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   Chapter 28 No.28

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 6398

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The horror was still on the girl, as they went, an hour later, up the ebbing tide towards Westminster, in a boat rowed by a waterman and one of their own servants. About them was a scene, of which the very thought, a month ago, would have absorbed and fascinated her. They had scarcely passed through London Bridge finding themselves just in time before the fall of the water would have hindered their passage, leaving out of sight the grey sunlit heap of buildings from which they had come. All about them the river was gay with shipping. Wherries, like clumsy water-beetles, lurched along out of the current, or slipped out suddenly to make their way across from one stairs to another; a great barge, coming down-stream, grew larger every instant, its prow bright with gilding, and the throb of the twelve oars in the row-locks coming to them like the grunting of a beast. On either side of the broad stream rose the houses and the churches, those on this side visible down to their shining window-panes in the sunlight, and the very texture of their tiled roofs; those on the other a mere huddle of countless walls and gables, in the shadow; and between them showed the leafless trees, stretches of green meadow, across which moved tiny figures, and the brown flats of the marshes beyond, broken here and there by outlying villages a mile or two away. Behind them now towered the great buildings on London Bridge-the chapel, the houses, the old gateway on the south end, above which the impaled heads of traitors stood out against the bright sky. It was a tolerable crop just now, the priest had said, bitterly smiling. But, above all else, as the boat moved up, Marjorie kept her eyes fixed on far-off Westminster, on the grey towers and the white walls where Elizabeth reigned and Saint Edward slept; while within her mind, clear as a picture, she saw still the empty court, as she had seen it when the priest fetched them out again from the church-empty at last of the hateful presence which he had faced so confidently.

* * * * *

"It appeared to me best to speak with him openly," said the priest quietly, as they had waited ten minutes later on the wharf outside the Tower, while the men ran to make ready their boat. "I do not know why, but I suppose I am one of those who better like their danger in front than behind. I knew him at once; I have had him pointed out to me two or three times before. So I looked him in the eyes, and asked him whether some ladies from the country might be permitted to see the White Tower, and to whom we had best apply. He told me that was not his affair, and looked me up and down as he said it. And then he went his way to … the White Tower, where I doubt not he had business."

"He said no more?" asked Anthony.

"No, he said no more. But I shall know him again better next time, and he me."

* * * * *

It seemed of evil omen to the girl that she should have had such an encounter on the day that Robin came back. Like all persons who dwell much in the country, a world that was neither that of the flesh nor yet of the spirit was that in which she largely moved-a world of strange laws, and auspices, and this answering to this and that

to that. It is a state inconceivable to those who live in the noise and movement of town-who find town-life, that is, the life in which they are most at ease. For where men have made the earth that is trodden underfoot, and have largely veiled the heavens themselves, it is but natural that they should think that they have made everything, and that it is they who rule it.

As they drew nearer Westminster then, it was with Marjorie as it had been when they came to the Tower. The priest was busy pointing out this or that building-the Palace towers, the Hall, the Abbey behind, and St. Margaret's Church, as well as the smaller buildings of the Court, and the little town that lay round about. But she listened as she listened to the noise that came from the streets clear across the water, attending to it, yet scarcely distinguishing one thing from another, and forgetting each as soon as she heard it. She was thinking all the while of Robin, and of the man whose face she had seen, of his beard and his long throat. Well, at least, Robin was not yet a priest….

* * * * *

The boat was already nearing the King's Stairs at Westminster, when a new event happened that for a while distracted her.

The first they saw of it was the sight of a number of men and women running in a disorderly mob, calling out as they ran, along the river-bank in the direction from Charing Old Cross towards Palace Yard. They appeared excited, but not by fear; and it was plain that something was taking place of which they wished to have a sight. As the priest stood up in the boat in order to have a clearer sight of what lay above the bank, three or four trumpet-calls of a peculiar melody, rang out clear and distinct, echoed back by the walls round about, plainly audible above the rising noise of a crowd that, it seemed, must be gathering out of sight. The priest sat down again and his face was merry.

"You have come on a fortunate day, mistress," he said to Marjorie. "First Topcliffe, and now her Grace; if we make haste we may see her pass by."

"Her Grace?"

"She will be going to dinner in Whitehall, after having taken the air by the river. They will be passing the Abbey now. But she will not be in her supreme state; I am sorry for that."

* * * * *

As they rowed in quickly over the last hundred yards that lay between them and the stairs, Marjorie listened to the priest as he described something of what the "supreme state" signified. He spoke of the long lines of carriages, filled with the ladies and the infirm, preceded by the pikemen, and the gentlemen pensioners carrying wands, and the knights followed by the heralds. Behind these, he said, came the officers of State immediately before the Queen's carriage, and after her the guards of her person.

"But this will be but a tame affair," he said. "I wish you could have seen a Progress, with the arches and the speeches and the declamations, and the heathen gods and goddesses that reign round our Eliza, when she will go to Ashridge or Havering. I have heard it said-"

And then the prow of the boat, turned deftly at the last instant, grated along the lowest stair, and the waterman was out to steady his craft.

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