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*'ril give it up : ask another."

*'Your eyes aren't quite as nice, though," said
Nancy, more cheerfully.

^'Nothing like; and as you've two superior eyes
and I've only one superior nose, you're twice as well
off as I am, after all. Two to one is a good work-
ing majority, don't you know?"

And so these two young people went on talking
nonsense, little dreaming how short-lived such non-
sense was doomed to be.

At sunset that evening the wind rose again, and
for the whole of the night the westerly gale was
more boisterous than ever. The wind had evidently
been "scotched, not killed;" and it now awoke, as a
giant refreshed with wine, and rushed to and fro
across the heavens like some devastating fiend.

At about three o'clock in the morning Laurence
was awakened by the violence of the gale, and roused
himself sufficiently to look out of his window in or-
der to see whether that ghastly game of spilikins
was again going on in Baxendale Woods. He was
struck by perceiving a rosy light opposite his win-
dow, which at first sight he mistook for the first
flush of dawn ; but, as he grew more wide awake, he
realised that the sun does not rise in the west, and
that therefore there must be some other reason for
this phenomenon ; and by the time he was thoroughly
awake, the awful truth dawned upon his drowsy
brain that Baxendale Hall was in flames.

Even while he stood spellbound at the first horror


of the sight, tongues of flame darted up into the
summer sky, and clouds of smoke rose up and blot-
ted out the stars which hung low over the horizon
line. Yes, Baxendale Hall was on fire, and the an-
cient prophecy had once more come true. There
was no doubt of it. For a second, which seemed
like an eternity, Laurence stood still, feeling — as we
all feel under the first shock of some great calamity
— that the terrible thing which was now happening
had been happening ever since the foundation of the
world. There seemed no prehistoric time when
Baxendale Hall had not been on fire — no half-for-
gotten date when the third part of the ancient doom
was as yet unfulfilled.

Then with a great effort he roused himself and
awakened his household; and hastily dressing, he
made his way, as well as he could in the teeth of such
a wind, up to the scene of the disaster, followed by
such servants and labourers as he had been able to
awaken on the road. But it was too late. In such
a gale as this, the fire ran on apace : and no human
agency could extinguish it after it has once taken a
hold. The old library, with its reams of dried-up
parchment and paper, acted as fuel to the flames;
and although Laurence and his followers did all in
their power to extinguish it, their efforts were ut-
terly futile.

The fire, however, had only touched the first and
upper storeys : the ground floor was still intact. So,
as the news of the disaster spread wider and more


help came, the men succeeded in saving the down-
stairs rooms and their contents — which contents
were, after all, nothing save ordinary furniture.

But when the day broke and the full extent of the
catastrophe was revealed, it was found that the up-
per part of Baxendale Hall — including the fine old
pictures and the still finer old library — was reduced
to a heap of ashes.



To give a dog an unrespected name,
As hanging seems to be about the same.

The burning of Baxendale Hall caused a great
sensation, not only in Mershire, but throughout all
England. In the first place, people were genuinely
sorry that a house containing such fine pictures and
so magnificent a library should be destroyed ; it was
a loss to the whole country as well as to the posses-
sor : and in the second place they were devoured by
curiosity as to who was the culprit who had actu-
ally set the Hall on fire. Somebody must have done
it — on that point all were agreed : but there
was much discussion — and for many a long
day — as to who that somebody could be. Some
said one, some said another; and none was
weary of going over the question again and again,
sifting and re-sifting the evidence. The temptation
to transfigure molehills into mountains, and to dis-
cover mares' nests — to find something new to talk
about, and to pluck the mote out of a brother's eye —
in short, to relieve the tedium of life in a manner
which would not have found favour in the eyes of


