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   Chapter 78 No.78

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 4648

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In an instant all was in confusion; and the peace had fled. Mr. John was gone; and his voice could be heard on the open stairs outside speaking rapidly in sharp, low whispers to the men gathered beneath; and, meanwhile, three or four servants, two men and a couple of maids, previously drilled in their duties, were at the altar, on which Mr. Ludlam had but that moment laid down his amice. The three priests stood together waiting, fearing to hinder or to add to the bustle. A low wailing rose from outside the door; and Robin looked from it to see if there were anything he could do. But it was only a little country servant crouching on the tiny landing that united the two sets of stairs from the court, with her apron over her head: she must have been in the partitioned west end of the chapel to hear the mass. He said a word to her; and the next instant was pushed aside, as a man tore by bearing a great bundle of stuffs-vestments and the altar cloths. When he turned again, the chapel was become a common room once more: the chest stood bare, with a great bowl of flowers on it; the candlesticks were gone; and the maid was sweeping up the herbs.

"Come, gentlemen," said a sharp voice at the door, "there is no time to lose."

He went out with the two others behind, and followed Mr. John downstairs. Already the party of servants was dispersed to their stations; two or three to keep the doors, no doubt, and the rest back to kitchen work and the like, to give the impression that all was as usual.

The four went straight down into the hall, to find it empty, except for one man who stood by the fire-place. But a surprising change had taken place here. Instead of the solemn panelling, with the carved shield that covered the wall over the hearth, there was a great doorway opened, through which showed, not the bricks of the chimney-breast, but a black space large enough to admit a man.

"See here," said Mr. John, "there is room for two here, but no more. There is room for a third in another little chamber upstairs that is nearly joined on to this: but it is not so good. Now, gentlemen-"

"This is the safer of the two?" asked Robin abruptly.

"I think it to be so. Make haste, gentlemen."

Robin wheeled on the others. He said that there was no time to argue in.

"See!" he said. "I have

not yet been taken at all. Mr. Garlick hath been taken; and Mr. Ludlam hath had a warning. There is no question that you must be here."

"I utterly refuse-" began Garlick.

Robin went to the door in three strides; and was out of it. He closed the door behind him and ran upstairs. As he reached the head his eye caught a glint of sunlight on some metal far up on the moor beyond the belt of trees. He did not turn his head again; he went straight in and waited.

Presently he heard steps coming up, and Mr. John appeared smiling and out of breath.

"I have them in," he said, "by promising that there was no great difference after all; and that there was no time. Now, sir-" And he went towards the wall at which, long ago, Mr. Owen had worked so hard.

"And yourself, sir?" asked Robin, as once more an innocent piece of panelling moved outwards under Mr. John's hand.

"I'll see to that; but not until you are in-"

"But-"

The old man's face blazed suddenly up.

"Obey me, if you please. I am the master here. I tell you I have a very good place."

There was no more to be said. Robin advanced to the opening, and sat down to slide himself in. It was a little door about two feet square, with a hole beneath it.

"Drop gently, Mr. Alban," whispered the voice in his ear. "The altar vessels are at the bottom, with the crucifix, on some soft stuff…. That is it. Slide in and let yourself slip. There is some food and drink there, too."

Robin did so. The floor of the little chamber was about five feet down, and he could feel woodwork on all three sides of him.

"When the door is closed," said the voice from the daylight, "push a pair of bolts on right and left till they go home. Tap upon the shutter when it is done."

The light vanished, and Robin was aware of a faint smell of smoke. Then he remembered that he had noticed a newly lit fire on the hearth of the hall…. He found the bolts, pushed them, and tapped lightly three times. He heard a hand push on the shutter to see that all was secure, and then footsteps go away over the floor on a level with his chin.

Then he remembered that he must be in the same chamber with his two fellow-priests, separated from them by the flooring on which he stood. He rapped gently with his foot twice. Two soft taps came back. Silence followed.

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