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   Chapter 92 No.92

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 14450

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A great murmuring crowd filled every flat spot of ground and pavement and parapet. They stood even on the balustrade of St. Mary's Bridge; there were fringes of them against the sky on the edges of roofs a quarter of a mile away. No flat surface was to be seen anywhere except on the broad reach of the river, and near the head of the bridge, in the circular space, ringed by steel caps and pike-points, where the gallows and ladder rose. Close beside them a column of black smoke rose heavily into the morning air, bellying away into the clear air. A continual steady low murmur of talking went up continually.

* * * * *

There had been no hanging within the memory of any that had roused such interest. Derbyshire men had been hung often enough; a criminal usually had a dozen friends at least in the crowd to whom he shouted from the ladder. Seminary priests had been executed often enough now to have destroyed the novelty of it for the mob; why, three had been done to death here little more than two months ago in this very place. They gave no sport, certainly; they died too quietly; and what peculiar interest there was in it lay in the contemplation of the fact that it was for religion that they died. Gentlemen, too, had been hanged here now and then-polished persons, dressed in their best, who took off their outer clothes carefully, and in one or two cases had handed them to a servant; gentlemen with whom the sheriff shook hands before the end, who eyed the mob imperturbably or affected even not to be aware of the presence of the vulgar. But this hanging was sublime.

First, he was a Derbyshire man, a seminary priest and a gentleman-three points. Yet this was no more than the groundwork of his surpassing interest. For, next, he had been racked beyond belief. It was for three days before his sentence that Mr. Topcliffe himself had dealt with him. (Yes, Mr. Topcliffe was the tall man that had his rooms in the market-place, and always went abroad with two servants…. He was to have Padley, too, it was said, as a reward for all his zeal.) Of course, young Mr. Audrey (for that was his real name-not Alban; that was a Popish alias such as they all used)-Mr. Audrey had not been on the rack for the whole of every day. But he had been in the rack-house eight or nine hours on the first day, four the second, and six or seven the third. And he had not answered one single question differently from the manner in which he had answered it before ever he had been on the rack at all. (There was a dim sense of pride with regard to this, in many Derbyshire minds. A Derbyshire man, it appeared, was more than a match for even a Londoner and a sworn servant of her Grace.) It was said that Mr. Audrey would have to be helped up the ladder, even though he had not been racked for a whole week since his sentence.

Next, the trial itself had been full of interest. A Papist priest was, of course, fair game. (Why, the Spanish Armada itself had been full of them, it was said, all come to subdue England…. Well, they had had their bellyful of salt water and English iron by now.) But this Papisher had hit back and given sport. He had flatly refused to be caught, though the questions were swift and subtle enough to catch any clerk. Certainly he had not denied that he was a priest; but he had said that that was what the Crown must prove: he was not there as a witness, he had said, but as a prisoner; he had even entreated them to respect their own legal dignities! But there had been a number of things against him, and even if none of these had been proved, still, the mere sum of them was enough; there could be no smoke without fire, said the proverb-quoters. It was alleged that he had been privy to the plot against the Queen (the plot of young Mr. Babington, who had sold his house down there a week or two only before his arrest); he had denied this, but he had allowed that he had spoken with her Grace immediately after the plot; and this was a highly suspicious circumstance: if he allowed so much as this, the rest might be safely presumed. Again, it was said that he had had part in attempts to free the Queen of the Scots, even from Fotheringay itself; and had been in the castle court, with a number of armed servants, at the very time of her execution. Again, if he allowed that he had been present, even though he denied the armed servants, the rest might be presumed. Finally, since he were a priest, and had seen her Grace at a time when there was no chaplain allowed to her, it was certain that he must have ministered their Popish superstitions to her, and this was neither denied nor affirmed: he had said to this that they had yet to prove him a priest at all. The very spectacle of the trial, too, had been remarkable; for, first, there was the extraordinary appearance of the prisoner, bent double like an old man, with the face of a dead one, though he could not be above thirty years old at the very most; and then there was the unusual number of magistrates present in court besides the judges, and my lord Shrewsbury himself, who had presided at the racking. It was one of my lord's men, too, that had helped to identify the prisoner.

But the supreme interest lay in even more startling circumstances-in the history of Mistress Manners, who was present through the trial with Mr. Biddell the lawyer, and who had obtained at least two interviews with the prisoner, one before the torture and the other after sentence. It was in Mistress Manners' house at Booth's Edge that the priest had been taken; and it was freely rumoured that although Mr. Audrey had once been betrothed to her, yet that she had released and sent him herself to Rheims, and all to end like this. And yet she could bear to come and see him again; and, it was said, would be present somewhere in the crowd even at his death.

Finally, the tale of how the priest had been taken by his own father-old Mr. Audrey of Matstead-him that was now lying sick in Mr. Columbell's house-this put the crown on all the rest. A hundred rumours flew this way and that: one said that the old man had known nothing of his son's presence in the country, but had thought him to be still in foreign parts. Another, that he knew him to be in England, but not that he was in the county; a third, that he knew very well who it was in the house he went to search, and had searched it and taken him on purpose to set his own loyalty beyond question. Opinions differed as to the propriety of such an action….

* * * * *

So then the great crowd of heads-men from all the countryside, from farms and far-off cottages and the wild hills, mingling with the townsfolk-this crowd, broken up into levels and patches by river and houses and lanes, moved to and fro in the October sunshine, and sent up, with the column of smoke that eddied out from beneath the bubbling tar-cauldron by the gallows, a continual murmur of talking, like the sound of slow-moving wheels of great carts.

He felt dazed and blind, yet with a kind of lightness too as he came out of the gaol-gate into that packed mass of faces, held back by guards from the open space where the horse and the hurdle waited. A dozen persons or so were within the gua

rds; he knew several of them by sight; two or three were magistrates; another was an officer; two were ministers with their Bibles.

