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Witnesses have differed as to the exact hour at which the inhabitants of Long Stow, sound asleep after excitement enough for one night, were frightened from their beds by a sudden and violent ringing of the church bells. The midsummer night was as dark as ever, and so it remained or seemed to remain for a considerable time. It cannot have been more than two o'clock.
A few minutes before the alarm, Robert Carlton had forced himself to his feet, to be struck with fresh shame at two apparent evidences of the mood in which he had quitted the church. He had left the door wide open and the church lit up. Every stone showed on the path, in the stream of light poured upon it from the porch, into which, however, it was impossible to see from where the rector stood. The porch projected from the south side, while the new grave was directly opposite the west window, every square of which stood out against the glare within. An instant's reflection showed Carlton that this could not be the light which he had left; he went to see what it was. A sudden heat upon his face broke the truth to him in the porch, and in a stride he knew the worst. A little fire was raging in the church: two or three pews were in flames.
Robert Carlton stood inactive for a score of seconds. It looked the kind of fire that a vigorous man might have beaten out with his coat. Yet one in the full vigour of his manhood stood thinking a score of thoughts while the flames bit through the varnish into the wood. Nor was this the fascination of horror: the fire looked such a little fire at the first glance. It was rather the obsession of an astounding puzzle: what in the world could have caused a fire at all?
A guilty feeling came in answer: he must have dropped the match with which he lit that lamp. The feeling escaped in the simultaneous discovery that the lamp in question had been extinguished, but that it and others were slightly awry, and one or two still swaying on their chains, as though all the lamps had been rudely meddled with. And now horror came. The flames were spreading with curious facility, shooting their blue tongues over the woodwork before the yellow fangs took hold, but all so quickly that the burning area seemed to have doubled itself in these few seconds, while from the heart of it there came the crisp crackle of quicker fuel, culminating in a blaze as though a rick had caught; and, sure enough, as these flames leapt high, their source was revealed in a pile of the rector's new straw hassocks.
The puzzle was one no more: plainer work of incendiary was never seen. Through the smoke now swinging in black coils to the roof, the east window showed in holes made within the last hour, obviously to promote the draught that blew in Carlton's face as he rushed back to the open door and laid hold of all the bell-ropes at once.
The bells were small and jangling; a new peal, and a tower to hang them in, were among the things which the rector had said that he would have some day. But as the old bells clanged for the last time, in the dead of that summer night, they were heard at Linkworth, a mile and a half across the wind, but down the wind they rang up half Bedingfield, which is three good miles from Long Stow.
The first inhabitant to reach the scene was the fleet and sturdy Tom Ivey, whose mother kept the post-office in the middle of the village; as he ran the ringing stopped, and the first glass smashed with the heat, flame and smoke making a mouthpiece of the mullioned window in the north wall as Tom dashed up by the short cut through the rectory garden. He was greatly alarmed at finding no one in the churchyard, and rushed into the church with the full expectation of discovering the ringer senseless at his post. What he did find was the rector, standing within the church, to windward of the conflagration, his back to the door, absorbed, as it seemed, in a perfectly passive contemplation of the fire.
"Mr. Carlton!" shouted Tom.
Before replying, the clergyman spun something into the heart of the flames; in the thickening smoke it was impossible to see what; but the same second he was round upon his heel, coughing and choking, his face black, his eyes fires themselves, purpose and determination in every limb.
"Tom? Thank God it's you! We must get this under. Out of it before we suffocate!" And with his own rush he carried the builder into the open air.
"What's done it, sir?"
"Done it? Wait till we've undone it! We can if we work together. Ah! here are more of you. Buckets, men—buckets!" cried Carlton, rushing to meet a half-dressed medley at the gate, and commanding them as though there had been no other meeting earlier in the night. "You who live near, run for your own; the rest into my kitchen and find what you can; buckets are the thing! One of you pump; the rest form line from my well to the church, and keep passing along. You see to it, Mr. Jones!"
And for a while the schoolmaster and churchwarden, carried away as usual by his feelings and self-importance, was as busy enforcing the rector's orders as he had made himself in breaking his windows an hour or two before.
"Let one man ride or run for the Lakenhall engine; not you, Tom!" exclaimed the clergyman, seizing Ivey by the arm. "They'll be all night coming, and I can't spare you."
"I'll stay, sir."
"Water's no use to windward of a fire; it's spreading straight up the church. We want to be on the other side to stop it."
"The aisle's not afire!"
