Monday came, the day named for Mrs. Manston’s journey from London to her husband’s house; a day of singular and great events, influencing the present and future of nearly all the personages whose actions in a complex drama form the subject of this record.
The proceedings of the steward demand the first notice. Whilst taking his breakfast on this particular morning, the clock pointing to eight, the horse-and-gig that was to take him to Chettlewood waiting ready at the door, Manston hurriedly cast his eyes down the column of Bradshaw which showed the details and duration of the selected train’s journey.
The inspection was carelessly made, the leaf being kept open by the aid of one hand, whilst the other still held his cup of coffee; much more carelessly than would have been the case had the expected new-comer been Cytherea Graye, instead of his lawful wife.
He did not perceive, branching from the column down which his finger ran, a small twist, called a shunting-line, inserted at a particular place, to imply that at that point the train was divided into two. By this oversight he understood that the arrival of his wife at Carriford Road Station would not be till late in the evening: by the second half of the train, containing the third-class passengers, and passing two hours and three-quarters later than the previous one, by which the lady, as a second-class passenger, would really be brought.
He then considered that there would be plenty of time for him to return from his day’s engagement to meet this train. He finished his breakfast, gave proper and precise directions to his servant on the preparations that were to be made for the lady’s reception, jumped into his gig, and drove off to Lord Claydonfield’s, at Chettlewood.
He went along by the front of Knapwater House. He could not help turning to look at what he knew to be the window of Cytherea’s room. Whilst he looked, a hopeless expression of passionate love and sensuous anguish came upon his face and lingered there for a few seconds; then, as on previous occasions, it was resolutely repressed, and he trotted along the smooth white road, again endeavouring to banish all thought of the young girl whose beauty and grace had so enslaved him.
Thus it was that when, in the evening of the same day, Mrs. Manston reached Carriford Road Station, her husband was still at Chettlewood, ignorant of her arrival, and on looking up and down the platform, dreary with autumn gloom and wind, she could see no sign that any preparation whatever had been made for her reception and conduct home.
The train went on. She waited, fidgeted with the handle of her umbrella, walked about, strained her eyes into the gloom of the chilly night, listened for wheels, tapped with her foot, and showed all the usual signs of annoyance and irritation: she was the more irritated in that this seemed a second and culminating instance of her husband’s neglect — the first having been shown in his not fetching her.
Reflecting awhile upon the course it would be best to take, in order to secure a passage to Knapwater, she decided to leave all her luggage, except a dressing-bag, in the cloak-room, and walk to her husband’s house, as she had done on her first visit. She asked one of the porters if he could find a lad to go with her and carry her bag: he offered to do it himself.
The porter was a good-tempered, shallow-minded, ignorant man. Mrs. Manston, being apparently in very gloomy spirits, would probably have preferred walking beside him without saying a word: but her companion would not allow silence to continue between them for a longer period than two or three minutes together.
He had volunteered several remarks upon her arrival, chiefly to the effect that it was very unfortunate Mr. Manston had not come to the station for her, when she suddenly asked him concerning the inhabitants of the parish.
He told her categorically the names of the chief — first the chief possessors of property; then of brains; then of good looks. As first among the latter he mentioned Miss Cytherea Graye.
After getting him to describe her appearance as completely as lay in his power, she wormed out of him the statement that everybody had been saying — before Mrs. Manston’s existence was heard of — how well the handsome Mr. Manston and the beautiful Miss Graye were suited for each other as man and wife, and that Miss Aldclyffe was the only one in the parish who took no interest in bringing about the match.
‘He rather liked her you think?’
The porter began to think he had been too explicit, and hastened to correct the error.
‘O no, he don’t care a bit about her, ma’am,’ he said solemnly.
‘Not more than he does about me?’
‘Not a bit.’
‘Then that must be little indeed,’ Mrs. Manston murmured. She stood still, as if reflecting upon the painful neglect her words had recalled to her mind; then, with a sudden impulse, turned round, and walked petulantly a few steps back again in the direction of the station.
The porter stood still and looked surprised.
‘I’ll go back again; yes, indeed, I’ll go back again!’ she said plaintively. Then she paused and looked anxiously up and down the deserted road.
‘No, I mustn’t go back now,’ she continued, in a tone of resignation. Seeing that the porter was watching her, she turned about and came on as before, giving vent to a slight laugh.
It was a laugh full of character; the low forced laugh which seeks to hide the painful perception of a humiliating position under the mask of indifference.
Altogether her conduct had shown her to be what in fact she was, a weak, though a calculating woman, one clever to conceive, weak to execute: one whose best-laid schemes were for ever liable to be frustrated by the ineradicable blight of vacillation at the critical hour of action.
