Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

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a little husky.

"Hungry," cried Michael: "Rufus Webb hungry?
I knew that he was poor, but I hadn't an idea that
things were as bad with him as that."

"He was dying of hunger," said Dr. Arrowsmith.

The vicar's lip trembled: "Good heavens! and I
never knew. What a blind fool I have been."

"He has evidently been starving for some weeks,"
continued the doctor, "and that is why he has no
strength to rally from the accident. A man in bet-
ter condition would soon have recovered from such
injuries as Mr. Webb has received; but he is so sadly
weakened by w^ant of proper nourishment — I might
say by want of any nourishment — that there is not
the slightest chance of his recovery."

"Poor Mr. Webb! Poor, poor Mr. Webb!" ex-
claimed Nora, who was fairly crying by this time.

"He cannot live many hours: and as he particu-
larly desires to see Mr. Arbuthnot, I came at once to
fetch your husband. I gather that he has some sort
of confession to make, as he keeps saying that he
cannot die with an unconfessed sin upon his soul."

The same thought flashed simultaneously through
the minds of Michael and his wife, as the same
thought so often flashes simultaneously through the
minds of tw^o people who perfectly love and under-



324 FUEL OF FIRE

stand each other : the thought that the mystery of the
burning of Baxendale Hall was about to be solved,
and that at last Laurence would feel himself free
from any shadow of suspicion, and be at liberty to
take the money and marry Nancy. And the thought
filled them with joy; for the sight of Nancy's
pinched face, upon which Time was already begin-
ning to write lines which told a sad story of faith
disappointed and hope deferred and love unsatisfied,
was a sight which cut both the vicar and his wife to
the heart.

But aloud they only said how grieved they were
for Rufus Webb's misfortune; and the vicar made
himself ready with all speed to accompany Dr. Ar-
rowsmith to the hospital.

"It is as much as we shall do to get there before
he dies," the doctor said.

*'God grant that I may be in time to hear his con-
fession," murm.ured the vicar.

And Nora from her heart echoed her husband's
prayer.



CHAPTER XX.



TO WHAT PURPOSE



It surely would have been but common sense
To sell this ointment for three hundred pence,
And give to those who cannot food afford :
Say, to what purpose was this waste, O Lord?

When the vicar of Tetleigh and Dr. Arrowsmith
arrived at Silverhampton Hospital, Rufus Webb's
sun had well-nigh gone down. But he knew
Michael, and evinced a wish to speak to him alone;
so the doctor went away, leaving the two together.

"I am so thankful you have come," the sick man
gasped; "T was afraid you would not arrive in time :
and I cannot die in peace until I have extracted a
promise from you to do something for me after I am
gone."

''I will do anything in my power for you, Webb,"
replied Michael.

Rufus drew a key from a ribbon which was tied
round his neck: ''This is the key of a tin box which
you will find in my cottage at The Ways. Promise
me faithfully that you will burn the contents of that
box — that you will destroy them utterly, and let
them be consumed by the fire that may be quenched.



326 FUEL OF FIRE

lest the fire that never can be quenched shall con-
sume my own soul also.'^

"I promise."

"Promise also that no one shall read the contents
of that box save yourself — and, maybe, your wife,
since those whom God hath joined together man
may not put asunder."

"I promise," repeated the vicar.

"I meant to burn them myself, so that other men
should not see my iniquity and gloi:y in my shame :
but the God of Vengeance has ordered it differently.
For He has ordained that what is done in secret
shall be proclaimed on the housetops, and that which
is hidden shall be made manifest."

"I promise faithfully that I will burn whatever I
find in that tin box, and that no one shall ever look
upon its contents save my wife and I."

An expression of peace stole over Webb's white
face : ''I knew I could trust you," he murmured.

"Yes, you knew you could trust me, a mere sinful
man such as yourself; but you could not trust the
God whose minister I am. And why should you
believe that the God you worship is inferior to His
own priests?"

"I have served Him and feared Him with all my
heart."

"That may be: but you have neither loved Him
nor trusted Him, and by your unbelief you have
crucified Him afresh."

The dying man lay silent for a few minutes with



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 327

closed eyes : then he opened them again and said :
"I wonder if you are right, and if I have misjudged
Him all these years/'

"I am sure of it."

"And do you think He will pardon me that also,
in addition to my many other sins — for I am begin-
ning to hope that there is mercy reserved even for
me?"

