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Chapter XX


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« on: December 02, 2022, 03:11:49 am »


"TAKE me home!---take me home quick! I want to talk to you. Not now---not here!"

The car flew along. Mark barely looked at Delia. His face was set and pale. As for her, while they ran through the village and along the country road between it and Maumsey, her mind had time to adjust itself to that flashing resolution which had broken down a hundred scruples and swept away a hundred fears, in that moment on the hill when she had met his eyes, and the look in them. What must he think of her? An assignation with that man, on the very first afternoon when his tender watchfulness left her for an hour! No, it could not be borne that he should read her so! She must clear herself! And thought, leaping beacon-like from point to point, told her, at last, that for Gertrude, too, she had chosen wrongly. Thank Heaven, there was still time! What could a girl do, all alone---groping in such a darkness? Better after all lay the case before Mark's judgement, Mark's tenderness, and trust him with it all. Trust her own power too---see what a girl could do with the man who loved her!

The car stopped at the Abbey door, and Winnington, still absolutely silent, helped her to alight. She led the way, past the drawing-room where Lady Tonbridge sat rather anxiously expecting her, to that bare room on the ground floor, the little gun room, which Gertrude Marvell had made her office, and where many signs of her occupation still remained---a calendar on the wall marking the "glorious" dates of the League---a flashlight photograph of the first raid on Parliament some years before---a faded badge, and scattered piles of newspapers. A couple of deal tables and two chairs were all the furniture the room contained, in addition to the cupboards, painted in stone-colour, which covered the walls.

Delia closed the door, and threw off her furs. Then, with a gesture of complete abandonment, she went up to Winnington, holding out her hands---"Oh, Mark, Mark, I want you to help me!"

He took her hands, but without pressing them. His face, frowning and flushed, with a little quivering of the nostrils, began to terrify her---

"Oh, Mark,---dear Mr. Mark---I went to see Mr. Lathrop---because---because I was in great trouble---and I thought he could help me."

He dropped the hands. "You went to him---instead of to me! How long have you been with him? Did you write to him to arrange it?"

"No, no---we met by accident. Mark, it's not myself---it's a fear I have---a dreadful, dreadful fear!" She came close to him, piteously, just murmuring---"It's Monk Lawrence!---and Gertrude!"

He started, and looked at her keenly---"You know something I don't know?"

"Oh yes, I do, I do!" she said, wringing her hands. "I ought to have told you long ago. But I've been afraid of what you might do---I've been afraid for Gertrude. Can't you see, Mark? I've been trying to make Mr. Lathrop keep watch---enquire---so that they wouldn't dare. I've told Gertrude that I know---I've written to people---I've done all I could. And this afternoon I felt I must go there and see for myself, what precautions had been taken---and I met Mr. Lathrop---"

She gave a rapid account of their visit to the house,---of its complete desertion---of the strange behaviour of the niece---and of the growing alarm in her own mind.

"There's something---there's some plot. Perhaps that woman's in it. Perhaps Gertrude's got hold of her---or Miss Andrews. Anyway, if that house can be left quite alone---ever---they'll get at it---that I'm sure of. Why did she take the children away? Wasn't that strange?"

Then she put her hands on the heart that fluttered so---and tried to smile---

"But of course till the Bill's actually thrown out, there can be no danger, can there? There can't be any!" she repeated, as though appealing to him to reassure her.

"The Bill is certain to be thrown out," he said gravely. "But I don't understand yet. Why do you suspect Miss Marvell, or a plot at all? There was no such idea in your mind when we went over the house together?"

"No, none!---or at least not seriously---there was nothing, really, to go on"---she assured him eagerly. "But just after---you remember Mr. Lathrop's coming---that day?---when you scolded me?"

He could not help smiling a little---rather bitterly.

"I remember you said you couldn't explain. Of course I thought it was something connected with Miss Marvell, or your Society---but---"

"I'm going to explain"---she said, trying hard for composure. "I'm going to tell it all in order."

And sitting down, her head resting on her hand, with Winnington standing before her, she told the whole story of the preceding weeks---the alternations of fear and relief---Lathrop's suspicions---Gertrude's denials---the last interview between them.

As for the man looking down upon her beautiful bowed head, his heart melted within him as he listened. The sting remained that she should have asked anyone else than him to help her---above all that she should have humbled herself to ask it of such a man as Lathrop. Anxiety remained, for Monk Lawrence itself, and still more for what might be said of her complicity. But all that was further implied in her confession, her drooping sweetness, her passionate appeal to him---the beauty of her true character, its innocence, its faith, its loyalty---began to flood him with a feeling that presently burst its bounds.

