Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

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Laurence's face turned as white as a sheet: "For
Heaven's sake, tell us what you are driving at!" he
said between his teeth.

"Listen, pay attention, and I will tell you all,"
cried the professor; "see, the thing is quite simple.
But tell me first : was the nursery to the library at all
near?"

"It was next to it," replied Laurence; "and on the
same floor."

"And for what was it, after the Hall was shut up,
used ?"

"As a sort of overflow meeting for the library,"
Laurence answered; "some books and papers, for
which there wasn't room in the library were
stored there." He kept himself well in hand, but
he could not quite hide the trembling of the fingers
that twirled his moustache in a vain show of indif-
ference.

"Then it is all as child's play simple," fairly
shouted Professor Gottfried: "When the sun did
shine upon the able-to-magnify flaw in the window
the flaw did become a fire-glass ; and so the great sun
himself did thus to the books and papers in the room
set fire. See here !" And while they stood breath-
less with surprise at the professor's discovery, he
held his magnifying-glass where the hot August
sunlight could fall upon it, and quickly burned a
large hole in Mrs. Candy's best tablecloth.



3/8 FUEL OF FIRE

Nancy was the first to find words: 'Then you
believe it was the sun that set fire to Baxendale Hall ?
And, if so, the old prophecy was actually fulfilled;
for the sun is thrice as great as King or State, and a
thousand times stronger and higher."

**I make no doubt, dear young lady, that it was
none other than the great sun himself that did the
crime commit. Who else could have the library en-
tered without first opening the door and walking up
the stairs? The fire would in the afternoon begin,
when the sun at the southwest windows was shining
in; and for hours it would smoulder, and then it
would into a flame burst, and the strong wind would
fan it, and the books and the papers would like so
much tinder burn."

Nancy's face was pale with excitement, and her
eyes were dim with joyful tears: **Yes, yes; I'm
sure you are right. And, oh ! I'm so glad that the
secret has been found out at last !"

Suddenly the professor's jaw fell: "But stop; I
do not see ; why did the sun that particular afternoon
to Baxendale Hall set fire, when for a hundred years
or more he had been on that very window shining
every day?"

*'I know," cried Nancy, "the great tree at the back
of the Hall was blown down by the gale the day be-
fore; so that the sun shone for the first time on the
nursery window that particular afternoon."

Professor Gottfried positively flung his arms
round Nancy in his exuberance : "That is it, that is



THE PROFESSOR'S VISIT 379

it, clever, clever girl ! That does everything most
clearly explain. The tree which had always that
window shaded did fall : the sun on the flaw in the
glass did shine: the flaw in the window did as the
sun-glass act, and did to the books and papers on
which the sunlight fell set fire : the books and papers
did so quickly burn that the fire to the house did
itself extend : the strong wind did fan the flame so
fast that they like wildfire did travel, and so in one
day and night Baxendale Hall was down burned."

"Then no one entered the Hall that afternoon."
It was Laurence that spoke, but the voice was not
his own.

"No one, no one : if they had, the fire discovered
would have been. When you, as you told me, in
the morning of that day were here, the sun had not
on the window shone, and the fire had not begun.
It w^as when the sun on the west front of the house
was shining that the flaw in the pane of glass to the
Hall did set fire : and then no one even into the house
again did come."

"And this explains why the fire started from the
upper storey," continued Laurence in the same un-
natural voice.

"It does all things connected with this matter ex-
plain," replied the professor; "it does explain how
the fire from inside and upstairs did begin ; and how
it did begin though all the doors were locked, for the
sun can without any keys enter."

Professor Gottfried's words brought full convic-



380 FUEL OF FIRE

tion to the minds of all his hearers ; and the sudden
enormous relief was almost more than Laurence
could bear. So he turned away in silence, and went
down into the beech wood that fringed the lawns of
his old home, and there struggled to regain that self-
control over his feelings of which the unexpected joy
produced by the professor's discovery had almost
robbed him.

