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By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 25215

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"We will walk on, Master Anthony," said Mistress Corbet. "Will you bring the keys when the Rector and his lady have done?"

She spoke with a vehement bitterness that made Isabel look at her in amazement, as the two walked on by the private path to the churchyard gate. Mary's face was set in a kind of fury, and she went forward with her chin thrust disdainfully out, biting her lip. Isabel said nothing.

As they reached the gate they heard steps behind them; and turning saw the minister and Anthony hastening together. Mr. Dent was in his cassock and gown and square cap, and carried the keys. His little scholarly face, with a sharp curved nose like a beak, and dark eyes set rather too close together, was not unlike a bird's; and a way he had of sudden sharp movements of his head increased the likeness. Mary looked at him with scarcely veiled contempt. He glanced at her sharply and uneasily.

"Mistress Mary Corbet?" he said, interrogatively.

Mary bowed to him.

"May we see the church, sir; your church, I should say perhaps; that is, if we are not disturbing you."

Mr. Dent made a polite inclination, and opened the gate for them to go through. Then Mary changed her tactics; and a genial, good-humoured look came over her face; but Isabel, who glanced at her now and again as they went round to the porch at the west-end, still felt uneasy.

As the Rector was unlocking the porch door, Mary surveyed him with a pleased smile.

"Why, you look quite like a priest," she said. "Do your bishops, or whatever you call them, allow that dress? I thought you had done away with it all."

Mr. Dent looked at her, but seeing nothing but geniality and interest in her face, explained elaborately in the porch that he was a Catholic priest, practically; though the word minister was more commonly used; and that it was the old Church still, only cleansed from superstitions. Mary shook her head at him cheerfully, smiling like a happy, puzzled child.

"It is all too difficult for me," she said. "It cannot be the same Church, or why should we poor Catholics be so much abused and persecuted? Besides, what of the Pope?"

Mr. Dent explained that the Pope was one of the superstitions in question.

"Ah! I see you are too sharp for me," said Mary, beaming at him.

Then they entered the church; and Mary began immediately on a running comment.

"How sad that little niche looks," she said. "I suppose Our Lady is in pieces somewhere on a dunghill. Surely, father-I beg your pardon, Mr. Dent-it cannot be the same religion if you have knocked Our Lady to pieces. But then I suppose you would say that she was a superstition, too. And where is the old altar? Is that broken, too? And is that a superstition, too? What a number there must have been! And the holy water, too, I see. But that looks a very nice table up there you have instead. Ah! And I see you read the new prayers from a new desk outside the screen, and not from the priest's stall. Was that a superstition too? And the mass vestments? Has your wife had any of them made up to be useful? The stoles are no good, I fear; but you could make charming stomachers out of the chasubles."

They were walking slowly up the centre aisle now. Mr. Dent had to explain that the vestments had been burnt on the green.

"Ah! yes; I see," she said, "and do you wear a surplice, or do you not like them? I see the chancel roof is all broken-were there angels there once? I suppose so. But how strange to break them all! Unless they are superstitions, too? I thought Protestants believed in them; but I see I was wrong. What do you believe in, Mr. Dent?" she asked, turning large, bright, perplexed eyes upon him for a moment: but she gave him no time to answer.

"Ah!" she cried suddenly, and her voice rang with pain, "there is the altar-stone." And she went down on her knees at the chancel entrance, bending down, it seemed, in an agony of devout sorrow and shame; and kissed with a gentle, lingering reverence the great slab with its five crosses, set in the ground at the destruction of the altar to show there was no sanctity attached to it.

She knelt there a moment or two, her lips moving, and her black eyes cast up at the great east window, cracked and flawed with stones and poles. The Puritan boy and girl looked at her with astonishment; they had not seen this side of her before.

When she rose from her knees, her eyes seemed bright with tears, and her voice was tender.

"Forgive me, Mr. Dent," she said, with a kind of pathetic dignity, putting out a slender be-ringed hand to him, "but-but you know-for I think perhaps you have some sympathy for us poor Catholics-you know what all this means to me."

She went up into the chancel and looked about her in silence.

"This was the piscina, Mistress Corbet," said the Rector.

