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The bishop of the diocese sat at the larger of the two desks in the palace library. It was the thirteenth of the following month, and a wet forenoon. At eleven o'clock his lordship was intent upon a sheet of unlined foolscap, with sundry notes dotted down the edge, and the rest of the leaf left blank. The bishop's sight was failing, but against glasses he had set his face. So his whiskers curled upon the paper; and the wide mouth between the whiskers was firmly compressed; and this compression lengthened a clean-shaven upper lip already unduly long. But the pose displayed a noble head covered with thin white hair, and the broad brow that was the casket of a broad mind. Seen at his desk, the massive head and shoulders suggested both strength and stature above the normal. Yet the bishop on his legs was a little man who limped. And the surprise of this discovery was not the last for an observer: for the little lame man had a dignity independent of his inches, and a majesty of mind which lost nothing, but gained in prominence, by the constant contrast of a bodily imperfection.
The bishop stood up when his visitor was announced, a minute after eleven, and supported himself with one hand while he stretched the other across his desk. Carlton took it in confusion. He had expected that shut mouth and piercing glance, but not this kindly grasp. He was invited to sit down. The man who complied was the ghost of the Rector of Long Stow, as his spiritual overseer remembered him. His whole face was as white as his forehead had been on the day of the fire. It carried more than one still whiter scar. Yet in the eyes there burnt, brighter than ever, those fires of zeal and of enthusiasm which had warmed the bishop's heart in the past, but which somewhat puzzled him now.
"I am sorry," said his lordship, "that you should have such weather for what, I am sure, must have been an undertaking for you, Mr. Carlton. You still look far from strong. Before we begin, is there nothing——"
Carlton could hear no more. There was nothing at all. He was quite himself again. And he spoke with some coolness; for the other's manner, despite his mouth and his eyes, was almost cruel in its unexpected and undue consideration. It was less than ever this man's intention to play upon the pity of high or low. He had an appeal to make before he went, but it was not an appeal for pity. Meanwhile his back stiffened and his chest filled in the intensity of his desire not to look the invalid.
"In that case," resumed the bishop, "I am glad that you have seen your way to keeping the appointment I suggested. In cases of complaint—more especially a complaint of the grave character indicated in my letter—I make it a rule to see the person complained of before taking further steps. That is to say, if he will see me; and I don't think you will regret having done so, Mr. Carlton. It may give you pain——"
Carlton jerked his hands.
"But you shall have fair play!"
And his lordship looked point-blank at the bearded man, as he had looked in his day on many a younger culprit; and his voice was the peculiar voice that generations of schoolboys had set themselves to imitate, with less success than they supposed.
Carlton bowed acknowledgment of this promise.
"In the questions which I feel compelled to put"—and the bishop glanced at his sheet of foolscap—"you will perhaps give me credit for studying your feelings as far as is possible in the painful circumstances. I shall try not to leave them more painful than I find them, Mr. Carlton. But the complaint received is a very serious one, and it is not made by one person; it has very many signatures; and it necessitates plain speaking. It is a fact, then, that you are the father of an illegitimate child born on the twentieth of last month in your own parish?"
"It is a fact, my lord."
"And the woman is dead?"
"The young girl—is dead."
The bishop's pen had begun the descent of the clean part of his page of foolscap; when the last answer was inscribed, the writer looked up, neither in astonishment nor in horror, but with the clear eye and the serene brow of the ideal judge.
"Of course," said he, "I am informed that you have already made the admission. Let there be no affectation or misunderstanding between us, on that or any other point. But as your bishop, and at least hitherto your friend, I desire to have refutation or confirmation from your own lips. You are at perfect liberty to deny me either. It will make no difference to the ultimate result. That, as you know, will be out of my hands."
"I desire to withhold nothing, my lord," said Robert Carlton in a firm voice.
"Very well. I think we understand each other. This poor young woman, I gather, was the daughter of a prominent parishioner?"
"Of a prominent resident in my parish—yes."
"But she herself was conspicuous in parochial work? Is it a fact that she played the organ in church?"
The fact was noted, the pen laid down; and the little old man, who looked only great across his desk, leant back in his chair.
"I am exceedingly anxious that you should have fair play. Let me say plainly that these are not my first inquiries into the matter. I am informed—I wish to know with what truth—that the young woman disappeared for several months before her death?"