‘O, if I had only known that all this was going to happen!’ she murmured again, as they paced along upon the rustling leaves.
‘What did you say, ma’am?’ said the porter.
‘O, nothing particular; we are getting near the old manor-house by this time, I imagine?’
‘Very near now, ma’am.’
They soon reached Manston’s residence, round which the wind blew mournfully and chill.
Passing under the detached gateway, they entered the porch. The porter stepped forward, knocked heavily and waited.
Mrs. Manston then advanced to the door and gave a different series of rappings — less forcible, but more sustained.
There was not a movement of any kind inside, not a ray of light visible; nothing but the echo of her own knocks through the passages, and the dry scratching of the withered leaves blown about her feet upon the floor of the porch.
The steward, of course, was not at home. Mrs. Crickett, not expecting that anybody would arrive till the time of the later train, had set the place in order, laid the supper-table, and then locked the door, to go into the village and converse with her friends.
‘Is there an inn in the village?’ said Mrs. Manston, after the fourth and loudest rapping upon the iron-studded old door had resulted only in the fourth and loudest echo from the passages inside.
‘Who keeps it?’
‘I will go there to-night,’ she said decisively. ‘It is too cold, and altogether too bad, for a woman to wait in the open road on anybody’s account, gentle or simple.’
They went down the park and through the gate, into the village of Carriford. By the time they reached the Three Tranters, it was verging upon ten o’clock. There, on the spot where two months earlier in the season the sunny and lively group of villagers making cider under the trees had greeted Cytherea’s eyes, was nothing now intelligible but a vast cloak of darkness, from which came the low sough of the elms, and the occasional creak of the swinging sign.
They went to the door, Mrs. Manston shivering; but less from the cold, than from the dreariness of her emotions. Neglect is the coldest of winter winds.
It so happened that Edward Springrove was expected to arrive from London either on that evening or the next, and at the sound of voices his father came to the door fully expecting to see him. A picture of disappointment seldom witnessed in a man’s face was visible in old Mr. Springrove’s, when he saw that the comer was a stranger.
Mrs. Manston asked for a room, and one that had been prepared for Edward was immediately named as being ready for her, another being adaptable for Edward, should he come in.
Without taking any refreshment, or entering any room downstairs, or even lifting her veil, she walked straight along the passage and up to her apartment, the chambermaid preceding her.
‘If Mr. Manston comes to-night,’ she said, sitting on the bed as she had come in, and addressing the woman, ‘tell him I cannot see him.’
The woman left the room, and Mrs. Manston locked the door. Before the servant had gone down more than two or three stairs, Mrs. Manston unfastened the door again, and held it ajar.
‘Bring me some brandy,’ she said.
The chambermaid went down to the bar and brought up the spirit in a tumbler. When she came into the room, Mrs. Manston had not removed a single article of apparel, and was walking up and down, as if still quite undecided upon the course it was best to adopt.
Outside the door, when it was closed upon her, the maid paused to listen for an instant. She heard Mrs. Manston talking to herself.
‘This is welcome home!’ she said.
A strange concurrence of phenomena now confronts us.
During the autumn in which the past scenes were enacted, Mr. Springrove had ploughed, harrowed, and cleaned a narrow and shaded piece of ground, lying at the back of his house, which for many years had been looked upon as irreclaimable waste.
The couch-grass extracted from the soil had been left to wither in the sun; afterwards it was raked together, lighted in the customary way, and now lay smouldering in a large heap in the middle of the plot.
It had been kindled three days previous to Mrs. Manston’s arrival, and one or two villagers, of a more cautious and less sanguine temperament than Springrove, had suggested that the fire was almost too near the back of the house for its continuance to be unattended with risk; for though no danger could be apprehended whilst the air remained moderately still, a brisk breeze blowing towards the house might possibly carry a spark across.
‘Ay, that’s true enough,’ said Springrove. ‘I must look round before going to bed and see that everything’s safe; but to tell the truth I am anxious to get the rubbish burnt up before the rain comes to wash it into ground again. As to carrying the couch into the back field to burn, and bringing it back again, why, ’tis more than the ashes would be worth.’
‘Well, that’s very true,’ said the neighbours, and passed on.
Two or three times during the first evening after the heap was lit, he went to the back door to take a survey. Before bolting and barring up for the night, he made a final and more careful examination. The slowly-smoking pile showed not the slightest signs of activity. Springrove’s perfectly sound conclusion was, that as long as the heap was not stirred, and the wind continued in the quarter it blew from then, the couch would not flame, and that there could be no shadow of danger to anything, even a combustible substance, though it were no more than a yard off.
