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All Souls' was dark and hazy with its share of the ubiquitous fog, here a little aggravated by the subtle fumes of incense newly burnt. In the haze hung quivering constellations of sallow gaslight, and through it gleamed an embroidered frontal, and the silken backs of praying priests, lit by candles four. Delicate strains came from an invisible organ; a light patter and a rich rustling from the feet and garments of some departing after matins, some taking their places for choral eucharist, women to the left, men to the right. Men and women, goers and comers alike, with few exceptions, bowed the knee with Romish humility at the first or the last glimpse of that shimmering frontal with the four candles above and the motionless vestments below.
The congregation was one of well-dressed women and well-to-do men; their quiet devotion was not the less noteworthy on that account. A fine reverence animated every face: the stray observer would have missed the passive countenance of the merely pious, as Gwynneth did, and discovered in its stead the happy ardour of those whose religion was a delight rather than a duty. Yet the congregation took scarcely any part in the actual service. Few untrained voices joined in the exquisite singing; few, in the body of the church, left their places to take part in the sacred climax. The congregation might have been only an audience; yet somehow it was not. Somehow also there was nothing spectacular in an office of equal dignity, distinction, and fervour.
Yet the yellow lights in a yellow fog, the perfect organ, trained voices, rich embroideries, incense, genuflexions, all these seemed at one religious pole; and Long Stow church on a summer's day, with the sky above and the birds singing, and Mr. Carlton in his surplice in the sun, surely that was at the other! It was Gwynneth's fate, at all events, to carry that single service in her heart and mind for ever, and to put every other one against it. She did so now, involuntarily at first, and then unwillingly, as she knelt or stood at the end of her row—her cambric cuffs and fine lawn streamers in high relief against the rich furs and the sombre feathers of those about her.
On the other side of the nave, far back and close to the wall, a grizzled gentleman stood and knelt by turns, in much obscurity; and his attention never flagged. No detail of the elaborate ritual appeared unfamiliar to this worshipper, and yet for a time his expression was rather that of the alien critic. Gradually, however, the lines disappeared from his forehead, his eyes opened wider, and brightened with the peaceful ardour which he himself had already remarked in the eyes of others. He was a tall thin man, very weather-beaten and rather bent, wearing a new overcoat and a soft muffler; there was nothing in his appearance to declare him of the cloth himself. His grey beard was close trimmed. He wore gloves and carried a tall hat shoulder high in the press going out. He was no more readily recognisable as the lonely builder of Long Stow church, than Gwynneth in her nurse's garb as the niece of Sir Wilton Gleed. But their separate fates brought them face to face in the porch, and recognition was immediate on both sides.
"Miss Gleed?" said Robert Carlton, raising his hat before it covered his grey hairs.
"Mr. Carlton!" she exclaimed in turn. There had been no time to think, and her voice told only of her surprise; her own ear noticed it, and she had time to marvel at herself.
"I thought I could not be mistaken," Carlton was saying. And they were shaking hands.
"I never expected to see you here," said Gwynneth, with a strange emphasis, as though the declaration were due to herself.
"I never thought of coming until an hour or two ago."
No more had Gwynneth: then the miracle was twofold. Her heart gave thanks. It was not afraid.
Meanwhile the crowd was carrying them gently, insensibly, but side by side, across the flagged yard to the gate.
"It's the first Sunday I've spent in town for years," observed Carlton; "you are here altogether, I believe?"
"Well, for some years, at least. I am learning to be a nurse."
And Gwynneth blushed for her conspicuous attire, just as Carlton gave a downward glance at the quaint cap on a level with his shoulder.
"So I heard," he said. "May I ask which hospital you are at?" He could recall none where the uniform was so picturesque.
"You would not know it, Mr. Carlton; it is a private hospital on Campden Hill."
They had passed through the gate, and they paused with one consent.
"Are you returning there now, Miss Gleed?"
"Yes—through the gardens."
"Then so far our way is the same." He did not ask whether he might accompany her, but took the outer edge of the pavement as a matter of course. "I am staying at Charing Cross," he explained as they walked; "early this morning I went to the abbey. I did mean to go back there; then I suddenly thought I should like to come here instead. I was once one of the assistant clergy at this church."
"I know," said Gwynneth. She would not deny it. That was why she had so often thought of coming to All Souls'—only to resist the temptation time and time again. Why, to-day of all days, had she been unable to resist? Why had she thought of him this morning, and why had the thought been so strong? These were questions for a lifetime's consideration. Now she was walking at his side.
