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   Chapter 4 MARY CORBET

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 29300

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The spring that followed the visit to London passed uneventfully at Great Keynes to all outward appearances; and yet for Isabel they were significant months. In spite of herself and of the word of warning from her father, her relations with Hubert continued to draw closer. For one thing, he had been the first to awaken in her the consciousness that she was lovable in herself, and the mirror that first tells that to a soul always has something of the glow of the discovery resting upon it.

Then again his deference and his chivalrous air had a strange charm. When Isabel rode out alone with Anthony, she often had to catch the swinging gate as he rode through after opening it, and do such little things for herself; but when Hubert was with them there was nothing of that kind.

And, once more, he appealed to her pity; and this was the most subtle element of all. There was no doubt that Hubert's relations with his fiery old father became strained sometimes, and it was extraordinarily sweet to Isabel to be made a confidant. And yet Hubert never went beyond a certain point; his wooing was very skilful: and he seemed to be conscious of her uneasiness almost before she was conscious of it herself, and to relapse in a moment into frank and brotherly relations again.

He came in one night after supper, flushed and bright-eyed, and found her alone in the hall: and broke out immediately, striding up and down as she sat and watched him.

"I cannot bear it; there is Mr. Bailey who has been with us all Lent; he is always interfering in my affairs. And he has no charity. I know I am a Catholic and that; but when he and my father talk against the Protestants, Mistress Isabel, I cannot bear it. They were abusing the Queen to-night-at least," he added, for he had no intention to exaggerate, "they were saying she was a true daughter of her father; and sneers of that kind. And I am an Englishman, and her subject; and I said so; and Mr. Bailey snapped out, 'And you are also a Catholic, my son,' and then-and then I lost my temper, and said that the Catholic religion seemed no better than any other for the good it did people; and that the Rector and Mr. Norris seemed to me as good men as any one; and of course I meant him and he knew it; and then he told me, before the servants, that I was speaking against the faith; and then I said I would sooner speak against the faith than against good Christians; and then he flamed up scarlet, and I saw I had touched him; and then my father got scarlet too, and my mother looked at me, and my father told me to leave the table for an insolent puppy; and I knocked over my chair and stamped out-and oh! Mistress Isabel, I came straight here."

And he flung down astride of a chair with his arms on the back, and dropped his head on to them.

It would have been difficult for Hubert, even if he had been very clever indeed, to have made any speech which would have touched Isabel more than this. There was the subtle suggestion that he had defended the Protestants for her sake; and there was the open defence of her father, and defiance of the priests whom she feared and distrusted; there was a warm generosity and frankness running through it all; and lastly, there was the sweet flattering implication that he had come to her to be understood and quieted and comforted.

Then, when she tried to show her disapproval of his quick temper, and had succeeded in showing a poorly disguised sympathy instead, he had flung away again, saying that she had brought him to his senses as usual, and that he would ask the priest's pardon for his insolence at once; and Isabel was left standing and looking at the fire, fearing that she was being wooed, and yet not certain, though she loved it. And then, too, there was the secret hope that it might be through her that he might escape from his superstitions, and-and then-and she closed her eyes and bit her lip for joy and terror.

She did not know that a few weeks later Hubert had an interview with his father, of which she was the occasion. Lady Maxwell had gone to her husband after a good deal of thought and anxiety, and told him what she feared; asking him to say a word to Hubert. Sir Nicholas had been startled and furious. It was all the lad's conceit, he said; he had no real heart at all; he only flattered his vanity in making love; he had no love for his parents or his faith, and so on. She took his old hand in her own and held it while she spoke.

"Sweetheart," she said, "how old were you when you used to come riding to Overfield? I forget." And there came peace into his angry, puzzled old eyes, and a gleam of humour.

"Mistress," he said, "you have not forgotten." For he had been just eighteen, too. And he took her face in his hands delicately, and kissed her on the lips.

"Well, well," he said, "it is hard on the boy; but it must not go on. Send him to me. Oh! I will be easy with him."

But the interview was not as simple as he hoped; for Hubert was irritable and shamefaced; and spoke lightly of the Religion again.