The next morning the burning couch was discovered in precisely the same state as when he had gone to bed the preceding night. The heap smoked in the same manner the whole of that day: at bed-time the farmer looked towards it, but less carefully than on the first night.
The morning and the whole of the third day still saw the heap in its old smouldering condition; indeed, the smoke was less, and there seemed a probability that it might have to be rekindled on the morrow.
After admitting Mrs. Manston to his house in the evening, and hearing her retire, Mr. Springrove returned to the front door to listen for a sound of his son, and inquired concerning him of the railway-porter, who sat for a while in the kitchen. The porter had not noticed young Mr. Springrove get out of the train, at which intelligence the old man concluded that he would probably not see his son till the next day, as Edward had hitherto made a point of coming by the train which had brought Mrs. Manston.
Half-an-hour later the porter left the inn, Springrove at the same time going to the door to listen again an instant, then he walked round and in at the back of the house.
The farmer glanced at the heap casually and indifferently in passing; two nights of safety seemed to ensure the third; and he was about to bolt and bar as usual, when the idea struck him that there was just a possibility of his son’s return by the latest train, unlikely as it was that he would be so delayed. The old man thereupon left the door unfastened, looked to his usual matters indoors, and went to bed, it being then half-past ten o’clock.
Farmers and horticulturists well know that it is in the nature of a heap of couch-grass, when kindled in calm weather, to smoulder for many days, and even weeks, until the whole mass is reduced to a powdery charcoal ash, displaying the while scarcely a sign of combustion beyond the volcano-like smoke from its summit; but the continuance of this quiet process is throughout its length at the mercy of one particular whim of Nature: that is, a sudden breeze, by which the heap is liable to be fanned into a flame so brisk as to consume the whole in an hour or two.
Had the farmer narrowly watched the pile when he went to close the door, he would have seen, besides the familiar twine of smoke from its summit, a quivering of the air around the mass, showing that a considerable heat had arisen inside.
As the railway-porter turned the corner of the row of houses adjoining the Three Tranters, a brisk new wind greeted his face, and spread past him into the village. He walked along the high-road till he came to a gate, about three hundred yards from the inn. Over the gate could be discerned the situation of the building he had just quitted. He carelessly turned his head in passing, and saw behind him a clear red glow indicating the position of the couch-heap: a glow without a flame, increasing and diminishing in brightness as the breeze quickened or fell, like the coal of a newly lighted cigar. If those cottages had been his, he thought, he should not care to have a fire so near them as that — and the wind rising. But the cottages not being his, he went on his way to the station, where he was about to resume duty for the night. The road was now quite deserted: till four o’clock the next morning, when the carters would go by to the stables there was little probability of any human being passing the Three Tranters Inn.
By eleven, everybody in the house was asleep. It truly seemed as if the treacherous element knew there had arisen a grand opportunity for devastation.
At a quarter past eleven a slight stealthy crackle made itself heard amid the increasing moans of the night wind; the heap glowed brighter still, and burst into a flame; the flame sank, another breeze entered it, sustained it, and it grew to be first continuous and weak, then continuous and strong.
At twenty minutes past eleven a blast of wind carried an airy bit of ignited fern several yards forward, in a direction parallel to the houses and inn, and there deposited it on the ground.
Five minutes later another puff of wind carried a similar piece to a distance of five-and-twenty yards, where it also was dropped softly on the ground.
Still the wind did not blow in the direction of the houses, and even now to a casual observer they would have appeared safe. But Nature does few things directly. A minute later yet, an ignited fragment fell upon the straw covering of a long thatched heap or ‘grave’ of mangel-wurzel, lying in a direction at right angles to the house, and down toward the hedge. There the fragment faded to darkness.
A short time subsequent to this, after many intermediate deposits and seemingly baffled attempts, another fragment fell on the mangel-wurzel grave, and continued to glow; the glow was increased by the wind; the straw caught fire and burst into flame. It was inevitable that the flame should run along the ridge of the thatch towards a piggery at the end. Yet had the piggery been tiled, the time-honoured hostel would even now at this last moment have been safe; but it was constructed as piggeries are mostly constructed, of wood and thatch. The hurdles and straw roof of the frail erection became ignited in their turn, and abutting as the shed did on the back of the inn, flamed up to the eaves of the main roof in less than thirty seconds.
A hazardous length of time elapsed before the inmates of the Three Tranters knew of their danger. When at length the discovery was made, the rush was a rush for bare life.