She wound up with most touching entreaties to him, to save and shield her friend---to go himself to Gertrude and warn her---to go to the police---without disclosing names, of course---and insist that the house should be constantly patrolled.

He scarcely heard a word of this. When she paused---there was silence a moment. Then she heard her name---very low---

"Delia!"

She looked up, and with a long breath she rose, as though drawn invisibly. He held out his arms, and she threw hers round his neck, hiding her face against the life that beat for her.

"Oh, forgive me!"---she murmured, after a little, childishly pressing her lips to his---"forgive me--for everything!"

The tears were in his eyes.

"You've gone through all this!---alone!" he said to her, as he bent over her. "But never again, Delia---never again!"

She was the first to release herself---putting tears away. "Now then---what can we do?"

He resumed at once his ordinary manner and voice.

"We can do a great deal. I have the car here. I shall go straight back to Monk Lawrence, and see Daunt to-night. That woman's behaviour must be reported---and explained. An hour---an hour and a half?---since you were there?"---he took out his watch---"He's probably home by now---it's quite dark---he'd scarcely risk being away after dark. Dearest, go and rest!---I shall come back later---after dinner. Put it out of your mind."

She went towards the hall with him hand in hand. Suddenly there was a confused sound of shouting outside. Lady Tonbridge opened the drawing-room door with a scared face---"What is it? There are people running up the drive. They're shouting something!"

Winnington rushed to the front door, Delia with him. With h is first glance at the hill-side, he understood the meaning of the cries---of the crowd approaching.

"My God!---too late!"

For high on that wooded slope a blaze was spreading to the skies---a blaze that grew with every second---illuminating with its flare the woods around it, the chimneys of the old house, the quiet stretches of the hill.

"Monk Lawrence is afire, Muster Winnington!" panted one of Winnington's own labourers who had outstripped the rest. "They're asking for you to come! They've telephoned to Latchford for the engines, and to Brownmouth and Wanchester too. They say it's burning like tow---there must be petrol in it, or summat. It's the women, they say!---spite of Mr. Daunt and the perlice!"

Then he noticed Delia standing beside Winnington on the steps, and held his tongue, scowling.

Winnington's car was still standing at the steps. He set it going in a moment.

"My cloak!" said Delia, looking round her---"And tell them to bring the car!"

"Delia, you're not going?" cried Madeleine, throwing a restraining arm about her.

"But of course I am!" said the girl amazed. "Not with him---because I should be in his way."

Various persons ran to do her bidding. Winnington already in his place, with a labourer beside him, and two more in the seat behind him, beckoned to her.

"Why should you come, dearest? It will only break your heart. We'll do all that can be done, and I'll send back messages."

She shook her head. "I shall come! But don't think of me. I won't run any risks."

There was no time to argue with her. The little car sped away, and with it the miscellaneous crowd who had rushed to find Winnington, as the natural head of the Maumsey community, and the only magistrate within reach.

Delia and Madeleine were left standing on the steps, amid a group of frightened and chattering servants---gazing in despairing rage at the ever-spreading horror on the slope of the down, at the sudden leaps of flame, the vast showers of sparks drifting over the woods, the red glare on the low-hanging clouds. The garnered beauty of four centuries, one of England's noblest heirlooms, was going down in ruin, at the bidding of a handful of women, hurling themselves in disappointed fury on a community that would not give them their way.

Sharp-toothed remorse had hold on Delia. If she had only gone to Winnington earlier! "My fault!---my fault!"

When the car came quickly round, she and Lady Tonbridge got into it. As they rushed through the roads, lit on their way by that blaze in the heart of the hills, of which the roaring began to reach their ears, Delia sat speechless and death-like, reconstructing the past days and hours. Not yet two hours since she had left the house---left it untouched. At that very moment, Gertrude or Gertrude's agents must have been within it. The whole thing had been a plot---the children taken away---the house left deserted. Very likely Daunt's summons to his dying son had been also part of it. And as to the niece---what more probable than that Gertrude had laid hands on her months before, guided perhaps by the local knowledge of Marion Andrews,---and had placed her as spy and agent in the doomed house till the time should be ripe? The blind and fanatical devotion which Gertrude was able to excite, when she set herself to it, was only too well known to Delia.

