One street of his parish touched a main line of thoroughfare, and formed a little part of the new hunting-grounds of women, who, chased forth from their usual haunts by the Authorities under pressure of the country’s danger, now pursued their calling in the dark. This particular evil had always been a sort of nightmare to Pierson. The starvation which ruled his own existence inclined him to a particularly severe view and severity was not his strong point. In consequence there was ever within him a sort of very personal and poignant struggle going on beneath that seeming attitude of rigid disapproval. He joined the hunters, as it were, because he was afraid-not, of course, of his own instincts, for he was fastidious, a gentleman, and a priest, but of being lenient to a sin, to something which God abhorred: He was, as it were, bound to take a professional view of this particular offence. When in his walks abroad he passed one of these women, he would unconsciously purse his lips, and frown. The darkness of the streets seemed to lend them such power, such unholy sovereignty over the night. They were such a danger to the soldiers, too; and in turn, the soldiers were such a danger to the lambs of his flock. Domestic disasters in his parish came to his ears from time to time; cases of young girls whose heads were turned by soldiers, so that they were about to become mothers. They seemed to him pitiful indeed; but he could not forgive them for their giddiness, for putting temptation in the way of brave young men, fighting, or about to fight. The glamour which surrounded soldiers was not excuse enough. When the babies were born, and came to his notice, he consulted a Committee he had formed, of three married and two maiden ladies, who visited the mothers, and if necessary took the babies into a creche; for those babies had a new value to the country, and were not—poor little things!—to be held responsible for their mothers’ faults. He himself saw little of the young mothers; shy of them, secretly afraid, perhaps, of not being censorious enough. But once in a way Life set him face to face with one.
On New Year’s Eve he was sitting in his study after tea, at that hour which he tried to keep for his parishioners, when a Mrs. Mitchett was announced, a small bookseller’s wife, whom he knew for an occasional Communicant. She came in, accompanied by a young dark-eyed girl in a loose mouse-coloured coat. At his invitation they sat down in front of the long bookcase on the two green leather chairs which had grown worn in the service of the parish; and, screwed round in his chair at the bureau, with his long musician’s fingers pressed together, he looked at them and waited. The woman had taken out her handkerchief, and was wiping her eyes; but the girl sat quiet, as the mouse she somewhat resembled in that coat.
“Yes, Mrs. Mitchett?” He said gently, at last.
The woman put away her handkerchief, sniffed resolutely, and began: