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And while he knelt the situation was developing, with unforeseen and truly merciful rapidity, in an utterly unsuspected quarter; thus an aggressive knock at the inner door came in a sense as an answer to the prayer it interrupted.
The rectory servants consisted at this time of a small but entire family employed wholesale out of pure philanthropy. And this was the mother, red-hot in her cheap crape, to say that she had heard everything—could not help hearing—and that house was no longer any place for respectable women and an honest lad—no, not if they had to sleep in the fields. So the lad had got their boxes on a barrow, but he would bring it back. And they would go, all of them, to Lakenhall Union, sooner than stay another hour in that house of shame.
Mr. Carlton produced his cash-box without a word, and counted out a month's wages for each in addition to arrears. The poor woman made a gallant stand against the favour, but, submitting, returned to her kitchen of her own accord, and to her master's study in a quarter of an hour, to tell him she had laid the table, and there was a wire cover over the meat.
"And may God forgive you, sir!" cried she at parting. "I couldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard it from your own lips with my own ears!"
There was much that Carlton himself could not believe. He sat half stupefied in his deserted rectory, like a man marooned, his one acute sensation that of his sudden solitude. What was so hard to realize was that the people knew! that the whole parish would know that night, and his own family next week, and the whole world before many days. He was well aware of the certain consequences of this scandal and its disclosure; he had faced them only too often during the nightmare of the past week, imagining some, ascertaining others. What seemed so incredible was that he had made the disclosure himself, that the very father had not suspected him to the end!
The last reflection convulsed him with self-contempt. What a hypocrite he must be! What an unconscious hypocrite, the worst kind of all!
Here he was eating his supper; he had no recollection of coming to the table; yet, now that he had caught himself, the food did not choke him, he was not sick with shame; he only despised himself—and went on.
It was dusk. He must have lit the lamp himself; as he lifted it from the table, having risen, he caught sight of its reflection and his own in the overmantel, and set the lamp upon the chimneypiece, and by its light had a better look at himself than he could remember having taken in his life before. There was no vanity in the man; he was studying his face out of sheer curiosity, from a new and quite impersonal point of view, as that of an enormous hypocrite and voluptuary.
Human nature was very strange: he himself would never have suspected such a face. The forehead was so broad and high, the deep-set eyes so steadfast, and yet so fervid! They were the eyes of a zealot, but no visionary: wisdom and understanding were in that bulge of the brow over each. But the evil writing is lower down, unless you look for positive crime or madness; yet these nostrils were sensitive, not sensual; and the mouth, yes, the mouth showed between the short brown beard and the heavy brown moustache; but what it showed was its strength. No; neither weakness nor wickedness were there; even Robert Carlton admitted that. But to be strong, and yet to fall; to mean well, and do evil; to look one thing, and to be another: all that was to embody a type for which he himself had ever entertained an unbridled loathing and contempt.
He carried the lamp to his study, and as he entered from within there was a knock at the outer door. One was waiting to see the rector, one who had waited and knocked there oftener than any other in the parish.
Carlton drew back, and the impulse of flight was strong upon him for the first time. It needed all his will to shut the inner door behind him, and to cry with any firmness, "Is that George Mellis?"
In response there burst into the room a lad in knickerbockers, broad-shouldered, muscular, yet smooth-faced, and mild-eyed all his nineteen years; but this was the supreme moment of them all; and his woman's eyes were on fire as he planted himself before the rector and his lamp, pale as ashes in its rays.
"Is it true?" he gasped. "Is it true?"
This lad was Carlton's chief disciple, his admirer, his imitator, his enthusiastic champion and defender; his right hand in all good works; nay more, his acolyte, his lieutenant of the sanctuary; and, before a broad chest so agitated, and innocent eyes so wild, the culprit's courage failed him at last, so that the truth clove to his tongue.
"It's all over the village," the lad continued in gasps. "You know what I mean. They're all saying it. They say you've admitted it; for God's sake say you haven't! Only deny it, and I'll go back and cram their lies down their throats!"
