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The rector's study was on the ground floor, facing south. It was a long room, but narrow, and so low that the present incumbent, who stood six-feet-two, had contracted a stoop out of continual and instinctive dread of the ancient beams that scored his study ceiling, combined with a besetting habit of pacing the floor. There were two doors; one led into the garden, providing parishioners with immediate access to the rector when he was not to be found at the church; the other terminated an inner passage. Both were of immemorial oak, and, like the lattice casement over the writing table, both rattled in the least wind. Such was the room which the Reverend Robert Carlton haunted when driven or detained indoors: rickety, ill-lighted, and draughty when it was not close, it was still a habitable hole enough, and picturesque in spite of its occupant.
Optional surroundings afford a fair clue to the superficial man, but no real key to character; thus Mr. Carlton's furniture suggested a soul devoid of the æsthetic sense. He had the sense in all its fineness, but it found expression in another place. Like many ritualists, Carlton was a religious æsthete; none more fastidious in the service of the sanctuary; on the other hand, after the fashion of his peers in two Churches, the trappings of his own life were severely simple. They had nearly all been purchased second-hand, those wire-covered shelves and the books they bore, that oak settle, and the huge arm-chair filled with miscellaneous lumber. Two baize-covered forms were there for the accommodation of various classes which the rector held; a prayer desk faced east in the one orderly corner of the room. Only three pictures hung on the walls; a Holy Family and Guido Reni's St. Sebastian, ordinary silver prints in Oxford frames, mementoes of a pilgrimage to Rome; and an ancient cricket eleven, faded from age, and fly-blown for long want of a glass. There were also a couple of tin shields, bearing the heraldic devices of Robert Carlton's public school and of his Oxford college, while a crucifix hung over the prayer desk. Among the books two volumes on Building Construction might have been remarked upon the settle, together with a tattered copy of Parker's Introduction to Gothic Architecture; among the lumber, a mason's trowel and a cold-chisel. Lastly, the study smelt, but did not reek, of common birdseye.
Jasper Musk, passing the open lattice, caught the parson hastily rising from his knees, not at the prayer desk, but beside his writing table, upon which a large book lay open. A newspaper lay on top of the book when Musk was admitted some moments after he had knocked.
He entered with his heavy, uneven steps, but took up a position barely within the threshold, and began by declining a seat with equal emphasis and stiffness.
"No, I thank you, Mr. Carlton. I've never been here before in your time, and I'm never likely to come again. I'm only here now to ask a question—and return a compliment!"
And the visitor's eye gleamed as Mr. Carlton creased the forehead that was so white in comparison with his face: at the moment this contrast was not conspicuous.
"From what I hear," explained Musk, "you've done me the kindness of coming to my house when my back was turned."
"And you have only heard of it now?"
"Within the last ten minutes; and I come here right straight. You may think I wouldn't come for nothing, me that's never darkened your door before to-day. I don't hold with you, Mr. Carlton, and I'm not the only one. That's true—I'm not a religious man, and never was; but, if I ever was to be, it wouldn't be your religion. No, sir, when I fare to want Christmas-trees in church I'll go to Rome and be done with it; and that's where you ought to be, Mr. Carlton, before you get a parcel of women to confess their sins to you as though you was God Almighty!"
Mr. Carlton sat quite still under this uncalled-for criticism; he even looked relieved, and one sensitive finger brushed the brown moustache to either side of his mouth.
"I have never advocated auricular confession," said he, "whatever I may think. I have merely said, to those in doubt, in difficulty, or in trouble, I will help them with God's help if I can."
"In trouble!" cried Musk scornfully. "I know one that never might have got herself into trouble if she'd never listened to you! And that's what brings me here; I'll beat about the bush no more. My wife said she fetched you the other night. I don't blame you for going, I won't go so far as that. What I want to know, and what I mean to know, is this: did my—that young woman lying there—confess to you or did she not?" It was a fist that he had flung in the direction of the churchyard.
And the parson's voice was cold and constrained, as it had been beside the grave; but that white forehead glistened like a dead man's.
"The name of the father of her child!"
Carlton took an ivory paper-knife from his desk, and the thin blade snapped in two between his fingers. A pause followed. Musk stood like granite, stick and hat in hand, frowning down on the clergyman seated at his writing table. At length the latter looked up.
"I might say that is a question you have no right to ask, Mr. Musk; what is certain, had there been any question of confession, I should have no right to answer you. There was none. Your daughter sent for me, to speak to me; and speak we did; but she did not tell me that—scoundrel's—name."
"But you know!"
"How dare you say that?" cried Carlton; and a flash of anger played for an instant on his pallor.
