A Road, near Brixly,
in SurreyNovember 1906
„Good Heavens, it’s cold!” he groused to himself, pulling up the collar of his coat ‘round his ears. He walked briskly along the lonely road, an icy night wind biting his face. The duties of a village vicar are often painful, he muttered. He’d just been to the widow Colby’s house, comforting the old woman in her serious illness. God bless her, he mused, the poor old thing’s not likely to endure much longer.“
As he walked the road narrowed to a wagon rut passing through thick shrubs and trees to either side. Looking down and breasting the wind, the vicar stopped short, aware of something in front of him. It was the form of a large man, his arms akimbo, standing astride the path.
“Oh, it’s you vicar,” the man said, in a rough voice. “’ad no thought to see you out on a night such as this. A raw one, eh?”
The vicar did not recognize the shape in front of him — not his face, which was obscured by darkness, nor his voice, which somehow seemed menacing.
“A raw night, indeed, my friend. So, I’ll bid you a good evening and be on my way.”
As the vicar stepped forward, however, the large man moved to block his progress.
“What is it?” asked the vicar.
“’Tis a matter of help for the poor, vicar.”
“A worthy thing, my friend, but perhaps you could come see me at the vicarage, in the morning...?
“I’ll be makin’ m’request just now if you please vicar. The situation is urgent, you see, and there’s no time to wait.”
Just then the vicar heard a noise from behind him, and as he turned felt a heavy thud at the back of his head. It was the last sensation of his life, for just then another blow from the front smashed his forehead. Uttering only a faint gasp, he fell to the road in a heap, and the men fell upon him, searching his pockets. Then one stood, once again placing his hands on his hips.
“Damnation! There ain’t nothin’ ‘ere. The blighter’s pockets are empty.”
The other thief rose, holding a small book in his hands. “Only this. A bloody book of prayers. Ain’t worth nothin’ for sure. But ’is coat must be worth somethin’. And ‘is shoes.”
As the two began to tear at the vicar’s clothes the big thug noticed the glint of something in the moonlight. Reaching down, he tore it from the dead vicar’s chest.
“What ‘er it?” the other asked eagerly, leaning in.
Holding the object up to the light, the big man replied. “A cross. Looks t’ be gold, maybe. And, set with some stones too.” He smiled. “Maybe we’ll be rewarded for our good night’s work, eh?”
The two turned and vanished into the hedges. A sudden burst of the wind howled through the leafless trees.
“What is it!” said Percy, as he sat bolt upright in his bed. It was banging at the front door, and then the muffled sound of frantic voices. He could make out the familiar voice of Mrs. Warren, the vicarage housekeeper. But not the voices of the men.
Then, the door to his bedchamber flew open. “Who? What?” he asked, rubbing his eyes as the bright light of lamps startled him.
“Help him dress, Mrs. Warren,” one of the men ordered in a rough voice. “Father? Where’s father,” Percy begged, as the woman took one arm and the men retreated to the outer room. The housekeeper said nothing as she handed Percy his clothes, but he could hear her sobbing. “Why, Mrs. Warren? Why are you crying?” No answer, as she helped him with his shirt.
When the two emerged from the bedchamber into the foyer of the vicarage, Percy could see three men, all of them wearing tall hats and stern faces. They were all men of the Parish Council and the oldest he knew to be Mr. Stanton, the village solicitor. At first, Mr. Stanton hesitated, but then he spoke.
“There’s been a... there’s been a tragedy, Percy... er... about your father, the vicar.”
“A tragedy?” the boy repeated. “Where’s father?” he gasped, looking around.
The men looked at each other as if deciding who was going to say it.
“About your father, boy. He’s dead.”
The wind suddenly went out of Percy, as if his lungs had collapsed. Then he gasped and turned to Mrs. Warren. “Is it true?” he pleaded, now crying right along with the housekeeper.
“Yes,” she said in a low voice, choking back more tears. “Yes, Percy. ‘Tis.”
The old housekeeper took Percy in her arms to comfort him, as the visitors turned and left, closing the door behind them.
Percy passed the rest of the night in alternating spells of tears and numb disbelief. Mrs. Warren wept along with him. Finally, he began to ask the questions — “Where? How did it happen? Who?”
At first, Mrs. Warren hesitated to tell him what she’d heard, or to say anything at all, fearing the details would only make things worse. But Percy persisted and insisted on knowing.
“Murdered,” she explained. “Almost certainly by thieves, as he came ‘long the road from the widow Colby’s house. He’d nothing of value on him — not even his coin-purse — when they found him, so it was robbery the foul demons were after,” she explained, shaking her head.
Hearing the details Percy fell back once more into tears.
Next day, some of the women of the parish came to pay their respects. Mrs. Warren insisted that Percy must put on his Sunday suit and receive them in the proper way. Most brought food and stayed just long enough to say how sad they were at the vicar’s death, and what a fine man he was, and he would surely be missed by everyone.
In the evening, Percy learned the Parish Council and Vicar Panford, from a nearby village, had decided to have the funeral and burial the next day. They had also decided that no one was to see the Vicar’s body, not even Percy, “owing,” it was said, “to the condition of things.” When Percy asked, Mrs. Warren explained that meant his father’s head and face were “not to be looked upon.”
The passing hours became mainly a daze to Percy. He wept often until he could cry no more, and then he closed his eyes and thought about his father and told himself often that he must reconcile that he was gone and not to return. He’d gone to Heaven, as he so often said he wished to do, and so it was not such a terrible thing. And then he told himself that it was a terrible thing, and why had God allowed such a fine man to be murdered and left on the road? Sometimes Percy told himself that it was not real and that his father, somehow, would return and show everyone that it had been a mistake. Someone else had been killed, but not him. He was alive and well and on his way home. And then he did not come.
