The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Twelve

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The scheme of restoration had been duly revised in the light of Lord Blandamer's generosity, and the work had now entered on such a methodical progress that Westray was able on occasion to relax something of that close personal supervision which had been at first so exacting. Mr Sharnall often played for half an hour or more after the evening-service, and on such occasions Westray found time, now and then, to make his way to the organ-loft. The organist liked to have him there; he was grateful for the token of interest, however slight, that was implied in such visits; and Westray, though without technical knowledge, found much to interest him in the unfamiliar surroundings of the loft. It was a curious little kingdom of itself, situate over the great stone screen, which at Cullerne divides the choir from the nave, but as remote and cut off from the outside world as a desert island. Access was gained to it by a narrow, round, stone staircase, which led up from the nave at the south end of the screen. After the bottom door of this windowless staircase was opened and shut, anyone ascending was left for a moment in bewildering darkness. He had to grope the way by his feet feeling the stairs, and by his hand laid on the central stone shaft which had been polished to the smoothness of marble by countless other hands of past times.

But, after half a dozen steps, the darkness resolved; there was first the dusk of dawn, and soon a burst of mellow light, when he reached the stairhead and stepped out into the loft. Then there were two things which he noticed before any other—the bow of that vast Norman arch which spanned the opening into the south transept, with its lofty and over-delicate roll and cavetto mouldings; and behind it the head of the Blandamer window, where in the centre of the infinite multiplication of the tracery shone the sea-green and silver of the nebuly coat. Afterwards he might remark the long-drawn roof of the nave, and the chevroned ribs of the Norman vault, delimiting bay and bay with a saltire as they crossed; or his eyes might be led up to the lantern of the central tower, and follow the lighter ascending lines of Abbot Vinnicomb's Perpendicular panelling, till they vanished in the windows far above.

Inside the loft there was room and to spare. It was formed on ample lines, and had space for a stool or two beside the performer's seat, while at the sides ran low bookcases which held the music library. In these shelves rested the great folios of Boyce, and Croft, and Arnold, Page and Greene, Battishill and Crotch—all those splendid and ungrudging tomes for which the "Rectors and Foundation of Cullerne" had subscribed in older and richer days. Yet these were but the children of a later birth. Round about them stood elder brethren, for Cullerne Minster was still left in possession of its seventeenth-century music-books. A famous set they were, a hundred or more bound in their old black polished calf, with a great gold medallion, and "Tenor: Decani," or "Contra-tenor: Cantoris", "Basso," or "Sopra," stamped in the middle of every cover. And inside was parchment with red-ruled margins, and on the parchment were inscribed services and "verse-anthems" and "ffull-anthems," all in engrossing hand and the most uncompromising of black ink. Therein was a generous table of contents— Mr Batten and Mr Gibbons, Mr Mundy and Mr Tomkins, Doctor Bull and Doctor Giles, all neatly filed and paged; and Mr Bird would incite singers long since turned to churchyard mould to "bring forthe ye timbrell, ye pleasant harp and ye violl," and reinsist with six parts, and a red capital letter, "ye pleasant harp and ye violl."

It was a great place for dust, the organ-loft—dust that fell, and dust that rose; dust of wormy wood, dust of crumbling leather, dust of tattered mothy curtains that were dropping to pieces, dust of primeval green baize; but Mr Sharnall had breathed the dust for forty years, and felt more at home in that place than anywhere else. If it was Crusoe's island, he was Crusoe, monarch of all he surveyed.

"Here, you can take this key," he said one day to Westray; "it unlocks the staircase-door; but either tell me when to expect you, or make a noise as you come up the steps. I don't like being startled. Be sure you push the door to after you; it fastens itself. I am always particular about keeping the door locked, otherwise one doesn't know what stranger may take it into his head to walk up. I can't bear being startled." And he glanced behind him with a strange look in his eyes.

A few days before the Bishop's visit Westray was with Mr Sharnall in the organ-loft. He had been there through most of the service, and, as he sat on his stool in the corner, had watched the curious diamond pattern of light and dark that the clerestory windows made with the vaulting-ribs. Anyone outside would have seen islands of white cloud drifting across the blue sky, and each cloud as it passed threw the heavy chevroned diagonals inside into bold relief, and picked out that rebus of a carding-comb encircled by a wreath of vine-leaves which Nicholas Vinnicomb had inserted for a vaulting-boss.

The architect had learned to regard the beetling roof with an almost superstitious awe, and was this day so fascinated with the strange effect as to be scarcely aware that the service was over till Mr Sharnall spoke.

"You said you would like to hear my service in D flat—'Sharnall in D flat,' did you not? I will play it through to you now, if you care to listen. Of course, I can only give you the general effect, without voices, though, after all, I don't know that you won't get quite as good an idea of it as you could with any voices that we have here."

