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   Chapter 6 MR. STEWART

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 31362

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Sir Nicholas' exclamatory sentence was no exaggeration. That terrible choice of which he spoke, with his old eyes shining with the desire to make it, did not indeed come so immediately as he anticipated; but it came none the less. From every point of view the Bull was unfortunate, though it may have been a necessity; for it marked the declaration of war between England and the Catholic Church. A gentle appeal had been tried before; Elizabeth, who, it must be remembered had been crowned during mass with Catholic ceremonial, and had received the Blessed Sacrament, had been entreated by the Pope as his "dear daughter in Christ" to return to the Fold; and now there seemed to him no possibility left but this ultimatum.

It is indeed difficult to see what else, from his point of view, he could have done. To continue to pretend that Elizabeth was his "dear daughter" would have discredited his fatherly authority in the eyes of the whole Christian world. He had patiently made an advance towards his wayward child; and she had repudiated and scorned him. Nothing was left but to recognise and treat her as an enemy of the Faith, an usurper of spiritual prerogatives, and an apostate spoiler of churches; to do this might certainly bring trouble upon others of his less distinguished but more obedient children, who were in her power; but to pretend that the suffering thus brought down upon Catholics was unnecessary, and that the Pope alone was responsible for their persecution, is to be blind to the fact that Elizabeth had already openly defied and repudiated his authority, and had begun to do her utmost to coax and compel his children to be disobedient to their father.

The shock of the Bull to Elizabeth was considerable; she had not expected this extreme measure; and it was commonly reported too that France and Spain were likely now to unite on a religious basis against England; and that at least one of these Powers had sanctioned the issue of the Bull. This of course helped greatly to complicate further the already complicated political position. Steps were taken immediately to strengthen England's position against Scotland with whom it was now, more than ever, to be feared that France would co-operate; and the Channel Fleet was reinforced under Lord Clinton, and placed with respect to France in what was almost a state of war, while it was already in an informal state of war with Spain. There was fierce confusion in the Privy Council. Elizabeth, who at once began to vacillate under the combined threats of La Mothe, the French ambassador, and the arguments of the friend of Catholics, Lord Arundel, was counter-threatened with ruin by Lord Keeper Bacon unless she would throw in her lot finally with the Protestants and continue her hostility and resistance to the Catholic Scotch party. But in spite of Bacon Elizabeth's heart failed her, and if it had not been for the rashness of Mary Stuart's friends, Lord Southampton and the Bishop of Ross, the Queen might have been induced to substitute conciliation for severity towards Mary and the Catholic party generally. Southampton was arrested, and again there followed the further encouragement of the Protestant camp by the rising fortunes of the Huguenots and the temporary reverses to French Catholicism; so the pendulum swung this way and that. Elizabeth's policy changed almost from day to day. She was tormented with temporal fears of a continental crusade against her, and by the spiritual terrors of the Pope's Bull; and her unfathomable fickleness was the despair of her servants.

Meanwhile in the religious world a furious paper war broke out; and volleys from both sides followed the solemn roar and crash of Regnans in Excelsis.

But while the war of words went on, and the theological assaults and charges were given and received, repulsed or avoided, something practical must, it was felt, be done immediately; and search was made high and low for other copies of the Bull. The lawyers in the previous year had fallen under suspicion of religious unsoundness; judges could not be trusted to convict Catholics accused of their religion; and counsel was unwilling to prosecute them; therefore the first inquisition was made in the Inns of Court; and almost immediately a copy of the Bull was found in the room of a student in Lincoln's Inn, who upon the rack in the Tower confessed that he had received it from one John Felton, a Catholic gentleman who lived upon his property in Southwark. Upon Felton's arrest (for he had not attempted to escape) he confessed immediately, without pressure, that he had affixed the Bull to the Bishop of London's gate; but although he was racked repeatedly he would not incriminate a single person besides himself; but at his trial would only assert with a joyous confidence that he was not alone; and that twenty-five peers, six hundred gentlemen, and thirty thousand commoners were ready to die in the Holy Father's quarrel. He behaved with astonishing gallantry throughout, and after his condemnation had been pronounced upon the fourth of August at the Guildhall, on the charge of high-treason, he sent a diamond ring from his own finger, of the value of £400, to the Queen to show that he bore her no personal ill-will. He had been always a steadfast Catholic; his wife had been maid of honour to Mary and a friend of Elizabeth's. On August the eighth he suffered the abominable punishment prescribed; he was drawn on a hurdle to the gate of the Bishop's palace in S. Paul's Churchyard, where he had affixed the Bull, hanged upon a new gallows, cut down before he was unconscious, disembowelled and quartered. His name has since been placed on the roll of the Blessed by the Apostolic See in whose quarrel he so cheerfully laid down his life.

