Parson Jack’s Fortune by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

I.

From Langona church tower you see nothing of the Atlantic but a wedge between two cliffs of a sandy creek. The cottages–thirty in all, perhaps–huddle in a semicircle of the hills about a spring of clear water, which overflows and leaps as from a platform into the hollow coombe, its conduit down to the sands. But Langona Church stands out more boldly, on a high grassy meadow thrust forward like a bastion over the stream’s right flank. It has no tree, no habitation between it and the ocean: it breaks the northerly gales for the cottages behind and under its lee, and these gales have given its tamarisk hedge and even its gravestones so noticeable a slant inland that, by a trick of eyesight, the church itself seems tilted perilously forward.

Forward, in fact–that is to say, seaward–the tower does lean; though but by a foot or so, and now not perilously; the salt winds, impotent against its masonry, having bitten with more effect into the earth around its base. But the church has been restored, the mischief arrested, and the danger no longer haunts its vicar as it haunted the Rev. John Flood on a bright September morning in 1885.

He sat on a thyme-covered hummock by the valley stream, with knees drawn up and palms pressed against his aching head: sat as he had been sitting for half an hour past, a shovel beside him and an empty sack, which he had brought down to fill with clean river-sand. A chaffinch, fresh from his bath, flitted incessantly between the rail of the footbridge, a dozen yards below, and the boughs of a tamarisk beside it. He paid no attention to Parson Jack. Few living creatures ever did.

Even his parishioners–those who knew of it–felt no great concern that Parson Jack had been drunk again last night. There was no harm in the man. “He had this failing, to be sure: with a little liquor he talked silly, though not so silly as you might suppose. Let him alone, and he’ll find his way home somehow. Scandalous? Oh, no doubt! But you might easily go farther and find a worse parson than Flood.”

It never occurred to them that he felt any special remorse. His agonies were private, and his chance of redemption lay in this, that they neither ceased nor eased with time; perhaps in this, too, that he wasted no breath in apologetics or self-pity, but blamed himself squarely like a man.

Yet a sentimentalist in his place might have run up a long and tearful account against Providence, fate, circumstances–whatever sentimentalists choose to arraign rather than themselves. Five-and-twenty years before, Jack Flood had been a rowdy undergraduate of Brasenose College, Oxford; in his third year of residence, with more than a fair prospect of being ploughed–or, in the language of that generation, “plucked”–at the end of it; a member of the Phoenix Wine Club, owner of a brute which he not only called a “hunter” but made to do duty for one at least twice a week; and debtor among various Oxford tradesmen to the tune of something like 500 pounds. At this point his father–a Berkshire rector–died suddenly of a paralytic stroke, leaving Jack and his elder brother Lionel (then abroad in the new Indian Civil Service) to realise and divide an estate of 1200 pounds.

Six hundred pounds is a fair equipment for starting a young man in life; but not when he already owes five hundred, and has few brains, no decided bent, and only a little of the most useless learning. Jack surrendered two-thirds of his patrimony to his pressing creditors, sold his hunter, read hard for a term, scrambled into his degree, and was received, a month or two later, into Holy Orders. His father had sent him to Brasenose College as a step to this, and Jack had looked forward to being a parson some day–a sporting parson, be it understood.

For the moment, however, he was almost penniless; and he had answered in vain some dozen advertisements of curacies, when a college friend came to the rescue and prevailed on a distant kinsman to offer him the living of Langona, with a net annual stipend of 51 pounds eighteen shillings and sixpence. There are such “livings.”

It was offered, of course, and accepted, merely as a stopgap. But twenty-five years had passed, and at Langona Parson Flood remained. It had cost him twenty of these to wipe off his Oxford debts, with interest; but he had managed to retain the small remnant of his capital, and this with his benefice yielded an income better than a day labourer’s. That he was still a bachelor goes without saying. In the summer he fished; in the winter he followed, afoot, a pack of harriers kept by his patron, Sir Harry Vyell of Carwithiel. These were his recreations. He could not afford to travel, and cared little for reading. His library consisted of his Bible, two or three small Divinity Handbooks, a Pickwick, Stonehenge on the Dog, and a couple of “Handley Cross” novels, with coloured illustrations by John Leech. Twice a year or thereabouts a letter reached him from his brother in Calcutta, who was apparently prospering, and had a wife and three children–though for some years the letters had brought no news of them.

“Something was wrong,” Parson Jack decided after a while, finding that his messages to them met with no answer; and he felt a delicacy in asking questions. He believed that the children had been sent home to England–he did not know where–and would have liked to pay them a visit. But for him a journey was out of the question. So he lived on, alone and forgotten.

On Sundays he wore a black suit, which had lasted him for ten years, and would have to last for another five at least. On week-days he dressed in blue guernsey and corduroys, and smoked a clay pipe. His broad-brimmed clerical hat alone distinguished him from the farm-labourers in his parish; but when at work upon the church–patching its shingle roof, or pouring mortar into its gaping wounds–he discarded this for a maroon-coloured cap, not unlike a biretta, which offered less surface to the high winds.