"I am sure of it," repeated the vicar; "although
it is hard, even for Him, to be misjudged by those
whom He loves; there are few things harder."

There was another pause, and then Rufus roused
himself again and rambled on : "I have a sin on my
conscience which I fain would confess. I have
made idols to myself with my own hands and w^or-
shipped them. You will find them in the tin box."

"Have you nothing on your conscience also with
regard to the burning of Baxendale Hall?" The
vicar spoke very distinctly : he saw that the time was
growing short, and he longed for Laurence to be
cleared by Rufus before Rufus died.

"Yes, yes — that it is. I was so busy watching for
Lettice to come and meet me that I forgot what I
was saying. She always meets me when I come
home in the evening, you know, but to-night she is
late. And it is growing dark, too. Ah! there is
her white dress among the poppies : and there are so
many poppies this year, and they are so red — so red ;
red like crimson, and white as — as — ' — "

"As wool:" the vicar finished the sentence:



328 FUEL OF FIRE

"though your sins be red like crimson, they shall be
made white as wool : you know that, Webb.'^

But Rufus was wandering : *'Yes, the poppies are
red — see how red they are — and Lettice's dress is
quite white — white as her own sweet soul. And
the flames of Baxendale Hall are red, too — 'like
tongues of fire — look how red !"

Michael made another effort to recall the sick
man's senses: ''Listen, Webb; answer me one ques-
tion : had you anything to do with the burning of
Baxendale?"

The fading intelligence flickered up again : "Yes,
I had : I saw that the young man's soul must be
saved, though so as by fire; and I prayed God day
and night that He would send down fire from heaven
to consume Baxendale Hall. And the Lord who
answered by fire, He was God."

"But did you do more than pray? For God's
sake, tell me this, Webb ; for the happiness of many
depends upon your answer." The vicar was des-
perate : it was so hard to get a sensible reply out of
Webb in his present condition, and it seemed cruel to
press for one; yet if Webb died without making con-
fession, how should he (Michael) ever face Nora
and her sister again? Nancy's life depended upon
the matter at issue, and Nancy's life must be saved if
possible.

"Speak, Webb," the vicar urged: "did you do
more than pray for the burning of Baxendale Hall ?"



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 329

"Yes; but I could not enter the library, you see,
where all Laurence Baxendale's idols were set up, as
only he possessed the key." Webb was fully con-
scious now.

*'Yes; go on; tell me all quickly."
**I prayed for an occasion, and yet none came."
"And you never had the chance of doing what
you wished. Yes, I understand: get on — for
Heaven's sake, get on," said Michael, putting to the
sick man's lips a cordial which the doctor had left
with him in case it was needed.

The cordial did its work well, and for a few mo-
ments the soul came back into Rufus Webb with a
flash of its former fire : "And then the great, mighty
wind came, and the Lord was not in the wind : and
the earth shook and quaked withal, but the Lord was
not in the earthquake. And I stood before Baxen-
dale Hall, and saw it as a reed shaken in the wind ;
and I prayed that the Lord would rase it even to the
ground, so that the soul of Laurence Baxendale
might be saved."

"Yes, yes; and what happened then?"
"My prayer was not answered: the great and
strong wind passed by, and Baxendale Hall stood
firm. The next day there was a great calm ; and I
stood before the Lord and prayed Him again that
Baxendale should be destroyed for Laurence's sake:
and as I prayed I looked down to the ground and
beheld lying at my feet a bunch of keys — among



330



FUEL OF FIRE



others the keys of the Hall and the library. And I
said, 'God has delivered the Hall into my hand; I
will go in and do with it even as I will' !"

Michael's heart beat fast, and he prayed that
Webb's life might be spared until he had made a full
confession. ''And so you went into the house?" he
prompted.

The dying man's eyes were bright with unnatural
excitement: it was the last flicker before the light
went out. "No; just as I was going to open the
front door, I heard a Voice say in my ear: 'What
doest thou here, Rufus?' And I answered, 'I have
been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts; be-
cause Thy children have forsaken Thy covenant and
torn down Thy altars, and have followed after false
gods : but now I will destroy their idols, and cause
their images to cease out of the land.' "

For a second Rufus struggled for breath, and
Michael's heart stood still for fear that even now
Webb would die before his full confession was
made; but the unnatural exaltation still upheld him,
and he went on again: "Then the Voice said unto
me : 'Son of man, turn thee yet again : thinkest thou
that the Lord seeth not, or that He hath forsaken
the earth? To Him belongeth vengeance and
recompense, and it is He that killeth and He that
maketh alive. He alone can create and He alone
can destroy : neither is there any that can deliver out
of His hand.' And when the Voice had done speak-
ing unto me, I turned me away from Baxendale



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 331



Hall ; for I knew that I was not counted worthy to
save the soul of Laurence Baxendale, nor to offer up
his dwelling-place as a sacrifice to the Lord of hosts.
It is only clean hands that can offer up burnt offer-
ings, and mine were red with blood — the blood of
my own wife."

