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"My Housebreaker" from Munsey's Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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    My Housebreaker
  • Munsey's Magazine (May, 1897)   "My Housebreaker"   A story. "How Shadyhurst recovered its prestige, which had been threatened by the burglary epidemic at a rival suburb -- The incredible romance of a good young man." Volume 17. Number 2. Page 187.  [EPBLIB]

from Munsey's Magazine
My Housebreaker
by Ellis Parker Butler

Woodshade, as I have christened my small suburban home, is one of the prettiest residences in Shadyhurst. I have a full acre of green sward, and my cottage (nine rooms and cellar, water in every room, and especially in the cellar after a heavy rain) is situated well back on the lawn, so that I have plenty of room for flower beds, settees, and crooked cinder walks. It is, in fact, an ideal suburban home, and I take a great deal of comfort in it, especially in the summer, when there is no snow on the walks and the water pipes are unfrozen. I have a wide porch, and all that sort of thing, and my wife and I often congratulate ourselves upon not being cooped up in a flat in the city. We always say "cooped up" when we speak of the city, as that is the common expression in Shadyhurst, and we are certainly anything but "cooped up." We are, in fact, merely spattered upon the landscape.

That is one reason why we are always in great fear of burglars. We are too far apart, and as for expecting any aid from my nearest neighbor in case of finding a burglar in my house, I might as well expect relief from England or Japan.

During the excitement over the numerous burglaries in Meadowlea -- the next suburb but one -- we were a good deal worked up in Shadyhurst, and I know we were all greatly put out, every morning, to find that no one had been robbed in Shadyhurst, for there is quite a rivalry between the two settlements, and the burglaries in Meadowlea seemed to give that place an undue importance. Of course we tried to make the best of the fact that we were unburgled. We congratulated each other with seeming happiness on the fact that our suburb had not been visited by the nocturnal purloiners, and pretended to condole with the dwellers In Meadowlea; but on the whole we knew it was all pretense, and that the greatest need of Shadyhurst was not better drainage, but some burglars.

Not that I wished to be personally burgled, nor that Jones wished me to be burgled; but all around we simply longed in an impersonal way that some one would be burgled. The dignity of Shadyhurst demanded it. It seemed a slight put upon us, as if the professionals considered that Shadyhurst had no solid silver spoons, nor gold watches. It almost branded us as a suburb of tin spoons, steel forks, and silveroid watches.

I think that is the reason why I was greeted something like a hero when I entered the car for the city the morning after Woodshade had been entered. Through me Shadyhurst had recovered its supremacy over Meadowlea, and while I regretted the loss of all my silver, a gold watch, and a wallet containing some bills and coin, still I felt the geniality induced by being suddenly thrust into a pleasantly prominent position.

The night of the burglary my wife had awakened me and declared that she was sure she heard some one below in the china closet; but as she had told me the same thing at irregular intervals for about seven weeks, I paid no attention, and I dare say she soon fell asleep again. At any rate, she was quite ready to crow over me the next morning, and I believe that fact considerably lessened her regret over the loss of the silver. On the whole, no one seemed to waste much sorrow over the burglary; I posed as a hero, my wife took the role of a prophet, and Shadyhurst in general basked in the consciousness of recovered precedence. It was a very satisfactory burglary to all parties.

That evening when I was again in my own domicile, with the Daily Telegraph spread open before me, Sally, our housemaid, entered the room and said that a very respectable man wished to see me. I asked her to show him in, and she did so.

He was a young fellow of about twenty seven years, slightly taller than the average, well built, and neatly dressed. His hair was parted in the middle, and he wore a collar of the latest style -- one of those stand up and turn over collars that were the proper thing at that time. His eyes were angelically blue, and his lips were full and red. When he smiled, a charming dimple showed in his cheek. The only feature that was imperfect was his chin. This was of the retreating variety, and beat a very hasty retreat, if I may say so.

He entered the room rather diffidently, crushing his soft hat in his hands, and I noticed that he did not look me full in the face. Under his arm he held a package done up neatly in an old newspaper. When he had advanced as far as the table he laid the package upon it; then he took my gold watch from his vest pocket, and my wallet from a pocket in his coat, and put them down together.

