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By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 23449

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

On the morning of the day after Mr. Stewart's secret arrival at Maxwell Hall, the Rector was walking up and down the lawn that adjoined the churchyard.

He had never yet wholly recovered from the sneers of Mistress Corbet; the wounds had healed but had not ceased to smart. How blind these Papists were, he thought! how prejudiced for the old trifling details of worship! how ignorant of the vital principles still retained! The old realities of God and the faith and the Church were with them still, in this village, he reminded himself; it was only the incrustations of error that had been removed. Of course the transition was difficult and hearts were sore; but the Eternal God can be patient. But then, if the discontent of the Papists smouldered on one side, the fanatical and irresponsible zeal of the Puritans flared on the other. How difficult, he thought, to steer the safe middle course! How much cool faith and clearsightedness it needed! He reminded himself of Archbishop Parker who now held the rudder, and comforted himself with the thought of his wise moderation in dealing with excesses, his patient pertinacity among the whirling gusts of passion, that enabled him to wait upon events to push his schemes, and his tender knowledge of human nature.

But in spite of these reassuring facts Mr. Dent was anxious. What could even the Archbishop do when his suffragans were such poor creatures; and when Leicester, the strongest man at Court, was a violent Puritan partisan? The Rector would have been content to bear the troubles of his own flock and household if he had been confident of the larger cause; but the vagaries of the Puritans threatened all with ruin. That morning only he had received a long account from a Fellow of his own college of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and a man of the same views as himself, of the violent controversy raging there at that time.

"The Professor," wrote his friend, referring to Thomas Cartwright, "is plastering us all with his Genevan ways. We are all Papists, it seems! He would have neither bishop nor priest nor archbishop nor dean nor archdeacon, nor dignitaries at all, but just the plain Godly Minister, as he names it. Or if he has the bishop and the deacon they are to be the Episcopos and the Diaconos of the Scripture, and not the Papish counterfeits! Then it seems that the minister is to be made not by God but by man-that the people are to make him, not the bishop (as if the sheep should make the shepherd). Then it appears we are Papists too for kneeling at the Communion; this he names a 'feeble superstition.' Then he would have all men reside in their benefices or vacate them; and all that do not so, it appears, are no better than thieves or robbers.

"And so he rages on, breathing out this smoky stuff, and all the young men do run after him, as if he were the very Pillar of Fire to lead them to Canaan. One day he says there shall be no bishop-and my Lord of Ely rides through Petty Cury with scarce a man found to doff cap and say 'my lord' save foolish 'Papists' like myself! Another day he will have no distinction of apparel; and the young sparks straight dress like ministers, and the ministers like young sparks. On another he likes not Saint Peter his day, and none will go to church. He would have us all to be little Master Calvins, if he could have his way with us. But the Master of Trinity has sent a complaint to the Council with charges against him, and has preached against him too. But no word hath yet come from the Council; and we fear nought will be done; to the sore injury of Christ His holy Church and the Protestant Religion; and the triumphing of their pestilent heresies."

So the caustic divine wrote, and the Rector of Great Keynes was heavy-hearted as he walked up and down and read. Everywhere it was the same story; the extreme precisians openly flouted the religion of the Church of England; submitted to episcopal ordination as a legal necessity and then mocked at it; refused to wear the prescribed dress, and repudiated all other distinctions too in meats and days as Judaic remnants; denounced all forms of worship except those directly sanctioned by Scripture; in short, they remained in the Church of England and drew her pay while they scouted her orders and derided her claims. Further, they cried out as persecuted martyrs whenever it was proposed to insist that they should observe their obligations. But worse than all, for such conscientious clergymen as Mr. Dent, was the fact that bishops preferred such men to livings, and at the same time were energetic against the Papist party. It was not that there was not an abundance of disciplinary machinery ready at the bishop's disposal or that the Queen was opposed to coercion-rather she was always urging them to insist upon conformity; but it seemed rather to such sober men as the Rector that the principle of authority had been lost with the rejection of the Papacy, and that anarchy rather than liberty had prevailed in the National Church. In darker moments it seemed to him and his friends as if any wild fancy was tolerated, so long as it did not approximate too closely to the Old Religion; and they grew sick at heart.

It was all the more difficult for the Rector, as he had so little sympathy in the place; his wife did all she could to destroy friendly relations between the Hall and the Rectory, and openly derided her husband's prelatical leanings; the Maxwells themselves disregarded his priestly claims, and the villagers thought of him as an official paid to promulgate the new State religion. The only house where he found sympathy and help was the Dower House; and as he paced up and down his garden now, his little perplexed determined face grew brighter as he made up his mind to see Mr. Norris again in the afternoon.