But by this Mr. Carlton had recovered himself, and was looking his last upon the anxious eager face of the lad who had loved and honoured him: his final pang was to see the eagerness growing, the anxiety lessening, his look misunderstood. And this time the admission was halt and hoarse.
What followed was also different; for, with scarcely a moment's interval, young Mellis burst into tears like the overgrown child that he was, and, flinging himself into the rector's chair, sobbed there unrestrainedly with his smooth face in his strong red hands. Carlton watched him by a prolonged effort of the will; he would shirk no part of his punishment; and no part to come could hurt much more than this. His fixed eyes were waiting for the boy's swimming ones when at length the latter could look up.
"You, of all men!" whispered Mellis. "You who have kept us all straight—me for one. Why, the very thought of you has helped me to resist things! You, with your religion: no more religion for me!"
At that the other broke out; his religion he could still defend; or thought he could, until he came to try, and his own unworthiness slowly strangled the words in his throat.
"Say what you like," said Mellis; "it was you brought me to church; it's you who turn me away; and I'll go to no other after yours. Only to think——"
And he plunged into puerile reminiscences of their religious life in common, quoting extreme points in the rich ritual in which he had been privileged to assist, as though they aggravated the case, and made it more incredible than it was already.
"If our Lord Himself——"
It did not need the rector's finger to check that blasphemy; but the thing was said; the thought was there.
"Yes; better go," said Carlton, as the lad leapt up. "Go; and let no one else come near me who ever believed in me; for I can better face my bitterest enemies. Yet you—you must be one of them! After her own father, no man should hate me more!"
And there was a new pain in his voice, a new agony of remorse, as memory stabbed him in a fresh place. But the boy shook his head, and hung it with a blush.
"You think I cared for her," he said. "I thought so, too, until she went away. I should have cared more then! It troubled me for a time; but I got over it; and then I knew I was too young for all that. Besides, she never looked at me after you came; that's another thing I see now; and I know I ran less after her. Yes, I was too young to love a woman," cried this village lad, "but I wasn't too old to love you, and look up to you, and follow you in all you did. I tell you the honest truth, Mr. Carlton," and his great eyes flashed their last reproach: "I'd have died for you, sir, I would! And I'd die now—thankfully—if it could make you the man I thought you were!"
This interview left Carlton's mind more a blank than ever. It might have been an hour later, or it might have been in ten minutes, that the thought occurred to him—if his dearest disciple felt thus, what must the enemy feel? And he was a man with enemies enough in the parish, having followed the old order of country parson, and that with more vigour than diplomacy. In eighteen months his reforms had been manifold and drastic beyond discretion. It is true that his preaching had won him more followers than his priestcraft had turned away. Yet a more acute ecclesiastic would have tapped the wedge instead of hammering it; the consummate priest would have condescended further in the direction of a more immediate and a wider popularity. Carlton had gone his own way, consulting none, attracting many, offending not a few. And he expected the speedy settlement of many a score.
Nor had he long to wait. Lamp in hand, he was locking up the house as mechanically as he had fed his body; but one thing had pricked him in the performance, and he tingled still between gratitude and fresh grief. He had a Scotch collie, Glen by name, a noble dog, that was for ever at its master's heels. So, during any service, the chain was a necessary evil; but straight from his vestry, in cassock and biretta, the rector would march to his backyard to release the dog. To-day he had forgotten; nor was it till the master's round brought him to the back premises that the poor beast barked itself into notice. Then, indeed, the dazed man realized that his outer ear had been calmly listening to the barking for some time; and, with a small thing to be sorry for again, and one friend behind him, he continued his round, a sentient being once more.
It was upstairs that the dog barked afresh, causing Carlton to snatch his head from the basin of cold water in which he had sought to assuage its fever, and to go over to his open window, towel in hand. No sooner had he reached it than he started back, and stood very still with the water dripping from his beard. When he did dry his face it was as though he wiped all colour from it too. And it was six feet of quivering clay that returned on tip-toe to that open window.