A man’s voice calling, then screams, then loud stamping and shouts were heard.
Mr. Springrove ran out first. Two minutes later appeared the ostler and chambermaid, who were man and wife. The inn, as has been stated, was a quaint old building, and as inflammable as a bee-hive; it overhung the base at the level of the first floor, and again overhung at the eaves, which were finished with heavy oak barge-boards; every atom in its substance, every feature in its construction, favoured the fire.
The forked flames, lurid and smoky, became nearly lost to view, bursting forth again with a bound and loud crackle, increased tenfold in power and brightness. The crackling grew sharper. Long quivering shadows began to be flung from the stately trees at the end of the house; the square outline of the church tower, on the other side of the way, which had hitherto been a dark mass against a sky comparatively light, now began to appear as a light object against a sky of darkness; and even the narrow surface of the flag-staff at the top could be seen in its dark surrounding, brought out from its obscurity by the rays from the dancing light.
Shouts and other noises increased in loudness and frequency. The lapse of ten minutes brought most of the inhabitants of that end of the village into the street, followed in a short time by the rector, Mr. Raunham.
Casting a hasty glance up and down, he beckoned to one or two of the men, and vanished again. In a short time wheels were heard, and Mr. Raunham and the men reappeared, with the garden engine, the only one in the village, except that at Knapwater House. After some little trouble the hose was connected with a tank in the old stable-yard, and the puny instrument began to play.
Several seemed paralyzed at first, and stood transfixed, their rigid faces looking like red-hot iron in the glaring light. In the confusion a woman cried, ‘Ring the bells backwards!’ and three or four of the old and superstitious entered the belfry and jangled them indescribably. Some were only half dressed, and, to add to the horror, among them was Clerk Crickett, running up and down with a face streaming with blood, ghastly and pitiful to see, his excitement being so great that he had not the slightest conception of how, when, or where he came by the wound.
The crowd was now busy at work, and tried to save a little of the furniture of the inn. The only room they could enter was the parlour, from which they managed to bring out the bureau, a few chairs, some old silver candlesticks, and half-a-dozen light articles; but these were all.
Fiery mats of thatch slid off the roof and fell into the road with a deadened thud, whilst white flakes of straw and wood-ash were flying in the wind like feathers. At the same time two of the cottages adjoining, upon which a little water had been brought to play from the rector’s engine, were seen to be on fire. The attenuated spirt of water was as nothing upon the heated and dry surface of the thatched roof; the fire prevailed without a minute’s hindrance, and dived through to the rafters.
Suddenly arose a cry, ‘Where’s Mr. Springrove?’
He had vanished from the spot by the churchyard wall, where he had been standing a few minutes earlier.
‘I fancy he’s gone inside,’ said a voice.
‘Madness and folly! what can he save?’ said another. ‘Good God, find him! Help here!’
A wild rush was made at the door, which had fallen to, and in defiance of the scorching flame that burst forth, three men forced themselves through it. Immediately inside the threshold they found the object of their search lying senseless on the floor of the passage.
To bring him out and lay him on a bank was the work of an instant; a basin of cold water was dashed in his face, and he began to recover consciousness, but very slowly. He had been saved by a miracle. No sooner were his preservers out of the building than the window-frames lit up as if by magic with deep and waving fringes of flames. Simultaneously, the joints of the boards forming the front door started into view as glowing bars of fire: a star of red light penetrated the centre, gradually increasing in size till the flames rushed forth.
Then the staircase fell.
‘Everybody is out safe,’ said a voice.
‘Yes, thank God!’ said three or four others.
‘O, we forgot that a stranger came! I think she is safe.’
‘I hope she is,’ said the weak voice of some one coming up from behind. It was the chambermaid’s.
Springrove at that moment aroused himself; he staggered to his feet, and threw his hands up wildly.
‘Everybody, no! no! The lady who came by train, Mrs. Manston! I tried to fetch her out, but I fell.’
An exclamation of horror burst from the crowd; it was caused partly by this disclosure of Springrove, more by the added perception which followed his words.
An average interval of about three minutes had elapsed between one intensely fierce gust of wind and the next, and now another poured over them; the roof swayed, and a moment afterwards fell in with a crash, pulling the gable after it, and thrusting outwards the front wall of wood-work, which fell into the road with a rumbling echo; a cloud of black dust, myriads of sparks, and a great outburst of flame followed the uproar of the fall.
‘Who is she? what is she?’ burst from every lip again and again, incoherently, and without leaving a sufficient pause for a reply, had a reply been volunteered.
