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By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 18609

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

They were still sitting over the supper-table at the Hall. The sun had set about the time they had begun, and the twilight had deepened into dark; but they had not cared to close the shutters as they were to move so soon. The four candles shone out through the windows, and there still hung a pale glimmer outside owing to the refraction of light from the white stones of the terrace. Beyond on the left there sloped away a high black wall of impenetrable darkness where the yew hedge stood; over that was the starless sky. Sir Nicholas' study was bright with candlelight, and the lace and jewels of Lady Maxwell (for her sister wore none) added a vague pleasant sense of beauty to Mr. Stewart's mind; for he was one who often fared coarsely and slept hard. He sighed a little to himself as he looked out over this shining supper-table past the genial smiling face of Sir Nicholas to the dark outside; and thought how in less than an hour he would have left the comfort of this house for the grey road and its hardships again. It was extraordinarily sweet to him (for he was a man of taste and a natural inclination to luxury) to stay a day or two now and again at a house like this and mix again with his own equals, instead of with the rough company of the village inn, or the curious foreign conspirators with their absence of educated perception and their doubtful cleanliness. He was a man of domestic instincts and good birth and breeding, and would have been perfectly at his ease as the master of some household such as this; with a chapel and a library and a pleasant garden and estate; spending his days in great leisure and good deeds. And instead of all this, scarcely by his own choice but by what he would have called his vocation, he was partly an exile living from hand to mouth in lodgings and inns, and when he was in his own fatherland, a hunted fugitive lurking about in unattractive disguises. He sighed again once or twice. There was silence a moment or two.

There sounded one note from the church tower a couple of hundred yards away. Lady Maxwell heard it, and looked suddenly up; she scarcely knew why, and caught her sister's eyes glancing at her. There was a shade of uneasiness in them.

"It is thundery to-night," said Sir Nicholas. Mr. Stewart did not speak. Lady Maxwell looked up quickly at him as he sat on her right facing the window; and saw an expression of slight disturbance cross his face. He was staring out on to the quickly darkening terrace, past Sir Nicholas, who with pursed lips and a little frown was stripping off his grapes from the stalk. The look of uneasiness deepened, and the young man half rose from his chair, and sat down again.

"What is it, Mr. Stewart?" said Lady Maxwell, and her voice had a ring of terror in it. Sir Nicholas looked up quickly.

"Eh, eh?"-he began.

The young man rose up and recoiled a step, still staring out.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "but I have just seen several men pass the window."

There was a rush of footsteps and a jangle of voices outside in the hall; and as the four rose up from table, looking at one another, there was a rattle at the handle outside, the door flew open, and a ruddy strongly-built man stood there, with a slightly apprehensive air, and holding a loaded cane a little ostentatiously in his hand; the faces of several men looked over his shoulder.

Sir Nicholas' ruddy face had paled, his mouth was half open with dismay, and he stared almost unintelligently at the magistrate. Mr. Stewart's hand closed on the handle of a knife that lay beside his plate.

"In the Queen's name," said Mr. Frankland, and looked from the knife to the young man's white determined face, and down again. A little sobbing broke from Lady Maxwell.

"It is useless, sir," said the magistrate; "Sir Nicholas, persuade your guest not to make a useless resistance; we are ten to one; the house has been watched for hours."

Sir Nicholas took a step forward, his mouth closed and opened again. Lady Maxwell took a swift rustling step from behind the table, and threw her arm round the old man's neck. Still none of them spoke.

"Come in," said the magistrate, turning a little. The men outside filed in, to the number of half a dozen, and two or three more were left in the hall. All were armed. Mistress Margaret who had stood up with the rest, sat down again, and rested her head on her hand; apparently completely at her ease.

"I must beg pardon, Lady Maxwell," he went on, "but my duty leaves me no choice." He turned to the young man, who, on seeing the officers had laid the knife down again, and now stood, with one hand on the table, rather pale, but apparently completely self-controlled, looking a little disdainfully at the magistrate.