During his meditations he heard, and saw indistinctly, through the shrubbery that fenced the lawn from the drive, a mounted man ride up to the Rectory door. He supposed it was some message, and held himself in readiness to be called into the house, but after a minute or two he heard the man ride off again down the drive into the village. At dinner he mentioned it to his wife, who answered rather shortly that it was a message for her; and he let the matter drop for fear of giving offence; he was terrified at the thought of provoking more quarrels than were absolutely necessary.

Soon after dinner he put on his cap and gown, and to his wife's inquiries told her where he was going, and that after he had seen Mr. Norris he would step on down to Comber's, where was a sick body or two, and that she might expect him back not earlier than five o'clock. She nodded without speaking, and he went out. She watched him down the drive from the dining-room window and then went back to her business with an odd expression.

Mr. Norris, whom he found already seated at his books again after dinner, took him out when he had heard his errand, and the two began to walk up and down together on the raised walk that ran along under a line of pines a little way from the house.

The Rector had seldom found his friend more sympathetic and tender; he knew very well that their intellectual and doctrinal standpoints were different, but he had not come for anything less than spiritual help, and that he found. He told him all his heart, and then waited, while the other, with his thin hands clasped behind his back, and his great grey eyes cast up at the heavy pines and the tender sky beyond, began to comfort the minister.

"You are troubled, my friend," he said, "and I do not wonder at it, by the turbulence of these times. On all sides are fightings and fears. Of course I cannot, as you know, regard these matters you have spoken of-episcopacy, ceremonies at the Communion and the like-in the grave light in which you see them; but I take it, if I understand you rightly, that it is the confusion and lack of any authority or respect for antiquity that is troubling you more. You feel yourself in a sad plight between these raging waves; tossed to and fro, battered upon by both sides, forsaken and despised and disregarded. Now, indeed, although I do not stand quite where you do, yet I see how great the stress must be; but, if I may say so to a minister, it is just what you regard as your shame that I regard as your glory. It is the mark of the cross that is on your life. When our Saviour went to his passion, he went in the same plight as that in which you go; both Jew and Gentile were against him on this side and that; his claims were disallowed, his royalty denied; he was despised and rejected of men. He did not go to his passion as to a splendid triumph, bearing his pain like some solemn and mysterious dignity at which the world wondered and was silent; but he went battered and spat upon, with the sweat and the blood and the spittle running down his face, contemned by the contemptible, hated by the hateful, rejected by the outcast, barked upon by the curs; and it was that that made his passion so bitter. To go to death, however painful, with honour and applause, or at least with the silence of respect, were easy; it is not hard to die upon a throne; but to live on a dunghill with Job, that is bitterness. Now again I must protest that I have no right to speak like this to a minister, but since you have come to me I must needs say what I think; and it is this that some wise man once said, 'Fear honour, for shame is not far off. Covet shame, for honour is surely to follow.' If that be true of the philosopher, how much more true is it of the Christian minister whose profession it is to follow the Saviour and to be made like unto him."

He said much more of the same kind; and his soft balmy faith soothed the minister's wounds, and braced his will. The Rector could not help half envying his friend, living, as it seemed, in this still retreat, apart from wrangles and controversy, with the peaceful music and sweet fragrance of the pines, and the Love of God about him.

When he had finished he asked the Rector to step indoors with him; and there in his own room took down and read to him a few extracts from the German mystics that he thought bore upon his case. Finally, to put him at his ease again, for it seemed an odd reversal that he should be coming for comfort to his parishioners, Mr. Norris told him about his two children, and in his turn asked his advice.

"About Anthony," he said, "I am not at all anxious. I know that the boy fancies himself in love; and goes sighing about when he is at home; but he sleeps and eats heartily, for I have observed him; and I think Mistress Corbet has a good heart and means no harm to him. But about my daughter I am less satisfied, for I have been watching her closely. She is quiet and good, and, above all, she loves the Saviour; but how do I know that her heart is not bleeding within? She has been taught to hold herself in, and not to show her feelings; and that, I think, is as much a drawback sometimes as wearing the heart upon the sleeve."

Mr. Dent suggested sending her away for a visit for a month or two. His host mused a moment and then said that he himself had thought of that; and now that his minister said so too, probably, under God, that was what was needed. The fact that Hubert was expected home soon was an additional reason; and he had friends in Northampton, he said, to whom he could send her. "They hold strongly by the Genevan theology there," he said smiling, "but I think that will do her no harm as a balance to the Popery at Maxwell Hall."