News of these and such events continued of course to be eagerly sought after by the Papists all over the kingdom; and the Maxwells down at Great Keynes kept in as close touch with the heart of affairs as almost any private persons in the kingdom out of town. Sir Nicholas was one of those fiery natures to whom opposition or pressure is as oil to flame. He began at once to organise his forces and prepare for the struggle that was bound to come. He established first a kind of private post to London and to other Catholic houses round; for purposes however of defence rather than offence, so that if any steps were threatened, he and his friends might be aware of the danger in time. There was great sorrow at the news of John Felton's death; and mass was said for his soul almost immediately in the little oratory at Maxwell Court by one of the concealed priests who went chiefly between Hampshire and Sussex ministering to the Catholics of those districts. Mistress Margaret spent longer than ever at her prayers; Lady Maxwell had all she could do to keep her husband from some furious act of fanatical retaliation for John Felton's death-some useless provocation of the authorities; the children at the Dower House began to come to the Hall less often, not because they were less welcomed, but because there was a constraint in the air. All seemed preoccupied; conversations ceased abruptly on their entrance, and fits of abstraction would fall from time to time upon their kindly hosts. In the meanwhile, too, the preparations for James Maxwell's departure, which had already begun to show themselves, were now pushed forward rapidly; and one morning in the late summer, when Isabel came up to the Hall, she found that Lady Maxwell was confined to her room and could not be seen that day; she caught a glimpse of Sir Nicholas' face as he quickly crossed the entrance hall, that made her draw back from daring to intrude on such grief; and on inquiry found that Mr. James had ridden away that morning, and that the servants did not know when to expect him back, nor what was his destination.

In other ways also at this time did Sir Nicholas actively help on his party. Great Keynes was in a convenient position and circumstances for agents who came across from the Continent. It was sufficiently near London, yet not so near to the highroad or to London itself as to make disturbance probable; and its very quietness under the spiritual care of a moderate minister like Mr. Dent, and its serenity, owing to the secret sympathy of many of the villagers and neighbours, as well as from the personal friendship between Sir Nicholas and the master of the Dower House-an undoubted Protestant-all these circumstances combined to make Maxwell Hall a favourite halting-place for priests and agents from the Continent. Strangers on horseback or in carriages, and sometimes even on foot, would arrive there after nightfall, and leave in a day or two for London. Its nearness to London enabled them to enter the city at any hour they thought best after ten or eleven in the forenoon. They came on very various businesses; some priests even stayed there and made the Hall a centre for their spiritual ministrations for miles round; others came with despatches from abroad, some of which were even addressed to great personages at Court and at the Embassies where much was being done by the Ambassadors at this time to aid their comrades in the Faith, and to other leading Catholics; and others again came with pamphlets printed abroad for distribution in England, some of them indeed seditious, but many of them purely controversial and hortatory, and with other devotional articles and books such as it was difficult to obtain in England, and might not be exposed for public sale in booksellers' shops: Agnus Deis, beads, hallowed incense and crosses were being sent in large numbers from abroad, and were eagerly sought after by the Papists in all directions. It was remarkable that while threatening clouds appeared to be gathering on all sides over the Catholic cause, yet the deepening peril was accompanied by a great outburst of religious zeal. It was reported to the Archbishop that "massing" was greatly on the increase in Kent; and was attributed, singularly enough, to the Northern Rebellion, which had ended in disaster for the Papists; but the very fact that such a movement could take place at all probably heartened many secret sympathisers, who had hitherto considered themselves almost alone in a heretic population.

Sir Nicholas came in one day to dinner in a state of great fury. One of his couriers had just arrived with news from London; and the old man came in fuming and resentful.