Then Sir Nicholas made a great effort; but his face twitched as he spoke, and the hand that he lifted to his wife's arm shook with nervousness, and his voice was cracked and unnatural.

"Sit down, my dear, sit down.-What is all this?-I do not understand.-Mr. Frankland, sir, what do you want of me?-And who are all these gentlemen?-Won't you sit down, Mr. Frankland and take a glass of wine. Let me make Mr. Stewart known to you." And he lifted a shaking hand as if to introduce them.

The magistrate smiled a little on one side of his mouth.

"It is no use, Sir Nicholas," he said, "this gentleman, I fear, is well known to some of us already.-No, no, sir," he cried sharply, "the window is guarded."

Mr. Stewart, who had looked swiftly and sideways across at the window, faced the magistrate again.

"I do not know what you mean, sir," he said. "It was a lad who passed the window."

There was a movement outside in the hall; and the magistrate stepped to the door.

"Who is there?" he cried out sharply.

There was a scuffle, and a cry of a boy's voice; and a man appeared, holding Anthony by the arm.

Mistress Margaret turned round in her seat; and said in a perfectly natural voice, "Why, Anthony, my lad!"

There was a murmur from one or two of the men.

"Silence," called out the magistrate. "We will finish the other affair first," and he made a motion to hold Anthony for a moment.-"Now then, do any of you men know this gentleman?"

A pursuivant stepped out.

"Mr. Frankland, sir; I know him under two names-Mr. Chapman and Mr. Wode. He is a popish agent. I saw him in the company of Dr. Storey in Antwerp, four months ago."

Mr. Stewart blew out his lips sharply and contemptuously.

"Pooh," he said; and then turned to the man and bowed ironically.

"I congratulate you, my man," he said, in a tone of bitter triumph. "In April I was in France. Kindly remember this man's words, Mr. Frankland; they will tell in my favour. For I presume you mean to take me."

"I will remember them," said the magistrate.

Mr. Stewart bowed to him; he had completely regained his composure. Then he turned to Sir Nicholas and Lady Maxwell, who had been watching in a bewildered silence.

"I am exceedingly sorry," he said, "for having brought this annoyance on you, Lady Maxwell; but these men are so sharp that they see nothing but guilt everywhere. I do not know yet what my crime is. But that can wait. Sir Nicholas, we should have parted anyhow in half an hour. We shall only say good-bye here, instead of at the door."

The magistrate smiled again as before; and half put up his hand to hide it.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Chapman; but you need not part from Sir Nicholas yet. I fear, Sir Nicholas, that I shall have to trouble you to come with us."

Lady Maxwell drew a quick hissing breath; her sister got up swiftly and went to her, as she sat down in Sir Nicholas' chair, still holding the old man's hand.

Sir Nicholas turned to his guest; and his voice broke again and again as he spoke.

"Mr. Stewart," he said, "I am sorry that any guest of mine should be subject to these insults. However, I am glad that I shall have the pleasure of your company after all. I suppose we ride to East Grinsted," he added harshly to the magistrate, who bowed to him.-"Then may I have my servant, sir?"

"Presently," said Mr. Frankland, and then turned to Anthony, who had been staring wild-eyed at the scene, "Now who is this?"

A man answered from the rank.

"That is Master Anthony Norris, sir."

"Ah! and who is Master Anthony Norris? A Papist, too?"

"No, sir," said the man again, "a good Protestant; and the son of Mr. Norris at the Dower House."

"Ah!" said the magistrate again, judicially. "And what might you be wanting here, Master Anthony Norris?"

Anthony explained that he often came up in the evening, and that he wanted nothing. The magistrate eyed him a moment or two.

"Well, I have nothing against you, young gentleman. But I cannot let you go, till I am safely set out. You might rouse the village. Take him out till we start," he added to the man who guarded him.

"Come this way, sir," said the officer; and Anthony presently found himself sitting on the long oak bench that ran across the western end of the hall, at the foot of the stairs, and just opposite the door of Sir Nicholas' room where he had just witnessed that curious startling scene.

