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   Chapter 2 THE HALL AND THE HOUSE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 28036

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Anthony Norris, who was now about fourteen, went up to King's College, Cambridge, in October. He was closeted long with his father the night before he left, and received from him much sound religious advice and exhortation; and in the morning, after an almost broken-hearted good-bye from Isabel, he rode out with his servant following on another horse and leading a packhorse on the saddle of which the falcons swayed and staggered, and up the curving drive that led round into the village green. He was a good-hearted and wholesome-minded boy, and left a real ache behind him in the Dower House.

Isabel indeed ran up to his room, after she had seen his feathered cap disappear at a trot through the gate, leaving her father in the hall; and after shutting and latching the door, threw herself on his bed, and sobbed her heart out. They had never been long separated before. For the last three years he had gone over to the Rectory morning by morning to be instructed by Mr. Dent; but now, although he would never make a great scholar, his father thought it well to send him up to Cambridge for two or three years, that he might learn to find his own level in the world.

Anthony himself was eager to go. If the truth must be told, he fretted a little against the restraints of even such a moderate Puritan household as that of his father's. It was a considerable weariness to Anthony to kneel in the hall on a fresh morning while his father read, even though with fervour and sincerity, long extracts from "Christian Prayers and Holy Meditations," collected by the Reverend Henry Bull, when the real world, as Anthony knew it, laughed and rippled and twinkled outside in the humming summer air of the lawn and orchard; or to have to listen to godly discourses, however edifying to elder persons, just at the time when the ghost-moth was beginning to glimmer in the dusk, and the heavy trout to suck down his supper in the glooming pool in the meadow below the house.

His very sports, too, which his father definitely encouraged, were obviously displeasing to the grave divines who haunted the house so often from Saturday to Monday, and spoke of high doctrinal matters at meal-times, when, so Anthony thought, lighter subjects should prevail. They were not interested in his horse, and Anthony never felt quite the same again towards one good minister who in a moment of severity called Eliza, the glorious peregrine that sat on the boy's wrist and shook her bells, a "vanity." And so Anthony trotted off happy enough on his way to Cambridge, of which he had heard much from Mr. Dent; and where, although there too were divines and theology, there were boys as well who acted plays, hunted with the hounds, and did not call high-bred hawks "vanities."

Isabel was very different. While Anthony was cheerful and active like his mother who had died in giving him life, she, on the other hand, was quiet and deep like her father. She was growing up, if not into actual beauty, at least into grace and dignity: but there were some who thought her beautiful. She was pale with dark hair, and the great grey eyes of her father; and she loved and lived in Anthony from the very difference between them. She frankly could not understand the attraction of sport, and the things that pleased her brother; she was afraid of the hawks, and liked to stroke a horse and kiss his soft nose better than to ride him. But, after all, Anthony liked to watch the towering bird, and to hear and indeed increase the thunder of the hoofs across the meadows behind the stomping hawk; and so she did her best to like them too; and she was often torn two ways by her sympathy for the partridge on the one hand, as it sped low and swift across the standing corn with that dread shadow following, and her desire, on the other hand, that Anthony should not be disappointed.

But in the deeper things of the spirit, too, there was a wide difference between them. As Anthony fidgeted and sighed through his chair-back morning and evening, Isabel's soul soared up to God on the wings of those sounding phrases. She had inherited all her father's tender piety, and lived, like him, on the most intimate terms with the spiritual world. And though, of course, by training she was Puritan, by character she was Puritan too. As a girl of fourteen she had gone with Anthony to see the cleansing of the village temple. They had stood together at the west end of the church a little timid at the sight of that noisy crowd in the quiet house of prayer; but she had felt no disapproval at that fierce vindication of truth. Her father had taught her of course that the purest worship was that which was only spiritual; and while since childhood she had seen Sunday by Sunday the Great Rood overhead, she had never paid it any but artistic attention. The men had the ropes round it now, and it was swaying violently to and fro; and then, even as the children watched, a tie had given, and the great cross with its pathetic wide-armed figure had toppled forward towards the nave, and then crashed down on the pavement. A fanatic ran out and furiously kicked the thorn-crowned head twice, splintering the hair and the features, and cried out on it as an idol; and yet Isabel, with all her tenderness, felt nothing more than a vague regret that a piece of carving so ancient and so delicate should be broken.