"What hypocrisy!" he cried out to Lady Maxwell and Mistress Margaret, who were seated at table. "Not content with persecuting Catholics, they will not even allow us to say we are persecuted for the faith. Here is the Lord Keeper declaring in the Star Chamber that no man is to be persecuted for his private faith, but only for his public acts, and that the Queen's Grace desires nothing so little as to meddle with any man's conscience. Then I suppose they would say that hearing mass was a public act and therefore unlawful; but then how if a man's private faith bids him to hear mass? Is not that meddling with his private conscience to forbid him to go to mass? What folly is this? And yet my Lord Keeper and her Grace are no fools! Then are they worse than fools?"

Lady Maxwell tried to quiet the old man, for the servants were not out of the room; and it was terribly rash to speak like that before them; but he would not be still nor sit down, but raged up and down before the hearth, growling and breaking out now and again. What especially he could not get off his mind was that this was the Old Religion that was prescribed. That England for generations had held the Faith, and that then the Faith and all that it involved had been declared unlawful, was to him iniquity unfathomable. He could well understand some new upstart sect being persecuted, but not the old Religion. He kept on returning to this.

"Have they so far forgotten the Old Faith as to think it can be held in a man's private conscience without appearing in his life, like their miserable damnable new fangled Justification by faith without works? Or that a man can believe in the blessed sacrament of the altar and yet not desire to receive it; or in penance and yet not be absolved; or in Peter and yet not say so, nor be reconciled. You may believe, say they, of their clemency, what you like; be justified by that; that is enough! Bah!"

However mere declaiming against the Government was barren work, and Sir Nicholas soon saw that; and instead, threw himself with more vigour than ever into entertaining and forwarding the foreign emissaries.

Mary Corbet had returned to London by the middle of July; and Hubert was not yet returned; so Sir Nicholas and the two ladies had the Hall to themselves. Now it must be confessed that the old man had neither the nature nor the training for the r?le of a conspirator, even of the mildest description. He was so exceedingly impulsive, unsuspicious and passionate that it would have been the height of folly to entrust him with any weighty secret, if it was possible to dispense with him; but the Catholics over the water needed stationary agents so grievously; and Sir Nicholas' name commanded such respect, and his house such conveniences, that they overlooked the risk involved in making him their confidant, again and again; besides it need not be said that his honour and fidelity was beyond reproach; and those qualities after all balance favourably against a good deal of shrewdness and discretion. He, of course, was serenely unable to distinguish between sedition and religion; and entertained political meddlers and ordinary priests with an equal enthusiasm. It was pathetic to Lady Maxwell to see her simple old husband shuffling away his papers, and puzzling over cyphers and perpetually leaving the key of them lying about, and betraying again and again when he least intended it, by his mysterious becks and nods and glances and oracular sayings, that some scheme was afoot. She could have helped him considerably if he had allowed her; but he had an idea that the capacities of ladies in general went no further than their harps, their embroidery and their devotions; and besides, he was chivalrously unwilling that his wife should be in any way privy to business that involved such risks as this.

One sunny morning in August he came into her room early just as she was finishing her prayers, and announced the arrival of an emissary from abroad.

"Sweetheart," he said, "will you prepare the east chamber for a young man whom we will call Mr. Stewart, if you please, who will arrive to-night. He hopes to be with us until after dusk to-morrow when he will leave; and I shall be obliged if you will-- No, no, my dear. I will order the horses myself."

The old man then bustled off to the stableyard and ordered a saddle-horse to be taken at once to Cuckfield, accompanied by a groom on another horse. These were to arrive at the inn and await orders from a stranger "whom you will call Mr. Stewart, if you please." Mr. Stewart was to change horses there, and ride on to Maxwell Hall, and Sir Nicholas further ordered the same two horses and the same groom to be ready the following evening at about nine o'clock, and to be at "Mr. Stewart's" orders again as before.

This behaviour of Sir Nicholas' was of course most culpably indiscreet. A child could not but have suspected something, and the grooms, who were of course Catholics, winked merrily at one another when the conspirator's back was turned, and he had hastened in a transport of zeal and preoccupation back again to the house to interrupt his wife in her preparations

for the guest.