He knew nothing of architecture: could not, in fact, distinguish Norman work from Perpendicular; and at first had taken to these odd jobs of masonry as a handy way of killing time. He had wit enough, however, to learn pretty soon that the whole fabric was eaten with rot and in danger from every gale; and by degrees (he could not explain how) the ruin had set up a claim on him. In his worst dreams he saw it toppling, falling; during the winter gales he lay awake listening, imagining the throes and shudders of its old beams, and would be abroad before daybreak, waiting for the light to assure him that it yet stood. A casual tourist, happening on him at work, some summers before, had mistaken him for a hired mason, and discoursed learnedly on the beauties of the edifice and the pity of its decay. “That’s a vile job you have in hand, my friend– a bit of sheer vandalism,” said the tourist; “but I suppose the Parson who employs you knows no better.” Parson Jack had been within an ace of revealing himself, but now changed his mind and asked humbly enough what was amiss. Whereupon the tourist pulled out a pencil and an old envelope, and explained. “But there,” he broke off, “it would take me a week to go into these matters, and you a deal longer to understand. I’d enjoy twenty minutes’ talk with your Parson. The church wants restoration from beginning to end, and by a first-class man. It deserves no less, for it’s interesting throughout; in some points unique.” “That would cost money now?” suggested Parson Jack, pitching his voice to the true Langona sing-song. “Two thousand pounds would go a long way.”–The tourist scanned the waggon-roof critically, and lowering his eyes, at length observed the Parson’s smile. “Ah, I see! a sum that would take some collecting hereabouts. Parson’s none too well off, eh?” “Fifty pounds a year or so.” “Scandalous! Who’s the lay impropriator?” He was told. “Well, but wouldn’t he help?” Parson Jack shook his head; he had never asked a penny from Sir Harry Vyell, who was a notorious Gallio in all that concerned religion. He had a further reason, too. He suspected that Sir Harry chafed a little in a careless way at his continuing to hold the living, and would be glad to see him replaced by an incumbent with private means and no failings to be apologised for with a shrug of the shoulders. Sir Harry, he knew, was aware of these hateful lapses, though too delicate to allude to them, and far too charitable to use them (unless under compulsion) as a lever for getting rid of him. And this knowledge was perhaps the worst of his shame. Yet what could he do? since to surrender Langona was to starve. “Your Parson might at least make a beginning,” pursued the tourist. “A box, now, inviting donations–that would cost nothing, and might relieve a visitor here and there of a spare sovereign. He could put up a second box for himself: it’s quite a usual thing in churches when the parish priest is poor. You might make the suggestion, if he’s not too proud.”

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“I will,” said Parson Jack, and after the tourist had gone he thought much of these two boxes. Indeed, he made and fixed up the first that same week, though he labelled it “For Church Repairs,” fighting shy of “Restoration” as too magniloquent. The second cost him long searchings of heart, and he walked over and laid the case before Parson Kendall, Rector of the near parish of St. Cadox, a good Christian and a good fellow, with whom he sometimes smoked a pipe. “Why not?” answered Parson Kendall; “it’s the most ordinary thing in the world.” “But Sir Harry may not like it.” The Rector chuckled. “If he doesn’t, he’ll consult me; and I shall ask him why he hunts a pack by subscription.”

So the second box was nailed beside the first, and excited little discussion. Indeed, the pair hung in so obscure a corner–behind the font–that at the first service only Parson Jack and the Widow Copping were aware of them. The Parson stumbled and hesitated so badly over the prayers that one or two worshippers felt sure he had been drinking; which was not the fact. The Widow Copping took no interest in collecting-boxes; and, besides, she could not read. So the innovation missed fire. Moreover, it suggested neither popery nor priestcraft, and only a fool would suspect Parson Flood of either.

The “Parson’s Box” remained, provoking no criticism. He himself had a little plan for its contents. He would spend the money on a journey to his nephew and nieces, if they were anywhere in England. He would find out. There was no hurry, he told himself, with a queer smile.

There was not. The box provoked neither ill-criticism nor effusive charity. On Trinity Sunday, when he opened it and counted out one shilling in silver and sevenpence in coppers, Parson Jack pulled a wry face and then laughed aloud.

II.

Toot–toot–toot!

The postman’s horn in the village street above him shook the Parson out of his idleness, if not out of his dark thoughts. He sprang up, gripped his shovel, and began spading the white river-sand into his sack.

“It is useless, after all,” said he to himself. “The crack on the south of the tower stands still, but the smaller and more dangerous one–the one on the weather side–is widening fast. This winter, even, may finish matters.”

He took up a few more shovelfuls. “Anyhow, it will not last my time; and since it will not–” He paused, as a thought rose before him like a blank wall. If the church fell–nay, when it fell–this comrade which had taken possession of his purposes, his fears, his fate–this enigmatic building of which he knew neither the history nor the founder’s name, but only its wounds–why, then his occupation was gone! He might outlive it for years, perhaps a third of a lifetime; but he had no hopes beyond. In imagination he saw it fall, and after that– nothing. And he laughed–not the laugh with which he had counted out the money in his collecting-box, but one of sheer self-contempt, and passing bitter.

The impression had been so sharp that he flung a glance up at the grey tower topping the grey-green rise; and with that was aware of the postman swinging, with long strides, down the slope towards him.

He turned in confusion and resumed his shovelling. Why was the man coming this way, by a path out of his daily beat? Parson Jack stooped over his work. He wished to avoid greeting him. There was talk, no doubt, up at the village. . . .

But the postman was not to be denied. He stopped and hailed across the stream.

“Hulloa, Parson! I’ve just left a letter for you up at the Parsonage: a long blue letter, and important, by the look of it, with a seal–a man’s hand coming out of a castle. Do you know it?”

“No,” answered Parson Jack. “Did you come out of your way to tell me this?”

“Not quite; though I’d do as much for ‘ee any day, out of friendliness. But, tell ‘ee the truth, I was sent to seek you with a message.”

“A message?”

“Sir Harry has ridden over from Carwithiel, and wants you up to church. He’s there waitin’ with his nephew, a narra-chested slip of a chap with a square-cut collar and a Popish sort of face.”

Parson Jack lifted his shovel and passed his palm over its blade, which the sand had already polished. “Thank you,” said he, “I’ll be going at once.”

