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Next Sunday there was a real congregation. Yet the benches were almost as empty as before, the people herding near the porch until entreated either to occupy such seats as there were, or to leave the church. "Curiosity may have brought some of you here," said Mr. Carlton; "but I earnestly hope that none will remain in that spirit." The benches were full in a minute, and many had still to stand. All the next week Robert Carlton spent in sawing more planks to one length, and more props to one height for their support. And on the third Sunday his church was packed.
The summer of 1887 was, however, a remarkable one. And the month of August was an ideal month for the inauguration of open-air services, where there were trees.
In those hot still days came visitors of every type, and in greater numbers than Robert Carlton desired. The tide had turned; he was early aware of his danger now. Again and again it became his own sore duty to remind this one or the other, distantly perhaps, yet none the less unmistakably, of that which they might forget, but he never. Their open admiration tried him acutely. He did like it a little for its own sake, after five years' ostracism; more for the fresh purchase it gave him over simple hearts; but he was very hard on himself for liking it at all. On the other hand, he knew that it must put many a mind, the subtler minds, more than ever against him. It also renewed his own shame. So it was not admiration that he wanted at all; it was confidence, forgiveness, love; and these if possible by degrees. It was not possible, and Robert Carlton had to suffer in turn from the saddler, the schoolmaster, and the rest. The first would come to hedge and hedge with a view to Sir Wilton's imminent return; the next would intercept him as he came away, learn what he had been saying, and forthwith step across to the church to let the reverend know how the schoolmaster's character impressed itself upon a man of his experience. It was an unattractive trait in Fuller that he questioned everybody's sincerity but his own, albeit his strictures were not seldom justifiable. He talked, however, as though for years he had been the one and only philanthropist to hold any dealings with the rector; at last it became necessary to set him right on the point, which Mr. Carlton did with a mild account of his illness and the sexton's aid.
"I do wish I'd ha' known," said Fuller, with perfect truth; "I do wish I'd ha' known an' had the nursun of yer, reverend, instead o' him. And he never come near you no more; so I should expect."
"But you tell me he's very ailing, Fuller."
"He haven't been ailun all these years."
"We—we had a little tiff in the end. It was my fault. I wonder if he'd see me now?"
"I'll make him, reverend, I'll tell him he's got to."
"No, Fuller, I can't allow that. Besides, he has not got to do anything of the sort; he has turned dissenter, and may prefer me to stop away. Nevertheless I shall call, if only to ask how he is."
There was no need to ask, in the event. The old sexton was failing fast, and "not long for this world," as his daughter announced in front of him. The poor man was in bed, and very dirty, but as sensible as he ever had been; and he welcomed the rector with cadaverous grins.
"They tell me," he whispered, "you fare to finish the church with your own two hands. You're a wonderful man, sir—and I'm another."
"You are, indeed. Why, you must be nearly ninety, Busby?"
"Eighty-eight, sir, come next September. But I wasn't thinkun o' my age, sir. Do you remember that little varmin I swallered out 'f a pond?"
"I've killed that, sir!"
And the sunken eyes shone like lamps.
"I congratulate you, Busby."
"I killed that two year ago; and you'll never guess how!" The ex-sexton proceeded to rehearse the various remedies he had tried in vain. "I killed that with bacca-smoke," he concluded in sepulchral triumph. "It was the minister's idea. I had to swaller the bacca-smoke instead o' puffun that out, an' that choked that in three pipes!"
The rector said it must be a great relief to be rid of such an incubus. Busby, however, with a sick man's reluctance to admit any alleviating circumstance in his case, was not so sure about that. He sometimes fared to wish he had the little varmin back. Croap, croap, croap! That had been wonderful good company after all. The ex-sexton was not too ill to wax eloquent upon his favourite topic. And the tenor of his talk was that mankind had been building churches since the world began, but what other man had lived for years with a live frog on his chest?
Their religious dispute was evidently forgotten, and Mr. Carlton did not feel it incumbent upon him to risk another in the circumstances of the case. On the way home the other egotist waylaid him, with his opinion of old Busby's hallucination and general sanity since the saddler could remember him.
"But half the village and half the county is the same, reverend. Silly Suffolk!"
"Yet you're a Suffolk man yourself, Fuller," observed Mr. Carlton, mildly.
"Yes, reverend, but there was corn in Egypt, if you recollect."
Meanwhile the building still went on, and was rapidly nearing a point beyond which Carlton himself could not proceed unaided. That point was the last window; the others were all finished. He had left out the single mullions and all the tracery. They might be added afterwards by an expert hand. They were not essential to the windows, which were ready for glazing as they were. But the east window was another affair. It must have its two mullions as before, with the quatrefoil tracery which had remained undamaged in the west window opposite. All this was beyond the self-taught hewer of coursed rubble and of gargoyles; the arch itself must be two feet wider than any he had yet attempted; but on a worthy east window he had set his heart.
