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   Chapter 14 No.14

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 5798

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Those who could best observe (for the tale was handed on with the careful accuracy of those who cannot read or write) professed themselves amazed at the assured ease of the squire. No sound came from the seat half-hidden behind the reading-desk where he sat alone; and, during the prayers when he stood or kneeled, he moved as if he understood well enough what he was at. A great bound Prayer-Book, it was known, rested before him on the book-board, and he was observed to turn the pages more than once.

It was, indeed, a heavy task that Mr. Barton had to do. For first there was the morning prayer, with its psalms, its lessons and its prayers; next the Litany, and last the communion, in the course of which was delivered one of the homilies set forth by authority, especially designed for the support of those who were no preachers-preceded and followed by a psalm. But all was easy to-day to a man who had such cause for exultation; his voice boomed heartily out; his face radiated his pleasure; and he delivered his homily when the time came, with excellent emphasis and power-all from the reading-desk, except the communion.

Yet it is to be doubted whether the attention of those that heard him was where their pastor would have desired it to be; since even to these country-folk the drama of the whole was evident. There, seen full when he sat down, and in part when he kneeled and stood, was the man who hitherto had stood to them for the old order, the old faith, the old tradition-the man whose horse's footsteps had been heard, times and again, before dawn, in the village street, bearing him to the mystery of the mass; through whose gate strangers had ridden, perhaps three or four times in the year, to find harbourage-strangers dressed indeed as plain gentlemen or yeomen, yet known, every one of them, to be under her Grace's ban, and to ride in peril of liberty if not of life.

Yet here he sat-a man feared and even loved by some-the first of his line to yield to circumstance, and to make peace with his times. Not a man of all who looked on him believed him certainly to be that which his actions professed him to be; some doubted, especially those who themselves inclined to the old ways or secretly followed them; and the hearts of these grew sick as they watched.

But the crown and climax was yet to come.

* * * * *

The minister finished at last the homily-it was one which inveighed more than once against the popish superstitions; and he had chosen it for that reason, to clench the bargain, so to say-all in due order; for he was a careful man and observed his instructions, unlike some of his brethren who did as they pleased; and came back again to the long north side of the linen-covered table to finish the service.

He had no man to help him; so he was forced to do it all for himself; so he went forward gallantly, first reading a set of Scripture

sentences while the officers collected first for the poor-box, and then, as it was one of the offering-days, collected again the dues for the curate. It was largely upon these, in such poor parishes as was this, that the minister depended and his wife.

Then he went on to pray for the whole estate of Christ's Church militant here on earth, especially for God's "servant, Elizabeth our Queen, that under her we may be godly and quietly governed"; then came the exhortation, urging any who might think himself to be "a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of His Word … or to be in malice or envy," to bewail his sins, and "not to come to this holy table, lest after the taking of that holy sacrament, the devil enter into him, as he entered into Judas, and fill him full of all iniquities."

So forward with the rest. He read the Comfortable Words; the English equivalent for Sursum Corda with the Easter Preface; then another prayer; and finally rehearsed the story of the Institution of the Most Holy Sacrament, though without any blessing of the bread and wine, at least by any action, since none such was ordered in the new Prayer-Book. Then he immediately received the bread and wine himself, and stood up again, holding the silver plate in his hand for an instant, before proceeding to the squire's seat to give him the communion. Meantime, so great was the expectation and interest that it was not until the minister had moved from the table that the first communicants began to come up to the two white-hung benches, left empty till now, next to the table.

* * * * *

Then those who still watched, and who spread the tale about afterwards, saw that the squire did not move from his seat to kneel down. He had put off his hat again after the homily, and had so sat ever since; and now that the minister came to him, still there he sat.

Now such a manner of receiving was not unknown; yet it was the sign of a Puritan; and, so far from the folk expecting such behaviour in their squire, they had looked rather for Popish gestures, knockings on the breast, signs of the cross.

For a moment the minister stood before the seat, as if doubtful what to do. He held the plate in his left hand and a fragment of bread in his fingers. Then, as he began the words he had to say, one thing at least the people saw, and that was that a great flush dyed the old man's face, though he sat quiet. Then, as the minister held out the bread, the squire seemed to recover himself; he put out his fingers quickly, took the bread sharply and put it into his mouth; and so sat again, until the minister brought the cup; and this, too, he drank of quickly, and gave it back.

Then, as the communicants, one by one, took the bread and wine and went back to their seats, man after man glanced up at the squire.

But the squire sat there, motionless and upright, like a figure cut of stone.

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