It is hard to say whether he were afraid. Fear was there, indeed-he knew well enough that in his case, at any rate, the execution would be done as the law ordered; that he would be cut down before he had time to die, and that the butchery would be done on him while he would still be conscious of it. Death, too, was fearful, in any case…. Yet there were so many other things to occupy him-there was the exhilarating knowledge that he was to die for his faith and nothing else; for they had offered him his life if he would go to church; and they had proved nothing as to any complicity of his in any plot, and how could they, since there was none? There was the pain of his tormented body to occupy him; a pain that had passed from the acute localized agonies of snapped sinews and wrenched joints into one vast physical misery that soaked his whole body as in a flood; a pain that never ceased; of which he dreamed darkly, as a hungry man dreams of food which he cannot eat, to which he awoke again twenty times a night as to a companion nearer to him than the thoughts with which he attempted to distract himself. This pain, at least, would have an end presently. Again, there was an intermittent curiosity as to how and what would befall his flying soul when the butchery was done. "To sup in Heaven" was a phrase used by one of his predecessors on the threshold of death…. For what did that stand?… And at other times there had been no curiosity, but an acquiescence in old childish images. Heaven at such times appeared to him as a summer garden, with pavilions, and running water and the song of birds … a garden where he would lie at ease at last from his torn body and that feverish mind, which was all that his pain had left to him; where Mary went, gracious and motherly, with her virgins about her; where the Crucified Lamb of God would talk with him as a man talks with his friend, and allow him to lie at the Pierced Feet … where the glory of God rested like eternal sunlight on all that was there; on the River of Life, and the wood of the trees that are for the healing of all hurts.

And, last of all, there was a confused medley of more human thoughts that concerned persons other than himself. He could not remember all the persons clearly; their names and their faces came and went. Marjorie, his father, Mr. John FitzHerbert and Mr. Anthony, who had been allowed to come and see him; Dick Sampson, who had come in with Marjorie the second time and had kissed his hands. One thing at least he remembered clearly as he stood here, and that was how he had bidden Mistress Manners, even now, not to go overseas and become a nun, as she had wished; but rather to continue her work in Derbyshire, if she could.

So then he stood, bent double on two sticks, blinking and peering out at the faces, wondering whether it was a roar of anger or welcome or compassion that had broken out at his apparition, and smiling-smiling piteously, not of deliberation, but because the muscles of his mouth so moved, and he could not contract them again.

* * * * *

He understood presently that he was to lie down on the hurdle, with his head to the horses' heels.

This was a great business, to be undertaken with care. He gave his two sticks to a man, and took his arm. Then he kneeled, clinging to the arm as a child to a swimmer's in a rough sea, and sank gently down. But he could not straighten his legs, so they allowed him to lie half side-ways, and tied him so. It was amazingly uncomfortable, and, before he was settled, twice the sweat suddenly poured from his face as he found some new channel of pain in his body….

An order or two was issued in a loud, shouting voice; there was a great confusion and scuffling, and the crack of a whip. Then, with a jerk that tore his whole being, he was flicked from his place; the pain swelled and swelled till there seemed no more room for it in all God's world; and he closed his eyes so as not to see the house-roofs and the faces and the sky whirl about in that mad jigging dance….

After that he knew very little of the journey. For the most part his eyes were tight closed; he sobbed aloud half a dozen times as the hurdle lifted and dropped over rough places in the road. Two or three times he opened his eyes to see what the sounds signified, especially a loud, bellowing voice almost in his ear that cried texts of Scripture at him.

"We have but one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus…."

"We then, being justified by faith…. For if by the works of the Law we are justified…."

He opened his eyes wide at that, and there was the face of one of the ministers bobbing against the sky, flushed and breathless, yet indomitable, bawling aloud as he trotted along to keep pace with the horse.

Then he closed his eyes again. He knew that he, too, could bandy texts if that were what was required. Perhaps, if he were a better man and more mortified, he might be able to do so as the martyrs sometimes had done. But he could not … he would have a word to say presently perhaps, if it were permitted; but not now. His pain occupied him; he had to deal with that and keep back, if he could, those sobs that were wrenched from him now and again. He had made but a poor beginning in his journey, he thought; he must die more decently than that.

* * * * *

The end came unexpectedly. Just when he thought he had gained his self-control again, so as to make no sound at any rate, the hurdle stopped. He clenched his teeth to meet the dreadful wrench with which it would move again; but it did not. Instead there was a man down by him, untying his bonds. He lay quite still when they were undone; he did not know which limb to move first, and he dreaded to move any.

"Now then," said the voice, with a touch of compassion, he thought.

He set his teeth, gripped the arm and raised himself-first to his knees, then to his feet, where he stood swaying. An indescribable roar ascended steadily on all sides; but he could see little of the crowd as yet. He was standing in a cleared space, held by guards. A couple of dozen persons stood here; three or four on horseback; and one of these he thought to be my lord Shrewsbury, but he was not sure, since his head was against the glare of the sun. He turned a little, still holding to the man's arm, and not knowing what to do, and saw a ladder behind him; he raised his eyes and saw that its head rested against the cross-beam of a single gallows, that a rope hung from this beam, and that a figure sitting astride of this cross-beam was busy with this rope. The shock of the sight cooled and nerved him; rather, it drew his attention all from himself…. He looked lower again, and behind the gallows was a column of heavy smoke going up, and in the midst of the smoke a cauldron hung on a tripod. Beside the cauldron was a great stump of wood, with a chopper and a knife lying upon it…. He drew one long steady breath, expelled it again, and turned back to my lord Shrewsbury. As he turned, he saw him make a sign, and felt himself grasped from behind.

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