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The Nebuly Coat
by John Meade Falkner
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The little party were nearing the house when a servant met them.

"There is a man come over from Cullerne, my lord," he said. "He is anxious to see Mr Westray at once on important business."

"Show him into my sitting-room, and say that Mr Westray will be with him immediately."

Westray met Lord Blandamer in the hall a few minutes later.

"I am sorry to say there is bad news from Cullerne," the architect said hurriedly. "Last night's gale has strained and shaken the tower severely. A very serious movement is taking place. I must get back at once."

"Do, by all means. A carriage is at the door. You can catch the train at Lytchett, and be in Cullerne by mid-day."

The episode was a relief to Lord Blandamer. The architect's attention was evidently absorbed in the tower. It might be that he had already found the blameless herb growing by the wayside.

The nebuly coat shone on the panel of the carriage-door. Lady Blandamer had noticed that her husband had been paying Westray special attention. He was invariably courteous, but he had treated this guest as he treated few others. Yet now, at the last moment, he had fallen silent; he was standing, she fancied, aloof. He held his hands behind him, and the attitude seemed to her to have some significance. But on Lord Blandamer's part it was a mark of consideration. There had been no shaking of hands up to the present; he was anxious not to force Westray to take his hand by offering it before his wife and the servants.

Lady Blandamer felt that there was something going on which she did not understand, but she took leave of Westray with special kindness. She did not directly mention the picture, but said how much they were obliged to him, and glanced for confirmation at Lord Blandamer. He looked at Westray, and said with deliberation:

"I trust Mr Westray knows how fully I appreciate his generosity and courtesy."

There was a moment's pause, and then Westray offered his hand. Lord Blandamer shook it cordially, and their eyes met for the last time.



CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

On the afternoon of the same day Lord Blandamer was himself in Cullerne. He went to the office of Mr Martelet, solicitor by prescriptive right to the family at Fording, and spent an hour closeted with the principal.

The house which the solicitor used for offices, was a derelict residence at the bottom of the town. It still had in front of it an extinguisher for links, and a lamp-bracket over the door of wasted iron scroll-work. It was a dingy place, but Mr Martelet had a famous county connection, and rumour said that more important family business was done here even than in Carisbury itself. Lord Blandamer sat behind the dusty windows.

"I think I quite understand the nature of the codicil," the solicitor said. "I will have a draft forwarded to your lordship to-morrow."

"No, no; it is short enough. Let us finish with it now," said his client. "There is no time like the present. It can be witnessed here. Your head clerk is discreet, is he not?"

"Mr Simpkin has been with me thirty years," the solicitor said deprecatingly, "and I have had no reason to doubt his discretion hitherto."

The sun was low when Lord Blandamer left Mr Martelet's office. He walked down the winding street that led to the market-place, with his long shadow going before him on the pavement. Above the houses in the near distance stood up the great tower of Saint Sepulchre's, pink-red in the sunset rays. What a dying place was Cullerne! How empty were the streets! The streets were certainly strangely empty. He had never seen them so deserted. There was a silence of the grave over all. He took out his watch. The little place is gone to tea, he thought, and walked on with a light heart, and more at his ease than he had ever felt before in his life.

He came round a bend in the street, and suddenly saw a great crowd before him, between him and the market-place over which the minster church watched, and knew that something must be happening, that had drawn the people from the other parts of the town. As he came nearer it seemed as if the whole population was there collected. Conspicuous was pompous Canon Parkyn, and by him stood Mrs Parkyn, and tall and sloping-shouldered Mr Noot. The sleek dissenting minister was there, and the jovial, round-faced Catholic priest. There stood Joliffe, the pork-butcher, in shirt-sleeves and white apron in the middle of the road; and there stood Joliffe's wife and daughters, piled up on the steps of the shop, and craning their necks towards the market-place. The postmaster and his clerk and two letter-carriers had come out from the post-office. All the young ladies and young gentlemen from Rose and Storey's establishment were herded in front of their great glittering shop-window, and among them shone the fair curls of Mr Storey, the junior partner, himself. A little lower down was a group of masons and men employed on the restorations, and near them Clerk Janaway leant on his stick.

