The Church Militant




AS I passed the Vicarage, I thought that it looked a likely place. I walked on a few yards, and then it seemed to me a pity not to see if the place was as good as it looked. So I went back and asked at the back door if they could give me a job of work.

The kitchen-maid said there was no work for me, and she was not inclined to talk. But she fetched me some bread and cheese, and I had a chance to look round. I marked the scullery window; it was out of sight of the road, fastened with the usual simple catch, with no bars or shutters. A regular invitation—a window like that is. It seemed to me a one-man job, and just as good that night as any other night.

So that night, by half-past ten, I was in the shrubbery of the Vicarage garden, smoking my pipe and watching the house. There was only one light; it was in the study windows downstairs. At eleven o'clock that light went out and another appeared in the upstairs window. "That's all right," I said to myself. "Parson's finished writing his sermon and gone up to bed." When the whole house was dark, I went round it once or twice, just to see how things lay. I couldn't find anything better than the scullery window, but that was quite good enough. I was impatient to begin, but I did not consider it safe to start work until half-past twelve. The window gave me more trouble than I had expected; the catch was very stiff, and I had nothing but my pocket-knife to force it back with. However, I got it back at last and opened the window very slowly, an inch at a time, making no noise. Then I got in.

I no sooner got my feet down on the scullery floor than I was knocked headlong, and found a thirteen-stone weight on my chest. I asked it, speaking under difficulties, to get off again. I was a bit dazed, for I had come down hard and bumped my head, but I saw the only thing to do was to sham drunk, and I spoke thickly. I undid one end of my collar, pulled my hair over my forehead, hung my lower lip, and put on a bleary stare. By the time that man had got off my chest, struck a match on the heel of his boot, and lit the candle behind him, I looked a complete drunk if ever any man did.

I could see now that the man who had knocked me over was the Rev. William Lake himself. And the more I looked at him, the more I felt sorry that I had ever come.

"Well," he said, "you dirty little ginger-headed two-penny-half-penny scoundrel, what are you doing here?"

I hiccoughed and answered, "Thor thish was my housh—nummer twenny Willetsh Terrish. Ain't thish ri'?"

"That won't do," he said; "I heard you round the house an hour ago—or I shouldn't have been here waiting for you. Besides, drunken men don't open windows that way. You're not drank. Drop it."

I thought about it for a moment, and saw that there was a good deal in what he said. So I dropped it. I fastened my collar again, sat up, and pulled off my cap.

"Very well," I said, "then what's the move now?"

I suppose he saw my hand slipping round, for he said quickly, "Have you any weapons?"

"Bless you, no! I only——"

Before I could finish he was sitting on me again. I tried a smash at him, but he caught my wrist and nigh broke it. After that I didn't try again. It wasn't only that he was bigger, heavier, and stronger than most men; he was quick as light, and you could never tell from his eye what he was going to do next. He went all over me carefully, and took my knife, and the shooter, and my jemmy. Then I saw that the game was up.

"What a silly little liar you are!" he said.

As I have said, I saw that it was all up, and I couldn't make it any worse. I was a good deal disappointed, and I bad been roughly handled, and altogether I was not in the sweetest temper. So I spoke out. I said that I did not want any (adjective omitted) preaching from a (substantive omitted) like himself. All I asked was what his (adjective omitted) move was.

"If you swear any more," he said, "I shall be compelled to cause you considerable physical pain."

I had a bumped head and a barked elbow. I was fairly copped, and my temper got the better of me again. It was foolish of me, but I may have thought that he, being a parson, would not actually strike me. Anyhow, I said that if he wanted to know what he was I could tell him. I did tell him in four words. I omit the words.

Never in my life have I had such a thrashing as I got then. He hit only with the open hand; if he had used his fists he'd have killed me. There was no getting away from him, and no giving him anything back. It was ding-dong all over my face and head until I dropped in a heap, bleeding like a pig, and nearly sick. It finished me.

"You're boss," I said. "You can give your orders. I only wanted to see."

He stood there smiling, as if he had rather enjoyed himself.

"Pick up your boots," he said, "and put them on."