"But they couldn't get the water to us, even if we got through alive. No; where the walls are down for the transepts—that's the place. Which side's boarded strongest?"
"Both the same, sir."
"Then we'll hack through the nearest! A saw and an axe, and we'll be through by the time the first bucketful's ready for us."
And, friends again, but both unconscious of the change, they rushed together to the shed of which Robert Carlton had so lately taken leave: in the fever of the moment even that leave-taking was forgotten.
It was the north transept which faced the shed. Already the walls were a dozen feet high, but a doorway had been left. The greater gap between transept and nave was vertically boarded over within the church, and on these boards fell the rector with his axe, to make an opening for Tom's saw. They had light enough for their work. The interstices between the boards were as the red-hot strings of a colossal harp; quickly a couple were cut, and the boards beaten in; and it was as though the wind had come down a smoking chimney. The pair fell back on either side of the black stream that gushed out like water. Then cried Carlton in his voice of command:
"Look here! you stay where you are, Tom."
"With you, sir?"
"No, I must have a look; but one's enough."
"Not for me, Mr. Carlton. I follow you."
"Then you keep me where I am," said Carlton, sternly.
"All right, sir! You follow me!"
Next instant they were both through the breach, the builder first by the depth of his chest. And they stood up within, but were glad to crouch again out of the smoke. Already a dense reek hid the roof, and every moment added to the depth of that inverted sea. It was a sea of ineffectual currents, setting towards the smashed windows, the new breach, the open door, but caught and diverted and sucked into the inky whirlpool that the wind made under the roof, and escaping only by chance fits and sudden starts. On the other hand, there was still air enough to breathe within a few feet of the ground, and with water it seemed as if something might yet be done. But it was no longer a very little fire: at best the nave must be gutted now; to save roof and chancel was the utmost hope. Yet here and there the worst seemed over. The blazing hassocks were now only a glowing heap, and still the roof had not caught. As the two men crouched and watched, the flames felt the front pews with their splay blue tentacles, and the woodwork which was still untouched glistened like a human body in pain.
"You see that?" said Mr. Carlton, pointing to this moisture.
"What is it?"
"Paraffin! Look at the lamps; he's simply emptied them——"
"God knows, and may God forgive him! I have enemies enough this morning, though not more than I deserve. If only they will be my friends for one hour, for the sake of the church! Are they never coming with that water? Run and tell them a bucketful would make a difference now, but cartloads will make none in ten more minutes! And tell them what I said just now: bid them for God's sake think of nothing but the fire till we get it under."
He was thinking of nothing else himself, confident still of some measure of success, only fretting for his water. In Ivey's absence he stripped to the waist, and with his long coat essayed to beat the little flames out as they spread and leapt, the blue and yellow surf of the encroaching tide; but for one he extinguished he fanned a hundred, so he retreated before he was flayed alive. And they found him stooping near the opening, half-naked, scorched, begrimed, but not disheartened; a strange figure in the place that knew him best in vestments, if any of them thought of that.
The first man had a bucket in each hand, but had spilt freely from both in his haste. Carlton would not let him in, but received the buckets through the hole, dashed their contents over the burning pews, and returned them empty without waiting to see results. When he had time to look, a little steam was rising, but the fire raged with undiminished fury. The next comer was a boy with a brimming watering-can; but it is difficult to fling water with effect from such a vessel, and pouring was impossible in the increasing heat. Then came Tom Ivey with two more buckets.
"Keep outside," cried Carlton, taking them. "There's only work for one in here. Can't they form line as I said, and pass along instead of carrying?"
"No, sir—not enough of us for the distance."
"Not enough of you who'll put the church before the parson! That's what you mean. The parson may deserve burning alive, but the poor church has done no wrong!"
And he continued his exertions in a bitter spirit not warranted by the real circumstances, for his masterful monopoly of all danger had won some sympathy outside, and many a one who had flung a stone was running with a bucket now. More, however, stood with their hands in their pockets; for East Anglia is constitutionally phlegmatic, and not all the village had joined in the indignant excesses of the evening.
The saddler came no farther than the fence in front of his house and workshop. He was that implacable creature, the offended countryman.
George Mellis did not even see the fire; already he had shaken the dust of Long Stow from his feet for good.
Thus, of the three types, as far removed from one another as the points of an equilateral triangle, who had put in their individual word of reproach, of denunciation, and of sympathy more insufferable than either, only one was present on this lurid scene; but that one was doing the work of ten.
