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I do not know when I had spent a more pleasant evening, or had enjoyed a
"Rather an unusual time of the year for a village feast," said I. "These things are generally got over in the summer."
"You see, our church is dedicated to St. Mark, and to-morrow is his festival, and it has been observed in one fashion or another in our parish from time immemorial. In your parts have they any notions about St. Mark's eve?"
"What sort of notions?"
"That if you sit in the church porch from midnight till the clock strikes one, you will see the apparitions pass before you of those destined to die within the year."
"I fancy our good people see themselves, and nothing but themselves, on every day and hour throughout the twelvemonth."
"Joking apart, have you any such superstition hanging on in your neighbourhood?"
"Not that I am aware of. That sort of thing belonged to the Golden Age that has passed away. Board schools have reduced us to that of lead."
"At Marksleigh the villagers believe in it, and recently their faith has received corroboration."
"How so?" I asked.
"Last year, in a fit of bravado, a young carpenter ventured to sit in the porch at the witching hour, and saw himself enter the church. He came home, looking as blank as a sheet, moped, lost flesh, and died nine months later."
"Of course he died, if he had made up his mind to do so."
"Yes—that is explicable. But how do you account for his having seen his double?"
"He had been drinking at the public-house. A good many people see double after that."
"It was not so. He was perfectly sober at the time."
"Then I give it up."
"Would you venture on a visit to a church porch on this night—St. Mark's eve?"
"Certainly I would, if well wrapped up, and I had my pipe."
"I bar the pipe," said Miss Fulton. "No apparition can stand tobacco smoke. But there is Lady Eastleigh rising. When you come to rejoin the ladies, I shall be gone."
I did not leave the house of the Weatherwoods till late. My dogcart was driven by my groom, Richard. The night was cold, or rather chilly, but I had my fur-lined overcoat, and did not mind that. The stars shone out of a frosty sky. All went smoothly enough till the road dipped into a valley, where a dense white fog hung over the river and the water-meadows. Anyone who has had much experience in driving at night is aware that in such a case the carriage lamps are worse than useless; they bewilder the horse and the driver. I cannot blame Dick if he ran his wheel over a heap of stones that upset the trap. We were both thrown out, and I fell on my head. I sang out: "Mind the cob, Dick; I am all right."
The boy at once mastered the horse. I did not rise immediately, for I had been somewhat jarred by the fall; when I did I found Dick engaged in mending a ruptured trace. One of the shafts was broken, and a carriage lamp had been shattered.
"Dick," said I, "there are a couple of steep hills to descend, and that is risky with a single shaft. I will lighten the dogcart by walking home, and do you take care at the hills."
"I think we can manage, sir."
"I should prefer to walk the rest of the way. I am rather shaken by my fall, and a good step out in the cool night will do more to put me to rights than anything else. When you get home, send up a message to your mistress that she is not to expect me at once. I shall arrive in due time, and she is not to be alarmed."
"It's a good trudge before you, sir. And I dare say we could get the shaft tied up at Fifewell."
"What—at this time of night? No, Dick, do as I say."
Accordingly the groom drove off, and I started on my walk. I was glad to get out of the clinging fog, when I reached higher ground. I looked back, and by the starlight saw the river bottom filled with the mist, lying apparently dense as snow.
After a swinging walk of a quarter of an hour I entered the outskirts of Fifewell, a village of some importance, with shops, the seat of the petty sessions, and with a small boot and shoe factory in it.
The street was deserted. Some bedroom windows were lighted, for our people have the habit of burning their paraffin lamps all night. Every door was shut, no one was stirring.
As I passed along the churchyard wall, the story of the young carpenter, told by Miss Fulton, recurred to me.
"By Jove!" thought I, "it is now close upon midnight, a rare opportunity for me to see the wonders of St. Mark's eve. I will go into the porch and rest there for a few minutes, and then I shall be able, when I meet that girl again, to tell her that I had done what she challenged me to do, without any idea that I would take her challenge up."
I turned in at the gate, and walked up the pathway. The headstones bore a somewhat ghostly look in the starlight. A cross of white stone, recently set up, I supposed, had almost the appearance of phosphorescence. The church windows were dark.
