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   Chapter 18 No.18

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 10167

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In the following week Robin went home again.

The clear weather of Easter had broken, and racing clouds, thick as a pall, sped across the sky that had been so blue and so cheerful; a wind screamed all day, now high, now low, shattering the tender flowers of spring, ruffling the Derwent against its current, by which he rode, and dashing spatters of rain now and again on his back, tossing high and wide the branches under which he went, until the woods themselves became as a great melancholy organ, making sad music about him.

When a mind is fluent and uncertain there is no describing it. He thought he had come to a decision last week; he found that the decision was shattered as soon as made. He had talked to the priest; he had resisted Marjorie; and yet to neither of them had he put into formal words what it was that troubled him. He had asked questions about vocation, about the place that circumstance occupies in it, of the value of dispositions, fears, scruples, and resistance. He had, that is, fingered his wound, half uncovered it, and then covered it up again, tormented it, glanced at it and then glanced aside; yet the one thing he had not done was to probe it-not even to allow another to do so.

His mind, then, was fluent and distracted; it formed images before him, which dissolved as soon as formed; it whirled in little eddies; it threw up obscuring foam; it ran clear one instant, and the next broke itself in rapids. He could neither ease it, nor dam it altogether, and he did not know what to do.

As he rode through Froggatt, he saw a group of saddle-horses standing at the inn door, but thought nothing of it, till a man ran out of the door, still holding his pot, and saluted him, and he recognised him to be one of Mr. Babington's men.

"My master is within, sir," he said; "he bade me look out for you."

Robin drew rein, and as he did so, Anthony, too, came out.

"Ah!" he said. "I heard you would be coming this way. Will you come in?

I have something to say to you."

Robin slipped off, leaving his mare in the hands of Anthony's man, since he himself was riding alone, with his valise strapped on behind.

It was a little room, very trim and well kept, on the first floor, to which his friend led him. Anthony shut the door carefully and came across to the settle by the window-seat.

"Well," he said, "I have bad news for you, my friend. Will you forgive me? I have seen your father and had words with him."

"Eh?"

"I said nothing to you before," went on the other, sitting down beside him. "I knew you would not have it so, but I went to see for myself and to put a question or two. He is your father, but he has also been my friend. That gives me rights, you see!"

"Tell me," said Robin heavily.

It appeared that Anthony, who was a precise as well as an ardent young man, had had scruples about trusting to hearsay. Certainly it was rumoured far and wide that the squire of Matstead had done as he had said he would do, and gone to church; but Mr. Anthony was one of those spirits who will always have things, as they say, from the fountain-head; partly from instincts of justice, partly, no doubt, for the pleasure of making direct observations to the principals concerned. This was what he had done in this case. He had ridden, without a word to any, up to Matstead, and had demanded to be led to the squire; and there and then, refusing to sit down till he was answered, had put his question. There had been a scene. The squire had referred to puppies who wanted drowning, to young sparks, and to such illustrative similes; and Anthony, in spite of his youthful years, had flared out about turncoats and lick-spittles. There had been a very pretty ending: the squire had shouted for his servants and Anthony for his, and the two parties had eyed one another, growling like dogs, until bloodshed seemed imminent. Then the visitor had himself solved the situation by stalking out of the house from which the squire was proposing to flog him, mounting his horse, and with a last compliment or two had ridden away. And here he was at Froggatt on his return journey, having eaten there that dinner which no longer would be spread for him at Matstead.

Robin sat silent till the tale was done, and at the end of it Anthony was striding about the room, aflame again with wrath, gesticulating and raging aloud.

Then Robin spoke, holding up his hand for moderation. "You will have the whole house here," he said. "Well, you have cooked my goose for me."

"Bah! that was cooked at Passiontide when you went to Booth's Edge. Do you think he'll ever have a Papist in his house again?"

"Did he say so?"

"No; but he said enough about his 'young cub.'… Nonsense, man! Come home with me to Dethick. We'll find occupation enough."

"Did he say he would not have me home again?"

"No," bawled Anthony. "I have told you he did not say so outright. But he said enough to show he'd have no rebels, as he called them, in his Protestant house! Dick's to leave. Did you hear that?"

"Dick!"