She nodded her head regretfully, as at some relic of a dead friend; but said nothing. They came out again presently, and turned through the old iron gates into what had been the Maxwell chapel. The centre was occupied by an altar-tomb with Sir Nicholas' parents lying in black stone upon it. Old Sir James held his right gauntlet in his left hand, and with his right hand held the right hand of his wife, which was crossed over to meet it; and the two steady faces gazed upon the disfigured roof. The altar, where a weekly requiem had been said for them, was gone, and the footpace and piscina alone showed where it had stood.

"This was a chantry, of course?" said Mistress Corbet.

The Rector confessed that it had been so.

"Ah!" she said mournfully, "the altar is cast out and the priest gone; but-but-forgive me, sir, the money is here still? But then," she added, "I suppose the money is not a superstition."

When they reached the west entrance again she turned and looked up the aisle again.

"And the Rood!" she said. "Even Christ crucified is gone. Then, in God's name what is left?" And her eyes turned fiercely for a moment on the Rector.

"At least courtesy and Christian kindness is left, madam," he said sternly.

She dropped her eyes and went out; and Isabel and Anthony followed, startled and ashamed. But Mary had recovered herself as she came on to the head of the stone stairs, beside which the stump of the churchyard cross stood; standing there was the same tall, slender woman whose back they had seen through the window, and who now stood eyeing Mary with half-dropped lids. Her face was very white, with hard lines from nose to mouth, and thin, tightly compressed lips. Mary swept her with one look, and then passed on and down the steps, followed by Isabel and Anthony, as the Rector came out, locking the church door again behind him.

As they went up the green, a shrill thin voice began to scold from over the churchyard wall, and they heard the lower, determined voice of the minister answering.

"They are at it again," said Anthony, once more.

"And what do you mean by that, Master Anthony?" said Mistress Corbet, who seemed herself again now.

"She is just a scold," said the lad, "the village-folk hate her."

"You seem not to love her," said Mary, smiling.

"Oh! Mistress Corbet, do you know what she said-" and then he broke off, crimson-faced.

"She is no friend to Catholics, I suppose," said Mary, seeming to notice nothing.

"She is always making mischief," he went on eagerly. "The Rector would be well enough but for her. He is a good fellow, really."

"There, there," said Mary, "and you think me a scold, too, I daresay. Well, you know I cannot bear to see these old churches-well, perhaps I was-" and then she broke off again, and was silent.

The brother and sister presently turned back to the Dower House; and Mary went on, and through the Hall straight into the Italian garden where Mistress Margaret was sitting alone at her embroidery.

"My sister has been called away by the housekeeper," she explained, "but she will be back presently."

Mary sat down and took up the little tawny book that lay by Lady Maxwell's chair, and began to turn it over idly while she talked. The old lady by her seemed to invite confidences.

"I have been to see the church," said Mary. "The Rector showed it to me. What a beautiful place it must have been."

"Ah!" said Mistress Margaret "I only came to live here a few years ago; so I have never known or loved it like my sister or her husband. They can hardly bear to enter it now. You know that Sir Nicholas' father and grandfather are buried in the Maxwell chapel; and it was his father who gave the furniture of the sanctuary, and the images of Our Lady and Saint Christopher that they burned on the green."

"It is terrible," said Mary, a little absently, as she turned the pages of the book.

Mistress Margaret looked up.

"Ah! you have one of my books there," she said. "It is a little collection I made."

Miss Corbet turned to the beginning, but only found a seal with an inscription.

"But this belonged to a nunnery," she said.

"Yes," said Mistress Margaret, tranquilly, "and I am a nun."

Mary looked at her in astonishment.

"But, but," she began.

"Yes, Mistress Corbet; we were dispersed in '38; some entered the other nunneries; and some went to France; but, at last, under circumstances that I need not trouble you with, I came here under spiritual direction, and have observed my obligations ever since."

"And have you always said your offices?" Mary asked astonished.

"Yes, my dear; by the mercy of God I have never failed yet. I tell you this of course because you are one of us, and because you have a faithful heart." Mistress Margaret lifted her great eyes and looked at Mary tenderly and penetratingly.

"And this is one of your books?" she asked.

"Yes, my dear. I was allowed at least to take it away with me. My sister here is very fond of it."