But he made no motion to start while the postman stood eyeing him. A sudden selfish fear paralysed him. Had Sir Harry heard? And was this the end of his patron’s forbearance? No; the news could not have reached Carwithiel so quickly. He had no enemy to arise early and carry it; to no living creature were even his follies of such importance.

“Don’t forget your letter,” the postman reminded him, moving off towards the foot-bridge.

Parson Jack watched him as he crossed it, and until he had scaled the western slope and disappeared over its shoulder. Then, kneeling by the stream, he dipped his head, and let the icy water run past his temples. When he raised it again his plain face was glowing, for hard fare and life in the open weather kept his complexion clear and ruddy. But the hand gripping the sack on his shoulder shook as he climbed the hill.

By the lych-gate he found two saddle-horses tethered, and just outside the porch stood Sir Harry Vyell–a strikingly handsome man with a careless thoroughbred look; in fact, well over sixty, but apparently ten years younger. By habit he dressed well, and was scrupulously careful of his person; by habit, too, he remained sweet of temper and kindly of speech. But beneath this mask of habit the heart had withered, a while ago, to dust, and lay in the grave of his only son.

“Ah? Good morning, Flood!” cried Sir Harry genially. Parson Jack, reassured, felt the colour rushing into his face. “I’ve brought over my nephew Clem to introduce to you–he’s in Orders, you know–scholar of Balliol, Fellow of All Souls, and what not. High Anglican, too–he’ll be a bishop one of these days, if money doesn’t make him lazy. He’s inside, dancing with delight in front of your chancel-screen–or, rather, the remains of it. Church architecture is his craze just now– that and Church History. Between ourselves”–Sir Harry glanced over his shoulder–“he has a bee or two in his bonnet; but that’s as it should be. Every lad at his age wants to eat up the world.”

Parson Jack could remember no such ambition. They passed into the church together.

Now the surprise which awaits you in Langona Church is its chancel, which stands high above the level of the nave, and, rising suddenly beneath a fine Early English arch, carries the eye upward to the altar with a strange illusion of distance. Even in those days the first impression was one of rare, almost singular, beauty–an impression lost in a series of small pangs as your eye rested on the ruinous details one by one. For of the great screen nothing remained but two tall uprights, surmounted by hideous knops–the addition of some local carpenter. Between the lozenge-shaped shafts of the choir arches, the worm-riddled parclose screens dripped sawdust in little heaps. Down in the nave, bench-ends leaned askew or had been broken up, built as panels into deal pews, and daubed with paint; the floor was broken and ran in uneven waves; the walls shed plaster, and a monstrous gallery blocked the belfry arch. Upon this gallery Parson Jack had spent most of his careful, unsightly carpentry, for the simple reason that it had been unsafe; and, for the simple reason that they had let in the rain, he had provided half a dozen windows with new panes, solid enough, but in appearance worthy only to cover cucumbers.

As he entered with Sir Harry, the Rev. Clement Vyell swung round upon him eagerly, but paused with a just perceptible start at sight of his unclerical garb.

“Let me introduce you, Clem. This is Mr. Flood.”

Parson Jack bowed, and let his eyes travel around the church, which he had often enough pitied, but of which he now for the first time felt ashamed.

“We’re in a sad mess, I’m afraid,” he muttered.

“It’s most interesting, nevertheless,” Clement Vyell answered. He was a thin-faced youth with a high pedagogic voice. “Better a church in this condition than one restored out of all whooping–though I read on the box yonder that you are collecting towards a restoration.”

Parson Jack blushed hotly.

“You have made a start, eh? What are your funds in hand?”

“Two pounds four shillings–as yet.”

Sir Harry laughed outright; and after a moment Parson Jack laughed too– he could not help it. But Clement Vyell frowned, having no sense of humour.

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“I patch it up, you know–after a fashion.” Parson Jack’s tone was humble enough and propitiatory; nevertheless, he glanced at his handiwork with something like pride. “The windows, for instance–“

The younger man turned with a shudder. “I suppose now,” he said abruptly, staring up at an arch connecting the choir-stalls with the southern transept, “this bit of Norman work will be as old as anything you have?”

That it was Norman came as news to Parson Jack. He, too, stared up at it, resting a palm on a crumbling bench-end.

“Well,” said he ingenuously, “I’m no judge of these things, you know; but I always supposed the tower was the oldest bit.”

He broke off in confusion–not at his speech, but because Clement Vyell’s eyes were resting on the back of his hand, which shook with a tell-tale palsy.

“The tower,” said the young man icily, “is Perpendicular, and later than 1412, at all events, when a former belfry fell in, destroyed the nave, and cracked the pavement, as you see. All this is matter of record, as you may learn, sir, from the books which, I feel sure, my uncle will be pleased to lend you. I need not ask, perhaps, if in the course of your–ah–excavations you have come on any traces of the original pre-Augustine Oratory, or of the conventual buildings which existed here till, we are told, the middle of the thirteenth century.”

He turned away, obviously expecting no answer, addressed himself henceforward to Sir Harry, and ignored Parson Jack, who followed him abashed, yet secretly burning to hear more, and wondering where all this knowledge could be obtained.

“But it is inconceivable!” Clement Vyell protested to his uncle, half an hour later, as they rode back towards Carwithiel. “The man has had the cure of that parish for–how long, do you say?–twenty-five years, and has never had the curiosity to discover the most rudimentary facts in its history.”

“A hard case,” assented Sir Harry. “He lifts his elbow, too.”

“Eh?”

“Drinks.” Sir Harry illustrated the idiom, lifting an imaginary glass to his mouth. “Oh, it’s notorious. But what the deuce can we do? Kick him out?–not so easy; and, besides, he’d die under a hedge. You’re hard on him, Clem. He has his notions of duty. Why”–the Baronet laughed–“I’ve seen him on the roof with a tar-bucket, caulking the leaks for dear life. He’s a gentleman, too.”