"It is quite true."
"And returned to give birth to her child?"
"And to die!" said Carlton, in his grim determination neither to shield nor to spare himself in any of his answers. But his hands were clenched, and his white face glistened with his pain.
The bishop watched him with an eye grown mild with understanding, and a heart hot with mercy for the man who had no mercy on himself. But the tight mouth never relaxed, and the peculiar voice was unaltered when it broke the silence. It was the voice of justice, neither kind nor unkind, severe nor lenient, only grave, deliberate, matter-of-fact.
"My next question is dictated by information received, or let me say by suspicions communicated. It is a vital question; do not answer unless you like. It is, however, a question that will infallibly arise elsewhere. Were you, or were you not, privy to this poor young woman's disappearance?"
"Before God, my lord, I was not!"
"I understand that her parents had no idea where she was until the very end. Had you none either?"
"No more than they had. We were equally in the dark. We believed that she had gone to stay with a friend from the village—a young woman who had married from service, and was settled near London. It was several weeks before we discovered that her friend had never seen her."
"And all this time you did not suspect her condition?"
"Yes; then I did; but not before."
"She made no communication before she went away?"
"None whatever to me—none whatever, to my knowledge."
"And this was early in the year?"
"She left Long Stow in January, and we had no news of her till the middle of June, when strangers communicated with her father."
Again the bishop leant over his foolscap.
"Did you ever offer her marriage?" he asked abruptly.
The clear eyes looked up.
"Did you not tell her father this?"
"No; I couldn't condescend to tell him," said Carlton, flushing for the first time. "My lord, I have made no excuses. There are none to make. That was none at all."
His lordship regarded the changed face with no further change in his own.
"So you loved her," he said softly, after a pause.
"Ah! if only I had loved her more!"
"If excuse there could be . . . love . . . is some."
It was the old man murmuring, as old men will, all unknown to the bishop and the judge.
"But I want no excuses!" cried Carlton, wildly. "And let me be honest now, whatever I have been in the past; if I deceived myself and others, let me undeceive myself and you! Oh, my lord, that wasn't love! It's the bitterest thought of all, the most shameful confession of all. But love must be something better; that can't be love! It was passion, if you like; it was a passion that swept me away in the pride of my strength; but, God forgive me, it was not love!"
He hid his face in his writhing hands; and, with those wild eyes off him, the bishop could no longer swallow his compassion. The lines of his mouth relaxed, and lo, the mouth was beautiful. A tender light suffused the aged face, and behold, the face was gentle beyond belief.
"Love is everything," the old man said; "but even passion is something, in these cold days of little lives and little sins. And honesty like yours is a great deal, Robert Carlton, though your sin be as scarlet, and the Blood of our Blessed Lord alone can make you clean."
Carlton looked up swiftly, a new solicitude in his eyes.
"In me it was scarlet: not in her. She loved . . . she loved. Oh, to have loved as well—to have that to remember! . . . She thought it would spoil my life; and I never guessed it was that! But now I know, I know! It was for my sake she went away . . . poor child . . . poor mistaken heroine! She died for me, and I cannot die for her. Isn't that hard? I can't even die for her!"
His bodily weakness betrayed itself in his swimming eyes; in the night of his agony no tear had dimmed them before men. But his will was not all gone. With clenched fists, and locked jaw, and beaded brow, he fought his weakness, while the good bishop sat with his head on his hand, and closed eyes, praying for a brother in the valley of despair. When he opened his eyes, it was as though his prayer was heard; for Robert Carlton was bearing himself with a new bravery; and the incongruous unquenched fires, which had caused surprise at the outset of the interview, burnt brightly as before in the younger eyes. The old man met them with a sad, grave scrutiny. But the lines of his mouth remained relaxed. And, when he spoke again, his voice was very gentle.
"You may think that I have put you to unnecessary pain," he said, "when I give you fair warning that your case must form the subject of further proceedings in another place. But I had heard that your conduct was indefensible, root and branch, from beginning to end. Of that I am now able to form my own opinion. Yet my individual opinion can make no difference in the result, since absolute deprivation I had never contemplated in your case, and it is only the extreme penalty which rests with me. On the other hand, it will be my duty to set the ecclesiastical law in motion; and the ecclesiastical law must take its course. I take it that you do not propose to defend your case?"