"That there Tom Ivey," said one of a group on the safe side of the rectory fence, "he fares all of a wash. Yet I do hear as how he come up to the rectory when he'd cleared the garden and called Carlton over somethun wonderful."
"I lay it was nothun to the calling over he had from Jasper."
"Where is Jasper?"
"Been indoors ever since: a touch of the old trouble, the missus told Jones when he called."
"That's a pity. This would've soothed his sore."
One or two observed that that fared to soothe theirs; for there was no reaction on the safe side of the fence. But the worst said in the Suffolk tongue was invariably capped by a different order of voice, which chimed in now.
"The best thing Carlton can do is to cockle up with his church. The governor'll build you a new church and find a new man to fill it. There's nobody keener on a change as it is. I should like to be there when he hears . . ."
The speaker was smoking a cigarette on a barrow wheeled from the shed. He might have been watching a display of fireworks, and one which was beginning to bore him. His unmoved eye sought change. It found the sexton hobbling in the glare.
"Hi, Busby! Come here, I want you. What the dickens do you mean by setting fire to the church?"
"Me set fire to it, Master Sidney? Me set a church afire? He! he! you allus fare to have yer laugh."
"It will be no laughing matter for you when you're run in for it, Busby."
"Go on, Master Sidney; you know better than that."
"I wish I did. They hang for arson, you know! But I say, Busby, how's the frog?"
The wizened face grew grave, but only as the screen darkens between the pictures; next instant it was alight with the ineffable joy of gratified monomania. The sexton hobbled nearer, clawing his vest.
"Oh, that croap away; that's at that now! Would 'ee like to listen, Master Sidney?"
"No, thanks, Busby; don't you undo a button," said the young gentleman, hastily. "I can hear it from where I am."
The sexton went into senile raptures.
"You can hear it? You can hear it? Do you all listen to that: he can hear it, he can hear it from where he sit. The little varmin, to croap so loud! That must be the fire. That fare to make him blink! An' Master Sidney, he can hear him from where he sit!"
The sexton hurried off to spread his triumph; but he boasted to deaf ears. There was a sudden light below the sharp horizon between black roof and slaty sky, yet no flame rose above the roof. It was as though the southern eaves had caught. Ivey rushed out of the north transept. Mr. Carlton followed, axe in hand. His chest and arms were smudged and inflamed, his blinking eyelids were burnt bare, and the sweat stood all over him in the red light leaping from the shivered windows.
"It's no use, lads!" he called to those still running with the buckets; "the boards have caught on the other side. Come and help me smash them in, and we may save the chancel yet! Every man who is a man," he shouted to the group across the fence, "come—lend a hand to save God's sanctuary!"
And he led the way with his axe, stinging to the waist in the open air, but drunk with battle and the battle's joy. And there was no more talking behind the rectory fence; not a man was left there to talk; even Sidney Gleed had dropped his cigarette to follow the inspired madman with the axe.
The south transept was a stage less advanced than the north. Carlton got upon one low wall, ran along it to that of the nave, and swung his axe into the burning wood to his right. A rent was quickly made; he leapt into the transept and improved it, his axe ringing the seconds, the muscles of his back bulging and bubbling beneath the scorched skin. Men watched him open-mouthed. It seemed incredible that such nerve, such sinew, such indomitable virility, should have hidden from their vengeance that very night.
"A ladder!" he cried. "There's one behind the shed."
The wood screen was rent, but not to the top. Below, the fire was checked, but above it still crawled east. Waiting for the ladder, Carlton employed himself in widening the gap that he had made; when it came, he had it held vertically against the eaves, left intact above the boarding, and ran up to finish his own work with the axe held short in his left hand. A couple of planks were smashed in unburnt. He stayed on the ladder to see whether the flames would leap the completed chasm, stayed until the rungs smoked under his nose. When the burning boards fell in on his left, and those on his right did not even smoulder, he returned quickly to the ground.
Throats which had groaned that night were parching for a cheer. The time was not ripe. A shrill cry came instead: the boarding upon the other side had ignited in its turn.
"Round with the ladder," cried the rector; "we'll soon have it out. We know more about it now. We'll save the chancel yet! Find another axe; we'll begin top and bottom at once."
