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Carlton completed that historic stone within another hour, and actually laid it that night. Jaded in body and brain, with every nerve exhausted, he must needs do this or drop in the attempt. It was the first stone in the new church. It was finished at last. He touched it here and there with the straight-edge. He felt its angles with the square. This stone would do. He whipped out his foot-rule and measured carefully. The stone was eleven inches all ways but one. It was the exact depth for the lower courses, but it was seventeen inches long. A seventeen-inch gap must therefore be found or made for it. And Carlton went prowling round the blackened walls, with his foot-rule and his dog, before resting from his labours. The job should be finished this time, the first stone should be laid that night.
A place was found in the base of the east end, over a stable portion of the plinth; the situation was of sacred omen, and Carlton cleared away the old mortar with immense energy. Then his difficulties began. There was new mortar to make; this was an altogether new undertaking. It had been Tom Ivey's affair. Carlton had tried his hand at most branches of the masonic art, but he had never attempted to mix the mortar. He barely knew how to begin. There was a heap of sand at one end of the shed, and a load of lime under cover. These were the ingredients. That he knew; but it was not enough.
Suddenly, he remembered his Building Construction in two volumes; the bulkier of the two treated of materials. In a minute the book was found, deep in dust, and carried to the shed for consultation on the spot. And there was only too much about mortar; the subject monopolised a column of the index; its vastness oppressed Carlton, who nevertheless attacked it then and there. A great disappointment was in store: so he was to begin by "slaking" his lime. He had forgotten that step; now he had a dim recollection of the process. According to the book it took two or three hours at least; even this minimum presupposed that the lime was a "fat lime," whatever that might be. Carlton, lacking all means of deciding such a point, gave his inclination the benefit of the doubt, and left his shovelful of quicklime under water and sand for exactly two hours and a half.
This check came in the nick of time. It reminded Robert Carlton of the flesh, whose needs he had once more neglected, though now he would have cooked and eaten if only to have killed an hour. He lit a fire. He put on the kettle. He toasted some very stale bread; he boiled an egg warm from the hen-house, then another; and having eaten he rested while he must. The sun set; the new moon whitened in the sky, but as yet could not light a man at his work when it was really dark. And that was why the lantern stood so long upon the ground outside the shed, in a whirl of tiny wings, while the mortar was being mixed at last.
But the lantern stood longer still upon a salient fragment of the razed east end, while the trowel rang, and the mortar flopped, until all lay smooth and glistening in its light. Then Carlton knelt, and lifted his handiwork with bursting muscles; and the mortar spattered his waistcoat as the great stone dropped into place. A wrench, a push, a tap with the trowel; a finishing touch with its point, a word of thanksgiving before he rose; and Robert Carlton had laid the first stone of a new church, and of his own new life.
Next morning he began systematic work, rising at five, lighting his fire, making his bed, sweeping, dusting, pumping, rinsing, all before the day's work started after breakfast, with the gentler arts of scraping and re-pointing, and all in strict obedience to the schedule which Carlton had drawn up before his arrest. The working day ended, as then arranged, with a violent assault upon that black disorder which had been the nave; but this also acquired system as the days closed in; while the influence of time was not less apparent in the gradual disappearance of that tendency to morbid reaction which had been inevitable in the first days of bodily and spiritual strain, of incessant and excessive hardship, of a solitude consummate and profound. But here time was assisted by the good sense and the strong will of Carlton himself, who knew how little virtue there is in mere remorse, and who struggled against it with all his might. It was a long time, however, before even he was master of himself in this regard. One day, in the exaltation of overwork, the high excitement of nervous and of physical exhaustion, he was actually heard whistling at his walls, and it was all over the village before he caught himself in the act; but none seemed to hear how suddenly he stopped at last; none saw the raised face, the clasped hands, the lips moving in meek apology for an instant's joy. Nor did any man dream how this one would still mortify himself, after such a lapse, with deliberate dwelling on the past. There was but one link, indeed, in all the mournful chain of recent events, upon which Robert Carlton would never permit his thoughts to concentrate; that was his successful conduct of his own case before the magistrates, culminating in his final triumph over Sir Wilton Gleed. He had made the rule in the hour of his release, and he called in all his strength of mind to its rigorous observance.
It was now three weeks since he had spoken to a human being, none having come near him to his knowledge; then one morning the air was full of whispers, though the yellowing elms hung stagnant in an autumn mist; and the outcast, looking over the wall which he was scraping, beheld a bevy of school-children perched on that of the churchyard.
He bent a little lower to his work. The wall was that thirteen-foot strip, to the left of the porch, upon which he had spent the first morning of all in getting rid of the unsound upper courses. It was still his own height in most places; so the children could not watch him at his work; but the sound of them was enough. Poor little children! To grow up with such an example and such knowledge as would be theirs! His heart had seldom smitten him so hard.
"Then said He unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him through whom they come!
"It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones."
The text came unbidden; it cut the deeper for that. Woe unto him, indeed! Of all men, woe unto him! Hammer and chisel slipped from his hands; he hid his face. His thumbs went to his ears, but were drawn back. The children's voices were more than he could bear, so he bore them for his sin until another aspect of the case was driven home to his intelligence. Next moment he appeared in the porch, and the children were vanishing from the wall.
"Don't run away," he called. "Come back, you bigger ones!"
It was his old voice, come unbidden like the text; he might have been using it all these weeks. The children had never disobeyed that quiet but imperious summons. They did not begin to-day.
"Why aren't you all at school?"
There was silence, broken eventually by some bold but still respectful spirit.
"Please, sir, it's a holiday."
"Not Saturday, is it?"
He was beginning to lose count of the week-days; once already the Sabbath school-bell had nipped a day's work in the bud.
"No, sir, it's an extra holiday."
"Then spend it better. Get away into the fields, or down the river. I won't have you hanging about here. There's nothing for you to see—nothing that will do you any good. Run away all, and forget who has spoken to you. But don't let me have to speak again!"
There was no need for another word. And the workman went back to his wall; but his hands had lost their cunning; his heart was as heavy as the stones themselves.
Why had he never been harassed in this way before? He had not to think very long. He was without that friend of friendless man, his dog. The good Glen, his second shadow in these days, had chosen this one to desert him; and Carlton was glad, for nothing else would have made him appreciate the dog at his true worth. Now he thought of it, how often the faithful brute had gone barking to wall or gate, and come back wagging his tail! Preoccupied with his work, he had taken no thinking heed at the time. But now he remembered and understood.
Instead of working all the afternoon, he went in search of Glen. It surprised him to find how much he missed a companion whose presence he had often ignored for hours together; he felt as though he could do no good without the animal now; its dumb sympathy seemed to have had no small share in all that he had done as yet. That wag of the tail, how well he knew it after all! It was like the grasp of a good man's hand. That wistful eye, watching over him at his work, was it a blasphemous conceit to think of it as the mild eye of the All-seeing, shining through the mask of one of His humblest creatures, upon another as humble, and countenancing the work if not the man? If this was blasphemy, then Robert Carlton blasphemed for once in his heart; and had his deserts in an unsuccessful quest.
He had searched the garden and the house; had stood whistling at the gate, and in each of the far corners of the glebe. Night fell upon him sawing a huge tie-beam through and through to shift it, and sawing with all the irritable energy of the unwilling workman, very remarkable in him. And for once he was glad to put on his coat.
What could have happened to the dog? Its master could scarcely eat for wondering. Now he sat frowning heavily. Anon his brow cleared, and a fixed purpose glittered in his eyes. A little later he was in the village street once more.
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