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The last leaf had filtered from the elms; the horse chestnuts had long been bare. And now there was no more cover for the blackened stump of Long Stow church, in its ring of rotting leaves, and its meshes of trunk and twig, than for the guilty genius of this mournful spot. All the world could see him now, and gauge the crass pretence of his preposterous task; there was no deceiving such a wise little world; but it had been requested not to look, and was accordingly content with passing glimpses of a drama in which its interest was indeed upon the wane. There were some things, however, which even a docile and phlegmatic community could not help noticing as winter set in. It might not be honest work, but it was making a thin man thinner. And he was always at it. Yet it no longer seemed to give him any pleasure. Indeed, his face was changed. Its dominant expression was grim and dogged. There were no more lights and shadows. It was the face of a workman who has lost interest in his work. Nevertheless, the work went on.
It went on in all weathers. At first Carlton had tried devoting the wet days to indoor work. He had cleaned his house from top to bottom, emptied most of the rooms, stored furniture in the others, and covered with sheets like a careful housewife. Not that he cared greatly for his things; but his hermitage should not grow foul. The two rooms which he retained in use were the kitchen and his study (in which Carlton slept), with the flagged scullery for his bath. The rest of the house he shut up, after robbing his picture-frames to patch the broken windows, which he treated so ingeniously that they looked quite wonderful from the road; but on windy nights the constant rattle and the occasional crash were one long outcry for putty and a glazier. There was no more to be done indoors. And still it rained. So one day he marched through the village (unmolested after all), and it was duly ascertained that he had taken a return ticket to Felixstowe, of all places, apparently for change of air. But through the very next day's rain he could be seen (and heard) very busy at his walls: in a suit of oilskins and a sou'wester. Thus the work went on once more.
By Christmas every stone that was to stand had been scraped and pointed; a few sound ones had been scraped and relaid; here and there an entirely new stone had been cut to fit the place of one charred out of shape; but in the lower courses such instances were rare, too rare to suit his own creative taste, but Carlton was determined to deal with the lowest courses first, and to raise all the walls to his own height before finishing one. In the case of those which were to contain windows, it might be well to pause at the sill; the windows alone might take him a couple of years. Meanwhile these were the walls which had suffered most, and first let him reach the sills: if he did that within the next six months Carlton thought he would be lucky. For his progress was as that of the insect which builds the reef; it was often imperceptible even to himself; yet always the work was going on.
The man was all muscle now; spare at his best, he had scarcely an ounce of mere flesh left. Yet, for his work's sake, he made wonderfully regular meals, often with a relish; and twice in the autumn killed a sheep, having cold mutton for many days in the colder weather. But the preliminary tragedy and the ultimate waste were equally disgusting, and his normal needs seemed better met by predatory visits to the hen-yard. Practice made him a fair baker and a moderate cook; but, as he had never been particular about his food, and his only object was to maintain bodily strength, he sometimes defeated his end, and added the dejection of dyspepsia to all other ills. Otherwise the physical life suited Carlton; he was out all day long; and the worst discomforts rarely followed him into the open air. At his work, for instance, he was always warm; indoors, only when he went to bed. He never had a fire, except to cook by; thus he still had a few coals left, but he doubted whether anybody would sell him any more. There was, however, all the half-burnt woodwork of the church; most of this would burn again; and, with economy, might keep him in firing throughout the term of his suspension. Meanwhile, lamp, rug, and overcoat gave all the heat that Carlton would allow himself in the study. Once, when his stock of paraffin had run out, he had to tramp for fresh supplies into a town where his face was unknown; and that experience made him more than ever economical of such fuel as he had.
Unparalleled position for an endowed clergyman of the Church of England, the incumbent of an enviable living, an Oxford man, a man of family, a zealous High Churchman, an enlightened and alluring preacher, towards the latter end of the nineteenth century! Scandalous priest though he had also proved himself, his case was as pitiable as unique; a pariah in his own parish; the outcast of his own people; an inland Crusoe, driven to the traditional expedients of the castaway, and living the very life of such within sight and hail of a silent and unseeing world. It was a position which few men would have faced for an instant. This man maintained it throughout the winter. And throughout the winter his work went on. And the spring found him technically sane.
