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In the village he met Tom Ivey, but passed him with a savage nod, and was some yards further on when a thought smote him so that he spun round in his stride.
"That you, Ivey?" he called. "I wasn't thinking; you're the very man I wanted to see. How are you, eh?"
"Nicely, thank you, Sir Wilton," said Tom, coming up.
"Plenty of work, I hope?"
"Well, not just lately, Sir Wilton."
"Good! I may have some for you. I'll see you about it this evening or to-morrow; meanwhile keep yourself free. By the way, how's your mother?"
"Very sadly, Sir Wilton. I sometimes fare to think she's not long for this world."
"Nonsense, man! What's the matter with her?"
Tom hardly knew. That was old age, he thought. Then the house was that old and small; sometimes she fared to stifle for want of air. And this Tom said doggedly, for a reason.
"Ah!" cried Sir Wilton, his fixed eye brightening. "Wasn't there a question of repairs some time since?"
"There was, Sir Wilton."
"Well, I'll reconsider it. We must do what we can to make the old lady comfortable for the winter. I'll come and see her, and I'll see you again about the other matter. Keep yourself free meanwhile. Don't you let any of those Lakenhall fellows snap you up!"
And Sir Wilton went on chuckling, but again turned quickly and called the other back.
"By the way, Tom, who were those fellows you used to work for in Lakenhall?"
"Tait & Taplin, Sir Wilton."
A note was taken of the names.
"The only builders in the town, eh?"
"Well, Sir Wilton, there's old Isaac Hoole, the stonemason."
"A stonemason, by Jove!" and down went his name. "What other builders and stonemasons have we in the district—near enough to undertake some work here? I'm not thinking of the job I've got for you, Tom."
Ivey thought of three within fifteen miles, and several at greater distances, but doubted whether any of the latter would accept a contract so far afield. Their names were taken, nevertheless, and Sir Wilton stared his hardest as he put his pocket-book away.
"I shall want you all the same," he said, "and I shall expect to get you when I want you. Understand? If anybody else offers you a job, remember you've got one. And I'll see your mother this morning."
Tom went his way with his honest wits in a knot. He could not conceive what was coming. Ten minutes ago he had found a note slipped under the door in the night, and he was going straight to the rectory without his breakfast. Had Sir Wilton been there before him, and was he going to rebuild the church? Then what had the reverend to say to it, now that he was suspended for five years? And what in the world could he have to say to Tom Ivey?
He said nothing at all until they had shaken hands, and nothing then about the fire; it is with the hand alone that men pay their big debts to men, and Robert Carlton did not weaken his thanks with words.
"Have you got a job, Tom?" were his first.
"I have and I haven't, sir," said Ivey.
"You're not free to take one from me?"
"I wish I was, sir!" cried Tom, impulsively (he was not so sure about it on reflection); and in his simplicity he explained why he was not free. "But perhaps that's the same job, sir?" he added, hopefully.
Carlton shook his head, and looked wistfully on the friendly face; a few words (he knew his power) and the very man he wanted would be on his side against all odds. But he must not begin by dividing the village into factions; he must fight his own battle, with mercenaries from neutral ground, or none at all.
"Where was it you served your time, Tom?" he asked at length.
"Tait & Taplin's, sir, in Lakenhall."
"Thanks. I won't keep you, Tom. It will do you no good to be seen up here."
He held out his hand with a dismal smile. It was the other's turn to wring hard. "I care nothing about that, sir! We've been shoulder to shoulder once already; my mind don't go no further back than that; and we'll be shoulder to shoulder again!"
Carlton found flour and tea in the store-room, and in the fowl-house two new-laid eggs. He cooked his first breakfast with the sun pouring through the open kitchen window upon six weeks' dirt and dust. He was not a man of very hearty habit, but he had learnt of old the evil of exercise upon too light a diet. His pony was fattening in the glebe; but a fastidious sense of fitness forbade him to drive, and between nine and ten he set out for Lakenhall on foot.
It was an ordeal for the first half-mile: the sunlight flooding the village felt like limelight turned on him alone. Some children courtesied as though nothing was changed; their elders stared at him without further sign; only one shouted after him, he knew not who or what. He reached the open country with a raging pulse, thinking only upon circuitous ways back; but three solitary miles restored his nerve. And in Lakenhall it was only every other passer who stopped and turned and stared. Entering the town he was nearly run over by a dogcart. It was Sir Wilton driving, and Carlton caught the gleam of his eye even as he leapt to one side for his life, but mistook its significance until he was within sight of Tait & Taplin's. Then it occurred to him, and he entered fully prepared.
