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Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 5135

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

When he was able to take breath again, and to substitute thought for blind instinct, he found himself tramping in a kind of stream of men into what appeared an impenetrably packed crowd. He was going between ropes, however, which formed a lane up which it was possible to move. This lane, after crossing half the court, wheeled suddenly to one side and doubled on itself, conducting the newcomers behind the crowd of privileged persons that had come into the castle overnight, or had been admitted three or four hours ago. These persons were all people of quality; many of them, out of a kind of sympathy for what was to happen, were in black. They stood there in rows, scarcely moving, scarcely speaking, some even bare-headed, filling up now, so far as the priest could see, the entire court, except in that quarter in which he presently found himself-the furthest corner away from where rose up the tall carved and traceried windows of the banqueting-hall. Yet, though no man spoke above an undertone, a steady low murmur filled the court from side to side, like the sound of a wagon rolling over a paved road.

He reached his place at last, actually against the wall of the soldiers' lodgings, and found, presently, that a low row of projecting stones enabled him to raise himself a few inches, and see, at any rate, a little better than his neighbours. He had perceived one thing instantly-namely, that his dream of getting near enough to the Queen to give her absolution before her death was an impossible one. He had known since yesterday that the execution was to take place in the hall, and here was he, within the court certainly, yet as far as possible away from where he most desired to be.

* * * * *

The last two days had gone by in a horror that there is no describing. All the hours of them he had passed at his parlour window, waiting hopelessly for the summons which never came. John Merton had gone to the castle and come back, each time with more desolate news. There was not a possibility, he said, when the news was finally certified, of getting a place in the hall. Three hundred gentlemen had had those places already assigned; four or five hundred more, it was expected, would have space reserved for them in the courtyard. The only possibility was to be early at the gateway, since a limited number of these would probably be admitted an hour or so before the time fixed for the execution.

The priest had seen many sights from his parlour window during those two days.

On Monday he had seen, early in the morning, Mr. Beale ride

out with his men to go to my lord Shrewsbury, who was in the neighbourhood, and had seen him return in time for dinner, with a number of strangers, among whom was an ecclesiastic. On inquiry, he found this to be Dr. Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough, who had been appointed to attend Mary both in her lodgings and upon the scaffold. In the afternoon the street was not empty for half an hour. From all sides poured in horsemen; gentlemen riding in with their servants; yeomen and farmers come in from the countryside, that they might say hereafter that they had at least been in Fotheringay when a Queen suffered the death of the axe. So the dark had fallen, yet lights moved about continually, and horses' hoofs never ceased to beat or the voices of men to talk. Until he fell asleep at last in his window-seat, he listened always to these things; watched the lights; prayed softly to himself; clenched his nails into his hands for indignation; and looked again. On the Tuesday morning came the sheriff, to dine at the castle with Sir Amyas-a great figure of a man, dignified and stalwart, riding in the midst of his men. After dinner came the Earl of Kent, and, last of all, my lord Shrewsbury himself-he who had been her Grace's gaoler, until he proved too kind for Elizabeth's taste-now appointed, with peculiar malice, to assist at her execution. He looked pale and dejected as he rode past beneath the window.

Yet all this time the supreme horror had been that the end was not absolutely certain. All in Fotheringay were as convinced as men could be, who had not seen the warrant nor heard it read, that Mr. Beale had brought it with him on Sunday night; the priest, above all, from his communications with Mr. Bourgoign, was morally certain that the terror was come at last…. It was not until the last night of Mary's life on earth was beginning to close in that John Merton came up to the parlour, white and terrified, to tell him that he had been in his master's room half an hour ago, and that Mr. Melville had come in to them, his face all slobbered with tears, and had told him that he had but just come from her Grace's rooms, and had heard with his own ears the sentence read to her, and her gallant and noble answer…. He had bidden him to go straight off to the priest, with a message from Mr. Bourgoign and himself, to the effect that the execution was appointed for eight o'clock next morning; and that he was to be at the gate of the castle not later than three o'clock, if, by good fortune, he might be admitted when the gates were opened at seven.

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