The woman in white, p.62
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       The Woman in White, p.62

           Wilkie Collins


  Once out of sight of the church, I pressed forward briskly on my way toKnowlesbury.

  The road was, for the most part, straight and level. Whenever I lookedback over it I saw the two spies steadily following me. For the greaterpart of the way they kept at a safe distance behind. But once or twicethey quickened their pace, as if with the purpose of overtaking me,then stopped, consulted together, and fell back again to their formerposition. They had some special object evidently in view, and theyseemed to be hesitating or differing about the best means ofaccomplishing it. I could not guess exactly what their design mightbe, but I felt serious doubts of reaching Knowlesbury without somemischance happening to me on the way. These doubts were realised.

  I had just entered on a lonely part of the road, with a sharp turn atsome distance ahead, and had just concluded (calculating by time) thatI must be getting near to the town, when I suddenly heard the steps ofthe men close behind me.

  Before I could look round, one of them (the man by whom I had beenfollowed in London) passed rapidly on my left side and hustled me withhis shoulder. I had been more irritated by the manner in which he andhis companion had dogged my steps all the way from Old Welmingham thanI was myself aware of, and I unfortunately pushed the fellow awaysmartly with my open hand. He instantly shouted for help. Hiscompanion, the tall man in the gamekeeper's clothes, sprang to my rightside, and the next moment the two scoundrels held me pinioned betweenthem in the middle of the road.

  The conviction that a trap had been laid for me, and the vexation ofknowing that I had fallen into it, fortunately restrained me frommaking my position still worse by an unavailing struggle with two men,one of whom would, in all probability, have been more than a match forme single-handed. I repressed the first natural movement by which Ihad attempted to shake them off, and looked about to see if there wasany person near to whom I could appeal.

  A labourer was at work in an adjoining field who must have witnessedall that had passed. I called to him to follow us to the town. Heshook his head with stolid obstinacy, and walked away in the directionof a cottage which stood back from the high-road. At the same timethe men who held me between them declared their intention of chargingme with an assault. I was cool enough and wise enough now to make noopposition. "Drop your hold of my arms," I said, "and I will go withyou to the town." The man in the gamekeeper's dress roughly refused.But the shorter man was sharp enough to look to consequences, and notto let his companion commit himself by unnecessary violence. He made asign to the other, and I walked on between them with my arms free.

  We reached the turning in the road, and there, close before us, werethe suburbs of Knowlesbury. One of the local policemen was walkingalong the path by the roadside. The men at once appealed to him. Hereplied that the magistrate was then sitting at the town-hall, andrecommended that we should appear before him immediately.

  We went on to the town-hall. The clerk made out a formal summons, andthe charge was preferred against me, with the customary exaggerationand the customary perversion of the truth on such occasions. Themagistrate (an ill-tempered man, with a sour enjoyment in the exerciseof his own power) inquired if any one on or near the road had witnessedthe assault, and, greatly to my surprise, the complainant admitted thepresence of the labourer in the field. I was enlightened, however, asto the object of the admission by the magistrate's next words. Heremanded me at once for the production of the witness, expressing, atthe same time, his willingness to take bail for my reappearance if Icould produce one responsible surety to offer it. If I had been knownin the town he would have liberated me on my own recognisances, but asI was a total stranger it was necessary that I should find responsiblebail.

  The whole object of the stratagem was now disclosed to me. It had beenso managed as to make a remand necessary in a town where I was aperfect stranger, and where I could not hope to get my liberty on bail.The remand merely extended over three days, until the next sitting ofthe magistrate. But in that time, while I was in confinement, SirPercival might use any means he pleased to embarrass my futureproceedings--perhaps to screen himself from detectionaltogether--without the slightest fear of any hindrance on my part. Atthe end of the three days the charge would, no doubt, be withdrawn, andthe attendance of the witness would be perfectly useless.