Clement Vyell tightened his lips and rode on in silence.

Left alone, Parson Jack stared around his church. His repairs, in which he had taken pride before now, seemed nakedly, hideously mean at this moment. But a new sense fought with his dejection–a sense altogether new to him–that his church had a history, a meaning into which he had never penetrated. The aisles seemed to expand, the chancel to reach up into a distance in which space and time were confused; and, following it, his eye rested on a patch of colour in the east window between the wooden tablets of the Law–a cluster of fragments of stained glass, rescued by some former vicar and set amid the clear panes–the legs and scarlet robe of a saint, an angel’s wing, a broken legend on a scroll, part of a coat-of-arms, azure with a fesse,–wavy of gold–all thrown together as by a kaleidoscope gone mad. Each of these scraps had once a meaning: so this church held meanings, too long ignored by him, partly intelligible yet, soon to be mixed inextricably in a common downfall. For Clement Vyell might be wise in the history of architecture, but his eye had not read the one plain warning which stared a common workman in the face–that the days of this building were surely numbered, and were probably few.

Parson Jack had a mind to run after him. He must learn, and speedily, all about the church, its builders, this old colony of monks. But where? In books doubtless. Where could those books be found?

He had almost reached the door, when his eye fell on the two collecting-boxes. With a sudden thought he paused, drew a key from the pocket of his corduroys, and unlocked his own–the Parson’s box. A sovereign lay within.

He picked up the coin and considered it, a dark flush growing on his face. Parson Jack had a temper, though few guessed it. With an effort he controlled it now, dropped the sovereign into the box labelled “Church Repairs,” and walked slowly out.

He had no longer a mind to run after Clement Vyell. Instead, he bent his steps towards the four-roomed cottage which he called the Parsonage and found too large for his needs.

On the sitting-room table lay a letter, in a large blue envelope with a red seal.

III.

That same day, and soon after three o’clock in the afternoon, Parson Jack knocked at the door of St. Cadox Rectory.

The Rector, a widower, usually ate his dinner in the middle of the day, and immediately afterwards retired to his study (with a glass of hot brandy-and-water), presumably to meditate. At Parson Jack’s entrance he started up from his arm-chair with a flushed face and a somewhat incoherent greeting, in the middle of which he suddenly observed that his friend’s face, too, was agitated.

“But what brings you? Nothing wrong, I hope?”

“No–o,” answered Parson Jack dubiously. Then, “Oh no; on the contrary, I came to ask if you have any books bearing on this part of the world– county histories, ecclesiastical histories, and the like–especially ecclesiastical histories. I want to read up about Langona.”

The Rector’s eyes twinkled. “This is rather sudden, eh?”

“After five-and-twenty years? I suppose it is.” Parson Jack blushed like a schoolboy; but he laughed, nevertheless, for he held news, and it bubbled within him.

“Preparing a lecture?”

“No; the fact is”–he straightened his face–“I’ve just learnt of my brother Lionel’s death in India. I’ve never seen him since we were boys,” he added apologetically.

“H’m, h’m.” The Rector paid his respect to Death in a serious little cough. “Still, I don’t quite understand–“

“He has left me five thousand pounds.”

“Ah? A very tidy sum–my dear Flood, I congratulate you; with all my heart I do. You have the prospect now of many happy days.” He shook his friend’s hand warmly. “But–excuse me–what has this to do with reading ecclesiastical history, of Langona or any other place?”

“Well,” Parson Jack answered shyly, sitting down and filling his pipe, “I thought of restoring the church.”

“My dear fellow, don’t be a fool–if I may speak profanely. Five thousand pounds is a tidy sum, no doubt, in Langona especially. But you’ll be leaving Langona. You can buy yourself a decent little living, or retire and set up comfortably as a bachelor on two hundred and fifty pounds a year, with a cob, and a gig as you grow older.”

Parson Jack shook his head. “I’ve been paying debts all my life, with the help of Langona,” said he, puffing slowly. “And now I see that I owe the place repayment. But it isn’t that exactly,” he went on with a quickening voice and another of his shy blushes, “and I don’t want you to mistake that for the real reason. The fact is, I’m attached to the place–to the church especially. It seems a silly thing to say, when I haven’t troubled to learn ten words of its history, and don’t know Norman work from–well, from any but my own.” He laughed grimly, biting on his pipe-stem. “But that can be mended, I suppose–and the old barn has become a sort of companion–and that’s about the long and short of it.”

The Rector leaned forward and tapped the bowl of his pipe reflectively on the fender-bars.

“You are the residuary legatee, I take it. Your brother was unmarried?”

“Oh dear, no! Lionel was married, and had three children–two girls and a boy: ‘has,’ I should say, for I imagine they’re all alive–the widow, too. I don’t know where they are. The lawyers merely speak of my five thousand as a legacy; they say nothing of the rest of the will.”

“That’s queer.” The Rector reached for his tobacco-jar.

“Eh? You mean my not knowing the whereabouts of the family? Between ourselves, I believe there was a screw loose in Lionel’s domestic affairs. I know nothing definite–positively. We corresponded now and then,” continued Parson Jack–“say twice a year–and of late years he dropped all mention of them, and I gathered that questions were not wanted. But the wife and children are provided for, you may depend; and there’s the pension.”

“You are not an executor even?”

“No; it seems there were two; but one died. The survivor, a Major Bromham, lives in Plymouth–retired, apparently, and I suppose an old friend of Lionel’s. It’s through his solicitors that I had the news.”

“And with it the first announcement of your brother’s death. It seems queer to me that this Major Bromham didn’t send you a line of his own. How do the lawyers put it?”

