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In Musk's room there was more light. It lay under the closed door like a yellow rod. Carlton knocked gently. There was no answer. He knocked louder. Not a sound from within. Then the chill fell on him, and he entered ready for any discovery but the one he was to make.
Neither the quick nor the dead lay within.
A fire was burning as well as the lamp; the very bed looked warm, but was not; the sick man must have left it some minutes at least.
The lame man, the man who could not walk, had left his bed if not the house! Carlton caught up the lamp to go in search. And even on the landing a voice came hailing him from the region below.
"Mr. Carlton! Mr. Carlton! Quick, sir, quick!"
George Mellis was still at the side door, and in the lamplight the other could not see an inch beyond.
"Have you found him, George? He's not in bed!"
"Who—Musk? No, sir, no!"
"Then what have you seen?"
The grenadier had a wet skin, a quivering lip, a starting eye.
"Oh, I can't tell you, sir! I may be wrong. God grant it! But give me the lamp, and go outside and look for yourself!"
In sheer perplexity Carlton complied; and for an instant imagined some outrageous freak of nature; for the trees of the Flint House drive, black as night a few minutes before, now stood etched against the reddest dawn that he had ever seen—at midnight in December! Then a flame shot upwards, and another, and another; and Mellis was left standing, lamp in hand, a brilliant patch of light and colour, yet less brilliant every instant in the face of that unearthly glare in the east. Swift feet were pattering down the drive; and had such a start, before the soldier found his senses, that it was only in the churchyard he caught them up.
Long Stow church was on fire for the second time, and burning faster than it had burnt between five and six years before. The crackle of the pitch pine was loud as musketry already. The roof was already burning; its destruction had been the climax of the former fire.
Robert Carlton stood with folded arms heaving on his chest. The bishop was there already, in his overcoat and rug, with the whiter and the sterner face. The servants had called him: they also were there, in pitiful case, but no more had arrived as yet.
"It is no use their coming. The roof's on fire in three or four different places. He has done his work better this time; more oil for him, with those stoves!"
The voice was Carlton's, because his lips moved, and those of the bishop were compressed out of sight. Otherwise Mellis, for one, would never have recognised so sad a discord of heartbreak and devil-may-care.
"Some things might be saved," said the bishop.
"They might and shall! George, run to my study for the key; it's on a nail beside the fireplace. And to think I locked up myself lest something might happen at the last!" cried Carlton, with a single note of high hollow laughter, as the soldier vanished. "But I never thought of you! No, you have cheated me very cleverly this time. You almost deserve your triumph—over me!"
"Do you mean to say you know who has done it?" cried the bishop.
"Yes—the man who did it before."
"But was that ever known?"
"No; but I knew. I found his hat in the church."
"And you never told?"
"Nor shall I now. But I do wonder where he got in! And he was well enough to climb a ladder—my dying man!"
Carlton said no more; he was sorry he had said so much. Yet this time it was sure to come out. There was the empty bed. Mellis would speak of it, though he had not seen it with his own eyes. Was the malingerer back in it already? What hellish artifice! And the house emptied for the nonce! The man's own wife would never have suspected him.
Carlton was quite calm. There was nothing to be done. The roof was flaring at either end and in the middle. Only a fire-engine could have put it out, and there was still none nearer than Lakenhall. The mind will often puzzle over an immaterial question in the face of facts too terrible to be realised at once: the known is blinding, but the unknown is the dark, and it is a relief to grope there even for that which is useless when discovered. So Robert Carlton was still wondering how the incendiary had got in, and out, and exactly what he had done inside, when Mellis came running with the key. In a few moments they were in the church.
Nothing could have been less like the corresponding impression of the former fire. Then the pews had been discovered burning; but now rush-seated chairs and pitch pine stalls stood equally intact; and a first glance did not reveal the source of the dull red light which filled the church. On the other hand, a badly-broken window in the north transept satisfied Carlton's curiosity on the immaterial point; and supplied another, pregnant with irony; for it was the window whose arch he had been building when Georgie first swam into his ken.