  My indignation, I may almost say, my despair, at this mischievous checkto all further progress--so base and trifling in itself, and yet sodisheartening and so serious in its probable results--quite unfitted meat first to reflect on the best means of extricating myself from thedilemma in which I now stood. I had the folly to call for writingmaterials, and to think of privately communicating my real position tothe magistrate. The hopelessness and the imprudence of this proceedingfailed to strike me before I had actually written the opening lines ofthe letter. It was not till I had pushed the paper away--not till, Iam ashamed to say, I had almost allowed the vexation of my helplessposition to conquer me--that a course of action suddenly occurred to mymind, which Sir Percival had probably not anticipated, and which mightset me free again in a few hours. I determined to communicate thesituation in which I was placed to Mr. Dawson, of Oak Lodge.

  I had visited this gentleman's house, it may be remembered, at the timeof my first inquiries in the Blackwater Park neighbourhood, and I hadpresented to him a letter of introduction from Miss Halcombe, in whichshe recommended me to his friendly attention in the strongest terms. Inow wrote, referring to this letter, and to what I had previously toldMr. Dawson of the delicate and dangerous nature of my inquiries. I hadnot revealed to him the truth about Laura, having merely described myerrand as being of the utmost importance to private family interestswith which Miss Halcombe was concerned. Using the same caution still,I now accounted for my presence at Knowlesbury in the same manner, andI put it to the doctor to say whether the trust reposed in me by a ladywhom he well knew, and the hospitality I had myself received in hishouse, justified me or not in asking him to come to my assistance in aplace where I was quite friendless.

  I obtained permission to hire a messenger to drive away at once with myletter in a conveyance which might be used to bring the doctor backimmediately. Oak Lodge was on the Knowlesbury side of Blackwater. Theman declared he could drive there in forty minutes, and could bring Mr.Dawson back in forty more. I directed him to follow the doctorwherever he might happen to be, if he was not at home, and then satdown to wait for the result with all the patience and all the hope thatI could summon to help me.

  It was not quite half-past one when the messenger departed. Beforehalf-past three he returned, and brought the doctor with him. Mr.Dawson's kindness, and the delicacy with which he treated his promptassistance quite as a matter of course, almost overpowered me. Thebail required was offered, and accepted immediately. Before fouro'clock, on that afternoon, I was shaking hands warmly with the goodold doctor--a free man again--in the streets of Knowlesbury.

  Mr. Dawson hospitably invited me to go back with him to Oak Lodge, andtake up my quarters there for the night. I could only reply that mytime was not my own, and I could only ask him to let me pay my visit ina few days, when I might repeat my thanks, and offer to him all theexplanations which I felt to be only his due, but which I was not thenin a position to make. We parted with friendly assurances on bothsides, and I turned my steps at once to Mr. Wansborough's office in theHigh Street.

  Time was now of the last importance.

  The news of my being free on bail would reach Sir Percival, to anabsolute certainty, before night. If the next few hours did not put mein a position to justify his worst fears, and to hold him helpless atmy mercy, I might lose every inch of the ground I had gained, never torecover it again. The unscrupulous nature of the man, the localinfluence he possessed, the desperate peril of exposure with which myblindfold inquiries threatened him--all warned me to press on topositive discovery, without the useless waste of a single minute. Ihad found time to think while I was waiting for Mr. Dawson's arrival,
and I had well employed it. Certain portions of the conversation of thetalkative old clerk, which had wearied me at the time, now recurred tomy memory with a new significance, and a suspicion crossed my minddarkly which had not occurred to me while I was in the vestry. On myway to Knowlesbury, I had only proposed to apply to Mr. Wansborough forinformation on the subject of Sir Percival's mother. My object now wasto examine the duplicate register of Old Welmingham Church.

  Mr. Wansborough was in his office when I inquired for him.

  He was a jovial, red-faced, easy-looking man--more like a countrysquire than a lawyer--and he seemed to be both surprised and amused bymy application. He had heard of his father's copy of the register, buthad not even seen it himself. It had never been inquired after, and itwas no doubt in the strong room among other papers that had not beendisturbed since his father's death. It was a pity (Mr. Wansboroughsaid) that the old gentleman was not alive to hear his precious copyasked for at last. He would have ridden his favourite hobby harder thanever now. How had I come to hear of the copy? was it through anybodyin the town?