The man who had charge of him stood a little distance off, and did not trouble him further, and Anthony wat

ched in silence.

The hall was still dark, except for one candle that had been lighted by the magistrate's party, and it looked sombre and suggestive of tragedy. Floor walls and ceiling were all dark oak, and the corners were full of shadows. A streak of light came out of the slightly opened door opposite, and a murmur of voices. The rest of the house was quiet; it had all been arranged and carried out without disturbance.

Anthony had a very fair idea of what was going forward; he knew of course that the Catholics were always under suspicion, and now understood plainly enough from the conversation he had heard that the reddish-haired young man, standing so alert and cheerful by the table in there, had somehow precipitated matters. Anthony himself had come up on some trifling errand, and had run straight into this affair; and now he sat and wondered resentfully, with his eyes and ears wide open.

There were men at all the inner doors now; they had slipped in from the outer entrances as soon as word had reached them that the prisoners were secured, and only a couple were left outside to prevent the alarm being raised in the village. These inner sentinels stood motionless at the foot of the stairs that rose up into the unlighted lobby overhead, at the door that led to the inner hall and the servants' quarters, and at those that led to the cloister wing and the garden respectively.

The murmur of voices went on in the room opposite; and presently a man slipped out and passed through the sentinels to the door leading to the kitchens and pantry; he carried a pike in his hand, and was armed with a steel cap and breast-piece. In a minute he had returned followed by Mr. Boyd, Sir Nicholas' body-servant; the two passed into the study-and a moment later the dark inner hall was full of moving figures and rustlings and whisperings, as the alarmed servants poured up from downstairs.

Then the study door opened again, and Anthony caught a glimpse of the lighted room; the two ladies with Sir Nicholas and his guest were seated at table; there was the figure of an armed man behind Mr. Stewart's chair, and another behind Lady Maxwell's; then the door closed again as Mr. Boyd with the magistrate and a constable carrying a candle came out.

"This way, sir," said the servant; and the three crossed the hall, and passing close by Anthony, went up the broad oak staircase that led to the upper rooms. Then the minutes passed away; from upstairs came the noise of doors opening and shutting, and footsteps passing overhead; from the inner hall the sound of low talking, and a few sobs now and again from a frightened maid; from Sir Nicholas' room all was quiet except once when Mr. Stewart's laugh, high and natural, rang out. Anthony thought of that strong brisk face he had seen in the candlelight; and wondered how he could laugh, with death so imminent-and worse than death; and a warmth of admiration and respect glowed at the lad's heart. The man by Anthony sighed and shifted his feet.

"What is it for?" whispered the lad at last.

"I mustn't speak to you, sir," said the man.

At last the footsteps overhead came to the top of the stairs. The magistrate's voice called out sharply and impatiently:

"Come along, come along"; and the three, all carrying bags and valises came downstairs again and crossed the hall. Again the door opened as they went in, leaving the luggage on the floor; and Anthony caught another glimpse of the four still seated round the table; but Sir Nicholas' head was bowed upon his hands.

Then again the door closed; and there was silence.

Once more it was flung open, and Anthony saw the interior of the room plainly. The four were standing up, Mr. Stewart was bowing to Lady Maxwell; the magistrate stood close beside him; then a couple of men stepped up to the young man's side as he turned away, and the three came out into the hall and stood waiting by the little heap of luggage. Mr. Frankland came next, with the man-servant close beside him, and the rest of the men behind; and the last closed the door and stood by it. There was a dead silence; Anthony sprang to his feet in uncontrollable excitement. What was happening? Again the door opened, and the men made room as Mistress Margaret came out, and the door shut.

She came swiftly across, with her little air of dignity and confidence, towards Anthony, who was standing forward.

"Why, Master Anthony," she said, "dear lad; I did not know they had kept you," and she took his hand.

"What is it, what is it?" he whispered sharply.