"After all," he burst out, "there are plenty of good men who have left the faith. It brings nothing but misery."

Sir Nicholas' hands began to shake, and his fingers to clench themselves; but he remembered the lad was in love.

"My son," he said, "you do not know what you say."

"I know well enough," said Hubert, with his foot tapping sharply. "I say that the Catholic religion is a religion of misery and death everywhere. Look at the Low Countries, sir."

"I cannot speak of that," said his father; and his son sneered visibly; "you and I are but laymen; but this I know, and have a right to say, that to threaten me like that is the act of a-is not worthy of my son. My dear boy," he said, coming nearer, "you are angry; and, God forgive me! so am I; but I promised your mother," and again he broke off, "and we cannot go on with this now. Come again this evening."

Hubert stood turned away, with his head against the high oak mantelpiece; and there was silence.

"Father," he said at last, turning round, "I ask your pardon."

Sir Nicholas stepped nearer, his eyes suddenly bright with tears, and his mouth twitching, and held out his hand, which Hubert took.

"And I was a coward to speak like that-but, but-I will try," went on the boy. "And I promise to say nothing to her yet, at any rate. Will that do? And I will go away for a while."

The father threw his arms round him.

As the summer drew on and began to fill the gardens and meadows with wealth, the little Italian garden to the south-west of the Hall was where my lady spent most of the day. Here she would cause chairs to be brought out for Mistress Margaret and herself, and a small selection of devotional books, an orange leather volume powdered all over with pierced hearts, filled with extracts in a clear brown ink, another book called Le Chappellet de Jésus, while from her girdle beside her pocket-mirror there always hung an olive-coloured "Hours of the Blessed Virgin," fastened by a long strip of leather prolonged from the binding. Here the two old sisters would sit, in the shadow of the yew hedge, taking it by turns to read and embroider, or talking a little now and then in quiet voices, with long silences broken only by the hum of insects in the hot air, or the quick flight of a bird in the tall trees behind the hedge.

Here too Isabel often came, also bringing her embroidery; and sat and talked and watched the wrinkled tranquil faces of the two old ladies, and envied their peace. Hubert had gone, as he had promised his father, on a long visit, and was not expected home until at least the autumn.

"James will be here to-morrow," said Lady Maxwell, suddenly, one hot afternoon. Isabel looked up in surprise; he had not been at home for so long; but the thought of his coming was very pleasant to her.

"And Mary Corbet, too," went on the old lady, "will be here to-morrow or the day after."

Isabel asked who this was.

"She is one of the Queen's ladies, my dear; and a great talker."

"She is very amusing sometimes," said Mistress Margaret's clear little voice.

"And Mr. James will be here to-morrow?" said Isabel.

"Yes, my child. They always suit one another; and we have known Mary for years."

"And is Miss Corbet a Catholic?"

"Yes, my dear; her Grace seems to like them about her."

When Isabel went up again to the Hall in the evening, a couple of days later, she found Mr. James sitting with his mother and aunt in the same part of the garden. Mr. James, who rose as she came through the yew archway, and stood waiting to greet her, was a tall, pleasant, brown-faced man. Isabel noticed as she came up his strong friendly face, that had something of Hubert's look in it, and felt an immediate sense of relief from her timidity at meeting this man, whose name, it was said, was beginning to be known among the poets, and about whom the still more formidable fact was being repeated, that he was a rising man at Court and had attracted the Queen's favour.

As they sat down again together, she noticed, too, his strong delicate hand in its snowy ruff, for he was always perfectly dressed, as it lay on his knee; and again thought of Hubert's browner and squarer hand.

"We were talking, Mistress Isabel, about the play, and the new theatres. I was at the Blackfriars' only last week. Ah! and I met Buxton there," he went on, turning to his mother.

"Dear Henry," said Lady Maxwell. "He told me when I last saw him that he could never go to London again; his religion was too expensive, he said."

Mr. James' white teeth glimmered in a smile.

"He told me he was going to prison next time, instead of paying the fine. It would be cheaper, he thought."

