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   Chapter 65 No.65

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 7208

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The first that Mistress Manners knew of his coming in the early hours of Monday morning, was when she was awakened by Janet in the pitch darkness shaking her shoulder.

"It is a young man," she said, "on foot. His horse fell five miles off.

He is come with a letter from Derby."

Sleep fell from Marjorie like a cloak. This kind of thing had happened to her before. Now and then such a letter would come from a priest who lacked money or desired a guide or information. She sprang out of bed and began to put on her outer dress and her hooded cloak, as the night was cold.

"Bring him into the hall," she said. "Get beer and some food, and blow the fire up."

Janet vanished.

When the mistress came down five minutes later, all had been done as she had ordered. The turf and wood fire leaped in the chimney; a young man, still with his hat on his head and drawn down a little over his face, was sitting over the hearth, steaming like a kettle, eating voraciously. Janet was waiting discreetly by the doors. Marjorie nodded to her, and she went out; she had learned that her mistress's secrets were not always her own as well.

"I am Mistress Manners," she said. "You have a letter for me?"

The young man stood up.

"I know you well enough, mistress," he said. "I am John Merton's son."

Marjorie's heart leaped with relief. In spite of her determination that this must be a letter from a priest, there had still thrust itself before her mind the possibility that it might be that other letter whose coming she had feared. She had told herself fiercely as she came downstairs just now, that it could not be. No news was come from Fotheringay all the winter; it was common knowledge that her Grace had a priest of her own. And now that this was John Merton's son-

She smiled.

"Give me the letter," she said. "I should have known you, too, if it were not for the dark."

"Well, mistress," he said, "the letter was to be delivered to you, Mr.

Melville said; but-"

"Who?"

"Mr. Melville, mistress: her Grace's steward at Fotheringay."

* * * * *

He talked on a moment or two, beginning to say that Mr. Melville himself had come out to the inn, that he, as Melville's own servant, had been lodging there, and had been bidden to hold himself in readiness, since he knew Derbyshire…. But she was not listening. She only knew that that had fallen which she feared.

"Give me the letter," she said again.

He sat down, excusing himself, and fumbled with his boot; and by the time that he held it out to her, she was in the thick of the conflict. She knew well enough what it meant-that there was no peril in all England like that to which this letter called her friend, there, waiting for him in Fotheringay where every strange face was suspected, where a Popish priest was as a sheep in a den of wolves, where there would be no mercy at all if he were discovered; and where, if he were to be of use at all, he must adventure himself in the very spot where he would be most suspected, on a task that would be thought the last word in treason and disobedience. And, worst of all, this priest had lodged in the tavern where the conspirators had lodged; he had talked with them the night before their flight, and now, here he was, striving to get access to her for whom all had been designed. Was there a soul in England that could doubt his complicity?… And it was to her own house here in Derbyshire that he had come for shelter; it was here that he had said mass yesterday; and it must be from this house that he must ride, on one of her horses; and it must be her h

and that gave him the summons. Last of all, it was she, Marjorie Manners, that had sent him to this life, six years ago.

Then, as she took the letter, the shrewd woman in her spoke. It was irresistible, and she seemed to listen to voice that was not hers.

"Does any here know that you are come?"

"No, mistress."

"If I bade you, and said that I had reasons for it, you would ride away again alone, without a word to any?"

"Why, yes, mistress!"

(Oh! the plan was irresistible and complete. She would send this messenger away again on one of her own horses as far as Derby; he could leave the horse there, and she would send a man for it to-morrow. He would go back to Fotheringay and would wait, he and those that had sent him. And the priest they expected would not come. He, too, himself, had ceased to expect any word from Mr. Bourgoign; he had said a month ago that surely none would come now. He had been away from Booth's Edge, in fact, for nearly a month, and had scarcely even asked on his return last Saturday to Padley, whether any message had come. Why, it was complete-complete and irresistible! She would burn the letter here in this hall-fire when the man was gone again; and say to Janet that the letter had been from a travelling priest that was in trouble, and that she had sent the answer. And Robin would presently cease to look for news, and the end would come, and there would be no more trouble.)

"Do you know what is in the letter?" she whispered sharply. ("Sit down again and go on eating.")

He obeyed her.

"Yes, mistress," he said. "The priest was taken from her on Saturday.

Mr. Bourgoign had arranged all in readiness for that."

"You said Mr. Melville."

"Mr. Melville is a Protestant, mistress; but he is very well devoted to her Grace, and has done as Mr. Bourgoign wished."

"Why must her Grace have a priest at once? Surely for a few days-"

He glanced up at her, and she, conscious of her own falseness, thought he looked astonished.

"I mean that they will surely give her her priest back, again presently; and"-(her voice faltered)-"and Mr. Alban is spent with his travelling."

"They mean to kill her, mistress. There is no doubt of it amongst those of us that are Catholics. And it is that she may have a priest before she dies, that-"

He paused.

"Yes?" she said.

"Her Grace had a fit of crying, it is said, when her priest was taken from her. Mr. Melville was crying himself, even though-"

He stopped, himself plainly affected.

* * * * *

Then, in a great surge, her own heart rose up, and she understood what she was doing. As in a vision, she saw her own mother crying out for the priest that never came; and she understood that horror of darkness that falls on one who, knowing what the priest can do, knowing the infinite consolations which Christ gives, is deprived, when physical death approaches, of that tremendous strength and comfort. Indeed, she recognised to the full that when a priest cannot be had, God will save and forgive without him; yet what would be the heartlessness, to say nothing of the guilt, of one that would keep him away? For what, except that this strength and comfort might be at the service of Christ's flock, had her own life been spent? It was expressly for this that she had lived on in England when peace and the cloister might be hers elsewhere; and now that her own life was touched, should she fail?… The blindness passed like a dream, and her soul rose up again on a wave of pain and exaltation….

"Wait," she said. "I will go and awaken him, and bid him come down."

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