The minute church, obscurely lit by a full moon that had not yet found window-glass through which her direct beams could pierce into its gloaming, was deserted and silent. Not a sound, within or without, disturbed its stony quiet—except only the insectlike rapid ticking of a clock in the vestry, and the low pulsating thump of a revolving cogwheel in the tower above the roof. Here and there a polished stone, gleamed coldly in the vague luminous haze —a marble head, a wingtip, a pointing finger, the eagle claws and beak of the brazen lectern, the two silvergilt candlesticks flanking the colourless waxen flowers upon the altar. So secret and secluded seemed the church within its nocturnal walls that living creature might never have been here at all— or creatures only so insignificant and transitory as to have left no perceptible trace behind them.
Like a cataleptic’s countenance it hinted moreover at no inward activity of its own. If, fantastic speculation, it might be assumed to possess life, a consciousness—even if only in its semi-human passive obedience to the influences of time, change, decay, and the laws of gravitation—it revealed not the faintest symptom of it. If, on the other hand, any im-material sentinel were now, as ever, on guard within it, he also made no sign of his presence.
Unhasteningly, like water dripping from a fateful urn, the thump-recorded moments ebbed away; and it was approaching midnight and first cockcrow when from beyond the thick stone chancel walls there came the sound of a stealthy footfall, crunching the rain-soaked gravel. An owl squawked, the footsteps ceased; and after a brief pause, began again. The groping rattle of a key in the wards of a lock followed, and presently—with a motion so slow that it was barely perceptible—the heavy curtain that hung over the entrance to the vestry began as if with infinite caution to be drawn aside; and the slender cone-shaped rays from the thick glass of a small bull’s-eye lantern—its radiance thinning into the dusk of the moonlight as it expanded in area— to funnel inquisitively to and fro.
The lantern-bearer himself now appeared—a small boy. His thick fair hair was touseled over a pale forehead, his mouth was ajar, his lips were drawn back a little above his teeth, his eyes gleamed as they moved. The collar of his dark great-coat had been turned up about his ears, but disclosed in the crevice between its lapels the stripes of a pyjama jacket which had been tucked into a pair of old flannel breeches. Stockinged ankles and damp mudstained rubber shoes showed beneath the great-coat. His cheeks at this moment were so pale as scarcely to be tinged with red, and since the pupils of his blue eyes were dilated to their full extent they appeared to be all but jet-black. He was shivering, in part by reason of the cold, in part because of certain inward qualms and forebodings. Only by an effort was he preventing his teeth from beginning to chatter. Still acutely cautious and intent, his head thrust forward, his eyes searching the darker recesses of the building around him as they followed the direction of his tiny searchlight, he stole a pace or two forward, the border of the heavy curtain furtively falling to behind him. In spite of the door-key safe in his pocket, he appeared to be divided in mind between hope and dread that he might prove to be not the sole occupant of the church.
Where there is space enough for the human cranium to pass, the shoulders, it is said, can follow; and particularly if they all three belong to a child. One small diamond-paned window in the vestry he had already observed was open. Images, too, less substantial in appearance than those of human beings were occupying his mind’s eye. When then the little owl in the dark of the yew tree over the south gate of the moonlit churchyard again suddenly screeched, he started as if at an electric shock. And twice his mouth opened before he managed to call low and hoarsely, “Are you there, Dick? . . . Dick, are you there?”
Not a stony eyelid in the heads around him had so much as flickered at this timid challenge. The brazen eagle—a huge shut Bible on its outstretched wings—had stirred not a feather; the pulpit remained cavernously empty. But a few high panelled pews, relics of the past, were within view; and even moonlight and lanternlight combined were powerless to reveal anything or anybody that might be hidden behind them. The trespasser appeared to be on the point of retiring as secretly as he had come, when a jangling gurgle, as of some monster muttering in its sleep, began to sound above his head, and the clock chimes rang out the second quarter of the hour. The vibrant metal ceased to hum; and, as if reassured by this interruption, he drew out of his pocket a large stone—a flint such as his remote ancestors would have coveted—roughly dumb-bell in shape, and now waisted with a thick and knotted length of old blind-cord. This fantastic weapon, long treasured for any emergency, he deposited on the shelf behind him, and then followed it into the pew.
Lantern still in hand, he seated himself on the flat faded red cushion that lay along the seat. It was that of one of the mighty—the rector’s warden. Even in this half-light, as easily as a cat in the dark, he could spy out all about him now, organ-recess to gallery, but he opened his brand-new lantern none the less and trimmed as best he could with his finger-nail its charred and oily wick. The fume and stench of the hot metal made him sneeze, whereupon he clicked-to the glass, covered it with his hand, and began listening again. “Sneak,” he muttered, then suddenly plumped down on the hassock at his feet, rapidly repeated a prayer, with a glance over his shoulder half-covertly crossed himself, then as promptly sat up again; glancing as he did so at the pulpit over his head which he was accustomed to find comfortably brimmed with his father’s portly presence.
Fortified by his prayer and by his wrath with the friend who it seemed at the last moment had abandoned their enterprise, he was now comparatively at ease. Tortoise-fashion he snuggled down in his great-coat in the corner of the pew, having discovered that by craning his neck a little he could fix his vacant eyes on the brilliant disk of the still-ascending moon.
She was the Hunter’s moon, and her beams had now begun to silver a clear-glassed square-headed window high up in the south wall of the chancel. He watched her intently, lost in astonishment that at this very moment she should be keeping tryst with him here. But before she had edged far enough above the sill to greet the gilded figure of an angel that surmounted an ornate tomb opposite her peephole, a faint thief-like shuffle from the direction of the vestry door caught his ear. He instantly dropped out of sight into the shelter of his pew. The shuffling ceased, the door creaked. He crouched low; a smile at once apprehensive and malicious creasing his still-childish face. He would give his friend Dick a taste of his own physic.
In the hush, a lamentable Oh, oh, oh, oh!—like the cry of a captured mermaid—wailed up from his lips into the dusk of the roof. Oh, Oh, Oh! Then silence—and silence. And still there came no response. The smile faded out of his face; he had begun to shiver again. He was positively certain that this must be the friend whom he was expecting. And yet— suppose it was not! He leapt up, flashing at the same instant his toy lantern full into the glittering eyes of a dwarfish and motionless shape that were fixed on him through the sockets of a pitch-black battered mask—a relic of the last Fifth of November. He had realised what trick was being played on him almost before he had had time to be afraid. Nevertheless, for a few moments, his mouth wide open, he had failed to breathe, and stood shuddering with rage as well as terror. His friend Dick, however, having emerged from his lair in the folds of the curtain, was now plunging about half doubled up and almost helpless with laughter.
“You silly fool!” he fumed at him in a whisper, “what did you want to do that for? Shut up! Shut up, I tell you! You think it’s funny, I suppose. Well, I don’t. You’re hours late already, and I’m going home. Stop it, do you hear? Can’t you remember you’re in a church?”
From beneath its mask a small sharp-nosed and utterly sober face now showed itself—all laughter gone. “Who began it, then?” Dick expostulated, dejectedly squeezing his pasteboard mask into his pocket. “You tried it first on me, with your Oh-Oh-Ohing. And now, just because . . . You didn’t think of ‘church’ then.”