"Hush," she said; and the two stood together in silence.

The moments passed; Anthony could hear the quick thumping beat of his own heart, and the breathing of Mistress Margaret; but the hall was perfectly quiet, where the magistrate with the prisoner and his men stood in an irregular dark group with the candle behind them; and no sound came from the room beyond.

Then the handle turned, and a crack of light showed; but no further sound; then the door opened wide, a flood of light poured out and Sir Nicholas tottered into the hall.

"Margaret, Margaret," he cried. "Where are you? Go to her."

There was a strange moaning sound from the brightly lighted room. The old lady dropped Anthony's hand and moved swiftly and unfalteringly across, and once more the door closed behind her.

There was a sharp word of command from the magistrate, and the sentries from every door left their posts, and joined the group which, with Sir Nicholas and his guest and Mr. Boyd in the centre, now passed out through the garden door.

The magistrate paused as he saw Anthony standing there alone.

"I can trust you, young gentleman," he said, "not to give the alarm till we are gone?"

Anthony nodded, and the magistrate passed briskly out on to the terrace, shutting the door behind him; there was a rush of footsteps and a murmur of voices and the hall was filled with the watching servants.

As the chorus of exclamations and inquiries broke out, Anthony ran straight through the crowd to the garden door, and on to the terrace. They had gone to the left, he supposed, but he hesitated a moment to listen; then he heard the stamp of horses' feet and the jingle of saddlery, and saw the glare of torches through the yew hedge; and he turned quickly and ran along the terrace, past the flood of light that poured out from the supper room, and down the path that led to the side-door opposite the Rectory. It was very dark, and he stumbled once or twice; then he came to the two or three stairs that led down to the door in the wall, and turned off among the bushes, creeping on hands and feet till he reached the wall, low on this side, but deep on the other; and looked over.

The pursuivants with their men had formed a circle round the two prisoners, who were already mounted and who sat looking about them as the luggage was being strapped to their saddles before and behind; the bridles were lifted forward over the horses' heads, and a couple of the guard held each rein. The groom who had brought round the two horses for Mr. Stewart and himself stood white-faced and staring, with his back to the Rectory wall. The magistrate was just mounting at a little distance his own horse, which was held by the Rectory boy. Mr. Boyd, it seemed, was to walk with the men. Two or three torches were burning by now, and every detail was distinct to Anthony, as he crouched among the dry leaves and peered down on to the group just beneath.

Sir Nicholas' face was turned away from him; but his head was sunk on his breast, and he did not stir or lift it as his horse stamped at the strapping on of the valise Mr. Boyd had packed for him. Mr. Stewart sat erect and motionless, and his face as Anthony saw it was confident and fearless.

Then suddenly the door in the Rectory wall opposite was flung open, and a figure in flying black skirts, but hatless, rushed out and through the guard straight up to the old man's knee. There was a shout from the men and a movement to pull him off, but the magistrate who was on his horse and just outside the circle spoke sharply, and the men fell back.

"Oh, Sir Nicholas, Sir Nicholas," sobbed the minister, his face half buried in the saddle. Anthony saw his shoulders shaking, and his hands clutching at the old man's knee. "Forgive me, forgive me."

There was no answer from Sir Nicholas; he still sat unmoved, his chin on his breast, as the Rector sobbed and moaned at his stirrup.

"There, there," said the magistrate decidedly, over the heads of the guard, "that is enough, Mr. Dent"; and he made a motion with his hand.

A couple of men took the minister by the shoulders and drew him, still crying out to Sir Nicholas, outside the group; and he stood there dazed and groping with his hands. There was a word of command; and the guard moved off at a sharp walk, with the horses in the centre, and as they turned, the lad saw in the torchlight the old man's face drawn and wrinkled with sorrow, and great tears running down it.

The Rector leaned against his own wall, with his hands over his face; and Anthony looked at him with growing suspicion and terror as the flare of the torches on the trees faded, and the noise of the troop died away round the corner.

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