"Good heavens, Webb ! Do you mean to say that
you did not set fire to that place after all ?"

"Nay : the burning of Baxendale was not to mine
honour ; for the Lord delivered it into the hand of a



woman."



"How could you tell it was a woman and not a
man that burned down the Hall?" The vicar was
now almost as much excited as Rufus Webb him-
self.

"Because the keys belonged to a woman — to a
woman who had left the house just before I pre-
pared to enter it, and who had done there as she
listed, with none to hinder her or to make her afraid.
And blessed among women shall she be — blessed
shall she be above women in the tent ! For to her it
was given to save the soul of Laurence Baxendale,
and to burn his images w^th fire, and to destroy the
accursed things within his house."

Rufus fell back on his pillow exhausted, and Dr.
Arrowsmith came and stood behind Arbuthnot. "It
is nearly over now," he whispered.

Michael put his mouth close to the dying man's
ear. "The name of the woman — for Heaven's
sake, tell me the name of the woman," he entreated.



332 FUEL OF FIRE

Webb's voice was so weak as to be scarcely audi-
ble: "The name — of — the woman — do you say?
There is but one woman's name — in the whole world
— and that is Lettice — my Lettice — my wife. See
— there she is coming — to meet me — through the
field of poppies — the red poppies. Don't you see
her — in her — white dress — and the little curls — on
her neck — and the dimple — in her cheek ? I knew —
she would come ; she never keeps me waiting. Look,
how the wind — is blowing — the little curls —
across "

But Rufus never finished the sentence on earth:
Lettice herself heard the end of it.

"It is all over," said the doctor softly.

Michael stood as a man stunned : one thought and
one only still possessed his mind and branded itself
upon his very soul. "It must have been Lady
Alicia," he kept saying over and over again to him-
self ; "it must have been Lady Alicia."

On her husband's return from Silverhampton,
Nora was bitterly disappointed to learn that not only
had Rufus Webb not confessed to having burned
down Baxendale Hall — he had also confessed to
not having done so; therefore the mystery was as
impenetrable as ever. The vicar did not tell her —
or anybody else — Webb's story about the keys, and
his conviction that it was a woman's hand that had
actually done the deed. Michael now felt no doubt
in his own mind that Lady Alicia was the culprit,
since (so far as he knew) she was the only woman



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 333



who had access to the keys of Baxendale Hall : but
the discovery of her guilt would make matters worse
instead of better for Laurence. No honourable man
would touch money obtained by his own mother's
crime; and his misery would be increased ten-fold if
that mother were publicly convicted of arson. So
the vicar decided to lock up Webb's confession in his
own breast, and never reveal it to anybody.

The following day he and his wife went together
to Webb's cottage at The Ways, and found there the
tin box, as Rufus had said. Save this one box there
was hardly any furniture left in the house — Webb
had parted with almost everything he possessed in
order to buy bread.

"What do you think there is inside?" Nora whis-
pered to her husband.

"Probably some relic of his dead wife : but we will
open it and see."

So they unlocked it, wondering what pathetic lit-
tle mysteries they should find therein.

To their surprise they found no love tokens ; only
heaps of manuscripts all in Webb's own handwrit-
ing; and — to their still greater amazement — they
discovered that these were the manuscripts of un<
published novels.