“Well, I do now. Besides, it’s near the time, and I might have broken my neck for all you cared, getting out of the window. What made you so late?”
Dick had been eyeing his friend as might a sorrowful mouse a slice of plum cake a few inches out of its reach. “I’m sorry, Philip,” he said. “I didn’t mean any harm; honest, I didn’t. It was only a lark.” He turned penitently away, and the next instant, as if all troubles were over and all discord pacified, began peeping about him with the movements and anglings of some little night-creature on unexpectedly finding itself in an utterly strange place.
“I say, Philip,” he whispered, “doesn’t it look creepy just, the moon shining in? I had a dream, and then I woke. But I .couldn’t have come before. My father was downstairs with a lamp, reading. Besides I was waiting for you outside, under the trees. Why did you come in? It’s by the gate you see them. That’s what my mother heard your mother say. Oh, I’m glad I came; aren’t you?”
The sentences were sprayed out in minute beads of words like the hasty cadenzas of a bird. The neat black head, the small bright eyes, the shallow wall of close-cropped hair, the sloping shoulders—every line, movement and quick darting variation of posture gave him a resemblance to a bird-including the alert, quick, shy yet fearless spirit within that neat skull’s brittle walls.
Philip, who had been intently watching him meanwhile, had now recovered his equanimity, his pulse had sobered down, but he was still only partially placated, and querulous.
“Of course I came in. What was the good of loafing out there where anybody might see us? It’s cold and mouldy enough in here. You don’t seem to remember I mustn’t go out at night, because of my chest. I’ve been waiting until my feet are like stones. Did you hear that owl just now—-or something?”
Dick, having at last ventured in from the other end of the pew, had now seated himself beside his friend on the flat crimson cushion.
“Golly!” he exclaimed, his sharp eyes now fixed on the flint, “what’s that for? I shouldn’t care to have a crump over the head with that!” He peered up winningly into his companion’s fair face. “I didn’t really expect you would come, Philip. But,” he sighed, “I’m glad.”
“Didn’t I say I would come?” retorted Philip in a small obstinate condescending voice. “That’s nothing,” he nodded at his stone, “I always carry that at night. How was I to know . . .? Didn’t I?
The neat small head nodded violently. “M’m.”
“Then why didn’t you expect me to?”
“Oh, well, I didn’t.” A thin ingratiating little smile passed over Dick’s face and as quickly vanished. “It wasn’t so easy for you as it was for me. That’s why.”
“That stone,” said Philip incisively, “keeps any harm from happening to me. It’s got magic in it.”
“Has it, Philip? . . . What did that?” He was eyeing the patch of dried blood on the hand that clutched the bent wire handle of the lantern.
“Oh, that?” was the lofty reply. “That’s nothing; that was only the rope. It burned like billy-oh, and I fell halfway from my bedroom window-sill on to the lawn. An awful crack. But nobody heard me, even though the other windows were wide open round the corner. You could see them against the sky. My mother always sleeps with her windows open—all the year round. A doctor in London told her it would be good for her. I don’t believe that about your father reading, though. When everybody is in bed and asleep! I didn’t even know your father could read.”
“Well, he was, or I wouldn’t have said so. He was reading the Bible. How could I tell that if he wasn’t reading at all?”
“Anyhow, I bet it wasn’t the Bible. Even my father wouldn’t do that—not after family prayers. Would he whack you much if he caught you?”
Dick shook his head. “No fear. My mother won’t have him punishing me, whatever happens. He preaches at me no end; and says I’ll never be good for anything. Once,” he added pensively, as if scarcely able to believe his own ears, “once he said I was a little imp of hell Then my mother flamed up. But he wouldn’t beat me; oh no, he wouldn’t beat me. Yesterday my mother came back with a big bundle of old clothes. There was a black silk jacket, and some stockings and hats and feathers and things, an enormous bundle. And this—look!”
He undid a button of his jacket and pulled out from underneath a pinch of an old green silk dressing-gown.
“Why, that’s mine!” said Philip. “I’ve had it for ages.” He stared at it censoriously, as if dubious whether or not to ask for it back. “But I don’t think I want it now, because it’s miles too small for me. My grandmother gave it me for a Christmas present donkey’s years ago. She’s so rich she doesn’t mind what things cost-—when she gives me anything. That’s real Spitalfields silk, that is; you can’t get it anywhere now. You’ll crumple it up and spoil it if you wear it stuffed in like that.” He peered closer. “What have you got on underneath it? You’re all puffed out like a turkey-cock.”
Dick promptly edged back from the investigating finger, a sly look of confusion passing swiftly over his face. “That’s my other clothes,” he explained.
“What I say,” said Philip, still eyeing his companion as if only a constant vigilance could hope to detect what he might not be up to next, “what 7 say is, your mother’s jolly lucky to get expensive things given to her—good things, even if they are left-offs Most of our old stuff goes to the Jumble Sales. I bet,” he suddenly broke off, “I bet if your real father found you skulking here, he’d whack you hot and strong.”
The alert and supple body beside his own had suddenly stiffened, and the dangling spindle legs beneath the pew ceased to swing.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Dick hardly more than whispered.
“For one thing he just wouldn’t. He knows he’s nothing to do with me; not now; and leaves me alone. For all that I went out rabbiting with him one night last summer. And nobody knew. It was warm and still and pitch dark—not like this; and when the moon began to come up over the woods, he sent me home. I know he wouldn’t either. Besides,” he drew in his chin a little as if the words were refusing to come out of his throat, “he’s dead.”
“Dead! Oh, I say! I like that! Oh no, he isn’t; that’s not true. He isn’t dead. Why, I heard them reading out about him in the newspaper only a few weeks ago. That’s what you say. I know what has become of him; and I bet your tongue is burning. What’s more, if your other father hadn’t been Chapel you would never have had any father-not to show, I mean. Your mother would have been just like any other woman, though I don’t suppose she could have gone on living in the village. But as he is Chapel, and, according to what you say, sits up as late as this reading in the Bible, I can’t understand why he lets you sing in our choir. I call that being a hypocrite. I’d like to see my father letting me go to Chapel. He must be just a hypocrite, Bible or not.”
Dick made no attempt whatever to examine this delicate moral question. “Oh no, he isn’t,” he retorted hotly. “He’s as good as yours any day. He goes by what my mother says: if you are Chapel, keep Chapel. She’s not a hypocrite. And you’d better not say so, either.”
“I didn’t say it. I didn’t say that your mother was a hypocrite; not a hypocrite. I like your mother. And nobody’s going to prevent me from going with you either, if I want to. Not if I want to. Your mother’s been jolly decent to me—often. Mrs. Fuller sneaks: she doesn’t.”
“So is your mother to me—when you aren’t there. At least she talks to me sometimes then. And I’m glad you’re my friend, Philip. The other day she gave me a hunch of cake, and she made me share a sip of wine from my mother’s glass. Because it was her birthday. Some day I’m going to be a sailor, and going to sea. She had been crying, because her eyes were red; and your mother said that crying was no use at all, because I’m growing up more and more like her every day and shall be a comfort to her when I’m a man. And so I will; you see!”
