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Long Stow church rose salient from its knoll at the eastern extremity of the village, still in its wintry network of a million twigs. It was not the ruin it had been before; but the new roof had vanished; and the chancel was in the condition to which the first fire had reduced the whole edifice. The other walls still stand as their builder built them, and as they stood on that December day when he was laid to rest in their shadow. The grave is in the angle of the north transept and the nave, not a dozen paces from the site of the shed. The stone was not up when Gwynneth visited it, but the grave was as easily identified as it is to-day. It lay beneath a cairn of dead flowers, picked out with many fresh ones. The cards still fluttered upon some of the wreaths, and Gwynneth could not help seeing the surprising names upon some; but the humble little home-made offerings, the bunches of snow-drops and the early crocuses, touched her more. Yet she showed no feeling as she stood and gazed. She had brought no flowers herself. There was no pretence of mourning in her dress. She shed no tears.
From his own observatory the saddler had seen who was in the covered fly, when Gwynneth got out. He was at his usual work upon the latest newspaper, and he took it up again for a minute. But Gwynneth was more than a minute, and more than five; the saddler lost patience, and wandered across the road.
"Where did you bring that young lady from? Lakenhall?"
"And are you going to take her back again?"
"Yes, in time for the 5.40 train; and she only got down by the 2.10."
Gwynneth, who had not stirred a feature or a limb, started indignantly at the sound of a profaning step; but had forgiven Fuller before he reached her hand with his own outstretched. There had seemed so much that she might never know, could never ask; it would not be necessary with the saddler.
"Why, Miss Gwynneth, is that you?" he cried, when he had crushed her hand; and his eyes widened with concern.
"Am I so much changed?" asked Gwynneth, smiling gallantly.
"Changed! Gord love yer, miss, you're the shadder of what you was."
"There is plenty of substance still, Mr. Fuller."
"And where's your colour, miss?"
"In London, I suppose."
"That's it," cried Fuller; "that London! I wouldn't live there, not if you paid me: nasty, beastly, smoky, overcrowded sink of iniquity and disease! If I was the Government I'd pull that down and build it up again on twice the space. That isn't good manners to run down the place where you live, miss, I know; but I never could abide that London, and now I shall hate it more than ever."
"But I thought you were never there, Mr. Fuller?"
"And never mean to be, miss, and never mean to be! I've too much sense. Look at me: sixty-eight I am, and a bit over, and not an ache or a pain from top to toe. That's because I live in the pure air and know what I eat; now in London, if you'll excuse my saying so, you never do. Where should I be if I'd been swallerun London fogs and adulterated milk and butter all my life? In my grave these thirty years! Do you take the advice of a man of my experience, miss: shake the soot of London off your feet, and come you back to good living and good air, and you won't know yourself in a week."
Gwynneth let the saddler run on; a more sensitive man would have seen that she was not hearkening to a word. Her eyes were very hard and bright; they rested once more upon the faded flowers and the fluttering cards.
"So this is Mr. Carlton's grave!"
The belated words told nothing at all. Fuller removed his cap.
"Yes, miss, there lie the biggest and the bravest heart that ever beat in this here parish or anywhere near it. And I have a right to say so. Many has come back to him this last twelvemonth or so. But I was the first."
"Were you at the fire, Mr. Fuller?"
"Was I at the fire! Why, it was me that saw that first, Miss Gwynneth. Young George Mellis, with his red-coat and his bamboo cane, he would have it that it was him; but there are some folks that fare to be first in everything, and General George'll be getting too big for his uniform if he don't take care. You see, I hadn't closed an eye when I saw the first flicker on the ceiling; but an old man like me have to get on some clothes before he can run outside in the depths o' winter. Meanwhile, Master George, who haven't been near his old friend all these years, he can come down fast enough when the reverend's got the ball at his feet again; and there were the two of them at the Flint House, inquiring after Jasper Musk, said to be at death's door at the very moment he was setting fire to the church."
"You may well say that, miss, for it was the second time he'd done it; and the reverend had known, all these years, and that must've been Jasper's hat he flung into the first fire when Tom Ivey come, puttun two an' two together. What make that worse, it seem old Jasper used to say he hoped to live to see the new church consecrated; and some say he'd smile as he said it; but now we know what he meant. And he used to limp up and down his room, for practice, when even the doctor thought he couldn't set foot to the ground; for the servant girl heard him at it. Yes, Miss Gwynneth, he was deep and strong and cruel, like the sea, was Jasper; that's what the bishop said himself, for I heard him; but I will say this for him, he asked no more quarter than he gave. Tom Ivey heard his last words through the skylight, and they aren't fit for a young lady like you to hear, but they were a man's words whatever else they were. The worst is that the dear old reverend could've squeezed through himself if only he'd have let Jasper slip; but that he wouldn't; so they both went through with the ceiling and were killed."
"For his enemy!" whispered Gwynneth, an unearthly radiance in her poor hard eyes.
"Yes, for the man that burnt the church down twice, and deserved to burn himself; that was the worst of it."
The listener's lips were consistently compressed, but at this they parted again.
"Oh, no, it was the best. It was the best. A great death, a glorious death!" And the pale thin face was white-hot with a pride which consumed all else.