But when the work was over, and the crowd and Anthony with them had stamped out, directed by the justices, dragging the figures and the old vestments with them to the green, she had seen something which touched her heart much more. She passed up alone under the screen, which they had spared, to see what had been done in the chancel; and as she went she heard a sobbing from the corner near the priest's door; and there, crouched forward on his face, crying and moaning quietly, was the old priest who had been rector of the church for nearly twenty years. He had somehow held on in Edward's time in spite of difficulties; had thanked God and the Court of Heaven with a full heart for the accession of Mary; had prayed and deprecated the divine wrath at the return of the Protestant religion with Elizabeth; but yet had somehow managed to keep the old faith alight for eight years more, sometimes evading, sometimes resisting, and sometimes conforming to the march of events, in hopes of better days. But now the blow had fallen, and the old man, too ill-instructed to hear the accents of new truth in the shouting of that noisy crowd and the crash of his images, was on his knees before the altar where he had daily offered the holy sacrifice through all those troublous years, faithful to what he believed to be God's truth, now bewailing and moaning the horrors of that day, and, it is to be feared, unchristianly calling down the vengeance of God upon his faithless flock. This shocked and touched Isabel far more than the destruction of the images; and she went forward timidly and said something; but the old man turned on her a face of such misery and anger that she had run straight out of the church, and joined Anthony as he danced on the green.

On the following Sunday the old priest was not there, and a fervent young minister from London had taken his place, and preached a stirring sermon on the life and times of Josiah; and Isabel had thanked God on her knees after the sermon for that He had once more vindicated His awful Name and cleansed His House for a pure worship.

But the very centre of Isabel's religion was the love of the Saviour. The Puritans of those early days were very far from holding a negative or colourless faith. Not only was their belief delicately dogmatic to excess; but it all centred round the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And Isabel had drunk in this faith from her father's lips, and from devotional books which he gave her, as far back as she could remember anything. Her love for the Saviour was even romantic and passionate. It seemed to her that He was as much a part of her life, and of her actual experience, as Anthony or her father. Certain places in the lanes about, and certain spots in the garden, were sacred and fragrant to her because her Lord had met her there. It was indeed a trouble to her sometimes that she loved Anthony so much; and to her mind it was a less worthy kind of love altogether; it was kindled and quickened by such little external details, by the sight of his boyish hand brown with the sun, and scarred by small sporting accidents, such as the stroke of his bird's beak or talons, or by the very outline of the pillow where his curly head had rested only an hour or two ago. Whereas her love for Christ was a deep and solemn passion that seemed to well not out of His comeliness or even His marred Face or pierced Hands, but out of His wide encompassing love that sustained and clasped her at every moment of her conscious attention to Him, and that woke her soul to ecstasy at moments of high communion. These two loves, then, one so earthly, one so heavenly, but both so sweet, every now and then seemed to her to be in slight conflict in her heart. And lately a third seemed to be rising up out of the plane of sober and quiet affections such as she felt for her father, and still further complicating the apparently encountering claims of love to God and man.

Isabel grew quieter in a few minutes and lay still, following Anthony with her imagination along the lane that led to the London road, and then presently she heard her father calling, and went to the door to listen.

"Isabel," he said, "come down. Hubert is in the hall."

She called out that she would be down in a moment; and then going across to her own room she washed her face and came downstairs. There was a tall, pleasant-faced lad of about her own age standing near the open door that led into the garden; and he came forward nervously as she entered.

"I came back last night, Mistress Isabel," he said, "and heard that Anthony was going this morning: but I am afraid I am too late."

She told him that Anthony had just gone.

"Yes," he said, "I came to say good-bye; but I came by the orchard, and so we missed one another."

Isabel asked a word or two about his visit to the North, and they talked for a few minutes about a rumour that Hubert had heard of a rising on behalf of Mary: but Hubert was shy and constrained, and Isabel was still a little tremulous. At last he said he must be going, and then suddenly remembered a message from his mother.

"Ah!" he said, "I was forgetting. My mother wants you to come up this evening, if you have time. Father is away, and my aunt is unwell and is upstairs."

Isabel promised she would come.

"Father is at Chichester," went on Hubert, "before the Commission, but we do not expect him back till to-morrow."

A shadow passed across Isabel's face. "I am sorry," she said.

The fact was that Sir Nicholas had again been summoned for recusancy. It was an expensive matter to refuse to attend church, and Sir Nicholas probably paid not less than £200 or £300 a year for the privilege of worshipping as his conscience bade.

In the evening Isabel asked her father's leave to be absent after supper, and then drawing on her hood, walked across in the dusk to the Hall. Hubert was waiting for her at the boundary door between the two properties.