“ ‘Wine’! Did she just? But that was only because she’s always kind to people—to everybody. She doesn’t mind who it is. That’s why she likes being liked by everybody. But after what my father read out in the newspaper, he said he entreated her to be more careful. She must think of him, my father said. He didn’t want to have the village people talking. He tapped his eyeglasses on the paper and said it was a standing scandal. That’s what he said. He was purple in the face.” His voice rather suddenly fell silent, as if, like a dog, he had scented indiscretions. “But 1 say: if your real father is just dead, he would be the very person according to you to be coming here tonight. Then you’d look mighty funny, I should think.”
Dick’s legs, like opposed pendulums, had begun very sluggishly to swing again. “Oh no, I wouldn’t, because that’s just what doesn’t happen; and I told you so. It’s the people who are going to die soon—next year—who come; their ghosts. Wouldn’t they look white and awful, Philip, coming in under the yew tree. . . . I expect its roots go down all among the coffins. Shall we go out now and watch? It’s as bright as day; you could see a bird hopping about.”
” ‘Ghosts’!” was the derisive reply. “I like that! You can. I’m not. How can they be ghosts, silly, if they’re still alive? Besides, even if there are such things, and even if what your mother told you is really true, you said yourself that they would come into the church. So if any should come and we keep here and hide and peep over the edge, they can’t possibly see us—if ghosts do see. And then we shall be near the door in there. They would be surprised to find that one open, I should think. But even if they were, and ghosts don’t mind doors, they wouldn’t come in at a potty little door like that.”
He paused as if to listen, and continued more boldly. “Not, mind you, that I believe a single word of anything you’ve said—all that stuff. Not really. I came . . .” he faltered, turning his head away, “only just for a game, and because you dared me to. Why you asked me to come really is because you were frightened of being here alone. You wait and see, I’ll dare you in a minute. Besides, how do you know anybody is going to die in the village next year -—except old Mrs. Harrison. And she’s been dying ever since I can remember. She takes snuff, but she can’t stir a foot out of her bed. I bet she hasn’t any ghost left. She wouldn’t come.” The sentence suddenly concluded in a prodigious shuddering yawn. It reminded him that he was cold and that the fatal moment was rapidly nearing. “Did they say, before, or after, the clock strikes?”
Dick, paused a moment before replying, and then piped up confidently. “It’s the very second while the last clump of the bell is sounding. That’s when they get to the church. Because it’s midnight. And all the ghosts begin to walk then. Some come up out of their graves. But”—he sighed, as if saddened at the poverty of his expectations—”only very seldom. The people who go to heaven wouldn’t want to, and the Devil wouldn’t let the others out. At least that’s what I think.”
“What you think! And yet,” retorted Philip indignantly, “you talk all that stuff about ghosts; and believe it too. I’d just like to see your ghost. That’d be a skinny one if you like—like a starved bird. Would you come back?”
Dick leant his body forward; he was sitting on his hands; and at this his black, close-cropped head nodded far more vigorously than a china Mandarin’s. “I don’t know” he said; “but I like being out at night. I like—oh, everything. . . . If ghosts can smell,” he began again in small matter-of-fact tones, “they’d soon snuff us cut. Look at it smoking.”
The two boys sat mute for a while, watching the tiny slender thread of sooty smoke from the lantern wreathing up in the luminous air; and in the silence—which, after their tongues had ceased chattering, immediately flooded the church fathoms deep—they stayed, listening; their senses avid for the faintest whisper. But the night was windless, and the earth still—beneath the glassy splendour of the moon. And if the Saints in their splendour were already assembling in the heavens to celebrate their earthly festival, no sound of their rejoicings reached these small pricked-up human ears.
“If,” at last Dick exploded, gazing up into the vaporous glooms of the roof above his head, “if any more light comes in, the walls will burst. I love the moon; I love the light. . . . I’m going to have a peep.” With a galvanic wriggle he had snatched his arm free from Philip’s grasp, had nimbly whipped out of the pew, and vanished behind the curtain that concealed the vestry door.
Philip shuffled uneasily in his seat, hesitating whether or not to follow him. But from a native indolence and for other motives and in spite of his incredulity, he decided to stay where he was. It seemed safer than the churchyard. From a few loose jujubes in his great-coat pocket he chose the cleanest, and sat quietly sucking, his eyes fixed on the monument that not only dominated but dwarfed the small but lovely chancel. The figure of its angel was now bathed with the silver of the moon. With long-toed feet at once clasping and spurning the orb beneath them, it stood erect, on high. Chin outthrust, its steadfast sightless eyes were fixed upon the faded blue and geranium red of the panelled roof. With braided locks drawn back from a serene and impassive visage, the left hand lay flat upon its breast, and with the right it clasped a tapering, uplifted, bell-mouthed, gilded trumpet, held firmly not against but at a little distance from its lips.
Unlike Dick, Philip was not a chorister. He was none the less his father’s son, and as soon as he had learned to behave himself, to put his penny in the plate and to refrain from babbling aloud, he had been taken to church every Sunday morning. This had been as natural an accompaniment of the Sabbath as clean underclothes, Etons, and hot sausages for breakfast. Thus he had heard hundreds of his father’s sermons—sermons usually as simple as they were short. If only he had listened to them he might by now have become well-founded in dogma, a plain but four-square theologian. Instead of listening, however, he would usually sit “thinking.” Side by side with his mother, his cheek all but brushing her silks, with their delicate odours, his fingers— rather clammy fingers when the weather was hot—lightly clasping hers while he counted over and over the sharp-stoned rings on her dainty fingers, he had been wont to follow his fancies.
Morning service had been the general rule. During the last few years, however, his mother had become the victim of periodical sick headaches, of lassitude and palpitations, and had been given strict injunctions not to overdo things, to rest. Occasionally too she had worldly-minded visitors, including a highly unorthodox sister, whom it would be tactless even to attempt to persuade to spend her Sundays as, usually, she felt dutifully impelled to spend her own. All this she would confide to Philip. She must on no account, she repeatedly admonished him, be alarmed or worried, distressed or disturbed. As for his stout and rubicund father, who was at least ten years her senior, he adored every bone in her body. But though by nature placable and easy-going, he was also subject to outbursts of temper and fits of mo-roseness as periodical as her attacks of migraine. It was therefore prudent, if only for her sake, to avoid anything in the nature of a scene. “So, Philip,” she would cajole him, “you will promise me to be a good boy, and you’ll go to church this evening, won’t you—instead of now? And you won’t make any fuss about it? You know your father wishes it,”
Philip might demur, and, if it was practicable, bargain with her; but at heart he much preferred this arrangement. It meant that on these particular Sundays he was safe from interference, and could spend the whole morning as he pleased. It was too the darkening evenings about the time of the equinox, when it was not yet necessary to light the brass oil-lamps that hung in the nave, and two solitary candlesticks alone gleamed spangling up in the pulpit—it was these he loved best, Only the village people came to evening service, and not many even of them. Philip would sit in his pew, and, engaged in his own ruminations, enjoy the whole hour. The church seemed cosier and homelier as well as strange and mysterious; the hymns, even at Harvest Festival, when he could admire the flowers and vegetables, the gigantic loaf of bread under the lectern, the bloomed grapes and apples and minute sheaves of wheat and barley gently nodding their heads to the more impulsive strains of the organ—all this had a faint tinge of sadness, and the sermons, however brief, all but resembled incantations.