The autumn wind, tameless, and swift, and proud, still blew upon the dying old house, which was constructed so entirely of combustible materials that it burnt almost as fiercely as a corn-rick. The heat in the road increased, and now for an instant at the height of the conflagration all stood still, and gazed silently, awestruck and helpless, in the presence of so irresistible an enemy. Then, with minds full of the tragedy unfolded to them, they rushed forward again with the obtuse directness of waves, to their labour of saving goods from the houses adjoining, which it was evident were all doomed to destruction.
The minutes passed by. The Three Tranters Inn sank into a mere heap of red-hot charcoal: the fire pushed its way down the row as the church clock opposite slowly struck the hour of midnight, and the bewildered chimes, scarcely heard amid the crackling of the flames, wandered through the wayward air of the Old Hundred-and-Thirteenth Psalm.
Manston mounted his gig and set out from Chettlewood that evening in no very enviable frame of mind. The thought of domestic life in Knapwater Old House, with the now eclipsed wife of the past, was more than disagreeable, was positively distasteful to him.
Yet he knew that the influential position, which, from whatever fortunate cause, he held on Miss Aldclyffe’s manor, would never again fall to his lot on any other, and he tacitly assented to this dilemma, hoping that some consolation or other would soon suggest itself to him; married as he was, he was near Cytherea.
He occasionally looked at his watch as he drove along the lanes, timing the pace of his horse by the hour, that he might reach Carriford Road Station just soon enough to meet the last London train.
He soon began to notice in the sky a slight yellow halo, near the horizon. It rapidly increased; it changed colour, and grew redder; then the glare visibly brightened and dimmed at intervals, showing that its origin was affected by the strong wind prevailing.
Manston reined in his horse on the summit of a hill, and considered.
‘It is a rick-yard on fire,’ he thought; ‘no house could produce such a raging flame so suddenly.’
He trotted on again, attempting to particularize the local features in the neighbourhood of the fire; but this it was too dark to do, and the excessive winding of the roads misled him as to its direction, not being an old inhabitant of the district, or a countryman used to forming such judgments; whilst the brilliancy of the light shortened its real remoteness to an apparent distance of not more than half: it seemed so near that he again stopped his horse, this time to listen; but he could hear no sound.
Entering now a narrow valley, the sides of which obscured the sky to an angle of perhaps thirty or forty degrees above the mathematical horizon, he was obliged to suspend his judgment till he was in possession of further knowledge, having however assumed in the interim, that the fire was somewhere between Carriford Road Station and the village.
The self-same glare had just arrested the eyes of another man. He was at that minute gliding along several miles to the east of the steward’s position, but nearing the same point as that to which Manston tended. The younger Edward Springrove was returning from London to his father’s house by the identical train which the steward was expecting to bring his wife, the truth being that Edward’s lateness was owing to the simplest of all causes, his temporary want of money, which led him to make a slow journey for the sake of travelling at third-class fare.
Springrove had received Cytherea’s bitter and admonitory letter, and he was clearly awakened to a perception of the false position in which he had placed himself, by keeping silence at Budmouth on his long engagement. An increasing reluctance to put an end to those few days of ecstasy with Cytherea had overruled his conscience, and tied his tongue till speaking was too late.
‘Why did I do it? how could I dream of loving her?’ he asked himself as he walked by day, as he tossed on his bed by night: ‘miserable folly!’
An impressionable heart had for years — perhaps as many as six or seven years — been distracting him, by unconsciously setting itself to yearn for somebody wanting, he scarcely knew whom. Echoes of himself, though rarely, he now and then found. Sometimes they were men, sometimes women, his cousin Adelaide being one of these; for in spite of a fashion which pervades the whole community at the present day — the habit of exclaiming that woman is not undeveloped man, but diverse, the fact remains that, after all, women are Mankind, and that in many of the sentiments of life the difference of sex is but a difference of degree.
But the indefinable helpmate to the remoter sides of himself still continued invisible. He grew older, and concluded that the ideas, or rather emotions, which possessed him on the subject, were probably too unreal ever to be found embodied in the flesh of a woman. Thereupon, he developed a plan of satisfying his dreams by wandering away to the heroines of poetical imagination, and took no further thought on the earthly realization of his formless desire, in more homely matters satisfying himself with his cousin.
Cytherea appeared in the sky: his heart started up and spoke:
’Tis She, and here
Lo! I unclothe and clear
My wishes’ cloudy character.’
Some women kindle emotion so rapidly in a man’s heart that the judgment cannot keep pace with its rise, and finds, on comprehending the situation, that faithfulness to the old love is already treachery to the new. Such women are not necessarily the greatest of their sex, but there are very few of them. Cytherea was one.