"It was strange to go back there after so many years," pursued Carlton, with the fine unguarded candour which he had brought back with him into the world; "that service, in particular, was very strange to me. I did not care for it at first. It seemed so artificial after our simple service in the country. Then I looked at the faces of the men near me, and I saw how narrow one can get. It was not artificial to them; it was only beautiful; and there lies the root of the whole matter. Simple services for simple folk—that is my watchword now—but beauty, brightness, elaboration by all means for those who need it and can appreciate it. It is the right thing for these rich congregations of hard-worked professional men and busy society women; the trappings of their religious life must not compare meanly with those of their daily lives; let us order God's house as we would our own. But the opposite is the case—though the principle is the same—with a primitive country parish like ours at Long Stow . . . And yet I had not the wit to see that when I went there first."
He was musing aloud as men seldom do unless very sure of their audience. How came he to be so sure of Gwynneth? They had seen nothing of each other; this was the first time they had been alone together long enough to exchange ideas; yet in a moment he was revealing his as few men do to more than one woman in the world. And the one woman's heart was singing at his side.
She was with him; that was enough. Already it was the sweetest hour of all her life; for the thought of him had haunted her for months, and was full of pain; but in his presence all pain passed away. That was so wonderful to Gwynneth! So wonderful was it that she herself was aware of it at the time; it was her one great discovery and surprise. To be with him was to forget all that he had ever done, all that she had never before forgotten—the good with the evil. It was to sweep aside the earthly and the palpable, to feel the divine domination of spirit over spirit, and the peace which comes with even the secret surrender of soul to soul. Hers was a conscious surrender, and Gwynneth made it without shame. Since it was her secret, why should she be ashamed? She was exalted, exultant, and yet serene. She might carry her secret to the grave; her life would be the richer for it, for these few minutes, for every word he spoke. So she caught each one as it fell, and laid the treasure in her heart, even while she listened for the next.
But in a minute they were come as far as he intended to escort her; there were the palings and the stark trees close upon them in the fog; and an omnibus passing, huge as a house. Gwynneth had been treading thin air; now she was back in the sticky streets, inhaling the raw mist, to exhale it in clouds under a microscopic magenta sun. They had stopped at the corner; he was hesitating: her breath disappeared.
"I have to get over to that side sooner or later," he said. "I may just as well walk across with you, if you don't mind."
"I shall be delighted," said Gwynneth, frankly, brightly; but her breath came like a puff of smoke, and she felt her colour come with it as they crossed the road.
"I want to tell you about the church," he said, as they entered upon the broad walk. "This is the first Sunday that I haven't taken service there since the beginning of August."
"The first!" exclaimed Gwynneth. "Have you actually gone on up to now without a roof?"
Carlton turned in his stride.
"But we have a roof, Miss Gleed!"
"You have one?"
"It has been on some weeks."
Gwynneth was standing quite still. "Do you mean to say that the church is finished?" she cried, incredulous.
"Yes," said Carlton; "thank God, I can say that at last."
"But it seems such a short time! I don't understand. It seemed impossible to me—by yourself?"
"Oh, but I have not been by myself. I have had help."
"I wonder you have not heard. Everybody has helped me—everybody!"
"Do you mean—my people—among others?"
And Gwynneth preferred walking on to facing him here.
"Is it possible you haven't heard?" exclaimed Carlton, incredulous in turn.
"Not a word," replied Gwynneth, bitterly. "They never write."
But her bitterness was new-born of her indignation, not that they never wrote, but that they had not written to tell her this. He told her himself with much feeling and more embarrassment.
"Why, Miss Gleed, I owe everything to Sir Wilton! It is the last thing I ever—I can hardly realise it yet—or trust myself to speak of it to you. My heart is so full! But it is Sir Wilton who has finished the church; he came to me, and he took it over. He called for tenders; he poured in workmen; the place has been like a hive. So the roof was on in a month; and we never missed a Sunday, we had one service all the time; but now we have three and four—thanks entirely to Sir Wilton Gleed!"
He paused. But Gwynneth had nothing to say, and his embarrassment increased. It was so hard to speak of Sir Wilton's magnanimity without alluding to his previous attitude, and thus indirectly to its notorious cause; and Carlton could not see that his companion was entirely taken up with his news, could not realise the surprise it was to her, or apprehend for a moment what impression it had made. He might, however, have had some inkling of her view from the manner in which Gwynneth eventually said that she was glad to hear her uncle had done something.
"Something?" echoed Carlton. "He has done everything, and it is like his generosity that you should hear it first from me!"
Gwynneth shook her head unseen, though now he was looking at her, his eyebrows raised; but she seemed intent upon picking her steps through the thin mud of the broad walk.
