Essay: “The Getting Even of ‘Parson’ Guyles, William Hope Hodgson, 1914.
It’s too bad that Hodgson didn’t do more with his character Parson Guyles, one time Presbyterian minister, sometime safe-breaker with a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Like many of the stories in the collection it was reprinted in, The Luck of the Strong, it’s a revenge story.
The Parson has his “hours of honesty” when he makes himself scarce to any criminals that may want to hire him. During those times, his “grim Puritan blood” makes him lead a blameless life of honest toil and paying all his debts. But when Millionaire James Henshaw drives him out of his bookstore after Guyles refuses to sell so Henshaw can build a department store, the Parson begins to circulate among criminals again.
He meets up with two criminals who have a respect for the Parson that
rises above any criticism of his peculiar instincts for, and lapses into, what our spiritual advisers term the Narrow Path.
Hodgson spins an enjoyable and humorous heist story with a lot of complications. He does his usual meticulous accounting for details in describing Henshaw’s state-of-the-art vault. (All the best safe security systems are built by Scotsmen, the Parsons says.)
The Parson, throughout, wonders if God is helping him in this illegal act. He even does a bit of preaching:
‘Cut it out, laddies,” said Parson Guyles, cheerfully. ‘I’m a short tempered man, as ye ken” (the Parson grew more Scottish, as he indulged his vein). ‘An hour mair, if ye’ve the pluck o’ white mice, an’ ye’re rich for all ye’r sinful evil lives; not but ye’ll both be as poor as foolish babes a month hence. There’s John Vardon now, the lusts o’ the flesh, John Vardon, are the ruination of ye. The — —’
‘Good Lord! he’s going to preach!’ said Sandy Mech. ‘Stow it, Parson. We’re with you into hell and out again. ‘Ere’s them dividers.’
The Parson took them from him, without a word; and Sandy never knew how near he was to Eternity in that one instant; for the dividers were of steel, and heavy, and in every way adequate for so unpleasant a purpose. But John Vardon saw, and understood.
‘Sandy!’ he said, ‘shut your silly mouth. The Parson is right. We’re both a pair of fools…. I tell you what, Parson, if I get the whack I’m looking for out of this, I’ll cut the crook, and go away somewhere and live straight. I will, by the Lord, I will.’
Parson Guyles’ eyes gleamed with a strange and wonderful light. ‘God grant it, lad,’ he said, with a sudden uncovering of the hidden cravings of his nature. ‘I wad die easier to think there had some good come out o’ my sinfu’ life. I haud ye to ye’r word, John Vardon, on the honour of all that you once were.’
‘I give you my word, Parson,’ said John Vardon, with perfect sincerity. ‘I’ve been a fool once; but if this comes right and we get what you think is coming to us, I’ll leave England this week— ‘
I suppose you could see the Parson’s criminality as Hodgson’s the clergyman’s son casting a skeptical eye on men of the cloth. I didn’t really get the sense Hodgson was making any serious criticisms of religion, and Guyles is a Presbyterian not an Anglican like Hodgson’s father. I think Hodgson just wanted to create one of his clever characters who was an interesting mixture of good and bad.
Hodgson also was not fond of big business, so there is a bit of social commentary in Henshaw’s sharp business practices that, it is hinted, sometimes cross the line into illegality.