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   Chapter 9 VILLAGE JUSTICE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 17842

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The village had never known such an awakening as on the morning that followed Sir Nicholas' arrest. Before seven o'clock every house knew it, and children ran half-dressed to the outlying hamlets to tell the story. Very little work was done that day, for the estate was disorganised; and the men had little heart for work; and there were groups all day on the green, which formed and re-formed and drifted here and there and discussed and sifted the evidence. It was soon known that the Rectory household had had a foremost hand in the affair. The groom, who had been present at the actual departure of the prisoners had told the story of the black figure that ran out of the door, and of what was cried at the old man's knee; and how he had not moved nor spoken in answer; and Thomas, the Rectory boy, was stopped as he went across the green in the evening and threatened and encouraged until he told of the stroke on the church-bell, and the Rectory key, and the little company that had sat all the afternoon in the kitchen over their ale. He told too how a couple of hours ago he had been sent across with a note to Lady Maxwell, and that it had been returned immediately unopened.

So as night fell, indignation had begun to smoulder fiercely against the minister, who had not been seen all day; and after dark had fallen the name "Judas" was cried in at the Rectory door half a dozen times, and a stone or two from the direction of the churchyard had crashed on the tiles of the house.

Mr. Norris had been up all day at the Hall, but he was the only visitor admitted. All day long the gate-house was kept closed, and the same message was given to the few horsemen and carriages that came to inquire after the truth of the report from the Catholic houses round, to the effect that it was true that Sir Nicholas and a friend had been taken off to London by the Justice from East Grinsted; and that Lady Maxwell begged the prayers of her friends for her husband's safe return.

Anthony had ridden off early with a servant, at his father's wish, to follow Sir Nicholas and learn any news of him that was possible, to do him any service he was able, and to return or send a message the next day down to Great Keynes; and early in the afternoon he returned with the information that Sir Nicholas was at the Marshalsea, that he was well and happy, that he sent his wife his dear love, and that she should have a letter from him before nightfall. He rode straight to the Hall with the news, full of chastened delight at his official importance, just pausing to tell a group that was gathered on the green that all was well so far, and was shown up to Lady Maxwell's own parlour, where he found her, very quiet and self-controlled, and extremely grateful for his kindness in riding up to London and back on her account. Anthony explained too that he had been able to get Sir Nicholas one or two comforts that the prison did not provide, a pillow and an extra coverlet and some fruit; and he left her full of gratitude.

His father had been up to see the ladies two or three times, and in spite of the difference in religion had prayed with them, and talked a little; and Lady Maxwell had asked that Isabel might come up to supper and spend the evening. Mr. Norris promised to send her up, and then added:

"I am a little anxious, Lady Maxwell, lest the people may show their anger against the Rector or his wife, about what has happened."

Lady Maxwell looked startled.

"They have been speaking of it all day long," he said, "they know everything; and it seems the Rector is not so much to blame as his wife. It was she who sent for the magistrate and gave him the key and arranged it all; he was only brought into it too late to interfere or refuse."

"Have you seen him?" asked the old lady.

"I have been both days," he said, "but he will not see me; he is in his study, locked in."

"I may have treated him hardly," she said, "I would not open his note; but at least he consented to help them against his friend." And her old eyes filled with tears.

"I fear that is so," said the other sadly.

"But speak to the people," she said, "I think they love my husband, and would do nothing to grieve us; tell them that nothing would pain either of us more than that any should suffer for this. Tell them they must do nothing, but be patient and pray."

There was a group still on the green near the pond as Isabel came up to supper that evening about six o'clock. Her father, who had given Lady Maxwell's message to the people an hour or two before, had asked her to go that way and send down a message to him immediately if there seemed to be any disturbance or threatening of it; but the men were very quiet. Mr. Musgrave was there, she saw, sitting with his pipe, on the stocks, and Piers, the young Irish bailiff, was standing near; they all were silent as the girl came up, and saluted her respectfully as usual; and she saw no signs of any dangerous element. There were one or two older women with the men, and others were standing at their open doors on all sides as she went up. The Rectory gate was locked, and no one was to be seen within.