But now Mellis was looking straight above him, and calling to Mr. Carlton to do the same. In three places the ceiling was on fire, and burning planks beginning to drop; in another a spreading patch of brown burnt through even as they watched. Almost simultaneously came a shriek from the women and a roar from the men now gathering outside; it was Tom Ivey who came rushing in.
"There's some one overhead! He's smashing the skylight over the north transept! That's the man that done it—that's the man that done it—fairly caught!"
The saddler came on Tom's heels.
"Gord love us all, that's Jasper Musk!"
Carlton darted into the south transept without waste of words, and in an instant had disappeared in the part that was boarded off until the new organ should be established in its place there; meanwhile the very ceiling had not been carried to the end of the transept, and a ladder led to the natural loft that it formed. Up this ladder the incendiary must have climbed, and up this ladder the rector was running when Mellis and Ivey, with the rest at their heels, reached its foot.
"Come down, sir, come down, for God's sake!"
"I am not coming down alone."
"Then I'll fetch you," roared Ivey; "you are not going to risk your life for him!"
But the red-coat was first upon the ladder, and in a few seconds both young men were in the triangular tunnel between the ceiling and the roof; a space so confined that under the apex alone was it possible to walk upright; and that only for the few feet dividing them from the nearest flames.
"Look out!" cried Tom Ivey from the top rung. "It wasn't made for a floor; get on your hands and knees, and the weight won't be all in one place." So they crept into the centre of the cross; and there they knelt upright to see over a fringe of fire that burnt their eyelids bare as they gazed.
Roof and ceiling of chancel and of nave, both were in roaring flames to right and to left of them; through the flaming barrier in their faces, and the hole already burnt, they could see the pulpit and the chairs in the north transept thirty feet below; and across the gulf, Jasper Musk and Robert Carlton face to face. Carlton had made the leap; they could not; already the flames were driving them back and back.
In the steady roar and crackle they could hear no words. Musk was crouching under a skylight all too narrow for his gigantic shoulders, a tell-tale oil-tin overturned at his feet. His face was livid, but fearless, and his light eyes gleamed with hate. Carlton's back was turned to the watchers, and for a second motionless; then he looked round, saw them through smoke and flame, and clapped a hand to his mouth.
"Down, both of you," he shouted, "and round with the ladder to the outside here, and one of you fetch up an axe. The skylight's too small—we must make it bigger!"
Musk's lips moved, and his eyes flashed their own fire; the others could almost see the words.
"Well?" said Mellis.
"Come on; it's our only chance."
In an instant they were down the ladder, and had it horizontal in a minute. Then Ivey began to fume.
"It'll take some time getting through the porch!"
"Shove it through the broken window."
"Good man! Stand by, out there, to haul out this ladder!"
The red-coat ran round, his medal twinkling in the glare, while Ivey rushed for the axe.
"Up with her, comrades! That's it—altogether—now!"
The ladder was up outside. Ivey, axe in hand, had leapt upon the fourth rung at a bound, and was taking the rest two at a time. Below it was light as day; the naked trees stood brown and brittle in the glare; the upturned faces white as the curled moon. A whiter face peered through the skylight.
"Look alive with that axe, Tom; he can't breathe, and he's being roasted!"
"He deserve ut! Do you come through first, sir. There's room for you as 'tis. He can bide his turn."
The white face flushed indignant dominion.
"Unless you obey me, you are my murderer too!"
A stifled curse came from under the tiles.
"There, then! Would you save him after that? Leave him the axe and through you come, you that can, or else I'll pull you through!"
And his great arm thickened as he thrust it out, and grabbed at the straight white collar, before relinquishing the axe from his other hand; but at that moment there was a crackling groan, and a sudden unbearable weight on Ivey's hand and arm, as the frail inner roof gave way; then a blinding flame in his face, a crash below, and a cry of anguish from a hundred hearts rent as one.
The axe tumbled as Tom Ivey flung both arms round the ladder, and so descended like a drunken man, a crumpled collar still warm and tight between the clenched fingers of his right hand.
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