That evening "Mr. Stewart" arrived according to arrangements. He was a slim red-haired man, not above thirty years of age, the kind of man his enemies would call foxy, with a very courteous and deliberate manner, and he spoke with a slight Scotch accent. He had the air of doing everything on purpose. He let his riding-whip fall as he greeted Lady Maxwell in the entrance hall; but picked it up with such a dignified grace that you would have sworn he had let it fall for some wise reason of his own. He had a couple of saddle-bags with him, which he did not let out of his sight for a moment; even keeping his eye upon them as he met the ladies and saluted them. They were carried up to the east chamber directly, their owner following; where supper had been prepared. There was no real reason, since he arrived with such publicity, why he should not have supped downstairs, but Sir Nicholas had been peremptory. It was by his directions also that the arrival had been accomplished in the manner it had.

After he had supped, Sir Nicholas receiving the dishes from the servants' hands at the door of the room with the same air of secrecy and despatch, his host suggested that he should come to Lady Maxwell's drawing-room, as the ladies were anxious to see him. Mr. Stewart asked leave to bring a little valise with him that had travelled in one of the bags, and then followed his host who preceded him with a shaded light along the gallery.

When he entered he bowed again profoundly, with a slightly French air, to the ladies and to the image over the fire; and then seated himself, and asked leave to open his valise. He did so with their permission, and displayed to them the numerous devotional articles and books that it contained. The ladies and Sir Nicholas were delighted, and set aside at once some new books of devotion, and then they fell to talk. The Netherlands, from which Mr. Stewart had arrived two days before, on the east coast, were full at this time of Catholic refugees, under the Duke of Alva's protection. Here they had been living, some of them even from Elizabeth's accession, and Sir Nicholas and his ladies had many inquiries to make about their acquaintances, many of which Mr. Stewart was able to satisfy, for, from his conversation he was plainly one in the confidence of Catholics both at home and abroad. And so the evening passed away quietly. It was thought better by Sir Nicholas that Mr. Stewart should not be present at the evening devotions that he always conducted for the household in the dining-hall, unless indeed a priest were present to take his place; so Mr. Stewart was again conducted with the same secrecy to the East Chamber; and Sir Nicholas promised at his request to look in on him again after prayers. When prayers were over, Sir Nicholas went up to his guest's room, and found him awaiting him in a state of evident excitement, very unlike the quiet vivacity and good humour he had shown when with the ladies.

"Sir Nicholas," he said, standing up, as his host came in, "I have not told you all my news." And when they were both seated he proceeded:

"You spoke a few minutes ago, Sir Nicholas, of Dr. Storey; he has been caught."

The old man exclaimed with dismay. Mr. Stewart went on:

"When I left Antwerp, Sir Nicholas, Dr. Storey was in the town. I saw him myself in the street by the Cathedral only a few hours before I embarked. He is very old, you know, and lame, worn out with good works, and he was hobbling down the street on the arm of a young man. When I arrived at Yarmouth I went out into the streets about a little business I had with a bookseller, before taking horse. I heard a great commotion down near the docks, at the entrance of Bridge Street; and hastened down there; and there I saw pursuivants and seamen and officers all gathered about a carriage, and keeping back the crowd that was pressing and crying out to know who the man was; and presently the carriage drove by me, scattering the crowd, and I could see within; and there sat old Dr. Storey, very white and ill-looking, but steady and cheerful, whom I had seen the very day before in Antwerp. Now this is very grievous for Dr. Storey; and I pray God to deliver him; but surely the Duke and the King of Spain must move now. They cannot leave him in Cecil's hands; and then, Sir Nicholas, we must all be ready, for who knows what may happen."

Sir Nicholas was greatly moved. There was one of the perplexities which so much harassed all the Papists at this time. It seemed certain that Mr. Stewart's prediction must be fulfilled. Dr. Storey was a naturalised subject of King Philip and in the employment of Alva, and he had been carried off forcibly by the English Government. It afterwards came out how it had been done. He had been lured away from Antwerp and enticed on board a trader at Bergen-op-Zoom, by Cecil's agents with the help of a traitor named Parker, on pretext of finding heretical books there arriving from England; and as soon as he had set foot on deck he was hurried below and carried straight off to Yarmouth. Here then was Sir Nicholas' perplexity. To welcome Spain when she intervened and to work actively for her, was treason against his country; to act against Spain was to delay the re-establishment of the Religion-something that appeared to him very like treason against his faith. Was the dreadful choice between his sovereign and his God, he wondered as he paced up and down and questioned Mr. Stewart, even now imminent?

