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   Chapter 93 No.93

Come Rack! Come Rope! By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 7020

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

He reached at last with his hands the rung of the ladder on which the executioner's foot rested, hearing, as he went painfully up, the roar of voices wax to an incredible volume. It was impossible for any to speak so that he could hear, but he saw the hands above him in eloquent gesture, and understood that he was to turn round. He did so cautiously, grasping the man's foot, and so rested, half sitting on a rung, and holding it as well as he could with his two hands. Then he felt a rope pass round his wrists, drawing them closer together…. As he turned, the roar of voices died to a murmur; the murmur died to silence, and he understood and remembered. It was now the time to speak…. He gathered for the last time all his forces together. With the sudden silence, clearness came back to his mind, and he remembered word for word the little speech he had rehearsed so often during the last week. He had learned it by heart, fearful lest God should give him no words if he trusted to the moment, lest God should not see fit to give him even that interior consolation which was denied to so many of the saints-yet without which he could not speak from the heart. He had been right, he knew now: there was no religious consolation; he felt none of that strange heart-shaking ecstasy that had transfigured other deaths like his; he had none of the ready wit that Campion had showed. He saw nothing but the clear October sky above him, cut by the roofs fringed with heads (a skein of birds passed slowly over it as he raised his eyes); and, beneath, that irreckonable pavement of heads, motionless now as a cornfield in a still evening, one glimpse of the river-the river, he remembered even at this instant, that came down from Hathersage and Padley and his old home. But there was no open vision, such as he had half hoped to see, no unimaginable glories looming slowly through the veils in which God hides Himself on earth, no radiant face smiling into his own-only this arena of watching human faces turned up to his, waiting for his last sermon…. He thought he saw faces that he knew, though he lost them again as his eyes swept on-Mr. Barton, the old minister of Matstead; Dick; Mr. Bassett…. Their faces looked terrified…. However, this was not his affair now.

As he was about to speak he felt hands about his neck, and then the touch of a rope passed across his face. For an indescribable instant a terror seized on him; he closed his eyes and set his teeth. The spasm passed, and so soon as the hands were withdrawn again, he began:

* * * * *

"Good people"-(at the sound of his voice, high and broken, the silence became absolute. A thin crowing of a cock from far off in the country came like a thread and ceased)-"Good people: I die here as a Catholic man, for my priesthood, which I now confess before all the world." (A stir of heads and movements below distracted him. But he went on at once.) "There have been alleged against me crimes in which I had neither act nor part, against the life of her Grace and the peace of her dominions."

"Pray for her Grace," rang out a sharp voice below him.

"I will do so presently…. It is for that that I am said to die, in that I took part in plots of which I knew nothing till all was done. Yet I was offered my life, if I would but conform and go to church; so you see very well-"

A storm of confused voices interrupted him. He could distinguish no sentence, so he waited till they ceased again.

"So you see very well," he cried, "for w

hat it is that I die. It is for the Catholic faith-"

"Beat the drums! beat the drums!" cried a voice. There began a drumming; but a howl like a beast's surged up from the whole crowd. When it died again the drum was silent. He glanced down at my lord Shrewsbury and saw him whispering with an officer. Then he continued:

"It is for the Catholic faith, then, that I die-that which was once the faith of all England-and which, I pray, may be one day its faith again. In that have I lived, and in that will I die. And I pray God, further, that all who hear me to-day may have grace to take it as I do-as the true Christian Religion (and none other)-revealed by our Saviour Christ."

The crowd was wholly quiet again now. My lord had finished his whispering, and was looking up. But the priest had made his little sermon, and thought that he had best pray aloud before his strength failed him. His knees were already shaking violently under him, and the sweat was pouring again from his face, not so much from the effort of his speech as from the pain which that effort caused him. It seemed that there was not one nerve in his body that was not in pain.

"I ask all Catholics, then, that hear me to join with me in prayer…. First, for Christ's Catholic Church throughout the world, for her peace and furtherance…. Next, for our England, for the conversion of all her children; and, above all, for her Grace, my Queen and yours, that God will bless and save her in this world, and her soul eternally in the next. For these and all other such matters I will beg all Catholics to join with me and to say the Our Father; and when I am in my agony to say yet another for my soul."

"Our Father…."

From the whole packed space the prayer rose up, in great and heavy waves of sound. There were cries of mockery three or four times, but each was suddenly cut off…. The waves of sound rolled round and ceased, and the silence was profound. The priest opened his eyes; closed them again. Then with a loud voice he began to cry:

"O Christ, as Thine arms were extended-"

* * * * *

He stopped again, shaken even from that intense point of concentration to which he was forcing himself, by the amazing sound that met his ears. He had heard, at the close of the Our Father, a noise which he could not interpret: but no more had happened. But now the whole world seemed screaming and swaying: he heard the trample of horses beneath him-voices in loud expostulation.

He opened his eyes; the clamour died again at the same instant…. For a moment his eyes wandered over the heads and up to the sky, to see if some vision…. Then he looked down….

Against the ladder on which he stood, a man's figure was writhing and embracing the rungs kneeling on the ground. He was strangely dressed, in some sort of a loose gown, in a tight silk night-cap, and his feet were bare. The man's head was dropped, and the priest could not see his face. He looked beyond for some explanation, and there stood, all alone, a girl in a hooded cloak, who raised her great eyes to his. As he looked down again the man's head had fallen back, and the face was staring up at him, so distorted with speechless entreaty, that even he, at first, did not recognize it….

Then he saw it to be his father, and understood enough, at least, to act as a priest for the last time.

He smiled a little, leaned his own head forward as from a cross, and spoke….

"Absolvo te a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti…."

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