"No, thank you, sir—not for us! We've heard of you, and we don't deal with your sort. Do you hear, or do you want to hear more?"
Carlton searched in vain for another builder, and only got the name of a stonemason by going into the cemetery and looking at the newer gravestones. He had then to discover where the man lived, and he was ashamed to ask questions in shops. He was still scouring the town, and it was afternoon, when a gig was pulled up in the middle of the road.
"So you're back? Well, you look better than you did."
"I am," said Carlton, "thanks to you."
"Who are you looking for?"
"Hoole, the stonemason."
"Jump up and I'll drive you there."
The tone was too humane for Carlton.
"Thank you, doctor, but I like walking."
"Then find him for yourself, and be damned to you!"
And Marigold drove on, red to the hoar of his eighty years; but, as Carlton stood watching him out of sight with vain compunction, the old doctor turned in his seat and pointed up an alley with his whip in passing.
Hoole, the stonemason, was not rude, but he was as firm as Tait & Taplin in his refusal. He was an elderly man, of few words, but he admitted that Sir Wilton Gleed had been there that morning. That was enough for Carlton, who was turning away when something in his visible fatigue and dejection moved the mason to give him a hint.
"You won't get anybody in the district to work for you against Sir Wilton," he said. "That stands to reason."
"Then I must go out of the district," said Carlton. And he bought a county directory at a shop where he had been a regular customer; but they insisted on the settlement of his current bill first; and even then he had to help himself to the new book, and leave the money on the counter, because they scorned to serve him. The directory contained the names and addresses of the very few builders and master-masons within a day's journey of Long Stow. And it was all there was to show for the long day's round of retribution and rebuff when, late in the afternoon, Carlton returned as he had come, too tired and too dispirited to walk an inch out of his way; and the school-children who had courtesied in the morning knew better now, and cried after the bent figure slinking home at dusk.
The next day was Sunday, and the school-bell tinkled towards eleven o'clock, and stopped precisely at the hour. Then Carlton knew that his own idea had been adopted, and that somebody was saying matins in the parish school-room: he read the service to himself in his study, and evensong when evening came, with a sermon of Charles Kingsley's after each: for doctrine could not help him now, but brave humanity could and did.
The Monday was Bank Holiday; but Carlton only knew it when he had trudged ten miles to have speech with a builder whose premises were closed; and so another day was lost. On the Tuesday he tried again, but with as little avail. Sir Wilton Gleed had been there before him (as long ago as the Saturday afternoon), and it was the same elsewhere. The week went in fruitless visits to small contractors and working masons in this large village or in that little town; the enemy had been first in every field, with a cunning formula which Carlton reconstructed from the various answers he received.
"Of course, the church will have to be rebuilt," Sir Wilton had been saying; "but not by him. He hasn't the money, for one thing; it had better be an iron church, if he is to pay you for it. Help me to get rid of him, and you shall hear from me again. We will have a decent church when we are about it, and a local man shall get the job."
Meanwhile the boycott was nowhere more operative than in Long Stow itself, and no human being came near the rectory, where the rector subsisted on a providential store of bacon and the daily deposit of eggs, and on strange bread of his own baking, for he would risk no more insults in the shops. But one night a forgotten friend came back into his life: his collie, Glen, came bounding down the drive to meet him, and the mad uproar of that welcome was heard through half the village, and duly became the talk. The dog had been a vagabond and a rogue for six wild weeks, and it came back gaunt and hard, its brush clotted and raw underneath with the spray from a farmer's gun. Carlton washed the wound with warm water, and the two pariahs supped together, and lay that night upon the same bed, and went abroad together next morning, to try the last man left.
The day after that they stayed at home, and word reached the hall that the rector had been seen among the ruins of his church; he was, indeed, exploring them for the first time, and that both with method and deliberation. When seen, however (from the lane that runs under the fine east window of to-day, past the lawn-tennis court which was then a fowl run, and the glebe that is still the glebe), he was seated on a sandstone block in front of the little lean-to shed; and, as a matter of fact, his back was to the ruins. He was contemplating similar blocks and slabs of the undressed stone that lay where they had been lying on Midsummer Day: some were still smutty from the fire, all were slightly stained by the weather, otherwise there was no change that Carlton could see as he sat thus. At one end of the shed rose a great yellow cairn of material raw from the quarry—a stack of stones about as much of one size and shape as so many lumps of sugar; enough to finish the transepts, as matters had stood; a mere fraction of the amount required now. Carlton looked on what he had got, and his eyes closed in a calculation beyond his powers in mental arithmetic; he had to take a pencil to it, and then a foot-rule to the blackened courses, and presently a pair of compasses to the plans in the study.