The rich paternal pulpit voice would rise and fall like that of some dulcet Old Man of the Sea, and he himself, if not, like Dick, sporting and whispering noiselessly with his surpliced choir-mates out of sight of the preacher, was at any rate beyond any direct scrutiny. And the bulky family cook who was his mother’s usual proxy on these occasions would settle down beside him into a state of apathy so complete, her cotton-gloved hands convulsively clasped over her diaphragm, that it was only by an occasional sniff he could tell that she was perhaps leading as active an internal life as he was, and was neither asleep nor dead.
Now and then he had himself nodded completely off—and into regions of the most extraordinary scenery, events, and vagaries; to be aroused suddenly by, “And now to God the Father . . .” blear-eyed, lost, and with so violent a start that it had all but dislocated his neck. The most beguiling and habitual of these reveries had been concerned with the angel. How and when his speculations on it had originated, what random bird had dropped this particular seed of a hundred ruminations into his mind, was beyond discovery now. But it was to the cook that he had confided his first direct question concerning it.
One low thundery evening, during their brief ruminative journey through the churchyard into the hedged-in narrow lane by the coach-house and stables, and so through the garden and back to the rectory, he had managed to blurt out, “Mrs. Sullivan, why did they make the angel so as she can’t blow the trumpet?” And this although his mind had been absorbed in the wholly different and more advanced problem, What exactly would happen if for any reason she ever did?
Until this moment Mrs. Sullivan had been unaware of the angel’s perpetual predicament, so her attitude was cautious and tentative.
“I expect” she said, “it was because they couldn’t help themselves. Besides, Master Philip, what you are talking about isn’t a real angel, no more than what the trumpet is a real trumpet. And who’s to say if even a real angel could blow a trumpet that isn’t real. I wouldn’t care to go so far as that myself. Besides, who’s to knew as it is a she?”
Here, in the darker quiet, under the thick-leaved ilexes, Philip always drew a little nearer to his stout and panting companion; and sometimes for reassurance slipped a hand under her elbow. Free again, and the stars visible in the autumn sky, he had ventured to protest.
“But why couldn’t they? And of course it’s a she. Besides it was I who said she can’t. I told you. It’s three inches at least from her mouth. Like this. I’ve measured it heaps and heaps of times.”
” ‘Measured it,’ Master Philip! Well, that’s a nice thing to be getting up to! All I can say is if that’s the kind of mischief you are after I don’t know what your father wouldn’t say.”
“I didn’t mean really” was the impatient reply. “How could I ? I meant by looking, of course. How could I mean, ‘really’?” There was scorn in the words, even though his question had fallen like a seed from heaven into the quiet of his mind.
“If it’s guessing,” Mrs. Sullivan had complacently decided, “I wouldn’t suppose it could be three. And, though your young eyes may be better than mine, it might be no more than just a shadow. . . . It looks as if it had been raining, according to all these puddles.”
Philip had paid no attention to the puddles, except that he had continued to enjoy quietly walking through them. “But you said just now,” he persisted, “that you’d never even seen the angel. So how can you possibly tell? Anyhow, it is three, it’s more than three, it’s more likely four or five. You don’t seem to remember how far she is up under the roof. Why, the end of her trumpet nearly touches the ceiling. I think that was silly. Why didn’t they?” They were come back to his original riddle again. But Mrs. Sullivan, reminded of another kind of trumpet, was meditating vaguely at this moment on a deaf bedridden sister who lived in the midlands. “I never knew a boy with so many questions,” she answered him ruminatively, almost as if she were explaining the situation to a third party. “I suppose it’s because the Last Day hasn’t risen on us yet. That at least is what it was meant to mean for the gentleman that’s laid in the tomb beneath it—and for any of us for that matter. God send it never may.”
“You mean you think she is waiting for the Last Day? I don’t know what you mean by ‘never.’ There must be a Last Day, and that would be the Last Day. And if she’s waiting for that, what will happen then—after the last?”
“Well, Master Philip, if you are the son of your own father, which I take you to be, you should best be able to answer that question for yourself. I don’t hold with such pry-ings. It’s far from ready I’m likely to be.” I
“Because,” said Mrs. Sullivan, “I’m getting old, and time is not what it was. When I was a young girl I nearly brooded all the blood out of my body thinking of things like that; though you might not suppose so now. Not that the young should or need be doing so, though I’m not saying there’s no need even for them not to mind their p’s and q’8. There is.”
“What are p’s and q’s?”
But this tepid and lifeless enquiry might have been borne on the winds of Arabia, it seemed so far away.
“Goodness gracious, you’ve got a tongue like an empty money-box. I see your mamma has gone to bed. Let’s hope her sick headache is no worse. And here comes the Rector.”
Philip had accepted Mrs. Sullivan’s complex solution of his difficulty with reservations, and had pondered continually on parts of it. After that, apart perhaps from, a stray dog or bird, or a strange human face, nothing in church, or in the scriptures, not even Jezebel and the Scarlet Woman, or Gideon, or Og, or Samson’s foxes in the wheat, or golden Absalom hanging in the oak tree, or hairy Esau with his mess of pottage, or Elisha and the widow’s cruse—nothing had so instantly galvanized him into a rapt attention as the least word he heard uttered about an angel or a trumpet. He had even taken to searching the Bible on his own account to satisfy his craving.
Tonight, none the less, was the first time he had ever been alone with his angel—wholly alone. And he had risked a good deal for this sake—a caning from his father; a breakneck fall from his bedroom window if the clothes-line had proven as rotten as it looked; a scurry, heart in mouth, through the fusty dark of the shrubbery; and the possibility, far more affrighting than he had confessed, of strange meetings at the lych gate. Besides there was the humiliation of having been beguiled into this crazy expedition by a friend who was frowned at if not forbidden, and who was not only one of the “village boys” but clouded and compromised at that.
It was a companionship that fretted Philip at times almost beyond bearing, but from which he could not contrive to break free. Scrubbed and polished Dick might be, but he never looked clean. He could be stupider than an owl, and yet was as sharp and quick as a pygmy sparrowhawk, and feared nothing and nobody. Sometimes even the mere sight of his intent, small-nosed face, with its dark eyes, now darting with life and eagerness, now laden with an inscrutable melancholy; of his very hands, even—small, and quick, and his tiny pointed ears, filled Philip with an acute distaste. Yet there was a curious and continual fascination in his company.
He was like a mysterious and unintelligible little animal, past caging or taming, and possessed of a spirit of whose secret presence he himself was completely unaware. Contrariwise, he could be as demure, submissive, and affectionate as a little girl, and it was past all hope to find out where his small mind was ranging. Philip admired, despised, was jealous of, and sometimes bitterly hated him.
Why, he wondered, did his father always become so flustered and unreasonable at the mere mention of his name, or of Dick’s mother either for that matter? If an unexpected tradesman’s bill from London or the county town accompanied his Morning Post, why was the heated discussion of this particular topic almost bound sooner or later to follow? First a few mere words, of a steadily densening drift; a desultory wrangle; but at last his mother, flaming with anger, in tears, would flare up like a loose heap of gunpowder, and his father would subside into a sulky and cowed acquiescence.