the first Bishop of Jerusalem proved too much for
the British pubhc : they discussed the matter until
they gradually lost their power of discrimination
between what actually, and what they supposed, had
happened ; they revelled in guesses as to whether A.
or B. could possibly have set fire to the Hall, until
they believed A. or B. really had done so ; and they
hoped that C. or D. had not been guilty of the crime,
until C. and D. stood red-handed in their minds'
eves. As for the curse, it was meat and drink to
them ; and they tried to find out what was thrice as
great as King or State with an energy which was
worthy of a weightier problem. And all this, be it
noted, not from any enmity against the present
owner of Baxendale Hall, nor from any wish to
work him harm, but merely from a passionate thirst
for excitement and an unthinking intention to slake
that thirst at all costs. Of course, if the Hall had
not been insured, or had only been insured for a
modest sum, none of this gossip would have arisen :
the catastrophe would have been a nine-days' won-
der, and that would have been the end of it. But a
hundred thousand pounds was too big a sum to be
lightly passed over: and it also provided in the
minds of the really well-meaning, though actually
mischief-making, public a motive why Laurence
Baxendale should have burned down the house of
his fathers and placed himself in danger of the law;
for human nature, alas ! is such that in all courts of
justice a motive for a crime on behalf of a certain


person is strong evidence in favour of that particular
person's having committed that particular crime.
Wherefore we daily pray, ''Lead us not into tempta-

When the news of the disaster was brought to the
Burtons' breakfast table by excited menials the fol-
lowing morning, Nancy's heart stood still for a sec-
ond, and then began to beat like a sledge hammer.
She could hardly speak, so strong was the thrill that
ran through her — that thrill, half of triumph and
half of fear, which suddenly runs through all of us
when suddenly we find our unworthy wishes
granted, our unholy intentions fulfilled. She had
made up her mind that Baxendale Hall should be
burned down so that she should attain her heart's
desire and marry Laurence. That the old curse
should come to pass was the thing she had longed
for: it did not occur to her that, though offences
must come, woe to those by whom they come. At
present she only thought what a delightful world it
was after all, and how lucky she was to have won the
love of such a man as Laurence Baxendale.

She and Nora walked up to the Hall immediately
after breakfast to see what damage had actually been
wrought, accompanied by their two brothers, who
regarded the burning of Baxendale as a treat spe-
cially prepared for their greater enjoyment of the
summer holidays. The rooms on the ground floor
were still standing; and though their contents had


been sadly spoilt by the water which had been
thrown upon them, they were not destroyed. But
the ground floor was all that was left of Baxendale
Hall; and even these rooms had been robbed of
their ceilings, and stood open to the ravages of
wind and weather. The fire had evidently begun
in the library and ascended, devouring every-
thing that barred its upward course. The old
books and manuscripts had been as tinder to the
flame, and the pictures had not been much better.
Then, the wind being so high, when once the flames
had a start they literally travelled as wild-fire ; there
was no possibility of quenching them; and so, in a
few hours, the upper part of the fine old house had
completely vanished.

Mr. Baxendale was on the scene of the ruins when
Nancy and Nora and the boys arrived there; and
Nancy was shocked to perceive how he had changed
in that one night: he looked ten years older than
when she parted from him the preceding after-
noon; his face was white and set, and there was a
stern look about his mouth which she had never seen
before. It seemed strange, she thought, that what
had so rejoiced her soul had turned Laurence into an
old man: she had expected him to be so glad that
he could marry her, that all regret at the loss of his
home would be swallowed up; instead of which he
seemed so preoccupied that he had hardly time to
notice her at all.


The Burton girls did not stay long on the scene
of the ruins. They saw that Laurence was really
too busy to attend to them ; so when they had gazed
their fill on the wreck, they turned away, leaving
their small brothers to that fuller enjoyment of the
disaster which only the immature male mind could
adequately appreciate. For a short time Nancy felt
rather depressed by Laurence's apparent indiffer-
ence; but her natural high spirits soon reasserted
themselves, and comforted her with assurances of
how happy she and he were going to be in the good
time coming. And during the rest of that day, and
for several days afterward, she built most delightful
castles in the air for the occupation of herself and
him. She did not see him again for nearly a week ;
but she easily accounted for this, since his time was
naturally occupied with saving what he could out
of the wreckage of his house and getting the place
Into order again. The fire had not touched any of
the stables or outhouses; it was only the Hall itself
that had suffered.