In the afternoon he tidied the shed. Every tool was intact; a little rust had been the worst intruder; and the feel of the cool sleek handles quickened Carlton's pulse. Nay, the hammer rang a few strokes on the cold-chisel, for he could not help it, and the music reminded him of his poor bells, now cumbering the porch; it was almost as good to hear; and the way the soft stone peeled, in creamy flakes, thrilled the hand as it charmed the eye. But a very few minutes served to make the enthusiast ashamed of his enthusiasm; and though he spent more time in the ruins, now testing a standing wall, now scraping a charred stone, ardour and determination had died down in an eye that was looking within; a wistful irresolution flickered in their place. And that night the lonely man walked his room once more, from twilight to twilight, with long intervals spent upon his knees, in agonies of doubt and self-distrust, in passionate entreaty for a right judgment, and for the strength to abide by it. Yet his duty had not dawned upon him with the day.
Towards eleven the school-bell tinkled. It was Sunday once more; and once more he read the prayers upon his knees and the psalms and lessons standing; but no sermon to-day. No man could help him in his struggle with himself; he must trust to the strength of his own soul, to the singleness of his own heart, and to the guidance of the God who was drawing nearer and nearer to him in these days—with each prayer that rose from his heart—with each bead that stood upon his brow. And so at last, when the burden of doubt and darkness became more than the man could bear, it was as though the heavens had opened, and a beam of celestial light flooded the narrow room with the low ceiling and the cross-beams; for the peace of a mind made up had descended upon the solitary therein. And that night his sleep was sound, so that in the morning he had to ask himself why; the answer made him catch his breath; it did not shake his resolve.
"He shall have his chance," said Carlton; "he shall have it fairly to his face. And he will take it—and that will be the end!"
He hung about the ruins till it was ten o'clock by his watch, and then went straight to the hall. Sir Wilton was at home; but the footman hesitated to admit this visitor. Carlton's own hesitation was, however, at an end, and his eye forbade rebuff. He was shown into the drawing-room, where a very young girl was at the piano, evidently practising, and yet playing in a way that made Carlton sorry when she stopped. The cool room smelling of flowers; the glimpse of garden through an open window, with the court marked out and chairs under the trees; the momentary sound of a fine instrument finely touched: it was all the very breath and essence of the pleasant every-day world from which he had rightly and richly earned dismissal, and it all was branded in his brain. Then the young girl rose, and stood in doubt with the sun upon her plaited hair, and eyes great with innocent distress; but Carlton barely bowed, and the child hardly knew how she got across the room.
Sir Wilton entered with jaunty step. His whiskered jaw was set like a vice, but the light of conscious triumph danced in his fixed eyeballs. Carlton had come prepared to have his intrusion treated as his latest crime; a glance convinced him that the other was too sure of victory to object to an interview with the virtually vanquished.
"So you are quite determined that I shall not rebuild the church?"
It was a point-blank beginning. Sir Wilton shrugged and smiled. "I have told you to build it if you can," said he.
"But you mean to make that an impossibility?"
"Naturally I don't intend to make it easy."
"Admit that by foul means, since none are fair, you are deliberately preventing me from doing my duty!" Carlton pressed his point with a heat he regretted, but could not help.
"I admit nothing," said the other, doggedly—"least of all what you are pleased to consider your 'duty.' Your real duty I've already told you. Resign the living. Let us see the last of you."
Carlton met the rigid stare with one as unwavering and more acute. It was as though he would have seen to the back of the other's brain.
"Very well," he said at length. "You shall!"
"Ah!" cried Sir Wilton, when he had recovered from his surprise. But it was not the cry of victory; there was an uncharacteristic lack of finality in the clergyman's tone.
"You shall see the last of me this very morning," he continued swiftly, nervously, "if you like! But it will rest with you. I am not going unconditionally. Will you listen to what I have to say?"