But his brain bore it better than his heart. Some vital part of him was certain to suffer. His brain escaped altogether, his body for a time; but his heart was hard within him; all his prayers could not soften it; and presently he lost the power even to pray.
This was the meaning of the changed face seen from the road, in the days and weeks succeeding the Long Stow celebration of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Thereafter it was the face of one in the coils of malignant despair. But the more gradual and substantial change, in such a man, was terrible beyond deduction from its mere outward shadow.
Here was no sudden and sweeping infidelity; no plucking of loose roots from a shallow soil. Shallow this man was not, nor easily shaken in the least of his convictions. His general tenets stood intact. He still believed in the efficacy, under God, of earnest and worthy prayer. But he could no longer believe in the efficacy of his own prayers. They were not worthy: that was the whole truth. They were earnest enough, but utterly unworthy, and it was better not to pray at all.
His most passionate prayers had been for his own forgiveness, for the restoration of his own peace of mind, for the blessing of God upon his own little labours; selfish prayers, one and all; and he saw the selfishness at last. It shocked him. He tried to stamp it out, this new and obtrusive egoism; but he failed. Denied all contact with his fellow-creatures, with only his own wishes to consult, his own work to do, his own heart to probe, his own life to discipline, the man was an egoist before he knew it; and it was only through his prayers that he ever discovered it at all. They were not only unanswered; they no longer brought their own momentary comfort, as heretofore. Of old it had been much more than momentary; now it was no comfort at all. There must be some reason for this; he asked himself what reason; and the answer was this revelation of the true character of his prayers. They were poisoned at the fount. He tried to purify them, but all in vain. Self would creep in. So then he prayed only for a renewal of the faculty of pure and unselfish prayer. And this was the most passionate of all his prayers. But it also was unanswered. So he prayed no more.
He was unforgiven: so Carlton explained it to himself. And a little brooding convinced him of his idea. If God had forgiven him, He would have shown some sign of His clemency through men. But what had men done? They had broken his windows; they had burnt his church; they had closed up every avenue to such poor atonement as was in his power; they had forced him into a position which he had never sought, though for a little it had consoled him; then tried, by false accusation, to force him out of it; and now they had cut him off from themselves, had set him apart as a thing eternally unclean, had even stooped to destroy the one dumb being that clung to him in his exile!
The murder of the dog was no little thing in itself; coming at the foot of such a list, at the bitter end of a night of bitterness, it was the last drop that petrified a truly humble and a strenuously contrite heart.
But it did not petrify his hand; and the work of that hand went on without ceasing, save on that day which was now the Day of Rest indeed—and nothing more. The other six, his energies were redoubled. If he was now more than ever a traitor to his Master, well, there was still this one thing that he could do for the Master's sake. And he did it with all his might.
No day was too wet for him; no day was too cold. His fingers might turn blue, his moustache might freeze; it is beside the point that the winter chanced to be too mild for the latter contingency. While five fingers could control the chisel, and the other hand strike true, no weather could have deterred him. And no weather did.
So the New Year came, and the work went on through January and February without a break. But the month of March, as it often will, made late amends for the insipidity of its predecessors. A spell of colourless humidity was broken by bright skies and a keen wind; the latter grew bitter with the day; the former darkened before it was time. And when Robert Carlton opened his study doors next morning, to air the room while he took his bath, a little snowdrift came tumbling in through the outer one.
Carlton looked forth upon a white world in dazzling contrast to the clear dark grey of a starless sky; at first there was no third tint. But every moment seemed lighter than the last, and presently the trees showed brittle and black as ever against the sky; for the drifted snow lay everywhere but on their waving branches; and the wind blew hard and bitter as before.
Carlton bathed grimly in broken ice; he was not going to be baffled by a little snow. He was very gradually rebuilding the east end, using the old stones where he could, but cutting more new ones than he had bargained for. He could not help it. This wall was going up. It was too near the lane. It should hide the builder's head before he left it for another wall. It was up to his thighs already.