“Oh, the barest announcement. Here it is; you can read for yourself: ‘On the instruction of our client, Major Bromham, late 16th Bengal Lancers, we have to inform you of the death, by syncope, at Calcutta, on the 5th of July last, of your brother, Lionel Flood, Esq., late of the Indian Civil Service, Assistant-Commissioner; and also that by the terms of his will, executed’–so-and-so–‘of which our client is the surviving executor,’ etc.–all precious formal and cold-blooded. No doubt his death was telegraphed home to the newspapers, and they take it for granted that I heard or read of it.”

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“Perhaps.” The Rector rose. “Shall we have a stroll through the stables? Afterwards you shall have a book or two to carry off.”

“But look here, Kendall; I came to you as a friend, you know. It seems to me all plain sailing enough. But you seem to imply–“

“Do I? Then I am doubtless an ass.”

“You think this Major Bromham should have written to me direct–I see that you do. Well, he lives no farther away than Plymouth. I might run up and call on him. Why, to be sure”–Parson Jack’s brow cleared–“and he can give me the address of the wife and children.”

IV.

Parson Jack walked home with a volume of Gilbert’s Survey and another of the Parochial History of Cornwall under his arm, and Parker’s Glossary in his skirt pocket. He began that evening with the Parochial History, article “Langona,” and smoked his pipe over it till midnight in a sort of rapture it would be hard to analyse. In fact, no doubt it was made up of that childish delight which most men feel on reading in print what they know perfectly well already. “The eastern end of the north aisle is used as a vestry, and the eastern end of the south aisle is impropriated to the church-warden’s use.” Yes, that was right. And the inscription on the one marble tablet was correctly given, and the legend over the south porch: “Ego sum Janua, per me qui intrabit Servabitur” But the delight of recognition was mixed with that of discovery. The lower part of the tower was Early English, the upper Perpendicular (a pause here, and a reference to Parker); the nave, too, Perpendicular. Ah, then, it could only have been the upper part– the belfry–which fell in and destroyed the nave. What was the date?– 1412. And they both had been rebuilt together–on the call of Edmund Stafford, Bishop of Exeter–in the August of that year. He read on, the familiar at each step opening new bypaths into the unguessed. But the delight of delights was to hug, while he read, his purpose to change all this story of ruin, to give it a new and happier chapter, to stand out eminent among the forgotten Vicars of Langona. . . .

The book slid from his knee to the floor with a crash. He picked it up carefully, turned down the lamp, laughed to himself, and went off to bed, shivering but happy.

He awoke to fresh day-dreams. Day-dreams filled the next week with visions of the church in all its destined beauty. To be sure, they were extravagant enough, fantasies in which flying buttresses and flamboyant traceries waltzed around solid Norman and rigid Perpendicular, nightmares of undigested Parker. But they kept Parson Jack happy.

He had not forgotten to answer Messrs. Cudmore’s letter, thanking them for their information, and adding that he proposed to pay a visit to Plymouth, and would call upon Major Bromham, with that gentleman’s leave, and discuss the legacy. They replied that their client was just then in the north of Devon on a shooting-party, but would return to Plymouth by an afternoon train on the following Wednesday and grant Mr. Flood an interview.

The tone of this letter, as of the previous one, was unmistakably cold, but Parson Jack read nothing more in it than professional formality. On the Wednesday, however, when he reached Plymouth, he presented himself at Messrs. Cudmore’s office, and was admitted to see the head of the firm, the manner of his reception began to puzzle him.

“Mr.–ah–Flood?” began Mr. Cudmore senior, with the faintest possible bow. “Our client, Major Bromham, is not returning until late this afternoon–by the four-forty train, in fact. I myself dictated the letter in reply to yours, and fancied I had made it explicit.”

“Oh, quite. I called merely in the hope that you would give me some further information about my brother’s will; since, apart from this legacy, I know nothing.”

“You must excuse me, but I prefer to leave that to the Major. In any case, the will is to be proved without delay, and may then, as you know, be inspected for a shilling.”

Parson Jack, guileless man that he was, had a way of putting a straight question. “I want to know,” said he quietly, “why on earth you are treating me like this?”

“My dear sir–” began the lawyer. But Parson Jack cut him short.

“I, for my part, will be plain with you. I ask to see the will simply because I know nothing of my brother’s property, and wish to see how his wife and children are provided for. There is nothing extraordinary in that, surely?”

“H’m”–the lawyer pondered, eyeing him. Clearly there was something in this shabbily dressed clergyman which countered his expectations. “The person who could best satisfy you on this point would be Mrs. Flood herself; but I take it you have no desire to see her personally.”

“Mrs. Flood? Do you mean my brother’s wife?”

“Certainly.”

“But–but is she here–in Plymouth?” Parson Jack’s eyes opened wide.

“I presume so. Hoe Terrace, she informs me, has been her address for these eight years. But of course you are aware–“

“Aware, sir? I am aware of nothing. Least of all am I aware of any reason why I should not call upon her. Hoe Terrace, did you say? What number?”

“Thirty-four. You will bear in mind that I have not advised–“

“Oh, dear me, no; you have advised nothing. Good-morning, Mr. Cudmore!” And Parson Jack, fuming, found himself in the street.

He filled and lit his pipe, to soothe his humour. But he forgot that the clergy of Plymouth do not as a rule smoke clay pipes in the public streets, and the attention he excited puzzled and angered him yet further. He set it down to his threadbare coat and rustic boots. It was in no sweet mood that he strode up Hoe Terrace, eyeing the numbers above the doors, and halted at length to knock out his pipe before a house with an unpainted area-railing, to which a small boy in ragged knickerbockers was engaged in attaching with a string the tail of a protesting puppy.