Next day, Mrs. Warren led Percy by the hand through all the rituals of the funeral. Standing and then sitting beside the wooden box, which Percy knew contained the body of his father, he did not hear all that was said, because he was thinking to himself that it was, after all, his good-bye to his father. The last he would be with him — close to him, even if he was in the dreaded box.
The procession to the churchyard and the open grave was brief, and then, with prayers, the men of the parish lowered the box into the ground and began to cover it with dirt. Percy stood watching, sometimes crying and sometimes not, but watching everything that was part of his father’s going — listening to the awful hollow thud of every shovel of dirt as it hit the top of the box. When the covering was done, everyone left the churchyard. Percy and Mrs. Warren remained standing beside the grave, looking at the mound of dirt and the rough wooden cross that would mark the spot until a proper stone could be made. It was only then that Percy felt completely alone.
Percy’s dazed awareness of his father’s death soon gave way to anger. Anger at being left alone. Anger at those who’d murdered his father and would likely escape their proper punishment. Anger at everyone who now seemed to have forgotten him. And yes, even anger at God for having allowed his father — the finest and best man in the world — to be murdered in such a way. And then, just anger about everything. About life itself. Until anger became a comfort of sorts.
After several days, during which Percy mostly sat brooding in his father’s study and wandering aimlessly about the vicarage, brooding turned to wondering what would become of him. Where would he go? What could he do? Who would be his family?
Those questions were answered more quickly than Percy expected. Three days after the funeral, Mr. Stanton and several of the Parish Council came to the vicarage and invited Percy to join them in the study.
“Yes?” Percy said, not knowing what the visitors were about nor what was to come next.
“Well, there’s a development, Master Percy, that concerns you. Yes, concerns you very definitely,” said Mr. Stanton.
Percy didn’t like the cold look in Mr. Stanton’s eyes or the somber tone of his voice. The others looked down.
“A development? What’s that?” he asked, not knowing what to expect, but sensing that only a painful answer could come from his question.
“We’ve had a reply to our cable to your grandfather. The Vicar’s father, eh? And he...
Mr. Stanton paused in mid-sentence and drew a breath.
“Though he acknowledges, as he must in law, that you are his heir, he says bluntly he’ll have nothing to do with you and particularly he takes no responsibility for you.”
Percy closed his eyes and swallowed hard, uncertain what all that meant. He’d never met his grandfather and his father had told him long ago that the old man wished to have nothing to do with them, though he could not disown them entirely.
“But, what’s to become of me then?” Percy finally asked.
“Your grandfather has made some modest provision, knowing that he must, for you to be taken to an institution near London. He has given the County Council a sum of money for your upkeep while you are in the... eh...
“...while I am in the orphanage! You are sending me to an orphanage!” Percy shouted in disbelief.
“There’s nothing to be done, boy,” said Mr. Stanton, sternly. “And so that’s the end of it. Mrs. Warren will have you ready to travel in the morning.”
And with that, the men departed, leaving Percy alone. Mrs. Warren had gone to her sister’s for the evening, Percy knew, and would not be back till morning.
In the eerie quiet of the vicarage and with time to consider, Percy grasped the full seriousness of what was about to happen to him. That he’d been abandoned by everyone. And that he had no means to survive except by his own resources. It was the sense of being so completely alone that now caused him to fall to tears. That and once again grieving the loss of his father.
Percy lay crying on his bed until he lost consciousness and went to sleep. He awakened some hours later, at first light. It was then he realized that for some reason Mrs. Warren had not returned, as she should have by that time. The vicarage was still empty.
Percy’s emotions now gave way to a sense of panic. Even Mrs. Warren, it seemed, had abandoned him. All he could think was that he was about to be taken to the orphanage and he desperately did not want to go there. A place that to him was like a prison.
Sensing that time was short, he scrambled under his bed for the carpetbag his father had sometimes used. He began to fill it with his belongings. He ran to his father’s study, wondering what things of his father’s he should take to remember him. He couldn’t think clearly or take time to consider, so he just began to take things at random from the desk. A pen. A note pad. A journal. He crammed them all into the bag.
Next, he ran to the kitchen, thinking he would need food for the road. He was now determined to run away as quickly as he could. Anything to avoid the terrible fate of the orphanage. In the kitchen, he found a tin of hard biscuits and a piece of cheese, and tossed them both into the bag.
Now he was ready to make his escape. ‘Should I go out the door?’ he wondered. ‘No. It’ll be watched. The window. My bedchamber window is the way to go,’ he reasoned. ‘A window that will put me on the path through the woods and past the village without being seen.’
Opening the sash, he tossed his bag out first and then climbed after it. As soon as his feet touched the ground, however, he felt the grip of a cold hand on his neck. A strong and unforgiving hand.
“Mr. Stanton said you might try this,” said a scolding voice. Percy looked behind him and could see it was Constable Meeks, the local policeman.
Percy began to kick and scream, trying with all his might to shake free of the hand on his neck. He flailed about, as he was being dragged around the corner of the vicarage and onto the high street.
There, he could see a coach waiting, with Mr. Stanton standing beside the open door.
“In here, Master Percy,” Mr. Stanton said, with no particular emotion.
Percy screamed that he refused to go and again attempted to free himself from the constable, but to no avail. Meeks forced him into the coach and came in after him, never releasing his neck.
“Whip-up, driver,” Meeks ordered.
As the coach passed along the village high street, Percy sobbed and looked out the window, knowing he would never see his home again.