"I see it in your face; but I'll have it out of you! I'll have it out of you," roared Musk, in a sudden frenzy, striking his stick to the floor, "if I have to tear your smooth tongue out along with it! So smooth you could read over that murdered girl, and know all the time who'd murdered her, and think to keep that to yourself! But you sha'n't; no, that you sha'n't; not if I have to stand here till midnight. You know! You know! Deny it if you can!"
"I shall deny nothing," retorted the other. "No, I shall deny nothing!" he reiterated as if to himself. "But think for a minute, Mr. Musk—I entreat you to think calmly for one minute! Suppose I could tell you what you ask, could it serve any good end for you to know?"
"Good end!" cried Musk. "Why, you know it could. I could kill the man who's killed my daughter—and kill him I will—and swing for him if they like. That'll be a wonderful good end all round!"
"Then is it for me to throw temptation in your way? Is it for me to spoil a life, if not to end it? For all you know, Mr. Musk, it may be a life otherwise honest, useful, and of good report. Nay!" exclaimed Mr. Carlton, as if suddenly impatient of his own reticence, "I'll go so far as to say that it once was all three. And the man would do such duty—make such amends——"
A groan admitted that there were none to make, and finished a sentence to which Musk had not listened; the one before was sufficient for him; and his broad face shone with the satisfaction of a point gained.
"Come," said he, "that's fairer! So you do know him, and you say so like a man. I always took you for a man, sir, though there's been no love lost between us; and I'll say I'm sorry I spoke so harsh just now, Mr. Carlton; for I had a hold of the wrong end o' the stick—I see that now. It was the man that confessed—it was the man. Sir, if you're the Christian gentleman that I take you for, and this here Christianity o' yours ain't all cant an' humbug, you'll tell me that man's name; for I can't call to mind a single one she so much as looked at—unless it was that young Mellis."
"No, no; poor George is innocent enough, God knows!"
"He's like to be, for all I hear. They say he carries a cross for you o' Sundays—but I won't say no more about that. If he's your right hand in the parish, as they tell me he is, at least I should hope he'd be straight."
A puff of wind came through the open window. It lifted the newspaper from the open book, but the rector's hand fell quickly upon both. And there it rested. And his wretched eyes rested upon his hand.
"So I've never thought twice about George Mellis. I'd as soon think o' you, sir. Then who can it be?"
Mr. Carlton bounded to his feet, white as his collar, and quivering to his nostrils.
"You want to know?"
"I mean to know, sir."
"And to kill him—eh?"
"I reckon I'll go pretty near it."
"Ah, don't do it by halves!" cried Carlton in a strange high voice. "Kill him now!" His hands fell open at his side; his head fell forward on his breast; and he who had sinned grossly against God and man, yet was not born to be a hypocrite, stood defenceless, abject, self-destroyed.
Moments passed; became minutes; and all the sound in the rectory study came from the rattling of its inner door, or through the outer one from the garden. Then by degrees a hard breathing broke on Robert Carlton's ears; but he himself was the next to speak, flinging back his head in sudden misery.
"Why don't you strike?" he cried out. "You've got your stick; strike, man, strike!"
It seemed an hour before the answer came, in a voice scarcely recognizable as that of Jasper Musk, it was so low and calm; yet there was an intensity in the deep, slow tones that matched the fearful intensity of the fixed light eyes; and the massive face was still and livid from the short steel beard to the virile silver hair.
"Oh, yes, I'll strike!" hissed Musk. "I'll strike! I'll strike!" And he struck with his eyes until the other's fell once more; until the guilty man collapsed headlong in his chair, his arms upon the table, and his face upon his arms. "But I'll strike in my own way, thank you," Musk went on, "and in my own good time. You shall smart a bit first—learn what it's like to suffer—taste hell upon earth in case there's no hell for bloody murderers beyond! How I wish you could see yourself! How I wish your precious flock could see you—and they shall. Whited sepulchre . . . filthy hypocrite . . . living lie!"
Deliberately chosen, with long pauses between, with many a rejection of the word that came uppermost—the worse word that was too strong to sting—these measured epithets carved round the heart that unbridled abuse would have stabbed and stunned. Carlton could hide his face, but he quivered where he sprawled, and the other nodded in savage self-esteem.