So all that day he laboured with his feet in the snow, and only his legs entrenched against the cutting wind. The stones were ready; he now prepared them by the course. They had only to be carried from the shed with mortar mixed expressly overnight; but to avoid dropping them in the slush and snow, each stone was laid out of hand; and a considerable muscular exertion thus followed by a prolonged niggling with trowel and plummet and transverse string, and this in the fangs of the wind, as often as twice or thrice an hour. It was the hardest day yet. But it was also the most successful. The entire course was laid by half-past three in the afternoon.
In earlier days Carlton would undoubtedly have given way to that spontaneous elation for which he had been wont to pay so dearly; now a tired man crept back to his bed, without a thought beyond the next hour's rest (he had seldom been so tired), and the meal that he must then prepare as mere munition of war. Yet on his study threshold he paused and turned, as doomed men may at the door of the dreadful shed.
There was little in the scene itself to stamp it on the mind. Already the snow was beginning to disappear; but the sky was still hard and clean; and the east wind cut to the bone. The ridge of firs, cresting the ploughed uplands beyond the lane, notched the bleak sky with dark cockades on russet stems; white clouds floated above, a white moon hung higher. A robin hopped in the snow at Carlton's feet; he was a good friend to the birds, and had not forgotten them that morning. Somewhere a blackbird sung him indoors; somewhere a starling smacked its beak. And this was all; but Robert Carlton carried the impression to his grave.
Instead of sleeping for an hour, he slept far into the night; and spent the rest of it in misery between bouts of shivering and of intolerable heat. His throat was on fire, to quench it he coughed, and already his cough hurt queerly. In the morning the man was ill enough to know that he was going to be worse. He took characteristic measures while he could.
It was a fine instinct which had inspired him to economise his coal; now was the time when that little hoard might save his life. But he had only one scuttle, and for the moment felt baffled; then he dried his bath, and put the coals in that, thus eventually getting them to the study in one load. These exertions hurt Carlton like his cough. In both cases it was as though his body had been transfixed. His head swam with the pain. Yet next moment he was reeling back for wood; and not less than ten infernal minutes did he spend on such errands, a furious fever alone sustaining him. It was constructive suicide, yet not to have these things was certain death. Now it was all the alcohol in the house, in a bottle that had lasted nearly a year; now a basin of eggs, of which he had always a fair store indoors; now pail upon pail of water for his kettle. Carlton had been a great visitor of the sick, and seen many a death from the disease he was preparing to resist. He had therefore a rough idea of what to do for himself; he was only doubtful as to how long he might be able to do anything at all. The lightest breath had now become a pang. Already he was alarmingly ill, and must inevitably grow much worse. But he did not intend to die. He trusted the constitution of a lean and hardy race, and he trusted his own nerve.
At last the fire was alight, a full kettle mounted, and the spout trained upon the pillow, the bed itself being drawn up close to the fire. Under the bed was the bath full of coals, and within as easy reach the eggs, the whisky, a breakfast-cup, and the pails of water. But even now the sick man was not in his bed; he was lying in a heap upon the floor, where he had fallen the moment he could afford to faint.
On recovering he shook off half his clothes, crawled between the blankets, and beat up an egg with whisky. This was all he took that day. And there he lay, breathing needles and coughing daggers until he slept.
"I'm not going to die. They shan't get rid of me like that. I don't die like a rat in his hole!"