Westray woke up from his dreams and put himself into an attitude of proper attention, while Mr Sharnall played the service from a faded manuscript.

"Now," he said, as he came towards the end—"now listen. This is the best part of it—a fugal Gloria, ending with a pedal-point. Here you are, you see—a tonic pedal-point, this D flat, the very last raised note in my new pedal-board, held down right through." And he set his left foot on the pedal. "What do you think of that for a Magnificat?" he said, when it was finished; and Westray was ready with all the conventional expressions of admiration. "It is not bad, is it?" Mr Sharnall asked; "but the gem of it is the Gloria—not real fugue, but fugal, with a pedal-point. Did you catch the effect of that point? I will keep the note down by itself for a second, so that you may get thoroughly hold of it, and then play the Gloria again."

He held down the D flat, and the open pipe went booming and throbbing through the long nave arcades, and in the dark recesses of the triforium, and under the beetling vaulting, and quavered away high up in the lantern, till it seemed like the death-groan of a giant.

"Take it up," Westray said; "I can't bear the throbbing."

"Very well; now listen while I give you the Gloria. No, I really think I had better go through the whole service again; you see, it leads up more naturally to the finale."

He began the service again, and played it with all the conscientious attention and sympathy that the creative artist must necessarily give to his own work. He enjoyed, too, that pleasurable surprise which awaits the discovery that a composition laid aside for many years and half forgotten is better and stronger than had been imagined, even as a disused dress brought out of the wardrobe sometimes astonishes us with its freshness and value.

Westray stood on a foot-pace at the end of the loft which allowed him to look over the curtain into the church. His eyes roamed through the building as he listened, but he did not appreciate the music the less. Nay, rather, he appreciated it the more, as some writers find literary perception and power of expression quickened at the influence of music itself. The great church was empty. Janaway had left for his tea; the doors were locked, no strangers could intrude; there was no sound, no murmur, no voice, save only the voices of the organ-pipes. So Westray listened. Stay, were there no other voices? was there nothing he heard—nothing that spoke within him? At first he was only conscious of something—something that drew his attention away from the music, and then the disturbing influence was resolved into another voice, small, but rising very clear even above "Sharnall in D flat." "The arch never sleeps," said that still and ominous voice. "The arch never sleeps; they have bound on us a burden too heavy to be borne. We are shifting it; we never sleep." And his eyes turned to the cross arches under the tower. There, above the bow of the south transept, showed the great crack, black and writhen as a lightning-flash, just as it had showed any time for a century—just the same to the ordinary observer, but not to the architect. He looked at it fixedly for a moment, and then, forgetting Mr Sharnall and the music, left the loft, and made his way to the wooden platform that the masons had built up under the roof.

Mr Sharnall did not even perceive that he had gone down, and dashed con furore into the Gloria. "Give me the full great," he called to the architect, who he thought was behind him; "give me the full great, all but the reed," and snatched the stops out himself when there was no response. "It went better that time—distinctly better," he said, as the last note ceased to sound, and then turned round for Westray's comment; but the loft was empty—he was alone.

"Curse the fellow!" he said; "he might at least have let me know that he was going away. Ah, well, it's all poor stuff, no doubt." And he shut up the manuscript with a lingering and affectionate touch, that contrasted with so severe a criticism. "It's poor stuff; why should I expect anyone to listen to it?"

It was full two hours later that Westray came quickly into the organist's room at Bellevue Lodge.

"I beg your pardon, Sharnall," he said, "for leaving you so cavalierly. You must have thought me rude and inappreciative; but the fact is I was so startled that I forgot to tell you why I went. While you were playing I happened to look up at that great crack over the south transept arch, and saw something very like recent movement. I went up at once to the scaffolding, and have been there ever since. I don't like it at all; it seems to me that the crack is opening, and extending. It may mean very serious mischief, and I have made up my mind to go up to London by the last train to-night. I must get Sir George Farquhar's opinion at once."

The organist grunted. The wound inflicted on his susceptibility had rankled deeply, and indignation had been tenderly nursed. A piece of his mind was to have been given to Westray, and he regretted the very reasonableness of the explanation that robbed him of his opportunity.

"Pray don't apologise," he said; "I never noticed that you had gone. I really quite forgot that you had been there."

Westray was too full of his discovery to take note of the other's annoyance. He was one of those excitable persons who mistake hurry for decision of action.

"Yes," he said, "I must be off to London in half an hour. The matter is far too serious to play fast-and-loose with. It is quite possible that we shall have to stop the organ, or even to forbid the use of the church altogether, till we can shore and strut the arch. I must go and put my things together."

So, with heroic promptness and determination, he flung himself into the last train, and spent the greater part of the night in stopping at every wayside station, when his purpose would have been equally served by a letter or by taking the express at Cullerne Road the next morning.