Neither moon nor stars appeared to guide me. I only knew that I had kept the wind and rain at my back on leaving Knowlesbury, and if I now kept them at my back still, I might at least be certain of not advancing altogether in the wrong direction.
Proceeding on this plan, I crossed the country--meeting with no worse obstacles than hedges, ditches, and thickets, which every now and then obliged me to alter my course for a little while-- until I found myself on a hill-side, with the ground sloping away steeply before me. I descended to the bottom of the hollow, squeezed my way through a hedge, and got out into a lane. Having turned to the right on leaving the road, I now turned to the left, on the chance of regaining the line from which I had wandered. After following the muddy windings of the lane for ten minutes or more, I saw a cottage with a light in one of the windows. The garden gate was open to the lane, and I went in at once to inquire my way.
Before I could knock at the door it was suddenly opened, and a man came running out with a lighted lantern in his hand. He stopped and held it up at the sight of me. We both started as we saw each other. My wanderings had led me round the outskirts of the village, and had brought me out at the lower end of it. I was back at Old Welmingham, and the man with the lantern was no other than my acquaintance of the morning, the parish clerk.
His manner appeared to have altered strangely in the interval since I had last seen him. He looked suspicious and confused--his ruddy cheeks were deeply flushed--and his first words, when he spoke, were quite unintelligible to me.
"Where are the keys?" he asked. "Have you taken them?"
"What keys?" I repeated. "I have this moment come from Knowlesbury. What keys do you mean?"
"The keys of the vestry. Lord save us and help us! what shall I do? The keys are gone! Do you hear?" cried the old man, shaking the lantern at me in his agitation, "the keys are gone!"
"How? When? Who can have taken them?"
"I don't know," said the clerk, staring about him wildly in the darkness. "I've only just got back. I told you I had a long day's work this morning--I locked the door and shut the window down--it's open now, the window's open. Look! somebody has got in there and taken the keys."
He turned to the casement window to show me that it was wide open. The door of the lantern came loose from its fastening as he swayed it round, and the wind blew the candle out instantly.
"Get another light," I said, "and let us both go to the vestry together. Quick! quick!"
I hurried him into the house. The treachery that I had every reason to expect, the treachery that might deprive me of every advantage I had gained, was at that moment, perhaps, in process of accomplishment. My impatience to reach the church was so great that I could not remain inactive in the cottage while the clerk lit the lantern again. I walked out, down the garden path, into the lane.
Before I had advanced ten paces a man approached me from the direction leading to the church. He spoke respectfully as we met. I could not see his face, but judging by his voice only, he was a perfect stranger to me.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Percival----" he began.
I stopped him before he could say more.
"The darkness misleads you," I said. "I am not Sir Percival."
The man drew back directly.
"I thought it was my master," he muttered, in a confused, doubtful way.
"You expected to meet your master here?"
"I was told to wait in the lane."
With that answer he retraced his steps. I looked back at the cottage and saw the clerk coming out, with the lantern lighted once more. I took the old man's arm to help him on the more quickly. We hastened along the lane, and passed the person who had accosted me. As well as I could see by the light of the lantern, he was a servant out of livery.
"Who's that?" whispered the clerk. "Does he know anything about the keys?"
"We won't wait to ask him," I replied. "We will go on to the vestry first."
The church was not visible, even by daytime, until the end of the lane was reached. As we mounted the rising ground which led to the building from that point, one of the village children--a boy-- came close up to us, attracted by the light we carried, and recognised the clerk.
"I say, measter," said the boy, pulling officiously at the clerk's coat, "there be summun up yander in the church. I heerd un lock the door on hisself--I heerd un strike a loight wi' a match."
The clerk trembled and leaned against me heavily.
"Come! come!" I said encouragingly. "We are not too late. We will catch the man, whoever he is. Keep the lantern, and follow me as fast as you can."
I mounted the hill rapidly. The dark mass of the church-tower was the first object I discerned dimly against the night sky. As I turned aside to get round to the vestry, I heard heavy footsteps close to me. The servant had ascended to the church after us. "I don't mean any harm," he said, when I turned round on him, "I'm only looking for my master." The tones in which he spoke betrayed unmistakable fear. I took no notice of him and went on.
The instant I turned the corner and came in view of the vestry, I saw the lantern-skylight on the roof brilliantly lit up from within. It shone out with dazzling brightness against the murky, starless sky.
I hurried through the churchyard to the door.
As I got near there was a strange smell stealing out on the damp night air. I heard a snapping noise inside--I saw the light above grow brighter and brighter--a pane of the glass cracked--I ran to the door and put my hand on it. The vestry was on fire!
Before I could move, before I could draw my breath after that discovery, I was horror-struck by a heavy thump against the door from the inside. I heard the key worked violently in the lock--I heard a man's voice behind the door, raised to a dreadful shrillness, screaming for help.