Reverend Babbington adjusted his chair, straightened his habits and peered curiously out of the window over Conroy’s shoulder. His eyes strained to focus on some distant point, as though some animal or the wonder of nature had caught his attention so fully that he had forgotten his purpose here. He stared for such a long time that Conroy felt compelled to look out the window himself, but was stopped mid-turn by the old vicar’s raspy voice coughing and spluttering itself into action.
Conroy watched with mild disinterest as Babbington stumbled to start his story, his frail hands patting at his clothing in search of something in his pocket. For a moment, Conroy imagined that he saw beneath the cuff of Babbington’s left sleeve, the tell-tale blue markings of a tattoo on his skin. No sooner had he spotted the odd markings had Babbington, seeing Conroy’s interest, withdrawn his hand and hoisted his sleeve up until it practically covered the base of his hand palm.
He smiled nervously.
‘An old life, you understand,’ he said, rather hesitantly as he continued to search his pockets. ‘Not all vicar’s started their lives in service of the cloth…’
He finally found what he was looking for. With a wry smile on his face, he removed his hand from a small and subtle pocket on one side of his coat, producing with it an ornate, silver case. He opened it and produced a large cigar that held up towards Conroy whilst smiling mischievously.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’
Conroy shook his head, gesturing towards a small clay ashtray that he kept on a table to one side. The vicar sat smiling innocently at him, his body making no intent to move away from the comfort of his seat although his eyes danced back and forth between the ashtray and Conroy.
A few moments passed in this fashion before Conroy - begrudging the role of the good host - staggered to his feet and waddled over to the table to fetch the ashtray for him.
‘You were going to tell me your story,’ he said, handing the ashtray over as the cigar billowed with a white smoke that smelt of nothing Conroy had ever smelt before.
The vicar took a few puffs on his cigar, savouring the flavour and watching the window carefully as Conroy took his seat once more.
With his audience settled, Babbington began his story:
’I haven’t long been in Barclay’s Hollow, as you might of guessed. I moved down here about six months ago, hoping to get away from the bustle of the city life. I bought a small cottage just outside the village. It sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the rectory so I can still wake in the morning to the delightful tones of the church bells.
’I am a man of simple tastes. My cottage is not overly furnished – the vast majority of what is in it was left by the previous owner – and, with the exception of a small library of religious texts that are never far away from me, my only major possession is a large wooden chest, which contains dozens upon dozens of mementos that I have gathered in a life time of doing the Lord’s work.
’I am not a rich man, as you might expect from a man of the cloth, but nor am I poor. In fact, I have made a rather modest income in the last few years from a history book that I wrote shortly after I retired that has – if I may be so bold as to deny modesty for one moment – done a relatively good turn of business.
’I have been fortunate that, unlike many of my colleagues, I have not had to endure the pleasures of retirement alone and share my humble abode with my daughter, Constance – the light of my life and, without a doubt, my most prized possession. She brings such joy and passion to my world that I cannot bear the idea of a world without her, even if that world does indeed turn out to be as marvellous as Heaven is described.
‘It is for that reason that I come to you today, Patrick. Not for my sake as such, but for the safety of my daughter. For, if anything were to happen to her…’
He began to trail off, his eyes flickering back towards the window momentarily before tracing their way down to the floor beneath his feet. His fingers delicately fiddled the silver cigar case, turning it this way and that and tracing the cuts and scratches that showed its age and frequent usage. Conroy’s eyes traced up to a small silver chain that hanged around the vicar’s neck bearing, at its lowest point, a shiny and dainty little cross.
He must be afraid, Conroy thought, to put more trust in his cigar case than his God…
He had little time to think any more of this before Babbington’s eyes swooped back up at him. He puffed on his cigar a few more times, his hands visibly trembling as he tried to form the right words to continue. A few more breaths gave him the extra courage he needed:
‘I don’t know what to make of it, I really don’t,’ he said, his voice quivering with fear. ‘I can only assume that the poor man thought I was someone else… Someone…’
He flicked the cigar against the ashtray. The ash spilled over the side, dropping untidily on to the carpet. Conroy sneered down at the mess but the vicar hadn’t seemed to notice he was so wrapped up in his troubles.
‘It all began a few weeks ago,’ he finally said. ’It was a Sunday afternoon. I hadn’t been to church since I arrived in Barclay’s Hollow, but I had sat out all morning to listen to the bells nonetheless. Constance, however, frequents the church on several occasions every week and had spent all morning enjoying Reverend Walcott’s sermon.
’It was as she came back, she came across a peculiar sight: A man, dressed in a long, red coat, shabby shirt and trousers and donning a black tricorne was stood waiting in the lane a short way down from my cottage. He stood in the hedgerows, watching her until she drew near before asking her who resided in the house. Naturally, she answered his question with my name and that was that. The man with tricorne hat turned his back on the house and disappeared down the lane.
‘When she got home a few minutes later, Constance told me of the strange incident but, seeing that the man made no attempt to join her in coming up to the cottage, we both forgot all about it…’
Babbington’s eyes turned sharply on Conroy, seeming to delve deep into the butcher’s mind as he sat, staring blankly at the clergyman.
‘Am I boring you, Patrick?’
Conroy considered this for a moment, his mind jumping through all the wicked and yet perfectly valid responses that would articulate how much of his time was being wasted in this enterprise. But, upon looking at the frail, old man, Conroy simply waved his hand for him to continue whilst settling deeper into his seat.