"Father has come back," he said, "but my mother wants you still." They went on together, passed round the cloister wing to the south of the house: the bell turret over the inner hall and the crowded roofs stood up against the stars, as they came up the curving flight of shallow steps from the garden to the tall doorway that led into the hall.

It was a pleasant, wide, high room, panelled with fresh oak, and hung with a little old tapestry here and there, and a few portraits. A staircase rose out of it to the upper story. It had a fret-ceiling, with flower-de-luce and rose pendants, and on the walls between the tapestries hung a few antlers and pieces of armour, morions and breast-plates, with a pair of pikes or halberds here and there. A fire had been lighted in the great hearth as the evenings were chilly; and Sir Nicholas was standing before it, still in his riding-dress, pouring out resentment and fury to his wife, who sat in a tall chair at her embroidery. She turned silently and held out a hand to Isabel, who came and stood beside her, while Hubert went and sat down near his father. Sir Nicholas scarcely seemed to notice their entrance, beyond glancing up for a moment under his fierce white eyebrows; but went on growling out his wrath. He was a fine rosy man, with grey moustache and pointed beard, and a thick head of hair, and he held in his hand his flat riding cap, and his whip with which from time to time he cut at his boot.

"It was monstrous, I told the fellow, that a man should be haled from his home like this to pay a price for his conscience. The religion of my father and his father and all our fathers was good enough for me; and why in God's name should the Catholic have to pay who had never changed his faith, while every heretic went free? And then to that some stripling of a clerk told me that a religion that was good enough for the Queen's Grace should be good enough for her loyal subjects too; but my Lord silenced him quickly. And then I went at them again; and all my Lord would do was to nod his head and smile at me as if I were a child; and then he told me that it was a special Commission all for my sake, and Sir Arthur's, who was there too, my dear.... Well, well, the end was that I had to pay for their cursed religion."

"Sweetheart, sweetheart," said Lady Maxwell, glancing at Isabel.

"Well, I paid," went on Sir Nicholas, "but I showed them, thank God, what I was: for as we came out, Sir Arthur and I together, what should we see but another party coming in, pursuivant and all; and in the mid of them that priest who was with us last July.-Well, well, we'll leave his name alone-him t

hat said he was a priest before them all in September; and I went down on my knees, thank God, and Sir Arthur went down on his, and we asked his blessing before them all, and he gave it us: and oh! my Lord was red and white with passion."

"That was not wise, sweetheart," said Lady Maxwell tranquilly, "the priest will have suffered for it afterwards."

"Well, well," grumbled Sir Nicholas, "a man cannot always think, but we showed them that Catholics were not ashamed of their religion-yes, and we got the blessing too."

"Well, but here is supper waiting," said my lady, "and Isabel, too, whom you have not spoken to yet."

Sir Nicholas paid no attention.

"Ah! but that was not all," he went on, savagely striking his boot again, "at the end of all who should I see but that-that-damned rogue-whom God reward!"-and he turned and spat into the fire-"Topcliffe. There he was, bowing to my Lord and the Commissioners. When I think of that man," he said, "when I think of that man-" and Sir Nicholas' kindly old passionate face grew pale and lowering with fury, and his eyebrows bent themselves forward, and his lower lip pushed itself out, and his hand closed tremblingly on his whip.

His wife laid down her embroidery and came to him.

"There, sweetheart," she said, taking his cap and whip. "Now sit down and have supper, and leave that man to God."

Sir Nicholas grew quiet again; and after a saying a word or two of apology to Isabel, left the room to wash before he sat down to supper.

"Mistress Isabel does not know who Topcliffe is," said Hubert.

"Hush, my son," said his mother, "your father does not like his name to be spoken."

Presently Sir Nicholas returned, and sat down to supper. Gradually his good nature returned, and he told them what he had seen in Chichester, and the talk he had heard. How it was reported to his lordship the Bishop that the old religion was still the religion of the people's hearts-how, for example, at Lindfield they had all the images and the altar furniture hidden underground, and at Battle, too; and that the mass could be set up again at a few hours' notice: and that the chalices had not been melted down into communion cups according to the orders issued, and so on. And that at West Grinsted, moreover, the Blessed Sacrament was there still-praise God-yes, and was going to remain there. He spoke freely before Isabel, and yet he remembered his courtesy too, and did not abuse the new-fangled religion, as he thought it, in her presence; or seek in any way to trouble her mind. If ever in an excess of anger he was carried away in his talk, his wife would always check him gently; and he would always respond and apologise to Isabel if he had transgressed good manners. In fact, he was just a fiery old man who could not change his religion even at the bidding of his monarch, and could not understand how what was right twenty years ago was wrong now.