Even if Dick was not the son of the sober and crusted old wheelwright at the other end of the village, what did that matter? And if Dick’s mother was so close a confidante of his own mother, what did that? Wasn’t there every reason why she should be? Only a few years before this, she had been parlourmaid at the Rectory, a quiet, fair, pensive creature. And then all of a sudden she had left and got married. But she was still the best ‘help’ in the house imaginable. No one could wait at table so deftly and quietly as she could; and not even Philip’s indolent and elegant mother was such a marvel with her needle.
It was only the spiteful new cook, Mrs. Sullivan’s successor, who had steadily refused to be won over; and Philip hated her anyhow. His father, on the other hand, took no more notice of Dick when he passed him by in the Rectory garden than if he had been a toadstool. Yet if nuts, or peppermints, or marbles, a live grasshopper, or a glow-worm in a matchbox, were brought into church for furtive display, and Dick was discovered to be the culprit, very little happened. Other boys when they were caught were given a good lecture in the rector’s study, and one or two far less enterprising than Dick had been expelled from the choir.
However closely he listened, Philip could never unravel the secret of this mystery. Even when he most enjoyed Dick’s company, he could never for a moment forget his own sense of superiority. At one moment he might be green with envy of Dick’s silly, daredevil, scatterbrained ways; at the next utterly despise him. There was a perpetual conflict in his mind between affection, jealousy, and contempt. And Dick would peck up his secret feelings as they were expressed merely in his face and actions, as neatly and quickly as a robin pecks up crumbs, yet never refer to them, or for more than a minute or two together seem to resent a single one.
Just now, however, his protective stone and the increasing stench of his lantern unheeded, Philip had all but forgotten what had brought him into his present extraordinary situation. Like the restless imp he always was, Dick had taken himself off. Let him stay away then. Meanwhile he had himself sat stolidly on, lost in contemplation, the prey of the most fantastic and ridiculous hopes and forebodings.
The church was brimmed so full of limpid moonlight that at any moment, it seemed, the stone walls, the pulpit, the roof itself might vanish away like the fabric of a dream. Its contents appeared to have no more reality than the reflections in a glass. Every crevice in the mouldings of the arches, every sunken flower and leaf in the mullions of the windows, even the knot in the wood of the pew beneath his nose stood out as if it had been blacked in with India-ink. Every jut and angle, corbel and finial, marble nose and toe and finger seemed to have been dipped in quicksilver. And Philip, his eyes fixed on the faintly-golden, winged, ecstatic figure— all but “shaking her gilded tresses in the air”—whose gaze he pined and yet feared even in imagination to meet, was lost for the time being to the world of the actual. He failed even to notice urgent reminders that one of his legs from knee to foot had gone numb, and that ho was stone cold.
The premonitory whirring rumble of the clock over his head and the chimes of midnight roused him at last from this lethargy. He “came to,” and listened starkly to the muffled, sullen booming of the bell, as if he had suddenly escaped from the mazes of a dream. “. . . . Eleven . . . Twelve.” The sonorous vibrations ebbed into inaudibility and a dead and empty silence again prevailed. He had steadily assured himself, from the moment the project had been decided on, that nothing would happen. Nothing had happened. He felt spiritless and vacant, and now realised miserably that in spite of this radiance and beauty, he was further away from his angel than he had ever been before. It was she who had withdrawn herself from him, and with that withdrawal some hidden, wordless faith and belief in her powers had faded out of his heart.
In the midst of these dumps, there had suddenly risen into the night beyond the chancel windows a restrained yet fiendish screech, compared with which his own Oh, Oh, Oh, had been sweet as the lamentations of a siren. Even though he had instantly guessed its origin, he sat appalled. His eyes fixed on the heavy folds of the curtain that had softly swayed forward as if in a waft of the night wind through the open door, he remained watching. He dreaded yet knew what was likely to follow. In infinite gradations the curtain was being withdrawn, to disclose at length a lank figure, draped as if with a shroud from its flat-topped shapeless and featureless head downwards. Even in his consternation he marvelled at the delicate play of the moonlight in the folds of the cambric. With finger outstretched, this ridiculous scarecrow had now begun noiselessly edging towards his pew. The effort to prevent a yell of dismay from escaping his throat had actually brought blood to Philip’s lip; and he at once fell into a violent passion.
“You’re nothing but a damn silly little fathead,” he yelled, as it were, under his breath, “and it would serve you jolly well right if I gave you a good licking. Stop that rot! Stop it! Come out, I say!”
The spectre, notwithstanding, had fallen into a solemn yet nimble Negro shuffle and a voice out of its middle began to intone,
Dearly beloved brethren, is it not a sin To eat raw potatoes and throw away the skin? The skin feeds the pigs and the pigs feed you Dearly beloved brethren, is-it-not-true?
Pat with the last word, and having flung off the rector’s surplice and discarded the semi-hairless broom of the old church charwoman, Dick reappeared from his disguise, looking smaller and skinnier than ever. It was as if his high spirits, having learned that the same jest is seldom successful twice, had been damped beyond retrieval by his stratagem. He stood for a moment dumbly staring at Philip, like a mute and downcast little monkey that has been chastised by its master.
“Keep your silly wig on,” he expostulated at last. “That’s what you always do. You can’t take any joke unless you’ve made it yourself. I’m tired of being here. There’s nothing coming—and there never was. Perhaps if you had been alone . . .” Unstable as water his mood began to revive again. “I know! Let’s go down to the mill-pond, Philip, and look at the fish. The moon’s like glass. You could catch ‘em with your hands with that lantern. Let’s try. Come on.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” returned Philip morosely. “You needn’t suppose you’re going to wriggle out like that. You dared me to come, and I dare you to stay. Anyhow, you shan’t put your nose ever into our house again or into the garden, either, I can promise you, if you’re nothing but a sneak—and afraid. I know something that will soon put a stop to that.”
Dick stood irresolute, eyeing him sharply, his high cheekbones a bright red, his eyes shining, his mouth ajar.
“I’m not a sneak. And who”—a doleful quaver jarred his thin clear treble voice—”who wants to come into your silly old garden. If my mother . . . Besides you know I’m not afraid!”
“Oh, do J!” A crafty stealthy designing look had crept into Philip’s fair face, and a slight haze into his blue eyes. A faint ambiguous smile faded out of his angel features. He glanced covertly about him. “What’s more likely is you only want to show off,” he sneered. “Wheedle.” He half yawned. “I shouldn’t be here now except for that silly old story you couldn’t have understood. Dare for yourself! Why, you haven’t even the pluck to climb up into the belfry and give the least tiny ding on one of the bells. Not by yourself.”
“Oh, wouldn’t I! Yes, I would. Where’s the key? There’s an old owl’s nest in the belfry. . . . ‘One’—why, even if anybody in the village woke and heard it, they’d think it was nothing but the wind.”
“Well, three dings then. Anybody can make excuses. And you knew I hadn’t the key. What’s more, you wouldn’t take a single flower, not even a scrap of a green leaf, from one of those vases up there.
Dick’s gaze angled swiftly over the silver candlesticks upon the altar, the snow-white linen, the rich silk embroidered frontal, with its design in gold thread—I. IT. S., the flat hueless shields of hothouse flowers. “Yes, I would. If I can reach them.”