"The bishop said his life was greater still. You should ha' heard his sermon, out here, at the open grave, when it was all over. There never was such a funeral in the countryside before, and there never will be another like it. The place was packed. I stood where you are standing now, miss. I was one o' the bearers; and Ivey, Mellis, and Jones the schoolmaster, they were the other three. Then you should have seen the clergy; there was a rare procession of the clergy from all round; the Reverend Scrope from Burton Mills, the Reverend Preston from Linkworth, and Canon Wilders, and a lot more. But the bishop was in all his toggery, and I never see a man look so fine; he's little and he's lame, but the face he preached with, across this here open grave, you'd have said that belonged to some old giant. And what a sermon! That didn't make us cry; that dried our tears, an' made us want to build churches and be killed ourselves. You might guess the text: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.' I kept waitun for him to point out that Musk was not the reverend's friend, but his worst enemy; but he never did. I would have done; otherwise, he said just what I would like to have said myself, let alone the one thing that took the whole lot of us by surprise. And I tell you, Miss Gwynneth, the place was right black with people; not only in the churchyard, but across the fence in the medder as well; there was hardly a blade o' grass to be seen."
"What was the surprise, Mr. Fuller?"
"He'd made up his mind to resign the living! He had told his lordship. He meant to resign next night—I can't for the life of me think why!"
But Gwynneth could; and, with the second sight begotten of her love, read the dead man even in his grave, divining immediately some of the very reasons which he had given to the bishop in his last hours. She was never to divine them all.
Meanwhile the saddler, having imparted a satisfactory amount of information, was beginning to look for some return in kind, and supposed Miss Gwynneth would be going to the hall. No, they were all from home; indeed, Gwynneth had waited for that. Yet she made her answer with a candid look, the prelude to a gratuitous admission.
"I am going on to the Flint House," said she.
"Well, there!" cried Fuller, "if I hadn't forgot to tell you where Musk lie! He don't lie here, miss; he left it that he would go to Lakenhall cemetery, in onconsecrated ground, some say. And Mrs. Musk—you won't have heard it—but she's fair lost her know, poor thing!"
"Yes, I had heard. Poor thing, indeed! Yet in her case it seems almost merciful. But I am not going to see Mrs. Musk."
"Then haven't you heard about little Georgie? That's a grand thing, that! There's a lady in London (that's the only part I don't like), some young widder with none of her own, that's going to adopt him instead."
"I know that, too," said Gwynneth, flushing slightly as she smiled. "The lady is a friend of mine; she heard of Georgie through me. We were in a hospital together, but now we have taken a flat—for I am going to live with her too. And it is for Georgie I am come to-day."
Her companion had served her purpose; but would not go; and a hint might betray that which had obviously never entered the saddler's head. So Gwynneth looked her last upon her own heart's grave with the same pale face and the same unbending carriage; but the bright eyes were softer now, though radiant still with a heavenly pride. So his ashes exalted her as his living presence; so his undying soul still strengthened hers.
It was a pale February day, the grass very green, a subtle gloss of life upon the bough; but it was man's handiwork that appealed to Gwynneth; and all at once an astounding fact forced itself upon her vision and understanding. The church was almost exactly as she had seen it last. The east end was the worst; the roof was not begun. It was just as it had been six months before; and only the work of the hireling had perished after all; that of the self-taught mason, the pariah, the penitent, still endured as an oblation and a sacrifice for his sins, and as a monument to the man for all time. Gwynneth could have gone down on her knees in thanksgiving for this miracle; as it was she saw his resting-place but dimly for the last time. At that moment the starling which had entertained him in life began a gossip in the elderbush at his head; a jealous sparrow poured abuse from every tree; and so she left him, at rest where he never rested, on the field where that rest had been won.
A married Musk with many children, one of the sons who had quarrelled with their father, had already established himself and family in the Flint House. He had thankfully accepted Gwynneth's proposal, made, however, in Nurse Ella's name; and Georgie was ready when Gwynneth called for the second time on her way back from the church. He was also in tremendous spirits, leaping upon his lady like a wild beast, and, later, roaring his farewells through the fly-window, as they drove away towards a watery sunset, Gwynneth sitting far back on the deeper seat She let him shout till he was tired; by that time she was mistress of herself once more, and the dusk was such as to destroy all present evidence of another character. So at last she could take him on her knee.
"And are you glad to come away with Gwynneth, darling?"
"I should think I are; jolly glad; but I thought there was anunner lady too?"
"We shall find her where we are going. Do you know where we are going, Georgie?"
"Course I do. We're goin' to London to see the Queen. I wish we would soon be there!"
"So we shall, Georgie."
"In a minute?"
"No, not in a minute; we have to go in the train first. Have you ever seen a real train, Georgie?"
"No, never. I know I haven't," Georgie averred. "You are kind to take me in one! I do love you, I say!"
"Do you, darling?"
"Yes, really. I love you bestest in the world. I know I do!"
They were entering Lakenhall, and it was quite dark in the fly; but now Georgie knew that Gwynneth was crying, for she was kissing him at the same time, and as he never had been kissed before.
"And you always will, Georgie—you always will?"
"Course I will," said Georgie, gaily.
"And go to school when Gwynneth sends you, and turn into a great strong man, and be good to poor Gwynneth then?"
"Gooder'n all the world," said Georgie.
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