Such was the dilemma in which Robert Carlton found himself at the end of August, and there seemed only one thing to be done. He must call for aid at last, and now he knew that aid would come, for he had received various offers of assistance since the beginning of the month. Some of these were from local firms which had refused his work in the beginning; Carlton had promised that if he called for tenders he would consider theirs; and now call he must. Yet he could not bring himself to do so all at once.
To call in the world after all! To open his leafy solitude to the British workmen in gangs, to hear their chaff, to smell their tobacco, where he had laboured in quiet and alone through so many, many seasons!
But it had to come. A tinge of autumn was on the trees. Any Sunday now the open-air service might prove a discomfort and a peril to all; in a few weeks at most it would become impossible. But the people must have their church. They had waited long enough. Therefore any further reluctance in him was little and unworthy, as Carlton saw at once for himself. Yet there was now so much else to do, so many poor folks to see, so many old threads to take up, that for once he temporised. And even as he temporised, his mind made up, and a competition pending between the masons of the neighbourhood, Sir Wilton Gleed arrived in Long Stow for the shooting.
Sir Wilton arrived with a frown. It deepened but little at what he heard. He was prepared for everything; and about Gwynneth he knew. She had left his house, she had gone her own way, he washed his hands of her, and only congratulated Sidney on his escape. That chapter was closed. It was the older matter that harassed Sir Wilton Gleed.
So that devil had reinstated himself after all! The fact might not be finally accomplished; it was none the less inevitable, imminent. And Sir Wilton had long been prepared for it; for the last two years he had been unable to move without hearing the name he abhorred; it dogged him in town, it followed him to Scotland, it awaited him in every hole and corner of the Continent. Once he had been fond of speaking of his property; but in two senses it was hard to do this without giving the place a name. Sir Wilton was learning to deny himself the boast altogether.
Long Stow? Could there be two Long Stows? Then that must be the place where the parson was building up his church. What a romance! And what a man! Oh, no doubt he was a very dreadful person also; but there, in any case, was a Man.
Sir Wilton could not deny it; and by degrees he wearied of insisting upon the deplorable side of the man's character. The task was ungrateful; it put himself in an ungenerous light, which was the harder upon one who was by no means ill-natured in grain. Gradually he took to admitting his adversary's good points; even admitted them to himself; but that did not remove the chronic irritation of infallible defeat. And defeated Sir Wilton already was, with the people flocking to that man again, and doubtless willing to help him finish his church. His own parishioners had forgiven him—and well they might, said Sir Wilton's friends in every country-house. Besides, the suspended parson was a figure of the past; the law was done with him; he was absolutely free to begin afresh. Henceforth the vindictiveness of the individual must recoil deservedly upon the individual's head.
Sir Wilton saw all this before his actual return; and he realised the madness of either urging or attempting to coerce his tenantry to harden their hearts, a second time, against one who had committed no second sin. If he failed it would destroy his influence in the neighbourhood; even if he succeeded it would damage his popularity elsewhere. And a chat with the schoolmaster, a call upon one or two of the neighbouring clergy, a word with old Marigold in his gig, all served but to convince him finally of these facts.
Sir Wilton's mind was made up. He had come back primed with a desperate measure for the last of all. Once it was resolved upon, his spirits rose.
He told his wife and took her breath away; but a very little reasoning brought the lady round the compass to his view. This was after breakfast on the second day. The same forenoon Sir Wilton went up the village, brisk and rosy, a flower in his coat, and a word for all. Past the Flint House he began to walk slowly, took no notice of a courtesy, swung round suddenly himself, and was knocking at Jasper Musk's door that minute, still a thought less confident than he had been.
Musk was in his garden, fast as usual to his chair. Mrs. Musk brought out another chair for Sir Wilton, and drove Georgie indoors on her way back. Sir Wilton watched the child out of sight, and then favoured Jasper with his peculiarly fixed stare. There was unusual meaning in it this morning.
"So the world has forgiven him," said Sir Wilton Gleed.
Musk stared in his turn, his great face glowing with contempt. "Have you?" said he at last.
"Not yet," replied Sir Wilton, a shade more pink in the face. He had meant to lead up to his intention. He was taken aback.
"But you mean to, do you?" pursued Musk, pressing his point in no respectful tone: in all their relations this one had never pandered to the other.
"I don't say that, either," replied Sir Wilton, in studied tones.
"Then what do you say?"
"Less than anybody else, a good deal less," declared the squire. "I—I don't quite understand your tone, Musk, I must say; but I can well understand your position in this matter. It is unique, of course. So is mine, in a sense. But I must beg of you not to jump to conclusions. I am the last person to make a hero of the man I did my best to kick out of the parish five years ago; next to yourself, no one has reason to love the fellow less. I thought it a public scandal that he should be empowered to stay here against all our wills. My opinion of that whole black matter is absolutely and totally unchanged. But I do confess to you, Musk, that this last year or two have somewhat modified my opinion of the man himself."
Musk's eyes had never dropped or lifted from his visitor's face. Their expression was inscrutable. The iron cast of that massive countenance was the only key to the workings of the mind within: the lines seemed subtly emphasised, as in the faces of the dead. And his gigantic body was the same; only the eyes seemed alive; and they were as still as the rest of him.