Mary opened it again, and began to turn the pages.

"Is it all in your handwriting, Mistress Torridon?"

"Yes, my child; I continued writing in it ever since I first entered religion in 1534; so you see the handwriting changes a little," and she smiled to herself.

"Oh, but this is charming," cried Mary, intent on the book.

"Read it, my dear, aloud."

Mary read:

"Let me not rest, O Lord, nor have quiet,

But fill my soul with spiritual travail,

To sing and say, O mercy, Jesu sweet;

Thou my protection art in the battail.

Set thou aside all other apparail;

Let me in thee feel all my affiance.

Treasure of treasures, thou dost most avail.

Grant ere I die shrift, pardon, repentance."

Her voice trembled a little and ceased.

"That is from some verses of Dan John Lydgate, I think," said Mistress Margaret.

"Here is another," said Mary in a moment or two.

"Jesu, at thy will, I pray that I may be,

All my heart fulfil with perfect love to thee:

That I have done ill, Jesu forgive thou me:

And suffer me never to spill, Jesu for thy pity."

"The nuns of Hampole gave me that," said Mistress Margaret. "It is by Richard Rolle, the hermit."

"Tell me a little," said Mary Corbet, suddenly laying down the book, "about the nunnery."

"Oh, my dear, that is too much to ask; but how happy we were. All was so still; it used to seem sometimes as if earth were just a dream; and that we walked in Paradise. Sometimes in the Greater Silence, when we had spoken no word nor heard one except in God's praise, it used to seem that if we could but be silent a little longer, and a little more deeply, in our hearts as well, we should hear them talking in heaven, and the harps; and the Saviour's soft footsteps. But it was not always like that."

"You mean," said Mary softly, "that, that-" and she stopped.

"Oh, it was hard sometimes; but not often. God is so good. But He used to allow such trouble and darkness and noise to be in our hearts sometimes-at least in mine. But then of course I was always very wicked. But sitting in the nymph-hay sometimes on a day like this, as we were allowed to do; with just tall thin trees like poplars and cypresses round us: and the stream running through the long grass; and the birds, and the soft sky and the little breeze; and then peace in our hearts; and the love of the Saviour round us-it seemed, it seemed as if God had nothing more to give; or, I should say, as if our hearts had no more space."

Mary was strangely subdued and quiet. Her little restless movements were still for once; and her quick, vivacious face was tranquil and a little awed.

"Oh, Mistress Margaret, I love to hear you talk like that. Tell me more."


my dear, we thought too much about ourselves, I think; and too little about God and His poor children who were not so happy as we were; so then the troubles began; and they got nearer and nearer; and at last the Visitor came. He-he was my brother, my dear, which made it harder; but he made a good end. I will tell you his story another time. He took away our great crucifix and our jewelled cope that old Mr. Wickham used to wear on the Great Festivals; and left us. He turned me out, too; and another who asked to go, but I went back for a while. And then, my dear, although we offered everything; our cows and our orchard and our hens, and all we had, you know how it ended; and one morning in May old Mr. Wickham said mass for us quite early, before the sun was risen, for the last time; and,-and he cried, my dear, at the elevation; and-and we were all crying too I think, and we all received communion together for the last time-and,-and, then we all went away, leaving just old Dame Agnes to keep the house until the Commissioner came. And oh, my dear, I don't think the house ever looked so dear as it did that morning, just as the sun rose over the roofs, and we were passing out through the meadow door where we had sat so often, to where the horses were waiting to take us away."

Miss Corbet's own eyes were full of tears as the old lady finished: and she put out her white slender hand, which Mistress Torridon took and stroked for a moment.

"Well," she said, "I haven't talked like this for a long while; but I knew you would understand. My dear, I have watched you while you have been here this time."

Mary Corbet smiled a little uneasily.

"And you have found me out?" she answered smiling.

"No, no; but I think our Saviour has found you out-or at least He is drawing very near."

A slight discomfort made itself felt in Mary's heart. This nun then was like all the rest, always trying to turn the whole world into monks and nuns by hints and pretended intuitions into the unseen.

"And you think I should be a nun too?" she asked, with just a shade of coolness in her tone.