I seated myself in the roomy porch on a stone bench against the wall, and felt for my pipe. I am not sure that I contemplated smoking it then and there, partly because Miss Fulton had forbidden it, but also because I felt that it was not quite the right thing to do on consecrated ground. But it would be a satisfaction to finger it, and I might plug it, so as to be ready to light up so soon as I left the churchyard. To my vexation I found that I had lost it. The tobacco-pouch was there, and the matches. My pipe must have fallen out of my pocket when I was pitched from the trap. That pipe was a favourite of mine.
"What a howling nuisance," said I. "If I send Dick back over the road to-morrow morning, ten chances to one if he finds it, for to-morrow is market-day, and people will be passing early."
As I said this, the clock struck twelve.
I counted each stroke. I wore my fur-lined coat, and was not cold—in fact, I had been too warm walking in it. At the last stroke of twelve I noticed lines of very brilliant light appear about the door into the church. The door must have fitted well, as the light did no more than show about it, and did not gush forth at all the crevices. But from the keyhole shot a ray of intense brilliancy.
Whether the church windows were illumined I did not see—in fact, it did not occur to me to look, either then or later—but I am pretty certain that they were not, or the light streaming from them would have brought the gravestones into prominence. When you come to think of it, it was remarkable that the light of so dazzling a nature should shine through the crannies of the door, and that none should issue, as far as I could see, from the windows. At the time I did not give this a thought; my attention was otherwise taken up. For I saw distinctly Miss Venville, a very nice girl of my acquaintance, coming up the path with that swinging walk so characteristic of an English young lady.
How often it has happened to me, when I have been sitting in a public park or in the gardens of a Cursaal abroad, and some young girls have passed by, that I have said to my wife: "I bet you a bob those are English."
"Yes, of course," she has replied; "you can see that by their dress."
"I don't know anything about dress," I have said; "I judge by the walk."
Well, there was Miss Venville coming towards the porch.
"This is a joke," said I. "She is going to sit here on the look-out for ghosts, and if I stand up or speak she will be scared out of her wits. Hang it, I wish I had my pipe now; if I gave a whiff it would reveal the presence of a mortal, without alarming her. I think I shall whistle."
I had screwed up my lips to begin "Rocked in the cradle of the deep"—that is my great song I perform whenever there is a village concert, or I am asked out to dinner, and am entreated afterwards to sing—I say I had screwed up my lips to whistle, when I saw something that scared me so that I made no attempt at the melody.
The ray of light through the keyhole was shut off, and I saw standing in the porch before me the form of Mrs. Venville, the girl's mother, who had died two years before. The ray of white light arrested by her filled her as a lamp—was diffused as a mild glow from her.
"Halloo, mother, what brings you here?" asked the girl.
"Gwendoline, I have come to warn you back. You cannot enter; you have not got the key."
"The key, mother?"
"Yes, everyone who would pass within must have his or her own key."
"Well, where am I to get one?"
"It must be forged for you, Gwen. You are wholly unfit to enter. What good have you ever done to deserve it?"
"Why, mother, everyone knows I'm an awfully good sort."
"No one in here knows it. That is no qualification."
"And I always dressed in good taste."
"Nor is that."
"And I was splendid at lawn tennis."
Her mother shook her head.
"Look here, little mummy. I won a brooch at the archery match."
"That will not do, Gwendoline. What good have you ever done to anyone else beside yourself?"
The girl considered a minute, then laughed, and said: "I put into a raffle at a bazaar—no, it was a bran-pie for an orphanage—and I drew out a pair of braces. I had rare fun over those braces, I sold them to Captain Fitzakerly for half a crown, and that I gave to the charity."
"You went for what you could get, not what you could give."
Then the mother stepped on one side, and the ray shot directly at the girl. I saw that it had something of the quality of the X-ray. It was not arrested by her garments, or her flesh or muscles. It revealed in her breast, in her brain—penetrating her whole body—a hard, dark core.
"Black Ram, I bet," said I.
Now Black Ram is the local name for a substance found in our land, especially in the low ground that ought to be the most fertile, but is not so, on account of this material found in it.
The substance lies some two or three feet below the surface, and forms a crust of the consistency of cast iron. No plough can possibly be driven through it. No water can percolate athwart it, and consequently where it is, there the superincumbent soil is resolved into a quagmire. No tree can grow in it, for the moment the taproot touches the Black Ram the tree dies.
