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   Chapter 3 No.3

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 12576

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


There were excuses in plenty for Robin to ride abroad, to the north towards Hathersage or to the south towards Dethick, as the whim took him; for he was learning to manage the estate that should be his one day. At one time it was to quiet a yeoman whose domain had been ridden over and his sown fields destroyed; at another, to dispute with a miller who claimed for injury through floods for which he held his lord responsible; at a third, to see to the woodland or the fences broken by the deer. He came and went then as he willed; and on the second day, after Anthony's visit, set out before dinner to meet him, that they might speak at length of what lay now upon both their hearts.

To his father he had said no more, nor he to him. His father sat quiet in the parlour, or was in his own chamber when Robin was at home; but the lad understood very well that there was no thought of yielding. And there were a dozen things on which he himself must come to a decision. There was the first, the question as to where he was to go for Easter, and how he was to tell his father; what to do if his father forbade him outright; whether or no the priests of the district should be told; what to do with the chapel furniture that was kept in a secret place in a loft at Matstead. Above all, there hung over him the thought of what would come after, if his father held to his decision and would allow him neither to keep his religion at home nor go elsewhere.

On the second day, therefore, he rode out (the frost still holding, though the sun was clear and warm), and turned southwards through the village for the Dethick road, towards the place in which he had appointed to meet Anthony. At the entrance to the village he passed the minister, Mr. Barton, coming out of his house, that had been the priest's lodging, a middle-aged man, made a minister under the new Prayer-Book, and therefore, no priest as were some of the ministers about, who had been made priests under Mary. He was a solid man, of no great wit or learning, but there was not an ounce of harm in him. (They were fortunate, indeed, to have such a minister; since many parishes had but laymen to read the services; and in one, not twenty miles away, the squire's falconer held the living.) Mr. Barton was in his sad-coloured cloak and round cap, and saluted Robin heartily in his loud, bellowing voice.

"Riding abroad again," he cried, "on some secret errand!"

"I will give your respects to Mr. Babington," said Robin, smiling heavily. "I am to meet him about a matter of a tithe too!"

"Ah! you Papists would starve us altogether if you could," roared the minister, who wished no better than to be at peace with his neighbours, and was all for liberty.

"You will get your tithe safe enough-one of you, at least," said Robin.

"It is but a matter as to who shall pay it."

He waved good-day to the minister and set his horse to the Dethick track.

* * * * *

There was no going fast to-day along this country road. The frosts and the thaws had made of it a very way of sorrows. Here in the harder parts was a tumble of ridges and holes, with edges as hard as steel; here in the softer, the faggots laid to build it up were broken or rotted through, making it no better than a trap for horses' feet; and it was a full hour before Robin finished his four miles and turned up through the winter woodland to the yeoman's farm where he was to meet Anthony. It was true, as he had said to Mr. Barton, that they were to speak of a matter of tithe-this was to be their excuse if his father questioned him-for there was a doubt as to in which parish stood this farm, for the yeoman tilled three meadows that were in the Babington estate and two in Matstead.

As he came up the broken ground on to the crest of the hill, he saw Anthony come out of the yard-gate and the yeoman with him. Then Anthony mounted his horse and rode down towards him, bidding the man stay, over his shoulder.

"It is all plain enough," shouted Anthony loud enough for the man to hear. "It is Dethick that must pay. You need not come up, Robin; we must do the paying."

Robin checked his mare and waited till the other came near enough to speak.

"Young Thomas FitzHerbert is within. He is riding round his new estates," said the other beneath his breath. "I thought I would come out and tell you; and I do not know where we can talk or dine. I met him on the road, and he would come with me. He is eating his dinner there."

"But I must eat my dinner too," said Robin, in dismay.

"Will you tell him of what you have told me? He is safe and discreet, I think."

"Why, yes, if you think so," said Robin. "I do not know him very well."

"Oh! he is safe enough, and he has learned not to talk. Besides, all the country will know it by Easter."

So they turned their horses back again and rode up to the farm.

* * * * *

It was a great day for a yeoman when three gentlemen should take their dinners in his house; and the place was in a respectful uproar. From the kitchen vent went up a pillar of smoke, and through its door, in and out continually, fled maids with dishes. The yeoman himself, John Merton, a dried-looking, lean man, stood cap in hand to meet the gentlemen; and his wife, crimson-faced from the fire, peeped and smiled from the open door of the living-room that gave immediately upon the yard. For these gentlemen were from three of the principal estates here about. The Babingtons had their country house at Dethick and their town house in Derby; the Audreys owned a matter of fifteen hundred acres at least all about Matstead; and the FitzHerberts, it was said, scarcely knew themselves all that they owned, or rather all that had been theirs until the Queen's Grace had begun to strip them of it little by little on account of their faith. The two Padleys, at least, were theirs, besides their principal house at Norbury; and now that Sir Thomas was in the Fleet Prison for his religion, young Mr. Thomas, his heir, was of more account than ever.

He was at his dinner when the two came in, and he rose and saluted them. He was a smallish kind of man, with a little brown beard, and his short hair, when he lifted his flapped cap to them, showed upright on his head; he smiled pleasantly enough

, and made space for them to sit down, one at each side.