Where was Gertrude herself? For Delia was certain that she had not merely done this act by deputy.

In the village, every person who had not gone rushing up the hill was standing at the doors, pale and terror-stricken, watching the glare overhead. The blinds of Miss Toogood's little house were drawn close. And as Delia passed, angry looks and mutterings pursued her.

The car mounted the hill. Suddenly a huge noise and hooting behind them. They drew into the hedge, to let the Latchford fire-engine thunder past, a fine new motor engine, just purchased and equipped.

"There'll be three or four more directly, Miss"---shouted one of her own garden lads, mounting on the step of the car. "But they say there's no hope. It was fired in three places, and there was petrol used."

At the gate, the police---looking askance especially at Miss Blanchflower---would have turned them back. But Delia asked for Winnington, and they were at last admitted into the circle outside the courtyard, where, beyond reach of the sparks and falling fragments, the crowd of spectators was gathered. People made way for her, but Lady Tonbridge noticed that nobody spoke to her, though as soon as she appeared all the angry or excited attention that the crowd could spare from the fire was given to her. Delia was not aware of it. She stood, with Susy Amberley beside her, a little in front of the crowd, her veil thrown back, her hands clasped in front of her, an image of rapt despair. Her face, like all the faces in the crowd, was made lurid---fantastic---by the glare of the flames; and every now and then, as though unconsciously, she brushed away the mist of tears from her eyes.

"Aye, she's sorry now!"---said a stout farmer, bitterly, to his neighbour---"now that she's led them as is even younger than herself into trouble. My girl's in prison all along of her---and that woman as they do say is at the bottom of this business."

The speaker was Kitty Foster's father. Kitty had just been sentenced to six months' imprisonment for the burning of a cricket pavilion in the Midlands, and her relations were sitting in shame and grief for her.

"Whoever 'tis as did it 'ull have a job to get away"---said the man he addressed. "They've got a lot o' police out. Where's 'Liza Daunt, I say? They're searching for her everywhere. Daunt's just come up on the engine from Latchford---saw the fire from the train. He says he's been tricked---a put-up job, he says. There wasn't nothing wrong with his son, he says, when he got to Portsmouth. If they do catch 'em, the police will have to guard 'em safe. It won't do to let the crowd get at 'em. They're fair mad. Oh Lord!---it's caught another roof!"

And a groan rose from the fast-thickening multitude, as another wall fell amid a shower of sparks and ashes, and the flames, licking up and up, caught the high-pitched roof of the Great Hall, and ran along the stone letters of the parapet, which spelt out the motto---"Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it." The fantastic letters themselves, which had been lifted to their places before the death of Shakespeare, seemed to dance in the flame like living and tormented things.

Meanwhile in the courtyard, and on the side lawns, scores of persons were busy removing furniture, pictures and tapestries. Winnington was leading and organising the rescue parties, now inside, now outside the house. And near him, under his orders, worked Paul Lathrop, in his shirt sleeves, superhumanly active and superhumanly strong---grinding his teeth with rage sometimes, as the fire defeated one effort after another to check it. Daunt also was there, pouring out incoherent confidences to the police, and distracted by the growing certainty that his niece had been one of the chief authors of the plot. His children naturally had been his first thought. But the Rector, who had just been round to enquire for them at Mrs. Cresson's cottage, came back breathless, shouting "All safe!"---and Daunt rushed off to help the firemen; while Amberley reported to Susy the pitiable misery of Lily, the little cripple, who had been shrieking for her father in wild outbursts of crying, refusing to believe that he was not in the fire. Susy, who loved the child, would have gladly gone to find her, and take her home to the Rectory for the night. But, impossible to leave her post at Delia's side, and this blazing spectacle that held the darkness! Two village women, said the Rector, were in charge of the children.

---

"No chance!" said Lathrop bitterly, pausing for a moment beside Winnington, while they both took breath---the sweat pouring from their smoke-blackened faces.

"If one could get to the top of that window with the big hose---one could reach the roof better"---panted Winnington, pointing to the still intact double oriel which ran up through two stories of the building, to the east of the doorway.

"I see!" Lathrop dashed away. And in a few seconds he and a fireman could be seen climbing from a ladder upon a ledge, a carved string-course, which connected the eastern and western oriels above the main doorway. They crawled along the ledge like flies, clinging to every projection, every stem of ivy, the fireman dragging the hose.