The new moon was setting behind the trees towards Linkworth; there was no need of its meagre light. Lanterns, bright lanterns, were closing in upon the rectory: at first the unhappy man had seen lanterns only, swinging close to the ground, swilling the lawn with light. Stealthy legs, knee-deep in this light, he remembered after his recoil. But not till he had driven himself back to the window did he see the set faces, or realize the fury of his people, kindled against him by his own confession of his own guilt.
When he saw this his nerve went, and he stood with clasped hands, the perspiration bursting from his skin. And the lanterns shook out into a chain along the edge of the lawn, and were held up to search the face of the house, all as yet without a word.
"That's his room," whispered one at last; "that—where the light is!"
It was the voice of the schoolmaster, himself a churchwarden, and withal an honest creature who was merely as many things as possible to as many men. His part had been a little difficult lately. "This has simplified it," thought the rector; and the twinge of bitterness did him good.
He was a man again for one moment; the next, "He's in his room," cried another, aloud; "that's him standing at the window!"
And there burst forth a howl of execration, that rose to a yell as the delinquent disappeared and in his panic put out the light.
"Ah, you skunk!"
They were the better names; each shot his own, and capped the last; the schoolmaster, mad with excitement, blaspheming with the best.
"Come down out of that, ye devil!"
"Do you show yourself, you cur!"
And this command Robert Carlton obeyed, his manhood rising yet again. But no sooner was he at the window than both panes crashed to powder over his head, and the surrounding bricks rang with the volley. The clergyman had a scratch from the falling glass, and a stone stung him on the hand. The blood bubbled in his veins.
"Cowards and curs yourselves!" he shouted down, shaking his fists at the crowd; and in ten seconds he was at the front door, with a couple of walking-sticks snatched from the stand. But he himself had turned the key and shot the bolt within the last few minutes, and this gave him time to think.
"Quiet, sir—quiet!" he cried to the dog at his heels. "They've right on their side," he groaned, "after all! Quiet, old doggie; come back; it's all deserved. And it's only the beginning of what we've got to bear!"
So he bore it, sitting on the stairs, where no window overlooked him, and soothing Glen with one hand, restraining him with the other; and yet, for his sin, despising his forbearance, even while he continued telling himself it was his duty to forbear.
And now breaking glass and barking dog made night a nightmare in the dark and empty house: the infuriated villagers were smashing the rectory windows one by one. Where the blind was up, the glass spread, and the stone flew far into the room; where the blind was down, stone and glass rattled against it, and fell in one heap with one clatter. So dining-room and drawing-room were wrecked in turn, at short range, with the heaviest available metal, and much interior damage. And still the master of the house sat immovable within, nodding grimly at each crash; wincing more at the curses; and once releasing the dog to stop his ears altogether.
It was no use; curiosity compelled him to listen; he was forbidden to shirk one stripe. And that was a communicant, that cursing demon; this was the schoolmaster, yelling like one of his own boys; the other Palmer, of the Plough and Harrow, a very old enemy, hoarse as a crow with drink and triumph. Young Cubitt, again, who cheered each crash, was one of the disaffected; but till to-night most of this howling mob had been his flock. Now all the good work was undone, was stultified, the good seed poisoned in the ground; and not for the first, and not for the fiftieth time that week, the confessed rake asked himself whether more harm than good would not come of his confession.
Meanwhile, of all the voices that he heard and could distinguish, only one diverted his self-contempt for an instant. This was the soft, passionless voice of a young gentleman, evidently not himself engaged in the stone-throwing, pointing out panes still to break to those who were. This was the voice of Sidney Gleed.
The thing had gone on for ten minutes or more when the outcry altered in character: an interruption had occurred: was it the police? No, the rector of the parish was too well acquainted with the character of its solitary constable. He would come up when all was over. Then who could this be?