"We shall do very well now, Mrs. Merton," he said, "if you will bring in that goose once more for these gentlemen."

Then he made excuses for beginning his dinner before them: he was on his way home and must be off again presently.

It was a well-furnished table for a yeoman's house. There was a linen napkin for each guest, one corner of which he tucked into his throat, while the other corner lay beneath his wooden plate. The twelve silver spoons were laid out on the smooth elm-table, and a silver salt stood before Mr. Thomas. There was, of course, an abundance to eat and drink, even though no more than two had been expected; and John Merton himself stood hatless on the further side of the table and took the dishes from the bare-armed maids to place them before the gentlemen. There was a jack of metheglin for each to drink, and a huge loaf of miscelin (or bread made of mingled corn) stood in the midst and beyond the salt.

They talked of this and of that and of the other, freely and easily-of Mr. Thomas' marriage with Mistress Westley that was to take place presently; of the new entailment of the estates made upon him by his uncle. John Merton inquired, as was right, after Sir Thomas, and openly shook his head when he heard of his sufferings (for he and his wife were as good Catholics as any in the country); and when the room was empty for a moment of the maids, spoke of a priest who, he had been told, would say mass in Tansley next day (for it was in this way, for the most part, that such news was carried from mouth to mouth). Then, when the maids came in again, the battle of the tithe was fought once more, and Mr. Thomas pronounced sentence for the second time.

They blessed themselves, all four of them, openly at the end, and went out at last to their horses.

"Will you ride with us, sir?" asked Anthony; "we can go your way. Robin here has something to say to you."

"I shall be happy if you will give me your company for a little. I must be at Padley before dark, if I can, and must visit a couple of houses on the way."

He called out to his two servants, who ran out from the kitchen wiping their mouths, telling them to follow at once, and the three rode off down the hill.

Then Robin told him.

He was silent for a while after he had put a question or two, biting his lower lip a little, and putting his little beard into his mouth. Then he burst out.

"And I dare not ask you to come to me for Easter," he said. "God only knows where I shall be at Easter. I shall be married, too, by then. My father is in London now and may send for me. My uncle is in the Fleet. I am here now only to see what money I can raise for the fines and for the solace of my uncle. I cannot ask you, Mr. Audrey, though God knows that I would do anything that I could. Have you nowhere to go? Will your father hold to what he says?"

Robin told him yes; and he added that there were four or five places he could go to. He was not asking for help or harbourage, but advice only.

"And even of that I have none," cried Mr. Thomas. "I need all that I can get myself. I am distracted, Mr. Babington, with all these troubles."

Robin asked him whether the priests who came and went should be told of the blow that impended; for at those times every apostasy was of importance to priests who had to run here and there for shelter.

"I will tell one or two of the more discreet ones myself," said Mr. Thomas, "if you will give me leave. I would that they were all discreet, but they are not. We will name no names, if you please; but some of them are unreasonable altogether and think nothing of bringing us all into peril."

He began to bite his beard again.

"Do you think the Commissioners will visit us again?" asked Anthony.

"Mr. Fenton was telling me-"

"It is Mr. Fenton and the like that will bring them down on us if any will," burst out Mr. FitzHerbert peevishly. "I am as good a Catholic, I hope, as any in the world; but we can surely live without the sacraments for a month or two sometimes! But it is this perpetual coming and going of priests that enrages her Grace and her counsellors. I do not believe her Grace has any great enmity against us; but she soon will, if men like Mr. Fenton and Mr. Bassett are for ever harbouring priests and encouraging them. It is the same in London, I hear; it is the same in Lancashire; it is the same everywhere. And all the world knows it, and thinks that we do contemn her Grace by such boldness. All the mischief came in with that old Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, in '69, and-"

"I beg your pardon, sir," came in a quiet voice from beyond him; and

Robin, looking across, saw Anthony with a face as if frozen.

"Pooh! pooh!" burst out Mr. Thomas, with an uneasy air. "The Holy Father, I take it, may make mistakes, as I understand it, in such matters, as well as any man. Why, a dozen priests have said to me they thought it inopportune; and-"

"I do not permit," said Anthony with an air of dignity beyond his years, "that any man should speak so in my company."

"Well, well; you are too hot altogether, Mr. Babington. I admire such zeal indeed, as I do in the saints; but we are not bound to imitate all that we admire. Say no more, sir; and I will say no more either."

They rode in silence.

It was, indeed, one of those matters that were in dispute at that time amongst the Catholics. The Pope was not swift enough for some, and too swift for others. He had thundered too soon, said one party, if, indeed, it was right to thunder at all, and not to wait in patience till the Queen's Grace should repent herself; and he had thundered not soon enough, said the other. Whence it may at least be argued that he had been exactly opportune. Yet it could not be denied that since the day when he had declared Elizabeth cut off from the unity of the Church and her subjects absolved from their allegiance-though never, as some pretended then and have pretended ever since, that a private person might kill her and do no wrong-ever since that day her bitterness had increased yearly against her Catholic people, who desired no better than to serve both her and their God, if she would but permit that to be possible.

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