Of what Black Ram consists is more than I can say; the popular opinion is that it is a bastard manganese. Now I happen to own several fields accursed with the presence in them of Black Ram—fields that ought to be luxuriant meadows, but which, in consequence of its presence, are worth almost nothing at all.
"No, Gwen," said her mother, looking sorrowfully at her, "there is not a chance of your admission till you have got rid of the Black Ram that is in you."
"Sure," said I, as I slapped my knee, "I thought I knew the article, and now my opinion has been confirmed."
"How can I get rid of it?" asked the girl.
"Gwendoline, you will have to pass into little Polly Finch, and work it out of your system. She is dying of scarlet fever, and you must enter into her body, and so rid yourself in time of the Black Ram."
"Mother!—the Finches are common people."
"So much the better chance for you."
"And I am eighteen, Polly is about ten."
"You will have to become a little child if you would enter her."
"I don't like it. What is the alternative?"
"To remain without in the darkness till you come to a better mind. And now, Gwen, no time is to be lost; you must pass into Polly Finch's body before it grows cold."
"Well, then—here goes!"
Gwen Venville turned, and her mother accompanied her down the path. The girl moved reluctantly, and pouted. Passing out of the churchyard, both traversed the street and disappeared within a cottage, from the upper window of which light from behind a white blind was diffused.
I did not follow, I leaned back against the wall. I felt that my head was throbbing. I was a little afraid lest my fall had done more injury than I had at first anticipated. I put my hand to my head, and held it there for a moment.
Then it was as though a book were opened before me—the book of the life of Polly Finch—or rather of Gwendoline's soul in Polly Finch's body. It was but one page that I saw, and the figures in it were moving.
The girl was struggling under the burden of a heavy baby brother. She coaxed him, she sang to him, she played with him, talked to him, broke off bits of her bread and butter, given to her for breakfast, and made him eat them; she wiped his nose and eyes with her pocket-handkerchief, she tried to dance him in her arms. He was a fractious urchin, and most exacting, but her patience, her good-nature, never failed. The drops stood on her brow, and her limbs tottered under the weight, but her heart was strong, and her eyes shone with love.
I drew my hand from my head. It was burning. I put my hand to the cold stone bench to cool it, and then applied it once more to my brow.
Instantly it was as though another page were revealed. I saw Polly in her widowed father's cottage. She was now a grown girl; she was on her knees scrubbing the floor. A bell tinkled. Then she put down the soap and brush, turned down her sleeves, rose and went into the outer shop to serve a customer with half a pound of tea. That done, she was back again, and the scrubbing was renewed. Again a tinkle, and again she stood up and went into the shop to a child who desired to buy a pennyworth of lemon drops.
On her return, in came her little brother crying—he had cut his finger. Polly at once applied cobweb, and then stitched a rag about the wounded member.
"There, there, Tommy! don't cry any more. I have kissed the bad place, and it will soon be well."
"Poll! it hurts! it hurts!" sobbed the boy.
"Come to me," said his sister. She drew a low chair to the fireside, took Tommy on her lap, and began to tell him the story of Jack the Giant-killer.
I removed my hand, and the vision was gone.
I put my other hand to my head, and at once saw a further scene in the life-story of Polly.
She was now a middle-aged woman, and had a cottage of her own. She was despatching her children to school. They had bright, rosy faces, their hair was neatly combed, their pinafores were white as snow. One after another, before leaving, put up the cherry lips to kiss mammy; and when they were gone, for a moment she stood in the door looking after them, then sharply turned, brought out a basket, and emptied its contents on the table. There were little girls' stockings with "potatoes" in them to be darned, torn jackets to be mended, a little boy's trousers to be reseated, pocket-handkerchiefs to be hemmed. She laboured on with her needle the greater part of the day, then put away the garments, some finished, others to be finished, and going to the flour-bin took forth flour and began to knead dough, and then to roll it out to make pasties for her husband and the children.
"Poll!" called a voice from without; she ran to the door.
"Back, Joe! I have your dinner hot in the oven."