  I parried the question as well as I could. It was impossible at thisstage of the investigation to be too cautious, and it was just as wellnot to let Mr. Wansborough know prematurely that I had already examinedthe original register. I described myself, therefore, as pursuing afamily inquiry, to the object of which every possible saving of timewas of great importance. I was anxious to send certain particulars toLondon by that day's post, and one look at the duplicate register(paying, of course, the necessary fees) might supply what I required,and save me a further journey to Old Welmingham. I added that, in theevent of my subsequently requiring a copy of the original register, Ishould make application to Mr. Wansborough's office to furnish me withthe document.

  After this explanation no objection was made to producing the copy. Aclerk was sent to the strong room, and after some delay returned withthe volume. It was of exactly the same size as the volume in thevestry, the only difference being that the copy was more smartly bound.I took it with me to an unoccupied desk. My hands were trembling--myhead was burning hot--I felt the necessity of concealing my agitationas well as I could from the persons about me in the room, before Iventured on opening the book.

  On the blank page at the beginning, to which I first turned, weretraced some lines in faded ink. They contained these words--

  "Copy of the Marriage Register of Welmingham Parish Church. Executedunder my orders, and afterwards compared, entry by entry, with theoriginal, by myself. (Signed) Robert Wansborough, vestry-clerk."Below this note there was a line added, in another handwriting, asfollows: "Extending from the first of January, 1800, to the thirtiethof June, 1815."

  I turned to the month of September, eighteen hundred and three. Ifound the marriage of the man whose Christian name was the same as myown. I found the double register of the marriages of the two brothers.And between these entries, at the bottom of the page?

  Nothing! Not a vestige of the entry which recorded the marriage of SirFelix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster in the register of the church!

  My heart gave a great bound, and throbbed as if it would stifle me. Ilooked again--I was afraid to believe the evidence of my own eyes. No!not a doubt. The marriage was not there. The entries on the copyoccupied exactly the same places on the page as the entries in theoriginal. The last entry on one page recorded the marriage of the manwith my Christian name. Below it there was a blank space--a spaceevidently left because it was too narrow to contain the entry of themarriages of the two brothers, which in the copy, as in the original,occupied the top of the next page. That space told the whole story!There it must have remained in the church register from eighteenhundred and three (when the marriages had been solemnised and the copyhad been made) to eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, when Sir Percivalappeared at Old Welmingham. Here, at Knowlesbury, was the chance ofcommitting the forgery shown to me in the copy, and there, at OldWelmingham, was the forgery committed in the register of the church.

  My head turned giddy--I held by the desk to keep myself from falling.Of all the suspicions which had struck me in relation to that desperateman, not one had been near the truth.

  The idea that he was not Sir Percival Glyde at all, that he had no moreclaim to the baronetcy and to Blackwater Park than the poorest labourerwho worked on the estate, had never once occurred to my mind. At onetime I had thought he might be Anne Catherick's father--at another timeI had thought he might have been Anne Catherick's husband--the offenceof which he was really guilty had been, from first to last, beyond thewidest reach of my imagination.

  The paltry means by which the fraud had been effected, the magnitudeand daring of the crime that it represented, the horror of theconsequences involved in its discovery, overwhelmed me. Who couldwonder now at the brute-restlessness of the wretch's life--at hisdesperate alternations between abject duplicity and recklessviolence--at the madness of guilty distrust which had made him imprisonAnne Catherick in the Asylum, and had given him over to the vileconspiracy against his wife, on the bare suspicion that the one and theother knew his terrible secret? The disclosure of that secret might, inpast years, have hanged him--might now transport him for life. Thedisclosure of that secret, even if the sufferers by his deceptionspared him the penalties of the law, would deprive him at one blow ofthe name, the rank, the estate, the whole social existence that he hadusurped. This was the Secret, and it was mine! A word from me, andhouse, lands, baronetcy, were gone from him for ever--a word from me,and he was driven out into the world, a nameless, penniless, friendlessoutcast! The man's whole future hung on my lips--and he knew it by thistime as certainly as I did!