After a few minutes Nancy left the group that
was so busily engaged in discussing Professor Gott-
fried's solution of the Baxendale mystery — finding
fresh proofs of its truth in every new aspect and
consideration — and followed her lover into the
wood.

^'Darling," she said, laying a caressing hand upon
his arm, which was still trembling, "I am so glad."

Laurence could not speak ; but he raised the little
hand to his lips and covered it with kisses.

So it came to pass that the mystery of Baxendale
Hall was solved at last by the ingenuity of Professor
Gottfried. All the false suspicions and the heart-
burnings which they had caused were over forever,
and everybody was heartily ashamed of having sus-
pected everybody else. The professor's discovery
made a considerable sensation both socially and
scientifically; and for a time people were almost as
much afraid of magnifying-glasses as they were of
gunpowder and dynamite. The insurance company
was so thoroughly satisfied with the professor's ex-
planation of the otherwise inexplicable mystery that



THE PROFESSOR'S VISIT 381

it again expressed its willingness to pay to Mr. Bax-
endale the sum to which he was entitled : and this
time he had no option — and no desire — but to avail
himself of his rights. And after much considera-
tion and discussion, he and Nancy decided that they
would invest seventy thousand pounds and live upon
the income thereof, settling the capital upon the es-
tate; and that they would spend the other thirty
thousand pounds in building a new house upon the
old foundations — a house not too large for their
present means, and yet capable of being added to
should further prosperity shine in the future upon
the Baxendale family.

One sunny afternoon — about a fortnight before
their marriage — Laurence and Nancy were sitting
together upon the old stile which had proved such an
important stage property in the drama of their lives,
and they were going over for the two hundred and
fiftieth time the story of the burning of Baxendale.
They had just gone over — for the two thousandth
and fiftieth time — the story of their love for each
other and the peculiar unsmoothness of its course;
so they turned their attention to the fire as a slight
diversion before beginning the two thousandth
and fifty-first recital of the more interesting nar-
rative.

"You were awfully silly to mind all the nonsense
that stupid people talked about your having done it
yourself," remarked Nancy in conclusion.

"I daresay I was : I often am awfully silly, you



382 FUEL OF FIRE

know — it is a way I have. But I did mind it con-
foundedly, nevertheless."

''Foolish boy ! As if anybody who had ever had
so much as a bird's-eye view of you could seriously
suspect you of doing anything that Sir Richard
Lovelace and the Chevalier Bayard hadn't done
every day of their lives."

''But they did suspect me, my sweetheart — and
those who have enjoyed considerably more than a
bird's-eye view of me — and example speaks louder
than precept, you know."

"But they didn't really suspect you : they only pre-
tended they did, just for the fun of the thing, because
it's always so interesting to suspect people of doing
what you know they couldn't possibly have done.
Half the fun of being good is that it gives such
flavour and point to your few lapses, while the
lapses of habitually faulty people entirely lack this
charm."

Laurence stroked Nancy's cheek with his fore-
finger : "What shockingly immoral teaching !"

"Well, it's quite true. Think how glorious it is
when mother upsets her tea or father his claret on
the tablecloth — yet if I or the boys do such a thing
there is no real joy in it at all. And that is why
people pretended that they thought you had set fire
to the Hall : if you'd been less sans-peur-and-sans-
reprochy there'd have been no point in even sug-
gesting such a thing."

"My darling," said Laurence after a pause, still



THE PROFESSOR'S VISIT 383



fondling the cheek which he had made so pale, ''did
you ever think I had done it?"

Nancy's blue eyes grew round with amazement.
'7f — good gracious, no! I'm not such a goose as
all that. Though I was so foolish as to fall in love
with you, I have still sense enough left not to suspect
you of any redeeming fallibility, and honesty enough
not to pretend that I do. Let my folly stand out in
its true colours : having discovered a man who is ab-
solutely perfect, I have been idiotic enough to prom-
ise to marry him; although he never attempted to
conceal any of his virtues, nor assumed any faults
which he was not so fortunate as actually to pos-



sess."