"I should suppose not," said Mistress Margaret, tranquilly. "You do not seem to have a vocation for that, but I should think that our Lord means you to serve Him where you are. Who knows what you may not accomplish?"

This was a little disconcerting to Mary Corbet; it was not at all what she had expected. She did not know what to say; and took up the leather book again and began to turn over the pages. Mistress Margaret went on serenely with her embroidery, which she had neglected during the last sentence or two; and there was silence.

"Tell me a little more about the nunnery," said Mary in a minute or two, leaning back in her chair, with the book on her knees.

"Well, my dear, I scarcely know what to say. It is all far off now like a childhood. We talked very little; not at all until recreation; except by signs, and we used to spend a good deal of our time in embroidery. That is where I learnt this," and she held out her work to Mary for a moment. It was an exquisite piece of needlework, representing a stag running open-mouthed through thickets of green twining branches that wrapped themselves about his horns and feet. Mary had never seen anything quite like it before.

"What does it mean?" she asked, looking at it curiously.

"Quemadmodum cervus,"-began Mistress Margaret; "as the hart brayeth after the waterbrooks,"-and she took the embroidery and began to go on with it.-"It is the soul, you see, desiring and fleeing to God, while the things of the world hold her back. Well, you see, it is difficult to talk about it; for it is the inner life that is the real history of a convent; the outer things are all plain and simple like all else."

"Well," said Mary, "is it really true that you were happy?"

The old lady stopped working a moment and looked up at her.

"My dear, there is no happiness in the world like it," she said simply. "I dream sometimes that we are all back there together, and I wake crying for joy. The other night I dreamed that we were all in the chapel again, and that it was a spring morning, with the dawn beginning to show the painted windows, and that all the tapers were burning; and that mass was beginning. Not one stall was empty; not even old Dame Gertrude, who died when I was a novice, was lacking, and Mr. Wickham made us a sermon after the creed, and showed us the crucifix back in its place again; and told us that we were all good children, and that Our Lord had only sent us away to see if we would be patient; and that He was now pleased with us, and had let us come home again; and that we should never have to go away again; not even when we died; and then I understood that we were in heaven, and that it was all over; and I burst out into tears in my stall for happiness; and then I awoke and found myself in bed; but my cheeks were really wet.-Well, well, perhaps, by the mercy of God it may all come true some day."

She spoke so simply that Mary Corbet was amazed; she had always fancied that the Religious Life was a bitter struggle, worth, indeed, living for those who could bear it, for the sake of the eternal reward; but it had scarcely even occurred to her that it was so full of joy in itself; and she looked up under her brows at the old lady, whose needle had stopped for a moment.

A moment after and Lady Maxwell appeared coming down the steps into the garden; and at her side Anthony, who was dressed ready for riding.

Old Mistress Margaret had, as she said, been watching Mary Corbet those last few weeks; and had determined to speak to her plainly. Her instinct had told her that beneath this flippancy and glitter there was something that would respond; and she was anxious to leave nothing undone by which Mary might be awakened to the inner world that was in such danger of extinction in her soul. It cost the old lady a great effort to break through her ordinary reserve, but she judged that Mary could only be reached on her human side, and that there were not many of her friends whose human sympathy would draw her in the right direction. It is strange, sometimes, to find that some silent old lady has a power for sounding human character, which far shrewder persons lack; and this quiet old nun, so ignorant, one would have said, of the world and of the motives from which ordinary people act, had managed somehow to touch springs in this girl's heart that had never been reached before.