They talked a few minutes more, and when the minister rose to take his leave, Mr. Norris slipped down on his knees as if it

was the natural thing to do and as if the minister were expecting it; and asked his guest to engage in prayer. It was the first time he had ever done so; probably because this talk had brought them nearer together spiritually than ever before. The minister was taken aback, and repeated a collect or two from the Prayer-book; then they said the Lord's Prayer together, and then Mr. Norris without any affectation engaged in a short extempore prayer, asking for light in these dark times and peace in the storm; and begging the blessing of God upon the village and "upon their shepherd to whom Thou hast given to drink of the Cup of thy Passion," and upon his own children, and lastly upon himself, "the chief of sinners and the least of thy servants that is not worthy to be called thy friend." It touched Mr. Dent exceedingly, and he was yet more touched and reconciled to the incident when his host said simply, remaining on his knees, with eyes closed and his clear cut tranquil face upturned:

"I ask your blessing, sir."

The Rector's voice trembled a little as he gave it. And then with real gratitude and a good deal of sincere emotion he shook his friend's hand, and rustled out from the cool house into the sunlit garden, greeting Isabel who was walking up and down outside a little pensively, and took the field-path that led towards the hamlet where his sick folk were expecting him.

As he walked back about five o'clock towards the village he noticed there was thunder in the air, and was aware of a physical oppression, but in his heart it was morning and the birds singing. The talk earlier in the afternoon had shown him how, in the midst of the bitterness of the Cup, to find the fragrance where the Saviour's lips had rested and that was joy to him. And again, his true pastor's heart had been gladdened by the way his ministrations had been received that afternoon. A sour old man who had always scowled at him for an upstart, in his foolish old desire to be loyal to the priest who had held the benefice before him, had melted at last and asked his pardon and God's for having treated him so ill; and he had prepared the old man for death with great contentment to them both, and had left him at peace with God and man. On looking back on it all afterwards he was convinced that God had thus strengthened him for the trouble that was awaiting him at home.

He had hardly come into his study when his wife entered with a strange look, breathing quick and short; she closed the door, and stood near it, looking at him apprehensively.

"George," she said, rather sharply and nervously, "you must not be vexed with me, but--"

"Well?" he said heavily, and the warmth died out of his heart. He knew something terrible impended.

"I have done it for the best," she said, and obstinacy and a kind of impatient tenderness strove in her eyes as she looked at him. "You must show yourself a man; it is not fitting that loose ladies of the Court should mock-" He got up; and his eyes were determined too.

"Tell me what you have done, woman," he cried.

She put out her hand as if to hold him still, and her voice rang hard and thin.

"I will say my say," she said. "It is not for that that I have done it. But you are a Gospel-minister, and must be faithful. The Justice is here. I sent for him."

"The Justice?" he said blankly; but his heart was beating heavily in his throat.

"Mr. Frankland from East Grinsted, with a couple of pursuivants and a company of servants. There is a popish agent at the Hall, and they are come to take him."

The Rector swallowed with difficulty once or twice, and then tried to speak, but she went on. "And I have promised that you shall take them in by the side door."

"I will not!" he cried.

She held up her hand again for silence, and glanced round at the door.

"I have given him the key," she said.

This was the private key, possessed by the incumbent for generations past, and Sir Nicholas had not withdrawn it from the Protestant Rector.

"There is no choice," she said. "Oh! George, be a man!" Then she turned and slipped out.

He stood perfectly still for a moment; his pulses were racing; he could not think. He sat down and buried his face in his hands; and gradually his brain cleared and quieted. Then he realised what it meant, and his soul rose in blind furious resentment. This was the last straw; it was the woman's devilish jealousy. But what could he do? The Justice was here. Could he warn his friends? He clenched his fingers into his hair as the situation came out clear and hard before his brain. Dear God, what could he do?

There were footsteps in the flagged hall, and he raised his head as the door opened and a portly gentleman in riding-dress came in, followed by Mrs. Dent. The Rector rose confusedly, but could not speak, and his eyes wandered round to his wife again and again as she took a chair in the shadow and sat down. But the magistrate noticed nothing.

"Aha!" he said, beaming, "You have a wife, sir, that is a jewel. Solomon never spoke a truer word; an ornament to her husband, he said, I think; but you as a minister should know better than I, a mere layman"; and his face creased with mirth.

What did the red-faced fool mean? thought the Rector. If only he would not talk so loud! He must think, he must think. What could he do?

"She was very brisk, sir," the magistrate went on, sitting down, and the Rector followed his example, sitting too with his back to the window and his hand to his head.