On entering the window I had my boots hanging round my neck by the laces; they had fallen off when he first knocked me over. While I was putting them on he turned back his cuffs and washed his hands at the sink. When he had finished he pointed to the sink.

"There you are," he said. "You can repair damages."

I was bleeding from my nose, and from a cut lip, but the cold water soon stopped that. When I had finished he asked me if I was all right.

"Pretty well," I said. "I'm a bit shaky on the legs—that's all. You gave me a good doing."

"Take the candle, then, and go in front of me into the study. I expect you know the way." Of course I did. Show me the outside of any house, and the inside is no puzzle to me.

He picked up my knife, the revolver, and the small jemmy, and followed me into the study. He lit the lamp, gave me the knife back again, and locked the revolver and the jemmy away in a drawer.

"And now," he said, "won't you sit down?" He spoke to me as if I were a lady visitor. I sat down, and he, taking a chair opposite me, began to fill a little old clay pipe.

"I really can't make this out," he said, "you're so small and clumsy. You've got a nasty temper, but you're not very plucky. What on earth made you think of trying to be a burglar?"

"I don't know," I said. "But there's one thing I'd like to ask you, and no disrespect. What made you think of being a parson—a man of your build and strength, and so handy with your fists? I ask pardon, but you might have done better."

He didn't seem to take that as cheek at all. For a moment he didn't answer, and sat sucking his little clay. Then he sighed and said, "I have sometimes thought so myself. But it is quite certain that you might have done better. How did you come to this?"

"I had no bringing up, and I read penny trashy novels."

He tapped his font impatiently on the carpet, "Well, well—go on."

"Then I was led away by bad companions and took to drink and gambling, and not knowing what it was to have a mother's tender——"

He got up and interrupted me. "Now drop all that," he said. "I want facts; tell me the story of your life. How did you come to this?"

Partly from admiring the man, and partly from whim, I did tell him the story, and told him the plain truth too. It was pretty strong, but I left nothing out, and he never stopped me. When I had finished he thanked me.

"Then," he said, "coming of decent people, and with a fair education and a good chance in life, you none the less have been from your earliest boyhood just about as bad as you are now—bad all through—always bad."

"That is about the mark," I answered. Then I thought to myself that it would be one of two things—either he would take me out and hand me over to the police, or else he would ask me to join him in prayer. I expected the latter. He did neither. He walked up and down the room, with his hands behind him, saying to himself. "And I preach sermons—sermons—sermons!" Suddenly he smiled again in that queer way of his. "You've kept me up very late," he said, "and in consequence I've become uncommonly hungry. What do you say? Will you come and help me to get us some supper? Very well then, come quietly. I don't want to wake the rest of the house."

So I went with him into the kitchen and carried things from there into the study. He laid the table—clean white cloth, silver forks and everything of the best. There was a cold game-pie, a ripe Stilton, and a bottle of Burgundy. I never had a better supper in my life. He passed me anything I wanted and filled my glass. For the life of me I couldn't help grinning.

"Now then," he said, "what's amusing you?"

"I was only thinking, that's all. It seems a queer way for a parson like you to treat a chap like me. I come here to crack this crib, you fairly get me, and no word about the police—never a word. First you give me a thrashing and then you give me supper."

"Well, you can't deny that you wanted both of them badly. What else should a parson have done? What did you expect?—tell me honestly."

"Speaking honestly, I expected more talk—more parson-talk, you know."

"And what do you mean by that?"

"Why, the sort of thing I was always hearing when I was a boy—about the sinfulness of it, and repenting, and hell."

"Do you think it would do you any good if I talked like that?"

"Well, no."

"Nor do I." He changed the subject then, and told me that there was a good chance for work at Enton Mills. They were short-handed there for the moment, and he could give me a line to the foreman. "You tell me," he said, "that you are interested in machines, and know a little about them; that might help you. If you can do anything at all special—anything, for instance, in the way of repairs, when some trifle goes wrong—they'll soon find it out. Smart men that go there stop, and work their way up. It's the rarest thing for them to be short-handed—in fact, you're in luck."