Many of these people Lord Blandamer knew well by sight, and there was beside a great throng of common folk, but none took any notice of him.

There was something very strange about the crowd. Everyone was looking towards the market-place, and everyone's face was upturned as if they were watching a flight of birds. The square was empty, and no one attempted to advance further into it; nay, most stood in an alert attitude, as if prepared to run the other way. Yet all remained spellbound, looking up, with their heads turned towards the market-place, over which watched the minster church. There was no shouting, nor laughter, nor chatter; only the agitated murmur of a multitude of people speaking under their breath.

The single person that moved was a waggoner. He was trying to get his team and cart up the street, away from the market-place, but made slow progress, for the crowd was too absorbed to give him room. Lord Blandamer spoke to the man, and asked him what was happening. The waggoner stared for a moment as if dazed; then recognised his questioner, and said quickly:

"Don't go on, my lord! For God's sake, don't go on; the tower's coming down."

Then the spell that bound all the others fell on Lord Blandamer too. His eyes were drawn by an awful attraction to the great tower that watched over the market-place. The buttresses with their broad set-offs, the double belfry windows with their pierced screens and stately Perpendicular tracery, the open battlemented parapet, and clustered groups of soaring pinnacles, shone pink and mellow in the evening sun. They were as fair and wonderful as on that day when Abbot Vinnicomb first looked upon his finished work, and praised God that it was good.

But on this still autumn evening there was something terribly amiss with the tower, in spite of all brave appearances. The jackdaws knew it, and whirled in a mad chattering cloud round their old home, with wings flashing and changing in the low sunlight. And on the west side, the side nearest the market-place, there oozed out from a hundred joints a thin white dust that fell down into the churchyard like the spray of some lofty Swiss cascade. It was the very death-sweat of a giant in his agony, the mortar that was being ground out in powder from the courses of collapsing masonry. To Lord Blandamer it seemed like the sand running through an hour-glass.

Then the crowd gave a groan like a single man. One of the gargoyles at the corner, under the parapet, a demon figure that had jutted grinning over the churchyard for three centuries, broke loose and fell crashing on to the gravestones below. There was silence for a minute, and then the murmurings of the onlookers began again. Everyone spoke in short, breathless sentences, as though they feared the final crash might come before they could finish. Churchwarden Joliffe, with pauses of expectation, muttered about a "judgment in our midst." The Rector, in Joliffe's pauses, seemed trying to confute him by some reference to "those thirteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and slew them." An old charwoman whom Miss Joliffe sometimes employed wrung her hands with an "Ah! poor dear—poor dear!" The Catholic priest was reciting something in a low tone, and crossing himself at intervals. Lord Blandamer, who stood near, caught a word or two of the commendatory prayer for the dying, the "Proficiscere," and "liliata rutilantium," that showed how Abbot Vinnicomb's tower lived in the hearts of those that abode under its shadow.

And all the while the white dust kept pouring out of the side of the wounded fabric; the sands of the hour-glass were running down apace.

The foreman of the masons saw Lord Blandamer, and made his way to him.

"Last night's gale did it, my lord," he said; "we knew 'twas touch and go when we came this morning. Mr Westray's been up the tower since mid-day to see if there was anything that could be done, but twenty minutes ago he came sharp into the belfry and called to us, 'Get out of it, lads—get out quick for your lives; it's all over now.' It's widening out at bottom; you can see how the base wall's moved and forced up the graves on the north side." And he pointed to a shapeless heap of turf and gravestones and churchyard mould against the base of the tower.

"Where is Mr Westray?" Lord Blandamer said. "Ask him to speak to me for a minute."

He looked round about for the architect; he wondered now that he had not seen him among the crowd. The people standing near had listened to Lord Blandamer's words. They of Cullerne looked on the master of Fording as being almost omnipotent. If he could not command the tower, like Joshua's sun in Ajalon, to stand still forthwith and not fall down, yet he had no doubt some sage scheme to suggest to the architect whereby the great disaster might be averted. Where was the architect? they questioned impatiently. Why was he not at hand when Lord Blandamer wanted him? Where was he? And in a moment Westray's name was on all lips.

