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CHAPTER XVI



ALL SAINTS' AND ALL SOULS'


ON a week-day morning a small congregation, con-
sisting mainly of women and girls, rose from its knees
in the mouldy nave of a church called All Saints', in
the distant barrack-town before mentioned, at the end
of a service without a sermon. They were about to
disperse, when a smart footstep, entering the porch and
coming up the central passage, arrested their attention.
The step echoed with a ring unusual in a church; it
was the clink of spurs. Everybody looked. A young
cavalry soldier in a red uniform, with the three chevrons
of a sergeant upon his sleeve, strode up the aisle, with
an embarrassment which was only the more marked
by the intense vigour of his step, and by the deter-
mination upon his face to show none. A slight flush
had mounted his cheek by the time he had run the
gauntlet between these women; but, passing on through
the chancel arch, he never paused till he came close
to the altar railing. Here for a moment he stood
alone.
The officiating curate, who had not yet doffed his
surplice, perceived the new-comer, and followed him
to the communion-space. He whispered to the soldier,
and then beckoned to the clerk, who in his turn
whispered to an elderly woman, apparently his wife, and
they also went up the chancel steps.
"'Tis a wedding!" murmured some of the women,
brightening. "Let's wait!"
The majority again sat down.
There was a creaking of machinery behind, and
some of the young ones turned their heads. From the
interior face of the west wall of the tower projected a
little canopy with a quarter-jack and small bell beneath
it, the automaton being driven by the same clock
machinery that struck the large bell in the tower. Be-
tween the tower and the church was a close screen, the
door of which was kept shut during services, hiding
this grotesque clockwork from sight. At present, how-
ever, the door was open, and the egress of the jack, the
blows on the bell, and the mannikin's retreat into.the
nook again, were visible to many, and audible through-
out the church.
The jack had struck half-past eleven.
"Where's the woman?" whispered some of the
spectators.
The young sergeant stood still with the abnormal
rigidity of the old pillars around. He faced the south-
east, and was as silent as he was still.
The silence grew to be a noticeable thing as the
minutes went on, and nobody else appeared, and not a
soul moved. The rattle of the quarter-jack again from
its niche, its blows for three-quarters, its fussy retreat,
were almost painfully abrupt, and caused many of the
congregation to start palpably.
"I wonder where the woman is!" a voice whispered
again.
There began now that slight shifting of feet, that
artificial coughing among several, which betrays a
nervous suspense. At length there was a titter. But
the soldier never moved. There he stood, his face to
the south-east, upright as a column, his cap in his hand.
The clock ticked on. The women threw off their
nervousness, and titters and giggling became more
frequent. Then came a dead silence. Every one was
waiting for the end. Some persons may have noticed
how extraordinarily the striking of quarters. seems to
quicken the flight of time. It was hardly credible that
the jack had not got wrong with the minutes when the
rattle began again, the puppet emerged, and the four
quarters were struck fitfully as before: One could al-
most be positive that there was a malicious leer upon
the hideous creature's face, and a mischievous delight
in its twitchings. Then, followed the dull and remote
resonance of the twelve heavy strokes in the tower
above. The women were impressed, and there was no
giggle this time.
The clergyman glided into the vestry, and the clerk
vanished. The sergeant had not yet turned; every
woman in the church was waiting to see his face, and
he appeared to know it. At last he did turn, and
stalked resolutely down the nave, braving them all,
with a compressed lip. Two bowed and toothless old
almsmen then looked at each other and chuckled,
innocently enough; but the sound had a strange weird
effect in that place.
Opposite to the church was a paved square, around
which several overhanging wood buildings of old time
cast a picturesque shade. The young man on leaving
the door went to cross the square, when, in the middle,
he met a little woman. The expression of her face,
which had been one of intense anxiety, sank at the
sight of his nearly to terror.
"Well?" he said, in a suppressed passion, fixedly
looking at her.
"O, Frank -- I made a mistake! -- I thought that
church with the spire was All Saints', and I was at the
door at half-past eleven to a minute as you said.
waited till a quarter to twelve, and found then that I
was in All Souls'. But I wasn't much frightened, for
I thought it could be to-morrow as well."
"You fool, for so fooling me! But say no more."
"Shall it be to-morrow, Frank?" she asked blankly.
"To-morrow!" and he gave vent to a hoarse laugh.
"I don't go through that experience again for some
time, I warrant you!"
"But after all." she expostulated in a trembling voice,
"the mistake was not such a terrible thing! Now, dear
Frank, when shall it be?"
"Ah, when? God knows!" he said, with a light
irony, and turning from her walked rapidly away.





Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Category:
English Literature
 
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