And now as Miss Corbet and Lady Maxwell talked, and Anthony lolled embarrassed beside them, attempting now and then to join in the conversation, Mistress Margaret, as she sat a little apart and worked away at the panting stag dreamed away, smiling quietly to herself, of all the old scenes that her own conversation had called up into clearer consciousness; of the pleasant little meadow of the Sussex priory, with the old apple-trees and the straight box-lined path called the nun's walk from time immemorial; all lighted with the pleasant afternoon glow, as it streamed from the west, throwing the slender poplar shadows across the grass; and of the quiet chatter of the brook as it over-flowed from the fish ponds at the end of the field and ran through the meadows beyond the hedge. The cooing of the pigeons as they sunned themselves round the dial in the centre of this Italian garden and on the roof of the hall helped on her reminiscences, for there had been a dovecote at the priory. Where were all her sisters now, those who had sat with her in the same sombre habits in the garth, with the same sunshine in their hearts? Some she knew, and thanked God for it, were safe in glory; others were old like her, but still safe in Holy Religion in France where as yet there was peace and sanctuary for the servants of the Most High; one or two-and for these she lifted up her heart in petition as she sat-one or two had gone back to the world, relinquished everything, and died to grace. Then the old faces one by one passed before her; old Dame Agnes with her mumbling lips and her rosy cheeks like wrinkled apples, looking so fresh and wholesome in the white linen about her face; and then the others one by one-that white-faced, large-eyed sister who had shown such passionate devotion at first that they all thought that God was going to raise up a saint amongst them-ah! God help her-she had sunk back at the dissolution, from those heights of sanctity towards whose summits she had set her face, down into the muddy torrent of the world that went roaring down to the abyss-and who was responsible? There was Dame Avice, the Sacristan, with her businesslike movements going about the garden, gathering flowers for the altar, with her queer pursed lips as she arranged them in her hands with her head a little on one side; how annoying she used to be sometimes; but how good and tender at heart-God rest her soul! And there was Mr. Wickham, the old priest who had been their chaplain for so many years, and who lived in the village parsonage, waited upon by Tom Downe, that served at the altar too-he who had got the horses ready when the nuns had to go at last on that far-off May morning, and had stood there, holding the bridles and trying to hide his wet face behind the horses; where was Tom now? And Mr. Wickham too-he had gone to France with some of the nuns; but he had never settled down there-he couldn't bear the French ways-and besides he had left his heart behind him buried in the little Sussex priory among the meadows.

And so the old lady sat, musing; while the light and shadow of reminiscence moved across her face; and her lips quivered or her eyes wrinkled up with humour, at the thought of all those old folks with their faces and their movements and their ways of doing and speaking. Ah! well, please God, some day her dream would really come true; and they shall all be gathered again from France and England with their broken hearts mended and their tears wiped away, and Mr. Wickham himself shall minister to them and make them sermons, and Tom Downe too shall be there to minister to him-all in one of the many mansions of which the Saviour spoke.

And so she heard nothing of the talk of the others; though her sister looked at her tenderly once or twice; and Mary Corbet chattered and twitched her buckles in the sun, and Anthony sat embarrassed in the midst of Paradise; and she knew nothing of where she was nor of what was happening round her, until Mary Corbet said that it was time for the horses to be round, and that she must go and get ready and not keep Mr. James and Mr. Anthony waiting. Then, as she and Anthony went towards the house, the old lady looked up from the braying stag and found herself alone with her sister.

Mistress Margaret waited until the other two disappeared up the steps, and then spoke.

"I have told her all, sister," she said, "she can be trusted."

Lady Maxwell nodded gently.

"She has a good heart," went on the other, "and our Lord no doubt will find some work for her to do at Court."

There was silence again; broken by the gentle little sound of the silk being drawn through the stuff.

"You know best, Margaret," said Lady Maxwell.

Even as she spoke there was the sound of a door thrown violently open and old Sir Nicholas appeared on the top of the steps, hatless and plainly in a state of great agitation; beside him stood a courier, covered with the dust of the white roads, and his face crimson with hard riding. Sir Nicholas stood there as if dazed, and Lady Maxwell sprang up quickly to go to him. But a moment after there appeared behind him a little group, his son James, Miss Corbet and a servant or two; while Anthony hung back; and Mr. James came up quickly, and took his father by the arm; and together the little company came down the steps into the still and sunny garden.

"What is it?" cried Lady Maxwell, trying to keep her voice under control; while Mistress Margaret laid her work quietly down, and stood up too.

"Tell my lady," said Sir Nicholas to the courier, who stood a little apart.

"If you please, my lady," he said, as if repeating a lesson, "a Bull of the Holy Father has been found nailed to the door of the Bishop of London's palace, deposing Elizabeth and releasing all her subjects from their allegiance."

Lady Maxwell went to her husband and took him by the arm gently.

"What does it mean, sweetheart?" she asked.

"It means that Catholics must choose between their sovereign and their God."

"God have mercy," said a servant behind.

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