"I hear her Grace loves the play," said Mistress Margaret.

"Indeed she does. I saw her at Whitehall the other day, when the children of the Chapel Royal were acting; she clapped and called out with delight. But Mistress Corbet can tell you more than I can-Ah! here she is."

Isabel looked up, and saw a wonderful figure coming briskly along the terrace and down the steps that led from the house. Miss Corbet was dressed with what she herself would have said was a milkmaid's plainness; but Isabel looked in astonishment at the elaborate ruff and wings of muslin and lace, the shining peacock gown, the high-piled coils of black hair, and the twinkling buckled feet. She had a lively bright face, a little pale, with a high forehead, and black arched brows and dancing eyes, and a little scarlet mouth that twitched humorously now and then after speaking. She rustled up, flicking her handkerchief, and exclaiming against the heat. Isabel was presented to her; she sat down on a settle Mr. James drew forward for her, with the handkerchief still whisking at the flies.

"I am ashamed to come out like this," she began. "Mistress Plesse would break her heart at my lace. You country ladies have far more sense. I am the slave of my habits. What were you talking of, that you look so gravely at me?"

Mr. James told her.

"Oh, her Grace!" said Miss Corbet. "Indeed, I think sometimes she is never off the stage herself. Ah! and what art and passion she shows too!"

"We are all loyal subjects here," said Mr. James; "tell us what you mean."

"I mean what I say," she said. "Never was there one who loved play-acting more and to occupy the centre of the stage, too. And the throne too, if there be one," she added.

Miss Corbet talked always at her audience; she hardly ever looked directly at any one, but up or down, or even shut her eyes and tilted her face forward while she talked; and all the while she kept an incessant movement of her lips or handkerchief, or tapped her foot, or shifted her position a little. Isabel thought she had never seen any one so restless.

Then she went on to tell them of the Queen. She was so startlingly frank that Lady Maxwell again and again looked up as if to interrupt; but she always came off the thin ice in time. It was abominable gossip; but she talked with such a genial air of loyal good humour, that it was very difficult to find fault. Miss Corbet was plainly accustomed to act as Court Circular, or even as lecturer and show-woman on the most popular subject in England.

"But her Grace surpassed herself in acting the tyrant last January; you would have sworn her really angry. This was how it fell out. I was in the anteroom one day, waiting for her Grace, when I thought I heard her call. So I tapped; I got no clear answer, but I heard her voice within, so I entered. And there was her Majesty, sitting a little apart in a chair by herself, with the Secretary-poor rat-white-faced at the table, writing what she bade him, and looking at her, quick and side-ways, like a child at a lifted rod; and there was her Grace: she had kicked her stool over, and one shoe had fallen; and she was striking the arm of her chair as she spoke, and her rings rapped as loud as a drunken watchman. And her face was all white, and her eyes glaring"-and Mary began to glare and raise her voice too-"and she was crying out, 'By God's Son, sir, I will have them hanged. Tell the--' (but I dare not say what she called my Lord Sussex, but few would have recognised him from what she said)-'tell him that I will have my will done. These-' (and she called the rebels a name I dare not tell you)-'these men have risen against me these two months; and yet they are not hanged. Hang them in their own villages, that their children may see what treason brings.' All this while I was standing at the open door, thinking she had called me; but she was as if she saw nought but the gallows and hell-fire beyond; and I spoke softly to her, asking what she wished; and she sprang up and ran at me, and struck me-yes; again and again across the face with her open hand, rings and all-and I ran out in tears. Yes," went on Miss Corbet in a moment, dropping her voice, and pensively looking up at nothing, "yes; you would have said she was really angry, so quick and natural were her movements and so loud her voice."