“Oh, would you! And there you are again—‘if!’ But you shan’t—not while I’m here. That would be worse than stealing even, because this is a church, and that’s the altar. And that’s holy. This is not one of your mouldy old chapels,” Once again he glanced about him. “I bet this, then. You wouldn’t go up into the gallery and scratch out the eye in that—not even if I lent you my knife to do it with. Why, you’d be scared even of falling off the chair!”
The “that” he was referring to was an ancient painted lozenge-shaped hatchment, fastened by tenpenny nails in its clumsy black frame to the lime-washed western wall. It was blazoned with a coat of arms, and above the coat was a crest —the turbaned head of a moor in profile; and beneath the coat, in bold Gothic lettering, the one word, Resurgam.
Dick gazed for a while at its darkened green and vermilion and at the sinister head. “Yes, I would,” he muttered. “What does Resurgam mean?”
“It’s Latin,” replied Philip, as if he were a little mollified by the modesty of the enquiry. “And it means, I shall rise up again. But it might be the subjunctive. It’s what’s called a motto, and the head’s the crest, and the body’s down in the vault. I expect he was a crusader. Anyhow, anybody could do that; because you know very well it mightn’t be noticed for ages. Never, p’raps. Besides, what’s the use? . . . I’ll give you a last chance. I’ll tell you what you. wouldn’t do, not if you stayed here for a month of Sundays and not a single soul came into the church!”
His cheek had crimsoned. He nodded his head violently. “You wouldn’t climb up that, and—and blow that trumpet.”
Dick wheeled about, lifting his dark squirrel-bright eyes as he did so towards the angel, and looked, He continued to look: the angel at this moment of its nightly vigil, though already the hand that clasped the trumpet had lost its silver, seemed with an ineffable yearning as if about to leap into a cataract of moonlight, like a mermaid leaning up head and shoulders out of a motionless green sea to scan the shore.
“You said, what would be the use?” he protested at last in a minute, scarcely audible voice, and without turning his head. “Even if I did, no one would hear. . . . Why do you want me to?”
“Who wants you to!” came the mocking challenge. “You asked me to give you a dare. And now—what did I say! Shouldn’t I hear? I don’t believe you’ve ever even looked at it, not even seen it before!”
“Oh, haven’t I!” Dick faltered. “You say that only because on Sundays I don’t sit on your side. And what’s the use? Staring up gives you a crick in the neck. But it’s not because I am afraid. Besides, she’s only made of stone.” In spite of this disparagement he continued to gaze at the angel.
“Is she then! Stone! That’s all you know about it. She’s made of wood, silly. How could she be that colour if it were marble or even any stone? Anybody could see that! And even if she is only wood, there are people all over the world who worship idols and—and images. I don’t mean just savages either. . . . If she”—for an instant his eyes shut and revolved beneath their pale rounded lids—”if she or anybody else was to blow through that trumpet, it would be the Last Day. I say it, and I know. Even if your father had ever heard of angels, 1 bet he doesn’t believe in them. I’m sure he doesn’t. My father does believe in them, though. And if you had ever really listened to what he reads out about them in the Lessons you’d know too. I have.”
He sat for a moment—as motionless as a spider either digesting or contemplating a visitor to its nets. Dick’s small, alert, yet guileless face was still turned away from him, upwards and sidelong. As one may put one’s ear to a minute device in clockwork and listen to the wheels within going round, the very thoughts in his cropped, compact head seemed audible. And then, as if after a sudden decision to dismiss the subject from his mind, Philip casually picked up his bull’s-eye lantern, idly twisted its penthouse top, and directed first a greenish, then a thin red beam of light towards the lustrous monument. But the moon made mock of this trivial rivalry.
“What,” was Dick’s husky enquiry at last, “what does the Bible say about angels? It must be a lovely place where they are, Philip.”
Philip ignored the sentimental comment. “Oh, heaps of things. I couldn’t tell you; not half of them, not a quarter.” A mild, absent-minded, almost hypnotic expression now veiled his pale cold features. He began again as though he were repeating a lesson, in tones low yet so confident that the whole church could easily play eavesdropper to his every word. Nevertheless the sentences followed one another tardily and piecemeal as if, like a writer of books, he could not wholly trust his memory, as though words and facts were stubborn things to set in order, and be made even to hint at what was pent up in his mind.
“Well, first there was St. Paul; he went to a man’s house who had seen an angel. Then there was the angel who came to tell his mother about Samuel, when she was sitting alone sewing in her bedroom. . . . And there was the angel that came to a prophet called Lot before he came out of the cities that were burned in the wilderness and his wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Because she turned back. Oh, heaps! You seem to suppose that because people can’t see them now, there never were any angels. What about the sea-serpent, then; and what about witches? And what about the stars millions and billions of miles out in space, and mites and germs and all that, so teeny-tiny nobody ever saw them until microscopes and telescopes were invented? I’ve looked through a microscope, so I know.”
Dick nodded vacantly. “If people can see them,” he admitted, “there must be sea-serpents. And I have seen a witch. There’s one lives in Colney Bottom, and everybody says she’s a witch. She’s humpity-backed with straggly gray hair all over her shoulders. I crept in through the trees once and she was in her garden digging potatoes. At least I think it was potatoes. She was talking, but there was nobody there, and it wasn’t to me. But you were telling me about the angels, Philip. Please go on!”
“ ‘Go on’!” echoed Philip in derision, and began again fumbling with his lantern. “Good heavens, you don’t expect me to tell you half the Bible, do you? Why don’t you listen? I don’t believe you’ve any more brains than a parrot. ‘Go on!’ Why, everybody has heard of the angel that when Moses was with his sheep called to him out of the middle of the burning bramble bush on the mountains. Its leaves and branches were all crackling with flames. That’s another.
And when Elijah was once lying asleep in the desert under a juniper tree an angel came in the morning and touched him to wake him because he had brought him some cake, and some fresh water to drink. That,” he pondered a moment or two, “that was before the ravens. And I suppose you’ve never even heard of Joshua either? He was a captain of Israel. And when he was standing dressed in his armour on the sand with his naked sword in his hand and looking at the enormous walls of Jericho, he saw an angel there beside him in armour too, just as you might see a man in a wood at night. They stood there together looking at the enormous walls of Jericho. But you couldn’t see them very plainly because it was getting dark, and there weren’t any lamps or lights in the houses. So nobody inside knew that they were there, not even the woman who had talked to the two spies who had stolen the bunches of grapes.”
Philip, unperceived, had quickly and suddenly glanced at his friend, who, his face wholly at peace, had meanwhile been emptily watching the coloured lights succeeding one the other in the round, glass, owl-like eyes of the toy lantern.
“I should like to see an angel,” he ruminated simply.
“Oh, would you? Then that’s all you know about it. There are thousands upon thousands of them, most of them miles taller than any giant there ever was and others no bigger than—than ordinary. Not all of them have only two wings either; some of them have six—here, and here, and here; with two they fly and with two they cover their faces when they are asleep. And they have names too; else God wouldn’t be able to call them. But don’t you go and think they are like us; because they aren’t. They are more like demons or ghosts—real ghosts, I mean, not the kind yon were talking about. And I don’t believe either that just because anything is made of wood or stone, it hasn’t any life at all—not at all. Even savages couldn’t be as stupid as all that. You only think you could touch angels. But you couldn’t. And some angels, though I don’t know even myself if they are most like women or men”—his voice ebbed away almost into a whisper, like that of a child murmuring in its sleep, as if he were not only nearing the end of his resources, but was losing himself in rapture of some strange vision in his mind—”some angels are far, far more beautiful to look at than any woman, even the most beautiful woman there ever was. And even than—that!”
