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   Chapter 31 No.31

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 5893

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was not until Christmas Eve that Marjorie went to St. Paul's, for all that it was so close. But the days were taken up with the visitors; a hundred matters had to be arranged; for it was decided that before the New Year all were to be dispersed. Captain Fortescue and Robin were to leave again for the Continent on the day following Christmas Day itself.

Marjorie made acquaintance during these days with more than one meeting-place of the Catholics in London. One was a quiet little house near St. Bartholomew's-the-Great, where a widow had three or four sets of lodgings, occupied frequently by priests and by other Catholics, who were best out of sight; and it was here that mass was to be said on Christmas Day. Another was in the Spanish Embassy; and here, to her joy, she looked openly upon a chapel of her faith, and from the gallery adored her Lord in the tabernacle. But even this was accomplished with an air of uneasiness in those round her; the Spanish priest who took them in walked quickly and interrupted them before they were done, and seemed glad to see the last of them. It was explained to Marjorie that the ambassador did not wish to give causeless offence to the Protestant court.

And now, on Christmas Eve, Robin, Anthony and the two ladies entered the Cathedral as dusk was falling-first passing through the burial-ground, over the wall of which leaned the rows of houses in whose windows lights were beginning to burn.

The very dimness of the air made the enormous heights of the great church more impressive. Before them stretched the long nave, over seven hundred feet from end to end; from floor to roof the eye travelled up the bunches of slender pillars to the dark ceiling, newly restored after the fire, a hundred and fifty feet. The tall windows on either side, and the clerestory lights above, glimmered faintly in the darkening light.

But to the Catholic eyes that looked on it the desolation was more apparent than the splendour. There were plenty of people here, indeed: groups moved up and down, talking, directing themselves more and more towards the exits, as the night was coming on and the church would be closed presently; in one aisle a man was talking aloud, as if lecturing, with a crowd of heads about him. In another a number of soberly dressed men were putting up their papers and ink on the little tables that stood in a row-this was Scriveners' Corner, she was told; from a third half a dozen persons were dejectedly moving away-these were servants that had waited to be hired. But the soul of the place was gone. When they came out into the transepts, Anthony stopped them with a gesture, while a couple of porters, carrying boxes on their heads, pushed by, on their short cut through the cathedral.

"It was there," he said, "that the altars stood."

He pointed between the pillars on either side, and there, up little raised steps, lay the floors of the chapels. But within

all was empty, except for a tomb or two, some tattered colours and the piscin? still in place. Where the altars had stood there were blank spaces of wall; piled up in one such place were rows of wooden seats set there for want of room.

Opposite the entrance to the choir, where once overhead had hung the great Rood, the four stood and looked in, through a gap which the masons were mending in the high wall that had bricked off the chancel from the nave. On either side, as of old, still rose up the towering carven stalls; the splendid pavement still shone beneath, refracting back from its surface the glimmer of light from the stained windows above; but the head of the body was gone. Somewhere, beneath the deep shadowed altar screen, they could make out an erection that might have been an altar, only they knew that it was not. It was no longer the Stone of Sacrifice, whence the smoke of the mystical Calvary ascended day by day: it was the table, and no more, where bread and wine were eaten and drunk in memory of an event whose deathless energy had ceased, in this place, at least, to operate. Yet it was here, thought Marjorie, that only forty years ago, scarcely more than twenty years before she was born, on this very Night, the great church had hummed and vibrated with life. Round all the walls had sat priests, each in his place; and beside each kneeled a penitent, making ready for the joy of Bethlehem once again-wise and simple-Shepherds and Magi-yet all simple before the baffling and entrancing Mystery. There had been footsteps and voices there too-yet of men who were busy upon their Father's affairs in their Father's house, and not upon their own. They were going from altar to altar, speaking with their Friends at Court; and here, opposite where she stood and peeped in the empty cold darkness, there had burned lights before the Throne of Him Who had made Heaven and earth, and did His Father's Will on earth as it was done in Heaven…. Forty years ago the life of this church was rising on this very night, with a hum as of an approaching multitude, from hour to hour, brightening and quickening as it came, up to the glory of the Midnight Mass, the crowded church, alight from end to end, the smell of bog and bay in the air, soon to be met and crowned by the savour of incense-smoke; and the world of spirit, too, quickened about them; and the angels (she thought) came down from Heaven, as men up from the City round about, to greet Him who is King of both angels and men.

And now, in this new England, the church, empty of the Divine Presence, was emptying, too, of its human visitors. She could hear great doors somewhere crash together, and the reverberation roll beneath the stone vaulting. It would empty soon, desolate and dark; and so it would be all night…. Why did not the very stones cry out?

Mistress Alice touched her on the arm.

"We must be going," she said. "They are closing the church."

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