The crowd watched, all eyes. Winnington, after a rapid look or two, turned away with the thought---"That fellow's done some rock-climbing in his day!"

But against such a doom as had now gripped Monk Lawrence, nothing availed. Lathrop and his companion had barely scaled the parapet of the window when a huge central crash sent its resounding din circling round the leafless woods, and the two climbing figures disappeared from view amid a fresh rush of smoke and flame.

The great western chimney-stack had fallen. When the cloud of smoke drifted away, a gaping cavity of fire was seen just behind the two men; it could only be a matter of minutes before the wall and roof immediately behind them came down upon them. The firemen shouted to them from below. A longer ladder was brought and run up to within ten feet of them. Lathrop climbed down to it, over the scorched face of the oriel, his life in jeopardy at every step. Then steadying himself on the ladder---and grasping a projection in the wall, he called to the man above, to drop upon his shoulders. It was done, by a miracle---and both holding on, the man above by the projections of the wall and Lathrop by the ladder, descended, till the two were within reach of safety.

A thin roar of cheers rose from the environing throng, scarcely audible amid the greater roar of the flames. Lathrop, wearied, depressed, with bleeding hands, came back to Winnington's side. Winnington looked round. For the first time Lathrop saw through Mark's grey eyes the generous heart within---unveiled.

"Splendid! Are you hurt?"

"Only scorched and scratched. Give me another job!"

"Come along then."

And thenceforward the two worked side by side, like brothers, in the desperate attempt to save at least the Great Hall, and the beautiful rooms adjoining: the Porch Room, with its Chatham memorials; the Library too, with its stores of seventeenth-century books, its busts, and its portraits. But the flames rushed on and on, with a fiendish and astounding rapidity. Fragments of news ran back to the onlookers. The main staircase had been steeped in petrol---and sacks full of shavings had been stored in the panelled spaces underneath it. Fire-lighters heaped together had been found in the Red Parlour---to be dragged out by the firemen---but again too late!---for the fire was already gnawing at the room, like a wild prowling beast. A back staircase too had been kindled with paraffin---the smell of it was everywhere. And thus urged, a very demon of fire seemed to have seized on the beautiful place. There was a will and a passion of destruction in the flames that could not be withstood. As the diamond-paned windows fell into nothingness, the rooms behind shewed for a brief space: carved roofs and traceried walls, gleaming for a last moment, before Time knew them no more, and all that remained of them was the last vision of their antique beauty, stamped on the aching memories of those who watched.

"Why did you let her come?" said France vehemently in Lady Tonbridge's ear, with his eyes on Delia. "It's enough to kill her! She must know who's done it!"

Lady Tonbridge shook her head despairingly, and both gazed, without daring to speak to her, on the girl beside them. Madeleine had taken one cold hand; Susy Amberley had the other. France was torn with pity for her---but what comfort was there to give? Her tears had dried. But there was something now in her uncontrollable restlessness as she began to move ghost-like along the front of the spectators, pressing as near to the house as the police would permit, scanning every patch of light or shadow, which suggested to those who followed her, possession by some torturing fear---some terror of worse still to come.

---

Meanwhile the police were thinking not only of the house, but still more of its destroyers. They had a large number of men on the spot, and a quick-witted inspector in charge. It was evident from many traces that the incendiaries had left the place only a very short time before the outbreak of the fire; they could not be far away. Scouts were flung out on all the roads; search parties were in all the woods; every railway station had been warned.

On the northern side, the famous Loggia, built by an Italianate owner of the house, in the first half of the sixteenth century---a double series of open arches, with twisted marble pillars---ran along a portion of the house. It was approached from the eastern terrace by a beautiful staircase, with rich terra-cotta balustrading, and a similar staircase gave access to it from the garden to the west. The fight for the Great Hall, which the Loggia adjoined, was being followed with agonised anxiety by the crowds. The Red Parlour, with all its carvings and mouldings, had gone; the Porch Room was a furnace of fire, with black spars and beams hanging in ragged ruin across it. The Great Hall seemed already tottering, and in its fall the Loggia too must go.

Then, as every eye hung upon the work of the firemen and the play of the water, into the still empty space of the Loggia, and illumined by the glare of the flames, there emerged with quiet step the figure of a woman. She came forward: she stood with crossed arms looking at the crowd. And at the same moment, behind her, mounting from the further staircase, there appeared the form of a child, a little fair-haired girl, hobbling on a crutch, in desperate haste, and wailing---"Father!"