"What if I've modified mine?"
Sir Wilton looked up quickly; for the habitual starer had been for once outstared. "Do you mean that you have?" cried he.
"I don't say as I have or I haven't. But that's a man, Sir Wilton, and I won't deny it."
"Exactly what everybody is saying. I say no more myself."
"And I won't say no less . . . Suppose you was to patch it up with him, Sir Wilton?"
"I should help him finish his church."
Musk sat silent for some time. His eyes seemed smaller. But they had not moved.
"That would be a wonderful good action on your part, Sir Wilton," he said at last.
"Not at all, Musk. I should be doing it for the people, not for Mr. Carlton."
"And yet, Sir Wilton, in a manner o' speaking, you might say as he deserved it, too?"
Sir Wilton was quite himself again—a gentleman in keeping with the flower in his coat.
"I certainly never expected to hear you say so, Musk," said he frankly; "though it's what I've sometimes thought myself."
"I haven't said as I forgave him, have I?"
"No, no, Musk, you haven't; it is not in human nature that you could."
It was a strange tongue that had spoken in the massive head; there was no forgiveness in that voice. Yet in the next breath the note of hate was hushed as suddenly as it had been struck.
"That may be in human natur'," said Musk, "but that ain't in mine. I'm not a religious man, Sir Wilton. That may be the reason. But I do have enough respect for religion to wish to see that church up again before I die."
"I consider it very generous of you to say so, Musk," declared the other, with enthusiasm.
"But I do say it, Sir Wilton, and I never said a truer word."
"So I hear; and that decides me!" cried Sir Wilton, jumping up. "I really had decided—for the sake of the parish—and was actually on my way to the church to take the whole job over. A gang of competent workmen could polish it off in a couple of months; and it ought to be polished off. But it's really wonderful what he has done!"
"I don't deny it," said Musk; and waited for the squire to recover his point, his own set face unchanged.
"Yes," resumed Sir Wilton, suddenly, "I was on my way up to make him that proposal just now; but as I passed your door I could not resist coming in. I thought I would like to tell you what I intended to do, and to give you my reasons for doing it."
"There was no need to do that," said Musk, with an upward movement of the lips, hardly to be called a smile; for once also his great head moved slowly from side to side.
"And now I shall be going on," announced Sir Wilton, who did not like this look, and was now less inclined to suffer disrespect.
"Hold on a bit, Sir Wilton. I'm glued tight to this here chair by my old enemy; that seem to get worse and worse, and I'm jealous I shall soon set foot to the ground for the last time. That take me ten minutes to mount upstairs to bed. I haven't been further'n this here lawn these twelve months. So I can't come and see you, Sir Wilton; and I should like another word or two now we're on the subject. You see, he was here a good bit when the boy was bad, and even I don't feel all I did about him, though forgive him I never shall on earth. At the same time I'd like to see him have his church. That'd want consecrating again, sir, I suppose?"
"I suppose it would."
"Would the bishop do it, think you?"
"Like a shot," said Sir Wilton, a touch of pique in his tone. "I had some correspondence with him years ago about this matter, and I was surprised at the view the bishop took. He will come, if he is alive."
Jasper had taken his eyes from Sir Wilton's face at last; they were resting on the level sunlit land beyond the river. "That'll be a great day for Long Stow," he murmured almost to himself; and suddenly his lips came tight together at the corners.
"It should be a very interesting ceremony," said Sir Wilton, foreseeing his part in it. He had forgiven his enemy, the scandalous clergyman who had lived down a scandal and a tragedy; it was Sir Wilton who had helped him to live them down. Not at first; then he had been adamant; but his justice in the beginning was only equalled by his generosity in the end, when the man had proved his manhood, and the sinner had atoned for his sin, so far as atonement was possible in this world. That poor pertinacious devil had been five years running up the walls. Sir Wilton Gleed had thrown his money and his influence into the scale, and finished the whole thing in less than five months. They were saying all this at the opening ceremony; everybody was there. His magnanimity was being talked of in the same breath with the parson's pluck. The bishop was his guest.
"A very interesting ceremony," repeated Sir Wilton. "We could have it at Christmas, if not before."
"That won't see me," said Jasper Musk. "I couldn't get, even if I wanted to. But sciatica that don't kill, and I hope to live to see the day." And again the corners of his mouth were much compressed.
"Yet you think you can never forgive him?"
Sir Wilton felt that he could not be the bearer of too much good-will, now that he was about it; but Musk turned his eyes full upon him, and there was a queer hard light in them.
"I don't think," said he. "I know."
And so it fell out that in an hour of unusual depression, and of natural hesitation which was yet not natural in Robert Carlton, he looked up suddenly and once more saw his enemy in the sanctuary which would soon be his very own leafy sanctuary no longer. Carlton had come there to meditate and to pray, but not to work. That sort of work was not for him any more. Others must take it up; the time was ripe; only the beginning was hard. And here was Sir Wilton Gleed advancing towards him.
And Sir Wilton was holding out his hand.
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