To William the idea of reform was new and startling and not wholly unattractive. It originated with the housemaid whose brother was a reformed burglar now employed in a grocer's shop.
"'E's got conversion," she said to William. "'E got it quite sudden-like, an' 'e give up all 'is bad ways straight off. 'E's bin like a heavenly saint ever since."
William was deeply interested. The point was all innocently driven in later by the Sunday-school mistress. William's family had no real faith in the Sunday-school as a corrective to William's inherent wickedness, but they knew that no Sabbath peace or calm was humanly possible while William was in the house. So they brushed and cleaned and tidied him at 2.45 and sent him, pained and protesting, down the road every Sunday afternoon. Their only regret was that Sunday-school did not begin earlier and end later.
Fortunately for William, most of his friends' parents were inspired by the same zeal, so that he met his old cronies of the week-days—Henry, Ginger, Douglas and all the rest—and together they beguiled the monotony of the Sabbath.
But this Sunday the tall, pale lady who, for her sins, essayed to lead William and his friends along the straight and narrow path of virtue, was almost inspired. She was like some prophetess of old. She was so emphatic that the red cherries that hung coquettishly over the edge of her hat rattled against it as though in applause.
"We must all start afresh," she said. "We must all be turned—that's what conversion means."
William's fascinated eye wandered from the cherries to the distant view out of the window. He thought suddenly of the noble burglar who had turned his back upon the mysterious, nefarious tools of his trade and now dispensed margarine to his former victims.
Opposite him sat a small girl in a pink and white checked frock. He often whiled away the dullest hours of Sunday-school by putting out his tongue at her or throwing paper pellets at her (manufactured previously for the purpose). But to-day, meeting her serious eye, he looked away hastily.
"And we must all help someone," went on the urgent voice. "If we have turned ourselves, we must help someone else to turn...."
Determined and eager was the eye that the small girl turned upon William, and William realised that his time had come. He was to be converted. He felt almost thrilled by the prospect. He was so enthralled that he received absent-mindedly, and without gratitude, the mountainous bull's-eye passed to him from Ginger, and only gave a half-hearted smile when a well-aimed pellet from Henry's hand sent one of the prophetess's cherries swinging high in the air.
After the class the pink-checked girl (whose name most appropriately was Deborah) stalked William for several yards and finally cornered him.
"William," she said, "are you going to turn?"
"I'm goin' to think about it," said William guardedly.
"William, I think you ought to turn. I'll help you," she added sweetly.
William drew a deep breath. "All right, I will," he said.
She heaved a sigh of relief.
"You'll begin now, won't you?" she said earnestly.
William considered. There were several things that he had wanted to do for some time, but hadn't managed to do yet. He had not tried turning off the water at the main, and hiding the key and seeing what would happen; he hadn't tried shutting up the cat in the hen-house; he hadn't tried painting his long-suffering mongrel Jumble with the pot of green paint that was in the tool shed; he hadn't tried pouring water into the receiver of the telephone; he hadn't tried locking the cook into the larder. There were, in short, whole fields of crime entirely unexplored. All these things—and others—must be done before the reformation.
"I can't begin jus' yet," said William. "Say day after to-morrow."
She considered this for a minute.
"Very well," she said at last reluctantly, "day after to-morrow."
The next day dawned bright and fair. William arose with a distinct sense that something important had happened. Then he thought of the reformation. He saw himself leading a quiet and blameless life, walking sedately to school, working at high pressure in school, doing his homework conscientiously in the evening, being exquisitely polite to his family, his instructors, and the various foolish people who visited his home for the sole purpose (apparently) of making inane remarks to him. He saw all this, and the picture was far from unattractive—in the distance. In the immediate future, however, there were various quite important things to be done. There was a whole normal lifetime of crime to be crowded into one day. Looking out of his window he espied the gardener bending over one of the beds. The gardener had a perfectly bald head. William had sometimes idly imagined the impact of a pea sent violently from a pea-shooter with the gardener's bald head. Before there had been a lifetime of experiment before him, and he had put off this one idly in favour of something more pressing. Now there was only one day. He took up his pea-shooter and aimed carefully. The pea did not embed itself deeply into the gardener's skull as William had sometimes thought it would. It bounced back. It bounced back quite hard. The gardener also bounced back with a yell of anger, shaking his fist at William's window. But William had discreetly retired. He hid the pea-shooter, assumed his famous expression of innocence, and felt distinctly cheered. The question as to what exactly would happen when the pea met the baldness was now for ever solved. The gardener retired grumbling to the potting shed, so, for the present, all was well. Later in the day the gardener might lay his formal complaint before authority, but later in the day was later in the day. It did not trouble William. He dressed briskly and went down to breakfast with a frown of concentration upon his face. It was the last day of his old life.