The whole affair, too, was so formidable and so mysterious that the hearts of these Catholics and of others in England when they heard the tale began to fail them. Had the Government then so long an arm and so keen an eye? And if it was able to hale a man from the shadow of the Cathedral at Antwerp and the protection of the Duke of Alva into the hands of pursuivants at Yarmouth within the space of a few hours, who then was safe?

And so the two sat late that night in the East Chamber; and laid schemes and discussed movements and probabilities and the like, until the dawn began to glimmer through the cracks of the shutters and the birds to chirp in the eaves; and Sir Nicholas at last carried to bed with him an anxious and a heavy heart. Mr. Stewart, however, did not seem so greatly disturbed; possibly because on the one side he had not others dearer to him than his own life involved in these complex issues: and partly because he at any rate has not the weight of suspense and indecision that so drew his host two ways at once, for Mr. Stewart was whole-heartedly committed already, and knew well how he would act should the choice present itself between Elizabeth and Philip.

The following morning Sir Nicholas still would not allow his guest to come downstairs, and insisted that all his meals should be served in the East Chamber, while he himself, as before, received the food at the door and set it before Mr. Stewart. Mr. Stewart was greatly impressed and touched by the kindness of the old man, although not by his capacity for conspiracy. He had intended indeed to tell his host far more than he had done of the movements of political and religious events, for he could not but believe, before his arrival, that a Catholic so prominent and influential as Sir Nicholas was becoming by reputation among the refugees abroad, was a proper person to be entrusted even with the highest secrets; but after a very little conversation with him the night before, he had seen how ingenuous the old man was, with his laughable attempts at secrecy and his lamentable lack of discretion; and so he had contented himself with general information and gossip, and had really told Sir Nicholas very little indeed of any importance.

After dinner Sir Nicholas again conducted his guest to the drawing-room, where the ladies were ready to receive him. He had obtained Mr. Stewart's permission the night before to tell his wife and sister-in-law the news about Dr. Storey; and the four sat for several hours together discussing the situation. Mr. Stewart was able to tell them too, in greater detail, the story of Lord Sussex's punitive raid into Scotland in the preceding April. They had heard of course the main outline of the story with the kind of embroideries attached that were usual in those days of inaccurate reporting; but their guest was a Scotchman himself and had had the stories first-hand in some cases from those rendered homeless by the raid, who had fled to the Netherlands where he had met them. Briefly the raid was undertaken on the pretended plea of an invitation from the "King's men" or adherents of the infant James; but in reality to chastise Scotland and reduce it to servility. Sussex and Lord Hunsdon in the east, Lord Scrope on the west, had harried, burnt, and destroyed in the whole countryside about the Borders. Especially had Tiviotdale suffered. Altogether it was calculated that Sussex had burned three hundred villages and blown up fifty castles, and forty more "strong houses," some of these latter, however, being little more than border peels. Mr. Stewart's accounts were the more moving in that he spoke in a quiet delicate tone, and used little picturesque phrases in his speech.

"Twelve years ago," said Mr. Stewart, "I was at Branxholme myself. It was a pleasant house, well furnished and appointed; fortified, too, as all need to be in that country, with sheaves of pikes in all the lower rooms, and Sir Walter Scott gave me a warm welcome, for I was there on a business that pleased him. He showed me the gardens and orchards, all green and sweet, like these of yours, Lady Maxwell. And it seemed to me a home where a man might be content to spend all his days. Well, my Lord Sussex has been a visitor there now; and what he has left of the house would not shelter a cow, nor what is left of the pleasant gardens sustain her. At least, so one of the Scots told me whom I met in the Netherlands in June."

He talked, too, of the extraordinary scenes of romance and chivalry in which Mary Queen of Scots moved during her captivity under Lord Scrope's care at Bolton Castle in the previous year. He had met in his travels in France one of her undistinguished adherents who had managed to get a position in the castle during her detention there.