“I shouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Parson Jack, rapping the bowl of his pipe against his boot-heel.

“I don’t suppose you would,” retorted the small boy. “But then there’s some parsons wouldn’t smoke a clay.”

Before Parson Jack could discover a repartee the door opened and a young man with a weak chin and bright yellow boots came out laughing, followed by a good-looking girl, who turned on the step to close the door behind her. Although in black, she was outrageously over-dressed. An enormous black feather nodded above her “picture” hat, and with one hand she held up her skirt, revealing a white embroidered petticoat deplorably stained with mud.

In the act of turning she caught sight of the small boy, and at once began to rate him.

“Haven’t I told you fifty times to let that dog alone? Go indoors this instant and get yourself cleaned! For my part, I don’t know what Tillotson means, letting you out of school so early.”

“I haven’t been to school,” the boy announced, catching at a dirty sheet of newspaper which fluttered against the railing, and nonchalantly folding it into a cocked hat.

“Your mumps have been all right for a week. There’s not the slightest risk of infection, and you know it. You don’t tell me you’ve persuaded mother–“

“I haven’t said a word to her,” the boy interrupted. “It isn’t mumps; it’s these breeches. If you can’t find time to darn ’em, I’m not going to school till somebody can.”

The young man tittered, and the girl–with a toss of her head and a glance at Parson Jack, who was pretending to tie his boot-lace–accepted defeat.

“Where did you pick up that puppy?” asked Parson Jack, after watching the pair up the street.

“What’s that to you?”

“Nothing at all; only I’m a judge of wire-haired terriers, and he has a touch of breed somewhere. Well, if you won’t answer that question, I’ll try you with another. Is that Gertrude–or Ada?” He nodded up the street.

“That’s Ada. Gertrude is indoors, trimming a hat. You seem to know a heap about us.”

“Not much; but I’m going to call and find out more if I can. You’re Richard, I suppose?”

“Dick, for short. Ring the bell, if you like, and I’ll run round and open the door. Only don’t say I didn’t warn you.” This sounded like an absurd echo of the lawyer, and set Parson Jack smiling. “We don’t subscribe to anything, or take any truck in parsons; and the slavey has a whitlow on her finger, and mother’s having fits over the cooking. But come in, if you want to.”

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“Thank you, I will.”

While Parson Jack ascended to the front door and rang at the bell, Dick skipped down the area steps, and presently opened to him with a mock start of surprise. “Beg your pardon,” said he, “but I took you for the rates, or the broker’s man.” He winked as he ushered in the visitor. The running click of a sewing-machine sounded above stairs, and up from the basement floated an aroma of fried onions, and filled the passage.

“First turning to the right!” admonished the boy, and stepping past him, to the head of the basement stairs, called down: “Mother! I say, mother, here’s a gentleman to see you!”

“Then,” came the answer, “tell Gerty to step down and find out what he wants. I’m busy.”

Parson Jack discreetly shut the door, and fell to studying the not over-clean drawing-room, which was tricked out with muslin draperies, cheap Japanese fans, photographs–mostly of officers in the uniform of the Royal Marines–and such artistic trifles as painted tambourines, sabots, drain-pipes, and milking-stools. In one wicker-chair–the wicker daubed with royal-red enamel–lay a banjo; in another was curled a sleeping terrier–indubitable mother of the puppy outside. Near the door stood a piano with a comic opera score on the music-rest, open at No. 12, “I’m a Cheery Fusileery–O!” and on its rosewood top an ash-tray full of cigarette-ends and a shaded lamp the base of which needed wiping.

The terrier awoke, yawned, and was waddling down from its couch to make friends, when Master Dick returned.

“Mother wants to know who you are and what’s your business. Gerty wouldn’t come down when she heard you weren’t Jack Phillips.”

“Then tell your mother that I am your uncle, John Flood. That will satisfy her, perhaps.”

“Whe–ew!” Dick took him in from top to toe, in a long incredulous stare; but turned and went without another word.

It may have been five minutes before the door opened and Mrs. Flood entered, with an air nicely balanced between curiosity, hauteur, and injured innocence–a shabby-genteel woman, in a widow’s cap and a black cashmere gown which had been too near the frying-pan.

“Good morning.”

Mrs. Flood bowed stiffly, not to say stonily, folded her wrists accurately in front of her, over her waistband, and waited.

“I am John Flood, you know–poor Lionel’s brother. I have just come from Cudmore & Cudmore’s, the solicitors, to talk with you, if I may, about this will. It seems that I have a legacy, but beyond this I know nothing, and indeed until Messrs. Cudmore wrote I wasn’t even aware of an illness.”

Mrs. Flood’s eyes seemed to answer, if such a thing could be said in a ladylike way, that he might tell that to the Marines. But, without relenting their hostility, she took occasion to mop them.

“It was a cruel will,” she murmured. “My husband and I had differences; in fact, we have lived apart for many years. Still–” She broke off. “You know, of course, that he went wrong–took to living with natives and adopted their horrible ways–in the end, I believe, turned Hindu.”

“God bless my soul! But he used to write regularly–up to the end.”

“No doubt.” The two words were full of spiteful meaning, though what that meaning was Parson Jack could not guess.

“His letters gave no hint of–of this.”

Again Mrs. Flood’s bitter smile gave him–politely–the lie.

“He drank, too,” she went on, after a cold pause. “I had always supposed it was the one thing those natives didn’t do. We thought of contesting the will on the ground of undue influence and his mind being gone.”

“Did Lionel leave them much, then?”

“‘Them’?” she queried.

“His friends over there–the natives.”

“He left nothing but this legacy of five thousand pounds, and the residue in equal shares to his poor family.” Here her handkerchief came into play again. “Only, as it turns out, there isn’t any residue– scarcely a penny more when all is realised–except the pension, of course.” Unmasking her batteries with sudden spite, she added, “Even between you I couldn’t be robbed of that!”