  That last thought steadied me. Interests far more precious than my owndepended on the caution which must now guide my slightest actions.There was no possible treachery which Sir Percival might not attemptagainst me. In the danger and desperation of his position he would bestaggered by no risks, he would recoil at no crime--he would literallyhesitate at nothing to save himself.

  I considered for a minute. My first necessity was to secure positiveevidence in writing of the discovery that I had just made, and in theevent of any personal misadventure happening to me, to place thatevidence beyond Sir Percival's reach. The copy of the register wassure to be safe in Mr. Wansborough's strong room. But the position ofthe original in the vestry was, as I had seen with my own eyes,anything but secure.

  In this emergency I resolved to return to the church, to apply again tothe clerk, and to take the necessary extract from the register before Islept that night. I was not then aware that a legally-certified copywas necessary, and that no document merely drawn out by myself couldclaim the proper importance as a proof. I was not aware of this, and mydetermination to keep my present proceedings a secret prevented me fromasking any questions which might have procured the necessaryinformation. My one anxiety was the anxiety to get back to OldWelmingham. I made the best excuses I could for the discomposure in myface and manner which Mr. Wansborough had already noticed, laid thenecessary fee on his table, arranged that I should write to him in aday or two, and left the office, with my head in a whirl and my bloodthrobbing through my veins at fever heat.

  It was just getting dark. The idea occurred to me that I might befollowed again and attacked on the high-road.

  My walking-stick was a light one, of little or no use for purposes ofdefence. I stopped before leaving Knowlesbury and bought a stoutcountry cudgel, short, and heavy at the head. With this homely weapon,if any one man tried to stop me I was a match for him. If more thanone attacked me I could trust to my heels. In my school-days I hadbeen a noted runner, and I had not wanted for practice since in thelater time of my experience in Central America.

  I started from the town at a brisk pace, and kept the middle of theroad.

  A small misty rain was falling, and it was impossible for the firsthalf of the way to make sure whether I was followed or not. But at thelast half of my journey, when I supposed my
self to be about two milesfrom the church, I saw a man run by me in the rain, and then heard thegate of a field by the roadside shut to sharply. I kept straight on,with my cudgel ready in my hand, my ears on the alert, and my eyesstraining to see through the mist and the darkness. Before I hadadvanced a hundred yards there was a rustling in the hedge on my right,and three men sprang out into the road.

  I drew aside on the instant to the footpath. The two foremost men werecarried beyond me before they could check themselves. The third was asquick as lightning. He stopped, half turned, and struck at me with hisstick. The blow was aimed at hazard, and was not a severe one. Itfell on my left shoulder. I returned it heavily on his head. Hestaggered back and jostled his two companions just as they were bothrushing at me. This circumstance gave me a moment's start. I slippedby them, and took to the middle of the road again at the top of myspeed.

  The two unhurt men pursued me. They were both good runners--the roadwas smooth and level, and for the first five minutes or more I wasconscious that I did not gain on them. It was perilous work to run forlong in the darkness. I could barely see the dim black line of thehedges on either side, and any chance obstacle in the road would havethrown me down to a certainty. Ere long I felt the ground changing--itdescended from the level at a turn, and then rose again beyond.Downhill the men rather gained on me, but uphill I began to distancethem. The rapid, regular thump of their feet grew fainter on my ear,and I calculated by the sound that I was far enough in advance to taketo the fields with a good chance of their passing me in the darkness.Diverging to the footpath, I made for the first break that I couldguess at, rather than see, in the hedge. It proved to be a closedgate. I vaulted over, and finding myself in a field, kept across itsteadily with my back to the road. I heard the men pass the gate,still running, then in a minute more heard one of them call to theother to come back. It was no matter what they did now, I was out oftheir sight and out of their hearing. I kept straight across thefield, and when I had reached the farther extremity of it, waited therefor a minute to recover my breath.