Isabel herself listened with patience and tenderness, and awe too; because she loved and honoured this old man in spite of the darkness in which he still walked. He also told them in lower tones of a rumour that was persistent at Chichester that the Duke of Norfolk had been imprisoned by the Queen's orders, and was to be charged with treason; and that he was at present at Burnham, in Mr. Wentworth's house, under the guard of Sir Henry Neville. If this was true, as indeed it turned out to be later, it was another blow to the Catholic cause in England; but Sir Nicholas was of a sanguine mind, and pooh-poohed the whole affair even while he related it.

And so the evening passed in talk. When Sir Nicholas had finished supper, they all went upstairs to my lady's withdrawing-room on the first floor. This was always a strange and beautiful room to Isabel. It was panelled like the room below, but was more delicately furnished, and a tall harp stood near the window to which my lady sang sometimes in a sweet tremulous old voice, while Sir Nicholas nodded at the fire. Isabel, too, had had some lessons here from the old lady; but even this mild vanity troubled her puritan conscience a little sometimes. Then the room, too, had curious and attractive things in it. A high niche in the oak over the fireplace held a slender image of Mary and her Holy Child, and from the Child's fingers hung a pair of beads. Isabel had a strange sense sometimes as if this holy couple had taken refuge in that niche when they were driven from the church; but it seemed to her in her steadier moods that this was a superstitious fancy, and had the nature of sin.

This evening the old lady went to her harp, while Isabel sat down near her in the wide window seat and looked out over the dark lawn, where the white dial glimmered like a phantom, and thought of Anthony again. Sir Nicholas went and stretched himself before the fire, and closed his eyes, for he was old, and tired with his long ride; and Hubert sat down in a dark corner near him whence he could watch Isabel. After a few rippling chords my lady began to sing a song by Sir Thomas Wyatt, whom she and Sir Nicholas had known in their youth; and which she had caused to be set to music by some foreign chapel master. It was a sorrowful little song, with the title, "He seeketh comfort in patience," and possibly she chose it on purpose for this evening.

"Patience! for I have wrong,

And dare not shew wherein;

Patience shall be my song;

Since truth can nothing win.

Patience then for this fit;

Hereafter comes not yet."

While she sang, she thought no doubt of the foolish brave courtier who lacked patience in spite of his singing, and lost his head for it; her voice shook once or twice: and old Sir Nicholas shook his drowsy head when she had finished, and said "God rest him," and then fell fast asleep.

Then he presently awoke as the others talked in whispers, and joined in too: and they talked of Anthony, and what he would find at Cambridge; and of Alderman Marrett, and his house off Cheapside, where Anthony would lie that night; and of such small and tranquil topics, and left fiercer questions alone. And so the evening came to an end; and Isabel said good-night, and went downstairs with Hubert, and out into the garden again.

"I am sorry that Sir Nicholas has been so troubled," she said to Hubert, as they turned the corner of the house together. "Why cannot we leave one another alone, and each worship God as we think fit?"

Hubert smiled in the darkness to himself.

"I am afraid Queen Mary did not think it could be done, either," he said. "But then, Mistress Isabel," he went on, "I am glad that you feel that religion should not divide people."

"Surely not," she said, "so long as they love God."

"Then you think-" began Hubert, and then stopped. Isabel turned to him.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Nothing," said Hubert.

They had reached the door in the boundary wall by now, and Isabel would not let him come further with her and bade him good-night. But Hubert still stood, with his hand on the door, and watched the white figure fade into the dusk, and listened to the faint rustle of her skirt over the dry leaves; and then, when he heard at last the door of the Dower House open and close, he sighed to himself and went home.

Isabel heard her father call from his room as she passed through the hall; and went in to him as he sat at his table in his furred gown, with his books about him, to bid him good-night and receive his blessing. He lifted his hand for a moment to finish the sentence he was writing, and she stood watching the quill move and pause and move again over the paper, in the candlelight, until he laid the pen down, and rose and stood with his back to the fire, smiling down at her. He was a tall, slender man, surprisingly upright for his age, with a delicate, bearded, scholar's face; the little plain ruff round his neck helped to emphasise the fine sensitiveness of his features; and the hands which he stretched out to his daughter were thin and veined.

"Well, my daughter," he said, looking down at her with his kindly grey eyes so like her own, and holding her hands.

"Have you had a good evening, sir?" she asked.

He nodded briskly.

"And you, child?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," she said, smiling up at him.

"And was Sir Nicholas there?"

