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At midnight he was still alone, and the slow torture of his own thoughts was still a relief. As the dining-room clock struck—he noted its preservation—and the thin strokes floated through those broken windows and in at that of the study, he gave up listening for the next step. His privacy seemed secure at last. He could abandon his spirit to its proper torments; he could enter upon another night in hell. Yet, even now, the worst was over, and there would be no more nights of secret grief, secret remorse, secret shame. He had confessed his sin, and thereby earned his right to suffer. No more to hide! No more deceit! He could not realize it yet; he only knew that his heart was lighter already. He felt ashamed of the relief.
Yet another night came back to him as he paced his floor: a last year's night when the full moon shone through ragged trees. It also had been worse than this: it was the inner life that lay in ruins then. He remembered pacing till sunrise as he was pacing now: such a still night but for that; one had but to stand and listen to hear the very fall of the leaf. He remembered thus standing, there at the door, in the moonlight, and a line that had buzzed in his head as he listened.
"And yet God has not said a word!"
God had spoken now! And the man was glad.
Glad! He almost revelled in his disgrace; it produced in him unexpected sensations—the sensations of the debtor who begins to pay. Here was an extreme instance of the things that are worse to dream of than to endure. He felt less ignominious in the hour of his public ignominy than in all these months of secret shame. He was living a single life once more. The wind roamed at will through the damaged house as through the ribs of a wreck; and its ruined master drew himself up, and his stride quickened with his blood. He was no longer lording it in his pulpit, the popular preacher of the countryside, drawing the devout from half a dozen parishes, a revelation to the rustic mind, a conscious libertine all the while, with a tongue of gold and a heart of lead. More than all, he was no longer the one to sit secure, in loathsome immunity, in sickening esteem: he, the man! The woman had suffered; it was his turn now. Woman? The poor child . . . the poor, dead, murdered child . . . Well! the wages of his sin would be worse than death; they were worse already. And again the man was glad; but his momentary and strange exultation had ended in an agony.
The poor, poor girl . . .
No; nothing was too bad for him—not even the one thing that he would feel more than all the rest in bulk. He put his mind on that one thing. He dwelt upon it, wilfully, not in conscious self-pity, but as one eager to meet his punishment half-way, to shirk none of it. The attitude was characteristic. The sacrificial spirit informed the man. In another age and another Church he had done barbaric violence to his own flesh in the name of mortification. Living in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a mere Anglican, he was content to play tricks with a fine constitution in Lent.
"I will look my last upon it," he said aloud: "it would be insulting God and man to attempt to take another service after this; I have held my last, and laid my last stone. Let me see what I have sown for others to reap."
And he picked his way through the darkness to the church.
The path intersected a narrow meadow with the hay newly cut, and lying in tussocks under the stars; a light fence divided this reef of glebe from the churchyard; and, just within the latter, a lean-to shed faced the scaffolding of the north transept, its back against the fence. The shed was flimsy and small, but it had come out of the rector's pocket; the transepts themselves were to be his gift, because the living was too good for a celibate priest, and it was his sermons that had made the church too small. So he had paid for everything, even to the mason's tools inside the shed, because Tom Ivey had never had a contract before and lacked capital. And the out-door interest of the building had formed a healthy complement to the engrossing affairs of the sanctuary; and, indeed, they had developed side by side. Perhaps the material changes had proved the more absorbing to one who threw himself headlong into whatsoever he undertook. Of late, especially, it had been remarked that the reverend was taking quite an extraordinary part in these proceedings: cultivating a knack he had of carving in stone; neglecting cottages for his mason's shed; and tiring himself out by day like a man who dreads the night. How he had dreaded it none had known, but now all might guess.
Yet he had loved his work for its own sake, not merely as a distraction from gnawing thoughts; there was in him something of the elemental artist: the making of anything was his passionate delight. And now the scene of his industry inflicted a pang so keen that he forgot to appreciate it as part of his deserts; and, for the moment, priest and sinner disappeared in the grieving artist, bidding good-bye not only to his studio, but to art itself. It was very dark; the place was strewn with uncut boulders, poles, barrows, heaps of rubble; but he knew his way through the litter, and, in the double darkness of the shed, could lay his hand on anything he chose. He took something down from a shelf. It was a gargoyle of his own making, meant for the vestry door in the south transept. He stood with it in both hands, and his thumbs felt the eyes and his palms the cheeks, at first as gently as though the stone were flesh, then suddenly with all his strength, as if to crush the grotesque head to powder. It was not a useful thing: no water could spout from the sham mouth which he had wrought with loving pains. It was only his idea for finishing off the label moulding of the vestry door; it was only something he had made himself—for others to throw away, or to keep and show as the handiwork of the immoral rector of Long Stow. He restored it to his place; and retraced his sure steps through the rubbish, artist no more. Good-bye to that!
He crossed over to the church, went round to the porch, and entered by the only door in use during the alterations. Eighteen months ago he would have found it locked. It was he who had opened the House of God to all comers at all hours, and made every sitting free. He stole up the aisle as one seeing in the dark. His feet fell softly on the matting, where in early days they had clattered on bare flags, and yet more softly when they had mounted a step without stumbling. The matting in the aisle was his addition, the rich carpet in the chancel was his gift. All his innovations had not provoked dissension. Presently he lit a lamp, a Syrian treasure, highly wrought, that hung over the lectern: he had bought it at Damascus, years before, for his church when he should have one. Yes; he had given freely to God's House, to make it also the House Beautiful, though he took no trouble to adorn his own.
And this was to be the end! For events could take but one course now: a complaint to the bishop (all the parish would sign it), a summons to the palace, a trial at the consistory court; suspension certainly; deprivation, perhaps; he had been at some pains to inform himself on the subject. The bishop would be sore. He had taken such an interest in everything at the confirmation, his sympathy had been so full and unexpected, his approval so stimulating, so hearty and frank! Carlton was ashamed of thinking of his bishop instead of praying to God upon his knees. He longed to kneel and pray, for the last time, there at the table which he chose to call the altar, but which he had found ugly and bare, and was leaving richly laden and richly hung. In the small and distant light of the lectern lamp he stood gazing at the damask hangings, the green frontal, the silver candlesticks, the flowers from his own garden—the flowers he grew for this. He longed to kneel, but could not. He could not pray. He could not weep. His heart was a grave, and the grave filled in and the weight of the earth upon his spirit. He had been quite wrong an hour ago. This was the blackest hour of all. To have done and given so much, and to lose it all! To have set his whole soul for years towards the light, to have striven so to turn the souls of others; and to be thrust into outer darkness for one sin!
This wave of bitterness, of blind rebellion and human egotism, bore him out of his church, for the last time, in a passion of defiance and self-defence: a sudden and deplorable change in such a man at such an hour. Happily, it was short-lived. His angry stride brought him tripping into fresh earth, and he started back, aghast at his egotism, stunned afresh by his sin, and overwhelmed by such a flood of penitence and remorse as even he had not endured before. Under his eyes the new grave was growing clearer in the starlight, and not less cruel, and not less cold. An hour later he was still kneeling over it, and his tears had not ceased to flow.
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