"I believe these are yours," he said in a clear voice.

Although I was considerably surprised I asked him to be seated, which he did, and I examined the articles.

"Yes," I said, "these are mine. Are you a detective?"

"No," he said, moving uneasily in his chair, "I'm the burglar."

In my surprise I dropped my watch. It fell to the floor, and I heard something in it buzz for a moment. The young man picked it up and handed it to me.

"That was too bad," he said. "The mainspring is broken. That'll cost one fifty. Now here's a two dollar bill; you get that mainspring fixed, and the other fifty will mend the back door latch that I broke getting in last night. You see, "he continued, noting my amazement, "I don't want you to lose nothing by this stealing business, and if I hadn't stole your watch you wouldn't have dropped it. That's so, ain't it?"

"Yes " I said, "that is a fact."

"Well, then," he went on, "that fixes that all up, and that's all the business I've got here, so I guess I'll go;" and he started away, and would no doubt have left me had I not called him back.

"Sit down," I said again, and he took the chair he had just left. I own I felt not a little interest in the young fellow, and I could see that my wife -- who sat at the opposite side of the table -- was also quite interested.

"I suppose," said the burglar, with a very engaging smile, "that you think I'm a queer fellow to be bringing back the stuff I stole last night, don't you?"

"Well, yes," I replied, "I do, rather. It is somewhat out of the usual run, isn't it?"

"That's what!" he said with emphasis. "That's just what it is, and that's why I ain't like the other burglars. I always aim to bring back the stuff."

I looked at him closely, for I thought perhaps he was trying to play some trick on me, but he seemed perfectly sincere, and his clear blue eyes looked frankly into mine.

"Now look here," I said, "I don't know what you are up to, but I wish you would tell me plainly --"

The burglar laughed.

"I see," he broke in, "you think I am I a freak. Is that it?"

"I leave it to your own consideration," I replied. "Does it look reasonable that you should run the risk of being shot --"

"Oh," he said lightly, "you wouldn't shoot me. You know very well you are too kind hearted; and any way, you would be so scared you wouldn't be able to hit me if you did try to shoot. But I see what you want to know, and if you don't mind I'll just light this cigar and explain all about it."

As I was smoking, I could not very well object to his lighting his cigar, but I asked him as a special favor not to spill any ash on the floor, as my wife is very particular about that; so he moved up a little closer to the fire, and from time to time knocked the ash into the grate with his little finger, as gracefully as I ever saw it done.

"My name," he began, "is William Featherton Briggs, and my father was a burglar by profession. He was an expert, and took a great deal of pride in his professional work. It was through an apprenticeship under him that I learned the business. I am known among the professionals as 'Bill the Parson.'"

On account of your clerical appearance, I suppose," I ventured.

"No," said my burglar, "not for that, but because I am really a parson."

"You don't mean to say that you are a genuine clergyman?" inquired my wife.

"Yes, ma'am," said he, "I am a regularly ordained minister of the United Universal Church, and I have a parish in New Jersey. I have only recently built a new church there, on which there is still a small debt; but that has nothing to do with what I am telling you. When we are better acquainted, I may ask for a small sum toward lifting the mortgage; but for the present I will pass over that."

At this point my wife laid aside the sewing she had in hand, and moved into the light of the fire.

"I won't stop to tell you all about the jobs I have done in the way of breaking and entering," said the burglar, "but you will pardon me if I say none ever did better work. For five years, from the time I was sixteen until I was twenty one, I was at it nearly every night. I cleared nine thousand dollars during the five years, over and above expenses. Now, my salary is only seven hundred a year and I board myself. It is quite a come down;" and he smiled sadly.

"How did you come to leave your sinful way?" asked my wife.

"It was this way, ma'am," he replied. "When I was twenty one I was over in Jersey, doing the suburban circuit, and I had been playing in pretty poor luck. You can imagine how low I was when I tell you I had got to doing ministers' houses and local newspaper offices. It was poor business, and I was hardly making expenses, when, one night, I struck a preacher's house, in Wasco. Do you know the minister at Wasco?"