Babbington’s eyes lingered a moment longer and then seemed to be distracted by the sudden movement of a bird or squirrel outside in the meadow. Still staring out of the window, he continued with his story.
’A week passed with no further incident. The following Sunday, Constance again made her way down to church but I, feeling in a more productive mood than usual, decided to spend the morning working on my new book in my study.
’It was perhaps a little after ten o’clock in the morning when I became distinctly aware of a presence – some figure or another moving in the periphery of my vision on the other side of the window. When I looked up, I saw the same man that Constance had described to me the day before – tricorne hat and red coat exactly as she described. I stared at him and he stared at me, almost like two wild animals sizing each other up from across a clearing.
‘When he didn’t move or gesture towards me, I decided to get up and go to the window. I moved as quickly as my legs would carry me but, by the time I got to it and unbolted the window, he was gone.’
‘Naturally, I didn’t explain this to Constance – I didn’t want to frighten the poor girl – but, for the last three weeks, the same thing has been happening. Always at ten o’clock and always when I have been sat, writing in my study.’
Babbington leaned forward, put out his cigar on the ashtray and settled back into his chair, resting his fingers together as though in prayer whilst he surveyed me through his aged eyes.
‘Well, Patrick, what do you make of that?’
Conroy shrugged. ‘If I’m honest, very little,’ he said, shaking his head back and forth. ‘What exactly is it that has you so fearful for your daughter’s life?’
Babbington seemed perplexed by the question.
‘Well, naturally, I am concerned that there is a man loitering around my house, spying on my daughter…’
‘Spying on your daughter?’ Conroy repeated, shaking his head as he tried not to laugh. ‘It would appear the only person this mysterious stranger is interested in is you, Reverend. The only part your daughter has to play in this whole affair is that it was she who confirmed what, presumably, our stranger already knew.’
‘That your house did indeed belong to you. I imagine that had any other person been walking along that lane at that time, he might have asked them the same question.’
‘But it is queer though, Patrick, don’t you agree? A man appearing at my study window every Sunday for nearly a month – you must admit that is unusual…’
‘Unusual, yes, but hardly worth my time,’ Conroy replied getting to his feet.
‘But I am in danger, sir…’
‘And what makes you believe that, Reverend?’ Conroy shot back, his voice brimming with irritation. ‘A man peers in through your window three times and you believe that he intends to harm you or your daughter. You have no grounds to believe such a thing unless there is something you are not telling me…’
At this moment, Conroy peered inquisitively at Babbington, his eyes searching his features for any sign of fear, distress or uncertainness. Rather than finding these things he saw nothing but a blank and cold mind that struggled to formulate a deception that would quell Conroy’s curious nature.
‘I have told you everything,’ the Vicar replied, his voice lacking the authority that it had once possessed.
Conroy allowed himself to laugh a little.
‘Very good, sir, very good indeed,’ he said, placing his hands on his hips as he stared down at the would-be malingerer. ‘I must admit, I knew this moment would come sooner or later, but I thought the boys in the village might have come up with something a little more convincing to waste my time. Perhaps they will try a little harder next time…’
Babbington’s eyes narrowed in an instant. He cocked his head to one side and stared up at Conroy as he slowly rose to his own feet.
‘I don’t understand…’ he began, ‘I mean, I don’t fully…’
‘You, sir, are no more a vicar than I am,’ Conroy replied, stepping around Babbington and guiding him towards the door.
‘I assure you, I am,’ replied the old man as he trotted obediently next to Conroy as they moved through the front room until they reached the door out into the courtyard.
Conroy waggled a playful finger at Babbington.
‘Oh, no, sir, you are not,’ he said, his voice brimming with confidence. ‘As I said before, I have never heard of you. I have never heard your name mentioned in the village and, considering you must get your meat from somewhere, I am surprised you have not frequented my shop before now. You do not strike me as a man of God, sir, nor do you act the part convincingly, and this whole story about a man spying through your window sounds like something made up for a children’s tale.’
He gently pushed the old man through the door and stood in the doorway as he turned around to face him.
‘A noble attempt, I will give them that, but maybe next time Tommy Watson should try a little harder if he wants to waste my time. Or, better yet, he can give up altogether.’ He stepped closer to the old man and jabbed him once under the shoulder with his index finger. ‘No amount of cowardly games is going to force me to leave Barclay’s Hollow. I am here and I’m here to stay.’
With that, Conroy stepped back inside his shop and slammed the door shut behind him. He waited on the other side, listening as the old man loitered in the courtyard for a few minutes before the gentle crunch of the stones beneath his feet indicated that he was on his way back to the lane.
Conroy made his way to the nearest window and watched as the old man hobbled his way out on to the lane, looked up and down it a couple of times and turned to head back up the hill in the direction of the church.
Pleased with his afternoon’s work, Conroy headed back into the front room, rearranged his chairs, doused the fire and forced open the rusted window to allow the cigar smoke to drift out of his home. He then settled down in his armchair and fell into an easy sleep, thinking nothing more of the supposed Reverend Babbington and his ridiculous tale.
He did not wake again until the boy shook him from his slumber, thrusting a piece of paper into his hand and retreating back a few paces to avoid the inevitable back-hander that was coming his way.
Conroy stared down at the odd markings for a few seconds before shoving it violently towards the young lad.
‘Read it,’ he ordered.
The note was from the Reverend Francis Walcott although, on this occasion, he was writing as the local magistrate rather than a priest. It was a summons for Conroy’s services and the reason for his rousing sent an unnerving chill down his spine:
A retired vicar had just been found dead in his cottage.
His name was Charles Babbington.