Yet again Dick lifted his intense small eyes towards the image. It had as instantly become utterly secretly still, but only, it seemed, in the very nick of time to elude his silent questioning.
“I shouldn’t mind any angel,” he said, “if it were only like that. Not mind, I mean. If she looked at me, perhaps I might. She’s like Rebecca, the girl that lives at the farm. My mother taught me a hymn once to say when I am in bed. I can’t remember the beginning now, but some of it I can:
Four corners to my bed;
Four angels round my head.
One to bless and one to pray
And one to bear my soul away . . .
If you are not afraid, she says, not anywhere, nothing can do anything against you.”
“Oh, they can’t, can’t they! That just shows all you know about it. Besides, what you’ve been saying is only a rhyme for children. It’s only a rhyme. My nurse told me that ages ago. Those angels are only one kind. Why, there are angels so enormously strong that if one of them no more than touched even the roof of this church with the tip of his finger it would crumble away into dust. Like that”—he firmly placed his own small forefinger on the dried-up corpse of a tiny money-spider that had long since expired in the corner of the pew—”absolutely into dust. And their voices are as loud as thunder, so that when one speaks to another, the sound of their shouting sweeps clean across the sky. And some fly up out of the sea, out of the East, when the sun rises; and some come up out of a huge frightful pit. And some come up out of the water, deep dangerous lakes and great rivers, and they stand on the water, and can fly— straight across, as if it was lightning, from, one edge of the world tf the other-—like huge tremendous birds. I should jolly well like to see what a pilot of an aeroplane would do at the edge of the night if he met one. They can”—he bent forward a little, his pale face now faintly greened with his own lantern—”they can see without looking, and they stay still, like great carved stones, in a light—why, this moon wouldn’t be even a candle to it! And some day they will pour awful things out of vials down on the earth and reap with gigantic sickles not just ordinary corn, but men and women. Men and women. And besides the sea”—his rather colourless eyes had brightened, his cheeks had taken on a gentle flush, his nervous fingers were clasping and unclasping themselves over the warm metal of his lantern—”and besides the sea, they can stand and live exulting in the sun. But on the earth here they are invisible, at least now, except when they come in dreams. Besides, everybody has two angels; though they never get married, and so there are never any children angels. They are called cherubs. And I know this too—you can tell they are there even when you cannot see them. You can hear them listening. If they have charge of you nothing can hurt you, not the rocks—nor the ice-not even of the highest mountains. And that was why the angel spoke to Balaam’s donkey when they were on the mountain pass, because he wished not to frighten him; and the donkey answered. But if you were cursed by one for wickedness, then you would wither up and die like a gnat, or have awful pains, and everything inside of you would melt away like water. And don’t forget either that the devil has crowds of angels under his command who were thrown out of heaven millions of years ago, long before Adam and Eve. They are as proud as he is, and they live in hell. . . . They are awful.” It was doubtful if Dick had been wholly attending to this prolonged, halting, almost monotoned harangue; his face at any rate suggested that his thoughts had journeyed off on a remote marvelling errand of their own.
“Well,” he ventured at last with a profound half-stifled sigh, “I would climb anyway. And not because you dared me to, either. Even you couldn’t say what I might not see up there.”
He tiptoed a pace or two nearer the shallow altar steps and again fixed his eyes on his quarry. “What about the trumpet?” he suddenly enquired with a ring of triumph in his voice, as if he had at last managed to corner his learned friend. “The trumpet? You didn’t say a single word about the trumpet.”
“Well, what if I didn’t?” was the flat acrimonious answer. “I can’t say two things at once, can I ? You don’t know anything. And that is simply because you never pay any attention. You’re just like a fly buzzing about among the plates seeing what you can pick up. I don’t suppose if I asked you even now you could tell me a single word of all that I’ve been saying!”
Dick turned, glancing a little sadly and wistfully at his friend. “I could, Philip. At least, I think I could. Besides flies do settle sometimes; I suppose then they are asleep.”
“Oh, well, anyhow,” replied Philip coldly, T don’t think I want to. But I could if I had the time.” He sighed. “You don’t even seem to understand there are so many kinds of trumpets. You don’t seem ever to have heard even of Gideon’s trumpets. Some are made of brass and some are silver and some are great shells and some are made out of sheep’s horns, rams. And in the old days, ages ago, war-horses loved the sound of trumpets—I don’t mean just men going hunting. It made them laugh and prance, with all their teeth showing. (Ha, ha!—like that. Simply maddened to go into battle. And besides, clergymen, priests they were called in those days, used to have trumpets, but that was ages before Henry VIII. And they used to blow them, like that one, up there, when there was a new moon; and when”—he glanced sidelong, his eyelids drooped a little furtively over his full eyes, and his voice fell to a mumble—”and when there was a full moon too. And at the end there will be incense, and dreadful hail, and fire, and scorpions with claws like huge poisonous spiders, and there’s a Star called Wormwood; and there will be thousands and thousands of men riding on horses with heads like lions. . . .” He fell silent and sat fumbling for a few moments. “But I wasn’t really going to talk about all that. It’s only because I have listened. And it’s just what I’ve said already, and I know the very words too.” He nodded slowly as if he were bent on imparting a deathless and invaluable secret: ” ‘The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.’ Those are the very words. And I see what they mean.”
Dick had meanwhile become perfectly still, as if some inward self were lost in a strange land, He appeared to be profoundly pondering these matters. “And supposing,” he muttered at length, as though like the prophet he h id swallowed Philip’s little book and it were sweet as honey, “supposing nothing happens, Philip? If I do? Perhaps that trumpet is only solid wood all through. Then it wouldn’t make any sound. Then you would only burst your cheeks, trying. Wouldn’t it be funny—if I burst my cheeks, try-ing!”
“That,” replied Philip, disdaining the suggestion, “that would only mean that it isn’t really a trumpet. But you wouldn’t even be thinking of that if you weren’t too frightened to try. You’re only talking.”
“I like that,” cried Philip, as if in a brief ecstasy. “Oh, I like that! Who thought of the angel, may I ask? Who asked to be dared? Besides, as I have said again and again, this is my father’s church; and chapel people don’t believe in angels. They don’t believe in anything that really matters.” “You can say what you like about chapel people,” said Dick stubbornly, his eyes shining like some dangerous little animal’s that has been caught in a corner. “But I’m not afeard, even if you won’t go yourself.”
“Oh, well,”—a cold and unforeseen fit of anxiety had stolen into Philip’s mind as he sat staring at his friend. “I don’t care. Come on, let’s clear out of this, I say. You can ivy if you want to, but I’m not going to watch. So don’t get blaming anything on to me. It’s noising to do with me. That’s just what you always do. First, yes; then, no.”