  It was impossible to venture back to the road, but I was determinednevertheless to get to Old Welmingham that evening.

  Neither moon nor stars appeared to guide me. I only knew that I hadkept the wind and rain at my back on leaving Knowlesbury, and if I nowkept them at my back still, I might at least be certain of notadvancing altogether in the wrong direction.

  Proceeding on this plan, I crossed the country--meeting with no worseobstacles than hedges, ditches, and thickets, which every now and thenobliged me to alter my course for a little while--until I found myselfon a hill-side, with the ground sloping away steeply before me. Idescended to the bottom of the hollow, squeezed my way through a hedge,and got out into a lane. Having turned to the right on leaving theroad, I now turned to the left, on the chance of regaining the linefrom which I had wandered. After following the muddy windings of thelane for ten minutes or more, I saw a cottage with a light in one ofthe windows. The garden gate was open to the lane, and I went in atonce to inquire my way.

  Before I could knock at the door it was suddenly opened, and a man camerunning out with a lighted lantern in his hand. He stopped and held itup at the sight of me. We both started as we saw each other. Mywanderings had led me round the outskirts of the village, and hadbrought me out at the lower end of it. I was back at Old Welmingham,and the man with the lantern was no other than my acquaintance of themorning, the parish clerk.

  His manner appeared to have altered strangely in the interval since Ihad last seen him. He looked suspicious and confused--his ruddy cheekswere deeply flushed--and his first words, when he spoke, were quiteunintelligible to me.

  "Where are the keys?" he asked. "Have you taken them?"

  "What keys?" I repeated. "I have this moment come from Knowlesbury.What keys do you mean?"

  "The keys of the vestry. Lord save us and help us! what shall I do?The keys are gone! Do you hear?" cried the old man, shaking the lanternat me in his agitation, "the keys are gone!"

  "How? When? Who can have taken them?"

  "I don't know," said the clerk, staring about him wildly in thedarkness. "I've only just got back. I told you I had a long day'swork this morning--I locked the door and shut the window down--it'sopen now, the window's open. Look! somebody has got in there and takenthe keys."

  He turned to the casement window to show me that it was wide open. Thedoor of the lantern came loose from its fastening as he swayed itround, and the wind blew the candle out instantly.

  "Get another light," I said, "and let us both go to the vestrytogether. Quick! quick!"

  I hurried him into the house. The treachery that I had every reason toexpect, the treachery that might deprive me of every advantage I hadgained, was at that moment, perhaps, in process of accomplishment. Myimpatience to reach the church was so great that I could not remaininactive in the cottage while the clerk lit the lantern again. Iwalked out, down the garden path, into the lane.

  Before I had advanced ten paces a man approached me from the directionleading to the church. He spoke respectfully as we met. I could notsee his face, but judging by his voice only, he was a perfect strangerto me.

  "I beg your pardon, Sir Percival----" he began.

  I stopped him before he could say more.

  "The darkness misleads you," I said. "I am not Sir Percival."

  The man drew back directly.

  "I thought it was my master," he muttered, in a confused, doubtful way.

  "You expected to meet your master here?"

  "I was told to wait in the lane."

  With that answer he retraced his steps. I looked back at the cottageand saw the clerk coming out, with the lantern lighted once more. Itook the old man's arm to help him on the more quickly. We hastenedalong the lane, and passed the person who had accosted me. As well asI could see by the light of the lantern, he was a servant out of livery.

  "Who's that?" whispered the clerk. "Does he know anything about thekeys?"

  "We won't wait to ask him," I replied. "We will go on to the vestryfirst."

  The church was not visible, even by daytime, until the end of the lanewas reached. As we mounted the rising ground which led to the buildingfrom that point, one of the village children--a boy--came close up tous, attracted by the light we carried, and recognised the clerk.

  "I say, measter," said the boy, pulling officiously at the clerk'scoat, "there be summun up yander in the church. I heerd un lock thedoor on hisself--I heerd un strike a loight wi' a match."