"My dearest, I've something horrible to confess to
you : I wonder if you can ever forgive me."

*'0f course I can : I'm silly enough for anything
where you are concerned. What is it? Fire
away."

Laurence stooped down and hid his face in
Nancy's lap : '1 know I was a brute — a devil : you
can't be more disgusted with me than I am with
myself, and if you refuse to marry me after you
hear what I am going to say, I cannot blame you.
My darling, I actually believed all the time that it
was you who had set fire to the Hall, more shame to
me! Now, can you ever bring yourself to forgive
me?"

There was a pause : then Nancy said slowly : "You
believed that it was me all the time?"



384 FUEL OF FIRE

Laurence groaned: ''Yes; curse my blind folly!"

"When did you find out that it wasn't me after
all?"

''When old Gottfried found out how it really had
been done."

"Not till then ?"

"No, not till then/^

"And you asked me to marry you, believing that
I was the guilty person?"

"I couldn't help it. I loved you so that I meant
to marry you whatever you had done. Guilty or
not guilty, you were the only woman in the world
for me. But I shall never forgive myself for think-
ing you guilty; and I feel I cannot ask you to for-
give me. Oh, my darling, what a brute I have been
to you! And although I was so vile as to suspect
you, my own innocent angel, you were believing in
me all the time! My sweetheart, I am not fit to
touch the hem of your garment." And poor Lau-
rence groaned once more in the anguish of his soul.

But Nancy did not groan: she laid her hand on
her lover's head while her eyes shone like stars : "My
dear, I've nothing to forgive; you have made me
prouder than I ever was in my life before. I don't
blame you for suspecting me, because I'd once sug-
gested that you should burn the Hall yourself, if
you remember, though I only said it in fun. And
then I'd got the keys. So there was nothing in that.
But what makes me so proud and happy is that your
love for me was great enough to overcome all ob-



THE PROFESSOR'S VISIT 385

stacks, even your suspicion that I had done the thing
which you abhorred ! Oh ! my darhng, my darUng,
I know now how much you love me! God grant
that I may prove myself worthy of such love !"

And Nancy took the bowed head into her arms,
and covered it with passionate kisses.

A new house stands now on the site of old Baxen-
dale Hall — a picturesque, red-brick house, designed
after the fashion of the Elizabethans, but with every
Victorian comfort and convenience. And it smiles
across the valley at Silverhampton Church on the op-
posite hill, as its three predecessors smiled before it :
but now there is no shadow on its smile — no shadow
of a curse as yet unfulfilled. And to those who have
eyes to see and ears to hear, the new house and the
old church bring the same message^-the message
that good is stronger than evil, and therefore is
bound to conquer in the end, be the warfare never
so long and the battle never so bitter. To all who
possess their souls in patience, it is given to see the
morning joy which is the sure successor of the night
of weeping — to behold the marvellous light which
must finally disperse all clouds and darkness, either
here and now, where there fall other shadows and
where fresh clouds return after the rain, or else in
that fairer country where there is no need of the sun
to lighten it, and where the winter is over and past
for evermore.

So the story of the Baxendales ends well — as all
stories must inevitably end, if we will only wait long



386



FUEL OF FIRE



enough ; but the end is not always yet, and we are in
such a hurry. Since good is stronger than evil,
and truth than falsehood, and blessing than curs-
ing, no story can possibly end badly : while it is
going on badly we know that this is not the end : just
as we know that the end of anything is only the
beginning of something better — and always must be,
as long as ''God's in His heaven" and "all's right
with the world."

Once more the Baxendales can dwell under their
own roof-tree, and till their own lands in peace, un-
hampered by the conviction that again their home
will be destroyed by fire and their house left unto
them desolate. That age-long fear is over and past ;
the old curse has exhausted itself and the ancient
prophecy has been fulfilled to the letter : for

First by the King, and then by the State,
And thirdly by that which is thrice as great
As these, and a thousand-fold stronger and higher,
Has Baxendale Hall been made fuel of fire.



THE END.



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