"The country was alive with her worshippers," said Mr. Stewart. "They swarmed like bees round a hive. In the night voices would be heard crying out to her Grace out of the darkness round the castle; and when the guards rode out they would find no man but maybe hear just a laugh or two. Her men would lie out at night and watch her window (for she would never go to rest till late), and pray towards it as if it were a light before the blessed sacrament. When she rode out a-hunting, with her guards of course about her, and my Lord Scrope or Sir Francis Knollys never far away, a beggar maybe would be sitting out on the road and ask an alms; and cry out 'God save your Grace'; but he would be a beggar who was accustomed to wear silk next his skin except when he went a-begging. Many young gentlemen there were, yes and old ones too, who would thank God for a blow or a curse from some foul English trooper for his meat, if only he might have a look from the Queen's eyes for his grace before meat. Oh! they would plot too, and scheme and lie awake half the night spinning their webs, not to catch her Grace indeed, but to get her away from that old Spider Scrope; and many's the word and the scrap of paper that would go in to her Grace, right under the very noses of my Lord Scrope and Sir Francis themselves, as they sat at their chess in the Queen's chamber. It's a long game of chess that the two Queens are playing; but thank our Lady and the Saints it's not mate yet-not mate yet; and the White Queen will win, please God, before the board's over-turned."

And he told them, too, of the failure of the Northern Rebellion, and the wretchedness of the fugitives.

"They rode over the moors to Liddisdale," he said, "ladies and all, in bitter weather, wind and snow, day after day, with stories of Clinton's troopers all about them, and scarcely time for bite or sup or sleep. My lady Northumberland was so overcome with weariness and sickness that she could ride no more at last, and had to be left at John-of-the-Side's house, where she had a little chamber where the snow came in at one corner, and the rats ran over my lady's face as she lay. My Lords Northumberland and Westmoreland were in worse case, and spent their Christmas with no roof over them but what they could find out in the braes and woods about Harlaw, and no clothes but the foul rags that some beggar had thrown away, and no food but a bird or a rabbit that they could pick up here and there, or what their friends could get to them now and again privately. And then my Lord Northumberland's little daughters whom he was forced to leave behind at Topcliff-a sweet Christmas they had! Their money and food was soon spent; they could have scarcely a fire in that bitter hard season; and God who feeds the ravens alone knows how they were sustained; and for entertainment to make the time pass merrily, all they had was to see the hanging of their own servants in scores about the house, who had served them and their father well; and all their music at night was the howling of the wind in those heavily laden Christmas-trees, and the noise of the chains in which the men were hanged."

Mr. Stewart's narratives were engrossing to the two ladies and Sir Nicholas. They had never come so close to the struggles of the Catholics in the north before; and although the Northern Rebellion had ended so disastrously, yet it was encouraging, although heartbreaking too, to hear that delicate women and children were ready gladly to suffer such miseries if the religious cause that was so dear to them could be thereby helped. Sir Nicholas, as has been said, was in two minds as to the lawfulness of rising against a temporal sovereign in defence of religious liberties. His whole English nature revolted against it, and yet so many spiritual persons seemed to favour it. His simple conscience was perplexed. But none the less he could listen with the most intense interest and sympathy to these tales of these co-religionists of his own, who were so clearly convinced of their right to rebel in defence of their faith.

And so with such stories the August afternoon passed away. It was a thundery day, which it would have been pleasanter to spend in the garden, but that, Sir Nicholas said, under the circumstances was not to be thought of; so they threw the windows wide to catch the least breath of air; and the smell of the flower-garden came sweetly up and flooded the low cool room; and so they sat engrossed until the evening.

Supper was ordered for Mr. Stewart at half-past seven o'clock; and this meal Sir Nicholas had consented should be laid downstairs in his own private room opening out of the hall, and that he and his ladies should sit down to table at the same time. Mr. Stewart went to his room an hour before to dress for riding, and to superintend the packing of his saddle-bags; and at half-past seven he was conducted downstairs by Sir Nicholas who insisted on carrying the saddle-bags with his own hands, and they found the two ladies waiting for them in the panelled study that had one window giving upon the terrace that ran along the south of the house above the garden. When supper had been brought in by Sir Nicholas' own body-servant, Mr. Boyd, they sat down to supper after a grace from Sir Nicholas. The horses were ordered for nine o'clock.

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