That seemed to be the burden of his thoughts for many days; in reality the time was forty-eight hours. And whenever the determination rose afresh in his heart, and the dry lips moved with its expression, the whole man would rouse himself to an effort beside which the building of the church was pastime. He would sit up and put on more coals with a hand black from the constant operation. Then he would lean as close as possible to the singing kettle, and inhale the steam until the gaunt arm supporting his weight could do so no more. Even then he would make a still longer arm before lying down, and replenish the kettle from one of the pails, using the breakfast-cup for a dipper. So the kettle would cease singing for a time, and, each occasion entirely exhausting the spent man, the chances were that he would fall into a sleep that was half a swoon. But he never slept very long. He would dream that the fire was black, and start up to mend it—often before the kettle had recovered its voice. So far from the fire going out, for sixty hours it never went down. Carlton would mend it almost in his sleep. Even on the third day, when a kind delirium destroyed sensation for some hours, he never forgot his fire; the lean black hand would still feel its way to the bath beneath the bed, and there grope weakly for the smaller coals. All lucid thought and all delirious whispers were gradually monopolised by the fire. It became the sick man's life. He would not let it out while he lived. And live he would. When the fire died out, then so would he. But he was not going to die this time.
"Their latest dodge to get rid of me, is it? Trust to Général Février—no, March! Never mind; he shan't lay his bony finger on me . . . You'll burn 'em if you try! . . . I tell you the law's on my side."
Delirium grew from the exception into the rule. The kettle sang no longer; the bottom was out and the whole thing red-hot; for the fire had never been so good. The fender was inches deep in ashes. With or without his reason Carlton knew enough to thrust the poker through and through the lower glow. It was a clear fire all the time.
And the heat of it at such a range! It singed the sheets; it flayed the face; but it also helped incalculably to keep this stricken body and this strenuous soul together.
The crisis came before its time. Carlton grew too weak to hold the poker or to lift a coal, but cruelly clear in his mind. Thus far he had never prayed. He had abandoned prayer with all deliberation and in all his vigour. It needed more than the fear of death to make him pray again, least of all for mere life. Now that the fire was going out, and recovery no longer possible, the case was changed; and this erring servant broke his long silence with God, to pray both for forgiveness and for a speedy issue out of his afflictions. And in the same hour came the seeming answer, as if to assure him that even his prayers had still some value in the eyes of the Most High. For delirium had dwindled into coma, with these few lucid minutes between, and the fever and the pain had passed away.
Yet it was in this world that Robert Carlton awoke yet again, to find his precious fire alight after all, and a dilapidated figure nodding over it to the song of a fresh kettle. It was old Busby, the sexton. The sick man could not speak; his little finger seemed to weigh a stone; it was some minutes before he achieved movement enough to attract the sexton's attention. But all this time the live coals had been warming his soul. And already he lay convinced that he also was going to live.
The sexton turned his face at last. It was a startling face for sick eyes at such a range. The toothless mouth, which never closed, had often reminded Mr. Carlton of one of his own gargoyles. It did so now. And a continual trickle of saliva added a disgusting realism to the image, which was, however, immediately dispelled by a human grin of profound slyness.
"And have you been bad?" inquired the sexton.
"Beat—up—an egg. I—can't—speak."
Evidently he could not, for Busby was bending a horrid ear.
Carlton made a fresh effort with shut eyes.
"No food . . . faint for want . . . there no eggs?"
"Eggs? Why, yes, here's one."
"Beat up for me . . . too bad to speak."
The sexton looked more sententious than ever.
"Ah, I thought as how you'd been bad," said he, with all the nods of the successful seer. "I thought as how you'd been bad!"
"It's only been a cold," whispered Carlton, in sudden terror of the public pity.
"Only a cold?"
"Oh, yes—that's all."
"Then you've not been as bad as me!" cried Busby, triumphantly. "Do you mind what I had inside me last year? That's there still! I can hear that——"
"Will you do what I ask?"
It was a peremptory whisper now.
"I would, sir, but I don't fare to know the road."
"Then give me the egg, for heaven's sake, and you hold the cup."
Carlton managed to rise a few inches in his impatience; but his fingers had less power than those of the babe new-born, and the egg slipped through them. With fortuitous dexterity, the sexton caught it in the cup; there was a crack; and accident had accomplished the design.
"Look what you've gone and done," said Busby, reproachfully, displaying the yolk in the cup. Thereupon he received instructions which even he could follow; and at length the mess was down, stinging with the sexton's notion of a teaspoonful of whisky. This second accident was even happier than the first; there was instant agitation in every vein. And now Busby could hear without stooping.