Mr. James' face wrinkled up silently in amusement; and Lady Maxwell seemed on the point of speaking; but Miss Corbet began again:

"And to see her Grace act the lover. It was a miracle. You would have said that our Artemis repented of her coldness; if you had not known it was but play-acting; or let us say perhaps a rehearsal-if you had seen what I once saw at Nonsuch. It was on a summer evening; and we were all on the bowling green, and her Grace was within doors, not to be disturbed. My Lord Leicester

was to come, but we thought had not arrived. Then I had occasion to go to my room to get a little book I had promised to show to Caroline; and, thinking no harm, I ran through into the court, and there stood a horse, his legs apart, all steaming and blowing. Some courier, said I to myself, and never thought to look at the trappings; and so I ran upstairs to go to the gallery, across which lay my chamber; and I came up, and just began to push open the door, when I heard her Grace's voice beyond, and, by the mercy of God, I stopped; and dared not close the door again nor go downstairs for fear I should be heard. And there were two walking within the gallery, her Grace and my lord, and my lord was all disordered with hard riding, and nearly as spent as his poor beast below. And her Grace had her arm round his neck, for I saw them through the chink; and she fondled and pinched his ear, and said over and over again, 'Robin, my sweet Robin,' and then crooned and moaned at him; and he, whenever he could fetch a breath-and oh! I promise you he did blow-murmured back, calling her his queen, which indeed she was, and his sweetheart and his moon and his star-which she was not: but 'twas all in the play. Well, again by the favour of God, they did not see how the door was open and I couched behind it, for the sun was shining level through the west window in their eyes; but why they did not hear me as I ran upstairs and opened the door, He only knows-unless my lord was too sorely out of breath and her Grace too intent upon her play-acting. Well, I promise you, the acting was so good-he so spent and she so tender-that I nearly cried out Brava as I saw them; but that I remembered in time 'twas meant to be a private rehearsal. But I have seen her Grace act near as passionate a part before the whole company sometimes."

The two old ladies seemed not greatly pleased with all this talk; and as for Isabel she sat silent and overwhelmed. Mary Corbet glanced quickly at their faces when she had done, and turned a little in her seat.

"Ah! look at that peacock," she cried out, as a stately bird stepped delicately out of the shrubbery on to the low wall a little way off, and stood balancing himself. "He is loyal too, and has come to hear news of his Queen."

"He has come to see his cousin from town," said Mr. James, looking at Miss Corbet's glowing dress, "and to learn of the London fashions."

Mary got up and curtseyed to the astonished bird, who looked at her with his head lowered, as he took a high step or two, and then paused again, with his burnished breast swaying a little from side to side.

"He invites you to a dance," went on Mr. James gravely, "a pavane."

Miss Corbet sat down again.

"I dare not dance a pavane," she said, "with a real peacock."

"Surely," said Mr. James, with a courtier's air, "you are too pitiful for him, and too pitiless for us."

"I dare not," she said again, "for he never ceases to practise."

"In hopes," said Mr. James, "that one day you will dance it with him."

And then the two went off into the splendid fantastic nonsense that the wits loved to talk; that grotesque, exaggerated phrasing made fashionable by Lyly. It was like a kind of impromptu sword-exercise in an assault of arms, where the rhythm and the flash and the graceful turns are of more importance than the actual thrusts received. The two old ladies embroidered on in silence, but their eyes twinkled, and little wrinkles flickered about the corners of their lips. But poor Isabel sat bewildered. It was so elaborate, so empty; she had almost said, so wicked to take the solemn gift of speech and make it dance this wild fandango; and as absurdity climbed and capered in a shower of sparks and gleams on the shoulders of absurdity, and was itself surmounted; and the names of heathen gods and nymphs and demi-gods and loose-living classical women whisked across the stage, and were tossed higher and higher, until the whole mad erection blazed up and went out in a shower of stars and gems of allusions and phrases, like a flight of rockets, bright and bewildering at the moment, but leaving a barren darkness and dazzled eyes behind-the poor little Puritan country child almost cried with perplexity and annoyance. If the two talkers had looked at one another and burst into laughter at the end, she would have understood it to be a joke, though, to her mind, but a poor one. But when they had ended, and Mary Corbet had risen and then swept down to the ground in a great silent curtsey, and Mr. James, the grave, sensible gentleman, had solemnly bowed with his hand on his heart, and his heels together like a Monsieur, and then she had rustled off in her peacock dress to the house, with her muslin wings bulging behind her; and no one had laughed or reproved or explained; it was almost too much, and she looked across to Lady Maxwell with an appeal in her eyes.

