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   Chapter 46 No.46

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 8070

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was a fortnight later that there came suddenly to Babington House old

Mr. Biddell himself. Up to the present he had been careful not to do so.

He appeared in the great hall an hour before dinner-time, as the tables

were being set, and sent a servant for Mistress Manners.

"Hark you!" he said; "you need not rouse the whole house. It is with

Mistress Manners alone that my business lies."

He broke off, as Mrs. FitzHerbert looked over the gallery.

"Mr. Biddell!" she cried.

He shook his head, but he seemed to speak with some difficulty.

"It is just a rumour," he said, "such as there hath been before. I beg you-"

"That … there will be no trial at all?"

"It is just a rumour," he repeated. "I did not even come to trouble you with it. It is with Mistress Manners that-"

"I am coming down," cried Mrs. Thomas, and vanished from the gallery.

Mr. Biddell acted with decision. He whisked out again into the passage from the court, and there ran straight into Marjorie, who was coming in from the little enclosed garden at the back of the house.

"Quick!" he said. "Quick! Mrs. Thomas is coming, and I do not wish-"

She led the way without a word back into the court, along a few steps, and up again to the house into a little back parlour that the steward used when the house was full. It was unoccupied now, and looked out into the garden whence she was just come. She locked the door when he had entered, and came and sat down out of sight of any that might be passing.

"Sit here," she said; and then: "Well?" she asked.

He looked at her gravely and sadly, shaking his head once or twice. Then he drew out a paper or two from a little lawyer's valise that he carried, and, as he did so, heard a hand try the door outside.

"That is Mrs. Thomas," whispered the girl. "She will not find us."

He waited till the steps moved away again. Then he began. He looked anxious and dejected.

"I fear it is precisely as you thought," he said. "I have followed up every rumour in the place. And the first thing that is certain is that Topcliffe leaves Derby in two days from now. I had it as positive information that his men have orders to prepare for it. The second thing is that Topcliffe is greatly elated; and the third is that Mr. FitzHerbert will be released as soon as Topcliffe is gone."

"You are sure this time, sir?"

He assented by a movement of his head.

"I dared not tell Mrs. Thomas just now. She would give me no peace. I said it was but a rumour, and so it is; but it is a rumour that hath truth behind it. He hath been moved, too, these three days back, to another cell, and hath every comfort."

He shook his head again.

"But he hath made no promise-" began Marjorie breathlessly.

"It is exactly that which I am most afraid of," said the lawyer. "If he had yielded, and, consented to go to church, it would have been in every man's mouth by now. But he hath not, and I should fear it less if he had. That's the very worst part of my news."

"I do not understand-"

Mr. Biddell tapped his papers on the table.

"If he were an open and confessed enemy, I should fear it less," he repeated. "It is not that. But he must have given some promise to Topcliffe that pleases the fellow more. And what can that be but that-"

Marjorie turned yet whiter. She sighed once as if to steady herself. She could not speak, but she nodded.

"Yes, Mistress Manners," said the old man. "I make no doubt at all that he hath promised to assist him against them all-against Mr. John his father, it may be, or Mr. Bassett, or God knows whom! And yet still feigning to be true! And that is not all."

She looked at him. She could not conceive worse than this, if indeed it were true.

"And do you think," he continued, "that Mr. Topcliffe will do all this for love, or rather, for mere malice? I have heard more of the fellow since he hath been in Derby than in all my life before; and, I tell you, he is for feathering his own nest if he can." He stopped.

"Mist

ress, did you know that he had been out to Padley three or four times since he came to Derby?… Well, I tell you now that he has. Mr. John was away, praise God; but the fellow went all round the place and greatly admired it."

"He went out to see what he could find?" asked the girl, still whispering.

The other shook his head.

"No, mistress; he searched nothing. I had it all from one of his fellows, through one of mine. He searched nothing; he sat a great while in the garden, and ate some of the fruit; he went through the hall and the rooms, and admired all that was to be seen there. He went up into the chapel-room, too, though there was nothing there to tell him what it was; and he talked a great while to one of the men about the farms, and the grazing, and such-like, but he meddled with nothing." (The old man's face suddenly wrinkled into fury.) "The devil went through it all like that, and admired it; and he came out to it again two or three times and did the like."

He stopped to examine the notes he had made, and Marjorie sat still, staring on him.

It was worse than anything she could have conceived possible. That a FitzHerbert should apostatise was incredible enough; but that one should sell his family-It was impossible.

"Mr. Biddell," she whispered piteously, "it cannot be. It is some-"

He shook his head suddenly and fiercely.

"Mistress Manners, it is as plain as daylight to me. Do you think I could believe it without proof? I tell you I have lain awake all last night, fitting matters one into the other. I did not hear about Padley till last night, and it gave me all that I needed. I tell you Topcliffe hath cast his foul eyes on Padley and coveted it; and he hath demanded it as a price for Mr. Thomas' liberty. I do not know what else he hath promised, but I will stake my fortune that Padley is part of it. That is why he is so elated. He hath been here nearly this three months back; he hath visited Mr. FitzHerbert nigh every day; he hath cajoled him, he hath threatened him; he hath worn out his spirit by the gaol and the stinking food and the loneliness; and he hath prevailed, as he hath prevailed with many another. And the end of it all is that Mr. FitzHerbert hath yielded-yet not openly. Maybe that is part of the bargain upon the other side, that he should keep his name before the world. And on this side he hath promised Padley, if that he may but keep the rest of the estates, and have his liberty. I tell you that alone cuts all the knots of this tangle…. Can you cut them in any other manner?"

* * * * *

There was a long silence. From the direction of the kitchen came the sound of cheerful voices, and the clatter of lids, and from the walled garden outside the chatter of birds….

At last the girl spoke.

"I cannot believe it without evidence," she said. "It may be so. God knows! But I do not…. Mr. Biddell?"

"Well, mistress?"

The lawyer's head was sunk on his breast; he spoke listlessly.

"He will have given some writing to Mr. Topcliffe, will he not? if this be true. Mr. Topcliffe is not the man-"

The old man lifted his head sharply; then he nodded.

"That is the shrewd truth, mistress. Mr. Topcliffe will not trust to another's honour; he hath none of his own!"

"Well," said Marjorie, "if all this be true, Mr. Topcliffe will already have that writing in his possession."

She paused.

"Eh?" said the lawyer.

They looked at one another again in silence. It would have seemed to another that the two minds talked swiftly and wordlessly together, the trained thought of the lawyer and the quick wit of the woman; for when the man spoke again, it was as if they had spoken at length.

"But we must not destroy the paper," he said, "or the fat will be in the fire. We must not let Mr. FitzHerbert know that he is found out."

"No," said the girl. "But to get a view of it…. And a copy of it, to send to his family."

Again the two looked each at the other in silence-as if they were equals-the old man and the girl.

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