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   Chapter 9 A TERRIBLE INTERRUPTION

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 12702

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


By some means or other the news had spread in the village, and such a congregation as I had never seen filled our little church long before the usual time. In a dark corner I saw, to my surprise, Bruce Deville leaning against a pillar with folded arms, and on my way to my pew I passed Adelaide Fortress seated in a chair in the nave. Neither of these two had I ever seen in church before, and what had brought them there on that particular evening I never clearly understood. It was a little irony of fate-one of those impulses which it is hard to believe are altogether coincidences.

The Bishop came early, and sat by Lady Naselton's side, the centre of all eyes. I looked away from him to the chancel. I was strangely nervous. It was still dimly lit, although the bells had ceased to ring. There was only a moment's pause, however, then the little space was filled with white-robed figures, and my sister's voluntary, unduly prolonged in this instance, died away in a few soft chords. I drew a long breath of relief. Everything was going as usual. Perhaps, after all this night might be a fateful one to us.

I watched the Bishop's face from the first. I saw him glance up as if in surprise at my father's rich, musical voice, which woke the echoes of the dark little church with the first words of the service. At the singing, which was always wretched, he frowned, and, catching a sideway glance from Lady Naselton, smiled somewhat. Studying him through half-closed eyelids, I decided that country services in the abstract did not attract him, and that he was a little bored.

It was only when my father stood up in the pulpit and looked around him in that moment or two of hushed suspense which precedes the giving out of the text, that the lines of his face relaxed, and he settled himself down with an air of interest.

For me it was a terribly anxious moment. I knew my father's state of health, and I remembered the few weary and pointless words which had gone to make his morning sermon. Contrary to his usual custom, he stood there without any notes of any sort. I scarcely dared to hope that he would be able to do himself justice. Yet the first words of his text had scarcely left his lips when some premonition of what was to come sent a strange thrill through all my nerves. "The wages of sin is death." No words could give any idea of the marvellous yet altogether effortless solemnity with which these words passed from my father's lips. Scarcely uttered above a whisper, they yet penetrated to the utmost corners of the little church. Was it really intense earnestness or a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of true dramatic effect which made him close the book with a slow movement of his forefinger, and stand up there amongst the deep shadows as pale as the surplice which hung around his pale form? Yet when he spoke his voice did not tremble or falter. His words, tense with life, all vibrating with hidden fire, penetrated easily to the furthest and darkest corner of the building.

"The wages of sin-the eternal torment of a conscience never sleeping, never weary!" It was of that he went on to speak. I can scarcely remember so much as a single sentence of that sermon, although its effect upon myself and those who formed the congregation of listeners, is a memory which even now thrills me. From those few opening words, pregnant as they were with dramatic force, and lit with the fire of true eloquence, not for one moment did the attention of the little congregation wander. A leaf could have been heard to drop in the church, the rustle of a pocket handkerchief was a perfectly audible sound. Not even a child looked sideways to watch the dark ivy waving softly against the stained glass windows or wondered at the strange pattern which a ray of dying sunlight had traced upon the bare stone aisles. There was something personal-something like the cry of human sorrow itself in that slow, passionate outpouring. Was it by any chance a confession or an accusation to which we were listening? It was on the universality of sin of which my father spoke with such heart-moving emphasis. Our lives were like cupboards having many chambers, some of which were open indeed to the daylight and the gaze of all men, but there were others jealously closed and locked. We could make their outside beautiful, we could keep the eyes of all men from penetrating beneath that fair exterior. We could lock them with a cunning and secret key, so that no hand save our own could lay bare the grisly spectre that lurked within. Yet our own knowledge, or what we had grown to call conscience, sat in our hearts and mocked us. Sometime the great white light swept into the hidden places, there was a tug at our heartstrings, and behold the seal had fallen away. And in that church, my father added slowly, "he doubted whether any one could say that within him those dark places were not."

Suddenly his calm, tense eloquence became touched with passion. His pale face gleamed, and his eyes were lit with an inward fire. Gesture and tone moved to the beat of a deeper and more subtle rhetoric. He was pleading for those whose sin beat about in their bosoms and lay like a dark shadow across all the sweet places of life. Passionate and more passionate he grew. He was pleading-for whom? We listened entranced. His terrible earnestness passed like an electric thrill into the hearts of all of us. Several women were crying softly; men sat there with bowed heads, face to face with ghosts long since buried. Bruce Deville was sitting back in his corner with folded arms and downcast head. Adelaide Fortress was looking steadfastly up towards that pale, inspired figure, with soft, wet eyes. Even the Bishop was deeply moved, and was listening to every word. For my part there was a great lump in my throat. The sense of some terrible reality behind my father's impassioned words had left me pale and trembling. A subtle sense of excitement stole through the church. When he paused for a moment before his concluding sentence, there was something almost like a murmur amongst the congregation, followed by another period of breathless suspense.