"Not that I had ought to be surprised," continued Musk; "it's what might have been expected of a Jesuit in disguise; the only wonder is I didn't suspect you from the first. I never set up for being a charitable man; but that seems I was a damned sight too charitable towards you. I thought no wrong, whatever else I may have thought of you and your ways. No; I may have jeered, I may have been vexed, but my mind wasn't nasty enough for that. God! that I can keep my stick off you, when I remember the choir practices, and the organ practices, and the Bible classes, and the Young Women's Christian Association. Sounds well, don't it? Young Women's Christian Association! Now we know what it meant; now we know what it all means, church and parsons, religion and all; a sink of iniquity and a set of snivelling, whining, licentious——"
"Stop!" cried Carlton, manned at last, and on his feet to enforce the word. "Say what you please of me, do what you will to me. Nothing is too bad for me—I deserve the very worst. But abuse my Church you shall not, in my hearing."
"His Church!" sneered Musk. "A lot you've done to make me respect it, haven't you? My God, can you stand there looking at me as if I were in the wrong instead o' you? Do you know what you've done, and confessed to doing? You've murdered my girl, just as much as though you'd taken and cut her throat, you have: more, you've murdered her body and soul, you that snivel about the soul! And you can stand there and whine about your Church! Is that all you've got to say for yourself—to the father of the woman you've ruined to her grave?"
"That is all I have to say to you, Mr. Musk. I will not insult you by asking your forgiveness, much less by attempting to make the shadow of an excuse; there could be none; nor can there be any forgiveness for me from you or your wife; nor do I look for any mercy in this parish, or this world. Go, spread the news, and ruin me in my turn; it's what I deserve, and mean to bear."
"Not so fast," said Musk—"not so fast, if you please. So I'm to spread the news, am I? And do you think I'm so proud that's the reverend? By your leave, Mr. Carlton, I'll keep that same news to myself till I've had all I want from it."
"Any refinement you like," said Carlton. "It will not be too bad for me—or too much—please God!"
Jasper Musk put on his hat, but came close up to the clergyman before taking his leave.
"I wish I knew you better!" he ground out through his teeth. "I wish I'd made up to you like the women, instead of giving you the wide berth I have. Do you know why? Because I'd have known how to hit you hardest," said Musk, hissing like a snake; "because I'd have known where to hurt you most!"
Carlton stood a trifle more upright: his enemy's malice ministered subtly to his remnant of self-respect.
"I wish I'd been a church-goer," continued Musk; "but it's never too late to mend! I may be there to-morrow to hear you preach; maybe I'll have a word to say myself; maybe I shall not. You'll know when the time comes, and not before."
Carlton quailed, for the first time at a threat, and his visible terror seemed to intoxicate the other. Seizing him by the shoulder as he had seized his wife, clutching him like a wild beast, and thrusting his great face to within an inch of that of the unhappy clergyman, Jasper Musk spat lewd names, and foul insult, and wanton blasphemy, until breath failed him. All the vileness he had heard in sixty years, and could recall in half as many seconds, poured from him in a very transport of insensate ribaldry; words that had never left his lips before, crowded to them now; and were still ringing in a swimming head when Robert Carlton woke to the fact that he was once more alone.
His first sensation was one of overwhelming nausea. His very vitals writhed; and he reeled heavily against an open bookcase, casting an arm along one of the upper shelves, and resting his face upon the sleeve. For a few moments all his weight was upon that arm; then he opened his eyes, and the titles of the books engaged his dazed attention. None was apt, but all were familiar, and the familiarity maddened the stricken man. He stood glaring from one low wall to another, filled with those doubts which are the cruel satellites of transcendent anguish. Had it really happened after all? The room was so unchanged, from the few things on the walls to the many in the chair! All was so homely, so intimate, so reassuring; and no visible trace of Musk! Had he ever been there at all?
Ah, yes, for he had gone! In the distance a gate had squealed, and shut with a rattle; the sound had lain in his ear; now it sank to the brain. Now, too, another sound, intermittent all this time, but meaningless hitherto, assumed a like significance. This was the continued rustling of a newspaper, as the wind whisked in at the open door and out by the open window in invisible harlequinade. The man's mind fled back a little lifetime of minutes. And he recalled the last puff and rustle, and the quick falling of his own hand upon the paper, which lay on his desk, as the last event of a past era of his existence—the last act of Robert Carlton, hypocrite!
And what was the peril that had made the final demand upon his caution and his cunning? It was a new irony to perceive at once that it had existed chiefly in guilty imagination; to remove the paper, and to reveal nothing more incriminating than the parish register of deaths, with an unfinished entry in his own hand, a spatter of ink in place of a name, and some round white blisters lower down the leaf. Yet this it was that had brought Carlton to his knees an hour ago; and it brought him to his knees again, not at the desk of formal prayer, but here at his table as before.
"Father have mercy on me," he prayed, "for I neither deserve nor desire any mercy from man!"
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