And just then was heard a voice from the tower, calling out through the louvres of the belfry windows, very clear and distinct for all it was so high up, and for all the chatter of the jackdaws. It was Westray's voice:

"I am shut up in the belfry," it called; "the door is jammed. For God's sake! someone bring a crowbar, and break in the door!"

There was despair in the words, that sent a thrill of horror through those that heard them. The crowd stared at one another. The foreman-mason wiped the sweat off his brow; he was thinking of his wife and children. Then the Catholic priest stepped out.

"I will go," he said; "I have no one depending on me."

Lord Blandamer's thoughts had been elsewhere; he woke from his reverie at the priest's words.

"Nonsense!" said he; "I am younger than you, and know the staircase. Give me a lever." One of the builder's men handed him a lever with a sheepish air. Lord Blandamer took it, and ran quickly towards the minster.

The foreman-mason called after him:

"There is only one door open, my lord—a little door by the organ."

"Yes, I know the door," Lord Blandamer shouted, as he disappeared round the church.

A few minutes later he had forced open the belfry door. He pulled it back towards him, and stood behind it on the steps higher up, leaving the staircase below clear for Westray's escape. The eyes of the two men did not meet, for Lord Blandamer was hidden by the door; but Westray was much overcome as he thanked the other for rescuing him.

"Run for your life!" was all Lord Blandamer said; "you are not saved yet."

The younger man dashed headlong down the steps, and then Lord Blandamer pushed the door to, and followed with as little haste or excitement as if he had been coming down from one of his many inspections of the restoration work.

As Westray ran through the great church, he had to make his way through a heap of mortar and debris that lay upon the pavement. The face of the wall over the south transept arch had come away, and in its fall had broken through the floor into the vaults below. Above his head that baleful old crack, like a black lightning-flash, had widened into a cavernous fissure. The church was full of dread voices, of strange moanings and groanings, as if the spirits of all the monks departed were wailing for the destruction of Abbot Vinnicomb's tower. There was a dull rumbling of rending stone and crashing timbers, but over all the architect heard the cry of the crossing-arches: "The arch never sleeps, never sleeps. They have bound upon us a burden too heavy to be borne; we are shifting it. The arch never sleeps."

Outside, the people in the market-place held their breath, and the stream of white dust still poured out of the side of the wounded tower. It was six o'clock; the four quarters sounded, and the hour struck. Before the last stroke had died away Westray ran out across the square, but the people waited to cheer until Lord Blandamer should be safe too. The chimes began "Bermondsey" as clearly and cheerfully as on a thousand other bright and sunny evenings.

And then the melody was broken. There was a jangle of sound, a deep groan from Taylor John, and a shrill cry from Beata Maria, a roar as of cannon, a shock as of an earthquake, and a cloud of white dust hid from the spectators the ruin of the fallen tower:



EPILOGUE.

On the same evening Lieutenant Ennefer, R.N., sailed down Channel in the corvette Solebay, bound for the China Station. He was engaged to the second Miss Bulteel, and turned his glass on the old town where his lady dwelt as he passed by. It was then he logged that Cullerne Tower was not to be seen, though the air was clear and the ship but six miles from shore. He rubbed his glass, and called some other officers to verify the absence of the ancient seamark, but all they could make out was a white cloud, that might be smoke or dust or mist hanging over the town. It must be mist, they said; some unusual atmospheric condition must have rendered the tower invisible.

It was not for many months afterwards that Lieutenant Ennefer heard of the catastrophe, and when he came up Channel again on his return four years later, there was the old seamark clear once more, whiter a little, but still the same old tower. It had been rebuilt at the sole charge of Lady Blandamer, and in the basement of it was a brass plate to the memory of Horatio Sebastian Fynes, Lord Blandamer, who had lost his own life in that place whilst engaged in the rescue of others.

The rebuilding was entrusted to Mr Edward Westray, whom Lord Blandamer, by codicil dictated only a few hours before his death, had left co-trustee with Lady Blandamer, and guardian of the infant heir.

THE END

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