What Laurence himself was enduring at that time
Nancy had not the ghost of an idea. It would have
been impossible for her to understand, even if she
had been told, how he was simultaneously trying to
harden his heart against her, and longing to take
her into his arms — how he was making up his mind
to tell her that henceforward everything must be at
an end between them, and at the same moment de-
ciding that, come what might, he would marry her


on the income of the insurance money, and defy the
world and whatever the world might choose to say.
Nancy was one of those natures to whom conflict is
an unknown quantity: St. Paul's testimony to the
flesh lusting against the spirit was to her as the
original Greek in which is was written. She might
succumb to a temptation on Tuesday which she had
safely resisted on Monday; that was quite possible;
but she would never feel the full power of the temp-
tation and the passionate desire to resist it at one and
the same time. She might change her government
with startling rapidity; but as long as the govern-
ment was in power it was unanimous. Like the rest
of us, she presumably had her guardian angel and her
tempting demon in attendance, to guide her feet re-
spectively in the narrow way that leads upward to
life, and the broad path that goes downward to
destruction : but in Nancy's case these two opposing
influences made a sort of spiritual Box-and-Cox
arrangement, and were never upon the ground at the
same time. Therefore, she was spared the wear
and tear of conflict, though not the agony of re-

"People are all wondering whether Baxendale
burned down the Hall himself for the sake of the
insurance money," remarked Anthony to his uncle
one evening.

Nancy started up in amazement : "Then I'm cer-
tain he did not. It's a horrid lie ! Laurence is the
last man to do that sort of a thing." That her lover


himself should ever be suspected of the crime was a
possibility that had never occurred to her.

But Anthony took no notice of her indignation:
''What do you think, Uncle Richard ?" he asked.

Mr. Burton laid down his newspaper and shook
his head : "It is a queer business : I don't know what
to think."

Nancy again rushed in : ''Surely you don't think
that Laurence did it?"

"Gently, my child, gently," her father replied : "I
say I don't know what to think — I did not give any
opinion on the matter."

"The world in general seems coming to this con-
clusion," said Anthony : "I've heard it from no end
of people to-day."

"That is just like people !" exclaimed Nancy :
"nasty things!"

"No," expostulated Mr. Burton judicially; "I do
not think one can altogether blame the public for
suspecting Mr. Baxendale, when you remember how
much he had to gain by the accident, and also when
you consider that the public do not know the man as
we know him. I am bound to say that if I had not
met Baxendale personally — if I knew nothing in his
favour or against him — I should need to be con-
vinced of his innocence."

"You think things look rather black against
him?" said Anthony.

"Yes, my boy, I am sorry to say that I do. Mind


you, I don't say that I think Baxendale burned down
his own house ; I only say that I am not surprised at
the world in general suspecting that he did."

Nancy looked frightened: "But why, father?"

"First, because it was to his interest to do so.
Not only does he come into a large sum of money
through the burning down of the Hall, but he also
is relieved from paying a yearly tax which there is
no doubt was often a great strain upon his slender
resources. In short, the accident turns Baxendale
from a poor man into a comparatively rich one."

Anthony nodded: "Yes, that's true enough; and
there is no doubt that this is a consummation de-
voutly wished by others than our friend Baxendale."

"So much for the motive of the crime," continued
Mr. Burton : "now let us look at the evidence. The
caretakers of the Hall were sent away on a holiday
by Baxendale, and no one is put there in their place :
thus the house is quite uninhabited. Further, the
fire obviously started upon the first floor and trav-
elled upward : the ground floor is untouched : this
indubitably proves that the fire began from the in-
side, and also from the upper storey; for no one
could have set it on fire from the outside unless they
had begun from the ground. The key of the outer
door, and, mark you ! the key of the upstairs library,
were in Laurence Baxendale's possession, Mrs.
Candy having given up all the keys into his hands
before she left home. The above facts are public


property : and can you blame the public from arriv-
ing at an obvious conclusion ?'*

''It does look rather queer," Anthony allowed:
"and you think it impossible for the fire to have been
lighted from without?"

''Utterly impossible, I should say. All the win-
dows were carefully fastened, and there were no
ladders anywhere about : therefore, if the house was
fired from outside, it must have been fired from the
ground and not from upstairs."

Nancy looked very angry : "It is rank lunacy to
imagine for a moment that Laurence was capable of
doing such a thing," she said.