No one else was in the dining-room. It was the work of a few minutes to remove the bacon from beneath the big pewter cover and substitute the kitten, to put a tablespoonful of salt into the coffee, and to put a two-days'-old paper in place of that morning's. They were all things that he had at one time or another vaguely thought of doing, but for which he had never yet seemed to have time or opportunity. Warming to his subject he removed the egg from under the egg cosy on his sister's plate and placed in its stead a worm which had just appeared in the window-box in readiness for the early bird.
He surveyed the scene with a deep sigh of satisfaction. The only drawback was that he felt that he could not safely stay to watch results. William possessed a true strategic instinct for the right moment for a retreat. Hearing, therefore, a heavy step on the stairs, he seized several pieces of toast and fled. As he fled he heard through the open window violent sounds proceeding from the enraged kitten beneath the cover, and then the still more violent sounds proceeding from the unknown person who removed the cover. The kitten, a mass of fury and lust for revenge, came flying through the window. William hid behind a laurel bush till it had passed, then set off down the road.
School, of course, was impossible. The precious hours of such a day as this could not be wasted in school. He went down the road full of his noble purpose. The wickedness of a lifetime was somehow or other to be crowded into this day. To-morrow it would all be impossible. To-morrow began the blameless life. It must all be worked off to-day. He skirted the school by a field path in case any of those narrow souls paid to employ so aimlessly the precious hours of his youth might be there. They would certainly be tactless enough to question him as he passed the door. Then he joined the main road.
The main road was empty except for a caravan—a caravan gaily painted in red and yellow. It had little lace curtains at the window. It was altogether a most fascinating caravan. No one seemed to be near it. William looked through the windows. There was a kind of dresser with crockery hanging from it, a small table and a little oil stove. The further part was curtained off but no sound came from it, so that it was presumably empty too. William wandered round to inspect the quadruped in front. It appeared to be a mule—a mule with a jaundiced view of life. It rolled a sad eye towards William, then with a deep sigh returned to its contemplation of the landscape. William gazed upon caravan and steed fascinated. Never, in his future life of noble merit, would he be able to annex a caravan. It was his last chance. No one was about. He could pretend that he had mistaken it for his own caravan or had got on to it by mistake or—or anything. Conscience stirred faintly in his breast, but he silenced it sternly. Conscience was to rule him for the rest of his life and it could jolly well let him alone this day. With some difficulty he climbed on to the driver's seat, took the reins, said "Gee-up" to the melancholy mule, and the whole equipage with a jolt and faint rattle set out along the road.
William did not know how to drive, but it did not seem to matter. The mule ambled along and William, high up on the driver's seat, the reins held with ostentatious carelessness in one hand, the whip poised lightly in the other was in the seventh heaven of bliss. He was driving a caravan. He was driving a caravan. He was driving a caravan. The very telegraph posts seemed to gape with envy and admiration as he passed. What ultimately he was going to do with his caravan he neither knew nor cared. All that mattered was, it was a bright sunny morning, and all the others were in school, and he was driving a red and yellow caravan along the high road. The birds seemed to be singing a pæon of praise to him. He was intoxicated with pride. It was his caravan, his road, his world. Carelessly he flicked the mule with the whip. There are several explanations of what happened then. The mule may not have been used to the whip; a wasp may have just stung him at that particular minute; a wandering demon may have entered into him. Mules are notoriously accessible to wandering demons. Whatever the explanation, the mule suddenly started forward and galloped at full speed down the hill. The reins dropped from William's hands; he clung for dear life on to his seat, as the caravan, swaying and jolting along the uneven road, seemed to be doing its utmost to fling him off. There came a rattle of crockery from within. Then suddenly there came another sound from within—a loud, agonised scream. It was a female scream. Someone who had been asleep behind the curtain had just awakened.
William's hair stood on end. He almost forgot to cling to the seat. For not one scream came but many. They rent the still summer air, mingled with the sound of breaking glass and crockery. The mule continued his mad career down the hill, his reins trailing in the dust. In the distance was a little gipsy's donkey cart full of pots and pans. William found his voice suddenly and began to warn the mule.
"Look out, you ole softie!" he yelled. "Look out for the donk, you ole ass."
But the mule refused to be warned. He neatly escaped the donkey cart himself, but he crashed the caravan into it with such force that the caravan broke a shaft and overturned completely on to the donkey cart, scattering pots and pans far and wide. From within the caravan came inhuman female yells of fear and anger. William had fallen on to a soft bank of grass. He was discovering, to his amazement, that he was still alive and practically unhurt. The mule was standing meekly by and smiling to himself. Then out of the window of the caravan climbed a woman—a fat, angry woman, shaking her fist at the world in general. Her hair and face were covered with sugar and a fork was embedded in the front of her dress. Otherwise she, too, had escaped undamaged.