The shower of stones had ceased as suddenly as it had begun. New oaths were flying in a new direction, and a voice hitherto unheard was heaping abuse on the abusers; with a strange thrill, the clergyman recognised it as the voice of Tom Ivey, the young contractor who was building the transepts; and he could remain no longer on the stairs. Stealing into the drawing-room, he stumbled across a crackling drift of glass, and, unnoticed now, stood in the wrecked bow-window, with the fresh air upon his face once more.
Lanterns were skipping right and left, their erratic rays giving momentary glimpses of a stalwart figure in pursuit, a stick whirling about his ears, and resounding on the backs and shoulders of the retreating rabble. Some stayed to stone the new foe before they ran; and one, Palmer the publican, set his lantern on the gravel and squared up in style. Robert Carlton never saw what followed; for at this moment his maddened dog, which had been tearing about the house in search of an outlet, bounded past him through the shattered window; and, when the rout was complete, the inn-keeper's lantern was a solitary star in the nether darkness. Then the gate clattered, a swinging step approached, and Tom Ivey caught up the lantern in his stride.
Carlton sprang through the window to meet him, every other emotion sunk for the moment in one of overflowing gratitude.
"Tom," he cried, "how can I thank you——"
"Keep your thanks to yourself."
"Don't 'Tom' me! Keep your distance too. Do you think I haven't heard about it? Do you think I'd lift a finger for you—let alone a stick? No, sir, I'd liefer take that to your own back; but I fare to mind when the Rector of Long Stow was a good man, who didn't preach too tall, but acted up to what he did preach; and I won't see the house he lived in wrecked and ruined because a blackguard's followed him."
"I am all that," said Mr. Carlton. "Go on!"
The other stared, not so much disarmed as confounded.
"I'm sorry to open so wide, and you know I'm sorry," he at length burst out. "'Tain't for me to call you over, sir, and I won't tell you no more lies. I couldn't bear to see them snarling curs setting on you the moment you was down, and that's the truth! But it wasn't what I come back to say," continued Ivey doggedly. "I come back to say you can get another party to go on with that there building, for I won't work no more for you. The plant's yours; you found that for the job; you can find more men. I throw up the contract: take the law of me if you like."
Robert Carlton was back in his study. It was the one front room which had escaped inviolate; the open lattice had saved it; not a pebble added to the old disorder. The rector sighed relief as he held up the lamp on entering; then he shot the rubbish out of the big arm-chair, and himself lay back in it like the dead. A bloody smear, where the glass had grazed his cheek, enhanced his pallor; his eyes were closed; no muscle moved. And yet his wits clung to him like wolves, till presently the white brow wrinkled, the heavy eyelids twitched.
"May I come in, reverend?" said the saddler's voice.
Carlton assented with a sigh, but did not raise himself to greet the visitor, who came in mopping his forehead, reversed the chair at the writing table, and seated himself with ominous deliberation. Then he mopped again, and was slow to speak; but his scornful expression prepared the clergyman for more of that which he was resolved to bear.
"Pharisees!" cried Fuller at last. "Humbugs and hypocrites!"
The words were precisely those which Robert Carlton expected and must endure, but against the plural number he felt bound to protest. "We are not all alike, Mr. Fuller," he said; "thank God, I am but one out of many thousands."
"You?" cried the saddler. "Gord love yer, reverend, did you think I meant you? No, sir, it's the stupid fools and canting cowards I mean, that take and hit a man as soon as ever he's down; not the man they hit."
Mr. Carlton sat silent, astounded, and tingling between pain and pleasure. He fancied he had run through the gamut of the emotions, but here was a new one that he feared to dissect.
"Not the man," proceeded the saddler in raised tones—"not the man who is worth the rest of the parish put together—saint or sinner—guilty or innocent!"