Gleed shrugged again, but this time there was no accompanying smile. The other threw up his head with a sudden decisiveness—a pulpit trick of his when about to make a primary point—and his right fist fell into his left palm without his knowing it.
"Very well," said Carlton; "now I'll tell you exactly on what conditions you shall have your heart's desire, and I will renounce mine. In spite of what I hear you've been saying, I have a little money of my own—not much, indeed—but enough for me to have subsisted upon for these next years. I am not going to touch a penny of it—I shall pick up a living for myself elsewhere. Meanwhile I have turned my income into capital which is now lying in the bank at Lakenhall. It is a trifle under two thousand pounds, and I want the whole of it to go into the new church. Wherever I am I ought to be able to earn a little more, either as a coach or with my pen; so let the offer stand at a church to cost two thousand pounds. I long to have the building of it. I make no secret of that. But I have been trying to read my own heart, and I see the selfishness of such longings; and I have been trying to read your heart, Sir Wilton, and I see the naturalness of your opposition. So I come to you and I say, build the church yourself, and I withdraw. Build a better church out of your abundance, and I will resign as you wish. Give me your written undertaking, here and now, and you shall have my written resignation in exchange."
The words clung to his lips; he alone knew what it cost him to utter them; he alone, in his absolute freedom from the mercenary instinct, would have felt certain of the result. But the rich man was touched upon his tender spot. What return was he offered for his money? Who would thank him for building a church in the heart of the country? The church could be built by subscription; bad enough to have to head the list. Besides, he was flushed with triumph; he saw but a beaten man in the nervous wretch before him. Fancy bribing a beaten man to fly!
"I like your impudence," said Wilton Gleed. "Upon my word! My written undertaking—to you!"
"Do you refuse to give it?" asked Carlton quickly.
"Undertakings apart, do you entertain my suggestion, or do you not?"
"That's my business."
Carlton felt his patience slipping.
"Do you mean to say that you don't even yet recognise that it's mine too, as rector of the parish? Are you still so ignorant of the legal bearings of the situation? God knows, Sir Wilton, it is not for me to speak of right and wrong; but I do assure you that you're putting yourself wilfully in the wrong in this matter. You hinder me from doing my legal duty, and you refuse to assume any responsibility! Suspended or not, I am bound to keep my chancel, at all events, 'in good and substantial repair, restoring and rebuilding when necessary.'"
Sir Wilton's eyes, fixed as usual, caught fire suddenly.
"Oh, you're bound, are you?"
"You're sure that's the law?"
"The very letter of the law, Sir Wilton."
"Then see that you keep it! You come here blustering about your legal rights; but you forget that I've got mine. Where there's a law there's a penalty, and by God I'll enforce it! 'The very letter of the law,' eh? I'll take you at your word; you shall keep it to the letter. Build away! Build away! The sooner you begin the better—for you!"
This was probably the boldest move that Sir Wilton Gleed ever made in his life; it was certainly the least considered. But what satisfaction sweeter than hoisting the enemy with his own petard? It is the quintessence of poetic justice, the acme of personal triumph; and the sudden opportunity of achieving his end by means so neat was more than even Wilton Gleed could resist. Every builder and mason within reach was already on his side; not a man of them who would work for dissolute hypocrisy in defiance of might and right. No need to say another word to the masons and the builders. They could be trusted on the whole, and the untrustworthy could be bribed. Gleed had not the smallest scruple in the matter, and he was characteristically forearmed with a public defence of his private conduct. He believed that every right-thinking man would applaud his sharp practice in the cause of religion and of morality; and his confidence was not to be shaken by the way in which his challenge was received.
"Are you in earnest?" asked Carlton. "Do you seriously propose to hinder me with one hand and to compel me with the other?"
"I mean to take you at your word," Gleed repeated. "You are fond of talking about your duty. Let's see you do it."
"You set the builders against me, and then you tell me to build. May I ask if you are prepared to defend such clumsy trickery?"
"Any day you like, and glad of the opportunity!" cried Sir Wilton, cheerfully. "All I have done is to give you your proper character where it deserves to be known; you have it to thank if you can't get men to work for you; and it's your look-out. I've heard about enough of you and your church. Go and build it. Go and build it."
"I will," said Carlton. "You have had your chance." And he bowed and withdrew with strange serenity.
A parting shot followed him through the hall.
"You will have to do it with your own two hands!"
Carlton made no reply. But in the village he committed a fresh enormity.
He was seen to smile.
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