I told the burglar that I did not.

"Well," he said, "he is the rummiest old cove you ever struck. Seventy years, gray, wheezy, and jolly as a butcher. I entered by the bay window, and went up to his room. While I was going through his pants he woke up and spotted me. And what do you suppose he done? Why, he just slid out of bed and offered prayer for me! He prayed along for about half an hour, and I got so interested I forgot where I was; and then he got back into bed, begging my pardon for doing so, but his legs were subject to rheumatism and the room was cold. Then he asked about my name and family and all that, and ended by inviting me to get into bed, as he was too sleepy to talk much that night."

"Weren't you surprised?" asked my wife.

"Well, I should shout," said my burglar; "but I was kind of taken by the old cove's pluck, so I just shucked myself and tumbled in, and in about five minutes we were both snoring. In the morning he invited me to stay to breakfast, and I stayed. Then he gave me a jolly talk, and in the end he brought me around."

"You mean he converted you?" asked my wife, who is a Methodist.

"Well, yes," said the burglar, "although we don't call it conversion in the church."

I saw my wife stiffen up, and I feared she was going to get my friend -- for so I considered him now -- into a religious argument; so I asked him what happened next.

"Well," he said, "I took rooms over a grocery, swore off burglary, and started in on the straight and narrow. Every day I took dinner with the parson, and he introduced me to every one in Wasco. I got a job in a coal store, but that didn't seem to satisfy my conscience, and I ended by beginning to study for the ministry under my benefactor. And then, just as I was getting a hold on the business, I felt the old burglar feeling come on me, and it caught me heavy. I tried to fight it off and I couldn't, and I tried to pray it off and I couldn't. I just had to do a job or bust."

"What did you do?" inquired my wife, who had been listening intently to Burglar Bill's story.

"I took my case to the old minister," said Bill, "and told him how it was. He said that it was human nature, and the most natural thing in the world, and he advised me to go ahead and do a job."

"The idea!" exclaimed my wife.

"Just so," said my burglar, "and I should have thought it queer too, except that he told me to keep myself down to as few jobs as I could, and then only to rob him. It was very kind of him, and I quite appreciated it. So after that I used to go over and burglarize him once a month or so. I always made very good hauls, for as a rule he slept like a log and never knew when I was at work. Of course I took his stuff back the morning after the job, and paid him for any damages. He made out a set of rules I had to follow, such as to shut all the doors and windows when I went out, on account of his rheumatism, and not to awaken the cook, nor to enter his daughter's room, nor to touch off the alarm clock, nor to disturb the missionary funds, and so on."

"How often did you enter his house?" asked my wife.

"Only about once a month," said Bill. "That was as often as the feeling would get the best of me; and when I went away to the theological seminary, I only did a job about once every two months. You see, I was gradually outgrowing the habit. You haven't never been a burglar, have you?" he asked, turning to me.

I told him I hadn't.

"Well, then," he said, "you can't exactly understand my case. It is like giving up tobacco or opium. You have to taper off. I have got down to once a year now, and before long I hope to get over it altogether."

"But how does it happen that you came to rob us?" I asked, rather suspiciously.

"Just this way," he said frankly. "I don't mind telling you in the least. I mentioned the minister's daughter a while ago; well, she was a peach! I beg your pardon, I mean she was the most charming young lady I had ever met, and first thing I knew I was dead stuck on her -- or, I should say, I fell in love with her. When my course in the seminary ended I proposed and was accepted. We were married about four months ago, and as her father was getting too old for active clerical work he retired in my favor and I was made minister of the church at Wasco. Of course I made my home in the rectory, and the old cove stays by us. Now, I leave it to you, ma'am," he said, turning again to my wife, "I leave it to you, can a fellow do a first class job on his own house? That's what I want to know, can he? If he can, I am wrong, but I say he can't. I tried it, and it didn't work. So there was nothing left when the spell came on me but to go out and break and enter some one else's."

"I think that is very reasonable," said my wife, "but how did you come to choose us?"

"My father in law recommended you to me," said my burglar. "He was an old friend of your father's, and he gave me this letter to your husband in case I should be discovered."