"I must say, Poll, you are the best of good wives, and there isn't a mother like you in the shire. My word! that was a lucky day when I chose you, and didn't take Mary Matters, who was setting her cap at me. See what a slattern she has turned out. Why, I do believe, Poll, if I'd took her she'd have drove me long ago to the public-house."
I saw the mother of Gwendoline standing by me and looking out on this scene, and I heard her say: "The Black Ram is run out, and the key is forged."
All had vanished. I thought now I might as well rise and continue my journey. But before I had left the bench I observed the rector of Fifewell sauntering up the path, with uncertain step, as he fumbled in his coat-tail pockets, and said: "Where the deuce is the key?"
The Reverend William Hexworthy was a man of good private means, and was just the sort of man that a bishop delights to honour. He was one who would never cause him an hour's anxiety; he was not the man to indulge in ecclesiastical vagaries. He flattered himself that he was strictly a via media man. He kept dogs, he was a good judge of horses, was fond of sport. He did not hunt, but he shot and fished. He was a favourite in Society, was of irreproachable conduct, and was a magistrate on the bench.
As the ray from the keyhole smote on him he seemed to be wholly dark,—made up of nothing but Black Ram. He came on slowly, as though not very sure of his way.
"Bless me! where can be the key?" he asked.
Then from out of the graves, and from over the wall of the churchyard, came rushing up a crowd of his dead parishioners, and blocked his way to the porch.
"Please, your reverence!" said one, "you did not visit me when I was dying."
"I sent you a bottle of my best port," said the parson.
"Ay, sir, and thank you for it. But that went into my stomick, and what I wanted was medicine for my soul. You never said a prayer by me. You never urged me to repentance for my bad life, and you let me go out of the world with all my sins about me."
"And I, sir," said another, thrusting himself before Mr. Hexworthy—"I was a young man, sir, going wild, and you never said a word to restrain me; never sent for me and gave me a bit of warning and advice which would have checked me. You just shrugged your shoulders and laughed, and said that a young chap like me must sow his wild oats."
"And we," shouted the rest—"we were never taught by you anything at all."
"Now this is really too bad," said the rector. "I preached twice every Sunday."
"Oh, yes—right enough that. But precious little good it did when nothing came out of your heart, and all out of your pocket—and that you did give us was copied in your library. Why, sir, not one of your sermons ever did anybody a farthing of good."
"We were your sheep," protested others, "and you let us wander where we would! You didn't seem to know yourself that there was a fold into which to draw us."
"And we," said others, "went off to chapel, and all the good we ever got was from the dissenting minister—never a mite from you."
"And some of us," cried out others, "went to the bad altogether, through your neglect. What did you care about our souls so long as your terriers were washed and combed, and your horses well groomed? You were a fisherman, but all you fished for were trout—not souls. And if some of us turned out well, it was in spite of your neglect—no thanks to you."
Then some children's voices were raised: "Sir, you never taught us no Catechism, nor our duty to God and to man, and we grew up regular heathens."
"That was your fathers' and mothers' duty."
"But our fathers and mothers never taught us anything."
"Come, this is intolerable," shouted Mr. Hexworthy. "Get out of the way, all of you. I can't be bothered with you now. I want to go in there."
"You can't, parson! the door is shut, and you have not got your key."
Mr. Hexworthy stood bewildered and irresolute. He rubbed his chin.
"What the dickens am I to do?" he asked.
Then the crowd closed about him, and thrust him back towards the gate. "You must go whither we send you," they said.
I stood up to follow. It was curious to see a flock drive its shepherd, who, indeed, had never attempted to lead. I walked in the rear, and it seemed as though we were all swept forward as by a mighty wind. I did not gain my breath, or realise whither I was going, till I found myself in the slums of a large manufacturing town before a mean house such as those occupied by artisans, with the conventional one window on one side of the door and two windows above. Out of one of these latter shone a scarlet glow.
The crowd hustled Mr. Hexworthy in at the door, which was opened by a hospital nurse.
I stood hesitating what to do, and not understanding what had taken place. On the opposite side of the street was a mission church, and the windows were lighted. I entered, and saw that there were at least a score of people, shabbily dressed, and belonging to the lowest class, on their knees in prayer. There was a sort of door-opener or verger at the entrance, and I said to him: "What is the meaning of all this?"