Mr. James saw it and his face relaxed.

"You must not take us too seriously, Mistress Isabel," he said in his kindly way. "It is all part of the game."

"The game?" she said piteously.

"Yes," said Mistress Margaret, intent on her embroidery, "the game of playing at kings and queens and courtiers and ruffs and high-stepping."

Mr. James' face again broke into his silent laugh.

"You are acid, dear aunt," he said.

"But--" began Isabel again.

"But it is wrong, you think," he interrupted, "to talk such nonsense. Well, Mistress Isabel, I am not sure you are not right." And the dancing light in his eyes went out.

"No, no, no," she cried, distressed. "I did not mean that. Only I did not understand."

"I know, I know; and please God you never will." And he looked at her with such a tender gravity that her eyes fell.

"Isabel is right," went on Mistress Margaret, in her singularly sweet old voice; "and you know it, my nephew. It is very well as a pastime, but some folks make it their business; and that is nothing less than fooling with the gifts of the good God."

"Well, aunt Margaret," said James softly, "I shall not have much more of it. You need not fear for me."

Lady Maxwell looked quickly at her son for a moment, and down again. He made an almost imperceptible movement with his head, Mistress Margaret looked across at him with her tender eyes beaming love and sorrow; and there fell a little eloquent silence; while Isabel glanced shyly from one to the other, and wondered what it was all about.

Miss Mary Corbet stayed a few weeks, as the custom was when travelling meant so much; but Isabel was scarcely nearer understanding her. She accepted her, as simple clean souls so often have to accept riddles in this world, as a mystery that no doubt had a significance, though she could not recognise it. So she did not exactly dislike or distrust her, but regarded her silently out of her own candid soul, as one would say a small fearless bird in a nest must regard the man who thrusts his strange hot face into her green pleasant world, and tries to make endearing sounds. For Isabel was very fascinating to Mary Corbet. She had scarcely ever before been thrown so close to any one so serenely pure. She would come down to the Dower House again and again at all hours of the day, rustling along in her silk, and seize upon Isabel in the little upstairs parlour, or her bedroom, and question her minutely about her ways and ideas; and she would look at her silently for a minute or two together; and then suddenly laugh and kiss her-Isabel's transparency was almost as great a riddle to her as her own obscurity to Isabel. And sometimes she would throw herself on Isabel's bed, and lie there with her arms behind her head, to the deplorable ruin of her ruff; with her buckled feet twitching and tapping; and go on and on talking like a running stream in the sun that runs for the sheer glitter and tinkle of it, and accomplishes nothing. But she was more respectful to Isabel's simplicity than at first, and avoided dangerous edges and treacherous ground in a manner that surprised herself, telling her of the pageants at Court and fair exterior of it all, and little about the poisonous conversations and jests and the corrupt souls that engaged in them.

She was immensely interested in Isabel's religion.

"Tell me, child," she said one day, "I cannot understand such a religion. It is not like the Protestant religion at Court at all. All that the Protestants do there is to hear sermons-it is all so dismal and noisy. But here, with you, you have a proper soul. It seems to me that you are like a little herb-garden, very prim and plain, but living and wholesome and pleasant to walk in at sunset. And these Protestants that I know are more like a paved court at noon-all hot and hard and glaring. They give me the headache. Tell me all about it."

Of course Isabel could not, though she tried again and again. Her definitions were as barren as any others.

"I see," said Mary Corbet one day, sitting up straight and looking at Isabel. "It is not your religion but you; your religion is as dull as all the rest. But your soul is sweet, my dear, and the wilderness blossoms where you set your feet. There is nothing to blush about. It's no credit to you, but to God."

Isabel hated this sort of thing. It seemed to her as if her soul was being dragged out of a cool thicket from the green shadow and the flowers, and set, stripped, in the high road.

Another time Miss Corbet spoke yet more plainly.

