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Long Stow church lay hidden for the summer amid a million leaves. It had neither tower nor steeple to show above the trees; nor was the scaffolding between nave and chancel an earnest of one or the other to come. It was a simple little church, of no antiquity and few exterior pretensions, and the alterations it was undergoing were of a very practical character. A sandstone upstart in a countryside of flint, it stood aloof from the road, on a green knoll now yellow with buttercups, and shaded all day long by horse-chestnuts and elms. The church formed the eastern extremity of the village of Long Stow.
It was Midsummer Day, and a Saturday, and the middle of the Saturday afternoon. So all the village was there, though from the road one saw only the idle group about the gate, and on the old flint wall a row of children commanded by the schoolmaster to "keep outside." Pinafores pressed against the coping, stockinged legs dangling, fidgety hob-nails kicking stray sparks from the flint; anticipation at the gate, fascination on the wall, law and order on the path in the schoolmaster's person; and in the cool green shade hard by, a couple of planks, a crumbling hillock, an open grave.
Near his handiwork hovered the sexton, a wizened being, twisted with rheumatism, leaning on his spade, and grinning as usual over the stupendous hallucination of his latter years. He had swallowed a rudimentary frog with some impure water. This frog had reached maturity in the sexton's body. Many believed it. The man himself could hear it croaking in his breast, where it commanded the pass to his stomach, and intercepted every morsel that he swallowed. Certainly the sexton was very lean, if not starving to death quite as fast as he declared; for he had become a tiresome egotist on the point, who, even now, must hobble to the schoolmaster with the last report of his unique ailment.
"That croap wuss than ever. Would 'ee like to listen, Mr. Jones?"
And the bent man almost straightened for the nonce, protruding his chest with a toothless grin of huge enjoyment.
"Thank you," said the schoolmaster. "I've something else to do."
"Croap, croap, croap!" chuckled the sexton. "That take every mortal thing I eat. An' doctor can't do nothun for me—not he!"
"I should think he couldn't."
"Why, I do declare he be croapun now! That fare to bring me to my own grave afore long. Do you listen, Mr. Jones; that croap like billy-oh this very minute!"
It took a rough word to get rid of him.
"You be off, Busby. Can't you see I'm trying to listen to something else?"
In the church the rector was reciting the first of the appointed psalms. Every syllable could be heard upon the path. His reading was Mr. Carlton's least disputed gift, thanks to a fine voice, an unerring sense of the values of words, and a delivery without let or blemish. Yet there was no evidence that the reader felt a word of what he read, for one and all were pitched in the deliberate monotone rarely to be heard outside a church. And just where some voices would have failed, that of the Rector of Long Stow rang clearest and most precise:
"When thou with rebukes dost chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment: every man therefore is but vanity.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with thine ears consider my calling: hold not thy peace at my tears.
"For I am a stranger with thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
"O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen . . ."
The sexton was regaling the children on the wall with the ever-popular details of his notorious malady. The schoolmaster still strutted on the path, now peeping in at the porch, now reporting particulars to the curious at the gate: a quaint incarnation of conscious melancholy and unconscious enjoyment.
"Hardly a dry eye in the church!" he announced after the psalm. "Mr. Carlton and Musk himself are about the only two that fare to hide what they feel."
"And what does Mr. Carlton feel?" asked a lout with a rose in his coat. "About as much as my little finger!"
"Ay," said another, "he cares for nothing but his Roman candles, and his transcripts and gargles."Transepts and gargoyles.
"Come," said the schoolmaster, "you wouldn't have the parson break down in church, would you? I'm sorry I mentioned him. I was thinking of Jasper Musk. He just stands as though Mr. Carlton had carved him out of stone."
"The wonder is that he can stand there at all," retorted the fellow with the flower, "to hear what he don't believe read by a man he don't believe in. A funeral, is it? It's as well we know—he'd take a weddun in the same voice."
The schoolmaster turned away with an ambiguous shrug. It was not his business to defend Mr. Carlton against the disaffected and the undevout. He considered his duty done when he informed the rector who his enemies were, and (if permitted to proceed) what they were saying behind his back. The schoolmaster made a mental mark against the name of one Cubitt, ex-choirman, and, forthwith transferring his attention to the audience on the wall, put a stop to their untimely entertainment before returning softly to the porch.
In Long Stow churchyard there was shade all day, but in the church it was dusk from that moment in the forenoon when the east window lost the sun. This peculiarity was partly temporary. The church was in a transition stage; it was putting forth transepts north and south; meanwhile there was much boarding within, and a window in eclipse on either side. The surrounding foliage added its own shade; and each time the schoolmaster stole out of the sunlight into the porch, to peer up the nave, it was several moments before he could see anything at all. And then it was but a few high lights in a sea of gloom: first the east window, as yet unstained, its three quatrefoils filled with summer sky, the rest with waving branches; next, the brass lectern, the surplice behind it, the high white forehead above. Then in the chancel something gleamed: that was the coffin, resting on trestles. Then in the choir seats, otherwise deserted, a figure grew out of the shadows, a solitary and a massive figure, that stood even now when everybody else was seated, finely regardless of the fact. It was a man, elderly, but very powerfully built. The hair stood white and thick upon the large strong head, less white and shorter on the broad deep jowl. The head was carried with a certain dignity, rude, savage, indomitable. The eyes gazed fixedly at the opposite wall; not once did they condescend to the thing that gleamed upon the trestles. One great hand was knotted over the knob of a mighty stick, on which the old man leant stiffly. He was dressed in black, not quite as a gentleman, yet as befitted the most substantial man but one in the parish. And that was Jasper Musk.