She told him what had passed, and how Sir Nicholas had been fined again for his recusancy; and how Lady Maxwell had sung one of Sir Thomas Wyatt's songs.

"And was no one else there?" he asked.

"Yes, father, Hubert."

"Ah! And did Hubert come home with you?"

"Only as far as the gate, father. I would not let him come further."

Her father said nothing, but still looked steadily down into her eyes for a moment, and then turned and looked away from her into the fire.

"You must take care," he said gently. "Remember he is a Papist, born and bred; and that he has a heart to be broken too."

She felt herself steadily flushing; and as he turned again towards her, dropped her eyes.

"You will be prudent and tender, I know," he added. "I trust you wholly, Isabel."

Then he kissed her on the forehead and laid his hand on her head, and looked up, as the Puritan manner was.

"May the God of grace bless you, my daughter; and make you faithful to the end." And then he looked into her eyes again, smiled and nodded; and she went out, leaving him standing there.

Mr. Norris had begun to fear that the boy loved Isabel, but as yet he did not know whether Isabel understood it or even was aware of it. The marriage difficulties of Catholics and Protestants were scarcely yet existing; and certainly there was no formulated rule of dealing with them. Changes of religion were so frequent in those days that difficulties, when they did arise, easily adjusted themselves. It was considered, for example, by politicians quite possible at one time that the Duke of Anjou should conform to the Church of England for the sake of marrying the Queen: or that he should attend public services with her, and at the same time have mass and the sacraments in his own private chapel. Or again, it was open to question whether England as a whole would not return to the old religion, and Catholicism be the only tolerated faith.

But to really religious minds such solutions would not do. It would have been an intolerable thought to this sincere Puritan, with all his tolerance, that his daughter should marry a Catholic; such an arrangement would mean either that she was indifferent to vital religion, or that she was married to a man whose creed she was bound to abhor and anathematise: and however willing Mr. Norris might be to meet Papists on terms of social friendliness, and however much he might respect their personal characters, yet the thought that the life of any one dear to him should be irretrievably bound up with all that the Catholic creed involved, was simply an impossible one.

Besides all this he had no great opinion of Hubert. He thought he detected in him a carelessness and want of principle that would make him hesitate to trust his daughter to him, even if the insuperable barrier of religion were surmounted. Mr. Norris liked a man to be consistent and zealous for his creed, even if that creed were dark and superstitious-and this zeal seemed to him lamentably lacking in Hubert. More than once he had heard the boy speak of his father with an air of easy indulgence, that his own opinion interpreted as contempt.

"I believe my father thinks," he had once said, "that every penny he pays in fines goes to swell the accidental glory of God."

And Hubert had been considerably startled and distressed when the elder man had told him to hold his tongue unless he could speak respectfully of one to whom he owed nothing but love and honour. This had happened, however, more than a year ago; and Hubert had forgotten it, no doubt, even if Mr. Norris had not.

And as for Isabel.

It is exceedingly difficult to say quite what place Hubert occupied in her mind. She certainly did not know herself much more than that she liked the boy to be near her; to hear his footsteps coming along the path from the Hall. This morning when her father had called up to her that Hubert was come, it was not so hard to dry her tears for Anthony's departure. The clouds had parted a little when she came and found this tall lad smiling shyly at her in the hall. As she had sat in the window seat, too, during Lady Maxwell's singing, she was far from unconscious that Hubert's face was looking at her from the dark corner. And as they walked back together her simplicity was not quite so transparent as the boy himself thought.

Again when her father had begun to speak of him just now, although she was able to meet his eyes steadily and smilingly, yet it was just an effort. She had not mentioned Hubert herself, until her father had named him; and in fact it is probably safe to say that during Hubert's visit to the north, which had lasted three or four months, he had made greater progress towards his goal, and had begun to loom larger than ever in the heart of this serene grey-eyed girl, whom he longed for so irresistibly.

And now, as Isabel sat on her bed before kneeling to say her prayers, Hubert was in her mind even more than Anthony. She tried to wonder what her father meant, and yet only too well she knew that she knew. She had forgotten to look into Anthony's room where she had cried so bitterly this morning, and now she sat wide-eyed, and self-questioning as to whether her heavenly love were as lucid and single as it had been; and when at last she went down on her knees she entreated the King of Love to bless not only her father, and her brother Anthony who lay under the Alderman's roof in far-away London; but Sir Nicholas and Lady Maxwell, and Mistress Margaret Hallam, and-and-Hubert-and James Maxwell, his brother; and to bring them out of the darkness of Papistry into the glorious liberty of the children of the Gospel.

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