"Why, certainly.

There was a to-do on Sunday, and Dick spoke his mind.

He'll come to me, he says, if you have no service for him."

Robin set his teeth. It seemed as if the pelting blows would never cease.

"Come with me to Dethick!" said Anthony again. "I tell you-"

"Well?"

"There'll be time enough to tell you when you come. But I promise you occupation enough."

He paused, as if he would say more and dared not.

"You must tell me more," said the lad slowly. "What kind of occupation?"

Then Anthony did a queer thing. He first glanced at the door, and then went to it quickly and threw it open. The little lobby was empty. He went out, leaned over the stair and called one of his men.

"Sit you there," he said, with the glorious nonchalance of a Babington, "and let no man by till I tell you."

He came back, closed the door, bolted it, and then came across and sat down by his friend.

"Do you think the rest of us are doing nothing?" he whispered. "Why, I tell you that a dozen of us in Derbyshire-" He broke off once more. "I may not tell you," he said, "I must ask leave first."

A light began to glimmer before Robin's mind; the light broadened suddenly and intensely, and his whole soul leapt to meet it.

"Do you mean-?" And then he, too, broke off, well knowing enough, though not all of, what was meant.

* * * * *

It was quiet here within this room, in spite of the village street outside. It was dinner-time, and all were within doors or out at their affairs; and except for the stamp of a horse now and again, and the scream of the wind in the keyhole and between the windows, there was little to hear. And in the lad's soul was a tempest.

He knew well enough now what his friend meant, though nothing of the details; and from the secrecy and excitement of the young man's manner he understood what the character of his dealings would likely be, and towards those dealings his whole nature leaped as a fish to the water. Was it possible that this way lay the escape from his own torment of conscience? Yet he must put a question first, in honesty.

"Tell me this much," he said in a low voice. "Do you mean that this … this affair will be against men's lives … or … or such as even a priest might engage in?"

Then the light of fanaticism leaped to the eyes of his friend, and his face brightened wonderfully.

"Do they observe the courtesies and forms of law?" he snarled. "Did Nelson die by God's law, or did Sherwood-those we know of? I will tell you this," he said, "and no more unless you pledge yourself to us … that we count it as warfare-in Christ's Name yes-but warfare for all that."

* * * * *

There then lay the choice before this lad, and surely it was as hard a choice as ever a man had to make. On the one side lay such an excitement as he had never yet known-for Anthony was no merely mad fool-a path, too, that gave him hopes of Marjorie, that gave him an escape from home without any more ado, a task besides which he could tell himself honestly was, at least, for the cause that lay so near to Marjorie's heart, and was beginning to lie near his own. And on the other there was open to him that against which he had fought now day after day, in misery-a life that had no single attraction to the natural man in him, a life that meant the loss of Marjorie for ever.

The colour died from his lips as he considered this. Surely all lay Anthony's way: Anthony was a gentleman like himself; he would do nothing that was not worthy of one…. What he had said of warfare was surely sound logic. Were they not already at war? Had not the Queen declared it? And on the other side-nothing. Nothing. Except that a voice within him on that other side cried louder and louder-it seemed in despair: "This is the way; walk in it."

"Come," whispered Anthony again.

Robin stood up; he made as if to speak; then he silenced himself and began to walk to and fro in the little room. He could hear voices from the room beneath-Anthony's men talking there no doubt. They might be his men, too, at the lifting of a finger-they and Dick. There were the horses waiting without; he heard the jingle of a bit as one tossed his head. Those were the horses that would go back to Dethick and Derby, and, may be, half over England.

He walked to and fro half a dozen times without speaking, and, if he had but guessed it, he might have been comforted to know that his manhood flowed in upon him, as a tide coming in over a flat beach. These instants added more years to him than as many months that had gone before. His boyhood was passing, since experience and conflict, whether it end in victory or defeat, give the years to a man far more than the passing of time. So in God's sight Robin added many inches to the stature of his spirit in this little parlour of Froggatt.

Yet, though he conquered then, he did not know that he conquered. He still believed, as he turned at last and faced his friend, that his mind was yet to make up, and his whisper was harsh and broken.

"I do not know," he whispered. "I must go home first."

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