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   Chapter 45 No.45

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 9064

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Marjorie could see him, as at last he put his wife into the single chair that stood in the cell and gave her the stool, himself sitting upon the table, she was shocked by the change in his face. It was true that she had only the wavering light of the flambeau to see him by (for the single barred window was no more than a pale glimmer on the wall), yet even that shadowy illumination could not account for his paleness and his fallen face. He was dressed miserably, too; his clothes were disordered and rusty-looking; and his features looked out, at once pinched and elongated. He blinked a little from time to time; his lips twitched beneath his ill-cut moustache and beard; and little spasms passed, as he talked, across his whole face. It was pitiful to see him; and yet more pitiful to hear him talk; for he assumed a kind of courtesy, mixed with bitterness. Now and again he fell silent, glancing with a swift and furtive movement of his eyes from one to the other of his visitors and back again. He attempted to apologise for the miserableness of the surroundings in which he received them-saying that her Grace his hostess could not be everywhere at once; and that her guests must do the best that they could. And all this was mixed with sudden wails from his wife, sudden graspings of his hands by hers. It all seemed to the quiet girl, who sat ill-at-ease on the little three-legged stool, that this was not the way to meet adversity. Then she drove down her criticism; and told herself that she ought rather to admire one of Christ's confessors.

"And you bring me no hope, then, Mistress Manners?" he said presently (for she had told him that there was no talk yet of any formal trial)-"no hope that I may meet my accusers face to face? I had thought perhaps-"

He lifted his eyes swiftly to hers, and dropped them again.

She shook her head.

"And yet that is all that I ask now-only to meet my accusers. They can prove nothing against me-except, indeed, my recusancy; and that they have known this long time back. They can prove nothing as to the harbouring of any priests-not within the last year, at any rate, for I have not done so. It seemed to me-"

He stopped again, and passed his shaking hand over his mouth, eyeing the two women with momentary glances, and then looking down once more.

"Yes?" said Marjorie.

He slipped off from the table, and began to move about restlessly.

"I have done nothing-nothing at all," he said. "Indeed, I thought-"

And once more he was silent.

* * * * *

He began to talk presently of the Derbyshire hills of Padley and of Norbury. He asked his wife of news from home, and she gave it him, interrupting herself with laments. Yet all the while his eyes strayed to Marjorie as if there was something he would ask of her, but could not. He seemed completely unnerved, and for the first time in her life the girl began to understand something of what gaol-life must signify. She had heard of death and the painful Question; and she had perceived something of the heroism that was needed to meet them; yet she had never before imagined what that life of confinement might be, until she had watched this man, whom she had known in the world as a curt and almost masterful gentleman, careful of his dress, particular of the deference that was due to him, now become this worn prisoner, careless of his appearance, who stroked his mouth continually, once or twice gnawing his nails, who paced about in this abominable hole, where a tumbled heap of straw and blankets represented a bed, and a rickety table with a chair and a stool his sole furniture. It seemed as if a husk had been stripped from him, and a shrinking creature had come out of it which at present she could not recognise.

Then he suddenly wheeled on her, and for the first time some kind of forcefulness appeared in his manner.

"And my Uncle Bassett?" he cried abruptly. "What is he doing all this while?"

Marjorie said that Mr. Bassett had been most active on his behalf with the lawyers, but, for the present, was gone back again to his estates. Mr. Thomas snorted impatiently.

"Yes, he is gone back again," he cried, "and he leaves me to rot here!

He thinks that I can bear it for ever, it seems!"

"Mr. Bassett has done his utmost, sir," said Marjorie. "He exposed himself here daily."

"Yes, with twenty fellows to guard him, I suppose. I know my Uncle

Bassett's ways…. Tell me, if you please, how matters stand."

Marjorie explained again. There was nothing in

the world to be done until the order came for his trial-or, rather, everything had been done already. His lawyers were to rely exactly on the defence that had been spoken of just now; it was to be shown that the prisoner had harboured no priests; and the witnesses had already been spoken with-men from Norbury and Padley, who would swear that to their certain knowledge no priest had been received by Mr. FitzHerbert at least during the previous year or eighteen months. There was, therefore, no kind of reason why Mr. Bassett or Mr. John FitzHerbert should remain any longer in Derby. Mr. John had been there, but had gone again, under advice from the lawyers; but he was in constant communication with Mr. Biddell, who had all the papers ready and the names of the witnesses, and had made more than one application already for the trial to come on.

"And why has neither my father nor my Uncle Bassett come to see me?" snapped the man.

"They have tried again and again, sir," said Marjorie. "But permission was refused. They will no doubt try again, now that Mrs. FitzHerbert has been admitted."

He paced up and down again for a few steps without speaking. Then again he turned on her, and she could see his face working uncontrolledly.

"And they will enjoy the estates, they think, while I rot here!"

"Oh, my Thomas!" moaned his wife, reaching out to him. But he paid no attention to her.

"While I rot here!" he cried again. "But I will not! I tell you I will not!"

"Yes, sir?" said Marjorie gently, suddenly aware that her heart had begun to beat swiftly.

He glanced at her, and his face changed a little.

"I will not," he murmured. "I must break out of my prison. Only their accursed-"

Again he interrupted himself, biting sharply on his lip.

* * * * *

For an instant the girl had thought that all her old distrust of him was justified, and that he contemplated in some way the making of terms that would be disgraceful to a Catholic. But what terms could these be? He was a FitzHerbert; there was no evading his own blood; and he was the victim chosen by the Council to answer for the rest. Nothing, then, except the denial of his faith-a formal and deliberate apostasy-could serve him; and to think that of the nephew of old Sir Thomas, and the son of John, was inconceivable. There seemed no way out; the torment of this prison must be borne. She only wished he could have borne it more manfully.

It seemed, as she watched him, that some other train of thought had fastened upon him. His wife had begun again her lamentations, bewailing his cell and his clothes, and his loss of liberty, asking him whether he were not ill, whether he had food enough to eat; and he hardly answered her or glanced at her, except once when he remembered to tell her that a good gift to the gaoler would mean a little better food, and perhaps more light for himself. And then he resumed his pacing; and, three or four times as he turned, the girl caught his eyes fixed on hers for one instant. She wondered what was in his mind to say.

Even as she wondered there came a single loud rap upon the door, and then she heard the key turning. He wheeled round, and seemed to come to a determination.

"My dearest," he said to his wife, "here is the gaoler come to turn you out again. I will ask him-" He broke off as the man stepped in.

"Mr. Gaoler," he said, "my wife would speak alone with you a moment." (He nodded and winked at his wife, as if to tell her that this was the time to give him the money.)

"Will you leave Mistress Manners here for a minute or two while my wife speaks with you in the passage?"

Then Marjorie understood that she had been right.

The man who held the keys nodded without speaking.

"Then, my dearest wife," said Thomas, embracing her all of a sudden, and simultaneously drawing her towards the door, "we will leave you to speak with the man. He will come back for Mistress Manners directly."

"Oh! my Thomas!" wailed the girl, clinging to him.

"There, there, my dearest. And you will come and see me again as soon as you can get the order."

* * * * *

The instant the door was closed he came up to Marjorie and his face looked ghastly.

"Mistress Manners," he said, "I dare not speak to my wife. But … but, for Jesu's sake, get me out of here. I … I cannot bear it…. Topcliffe comes to see me every day…. He … he speaks to me continually of-O Christ! Christ! I cannot bear it!"

He dropped suddenly on to his knees by the table and hid his face.

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