A grim light flickered for an instant in Robert Carlton's eyes. "Have I defended it hitherto, my lord?"
"Then there can only be one result; and you must make up your mind, as you have doubtless already done, to suspension for a term of years. If word of mine can lessen that term, it shall be spoken in your favour, both out of consideration of the great work that you were doing, and have done, and in view of certain circumstances which our conversation has brought to light."
"But can you want me back in the Church?" cried Carlton; and his heart beat high with the question; but turned heavier than before in the interval of prudent deliberation which preceded any answer.
"I would punish no man beyond the letter of the law," declared the bishop at length, "even if it were in my power to do so. The Act debars suspended clergymen from all exercise of their divine calling and from all pecuniary enjoyment of their benefice until the term of such suspension is up. I would not, if I could, prolong the period of disability by throwing further let or hindrance in the way of an erring brother who repents him truly of his sin. I would rather say, 'Come back to your work, live down the past, and, by your example in the years that may be left you, pluck up the tares that your bad example has surely sown. Retrieve all but the irretrievable. Undo what you can.'"
Carlton's eyes melted in gratitude too great for speech, but plain as the benediction which his trembling lips left eloquently unsaid.
"That," continued the bishop, "is what I should say to you—because I think we understood each other. You have not sought to palliate your offence; nor are you the man to misconstrue the little I may have said concerning the offence itself. What is there to be said? You know well enough that I lament it as I lament its mournful result, and deplore it as I deplore the blot on the whole body of Christ's Church militant here on earth. You have committed a great sin, against humanity, against God, and against your Church; yet he would commit a greater who sought on that account to hound you from that Church for ever. Courage, brother! Pray without ceasing. Look forward, not back; and do not despair. Despair is the devil's best friend; better give way to deadly sin than to deadlier despair! Remember that you have done good work for God in days gone by; and live for that brighter day when you have purged your sin, and may be worthy to work for Him again."
"And meanwhile?" whispered Carlton, for fear of shouting it in his passionate anxiety. "Is there nothing I may do meanwhile—among my own poor people—before the tares come up?"
"If you are suspended you will be unable to hold any service; and I hardly think you will care to go among your parishioners while that is so."
"But I shall not be forbidden my own parish?"
"Nor my rectory?"
"No; so far as I am aware, at least, you retain your right to reside there; but I can hardly think that it would be expedient."
"And the church! They must have their church back again. Who is going to rebuild it for them?"
Carlton was on his feet in the last excitement. The bishop regarded him with puzzled eyebrows.
"I have heard nothing on that subject as yet; it is a little early, is it not? But I have no doubt that it will be a matter for subscription among themselves."
"Among my poor people?"
"With substantial aid, I should hope, from men of substance in the neighbourhood."
"But why should they pay?" cried Carlton, impetuously. "The church was not burnt down for my neighbours' sins, nor for the sins of the parish, but for mine alone . . . Oh, my lord, if I could but go back among my people, and be their servant, I who was too much their master before! I was not quite dependent—thank God, I had a little of my own—but every penny should be theirs!"
And the profligate priest stood upright before his bishop—his white hands clasped, his white face shining, his burning eyes moist—zealot and suppliant in one.
"You desire to spend your income——"
"No, no, my capital!"
"On the poor of your parish? I—I fail to understand."
"And I scarcely dare make you!" confessed Carlton, his full voice failing him. "I so fear your disapproval; and I could set my face against all the world, but against you never, much less after this morning . . . Oh, my lord, I have set my poor people a dastardly example, and brought cruel shame upon my cloth; for its sake and for theirs, if not for my own, let me at least leave among them a tangible sign and symbol of my true repentance. I have the chance! I have such a chance as God alone in His infinite mercy could vouchsafe to a miserable sinner. My church at Long Stow has been burnt down through me—through my sin—to punish me——"
"Are you sure of that, Mr. Carlton?"
"I know it, my lord. And I want to do what only seems to me my bounden and my obvious duty, and to do it soon."
The bishop looked enlightened but amazed.
"You would rebuild the church out of your own pocket? Is that really your wish?"
"It is my prayer!"
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