At the top of the box was the following paper :

"It is my intention to burn these manuscripts be-
fore I die, so that my secret may perish with me and
my sin be covered : but if God in His justice sees fit



334 FUEL OF FIRE

to prevent this, I solemnl}' adjure whosoever opens
this box utterly to destroy its contents, and to let not
one escape. May God forgive me my sin in writing
them ! — but they were so burned into my brain that
I felt I must write them in spite of myself — even
though I knew I was denying the living God in so
doing. I believe my brain would have burst had I
not given expression to the ideas which consumed it :
nevertheless, it would have been better for me to
enter into life, having stamped out the intellect which
separated me from m.y God, than with all my powers
to be cast into hell, where their worm dieth not and
their fire is not quenched. I hold that novel-writing
and novel-reading are heinous sins; for whosoever
loveth and maketh a lie shall have their part in the
lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; and I
would rather die for lack of bread than earn money
by such a means as this. I will never endanger the
souls of others by letting them read that which I, in
my folly, have written: but maybe (I speak as a
fool) the mere writing of it may be forgiven me, if
the memorial of it perishes with me, and it be de-
stroyed for evermore.

' ''( Signed) Rui^us Webb.''



Before burning them, Michael and his wife read
Webb's manuscripts, as he had given them permis-
sion to do ; and they were astonished at the brilliance
of the novels. Admirable in elegance of style, mas-
tery of delineation of character, powerful in por-



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 335

trayal of feeling, they bore the rare hall-mark of
genius, and might have ranked — had they been pub-
lished — among the greatest novels of the day.

When they had finished reading the books, the
vicar said that he must burn them at once. Nora
besought him not to do so. ''It seems a sin," she
said, "to burn books which might give pleasure to
hundreds and thousands of people, and do them a lot
of good, too, besides winning fame for the author."

But Michael was as adamant: ''Can I break a
promise made to a man w^ho is dead?" he asked.

"But Michael, dear, it seems such an awful pity
that all that genius should be utterly wasted."

"To what purpose is this waste? Is that what
you would ask, my Nora ?"

"Yes, it is. Think what a great deal of money
these manuscripts would fetch from any publisher,
and what a tremendous lot of good might be done
wnth the monev ! Wouldn't it be better to found a
hospital or an orphanage or something in memory
of Mr. Webb than to keep a senseless promise which
he extorted from you when probably he was deliri-
ous?"

"He wasn't delirious, Nora : he was perfectly con-
scious when he asked me to make the promise, and
it is enjoined on the paper on the box."

"But so much good might be done with the
money," persisted Nora.

"It might have been sold for three hundred pence
and have been given to the poor," quoted her hus-



336 FUEL OF FIRE

band; ''nevertheless, dear child, I must keep my
promise. Webb knew what he meant when he asked
me to make it. Doesn't it strike you what it meant
to him when you realise that he literally died of
starvation rather than earn what he considered were
the wages of sin, though the source of considerable
wealth lay in that box all the time, and he knew it?"

Nora began to cry: "Poor, poor Mr. Webb!" she
sobbed; ''it is all too sad to think about; but he was
a good man."

"He was one of the saints of God," said Michael
gently, "but he never found it out."

"I expect he has found it out by now."

"I am sure he has."

And then they burned the heap of manuscripts.

When the last scrap of paper had been consumed,
Nora said through her tears : "Oh ! Michael, how
terrible it is to think that all that poor man's genius
and strength and capacity for feeling were utterly
wasted."

"Not wasted, Nora: there is no such thing as
waste in God's economy."

The following Sunday the vicar of Tetleigh
preached a sermon on the success of failure from
the text, "To what purpose is this waste?" He
showed that futile efforts, disappointed hopes, unre-
quited loves, unfulfilled ideals, unrealised ambitions,
misplaced trusts — none of these are really wasted;
that it was only when the money had been spent and
the alabaster box broken and the spikenard had



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 337

been spilled that the house was filled with the odour
of the ointment.

People said that it was the best sermon he had
ever preached : but he said it was the best sermon
that Rufus Webb had ever preached : and perchance
he was right.

x\ll this time Laurence Baxendale was keeping
away from Poplar Farm, and Nancy was slowly
dying for the want of him. Anthony saw what
was wrong with his favourite cousin, and for awhile
held his peace upon the subject ; but after a bit silence
was unendurable to him, and he felt constrained to
speak.

''I say. Nan," he airily remarked one day, "you
don't seem in especially good spirits."

"Who could be in good spirits in such weather as
this?" asked Nancy, looking at the rain which was
drearily running down the window.

"I admit it would be difficult — and then it would
be only spirits and water. By the way, why don't
our friend Baxendale come back home again? He
has been away an unconscionable time."

Nancy's pale face flushed: "How can he come
back to live among people who have said such horrid
things about him?"