Yes, it was pleasure! It was pleasure, acute and lawless, wicked, ungovernable, and yet to be governed. To have one man's sympathy, how sweet it was, but how shameful in a guilty heart that would be contrite too! It had brought a colour to his face, a light to his eyes; ere the one had faded, and the other failed, Robert Carlton's will had frozen that tiny rill of comfort at its fount.
"You mustn't say that," was his belated reply; but it came curt and cold enough to please himself.
"But I do say it," cried old Fuller, "and I will say it, and I won't say a word more than I mean. Let there be no mistake between us, reverend: I don't deny I felt what is felt when first I heard; but when I come to think of it, that fared to break my heart more'n to make that boil; and when I thought a bit deeper, I see how easy that is to make bad worse. Not as it ain't right bad; but that wasn't for us to make it worse. So it was me fetched Tom Ivey. And now he tells me what he ups and says himself when all was over. 'Gord love yer, Tom,' says I, 'you'll be ashamed of that when you're a man of my experience! You forget the good our reverend's been doing amongst us all this time, and you think only o' this here evil. I'll go up,' says I, 'and I'll show him there's one fair-minded, level-headed man o' the world in this here hotbed o' fools and Pharisees.'"
"But Tom was right, and you were wrong."
"Don't tell me, reverend," said the saddler, edging his chair nearer to the long limp figure under the lamp. "You can't undo the good you've once done, not if you try. Leave religion out of it, and look at all you've done for the poor: look at the coal club, and the book club, and the dispensary, and the Young Man's——"
"Unhappily, Fuller, all this is beside the question."
And the cold tone was no longer put on; neither did it cover an emotion which called for conscientious suppression; for these officious sallies only fretted the spirit they were intended to soothe.
"Well, then," rejoined Fuller, "if you prefer it, and for the sake of argument, look at a poor old feller like me. What should I ha' done without you, reverend? I don't come to church, yet you take no offence when I tell you why, but you argue the point like a rare 'un, and you lend me the paper just the same. The Reverend Jackson wouldn't ha' done it, though I durs'n't stay away in his day; he'd have stopped my livelihood in a week. So don't you fare to make yourself out worse than you are, reverend; you've done wrong, I allow, but so did Solomon, and so did David; and weren't so quick to own up to it, either! Like them, you've done good, too, and plenty of it, and that sha'n't be forgotten if I can help it. As for the poor young thing that's gone——"
"Don't name her, I beg!"
"Very well, sir, I won't. I'm as sorry as the rest o' the parish; but we shouldn't be unfair because we're sorry. They may say what they like, but a man of my experience knows that nine times out of ten the woman's more to blame——"
"Out of my house!"
Carlton had leapt to his feet, was standing at his full height for the first time that night, and pointing sternly to the door. His face was white with passion. The saddler's jaw dropped.
"What, sir?" he gasped.
"Out of my sight—this instant!"
"For daring to say one half of what you have said! It's my own fault. I've spoilt you; but out you go."
Fuller rose slowly, amazed, bewildered, and mortified to the quick. He was a kind-hearted man, but he had all the superior peasant's obstinacy and self-conceit: the one had helped to bring him to the clergyman's side, the other to wag his tongue. Yet his sympathy was genuine enough; and the theory, of which the bare hint had spilled vials of wrath upon his head, was in fact his profound conviction. Smarting vanity, however, was the absorbing sensation of the moment. And for the next hour the saddler could have returned every few minutes with some fresh retort; but in the moment of humiliation he could not rise above a grumble:
"I might as well have thrown stones with the rest!"
"Better," the clergyman cried after him. "You had a right to punish me; to pity and excuse me you had none. Least of all——"
He broke off, and stood at his door till the quick steps stopped, and the gate clattered, and the steps died away. The night was dark, and this end of the village already very still: the Plough and Harrow was nearer the other. The wind had not fallen; a murmur of very distant thunder came with it from the west. Nearer home a peewit called, and Robert Carlton caught himself wondering whether there would be rain before morning.
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