Cramped and spiritless, he had got down from w pew, and, as if absent-mindedly, had pushed his magic dumbbell flint into his great-coat pocket and shut off the light of his lantern. The moonlight, which a few moments before, from pavement to arching roof, had suffused the small church through and through, had begun to thin away into a delicate dusk again; and at the withdrawal even of the tiny coloured lights of the lantern, its pallor on the zigzag-fretted walls and squat thick stone shafts of the piers had become colder. Moreover the quietude around them had at once immeasurably deepened again now that the two boys’ idle chirruping voices were stilled.
Philip took up his lantern, and looked at his friend. A curious, avid, crooked, scornful alarm showed on his own pale features. But it was the scorn in it that this rather undersized, peeping friend had detected most clearly. His intensely dark eyes were searching Philip’s face with an astonishing rapidity.
“You said, ‘blaming,’” he half entreated. “And did I ever? I—I . . . Haven’t I always shown that we— that I . . . It’s only because I didn’t think anything might happen. But I’m not afeard, whatever you may think. Besides, you asked me, Philip. So it couldn’t be only a dare.”
Like a cork on a shallow stream that has come momentarily to rest in the midst of rippling and conflicting currents, Philip stood motionless, his pondering eyes intent on the young adventurer whom he had at last decoyed into action. A faintly apprehensive, faintly melancholy expression had crept into his features. The cold detaining fingers he had thrust out of his coat-sleeve fell slackly to his side again. For Dick had already straddled over the thick red plaited cord that dangled between nave and chancel, disclosing as he did so a frayed gaping hole in the canvas of one of his shoes. Their rubber soles made not the faintest sound as he trod lightly over the thick Persian rug and the stone slabs towards the great monument in the further corner, only a few paces from the altar.
It was a monument constructed of many ornate marbles, and these supplied cold couch and canopy for the effigy in alabaster of a worthy knight who, as its inscription declared, had long ago surrendered the joys and sorrows of this world. He reposed, rather uneasily, on his left elbow; his attire, ruff and hose, not less decorative and rococo than the wreathings and carvings, the cherubs and pilasters of his tomb. But like an oriental bed in a small English bedroom, the tomb was a size or two too large for the church.
Until this moment Philip had not fully realised its lofti- j ness, and how angularly its pinnacles soared up under the roof. Dark and dwarfed against the whiteness of its marble, Dick had now begun to climb. But he had mounted only a few feet from the ground when Philip noticed that the moon had now abandoned the carved ringlets, the rounded cheeks, the upturned sightless face of his angel. Though its pinions and its feet were still checquered with these reflected beams, its trump now lifted its mouth into comparative gloom. An unendurable misgiving had begun to stir in him.
“The moon’s gone, Dick,” he whispered across. “What’s the good? Come down.”
“I say,” came the muffled but elated answer, “the ledges are simply thick with dust, and don’t they just cut into the soles of your feet. I can’t hear what you’re saying.” ‘I said,” repeated Philip, still patiently, “Come down.’” But he might as well have been pleading with the angel itself. There came no response. “Dick, Dick,” he reiterated, “I said, Come down! Oh, I’m going.’” In a sudden fever he pushed his way under the curtain into the vestry and vanished. But it was only a ruse. He came flying back in a few moments as if in utter consternation.
“Quick, Dick, quick, I say,” he all but shouted. “Come down! There’s someone, something coming. It isn’t a man and it isn’t a woman. Quick! It won’t be a minute before it’s in the church. Oh you silly, silly fool! I tell you there’s someone coming!” His voice broke away into a sob of bewilderment, rage, apprehension, and despair. “By God,” he called, “I’ll tell my father of this. You see if I don’t.”
But the snail-slow groping figure, still radiantly lit with the moon’s downcast beams as it continued to scale the monument, was far too much engrossed and absorbed to pay any attention to him now, and hardly paused until with a small, black, broken-nailed hand it had securely clasped the angel’s foot. “I’m nearly up, Philip,” he called down at last. “Look. Look, where I am! I’m even with the gallery now, but can hardly see because of the dazzle. It’s cold and still and awful, but, oh, lovely; and I can look into the moon. The angel is lovely too, close to, but much, much bigger. Supposing I blow with all my might and the trumpet doesn’t sound? It won’t be my fault, will it? And we will still keep friends, won’t we?”
“Oh, you fool, you idiot crock fool,” called Philip hoarsely. “Didn’t I tell you, didn’t I tell you, what might come to everybody? . . .. And you believed it! Oh, it was all a story, just a story. Dick, I will give you anything in the world if you will only come down.”
“I don’t want anything in the world,” was the dull, stubborn retort. Even as he spoke, the lower dust-dried hand had crept cautiously up to join its fellow, and in a few moments, himself half in and half out of the moonlight, his fingers were clutching the acorn tassels of the cord that bound its convoluted hood to the angel’s head. Philip was now all but past motion or speech. He was shivering from head to foot, and praying inarticulately in his terror, “Oh God, make him come down! Oh God, make him come down.”
“I believe,” a calm but rapturous voice was declaring, “it is hollow, and I think she knows I’m here. You won’t say I was afraid now! Philip, I’d do anything in the world for you.”
But at this moment, it seemed, the ancient guardians of the sanctity of the edifice had deemed it advisable to intervene. A cock crowed from its perch in the henroost at the farm where Rebecca now lay fast asleep. A vast solemn gust of wind evoked from nowhere out of space had swept across the churchyard and in at the open vestry door, powerful enough in its gust to belly out the dark green felt curtain and to add its edge of terror to Philip’s appalled state of mind. “Look! Quick! It’s coming. Didn’t I say it was all . . .”
And this time the small human creature clinging to its goal, a lean skinny arm outstretched above his head, had heard the warning cry. “Who? What’s coming?” he called, faint and far. “It’s lovely up here. I can’t stop now, I’m nearly there.”
“I say, you are not to, you are not to.” Philip was all but dancing in helpless fear and fury. “It’s wicked! It’s my angel, it’s my trumpet! I hate you! Listen, I tell you! I command you to come down!”
But his adjurations had become as meaningless as is now the song the Sirens sang.
A rending snap, abrupt as that of a pistol shot, had echoed through the church. The tapping wooden trumpet, never since its first fashioning visited by any other living creature than capricious fly and prowling spider, had splintered off clean from the angel’s grasp. And without a cry, a syllable, either of triumph or despair, Dick had fallen vertically on to the flag-stones beneath, the thud of his small body, and the minute crack as of some exquisitely delicate but brittle vessel exposed to too extreme a tension being followed by a silence soft, and thick, and deep as deep and heavy snow.
The stolid pendulum had resumed its imperturbable thumping again, the fussy vestry clock its protest against such indifference. By any miracle of mercy, could this be only yet another of this intrepid restless little Yorick’s infinite jests? The sharp-nosed crusader continued alabaster-wise to stare into his future. The disgraced angel, breast to lock-crowned head stood now in shadow as if to hide its shame. The mute trumpet remained clutched in a lifeless hand. No. “Dick! Dick!” an anguished stuttering voice at last contrived to whisper. “I didn’t mean it. On my oath I didn’t mean it. Don’t let me down. . . . Dick, are you dead?”
But since no answer was volunteered, and all courage and enterprise had ebbed into nausea and vertigo, the speaker found himself incapable of venturing nearer, and presently, as noiselessly as he had entered it, crept away out into the openness of the churchyard, and so home.