Parson Jack controlled himself. He was genuinely sorry for the woman. But either cheek showed a red spot and his voice shook a little as he answered, “This is a trifle gratuitous, then–your talk about undue influence.”

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” replied Mrs. Flood, with a small and vicious titter; not because she believed him to be guilty or that it would do any good, but simply because her instinct told her it would hurt.

“That seems to close the discussion.” Parson Jack bowed with honest, if clumsy, dignity. “I am sorry, madam, for what you have told me; but my regrets had better be expressed to Major Bromham.”

Regrets, indeed!” sniffed Mrs. Flood.

And these were the last words he ever heard from her. A minute later he found himself in the street, walking towards the Hoe and drawing deep breaths as his lungs felt the sea-breeze. He had not the least notion of his direction; but as he went he muttered to himself; and for a parson’s his words sounded deplorably like swearing.

“Hi! hi!” called a shrill voice behind him. He swung right about and found himself frowning down upon Master Dick.

“How did you like it?” inquired that youngster, panting. “She’s a caution, the mater; but it wasn’t a patch on what I’ve heard her promise to give you if ever she sets eyes on you.”

“Indeed? How do you know, pray?”

“Why, I listened at the door, of course,” was the unabashed reply. “But I don’t believe a word of it, you know,” he added reassuringly.

“A word of what?”

“That rot about undue influence.”

“I thank you. Did you follow me to tell me this?”

“Well, I dunno. Yes, I guess I did. You’re a white man; I saw that at once, though you do smoke a clay pipe.”

“Thank you again for the reminder.” Parson Jack pulled out his clay and filled it. “So I’m a white man?”

Dick nodded. “I’m not saying anything about the legacy. That’s hard lines on us, of course; but I believe you. There’s no chance of my being a gentleman now, like you; but”–with a wry grin–“I’m not the sort of chap to bear malice.”

They had walked on through the gate leading to the Hoe, and were in full view now of the splendid panorama of the Sound.

“And why shouldn’t you be a gentleman?” asked Parson Jack, halting and cocking down an eye upon this queer urchin.

“Well, there’s a goodish bit against it, you’ll allow. You saw what we’re like at home.” He looked up at Parson Jack frankly enough, but into his speech there crept a strange embarrassment, too old for his years. “I mean, you saw enough without my telling you; and I mustn’t give the show away.”

“No, to be sure,” assented Parson Jack. “Dick, you’ve the makings of a good fellow,” he added musingly.

But the boy’s eyes had wandered to the broad sheet of water below. “Crikey, there she goes!” he cried, and jerked his arm towards an unwieldy battle-ship nosing her way out of the Hamoaze, her low bows tracing a thin line of white. For half a minute they stood watching her.

“She’s ugly enough, in all conscience,” commented Parson Jack.

“She’s a holy terror. But perhaps you don’t believe in turrets. Nor do I, to that extent. It’s tempting Providence.”

“In what way?”

“Top-hamper,” said Dick shortly. “But she’s a terror all the same.”

“What’s her name, I wonder?”

“Sakes! You don’t say you don’t know the old Devastation? Why, it’s fifteen years or so since they launched her at Portsmouth, and I hear tell she’ll have to be reconstructed, though even then I guess they won’t trust her far at sea. She has no speed, either, for these days. Oh, she’s a holy fraud!” And Master Dick poured in a broadside of expert criticism as the monster felt her way and slowly headed around the Winter Buoy into the Smeaton Pass.

“Nevertheless, you wouldn’t object to be on board of her?”

“Don’t!” The boy’s eyes had filled on a sudden. “You mayn’t mean it, but it–it hurts.”

Four hours later, in the early dusk, Parson Jack stepped into the street, after shaking hands with Major Bromham at the door. What is more, the Major stood bareheaded in the doorway for some moments, and stared after him. Dick had echoed Lawyer Cudmore once that day; it was now the Major’s turn to echo Dick.

“That’s a white man,” he muttered to himself. “Curiously like his brother, too–in the days before he went wrong. But Lionel Flood had a soft strake in him, and India found it out. This parson seems tougher– result of hard work and plain living, no doubt.”

His musings at this point grew involved, and he frowned. “Says he knew nothing of Lionel’s affairs–offers to show me all the letters to prove it; but this behaviour of his is proof enough. Deuced handsome behaviour, too. I wonder if he can afford it? Gad, what a pack of falsehoods that woman has poured into me! She always had a gift of circumstantial lying. I believe, if Lionel had kept a tight rein on her and shown her the whip now and then–but what’s the use of speculating? Anyway, it’s rough on the Parson, and if I hadn’t to consider Dick and the girls–“

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Dusk had given way to gaslight, and Parson Jack still paced the streets, intending but still deferring to find a dinner and a night’s lodging. He had shaken hands with Major Bromham in a mood of curious exaltation. He had decided almost without a struggle. To his mind the question was a clear one of right and wrong, and no argument helped it. Still, a man does not renounce five thousand pounds every day of his life; and, when he does, has some right to pat his conscience on the back. He derived some pleasure, too, from picturing the pretty gratitude with which his beneficiaries would hear Major Bromham’s message. He did not know Mrs. Flood.

But . . . his church? He had forgotten it, or almost forgotten; and the recollection came upon him like a blow. He halted beneath a gas-lamp in dismay; not in resentment at the shattering of his dream, for he scarcely thought of himself; not in doubt, for he had done rightly, and his church could not be restored at the expense of right; but in sheer dismay before the blank certainty that now his church must fall. Nothing could save it. He must go home to it, live with it, watch it to the inevitable end. He put out a hand against the iron pillar, and of a sudden felt faint, almost sick. As a matter of fact, he had eaten nothing since his early breakfast.