On receiving the letter from her he had taken to thinking over these things, and had not answered it at all. But ‘hungry generations’ soon tread down the muser in a city. At length he thought of the strong necessity of living. After a dreary search, the negligence of which was ultimately overcome by mere conscientiousness, he obtained a situation as assistant to an architect in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross: the duties would not begin till after the lapse of a month.
He could not at first decide whither he should go to spend the intervening time; but in the midst of his reasonings he found himself on the road homeward, impelled by a secret and unowned hope of getting a last glimpse of Cytherea there.
It was a quarter to twelve when Manston drove into the station-yard. The train was punctual, and the bell, announcing its arrival, rang as he crossed the booking-office to go out upon the platform.
The porter who had accompanied Mrs. Manston to Carriford, and had returned to the station on his night duty, recognized the steward as he entered, and immediately came towards him.
‘Mrs. Manston came by the nine o’clock train, sir,’ he said.
The steward gave vent to an expression of vexation.
‘Her luggage is here, sir,’ the porter said.
‘Put it up behind me in the gig if it is not too much,’ said Manston.
‘Directly this train is in and gone, sir.’
The man vanished and crossed the line to meet the entering train.
‘Where is that fire?’ Manston said to the booking-clerk.
Before the clerk could speak, another man ran in and answered the question without having heard it.
‘Half Carriford is burnt down, or will be!’ he exclaimed. ‘You can’t see the flames from this station on account of the trees, but step on the bridge —’tis tremendous!’
He also crossed the line to assist at the entry of the train, which came in the next minute.
The steward stood in the office. One passenger alighted, gave up his ticket, and crossed the room in front of Manston: a young man with a black bag and umbrella in his hand. He passed out of the door, down the steps, and struck out into the darkness.
‘Who was that young man?’ said Manston, when the porter had returned. The young man, by a kind of magnetism, had drawn the steward’s thoughts after him.
‘He’s an architect.’
‘My own old profession. I could have sworn it by the cut of him,’ Manston murmured. ‘What’s his name?’ he said again.
‘Springrove — Farmer Springrove’s son, Edward.’
‘Farmer Springrove’s son, Edward,’ the steward repeated to himself, and considered a matter to which the words had painfully recalled his mind.
The matter was Miss Aldclyffe’s mention of the young man as Cytherea’s lover, which, indeed, had scarcely ever been absent from his thoughts.
‘But for the existence of my wife that man might have been my rival,’ he pondered, following the porter, who had now come back to him, into the luggage-room. And whilst the man was carrying out and putting in one box, which was sufficiently portable for the gig, Manston still thought, as his eyes watched the process —
‘But for my wife, Springrove might have been my rival.’
He examined the lamps of his gig, carefully laid out the reins, mounted the seat and drove along the turnpike-road towards Knapwater Park.
The exact locality of the fire was plain to him as he neared home. He soon could hear the shout of men, the flapping of the flames, the crackling of burning wood, and could smell the smoke from the conflagration.
Of a sudden, a few yards ahead, within the compass of the rays from the right-hand lamp, burst forward the figure of a man. Having been walking in darkness the newcomer raised his hands to his eyes, on approaching nearer, to screen them from the glare of the reflector.
Manston saw that he was one of the villagers: a small farmer originally, who had drunk himself down to a day-labourer and reputed poacher.
‘Hoy!’ cried Manston, aloud, that the man might step aside out of the way.
‘Is that Mr. Manston?’ said the man.
‘Somebody ha’ come to Carriford: and the rest of it may concern you, sir.’
‘Did you expect Mrs. Manston to-night, sir?’
‘Yes, unfortunately she’s come, I know, and asleep long before this time, I suppose.’
The labourer leant his elbow upon the shaft of the gig and turned his face, pale and sweating from his late work at the fire, up to Manston’s.
‘Yes, she did come,’ he said. . . . ‘I beg pardon, sir, but I should be glad of — of —’
‘Glad of a trifle for bringen ye the news.’
‘Not a farthing! I didn’t want your news, I knew she was come.’
‘Won’t you give me a shillen, sir?’
‘Then will you lend me a shillen, sir? I be tired out, and don’t know what to do. If I don’t pay you back some day I’ll be d — d.’
‘The devil is so cheated that perdition isn’t worth a penny as a security.’
‘Let me go on,’ said Manston.
‘Thy wife is dead; that’s the rest o’ the news,’ said the labourer slowly. He waited for a reply; none came.
‘She went to the Three Tranters, because she couldn’t get into thy house, the burnen roof fell in upon her before she could be called up, and she’s a cinder, as thou’lt be some day.’