  The clerk trembled and leaned against me heavily.

  "Come! come!" I said encouragingly. "We are not too late. We willcatch the man, whoever he is. Keep the lantern, and follow me as fastas you can."

  I mounted the hill rapidly. The dark mass of the church-tower was thefirst object I discerned dimly against the night sky. As I turnedaside to get round to the vestry, I heard heavy footsteps close to me.The servant had ascended to the church after us. "I don't mean anyharm," he said, when I turned round on him, "I'm only looking for mymaster." The tones in which he spoke betrayed unmistakable fear. Itook no notice of him and went on.

  The instant I turned the corner and came in view of the vestry, I sawthe lantern-skylight on the roof brilliantly lit up from within. Itshone out with dazzling brightness against the murky, starless sky.

  I hurried through the churchyard to the door.

  As I got near there was a strange smell stealing out on the damp nightair. I heard a snapping noise inside--I saw the light above growbrighter and brighter--a pane of the glass cracked--I ran to the doorand put my hand on it. The vestry was on fire!

  Before I could move, before I could draw my breath after thatdiscovery, I was horror-struck by a heavy thump against the door fromthe inside. I heard the key worked violently in the lock--I heard aman's voice behind the door, raised to a dreadful shrillness, screamingfor help.

  The servant who had followed me staggered bac
k shuddering, and droppedto his knees. "Oh, my God!" he said, "it's Sir Percival!"

  As the words passed his lips the clerk joined us, and at the samemoment there was another and a last grating turn of the key in the lock.

  "The Lord have mercy on his soul!" said the old man. "He is doomed anddead. He has hampered the lock."

  I rushed to the door. The one absorbing purpose that had filled all mythoughts, that had controlled all my actions, for weeks and weeks past,vanished in an instant from my mind. All remembrance of the heartlessinjury the man's crimes had inflicted--of the love, the innocence, thehappiness he had pitilessly laid waste--of the oath I had sworn in myown heart to summon him to the terrible reckoning that hedeserved--passed from my memory like a dream. I remembered nothing butthe horror of his situation. I felt nothing but the natural humanimpulse to save him from a frightful death.

  "Try the other door!" I shouted. "Try the door into the church! Thelock's hampered. You're a dead man if you waste another moment on it."

  There had been no renewed cry for help when the key was turned for thelast time. There was no sound now of any kind, to give token that hewas still alive. I heard nothing but the quickening crackle of theflames, and the sharp snap of the glass in the skylight above.

  I looked round at my two companions. The servant had risen to hisfeet--he had taken the lantern, and was holding it up vacantly at thedoor. Terror seemed to have struck him with downright idiocy--hewaited at my heels, he followed me about when I moved like a dog. Theclerk sat crouched up on one of the tombstones, shivering, and moaningto himself. The one moment in which I looked at them was enough toshow me that they were both helpless.

  Hardly knowing what I did, acting desperately on the first impulse thatoccurred to me, I seized the servant and pushed him against the vestrywall. "Stoop!" I said, "and hold by the stones. I am going to climbover you to the roof--I am going to break the skylight, and give himsome air!"

  The man trembled from head to foot, but he held firm. I got on hisback, with my cudgel in my mouth, seized the parapet with both hands,and was instantly on the roof. In the frantic hurry and agitation ofthe moment, it never struck me that I might let out the flame insteadof letting in the air. I struck at the skylight, and battered in thecracked, loosened glass at a blow. The fire leaped out like a wildbeast from its lair. If the wind had not chanced, in the position Ioccupied, to set it away from me, my exertions might have ended thenand there. I crouched on the roof as the smoke poured out above mewith the flame. The gleams and flashes of the light showed me theservant's face staring up vacantly under the wall--the clerk risen tohis feet on the tombstone, wringing his hands in despair--and thescanty population of the village, haggard men and terrified women,clustered beyond in the churchyard--all appearing and disappearing, inthe red of the dreadful glare, in the black of the choking smoke. Andthe man beneath my feet!--the man, suffocating, burning, dying so nearus all, so utterly beyond our reach!