"You are a Catholic at heart, my dear; or you would be if you knew what the Religion was. But your father, good man, has never understood it himself; and so you don't know it either. What you think about us, my dear, is as much like the truth as-as-I am like a saint, or you like a sinner. I'll be bound now that you think us all idolaters!"

Isabel had to confess that she did think something of the sort.

"There, now, what did I say? Why haven't either of those two old nuns at the Hall taught you any better?"

"They-they don't talk to me about religion."

"Ah! I see; or the Puritan father would withdraw his lamb from the wolves. But if they are wolves, my dear, you must confess that they have the decency to wear sheep's clothing, and that the disguise is excellent."

And so it gradually came about that Isabel began to learn an immense deal about what the Catholics really believed-far more than she had ever learnt in all her life before from the ladies at the Hall, who were unwilling to teach her, and her father, who was unable.

About half-way through Miss Corbet's visit, Anthony came home. At first he pronounced against her inexorably, dismissing her as nonsense, and as a fine lady-terms to him interchangeable. Then his condemnation began to falter, then ceased; then acquittal, and at last commendation succeeded. For Miss Corbet asked his advice about the dogs, and how to get that wonderful gloss on their coats that his had; and she asked his help, too, once or twice and praised his skill, and once asked to feel his muscle.

And then she was so gallant in ways that appealed to him. She was not in the least afraid of Eliza. She kissed that ferocious head in spite of the glare of that steady yellow eye; and yet all with an air of trusting to Anthony's protection. She tore her silk stocking across the instep in a bramble and scratched her foot, without even drawing attention to it, as she followed him along one of his short cuts through the copse; and it was only by chance that he saw it. And then this gallant girl, so simple and ignorant as she seemed out of doors, was like a splendid queen indoors, and was able to hold her own, or rather to soar above all these elders who were so apt to look over Anthony's head on grave occasions; and they all had to listen while she talked. In fact, the first time he saw her at the Hall in all her splendour, he could hardly realise it was the same girl, till she laughed up at him, and nodded, and said how much she had enjoyed the afternoon's stroll, and how much she would have to tell when she got back to Court. In short, so incessant were her poses and so skilful her manner and tone, and so foolish this poor boy, that in a very few days, after he had pronounced her to be nonsense, Anthony was at her feet, hopelessly fascinated by the combination of the glitter and friendliness of this fine Court lady. To do her justice, she would have behaved exactly the same to a statue, or even to nothing at all, as a peacock dances and postures and vibrates his plumes to a kitten; and had no more deliberate intention of giving pain to anybody than a nightshade has of poisoning a silly sheep.

The sublime conceit of a boy of fifteen made him of course think that she had detected in him a nobility that others overlooked, and so Anthony began a gorgeous course of day-dreaming, in which he moved as a kind of king, worshipped and reverenced by this splendid creature, who after a disillusionment from the empty vanities of a Court life and a Queen's favour, found at last the lord of her heart in a simple manly young countryman. These dreams, however, he had the grace and modesty to keep wholly to himself.

Mary came down one day and found the two in the garden together.

"Come, my child," she said, "and you too, Master Anthony, if you can spare time to escort us; and take me to the church. I want to see it."

"The church!" said Isabel, "that is locked: we must go to the Rectory."

"Locked!" exclaimed Mary, "and is that part of the blessed Reformation? Well, come, at any rate."

They all went across to the village and down the green towards the Rectory, whose garden adjoined the churchyard on the south side of the church. Anthony walked with something of an air in front of the two ladies. Isabel told her as they went about the Rector and his views. Mary nodded and smiled and seemed to understand.

"We will tap at the window," said Anthony, "it is the quickest way."

They came up towards the study window that looked on to the drive; when Anthony, who was in front, suddenly recoiled and then laughed.

"They are at it again," he said.

The next moment Mary was looking through the window too. The Rector was sitting in his chair opposite, a small dark, clean-shaven man, but his face was set with a look of distressed determination, and his lower lip was sucked in; his eyes were fixed firmly on a tall, slender woman whose back was turned to the window and who seemed to be declaiming, with outstretched hand. The Rector suddenly saw the faces at the window.

"We seem to be interrupting," said Mary coolly, as she turned away.

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