From Langona church tower you see nothing of the Atlantic but a wedge between two cliffs of a sandy creek. The cottages–thirty in all, perhaps–huddle in a semicircle of the hills about a spring of clear water, which overflows and leaps as from a platform into the hollow coombe, its conduit down to the sands. But Langona Church stands out more boldly, on a high grassy meadow thrust forward like a bastion over the stream’s right flank. It has no tree, no habitation between it and the ocean: it breaks the northerly gales for the cottages behind and under its lee, and these gales have given its tamarisk hedge and even its gravestones so noticeable a slant inland that, by a trick of eyesight, the church itself seems tilted perilously forward.
Forward, in fact–that is to say, seaward–the tower does lean; though but by a foot or so, and now not perilously; the salt winds, impotent against its masonry, having bitten with more effect into the earth around its base. But the church has been restored, the mischief arrested, and the danger no longer haunts its vicar as it haunted the Rev. John Flood on a bright September morning in 1885.
He sat on a thyme-covered hummock by the valley stream, with knees drawn up and palms pressed against his aching head: sat as he had been sitting for half an hour past, a shovel beside him and an empty sack, which he had brought down to fill with clean river-sand. A chaffinch, fresh from his bath, flitted incessantly between the rail of the footbridge, a dozen yards below, and the boughs of a tamarisk beside it. He paid no attention to Parson Jack. Few living creatures ever did.
Even his parishioners–those who knew of it–felt no great concern that Parson Jack had been drunk again last night. There was no harm in the man. “He had this failing, to be sure: with a little liquor he talked silly, though not so silly as you might suppose. Let him alone, and he’ll find his way home somehow. Scandalous? Oh, no doubt! But you might easily go farther and find a worse parson than Flood.”
It never occurred to them that he felt any special remorse. His agonies were private, and his chance of redemption lay in this, that they neither ceased nor eased with time; perhaps in this, too, that he wasted no breath in apologetics or self-pity, but blamed himself squarely like a man.
Yet a sentimentalist in his place might have run up a long and tearful account against Providence, fate, circumstances–whatever sentimentalists choose to arraign rather than themselves. Five-and-twenty years before, Jack Flood had been a rowdy undergraduate of Brasenose College, Oxford; in his third year of residence, with more than a fair prospect of being ploughed–or, in the language of that generation, “plucked”–at the end of it; a member of the Phoenix Wine Club, owner of a brute which he not only called a “hunter” but made to do duty for one at least twice a week; and debtor among various Oxford tradesmen to the tune of something like 500 pounds. At this point his father–a Berkshire rector–died suddenly of a paralytic stroke, leaving Jack and his elder brother Lionel (then abroad in the new Indian Civil Service) to realise and divide an estate of 1200 pounds.
Six hundred pounds is a fair equipment for starting a young man in life; but not when he already owes five hundred, and has few brains, no decided bent, and only a little of the most useless learning. Jack surrendered two-thirds of his patrimony to his pressing creditors, sold his hunter, read hard for a term, scrambled into his degree, and was received, a month or two later, into Holy Orders. His father had sent him to Brasenose College as a step to this, and Jack had looked forward to being a parson some day–a sporting parson, be it understood.