"When did you find me?"
"That fare to be an hour ago, I suppose. Ah, but I thought as how you looked bad! Soon as ever I see you, I say to myself, 'The reverend's found what beat him at last,' I say; 'he do look wunnerful bad,' I say. And you see, I was right."
There was the tiniest gleam in the great bright eyes.
"You were partly right," said Carlton, "and partly wrong. I'm not done with yet, Busby. So then you lit the fire for me?"
"That wasn't wholly out."
"That soon burnt up. Then I went and got another kettle."
The great eyes flashed suspicion.
"And told everybody you saw, I suppose!"
"I should be very sorry," said the sexton, significantly. "No, I come an' went by the lane, an' took wunnerful care that nobody set eyes on I. I thought as how you might fare to like a cup o' tea, an' that was a rare mess you'd made o' your kettle."
"You've done well," whispered Carlton. "You've saved my—saved my cold from getting worse. You shall never regret it, Busby; only don't you tell anybody I've had one—do you hear? Don't you tell a single soul that you found me in bed!"
"No fear," chuckled the sexton. "I should be very sorry to tell anybody I'd found you at all. They might hear o' that somewhere else!"
Carlton lay still with thought and purpose; and death itself could not have given the lower part of his face a harsher cast; but the hot eyes were fixed upon the fading diamonds of the window over the table. At last he spoke—and it was a pity there was but the sexton to hear the firm tones of so faint a voice.
"Find my keys, Busby. I'm going to give you a sovereign——"
"The first of several if you do what I want!"
Not much later the sexton was hobbling towards Lakenhall, for the first time in many years; and the sick man lay greatly doubting whether he should ever see him again. His weakness was terrible now. The excitement of conversation had provoked a relapse as grave as it was inevitable in one so weak. The flickering lamp was only fed by the stimulus of suspense, the glow of the fire, and the man's own indomitable will. The latter, however, never failed him for a moment.
"I will pull through," he would mutter at his worst. "I will—I will . . . Oh, is he never, never . . ."
He came at last—with corn-flour, meat-extract, a bottle of port, and such other requisites as had entered the sick man's head under the spur of his overdose of ardent spirits. And, simple and inadequate as they were, these things spelt the first syllable of recovery.
The sexton came night after night; he also was a lonely man; and he dearly loved a pound. In a week he was richer than he had ever been before. It became difficult for him to take a disinterested view of the determined progress which the patient made towards complete recovery and consequent independence. The situation, however, had its little compensations: at all events it enabled the imaginary sufferer to crow over the real one to his heart's content.
"Ah, sir, you don't fare to know what that is to be right ill, like I. You never had a fine fat frog settun in your middle an' keepun all the good out o' your stummick. That get every bite I eat, an' then that cry for more. Croap, croap, croap!"
One day brought forth an unsuspected fact. The sexton was no longer sexton at all. There had been no more burials. The school-bell was rung on Sundays, as all the week, by the schoolmaster's son. Busby had been dismissed with a present, as long ago as the month of August; but that was not all. He had thereupon left the Church in justifiable dudgeon, and thrown in his spiritual lot with the Particular Baptists in the little flint chapel between the Linkworth turning and the Flint House. He now exhorted Mr. Carlton to do the same.
"If you do, sir," said Busby, "you'll never fall no more."
Carlton winced. But the man had saved his life. Nothing should annoy him from the kind old imbecile who had come to his succour while the sound world stood aloof.
"You don't know that," he said quietly.
"But I do," declared the other. "I'm like to know. God's children can't sin, and I'm one on 'em."
Carlton opened his eyes.
"Do you mean to tell me you never sin?"
"I mean to tell you, sir," said the solemn sexton, "that, since God laid his hand on me, now seven month ago, I've never once committed the shadder of a sin."
"Then, if I were you, I should remember what St. Paul says—'Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed—lest—he—fall.'"
The text faltered; it was terribly two-edged; but Carlton had not perceived the pitfall until he was over the brink. He had forgotten himself in his scorn, and spoken impulsively as the man that he had been the year before. But the inveterate egotist was conveniently full of himself, and his pat retort quite free from offence.