‘That will do, let me drive on,’ said the steward calmly.
Expectation of a concussion may be so intense that its failure strikes the brain with more force than its fulfilment. The labourer sank back into the ditch. Such a Cushi could not realize the possibility of such an unmoved David as this.
Manston drove hastily to the turning of the road, tied his horse, and ran on foot to the site of the fire.
The stagnation caused by the awful accident had been passed through, and all hands were helping to remove from the remaining cottage what furniture they could lay hold of; the thatch of the roofs being already on fire. The Knapwater fire-engine had arrived on the spot, but it was small, and ineffectual. A group was collected round the rector, who in a coat which had become bespattered, scorched, and torn in his exertions, was directing on one hand the proceedings relative to the removal of goods into the church, and with the other was pointing out the spot on which it was most desirable that the puny engines at their disposal should be made to play. Every tongue was instantly silent at the sight of Manston’s pale and clear countenance, which contrasted strangely with the grimy and streaming faces of the toiling villagers.
‘Was she burnt?’ he said in a firm though husky voice, and stepping into the illuminated area. The rector came to him, and took him aside. ‘Is she burnt?’ repeated Manston.
‘She is dead: but thank God, she was spared the horrid agony of burning,’ the rector said solemnly; ‘the roof and gable fell in upon her, and crushed her. Instant death must have followed.’
‘Why was she here?’ said Manston.
‘From what we can hurriedly collect, it seems that she found the door of your house locked, and concluded that you had retired, the fact being that your servant, Mrs. Crickett, had gone out to supper. She then came back to the inn and went to bed.’
‘Where’s the landlord?’ said Manston.
Mr. Springrove came up, walking feebly, and wrapped in a cloak, and corroborated the evidence given by the rector.
‘Did she look ill, or annoyed, when she came?’ said the steward.
‘I can’t say. I didn’t see; but I think —’
‘What do you think?’
‘She was much put out about something.’
‘My not meeting her, naturally,’ murmured the other, lost in reverie. He turned his back on Springrove and the rector, and retired from the shining light.
Everything had been done that could be done with the limited means at their disposal. The whole row of houses was destroyed, and each presented itself as one stage of a series, progressing from smoking ruins at the end where the inn had stood, to a partly flaming mass — glowing as none but wood embers will glow — at the other.
A feature in the decline of town fires was noticeably absent here — steam. There was present what is not observable in towns — incandescence.
The heat, and the smarting effect upon their eyes of the strong smoke from the burning oak and deal, had at last driven the villagers back from the road in front of the houses, and they now stood in groups in the churchyard, the surface of which, raised by the interments of generations, stood four or five feet above the level of the road, and almost even with the top of the low wall dividing one from the other. The headstones stood forth whitely against the dark grass and yews, their brightness being repeated on the white smock-frocks of some of the labourers, and in a mellower, ruddier form on their faces and hands, on those of the grinning gargoyles, and on other salient stonework of the weather-beaten church in the background.
The rector had decided that, under the distressing circumstances of the case, there would be no sacrilege in placing in the church, for the night, the pieces of furniture and utensils which had been saved from the several houses. There was no other place of safety for them, and they accordingly were gathered there.
Manston, when he retired to meditate, had walked round the churchyard, and now entered the opened door of the building.
He mechanically pursued his way round the piers into his own seat in the north aisle. The lower atmosphere of this spot was shaded by its own wall from the shine which streamed in over the window-sills on the same side. The only light burning inside the church was a small tallow candle, standing in the font, in the opposite aisle of the building to that in which Manston had sat down, and near where the furniture was piled. The candle’s mild rays were overpowered by the ruddier light from the ruins, making the weak flame to appear like the moon by day.
Sitting there he saw Farmer Springrove enter the door, followed by his son Edward, still carrying his travelling-bag in his hand. They were speaking of the sad death of Mrs. Manston, but the subject was relinquished for that of the houses burnt.
This row of houses, running from the inn eastward, had been built under the following circumstances:—
Fifty years before this date, the spot upon which the cottages afterwards stood was a blank strip, along the side of the village street, difficult to cultivate, on account of the outcrop thereon of a large bed of flints called locally a ‘lanch’ or ‘lanchet.’
The Aldclyffe then in possession of the estate conceived the idea that a row of cottages would be an improvement to the spot, and accordingly granted leases of portions to several respectable inhabitants. Each lessee was to be subject to the payment of a merely nominal rent for the whole term of lives, on condition that he built his own cottage, and delivered it up intact at the end of the term.