The parson finished the lesson, and his white brow bent over the closed book; the face beneath was bearded and much tanned, and in it there burnt an eye that came as a surprise after that formal voice; and the hand that closed the book was sensitive but strong. Stepping from the lectern, the clergyman declared his calibre in an obeisance towards the altar, then led the way slowly down the aisle. Bearers rose from the shades and followed with the coffin; they were almost at the porch before Jasper Musk took notice enough to limp after them with much noise from his stick. The congregation waited for him, swarming into the aisle in the big man's wake. So they came to the grave.
And there broad daylight revealed a circumstance that came as a shock to most of those who had followed the body from the church, but as an outrage to the officiating clergyman: the coffin bore no plate. Mr. Carlton coloured to the hair, and his deep eye flashed upon the chief mourner; the latter leant upon his stick and replied with a grim glare across the open grave. For a moment the wind washed through the trees, and every sparrow made itself heard; then the rector's eyes dropped to his book, but his voice rang colder than before. And presently the earth received its own.
Mr. Carlton had pronounced the benediction, and a solemn hush still held all assembled, when a bicycle bell jarred staccato in the road; a moment later, with a sharp word for some children who had tired of the funeral and strayed across his path, the rider dismounted outside the saddler's workshop, a tiny cabin next his house and opposite the church. The cyclist was a lad in his teens, dark, handsome, dapper, but small for his age, which was that of high collars and fancy ties; and he rode a fancy bicycle, the high machine of the day, but extravagantly nickelled in all its parts.
"Well, Fuller," said he, "who are they burying?"
Fuller, the saddler, who enjoyed a local monopoly in the exercise of his craft, but whose trade was the mere relaxation of a life spent in reading and disseminating the news of the day, was spelling through the Standard at his bench behind the open window. He dropped his paper and whipped the spectacles from a big dogmatic nose.
"Gord love yer, Mr. Sidney, do you stand there and tell me you haven't heard?"
"How could I hear when I'm only home from Saturdays to Mondays? I'm on my way home now. Old Sally Webb—is it—or one of the old Wilsons?"
"No, sir," said the saddler; "that's no old person. Gord love yer," he cried again, "I wish that was!"
"Who is it, Mr. Fuller?"
"That's Molly Musk," said Fuller, slowly; "that's who that is, Mr. Sidney."
The boy had not the average capacity for astonishment; he was not, in fact, the average boy; but at the name his eyebrows shot up and his mouth grew round.
"Molly Musk! I thought nobody knew where she was? When did she turn up?"
"Tuesday night, and died the next."
"But I say, Fuller, this is interesting!" Perhaps the average boy would have been no more shocked; he might not even have found it interesting. This one leant his bicycle against the wall, and his elbows on the bench within the open window. "Where's she been all this time?" he queried, confidentially. "What did she die of? What's it all mean?" And there was a knowing curl about the corners of his mouth.
"Mean?" said the saddler; "there's more than you want to know that, Mr. Sidney, but want must be their master. That old Jasper, he know, so they say; but I'm not so sure. It was he fetched her home, poor old feller; got the letter Monday morning, had her home by Tuesday night. That's a man I never liked, Mr. Sidney. I've said it to his face, and I'll say it as long as I live; but, Gord love yer, I'm sorry for him now! That's given him a rare doing and no mistake, and less wonder. A trim little thing like poor Molly Musk! Not that I'm so surprised as some; a man of my experience don't make no mistake, and I never did care for the breed. But there, even my heart bleed when that don't boil; as for the reverend here, he feel it as much as anybody else, and that I know. That young Jim Cubitt, he come by just now, and says he, 'He's taking the service as if it was a wedding.' 'You've been kicked out of the choir,' I says; 'that's what's the matter with you still, or you wouldn't want a man to be a woman. Thank goodness there's one live man in the parish,' I says, 'though I don't fare to hold with him.' And no more I do, Mr. Sidney; but, Gord love yer, that make no difference to men of our experience. I like the reverend's Popery as little as the squire like it, and I tell him so, yet he go on bringing me the Standard every day when he've done with it. Is there another clergyman that'd do the like to a man that went against him in the parish? Would the Reverend Preston at Linkworth? Would the Reverend Scrope at Burton Mills? Or Canon Wilders, or any other man Jack of 'em? No, sir, not one!"
"But if he doesn't read them himself," said the boy, "it doesn't amount to so very much." And he laid his hand on three more Standards, unopened, with the parson's name in print upon the wrapper.
"What I was coming to," cried the saddler; "only when I get on the reverend my tongue will wag. They say he don't feel. I say he do, and I know: all this week I've had no Standard, so this morning I was so bold as to up and mention it, and there was all six unopened. 'Reverend,' I says, 'you must be ill—with that there Egyptian Question to argue about'—for we're rare 'uns to argue, the reverend and me—'and no trace yet o' them Phœnix Park varmin!' But he shake his head. 'Not ill, Fuller,' he says; 'but there's tragedy enough in this parish without going to the papers for more. And I haven't the heart to argue even with you,' he says. So that's my answer to them as says our reverend don't feel."
The boy had been patiently pricking the bench with a saddler's punch; now he raised his deliberate dark eyes and looked at the other point-blank.
"You talk about a tragedy," he said, "but you won't say where the tragedy comes in. What has killed the girl?"
"I hardly like to tell a young gentleman like you," said the saddler; "though, to be sure, you'll hear of nothing else in the village."
"Perhaps," said the boy, with a rather sinister smile, "I'm not quite so innocent as I ought to be. Come on, out with it!"
"Well, then, the poor young thing was brought home in trouble," sighed the saddler. "And in her trouble she died next night."
The boy looked at the man through narrow eyes with a knowing light in them, and the curves cut deep at the corners of his mouth.
"In trouble, eh? So that's why she disappeared?" he said at length. "Molly—Musk!"
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