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   Chapter 79 No.79

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 5906

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Time, as once before in his experience, seemed wholly banished from this place. There were moments of reflection when he appeared to himself as having but just entered; there were other moments when he might have been here for an eternity that had no divisions to mark it. He was in complete and utter darkness. There was not a crack anywhere in the woodwork (so perfect had been the young carpenter's handiwork) by which even a glimmer of light could enter. A while ago he had been in the early morning sunlight; now he might be in the grave.

For a while his emotions and his thoughts raced one another, tumbling in inextricable confusion; and they were all emotions and thoughts of the present: intense little visions of the men closing round the house, cutting off escape from the valley on the one side and from the wild upland country on the other; questions as to where Mr. John would hide himself; minute sensible impressions of the smoky flavour of the air, the unplaned woodwork, the soft stuffs beneath his feet. Then they began to extend themselves wider, all with that rapid unjarring swiftness: he foresaw the bursting in of his stronghold; the footsteps within three inches of his head; the crash as the board was kicked in: then the capture; the ride to Derby, bound on a horse; the gaol; the questioning; the faces of my lord Shrewsbury and the magistrates … and the end….

There were moments when the sweat ran down his face, when he bit his lips in agony, and nearly moaned aloud. There were others in which he abandoned himself to Christ crucified; placed himself in Everlasting Hands that were mighty enough to pluck him not only out of this snare, but from the very hands that would hold him so soon; Hands that could lift him from the rack and scaffold and set him a free man among his hills again: yet that had not done so with a score of others whom he knew. He thought of these, and of the girl who had done so much to save them all, who was now saved herself by sickness, a mile or two away, from these hideous straits. Then he dragged out Mr. Maine's beads and began to recite the "Mysteries."…

* * * * *

There broke in suddenly the first exterior sign that the hunters were on them-a muffled hammering far beneath his feet. There were pauses; then voices carried up from the archway nearly beneath through the hollowed walls; then hammering again; but all was heard as through wool.

As the first noise broke out his mind rearranged itself and seemed to have two consciousnesses. In the foreground he followed, intently and eagerly, every movement below; in the background, there still moved before him the pageant of deeper thoughts and more remote-of prayer and wonder and fear and expectation; and from that onwards it continued so with him. Even while he followed the sounds, he understood why my lord Shrewsbury had made this assault so suddenly, after months of peace…. He perceived the hand of Thomas Fitz

Herbert, too, in the precision with which the attack had been made, and the certain information he must have given that priests would be in Padley that morning.

There were noises that he could not interpret-vague tramplings from a direction which he could not tell; voices that shouted; the sound of metal on stone.

He did interpret rightly, however, the sudden tumult as the gate was unbarred at last, and the shrill screaming of a woman as the company poured through into the house; the clamour of voices from beneath as the hall below was filled with men; the battering that began almost immediately; and, finally, the rush of shod feet up the outside staircases, one of which led straight into the chapel itself. Then, indeed, his heart seemed to spring upwards into his throat, and to beat there, as loud as knocking, so loud that it appeared to him that all the house must hear it.

* * * * *

Yet it was still some minutes before the climax came to him. He was still standing there, listening to voices talking, it seemed, almost in his ears, yet whose words he could not hear; the vibration of feet that shook the solid joist against which he had leaned his head, with closed eyes; the brush of a cloak once, like a whisper, against the very panel that shut him in. He could attend to nothing else; the rest of the drama was as nothing to him: he had his business in hand-to keep away from himself, by the very intentness of his will and determination, the feet that passed so close.

The climax came in a sudden thump of a pike foot within a yard of his head, so imminent, that for an instant he thought it was at his own panel. There followed a splintering sound of a pike-head in the same place. He understood. They were sounding on the woodwork and piercing all that rang hollow…. His turn, then, would come immediately.

Talking voices followed the crash; then silence; then the vibration of feet once more. The strain grew unbearable; his fingers twisted tight in his rosary, lifted themselves once or twice from the floor edge on which they were gripped, to tear back the bolts and declare himself. It seemed to him in those instants a thousand times better to come out of his own will, rather than to be poked and dragged from his hole like a badger. In the very midst of such imaginings there came a thumping blow within three inches of his face, and then silence. He leaned back desperately to avoid the pike-thrust that must follow, with his eyes screwed tight and his lips mumbling. He waited;… and then, as he waited, he drew an irrepressible hissing breath of terror, for beneath the soft padding under his feet he could feel movements; blow follow blow, from the same direction, and last a great clamour of voices all shouting together.

Feet ran across the floor on which his hands were gripped again, and down the stairs. He perceived two things: the chapel was empty again, and the priests below had been found.

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