And now the scene was changing every minute. A sky of slate had become a sky of lead. The tens who had witnessed the first stages of the fire had multiplied into hundreds. Frightened birds were twittering in the trees; frightened horses neighed in the road; every kind of vehicle but a fire-engine had been driven to the scene. Among the graves stood a tall and aged gentleman, with the top-hat of his youth crammed down to his snowy eyebrows, and an equally obsolete top-coat buttoned up to his silver whiskers, in conversation with Sidney Gleed.
"The damned rascal!" said the old gentleman. "But how the devil did it come out?"
"Musk seems to have smelt a rat, and went to him after the funeral. And he owned up as bold as brass; the servants heard him. There he goes, up the ladder again on this side. Keeps the fun to himself, don't he? Who's going to win the Leger, doctor? Shotover again?"
"Damn the Leger," said Dr. Marigold, whose sporting propensities, bad language, and good heart were further constituents in the most picturesque personality within a day's ride. "To think I should have stood at her death-bed," he said, "and would have given ten pounds to know who it was; and it's your High Church parson of all men on God's earth! The infernal blackguard deserves to have his church burnt down; but he's got some pluck, confound him."
"Sucking up," said Master Sidney: "playing to the gallery while he's got the chance."
"H'm," said the doctor; "looks to me pretty badly burnt about the back and arms. If he wasn't such a damned rascal I'd order him down."
"He's doing no good," rejoined the young cynic, "and he knows it. He's only there for effect. Look! There's the roof catching, as any fool knew it must; and here's the Lakenhall engine, in time for 'God save the Queen.'"
Dr. Marigold swore again: his good heart contained no niche for the heir to the Long Stow property. He turned his back on Sidney, his face to the sexton, who had been at his elbow for some time.
"Well, Busby, what are you bothering about?"
"The frog, doctor. That croap louder than ever."
"You infernal old humbug! Get out!"
"But that's true, doctor—that's Gospel truth. Do you stoop down and you'll hear it for yourself. Master Sidney, he heard it where he sit."
"Did he, indeed! Then he's worse than you."
"But that steal every bit I eat; that do, that do," whined the sexton. "I've tried salts, I've tried a 'metic, an' what else can I try? That fare to know such a wunnerful lot. Salts an' 'metics, not him! He look t'other way, an' hang on like grim death for the next bit o' meat. That's killin' me, doctor. That's worse nor slow poison. That steal every bite I eat."
"Well, it won't steal this," said the doctor, dispensing half-a-crown. "Now get away to bed, you old fool, and don't bother me."
And neither thanks nor entreaties would divert his eyes from the burning church again.
The antiquated doctor was one of Nature's sportsmen: his inveterate sympathies were with the losers of up-hill games and games against time; and this blackguard parson had played his like a man, only to lose it with the thunder of the fire-engine in his ears. The roof had caught at last; in a little it would be blazing from end to end; and half-a-dozen country fire-engines, and half a hundred Robert Carltons, could do no good now. Carlton came slowly enough down his ladder this time, and stood apart with his beard on his chest.
"Hard lines, hard lines!" muttered Dr. Marigold in his top-coat collar; and "Those slow fools! Those sleepy old women!" with his favourite participle in each ejaculation.
A sky of lead had turned to one of silver. Across the open uplands, beyond the conflagration, a kindlier glow was in the east. And in the broad daylight the fire reached its height with as small effect as the firemen plied their water. Nothing could check the roof. Ceiling, joists, and slates burnt up like good fuel in a good grate. Now it was a watershed of living fire; now an avalanche of red-hot ruin; now a column of smoke and sparks, rising out of blackened walls; a column unbroken by the wind, which had fallen at dawn with a little rain, the edge of a shower that had shunned Long Stow.
When the roof fell in there were few of the hundreds present who had not retreated out of harm's way. Only the helmed firemen held their ground, and two others with bare heads. Of the pair, one was standing dazed, with his beard on the rough coat thrown about him, and an ear deaf to his companion's entreaties, when the crash came and the sparks flew high and wide through rent walls and gaping windows. The sparks blackened as they fell. The first smoke lifted. And the dazed man lay upon his face, the other kneeling over him.
Dr. Marigold came running, for all his years and his long top-coat.
"Did anything hit him, Ivey?"
"Not that I saw, sir; but he fared as if he'd fainted on his feet, and when the roof went, why, so did he."
Marigold knelt also, and a thickening ring enclosed the three.
"He's rather nastily burnt, poor devil."
And the old doctor lifted a leaden wrist, felt it in a sudden hush, examined a burn upon the same arm, and looked up through eyebrows like white moustaches.
"But not dangerously, damn him!"
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