  The thought half maddened me. I lowered myself from the roof, by myhands, and dropped to the ground.

  "The key of the church!" I shouted to the clerk. "We must try it thatway--we may save him yet if we can burst open the inner door."

  "No, no, no!" cried the old man. "No hope! the church key and thevestry key are on the same ring--both inside there! Oh, sir, he's pastsaving--he's dust and ashes by this time!"

  "They'll see the fire from the town," said a voice from among the menbehind me. "There's a ingine in the town. They'll save the church."

  I called to that man--HE had his wits about him--I called to him tocome and speak to me. It would be a quarter of an hour at least beforethe town engine could reach us. The horror of remaining inactive allthat time was more than I could face. In defiance of my own reason Ipersuaded myself that the doomed and lost wretch in the vestry mightstill be lying senseless on the floor, might not be dead yet. If webroke open the door, might we save him? I knew the strength of theheavy lock--I knew the thickness of the nailed oak--I knew thehopelessness of assailing the one and the other by ordinary means. Butsurely there were beams still left in the dismantled cottages near thechurch? What if we got one, and used it as a battering-ram against thedoor?

  The thought leaped through me like the fire leaping out of theshattered skylight. I appealed to the man who had spoken first of thefire-engine in the town. "Have you got your pickaxes handy?" Yes, theyhad. "And a hatchet, and a saw, and a bit of rope?" Yes! yes! yes! Iran down among the villagers, with the lantern in my hand. "Fiveshillings apiece to every man who helps me!" They started into life atthe words. That ravenous second hunger of poverty--the hunger formoney--roused them into tumult and activity in a moment. "Two of youfor more lanterns, if you have them! Two of you for the pickaxes andthe tools! The rest after me to find the beam!" They cheered--withshrill starveling voices they cheered. The women and the children fledback on either side. We rushed in a body down the churchyard path tothe first empty cottage. Not a man was left behind but the clerk--thepoor old clerk standing on the flat tombstone sobbing and wailing overthe church. The servant was still at my heels--his white, helpless,panic-stricken face was close over my shoulder as we pushed into thecottage. There were rafters from the torn-down floor above, lyingloose on the ground--but they were too light. A beam ran across overour heads, but not out of reach of our arms and our pickaxes--a beamfast at each end in the ruined wall, with ceiling and flooring allripped away, and a great gap in the roof above, open to the sky. Weattacked the beam at both ends at once. God! how it held--how thebrick and mortar of the wall resisted us! We struck, and tugged, andtore. The beam gave at one end--it came down with a lump of brickworkafter it. There was a scream from the women all huddled in the doorwayto look at us--a shout from the men--two of them down but not hurt.Another tug all together--and the beam was loose at both ends. Weraised it, and gave the word to clear the doorway. Now for the work!now for the rush at the door! There is the fire streaming into the sky,streaming brighter than ever to light us! Steady along the churchyardpath--steady with the beam for a rush at the door. One, two, three--andoff. Out rings the cheering again, irrepressibly. We have shaken italready, the hinges must give if the lock won't. Another run with thebeam! One, two, three--and off. It's loose! the stealthy fire darts atus through the crevice all round it. Another, and a last rush! Thedoor falls in with a crash. A great hush of awe, a stillness ofbreathless expectation, possesses every living soul of us. We look forthe body. The scorching heat on our faces drives us back: we seenothing--above, below, all through the room, we see nothing but a sheetof living fire.

  "Where is he?" whispered the servant, staring vacantly at the flames.

  "He's dust and ashes," said the clerk. "And the books are dust andashes--and oh, sirs! the church will be dust and ashes soon."

  Those were the only two who spoke. When they were silent again,nothing stirred in the stillness but the bubble and the crackle of theflames.


  A harsh rattling sound in the distance--then the hollow beat of horses'hoofs at full gallop--then the low roar, the all-predominant tumult ofhundreds of human voices clamouring and shouting together. The engineat last.

