Siegfried Mason’s wretched skull stares out, still, at all who pass the deserted Honesty Vault. There it sits, in a hollowed-out hole, embedded into the arched entrance; a warning to the cruel and greedy of heart. I pass by now and turn my face to the cobbles. It is shame, not reverence, which moves me.
The Honesty Vault was established by Mayor Thomas Sherwood to share the piteous collected wealth of Oakestone when our humble town was overcoming the terrible famine of 1859. All monies were pooled and stored centrally in the Vault, opposite the great clock in the town square, that a small amount might be taken when needed by any deserving soul. When trade came our way the profits would be submitted to the Vault. When commerce thrived from sales of pigs or of grain or of coal the resultant riches would be added to the collective pile.
The sole rule of the Vault: only ever take what was needed to sustain yourself and your dependents. All other things in the town – food or service – was shared equally. Life, though modest, swelled with comfort and plenty.
The Honesty Vault’s warden elect – an old, deaf verger – sat in a small cabin with a dusty tome; recording withdrawals and deposits after each visit. A regular audit was made and each morning at breakfast the townsfolk would gather to hear Mayor Sherwood read aloud the previous day’s activity (more oft than not a gentle or significant rise is proceeds). There would be food and sharing; music and joy as the town celebrated their togetherness; their resilience in bad times; their strength in altruistic unity.
But after a few years the people of Oakestone grew bitter and savage inside. They saw the growth of wealth and longed for more. But not one spoke word of it; merely festered within.
On a particularly hot summer’s eve, Siegfried Mason (a troubled haberdasher with no wife nor children with a hobbled foot) staggered to the Vault. His head was swimming; hot with the ale he had consumed that evening. Hearsay told that Mason and the landlord of the Black Bull quarrelled viciously about the Haberdasher’s inability to deliver goods on time, not to mention their questionable quality when they were received. That he was a poor and shameful member of the harmonious town. That the idea of community, sharing and equality was lost on him, entirely.
It is said that Mason yelled that he would show the landlord what it truly meant to be a member of this community. Several men swore to the threatening dedication present in his eyes.
The Verger snored from his cabin. Siegfried peered into the dark archway. He shuffled inside.
The morning came. The townsfolk gathered. The entries were read.
Mason’s progress, of course, was halted. His trail was traced. He was found in the crypt of the chapel of St Michael. The monies, though, were nowhere to be seen.
Mason was hauled to the town squared and bound to a plank. He was questioned by Mayor Sherwood:
Where are the monies? Where is the wealth which we honestly share?
Mason made no reply whatever. A devilish punishment was devised.
I stood, a mere boy of nineteen years, at the back of the baying crowd. The men and the women gathered around Mason. Each drew a length of leather and dipped it in tar which had been boiled to bubbling point. Each man and each woman then struck him, about the face, for every farthing that had been pilfered. Mason did not cry out.
Eventually came my turn. Though the visage in front of me was no longer the face of a man but a bloodied death’s head aloft a broken, useless body. I made my strikes.
On returning home, my hand as red as an October sunset, a small package awaited me; wrapped in the finest cloth I’d ever seen. I opened it up and found, as every other had that very evening, an equal cut of the town’s accumulated wealth. Less one share.