Delia saw them, and with one wild movement she was through the cordon of police, and running for the house.

Winnington, at the head of his salvage corps, perceived her, and ran too. "Delia!---go back!---go back!"

"Gertrude!" she said, gasping---and pointed to the Loggia. And he had hardly looked where all the world was looking, when a part of the roof of the Hall at the back fell suddenly outwards and northwards, in a blaze of flame. Charred rafters stood out, hanging in mid air, and the flames leapt on triumphant. At the same moment, evidently startled by some sound behind her, the woman turned, and saw what the crowd saw---the child, limping on its crutch, coming towards her, calling incoherently.

Her own cry rang out, as she ran towards the cripple, waving her back. And as she did so, came another thundering fall, another upward rush of flame, as a fresh portion of the roof fell eastwards, covering the Loggia and blotting out the figures of both woman and child. With difficulty the police kept back the mad rush of the crowd. The firemen swarmed to the spot.

But the child was buried deep under flaming ruin, where her father, Daunt, who had rushed to save her, was only restrained by main force from plunging after her, to his death. The woman they brought out---alive. France, Delia and Winnington were beside her.

"Stand back!" shouted the mild old Rector---transformed into a prophet-figure, his white hair streaming---as the multitude swayed against the cordon of police. "Stand back! all of you---and pray---for this woman!"

In a dead silence, men, shivering, took off their hats, and women sobbed.

"Gertrude!" Delia called, in her anguish, as she knelt beside the charred frame, over which France, who was kneeling on the other side, had thrown his coat.

The dark eyes opened in the blackened face, the scorched lips unlocked. A shudder ran through the dying form. "The child!---the child!"

And with that cry to heaven---that protesting cry of an amazed and conquered soul---Gertrude Marvell passed away.

---

Thus ended the First Act of Delia's life. When three weeks later---after a marriage at which no one was present except the persons to be married, Lady Tonbridge, and Dr. France---Winnington took his wife far from these scenes to lands of summer and of rest, he carried with him a Delia ineffaceably marked by this tragedy of her youth. Children, as they come, will some time re-kindle the natural joy in a face so lovely. And till that time arrives Winnington's tenderness will be the master-light of all her day. But there are sounds once heard that live for ever in the mind. And in Delia's there will reverberate till death that wail of a fierce and childless woman---that last cry of nature in one who had defied Nature--of womanhood in one who had renounced the ways of womanhood: "the child!---the child!"

Not long after the destruction of Monk Lawrence and the marriage of Delia, Paul Lathrop left the Maumsey neighbourhood. His debts had been paid by some unknown friend or friends, and he fell back into London literary life, where he maintained a precarious but---to himself---not unpleasant existence.

Miss Jackson, the science mistress, went to Vancouver, married the owner of a lumber camp, and so tamed her soul. Miss Toogood lived on, rarely employed, and seldom going outside the tiny back parlour, with its pictures of Winchester and Mr. Keble. But Lady Tonbridge and Delia do their best to lighten the mild melancholy which grows upon her with age; and a little red-haired niece, who came to live with her, keeps her old aunt's nerves alive and alert by various harmless vices---among them an incorrigible interest in the Maumsey and Latchford youth. Marion Andrews and Eliza Daunt disappeared together. They were not captured on that terrible night when Gertrude Marvell, convinced, finally, that she could not escape, and indeed not caring to escape, came back to look on the ruin she had so long and carefully prepared, and perished in the heart of it---not alone---but in one death with the little heartbroken child, who, slipping away from companions too passionately absorbed in the spectacle of the fire to notice the loosening of the little hand, had run to find her father---and her fate.

But such desperate happenings as the destruction of Monk Lawrence, to whatever particular calamities they may lead, are but a backward ripple on the vast and ceaseless tide of human efforts towards a new and nobler order. Delia must still wrestle all her life with the meaning of that imperious call to women which this century has sounded; and of those further stages, upwards and onwards, to which the human spirit, in Man or Woman, is perennially urged by the revealing forces that breathe through human destiny. Two days after the death of Gertrude Marvell, the immediate cause on which she and her fellows had wrought such havoc went down in Parliament to long and bitter eclipse. But the end is not yet. And for that riddle of a changing time, to which Gertrude and her fellows gave the answer of a futile violence, generations more patient and more wise will yet find the fitting key.

THE END

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