  The people about me all turned from the fire, and ran eagerly to thebrow of the hill. The old clerk tried to go with the rest, but hisstrength was exhausted. I saw him holding by one of the tombstones."Save the church!" he cried out faintly, as if the firemen could hearhim already.

  Save the church!

  The only man who never moved was the servant. There he stood, his eyesstill fastened on the flames in a changeless, vacant stare. I spoke tohim, I shook him by the arm. He was past rousing. He only whisperedonce more, "Where is he?"

  In ten minutes the engine was in position, the well at the back of thechurch was feeding it, and the hose was carried to the doorway of thevestry. If help had been wanted from me I could not have afforded itnow. My energy of will was gone--my strength was exhausted--theturmoil of m
y thoughts was fearfully and suddenly stilled, now I knewthat he was dead.

  I stood useless and helpless--looking, looking, looking into theburning room.

  I saw the fire slowly conquered. The brightness of the glarefaded--the steam rose in white clouds, and the smouldering heaps ofembers showed red and black through it on the floor. There was apause--then an advance all together of the firemen and the police whichblocked up the doorway--then a consultation in low voices--and then twomen were detached from the rest, and sent out of the churchyard throughthe crowd. The crowd drew back on either side in dead silence to letthem pass.

  After a while a great shudder ran through the people, and the livinglane widened slowly. The men came back along it with a door from oneof the empty houses. They carried it to the vestry and went in. Thepolice closed again round the doorway, and men stole out from among thecrowd by twos and threes and stood behind them to be the first to see.Others waited near to be the first to hear. Women and children wereamong these last.

  The tidings from the vestry began to flow out among the crowd--theydropped slowly from mouth to mouth till they reached the place where Iwas standing. I heard the questions and answers repeated again andagain in low, eager tones all round me.

  "Have they found him?" "Yes."--"Where?" "Against the door, on hisface."--"Which door?" "The door that goes into the church. His headwas against it--he was down on his face."--"Is his face burnt?" "No.""Yes, it is." "No, scorched, not burnt--he lay on his face, I tellyou."--"Who was he? A lord, they say." "No, not a lord. SIR Something;Sir means Knight." "And Baronight, too." "No." "Yes, it does."--"Whatdid he want in there?" "No good, you may depend on it."--"Did he do iton purpose?"--"Burn himself on purpose!"--"I don't mean himself, I meanthe vestry."--"Is he dreadful to look at?" "Dreadful!"--"Not about theface, though?" "No, no, not so much about the face. Don't anybody knowhim?" "There's a man says he does."--"Who?" "A servant, they say. Buthe's struck stupid-like, and the police don't believe him."--"Don'tanybody else know who it is?" "Hush----!"

  The loud, clear voice of a man in authority silenced the low hum oftalking all round me in an instant.

  "Where is the gentleman who tried to save him?" said the voice.

  "Here, sir--here he is!" Dozens of eager faces pressed about me--dozensof eager arms parted the crowd. The man in authority came up tome with a lantern in his hand.

  "This way, sir, if you please," he said quietly.

  I was unable to speak to him, I was unable to resist him when he tookmy arm. I tried to say that I had never seen the dead man in hislifetime--that there was no hope of identifying him by means of astranger like me. But the words failed on my lips. I was faint, andsilent, and helpless.

  "Do you know him, sir?"

  I was standing inside a circle of men. Three of them opposite to mewere holding lanterns low down to the ground. Their eyes, and the eyesof all the rest, were fixed silently and expectantly on my face. Iknew what was at my feet--I knew why they were holding the lanterns solow to the ground.

  "Can you identify him, sir?"

  My eyes dropped slowly. At first I saw nothing under them but a coarsecanvas cloth. The dripping of the rain on it was audible in thedreadful silence. I looked up, along the cloth, and there at the end,stark and grim and black, in the yellow light--there was his dead face.

  So, for the first and last time, I saw him. So the Visitation of Godruled it that he and I should meet.