Those who had built had, one by one, relinquished their indentures, either by sale or barter, to Farmer Springrove’s father. New lives were added in some cases, by payment of a sum to the lord of the manor, etc., and all the leases were now held by the farmer himself, as one of the chief provisions for his old age.
The steward had become interested in the following conversation:—
‘Try not to be so depressed, father; they are all insured.’
The words came from Edward in an anxious tone.
‘You mistake, Edward; they are not insured,’ returned the old man gloomily.
‘Not?’ the son asked.
‘Not one!’ said the farmer.
‘In the Helmet Fire Office, surely?’
‘They were insured there every one. Six months ago the office, which had been raising the premiums on thatched premises higher for some years, gave up insuring them altogether, as two or three other fire-offices had done previously, on account, they said, of the uncertainty and greatness of the risk of thatch undetached. Ever since then I have been continually intending to go to another office, but have never gone. Who expects a fire?’
‘Do you remember the terms of the leases?’ said Edward, still more uneasily.
‘No, not particularly,’ said his father absently.
‘Where are they?’
‘In the bureau there; that’s why I tried to save it first, among other things.’
‘Well, we must see to that at once.’
‘What do you want?’
They went into the south aisle, took the candle from the font, and then proceeded to open the bureau, which had been placed in a corner under the gallery. Both leant over upon the flap; Edward holding the candle, whilst his father took the pieces of parchment from one of the drawers, and spread the first out before him.
‘You read it, Ted. I can’t see without my glasses. This one will be sufficient. The terms of all are the same.’
Edward took the parchment, and read quickly and indistinctly for some time; then aloud and slowly as follows:—
‘And the said John Springrove for himself his heirs executors and administrators doth covenant and agree with the said Gerald Fellcourt Aldclyffe his heirs and assigns that he the said John Springrove his heirs and assigns during the said term shall pay unto the said Gerald Fellcourt Aldclyffe his heirs and assigns the clear yearly rent of ten shillings and sixpence. . . . at the several times hereinbefore appointed for the payment thereof respectively. And also shall and at all times during the said term well and sufficiently repair and keep the said Cottage or Dwelling-house and all other the premises and all houses or buildings erected or to be erected thereupon in good and proper repair in every respect without exception and the said premises in such good repair upon the determination of this demise shall yield up unto the said Gerald Fellcourt Aldclyffe his heirs and assigns.’
They closed the bureau and turned towards the door of the church without speaking.
Manston also had come forward out of the gloom. Notwithstanding the farmer’s own troubles, an instinctive respect and generous sense of sympathy with the steward for his awful loss caused the old man to step aside, that Manston might pass out without speaking to them if he chose to do so.
‘Who is he?’ whispered Edward to his father, as Manston approached.
‘Mr. Manston, the steward.’
Manston came near, and passed down the aisle on the side of the younger man. Their faces came almost close together: one large flame, which still lingered upon the ruins outside, threw long dancing shadows of each across the nave till they bent upwards against the aisle wall, and also illuminated their eyes, as each met those of the other. Edward had learnt, by a letter from home, of the steward’s passion for Cytherea, and his mysterious repression of it, afterwards explained by his marriage. That marriage was now nought. Edward realized the man’s newly acquired freedom, and felt an instinctive enmity towards him — he would hardly own to himself why. The steward, too, knew Cytherea’s attachment to Edward, and looked keenly and inscrutably at him.
Manston went homeward alone, his heart full of strange emotions. Entering the house, and dismissing the woman to her own home, he at once proceeded upstairs to his bedroom.
Reasoning worldliness, especially when allied with sensuousness, cannot repress on some extreme occasions the human instinct to pour out the soul to some Being or Personality, who in frigid moments is dismissed with the title of Chance, or at most Law. Manston was selfishly and inhumanly, but honestly and unutterably, thankful for the recent catastrophe. Beside his bed, for that first time during a period of nearly twenty years, he fell down upon his knees in a passionate outburst of feeling.
Many minutes passed before he arose. He walked to the window, and then seemed to remember for the first time that some action on his part was necessary in connection with the sad circumstance of the night.
Leaving the house at once, he went to the scene of the fire, arriving there in time to hear the rector making an arrangement with a certain number of men to watch the spot till morning. The ashes were still red-hot and flaming. Manston found that nothing could be done towards searching them at that hour of the night. He turned homeward again, in the company of the rector, who had considerately persuaded him to retire from the scene for a while, and promised that as soon as a man could live amid the embers of the Three Tranters Inn, they should be carefully searched for the remains of his unfortunate wife.
Manston then went indoors, to wait for morning.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:22