"Fall?" said he, with his foolish eyes wide open. "Why, I couldn't do that if I tried; and I have tried, just to see; but I fare to have forgotten how to sin. Do you believe me, sir, I can't even raise a swear at this little varmin what's killun me inch by inch. Why, I'm grateful to it! But I do sometimes fare to cry to think I have to stay another day in this world o' sin, when I know there's a place prepared for me in heaven above."
This stupendous speech was too much for even Mr. Carlton's self-control. Its snivelling tone, its evident conviction (confirmed by a gargoyle's grin of infinite self-esteem), were aggravated by the complete surprise of this spiritual revelation; and between them they awoke a dormant nerve. Robert Carlton did not exhibit that annoyance which he had determined to conceal; he did much worse. He burst out laughing in the sexton's face. And his laughter was long, loud, high-pitched and hysterical, alike from weakness and from long disuse.
The sexton on his legs, in a perfect palsy of horror and offence, alone put a stop to it.
"I beg your pardon," gasped Carlton, his eyes full of tears; "oh, I beg——"
And again that hysterical, high-pitched laughter got the better of him, ringing weirdly enough through the empty house.
"Ah!" said the dotard, when it had stopped at last; and the monosyllable contented him for some moments. "Well," he at length continued, with a brisker manner and a brighter face; "well, thank God I pulled you through; thank God I didn't let you die in your sins and go to everlasting hell without another chance of immortal life. You wicked man! You wicked man! I'll go and I'll pray for you; but I'll never come near you no more."
So the solitary regained his solitude; when he spoke again, it was to himself.
"Well, he has his money," he reflected aloud: he had paid the sexton some seven pounds in all. "And my gratitude!" he cried later. "I must never forget that I owe my life to that egregious old man."
Yet the greater gratitude was beginning to stir within him, as the sap was even then stirring in the trees. It was a mild, bright day, one of the last in March. The invalid had not yet been out; he would go out now. In an instant he was wrapping up.
Oh, but it was wonderful! the feel and noise of the moist gravel under the soles of his boots; the green, damp grass; the watery sun; the beloved birds; the mild, beneficent air.
His steps took the old direction of their own accord. In a minute he was there, at the church, and seated on the very wall which he had been building a fortnight before, surveying his work.
Had some one been carrying it on in his absence? Or was it only that one noticed no difference from day to day, but all the difference in the world after an unaccustomed absence? Yes, this was it; and he drew the deep breath which his first idea had checked.
Still it was wonderful: one wall seemed so much higher, another so much cleaner than before; and yet there was no stone either laid or scraped which Carlton did not recognize at a glance, with sudden memories of special travail; and the string was still where he had stretched it to keep the line. He had under-estimated his progress at the time; that was all; but again it was as though the sap was rising in his heart.
The very tangle of blackened timber, which still cumbered nine-tenths of the inner area, no longer struck Carlton as the unconquerable chaos it had appeared on that bitter day which seemed so many days ago; yet, when he laid white hands upon such a beam as he had easily shouldered then, he could not lift it an inch. Ah, that day! It would take him weeks to undo its evil work. The wet feet and the cutting wind, he could feel them both again, with the sweat freezing on his body, and every pore an open door to death. There was the ridge of red-stemmed firs, too far east to blunt the cold steel of that deadly wind; and here beneath him the barrier he had been building last, and must finish now before he did another thing. How firm and true was this top course, that he had laid that day with the bony fingers at his throat! Well, he would have died with a good day's work behind him . . . It must have been a very near thing . . . he wondered how near when the sexton came, and why the sexton had come at all. The man had never given a good reason. He had only just fared to think there might be something wrong.
On the way indoors, the invalid stopped at a tree. It was one of the horse-chestnuts; and already every delicate extremity was swollen and sticky to the touch; and the birds sang of summer in the branches. Carlton passed on with the short, quick steps of a feeble person in a hurry. Rivers were running in his heart; he wanted to be where he could kneel.
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