"Oh, sir!" said he, "he is ill, he has been attacked by smallpox. It has been raging in the place, and he has been with all the sick, and now he has taken it himself, and we are terribly afraid that he is dying. So we are praying God to spare him to us."
Then one of those who was kneeling turned to me and said: "I was an hungred, and he gave me meat."
And another rose up and said: "I was a stranger, and he took me in."
Then a third said: "I was naked, and he clothed me."
And a fourth: "I was sick, and he visited me."
Then said a fifth, with bowed head, sobbing: "I was in prison, and he came to me."
Thereupon I went out and looked up at the red window, and I felt as if I must see the man for whom so many prayed. I tapped at the door, and a woman opened.
"I should so much like to see him, if I may," said I.
"Well, sir," spoke the woman, a plain, middle-aged, rough creature, but her eyes were full of tears: "Oh, sir, I think you may, if you will go up softly. There has come over him a great change. It is as though a new life had entered into him."
I mounted the narrow staircase of very steep steps and entered the sick-room. There was an all-pervading glow of red. The fire was low—no flame, and a screen was before it. The lamp had a scarlet shade over it. I stepped to the side of the bed, where stood a nurse. I looked on the patient. He was an awful object. His face had been smeared over with some dark solution, with the purpose of keeping all light from the skin, with the object of saving it from permanent disfigurement.
The sick priest lay with eyes raised, and I thought I saw in them those of Mr. Hexworthy, but with a new light, a new faith, a new fervour, a new love in them. The lips were moving in prayer, and the hands were folded over the breast. The nurse whispered to me: "We thought he was passing away, but the prayers of those he loved have prevailed. A great change has come over him. The last words he spoke were: 'God's will be done. If I live, I will live only—only for my dear sheep, and die among them'; and now he is in an ecstasy, and says nothing. But he is praying still—for his people."
As I stood looking I saw what might have been tears, but seemed to be molten Black Ram, roll over the painted cheeks. The spirit of Mr. Hexworthy was in this body.
Then, without a word, I turned to the door, went through, groped my way down the steps, passed out into the street, and found myself back in the porch of Fifewell Church.
"Upon my word," said I, "I have been here long enough." I wrapped my fur coat about me, and prepared to go, when I saw a well-known figure, that of Mr. Fothergill, advancing up the path.
I knew the old gentleman well. His age must have been seventy. He was a spare man, he was rather bald, and had sunken cheeks. He was a bachelor, living in a pretty little villa of his own. He had a good fortune, and was a harmless, but self-centred, old fellow. He prided himself on his cellar and his cook. He always dressed well, and was scrupulously neat. I had often played a game of chess with him.
I would have run towards him to remonstrate with him for exposing himself to the night air, but I was forestalled. Slipping past me, his old manservant, David, went to meet him. David had died three years before. Mr. Fothergill had then been dangerously ill with typhoid fever, and the man had attended to him night and day. The old gentleman, as I heard, had been most irritable and exacting in his illness. When his malady took a turn, and he was on the way to convalescence, David had succumbed in his turn, and in three days was dead.
This man now met his master, touched his cap, and said: "Beg pardon, sir, you will not be admitted."
"Not admitted? Why not, Davie?"
"I really am very sorry, sir. If my key would have availed, you would have been welcome to it; but, sir, there's such a terrible lot of Black Ram in you, sir. That must be got out first."
"I don't understand, Davie."
"I'm sorry, sir, to have to say it; but you've never done anyone any good."
"I paid you your wages regularly."
"Yes, sir, to be sure, sir, for my services to yourself."
"And I've always subscribed when asked for money."
"Yes, that is very true, sir, but that was because you thought it was expected of you, not because you had any sympathy with those in need, and sickness, and suffering."
"I'm sure I never did anyone any harm."
"No, sir, and never anyone any good. You'll excuse me for mentioning it."
"But, Davie, what do you mean? I can't get in?"
"No, sir, not till you have the key."
"But, bless my soul! what is to become of me? Am I to stick out here?"
"Yes, sir, unless——"
"In this damp, and cold, and darkness?"
"There is no help for it, Mr. Fothergill, unless——"
"Unless what, Davie?"
"Unless you become a mother, sir!"
"Of twins, sir."
"Indeed, it is so, sir, and you will have to nurse them."
"I can't do it. I'm physically incapable."
