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   Chapter 76 No.76

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 12774

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"There will be a company of us to-night," said Mr. John to the two priests, as he helped them to dismount. "Mr. Alban has sent his man forward from Derby to say that he will be here before night."

"Mr. Ludlam and I are together for once," said Mr. Garlick. "We must separate again to-morrow, he is for the north again, he tells me. There has been no more trouble?"

"Not a word of it. They were beaten last time and will not try again, I think, for the present. You heard of the attempt at Candlemas, then?"

* * * * *

It had been a quiet time enough ever since Lent, throughout the whole county; and it seemed as if the heat of the assault had cooled for want of success. Plainly a great deal had been staked upon the attack on Padley, which, for its remoteness from towns, was known to be a meeting-place where priests could always find harbourage. And, indeed, it was time that the Catholics should have a little breathing space. Things had been very bad with them-the arrest of Mr. Simpson, and, still more, his weakness (though he had not as yet actually fulfilled his promise of going to church, and was still detained in gaol); the growing lukewarmness of families that seldom saw a priest; the blows struck at the FitzHerbert family; and, above all, the defection of Mr. Thomas-all these things had brought the hearts of the faithful very low. Mr. John himself had had an untroubled time since his return a little before Easter; but he had taken the precaution not to remain too long at Padley at one time; he had visited his other estates at Swynnerton and elsewhere, and had even been back again at Langley. But there had been no hint of any pursuit. Padley had remained untouched; the men went about their farm business; the housekeeper peered from her windows, without a glimpse of armed men such as had terrified the household on Candlemas day.

It was only last night, indeed, that the master had returned, in time to meet the two priests who had asked for shelter for a day or two. They had stayed here before continually, as well as at Booth's Edge, during their travels, both in the master's absence and when he was at home. There were a couple of rooms kept vacant always for "men of God"; and all priests who came were instructed, of course (in case of necessity), as to the hiding-holes that Mr. Owen had contrived a few years before. Never, however, had there been any use made of them.

* * * * *

It was a hot July afternoon when the two priests were met to-day by Mr. John outside the arched gate that ran between the hall and the buttery. They had already dined at a farm a few miles down the valley, but they were taken round the house at once to the walled garden, where drink and food were set out. Here their dusty boots were pulled off; they laid aside their hats, and were presently at their ease again.

They were plain men, these two; though Mr. Garlick had been educated at Oxford, and, before his going to Rheims, had been schoolmaster at Tideswell. In appearance he was a breezy sunburnt man, with very little of the clerk about him, and devoted to outdoor sports (which was something of a disguise to him since he could talk hawking and riding in mixed company with a real knowledge of the facts). He spoke in a loud voice with a strong Derbyshire accent, which he had never lost and now deliberately used. Mr. Ludlam looked for more of the priest: he was a clean-shaven man, of middle-age, with hair turning to grey on his temples, and with a very pleasant disarming smile; he spoke very little, but listened with an interested and attentive air. Both were, of course, dressed in the usual riding costume of gentlemen, and used good horses.

It was exceedingly good to sit here, with the breeze from over the moors coming down on them, with cool drink before them, and the prospect of a secure day, at any rate, in this stronghold. Their host, too, was contented and serene, and said so, frankly.

"I am more at peace, gentlemen," he said, "than I have been for the past five years. My son is in gaol yet; and I am proud that he should be there, since my eldest son-" (he broke off a moment). "And I think the worst of the storm is over. Her Grace is busying herself with other matters."

"You mean the Spanish fleet, sir?" said Mr. Garlick.

He nodded.

"It is not that I look for final deliverance from Spain," he said. "I have no wish to be aught but an Englishman, as I said to Mr. Bassett a while ago. But I think the fleet will distract her Grace for a while; and it may very well mean that we have better treatment hereafter."

"What news is there, sir?"

"I hear that the Londoners buzz continually with false alarms. It was thought that the fleet might arrive on any day; but I understand that the fishing-boats say that nothing as yet been seen. By the end of the month, I daresay, we shall have news."

So they talked pleasantly in the shade till the shadows began to lengthen. They were far enough here from the sea-coast to feel somewhat detached from the excitement that was beginning to seethe in the south. At Plymouth, it was said, all had been in readiness for a month or two past; at Tilbury, my lord Leicester was steadily gathering troops. But here, inland, it was more of an academic question. The little happenings in Derby; the changes of weather in the farms; the deaths of old people from the summer heats-these things were far more vital and significant than the distant thunders of Spain. A beacon or two had been piled on the hills, by order of the authorities, to pass on the news when it should come; a few lads had disappeared from the countryside to drill in Derby marketplace; but except for these things, all was very much as it had been from the beginning. The expected catastrophe meant little more to such folk than the coming of the Judgment Day-certain, but infinitely remote from the grasp of the imagination.

* * * * *

The three were talking of Robin as they came down towards the house for supper, and, as they turned the corner, he himself was at that moment dismounting.

He looked surprisingly cool and well-trimmed, considering his ride up the hot valley. He had taken his journey easily, he said, as he had had a long day yesterday.

"And I made a round to pay a visit to Mistress Manners," he said. "I found her a-bed when I got there; and Mrs. Alice says

she will not be at mass to-morrow. She stood too long in the sun yesterday, at the carrying of the hay; it is no more than that."