The owner of the donkey cart arose from the mêlée of pots and pans and turned upon her fiercely. She screamed at him furiously in reply. Then along the road could be seen the figure of a fat man carrying a fishing rod. He began to run wildly towards the caravan.
"Ach! Gott in Himmel!" he cried as he ran, "my beautiful caravan! Who has this to it done?"
He joined the frenzied altercation that was going on between the donkey man and the fat woman. The air was rent by their angry shouts. A group of highly appreciative villagers collected round them. Then one of them pointed to William, who sat, feeling still slightly shaken, upon the bank.
"It was 'im wot done it," he said, "it was 'im that was a-drivin' of it down the 'ill."
With one wild glance at the scene of devastation and anger, William turned and fled through the wood.
"Ach! Gott in Himmel!" screamed the fat man, beginning to pursue him. The fat woman and the donkey man joined the pursuit. To William it was like some ghastly nightmare after an evening's entertainment at the cinematograph.
Meanwhile the donkey and the mule fraternised over the débris and the villagers helped themselves to all they could find. But the fat man was very fat, and the fat woman was very fat, and the donkey man was very old, and William was young and very fleet, so in less than ten minutes they gave up the pursuit and returned panting and quarrelling to the road. William sat on the further outskirts of the wood and panted. He felt on the whole exhilarated by the adventure. It was quite a suitable adventure for his last day of unregeneration. But he felt also in need of bodily sustenance, so he purchased a bun and a bottle of lemonade at a neighbouring shop and sat by the roadside to recover. There were no signs of his pursuers.
He felt reluctant to return home. It is always well to follow a morning's absence from school by an afternoon's absence from school. A return in the afternoon is ignominious and humiliating. William wandered round the neighbourhood experiencing all the thrill of the outlaw. Certainly by this time the gardener would have complained to his father, probably the schoolmistress would have sent a note. Also—someone had been scratched by the cat.
William decided that all things considered it was best to make a day of it.
He spent part of the afternoon in throwing stones at a scarecrow. His aim was fairly good, and he succeeded in knocking off the hat and finally prostrating the wooden framework. Followed—an exciting chase by an angry farmer.
It was after tea-time when he returned home, walking with careless bravado as of a criminal who has drunk of crime to its very depth and flaunts it before the world. His spirits sank a little as he approached the gate. He could see through the trees the fat caravan-owner gesticulating at the door. Helped by the villagers, he had tracked William. Phrases floated to him through the summer air.
"Mine beautiful caravan.... Ach.... Gott in Himmel!"
He could see the gardener smiling in the distance. There was a small blue bruise on his shining head. William judged from the smile that he had laid his formal complaint before authority. William noticed that his father looked pale and harassed. He noticed, also, with a thrill of horror, that his hand was bound up, and that there was a long scratch down his cheek. He knew the cat had scratched somebody, but ... Crumbs!
A small boy came down the road and saw William hesitating at the open gateway.
"You'll catch it!" he said cheerfully. "They've wrote to say you wasn't in school."
William crept round to the back of the house beneath the bushes. He felt that the time had come to give himself up to justice, but he wanted, as the popular saying is, to be sure of "getting his money's worth." There was the tin half full of green paint in the tool shed. He'd had his eye on it for some time. He went quietly round to the tool shed. Soon he was contemplating with a satisfied smile a green and enraged cat and a green and enraged hen. Then, bracing himself for the effort, he delivered himself up to justice. When all was said and done no punishment could be really adequate to a day like that.
Dusk was falling. William gazed pensively from his bedroom window. He was reviewing his day. He had almost forgotten the stormy and decidedly unpleasant scene with his father. Mr. Brown's rhetoric had been rather lost on William, because its pearls of sarcasm had been so far above his head. And William had not been really loth to retire at once to bed. After all, it had been a very tiring day.
Now his thoughts were going over some of its most exquisite moments—the moments when the pea and the gardener's head met and rebounded with such satisfactory force; the moment when he swung along the high road, monarch of a caravan and a mule and the whole wide world; the moment when the scarecrow hunched up and collapsed so realistically; the cat covered with green paint.... After all it was his last day. He saw himself from to-morrow onward leading a quiet and blameless life, walking sedately to school, working at high pressure in school, doing his homework conscientiously in the evening, being exquisitely polite to his family and instructors—and the vision failed utterly to attract. Moreover, he hadn't yet tried turning off the water at the main, or locking the cook into the larder, or—or hundreds of things.
There came a gentle voice from the garden.
"William, where are you?"
William looked down and met the earnest gaze of Deborah.
"Hello," he said.
"William," she said. "You won't forget that you're going to start to-morrow, will you?"
William looked at her firmly.
"I can't jus' to-morrow," he said. "I'm puttin' it off. I'm puttin' it off for a year or two."