"It must be done, sir. Very sorry to mention it, but there is no alternative. There's Sally Bowker is approaching her confinement, and it's going terribly hard with her. The doctor thinks she'll never pull through. But if you'd consent to pass into her and become a mother——"
"And nurse the twins? Oh, Davie, I shall need a great amount of stout."
"I grieve to say it, Mr. Fothergill, but you'll be too poor to afford it."
"Is there no alternative?"
"None in the world, sir."
"I don't know my way to the place."
"If you'd do me the honour, sir, to take my arm, I would lead you to the house."
"It's hard—cruel hard on an old bachelor. Must it be twins? It's a rather large order."
"It really must, sir."
Then I saw David lend his arm to his former master and conduct him out of the churchyard, across the street, into the house of Seth Bowker, the shoemaker.
I was so interested in the fate of my old friend, and so curious as to the result, that I followed, and went into the cobbler's house. I found myself in the little room on the ground floor. Seth Bowker was sitting over the fire with his face in his hands, swaying himself, and moaning: "Oh dear! dear life! whatever shall I do without her? and she the best woman as breathed, and knew all my little ways."
Overhead was a trampling. The doctor and the midwife were with the woman. Seth looked up, and listened. Then he flung himself on his knees at the deal table, and prayed: "Oh, good God in heaven! have pity on me, and spare me my wife. I shall be a lost man without her—and no one to sew on my shirt-buttons!"
At the moment I heard a feeble twitter aloft, then it grew in volume, and presently became cries. Seth looked up; his face was bathed in tears. Still that strange sound like the chirping of sparrows. He rose to his feet and made for the stairs, and held on to the banister.
Forth from the chamber above came the doctor, and leisurely descended the stairs.
"Well, Bowker," said he, "I congratulate you; you have two fine boys."
"And my Sally—my wife?"
"She has pulled through. But really, upon my soul, I did fear for her at one time. But she rallied marvellously."
"Can I go up to her?"
"In a minute or two, not just now, the babes are being washed."
"And my wife will get over it?"
"I trust so, Bowker; a new life came into her as she gave birth to twins."
"God be praised!" Seth's mouth quivered, all his face worked, and he clasped his hands.
Presently the door of the chamber upstairs was opened, the nurse looked down, and said: "Mr. Bowker, you may come up. Your wife wants you. Lawk! you will see the beautifullest twins that ever was."
I followed Seth upstairs, and entered the sick-room. It was humble enough, with whitewashed walls, all scrupulously clean. The happy mother lay in the bed, her pale face on the pillow, but the eyes were lighted up with ineffable love and pride.
"Kiss them, Bowker," said she, exhibiting at her side two little pink heads, with down on them. But her husband just stooped and pressed his lips to her brow, and after that kissed the tiny morsels at her side.
"Ain't they loves!" exclaimed the midwife.
But oh! what a rapture of triumph, pity, fervour, love, was in that mother's face, and—the eyes looking on those children were the eyes of Mr. Fothergill. Never had I seen such an expression in them, not even when he had exclaimed "Checkmate" over a game of chess.
Then I knew what would follow. How night and day that mother would live only for her twins, how she would cheerfully sacrifice her night's rest to them; how she would go downstairs, even before it was judicious, to see to her husband's meals. Verily, with the mother's milk that fed those babes, the Black Ram would run out of the Fothergill soul. There was no need for me to tarry. I went forth, and as I issued into the street heard the clock strike one.
"Bless me!" I exclaimed, "I have spent an hour in the porch. What will my wife say?"
I walked home as fast as I could in my fur coat. When I arrived I found Bessie up.
"Oh, Bessie!" said I, "with your cold you ought to have been in bed."
"My dear Edward," she replied, "how could I? I had lain down, but when I heard of the accident I could not rest. Have you been hurt?"
"My head is somewhat contused," I replied.
"Let me feel. Indeed, it is burning. I will put on some cold compresses."
"But, Bessie, I have a story to tell you."
"Oh! never mind the story, we'll have that another day. I'll send for some ice from the fishmonger to-morrow for your head."
I did eventually tell my wife the story of my experience in the porch of Fifewell on St. Mark's eve.
I have since regretted that I did so; for whenever I cross her will, or express my