"What is your father in law's name?" asked my wife.

"I don't know as I ought to tell you that," said my burglar; "but still, it can't do any harm. He is the Rev. Josiah Dalrymple."

"What!" exclaimed my wife, springing from her chair -- "not Tessa Dalrymple's father!"

"Yes, ma'am," said the burglar, "Tessa is my wife."

My wife stood with one arm leaning on the mantel, and for a while she was lost in thought, Tessa Dalrymple had been one of her school chums, and she had often wondered what had become of her.

"So you are Tessa's husband!" she exclaimed: "How strange it all is! You must both of you come and stay a week with us. We have a spare room --"

"The one with the Yale lock on it?" interposed the burglar, "Yes," said my wife, "and we shall be ever so glad to have you come."

"Well," said Bill, "we'll come. I must be going now, or I will not be able to catch the 10.30 train. But before I go I want to ask one favor. May I burglarize you every year?"

"Of course," said my wife, " we should be pleased to have you."

Just at this moment our maid announced the village officer. He entered with an air of importance, and informed us that the thief was as good as caught, that he had not left the village, and that he could not do so, as every exit was being watched. My wife smiled knowingly at me as the officer spoke, and I admit that I could not keep from winking at my burglar. He winked in return, and then I introduced him as my friend, the Rev. William Briggs, thanked the officer for his efforts, and dismissed him. I thought it best not to mention the returned valuables, for a number of reasons.

I offered to escort my burglar to the train, but he demurred, and to tell the truth I did not like the idea of putting off my easy slippers; so we parted at my door, with many affectionate messages from my wife to his wife, and a promise from him for a visit in the near future.

When he had gone, and my wife and I were settled in our chairs again, I thought the whole matter over, and the more I thought the more clearly I saw what a fool my burglar had made of me. The whole thing came out as clear as the masts of a vessel in a dissipating fog. In spite of my chagrin over my gullibility, I admired his ineffable effrontery. He had evidently found himself in a tight place and unable to escape, and only by restoring my property and concocting a tale could he hope to evade the watchful eyes of the denizens of Shadyhurst. I had been taken in, but so had my wife. That was not a little comfort.

She had been gazing into the fire, and I felt that she had been following the same train of thought as I.

"Well," I said at length, "we are taken in, but still it was worth it. I can make a story out of him."

"Yes," she said, "we are two good hearted old fools, but he was a clever fellow, was he not?"

"Yes, indeed," I said, "he ought to be a story writer himself."

"A story writer!" she said scornfully. "Why, John, he is far too clever for that; he ought to be a suburban real estate agent!"

Next morning, the evening conversation with my burglar seemed a far off memory, too unreal to be anything but a dream. For reasons of my own I refrained from mentioning the return of my silver to my fellow commuters as I went to the city on the early train, and when they spoke of the burglary I spoke rather shortly, I imagine. I did not seem to take the same pride in being burgled as I had the previous morning.

I did not expect to hear from Bill the Parson. I hoped I never should, and I know my wife joined me in the sentiment, but I did hear. About a week after his evening call I received a note which read as follows:

April 7, 1892.

My Dear Mr. Morgan:

I write these few lines to inform you that, if it is convenient, my wife and I will spend six days with you next week, beginning Monday, the 10th. My wife wishes to be remembered to your wife, and hopes to renew her old pleasant friendship.

If the time is not convenient please address me here.

Most sincerely yours,
    William Featherton Briggs.

That was about a year ago, and we all enjoyed their visit immensely. His wife is a very sweet little woman, and knows nothing at all of his periodical attacks of burglar's itch.

Today I received a few lines from him informing me that the spell was on him, and my wife has locked herself into the spare room, with her ears stuffed with cotton. I have brought up a bottle of my best wine and some cakes, and have placed them on the table, where his reverence cannot fail to see them in case he is in a mood for trying them.

He is a jolly good fellow, in spite of his spells, and when he brings back my spoons tomorrow we will tap another bottle, for the Rev. William Featherton Briggs is not a prohibitionist by a long shot.

My Housebreaker



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