"And what that is like," continued Carlton, "from my point of view, you will see when I tell you why I am in town to-day. It is the first Sunday I have missed; but Mr. Preston of Linkworth and other friends are kindly dividing my duty between them. Sir Wilton has arranged that, by the way. He telegraphed yesterday to save me the journey; for I was going down for the day, and returning to-morrow. Yet I came up last Monday, and am still hard at work—buying for the new church."
Gwynneth asked what it was that he had to buy; but her tone was so mechanical that Robert Carlton did not at once reply. He was beginning to feel strangely disappointed, to wish that he had gone his own gait to Charing Cross, or at least held his peace about the church. But there was one point upon which he felt constrained to convince his companion before they parted; he might do more than justice to an absent man; but she should not do less. And the spire of St. Mary Abbot's was already dimly discernible through the yellow haze.
"There is nothing we have not to buy, for the interior," he said at length. "The lectern is the one exception, and I have had it straightened and lacquered into a new thing. Sir Wilton wanted me to keep it as it was; but that would never have done. However, he would have an inscription to the effect that it is the same lectern which was in the fire, which is quite a sufficient advertisement of the fact. I was in favour of restoring the communion plate also, but Sir Wilton insisted on presenting us with a new set, which I have been choosing among other things this week. The other things are too numerous to mention—carpets, curtains, collecting-boxes, alms-bags, a Litany desk, and the hundred and one things you take for granted as part of the church itself. But each has to be chosen and bought, and I only wish that I had had your help. I have found the best things most difficult to choose—the plate and a very handsome cross and candlesticks of polished brass—all of which are my choice, but Sir Wilton's gift. So is the organ which is being built for us. Can you wonder, then, that his generosity has moved me more than I can possibly tell you?"
"Indeed, no!" cried Gwynneth, in her own kind voice; but her honour was all for the man who claimed it for another; and, until she opened them now, her lips had been pursed in mute rebellion. She could fancy so much that the true generosity would never even see! Gwynneth had not that sort herself; she did not profess to have it. On the other hand, she was anxious to be fair, even in her own mind; so she asked a question or two concerning the hired and skilled labour which had been thrown into the scale with such effect; and, after all, it appeared that Sir Wilton Gleed had not paid for this.
"But he wanted to," said Carlton, quickly. "It was not his fault that I would not hear of his doing so; it was my obstinacy, because I had set my heart on rebuilding the church myself, in one sense or the other."
"Yet you said he took it over from you!"
"So he did, Miss Gleed. He lent me his influence and support; that was much more to me than the money, which I had and didn't want. Besides, he is a business man, which I am not, and he did take the whole business off my hands. That is what I meant."
Gwynneth wondered whether it was what the countryside understood; but said no more about the matter. She had other things to think of during their last moments together; for she had stopped at the corner near the palace; nor did she mean to let him accompany her any further. She was still so decided and serene. She was still exalted and strengthened out of all self-knowledge in the quiet presence of the man she loved, and must love for ever, even though her love were to remain her heart's prisoner for this life. This life was not all.
So it was that she could look her last upon him, perhaps for ever, with her own face transfigured and beautified by a joy not of earth alone: so it was that she could speak to him, and hear him speak, without a tremor to the end.
His church was to be consecrated that day week—Advent Sunday. The bishop was coming to perform the ceremony; his voice softened as he spoke of the bishop, who was to be his own guest at the rectory. His face shone as he added that. It was going to be a very simple ceremony. And here something set him twisting at one of his gloves; then suddenly he looked Gwynneth in the eyes.
"You don't happen to be coming down, Miss Gleed?"
"I don't think it very likely."
"It—it wouldn't of course be worth your while——"
"It would! It would! It would be more than worth it; but, to be quite frank, I don't know that I shall ever come down again, Mr. Carlton."
Was he sorry? He did not even show surprise; and not a word more: for he had heard stray words in Long Stow concerning Gwynneth's departure and its reason as alleged. "I should have liked you to see the church," was all he said.
"And do you know," rejoined Gwynneth, speaking out her mind at last, "that I am in no great hurry to see it? I know it is foolish of me—for no one man could have finished such a work—no other man living would have got as far as you did without a soul to help you! Yet somehow I don't so much want to see the church that they came in and finished; it would spoil the picture that I can see so plainly now, and always shall—of the stones you cut and the walls you built with your own two hands—and every other hand against you!"
She was holding out her own. Carlton looked from it to her face, a strange surprise in his eyes. He had wriggled out of one of his gloves, and was twisting it round the iron paling at the corner where they stood.