In the midst of that deep hush a faint sound attracted me. My seat was on a level with the open door, and I glanced out. A man was leaning against the porch-a man in very grievous

condition. His clothes were disordered and torn, and there was a great stain on the front of his coat. I alone had gazed away from the preacher in the pulpit towards him, and whilst I looked the sound which had first attracted me was repeated. A low, faint moan, scarcely louder than a whisper, passed between his lips. He stood there supporting himself with his hands against the wall. His lined face was turned towards me, and, with a thrill of horror, I recognized him. I half rose from my seat. The man was either ill or dying. He seemed to be making frantic signs to me. I tried my utmost to signal to Mr. Charlsworth, but, like all the rest, his eyes seemed riveted upon the pulpit. Before I could leave my seat, or attract any one's attention, he had staggered through the door into the church itself. He stood leaning upon a vacant chair, a wild, disordered object, with blood stains upon his hands and clothes, and his dark eyes red and gleaming fiercely beneath his wind-tossed mass of black hair.

So fascinated was the congregation that save myself only one or two stray people had noticed him. He stood amongst the shadows, and only I, to whom his profile appeared against the background of the open door, was able to mark the full and terrible disorder of his person. And while I waited, numb with some nameless fear, the preacher's voice rang once more through the building, and men and women bowed their heads before the sweet, lingering passion of those sad words.

"The wages of sin is death. For all things may pass away save sin. Sin alone is eternal. Sin alone must stamp itself wherever it touches with an undying and everlasting mark. Retribution is like the tides of the sea, which no man's hands can stay; and Death rides his barque upon the rolling waves. You and I and every man and woman in this world whom sin has known-alas! that there should be so many-have looked into his marble face, have felt the touch of his pitiless hands, and the cold despair of his unloving embrace. For there is Death spiritual and Death physical, and many of us who bear no traces of our past in the present of to-day, have fought our grim battle with the death-the-death--"

And then my father's words died away upon his lips, and the whole congregation knew what had already thrown me into an agony of terror. The man had struggled to the bottom of the aisle, and the sound of his shuffling movements, and the deep groan which accompanied them, had drawn many eyes towards him. His awful plight stood revealed with pitiless distinctness in the open space where he was now standing. The red blood dripped from his clothing upon the bare stone floor, a foam which was like the foam of death frothed at his lips. He stood there, the focus of all horrified eyes, swaying to and fro as though on the eve of collapse, his arms outstretched, and his eyes flashing red fire upon the thin almost spectral-like figure of the preacher now leaning over towards him from the pulpit. The slight color forced into my father's cheeks by the physical effort of his impassioned oratory died away. To his very lips he was white as the surplice he wore. Yet he did not lose his nerve or falter for a moment. He motioned to Mr. Charlsworth and the other church wardens, and both left their places and hurried down the aisle towards the wild, tragical looking figure. Just as they reached him the cry which his lips had twice declined to utter burst out upon the tense, breathless silence. He made a convulsive movement forward as though to spring like a wild cat upon that calm, dignified figure looking down upon him with unfaltering and unflinching gaze.

"Judas! you, Judas! Oh! my God!"

His hands, thrown wildly out, fell to his side. He sank back into the arms of one of those who had hurried from their places at my father's gesture. A last cry, more awful than anything I have ever heard, woke hideous echoes amongst the wormeaten, black oak beams, and before it had died away, I saw Adelaide Fortress glide like a black wraith from her seat and fall on her knees by the fainting man's side. My father lifted up his arms, and with a deep, solemn tremor in his tone pronounced the Benediction. Then, with his surplice flying round him, he came swiftly down the aisle between the little crowd of horrified people. They all fell back at his approach. He sank on one knee by the side of the prostrate man and looked steadfastly into his face. The congregation all waited in their places, and Alice, who was only partly aware of what was going on, commenced to play a soft voluntary.

There was some whispering for a moment or two, then they lifted him up and carried the lifeless body out into the open air.

My father followed close behind. For a few minutes there was an uneasy silence. People forgot that the Benediction had been pronounced, and were uncertain whether to go or stay. Then some one made a start, and one by one they got up and left the church.

Lady Naselton paused and sat by my side for a moment. She was trembling all over.

"Do you know who it was?" she whispered.

I shook my head.

"I am not sure. It was a stranger; was it not?"

She shuddered.

"It was either a stranger, or my guest, Mr. Berdenstein. I only caught a glimpse of his face for a moment, and I could not be sure. He looked so horrible."

She paused, and suddenly discovered that I was half fainting. "Come out into the air," she whispered. I got up and went out with her just in time.

They had carried him into a distant corner of the churchyard. My father, when he saw us standing together in a little group, came slowly over as though to check our further advance. His face was haggard and drawn. He seemed to walk with difficulty, and underneath his surplice I could see that one hand was pressed to his side.

"The man is dead," he said, quietly. "There must have been an accident or a fight. No one seems to know where he came from."

"I wonder," remarked the Bishop, thoughtfully, "why he should have dragged himself up to the church in such a plight. One of those cottages or the Vicarage would have been nearer."

"Perhaps," my father answered, gravely, "he was struggling for sanctuary."

And the Bishop held up his right hand towards the sky with a solemn gesture.

"God grant that he may have found it," he prayed.

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