"Mistress Manners is a marvel to me," said Garlick, as they went towards the house. "Neither wife nor nun. And she rules her house like a man; and she knows if a priest lift his little finger in Derby. She sent me my whole itinerary for this last circuit of mine; and every point fell out as she said."

* * * * *

Robin thought that he had seldom had so pleasant a supper as on that night. The windows of the low hall where he had dined so often as a boy, were flung wide to catch the scented evening air. The sun was round to the west and threw long, golden rays, that were all lovely light and no heat, slantways on the paved floor and the polished tables and the bright pewter. Down at the lower end sat the servants, brown men, burned by the sun; lean as panthers, scarcely speaking, ravenous after their long day in the hayfields; and up here three companions with whom he was wholly at his ease. The evening was as still as night, except for the faint peaceful country sounds that came up from the valley below-the song of a lad riding home; the barking of a dog; the bleat of sheep-all minute and delicate, as unperceived, yet as effective, as a rich fabric on which a design is woven. It seemed to him as he listened to the talk-the brisk, shrewd remarks of Mr. Garlick; the courteous and rather melancholy answers of his host; as he watched the second priest's eyes looking gently and pleasantly about him; as he ate the plain, good food and drank the country drink, that, in spite of all, his lot was cast in very sweet places. There was not a hint here of disturbance, or of men's passions, or of ugly strife: there was no clatter, as in the streets of Derby, or pressure of humanity, or wearying politics of the market-place. He found himself in one of those moods that visit all men sometimes, when the world appears, after all, a homely and a genial place; when the simplest things are the best; when no excitement or ambition or furious zeal can compare with the gentle happiness of a tired body that is in the act of refreshment, or of a driven mind that is finding its relaxation. At least, he said to himself, he would enjoy this night and the next day and the night after, with all his heart.

* * * * *

The four found themselves so much at ease here, that the dessert was brought in to them where they sat; and it was then that the first unhappy word was spoken.

"Mr. Simpson!" said Garlick suddenly. "Is there any more news of him?"

Mr. John shook his head.

"He hath not yet been to church, thank God!" he said. "So much I know for certain. But he hath promised to go."

"Why is he not yet gone? He promised a great while ago."

"I hear he hath been sick. Derby gaol is a pestiferous place. They are waiting, I suppose, till he is well enough to go publicly, that all the world may be advertised of it!"

Mr. Garlick gave a bursting sigh.

"I cannot understand it at all," he said. "There has never been so zealous a priest. I have ridden with him again and again before I was a priest. He was always quiet; but I took him to be one of those stout-hearted souls that need never brag. Why, it was here that we heard him tell of Mr. Nelson's death!"

Mr. John threw out his hands.

"These prisons are devilish," he said; "they wear a man out as the rack can never do. Why, see my son!" he cried. "Oh! I can speak of him if I am but moved enough! It was that same Derby gaol that wore him out too! It is the darkness, and the ill food, and the stenches and the misery. A man's heart fails him there, who could face a thousand deaths in the sunlight. Man after man hath fallen there-both in Derby, and in London and in all the prisons. It is their heart that goes-all the courage runs from them like water, with their health. If it were the rack and the rope only, England would be Catholic, yet, I think."

The old man's face blazed with indignation; it was not often that he so spoke out his mind. It was very easy to see that he had thought continually of his son's fall.

"Mistress Manners hath told me the very same thing," said Robin. "She visited Mr. Thomas in gaol once at least. She said that her heart failed her altogether there."

Mr. Ludlam smiled.

"I suppose it is so," he said gently, "since you say so. But I think it would not be so with me. The rack and the rope, rather, are what would shake me to the roots, unless God His Grace prevailed more than it ever yet hath with see."

He smiled again.

Robin shook his head sharply.

"As for me-!" he said grimly, with tight lips.

* * * * *

It was a lovely night of stars as the four stepped out of the archway before going upstairs to the parlour. Behind them stood the square and solid house, resembling a very fortress. The lights that had been brought in still shone through the windows, and a hundred night insects leapt and poised in the brightness.

And before them lay the deep valley-silent now except for the trickle of the stream; dark (since the moon was not yet risen), except for one light that burned far away in some farm-house on the other side; and this light went out, like a closing eye, even as they looked. But overhead, where God dwelt, all heaven was alive. The huge arch resting, as it appeared, on the monstrous bases of the moors and hills standing round this place, like the mountains about Jerusalem, was one shimmering vault of glory, as if it was there that the home of life had its place, and this earth beneath but a bedroom for mortals, or for those that were too weary to aspire or climb. The suggestion was enormously powerful. Here was this mortal earth that needed rest so cruelly-that must have darkness to refresh its tired eyes, coolness to recuperate its passion, and silence, if ever its ears were to hear again. But there was radiance unending. All day a dome of rigid blue; all night a span of glittering lights-the very home of a glory that knows no waste and that therefore needs no reviving: it was to that only, therefore, that a life must be chained which would not falter or fail in the unending tides and changes of the world….

A soft breeze sprang up among the tops of the chestnuts; and the sound was as of the going of a great company that whispered for silence.

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