"May I come no further?" he said.
"No, I could not think of taking you another yard out of your way. And it is really not so very many yards from where we stand!"
Gwynneth smiled brightly; but her voice was the very firm one of this half-hour of her existence. And ever afterwards she was to marvel why neither smile nor words were an effort to her at the time: so his presence supported her to the end, when the clasp of that indomitable hand, now bare, and horny even through her glove, left Gwynneth outwardly unmoved. She returned his pressure with honest warmth; her smile was kind and bright; then the cold mist fell between them in a widening yellow gulf, with a diminishing patter of firm footsteps, that Carlton could hear when the nurse's streamers had quite disappeared in the fog.
And he stood where he was to hear the last of her; and still he stood, wishing he had disregarded tact, and persisted in his escort, whether it embarrassed her or not, if only to find out where her hospital was. He felt inclined to call before leaving town; already there was something that he wished he had said; he kept saying it to himself as he wandered back through dark gardens and a desert park.
"So you prefer to think of it before the roof was on, as I managed to make it by myself! You are the first to say that or to feel it—except me! And I have put the feeling down; thank God, I have got it under; yet it is a help to know that one other felt the same. Perhaps it was a human feeling; but in me at least it was unworthy. God help me! But in you it is sweet, and to me very wonderful . . . that you should understand and sympathise . . . a young girl like you!"
This whole fatality left the man sadly unsettled; tired and yet restless in body and soul; humbly thankful for a woman's sympathy after so long, and so much, yet the prey of a new depression. A woman's sympathy! Or was it only a woman's pity? No, she understood; but it mattered little to Robert Carlton; there could be no second woman in his life. That he had always felt; but he was not sure that he had ever before defined the feeling. It was a part of his eternal punishment; but he was quite sure that he had not previously regarded it in that light.
A coxcomb Carlton had never been; he had no suspicion of the kind of impression he had made upon Gwynneth; his sole concern was the impression which she had made on him. Like the rest of the world, she was flying to extremes; only in her case, if she especially magnified the good, it was because she was still ignorant of the original evil. It could be nothing else; but his feeling about himself was more complex. He alone knew how much or how little of the highest and the best in him had redeemed that passion born of passion which had blighted his life. It was of further significance that for years Carlton had not looked upon his life as blighted. The blight fell upon the shining vision of the woman he could have loved. And all had been so sudden that the man was dazed.
He could not eat, though he was hungry; nor rest, though tired to the bone. He would go out again. It was good to be out, even in a London fog, which was nothing to the fogs he remembered, for there was no question of groping one's way; one could see it for fifty yards, often for more. But now there was not even a small magenta sun; it was the middle of the brief December afternoon when Robert Carlton left his hotel; and near its close before he found himself in Kensington Gardens once more. He hardly knew what brought him there. It was partly, but not altogether, a sentimental impulse. Carlton had also some idea of finding the hospital if he could, some hope of seeing Gwynneth again, if only to assure himself that his imaginings of the last few hours had made her other than what she was. And then he could rectify those omissions of the morning; but neither was this all; a strong inexplicable attraction drew him straight to the spot where he had stood so long after Gwynneth was gone.
And Gwynneth herself was standing there again!
He was almost upon her before he saw her in the dusk, then those long lawn streamers leapt like lightning to his eyes; and now he was creeping backwards across the path. But she had not heard him, or she did not heed: her back was turned, and bent, for she was leaning over the iron paling which he had grasped before. And she shook with tears.
Carlton was shaking, too; passion had taken him by the shoulders, and was shaking the strength out of his heart. Horror had driven him back, passion was spurring him on again. If she loved him—if she loved him—then the hand of God was in all this.
He was back upon the spot where recognition had come. Oh, yes, it was she! She had given a little cry; she was stooping lower over the paling; her voice was unmistakable. Then she rose, half turning, and he saw her profile plain. She was raising something to her eyes; in another moment it was at her lips, and she was kissing it, and sobbing over it, whatever it might be.
Carlton thought he knew what it was, and conceived a new horror of himself in his involuntary capacity of spy. Yet instinctively he was feeling in both overcoat pockets at once; in one there was a single glove; in the other nothing at all. Cold with shame, but shivering with excitement, the man stood torn between the newborn desire of his eyes, and the fixed resolve of his soul. But he could not tear himself from the spot—nor was it any longer necessary. Gwynneth was gone herself; gone without seeing him; out of sight this time in an instant. And Robert Carlton, white, trembling, but himself—the man with a will at least—was listening a second time to the failing music of her feet, his own planted firmly on the walk.
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