A few doors down the street the bright lamp of a tavern–the Sword and Flag–caught his eye. He tottered in and asked for a glass of brandy. It did him good, and he called for another. Some soldiers entering, with a girl or two, and finding a clergyman seated with his glass in this not over-reputable den, began to chaff. He answered gently and good-naturedly, but with a slight stutter–enough to hint at fun ahead; and they improved upon the hint. By nine o’clock Parson Jack was silly drunk; at eleven, when the premises were closed, the police found him speechless; and the rest of the night he spent in the borough lock-up.

V.

It appeared in the newspapers, of course. “Deplorable story: A clergyman fined for drunkenness.” This was more than even Sir Harry could stand.

“I’m sorry for you, Flood,” said he, when, three days later, Parson Jack appeared at Carwithiel to resign his living. “But you’ve taken the only proper course. Otherwise, you’d have driven us to an inquiry, sequestration, no end of a scandal. I’ve had to keep my eyes shut once or twice in the past, as you probably guess.”

“You have shown me all the kindness you could,” answered Parson Jack. “I won’t disgust you with thanks, and there are no excuses.” He picked up his hat and turned to go.

“Well, but look here; don’t be in a hurry. What about your prospects? They’re none too healthy, I’m afraid. Still, if a few pounds could give you a fresh start somewhere–“

“I have no prospects, but for the moment I wasn’t thinking of myself. I was thinking of Langona and the old church.”

“Oh, the church is all right! Clem–my nephew–has a fad in his head. He asked me yesterday for the living–in case you resigned. I tell him it’s folly; a youngster oughtn’t to play with his chances. But he insists that it will do him good to fling up Oxford and play parish-priest for a year or two. He has taken a fancy to your church, and wants to restore it. He can pay for his whims: the money’s all in his branch of the family.”

“Restore it! The church–restored!”

Sir Harry looked up sharply, for the words came in a whisper of awe, almost of terror; and looking up, he saw Parson Jack’s eyes dilated as a man’s who stares on a vision; but while they stared there grew in them a slow, beatific surmise.

“The Lord taketh away,” said Parson Jack. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Six weeks later the Rev. Clement Vyell was inducted into the living of Langona, vacant by the resignation of the Rev. John Flood. His first sermon announced that the church was to be restored without delay; that plans were even now being prepared by an eminent architect, and that, as soon as they arrived and were approved, tenders would be invited.

Mr. Vyell was in no hurry to take possession of the Parsonage; indeed, bachelor though he was, and professed ascetic, he decided that, to be habitable, it needed a wing and a new kitchen at the back. For the present he accepted his uncle’s invitation to use the hospitality, and the library, of Carwithiel. Parson Jack might give up possession at his own convenience. Nevertheless he gave it up at once, packed his few belongings, and hired a bedroom at the Widow Copping’s. It appeared that he, too, needed time to look about him.

And so he loitered about Langona until the architect’s plans were received, discussed, approved, and submitted to tender. A Bristol builder secured the contract.

The day after it was signed Parson Jack walked over to Carwithiel again, and asked leave to speak with Mr. Vyell. He wore his old working suit.

“I have come to ask a favour, sir,” said he, speaking humbly. “I hear that the contract for the church has been given to Miles & Co., of Bristol; and I would take it kindly if you recommended me to them as a workman.”

The new Vicar was taken by surprise, and showed it.

“I have picked up some knowledge of the work in these years,” Parson Jack explained timidly. “And I know the weak points in the old fabric better than most men. As for steadiness,” he wound up, “I only ask to be given a trial. You must discharge me the first time I give cause of complaint.”

“What on earth could I say to the man?” Mr. Vyell demanded that evening, when he discussed the application with his uncle.

“I hope you accepted?” said Sir Harry sharply.

“Ye-es, though I fear it was imprudent.”

“Fiddlestick! Speak a word for him to Miles; he won’t find a better workman.”

So Parson Jack stayed at Langona, and beheld his best dream take shape, though not at his command, and yet in part by his fashioning. Nay, even some measure of that personal pride for which he had once bargained was restored to him during the second year, on the day when the contractor– who shared the common knowledge of his past, but respected his unequalled knowledge of the old fabric and its weakness, his gentle ardour in learning, and his mild authority among the men–appointed him clerk of the works. In those days Parson Jack needed no man’s pity, for all day long he redeemed a debt and wrought into substance an ambition that yet grew purer–as few ambitions do–in taking substance. And with it he wove another dream which, in the intervals of labour, would draw him out of the churchyard and hold him at gaze there, with his eyes on the wedge of blue sea beyond the coombe.

From the hour of his fall no strong drink passed his lips. His was an almost desperate case, but he fought with two strong allies. It was as though the old church, rallying under his eyes for a new lease of life, put new blood into him, repaying his love. Also he had Dick’s letters.

“Upon my word,” said Sir Harry to his nephew, “I’ve a mind to put Flood into the living again when this business is over and you tire of your whim. I suppose there’s nothing to prevent it?”

There was nothing to prevent it; but as a reward it lay outside Parson Jack’s speculation, perhaps beyond his desire. His reward came to him on the afternoon when, having mounted a ladder beside the new east window, he looked over his shoulder and saw Parson Kendall entering the churchyard by the lych-gate, and ushering in a youngster–a mere boy still, but splendid in the uniform of a freshly blown naval cadet.

Parson Jack can scarcely be said to have risen to the occasion. “Hullo, Dick!” he said, descending the ladder and holding out his hand.

But the Rector, standing aside, made a better speech; though this, too, was short enough.

“God fulfils Himself in many ways,” said the Rector to himself.

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