also reassured them that the church leader would shortly leave in his carriage, which had room for both of them and Emily's bike.
But Emily was in no rush to leave. She was enthralled by the fossils of fish, crustaceans, plants and small dinosaurs arrayed about the room. Her brother would have been in his element with such a collection and excited that many more were waiting to be liberated from the rock.
‘Are you paid much for these marvellous discoveries, Hetty?’ asked Emily. ‘It must take so long to make the rock relinquish them?’
‘Goodness no. It is all done in the name of the Creator.’
If it were not for the proximity of the church, it would have been a peculiar response from someone whose discoveries undermined the teaching of the Old Testament. Violet's religious conviction did not allow her to comprehend how so many scientists had kept their faith, especially those persuaded by Mr Darwin's “On the Origin of Species”.
The young woman frowned as she looked across the quarry to the tall, conical church. ‘What denomination do you belong to, Hetty?’
‘Not one you would have heard of. Our order is newly founded, but the word is spreading rapidly. That is why we share our finds with other believers.’
‘What miracle gave birth to this new creed?’
‘Why, science, of course. It was science that revealed the truth of the Creator. The Word is far more ancient than the gospels give us to believe.’
‘But the gospels are the Word of God!’ protested Violet. ‘What miraculous discovery inspires you to contradict that?’
‘Creatures extracted from these cliffs are proof of a much greater truth. The evidence of one’s senses cannot be denied,’ explained Hetty. ‘Let me show you.’
Violet allowed Emily and the fossil hunter to help her across to the church as the distant click of hammers echoed about the quarry.
The interior was different from any place of worship the young women had encountered before. In the triangular stained glass windows were representations of antediluvian creatures unlike any living thing Noah would have known, let alone allowed on his Ark. Under the conical roof, the pews were set in a circle around a statue covered by a richly embroidered shroud. There was no font, altar or rood screen, and more long-extinct animals paraded about the circular wall.
Violet was too amazed to be indignant. ‘This is extraordinary. How can these mythical creatures be part of God's plan?’
‘They once existed, so therefore must be His work,’ the fossil hunter explained benignly. ‘God made them before he created us so they must have been closer to His Glory.’
‘But it is written that mankind is made in God's image!’
‘How could our ancestors have understood that he created these glorious creatures before breathing life into us? Our arrogance has made us misinterpret the words of Genesis.’
There was no irony in her tone, which worried Emily.
Hetty flourished a callused hand respectfully towards the tall, serious-looking man approaching them. ‘This is Father Horace. I am sure he will be happy to assist you ladies back to civilisation.’
As he was breathtakingly handsome, Violet hardly noticed that his raiment was a little too extravagant, even for High Church. The devices embroidered on Father Horace’s vestment smattered more of sorcery than Christianity.
The priest dipped a courteous bow. ‘Welcome ladies. I see that one of you has met with a minor misfortune?’
‘My bicycle threw me,’ Violet blurted out, more accustomed to equestrian pursuits than machines which did not do as they were told.
‘I would be honoured to take you young ladies back in my carriage. I have another sermon to preach this evening and there will be plenty of time.’
Emily's curiosity could no longer be suppressed. ‘What does that cover conceal?’
Father Horace's face lit up with holy fervour. ‘The one and only proof that the Bible avoids. The Face of God.’
However good-looking the man was, this was too much for Violet. ‘But surely no one can look upon the face of God?’
‘That is why His face remains covered.’ Father Horace reverentially kissed the hem of the shroud covering the sacred statue.
Unlike Violet and the intransigent dogma with which she had been raised, Emily understood that other denominations worshipped God in different ways. But this one, surrounded by such peculiar relics of the Supreme Being, had to be the weirdest she had ever heard of.
Father Horace could see that she was curious. ‘This shroud prevents Him from being looked upon by unworthy eyes, but the genuinely interested may see.’
‘May I please?’
Violet wasn’t sure she was ready to see the face of the Creator. It went against the Christian tenets indoctrinated into her. She wanted to protest, but wicked curiosity made her hold her tongue. It would probably only turn out to be a poor representation of the God in Michelangelo’s ceiling after all - ancient, paint-peeling plaster stained by candle smoke.
Emily doubted it and held her breath in fearful anticipation.
Father Horace and the fossil hunter each carefully took corners of the shroud and gently lifted it from the statue.
‘Behold the Face of God!’
Emily stepped back in surprise.
The face of their God was the huge head of a carnivorous dinosaur, sharp-toothed and small-eyed, with a smile that demanded blood sacrifice.