Her father took no notice of her interruption :
"Baxendale admits he went all over the house on the
verv morninsf before it was burned, to see whether
any windows had been broken by the gale; in that
case — had the fire already been smouldering — he
must have discovered it."

"Besides, it couldn't very well have been smoul-
dering in the summer," added Anthony, "because
there hadn't been any fire in the place for months."

"There had not. Baxendale admits that no fire,
except the one in the kitchen for the Candys to cook
by, had been lighted for many weeks ; and that par-
ticular fire could not have been responsible for the
mischief, as the kitchens are practically untouched."

"And of course the Candys hadn't been cooking
there for over a week."

"Exactly. Had they left any lighted coals behind

"do you mean that he won't get the hundred

thousand pounds?"


them, the place would have been burned down a week
or more ago. Yes," Mr. Burton looked very seri-
ous, ''I am bound to say the case seems very black
against Baxendale, and I am afraid he will have a
lot of trouble with the insurance people about it;
they won't be very likely to pay up until things are
made to look a little less suspicious."

Nancy's face grew very white: "Do you mean
that he won't get the hundred thousand pounds?"
Her heart seemed to stand still : surely this thing had
not all been done for nothing !

"I should doubt it," replied Mr. Burton: "the
whole business has a very suspicious flavour. Even
putting upon it the most favourable construction,
Baxendale has been extremely unlucky: for every-
thing — even to the smallest trifle — bears witness

against him."

"Where did you get hold of all these details?"
Anthony asked.

"From Baxendale himself at the Club. He was
talking to half-a-dozen men, including myself, and
told us all that I have told you about the incidents
of the fire. He made no secret of the facts of the

There was a long silence. Mr. Burton drew his
brows together, and went over the evidence again in
his own mind. He hated to think evil of his neigh-
bour, but the case against Laurence Baxendale cer-
tainly stood out in somewhat glaring colours. An-
thony drummed with his fingers upon the table, and


thought what an unlucky dog Baxendale was, and
how sorry he felt for him. And Nancy sat still, her
air castle tumbling about her ears, and wished that
she had never been born, or else that Baxendale Hall
had never been burned — she did not mind much



Like Bluebeard's wife I lost the key:
Thenceforth it was not well with me.

*^I SAY, Nora," said Nancy to her sister one after-
noon a day or two after the foregoing conversation,
**have you seen my keys tumbHng about anywhere?"

'Your keys ? no ; have you lost them ?"
1 must have done so; but goodness knows
where!" rephed Nancy, unconscious of the obvious-
ness of her reply, since if goodness did know where
the said keys were secreted they could hardly be de-
scribed as lost.

"Which keys are they ?"

"Oh! there is the key of my jewel-case, and the
key of my cash-box, and the key of the box where
all my old love-letters are kept, and — and — one or
two others."

With the strange and sudden reserve which now
and again attacks outspoken people, Nancy did not
mention that the other two keys on the lost bunch
were those of the front door and the library at Bax-
endale Hall. There is no secret so well kept as the
secret which is guarded by the occasional reserve of


habitually unreserved natures. If a man is natur-
ally secretive, we expect him to keep back something,
and allow for the fact : but it never occurs to us that
the usually outspoken are capable of keeping back
anything; and so we conclude that the thing which
they do not tell us does not exist. Hence the unre-
served have powers of concealment which are denied
to the naturally silent.

''How inconvenient!" exclaimed Nora.

*'It is; most frightfully inconvenient! And it
isn't a bit my own fault, because I distinctly remem-
ber taking them out of the pocket of my dirty muslin
frock and putting them into the pocket of my clean


"I suppose one's pocket isn't really a very safe
place for things."

*'Yes, it is ; the safest place in the world, because
the things are always in one's own keeping, don't
you see? — and other people can't get at them."

"Perhaps there was a hole in your pocket. Nan."

''Well, if there was, it wasn't my fault; it was
Pearson's" (Pearson was the Miss Burtons' maid).
"If a maid can't mend a hole in one's pocket, what
is the good of having a maid at all?"

"Or perhaps you pulled them out with your
pocket-handkerchief," Nora suggested further.