Then Mr. Frankland went on with his talk; and the man sat there, still glancing from time to time mechanically towards his wife, who was there in the shadow with steady white face and hands in her lap, watching the two men. The magistrate's voice seemed to the bewildered man to roll on like a wheel over stones; interminable, grinding, stupefying. What was he saying? What was that about his wife? She had sent to him the day before, had she, and told him of the popish agent's coming?-Ah! A dangerous man was he, a spreader of seditious pamphlets? At least they supposed he was the man.-Yes, yes, he understood; these fly-by-nights were threateners of the whole commonwealth; they must be hunted out like vermin-just so; and he as a minister of the Gospel should be the first to assist.-Just so, he agreed with all his heart, as a minister of the Gospel. (Yes, but, dear Lord, what was he to do? This fat man with the face of a butcher must not be allowed to-) Ah! what was that? He had missed that. Would Mr. Frankland be so good as to say it again? Yes, yes, he understood now; the men were posted already. No one suspected anything; they had come by the bridle path.-Every door? Did he understand that every door of the Hall was watched? Ah! that was prudent; there was no chance then of any one sending a warning in? Oh, no, no, he did not dream for a moment that there was any concealed Catholic who would be likely to do such a thing. But he only wondered.-Yes, yes, the magistrate was right; one could not be too careful. Because-ah!-What was that about Sir Nicholas? Yes, yes, indeed he was a good landlord, and very popular in the village.-Ah! just so; it had better be done quietly, at the side door. Yes, that was the one which the key fitted. But, but, he thought perhaps, he had better not come in, because Sir Nicholas was his friend, and there was no use in making bad blood.-Oh! not to the house; very well, then, he would come as far as the yew hedge at-at what time did the magistrate say? At half-past eight; yes, that would be best as Mr. Frankland said, because Sir Nicholas had ordered the horses for nine o'clock; so they would come upon them just at the right time.-How many men, did Mr. Frankland say? Eight? Oh yes, eight and himself, and-he did not quite follow the plan. Ah! through the yew hedge on to the terrace and through the south door into the hall; then if they bolted-they? Surely he had understood the magistrate to say there was only one? Oh! he had not understood that. Sir Nicholas too? But why, why? Good God, as a harbourer of priests?-No, but this fellow was an agent, surely. Well, if the magistrate said so, of course he was right; but he would have thought himself that Sir Nicholas might have been left-ah! Well, he would say no more. He quite saw the magistrate's point now.-No, no, he was no favourer; God forbid! his wife would speak for him as to that; Marion would bear witness.-Well, well, he thanked the magistrate for his compliments, and would he proceed with the plan? By the south door, he was saying, yes, into the hall.-Yes, the East room was Sir Nicholas' study; or of course they might be supping upstairs. But it made no difference; no, the magistrate was right about that. So long as they held the main staircase, and had all the other doors watched, they were safe to have him.-No, no, the cloister wing would not be used; they might leave that out of their calculations. Besides, did not the magistrate say that Marion had seen the lights in the East wing last night? Yes, well, that settled it.-And the signal? Oh, he had not caught that; the church bell, was it to be? But what for? Why did they need a signal? Ah! he understood, for the advance at half-past eight.-Just so, he would send Thomas up to ring it. Would Marion kindly see to that?-Yes, indeed, his wife was a woman to be proud of; such a faithful Protestant; no patience with these seditious rogues at all. Well, was that all? Was there anything else?-Yes, how dark it was getting; it must be close on eight o'clock. Thomas had gone, had he? That was all right.-And had the men everything they wanted?-Well, yes; although the village did go to bed early it would perhaps be better to have no lights; because there was no need to rouse suspicion.-Oh! very well; perhaps it would be better for Mr. Frankland to go and sit with the men and keep them quiet. And his wife would go, too, just to make sure they had all they wanted.-Very well, yes; he would wait here in the dark until he was called. Not more than a quarter of an hour? Thank you, yes.-

Then the door had closed; and the man, left alone, flung himself down in his chair, and buried his face again in his arms.

Ah! what was to be done? Nothing, nothing, nothing. And there they were at the Hall, his neighbours and friends. The kind old Catholic and his ladies! How would he ever dare to meet their eyes again? But what could be done? Nothing!

How far away the afternoon seems; that quiet sunny walk beneath the pines. His friend is at his books, no doubt, with the silver candles, and the open pages, and his own neat manuscript growing under his white scholarly fingers. And Isabel; at her needlework before the fire.-How peaceful and harmless and sweet it all is! And down there, not fifty yards away, is the village; every light out by now; and the children and parents, too, asleep.-Ah! what will the news be when they wake to-morrow?-And that strange talk this afternoon, of the Saviour and His Cup of pain, and the squalor and indignity of the Passion! Ah! yes, he could suffer with Jesus on the Cross, so gladly, on that Tree of Life-but not with Judas on the Tree of Death!

And the minister dropped his face lower, over the edge of his desk; and the hot tears of misery and self-reproach and impotence began to run. There was no help, no help anywhere. All were against him-even his wife herself; and his Lord.

Then with a moan he lifted his hot face into the dusk.

"Jesus," he cried in his soul, "Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee."

There came a tapping on the door; and the door opened an inch.

"It is time," whispered his wife's voice.

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