I thanked him, of course. I had meant, if he let me off, to go on to Enton. But I had no intention of going near the Mills or getting regular work of any kind. However, I did not want to annoy him by telling him that I preferred my own way of living, especially as be seemed so pleased with his idea about the Mills. After supper he sat down and wrote a line or two to the foreman, whom he seemed to know well. As he was writing it, the clock struck three. "You will start at once," he said, "so as to be there early. You won't be able to work that day, after being up all night, but you can begin work the next day. It's important that you should apply early, before everything's filled up."

I thanked him again, and asked him to put me on the right road. What I wanted was to get him out into the dark. He came out of the house with me, showed me which turn to take, and said good-bye. "Come and see me again. I have much more to say to you when the right time comes." I thanked him and said good-bye.

I walked until I heard his front door shut, and then I ran just about as hard as I could go. I passed one policeman, and he tried to stop me, but I dodged him and got away. I was on the outskirts of the village then, and once past him I had a lonely country road and nothing to fear.

You see, while I was on my back I had noticed the parson's watch-chain, I took care not to look at it again, but I kept it in my memory. While he was saying good-bye to me in the dark I got an easy chance. The parson's gold watch and chain were in my trousers-pocket, and he never had the least notion when I took it. My notion was now to get to Enton about five, and take a working-man's train on to Waterloo.

I chuckled to myself. He'd called me a ginger-headed scoundrel, stopped me swearing, spoiled my little game, and given me a thrashing, but I had the better of him in the end. There was his watch and chain in my pocket, and in less than four hours I should be handing them over to Ike and getting three or four sovereigns for them.

As I walked along it gradually began to grow light, and somehow or other I lost my spirits. I stopped chuckling; the more I thought about the neat way that I had scored off that parson the less I felt inclined to laugh about that or anything else. I got angry about nothing. It may seem queer, but I was angry with the parson for having stood out there in the dark, close against me, and given me my chance, I called him all the names I could lay my tongue to for his foolishness. I was just as angry with myself, though for no sensible reason. Then I began to get nervous and took fancies, thought I heard steps coming after me, and imagined there was a policeman waiting to catch me behind every big tree I passed. I didn't enjoy that walk. I wished to heaven that parson had taken me out by the scruff of my neck and handed me over to the police when he first caught me, though I don't know why I wished it. "Who wants his blooming ticker?" I said out loud, pulling it out of my pocket. "Strike me if I won't pitch it over the hedge and be done with it!"

But I didn't. I pulled myself together, and argued with myself. "If you can afford to throw money away," I said to myself, "that's the first I've heard of it. You just plug on until you get to Enton Station, and don't give way to such silliness. It's easier to argue with yourself than it is to make yourself see the force of it. I went on, but I couldn't stop thinking. I wished I had never come near the Vicarage. I wished I had got my shooter out and finished the parson on sight. I wished I had never been born, I wished I was dead. The farther I went, the more down-hearted I got. I had never felt anything like it before.

At last I had done my nine miles and stood outside Enton Station. I stood there for about a minute, and then I made up my mind. "I chuck this," I said, "and take that forsaken ticker back to the parson again."

I was as tired as a dog when I got to the station; but as soon as I had made up my mind that seemed to pass off. I made my way back a good deal quicker than I had come. The sun shone and the birds sang, and you could see we were in for a rare fine day. I met some working-men on the road, and passed a good morning to them. I could have said good morning to the very policeman that I had dodged a few hours before, and not been afraid of him. I felt afraid of nothing, and up to fighting any man of my own weight.

As I drew near. the Vicarage I didn't feel quite so chirpy. I had a nasty job before me, but I made up my mind to go through with it. They told me the Vicar had breakfasted early and was in bis study, and would see me there.

The Vicar was standing up when I went in, with his hands in his breeches-pocket, and that curious smile on his face. He looked a fine man.

"Good morning!" he said. "You're soon back."

I put the watch and chain on the table. "I—I—I've done a damned dirty trick, and I'm ashamed of myself."

"Ah!" he said; "this is good. This is a start."

He went on with what I suppose some people would have called parson-talk, and I had that feeling in my throat as if I were swallowing eggs whole until I could stand it no longer. But I needn't go into that.

An hour afterwards I was on my way again to Enton Mills—and he with me.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1928, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.