"My dear child, sensitiveness as to the remarks
of our neighbours is a sure symptom that our livers
want attending to. No healthy animal cares a rap
what its neighbours do or do not say about it.
Therefore I should strongly advise friend Baxendale



338 FUEL OF FIRE



to drown his woes in calomel, and return to rest in
the house of his fathers; by which I mean the farm
of his mother."

Nancy did not reply, and there was silence for a
moment. Then Anthony suddenly blurted out : "I
say, Nancy, I wish you wouldn't fret after that
brute; he isn't worth it, Nancy; he really isn't."

**I suppose nobody is really worth fretting about,"
replied Nancy ruefully, "w^hen you come to that;
but that doesn't prevent you from doing it if you are
that way inclined."

''Still I wnsh you wouldn't do it, Nancy : and es-
pecially about such a prig as Baxendale."

"I know I'm an idiot for doing it — nobody knows
that better than I do ; but I can no more help fretting
after Laurence than I can help breathing. And it is
so unlike me, too; I used to enjoy things so, and
never to mind about anything: but after he came
into my life, everything became different, and now I
can no more put him out of my life again than I can
change my skin and my spots, a la the leopard and
the Ethiopian."

"Confound the fellow!" said Anthony under his
breath.

**It is no use blaming him, Tony : he can no more
help it than I can."

*'You are the last girl that I should have expected
to sacrifice her life to a brute of a man, after the
fashion of a suttee, and rot of that kind."

Nancy laughed a sad little laugh, out of which all



TO WHAT PURPOSE? 339

the merriment had faded : "I couldn't have sacrificed
mvself on a common altar — not on an altar that
hadn't been passed by an inspector and licensed by
the local authorities, you know — but Laurence hap-
pened to be all that. He is the best, and the most
honourable, and the highest-minded man I ever met ;
therefore I couldn't help loving him nor could I ever
leave it off when once I had begun."

'*I say, Nan, I wish you'd marry me, and forget
all that Baxendale stuff."

Nancy looked up in amazement: "Marry you,
Tony? What an idea! Why, I thought you were
cut out to be an old bachelor."

**The ancients remarked, Call no man single till he
is dead, or words to that effect ; and they were intelli-
gent people."

"But, Tony "

"Oh ! you needn't say you don't love me — I know
that well enough, bless you ! But I don't mind ad-
mitting you to my confidence to the extent of confid-
ing in you that I do love you — little as your own
conscience will tell you that you deserve such an
honour: and I think I could cure you of that old
Baxendale rot if you'd let me try. Do let me try,
Nancy, there's a darling!"

Nancy shook her head : "No, Tony : I once gave
myself, heart and soul, to Laurence Baxendale ; and,
whether he values the gift or not, I cannot take it
back again. I am his for time and for eternity,
even if he doesn't know it,"



340



FUEL OF FIRE



"Confound him!" repeated Anthony.

"And there is another reason why I couldn't
marry you, Tony, even if I would. Can't you see
that I am dying, and shall never marry anybody
now:

"Rubbish !" said Tony roughly.

"It isn't rubbish, dear. I am dying simply be-
cause I can't live without Laurence — just as other
people die because they can't live without food or
air or water. And even in dying, I only care about
him. I know it's wicked of me, but the whole point
of going to heaven at all seems to be that Laurence
will be there, and that I shall walk in unending lanes
with him through all eternity. That is all I care
for. If the angels say to me when I get there, as
people say in banks, TIow will you take it, Miss
Burton?' — I shall say, ^One Laurence Baxendale,
and the rest in lanes.' That's my idea of heaven."
And Nancy went out of the room, shutting the door
behind her.

"Confound the brute!" said Anthony under his
breath once more. (Only this time he did not use
the word "confound.").



CHAPTER XXI.

LADY ALICIA.

If a sin performed is worthy blame,
Is sin intended just the same?

A^TER the New Year came in the weather was so
severe and Nancy so fragile that Mr. and Mrs. Bur-
ton decided to take her to Mentone for a time, in
order to see what a warmer climate would do for
their darling: and simultaneously Lord and Lady
Portcullis — with Lady Alicia Baxendale as their
guest — likewise found refuge from the ferocity of
an English spring in the south of France.

On his relations' departure from Drawbridge
Castle, Baxendale returned to Poplar Farm; which
return occurred just a week before the Burtons fled
on the wings of the winter wind to where they hoped
the winter wind could not reach them.

Poor Nancy never walked in the lanes now, for to
her they were as one huge, green cemetery of buried


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