"Well, if I did, that wasn't my fault, either.
What is the use of a pocket-handkerchief that you
never take out of your pocket? It would be worse
than a chained Bible or a captive balloon."


''Never mind, Nan. I can lend you my pearl
beads till your jewel-case is opened again, or any-
thing else that you need." Nora was a very good

*'Oh! the jewel-case doesn't matter, because it
doesn't happen to be locked."

''Then if it is the cash-box, I can lend you as much
money as you want till the keys are found again."

*'That doesn't matter either, because I've spent all
this quarter's allowance already, and the cash-box
is empty."

"Then if it is only the old love-letters, I can lend
you plenty of them, too, heaps upon heaps; and
they're all pretty much the same, whoever they hap-
pen to be addressed to, so one set is as good as

"Good gracious! It isn't the love-letters that
matter, because the lock of that box is broken; so
that anybody can get at them, and as well without
the key as with it."

"Then why bother about the keys at all?" asked
sensible Nora.

"I wasn't bothering about them," replied Nancy
hastily; "only it is stupid to lose things."

"Never mind; they are bound to turn up: our
things always do."

And with that scanty comfort Nancy had to be
content ; and the conversation drifted into its wonted
channel — namely, the Baxendale catastrophe.

"I wonder how Laurence will bear all these horrid


suspicions about him," remarked Nora thoughtfully;
''he's just the sort of person to take them to heart."

''I know he is : that's just the bother."

''How do you mean?"

"Oh! I mean that's just the — the — bother, don't
you know ?" As shown in the matter of the keys, a
reserve contrary to her nature seized Miss Burton
when discussing anything connected with Mr. Bax-
endale. Until now she had been the most transpar-
ent person possible, only too glad to retail her inner-
most thoughts and feelings to any one who had pa-
tience to listen to them ; but a new shyness, born of
her love for Laurence, made her shrink from talking
openly about her feelings toward him; and a new
loyalty to him and everything concerning him made
her shrink from talking openly of his feelings to-
ward her.

"Do you mean that you think he'll die of a broken
heart, or anything thrilling of that kind?" persisted
Nora, who liked to sift a matter to its dregs.

"Oh, dear, no! But I'm afraid he'll mind awful-
ly; and that he won't laugh at it as we should if
people said we'd done anything queer."

"Yes; he's much more sensitive than we are; and
that's a pity."

"It isn't a pity at all," Nancy fired up; "it only
shows what tremendouslv fine material he is made
of, and how immensely superior he is to us."

"He may be superior to us, but he isn't superior to
Mr. Arbuthnot; and Mr. Arbuthnot says it is ener-


vating to care as much for the censure of other peo-
ple as Laurence Baxendale cares."

"Mr. Arbuthnot should mind his own business
and not interfere with things that don't concern
him !"

''He doesn't interfere. He told me he was long-
ing to tell Laurence how much he sympathised with
him, and what a pity he thought it was that Lau-
rence was taking the matter in the way he is taking
it; but that he didn't venture to do so for fear Lau-
rence should think he was taking a liberty."

''Then he ought to have spoken to Laurence and
shown his sympathy with him, and advised him not
to take idle gossip so much to heart. It was his
duty as a parish priest to do so, and I think it has
been a great neglect of duty on his part to leave poor
Laurence so much to himself," cried Nancy, with
fine disregard of the penultimate remark.

"But it is difficult not to leave people to them-
selves, when they persist in keeping to themselves:
and you can't deny that Laurence Baxendale is doing
that. He hasn't been near us since the Hall was
burned down, and he used to drop in nearly every

A woman will always endeavour to prove a satis-
factory alibi on the part of a man who has not been
to see her as often as she thinks — and would rather
die than own she thinks he ought; and the more
clearly she sees that he could come if he had wished
to do so, the more conclusively does she demonstrate


that his advent would have entailed a suspension of
all the laws of nature. Wherefore Nancy quickly
replied: "He couldn't possibly have come; he's been
much too busy, putting his own fire out and consum-
ing his owm smoke, to pay calls. He's had no end of

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Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerFuel of fire → online text (page 12 of 22)