Supper was laid in Sir Nicholas' room, as it generally was, and as it had been two nights ago; and it was very strange to Isabel to know that it was here that the arrest had taken place; the floor, too, she noticed as she came in, all about the threshold was scratched and dented by rough boots.

Lady Maxwell was very silent and distracted during supper; she made efforts to talk again and again, and her sister did her best to interest her and keep her talking; but she always relapsed after a minute or two into silence again, with long glances round the room, at the Vernacle over the fireplace, the prie-dieu with the shield of the Five Wounds above it, and all the things that spoke so keenly of her husband.

What a strange room it was, too, thought Isabel, with its odd mingling of the two worlds, with the tapestry of the hawking scene and the stiff herons and ladies on horseback on one side, and the little shelf of devotional books on the other; and yet how characteristic of its owner who fingered his cross-bow or the reins of his horse all day, and his beads in the evening; and how strange that an old man like Sir Nicholas, who knew the world, and had as much sense apparently as any one else, should be willing to sacrifice home and property and even life itself, for these so plainly empty superstitious things that could not please a God that was Spirit and Truth! So Isabel thought to herself, with no bitterness or contempt, but just a simple wonder and amazement, as she looked at the painted tokens and trinkets.

It was still daylight when they went upstairs to Lady Maxwell's room about seven, but the clear southern sky over the yew hedges and the tall elms where the rooks were circling, was beginning to be flushed with deep amber and rose. Isabel sat down in the window seat with the sweet air pouring in and looked out on to the garden with its tiled paths and its cool green squares of lawn, and the glowing beds at the sides. Over to her right the cloister court ran out, with its two rows of windows, bedrooms above with galleries beyond, as she knew, and parlours and cloisters below; the pleasant tinkle of the fountain in the court came faintly to her ears across the caw of the rooks about the elms and the low sounds from the stables and the kitchen behind the house. Otherwise the evening was very still; the two old ladies were sitting near the fireplace; Lady Maxwell had taken up her embroidery, and was looking at it listlessly, and Mistress Margaret had one of her devotional books and was turning the pages, pausing here and there as she did so.

Presently she began to read, without a word of introduction, one of the musings of the old monk John Audeley in his sickness, and as the tender lines stepped on, that restless jewelled hand grew still.

"As I lay sick in my languor

In an abbey here by west;

This book I made with great dolour,

When I might not sleep nor rest.

Oft with my prayers my soul I blest,

And said aloud to Heaven's King,

'I know, O Lord, it is the best

Meekly to take thy visiting.

Else well I wot that I were lorn

(High above all lords be he blest!)

All that thou dost is for the best;

By fault of Thee was no man lost,

That is here of woman born.'"

And then she read some of Rolle's verses to Jesus, the "friend of all sick and sorrowful souls," and a meditation of his on the Passion, and the tranquil thoughts and tender fragrant sorrows soothed the torn throbbing soul; and Isabel saw the old wrinkled hand rise to her forehead, and the embroidery, with the needle still in it slipped to the ground; as the holy Name "like ointment poured forth" gradually brought its endless miracle and made all sweet and healthful again.

Outside the daylight was fading; the luminous vault overhead was deepening to a glowing blue as the sunset contracted on the western horizon to a few vivid streaks of glory; the room was growing darker every moment; and Mistress Margaret's voice began to stumble over words.

The great gilt harp in the corner only gleamed here and there now in single lines of clear gold where the dying daylight fell on the strings. The room was full of shadows and the image of the Holy Mother and Child had darkened into obscurity in their niche. The world was silent now too; the rooks were gone home and the stir of the household below had ceased; and in a moment more Mistress Margaret's voice had ceased too, as she laid the book down.

Then, as if the world outside had waited for silence before speaking, there came a murmur of sound from the further side of the house. Isabel started up; surely there was anger in that low roar from the village; was it this that her father had feared? Had she been remiss? Lady Maxwell too sprang up and faced the window with wide large eyes.

"The letter!" she said; and took a quick step towards the door; but Mistress Margaret was with her instantly, with her arm about her.

"Sit down, Mary," she said, "they will bring it at once"; and her sister obeyed; and she sat waiting and looking towards the door, clasping and unclasping her hands as they lay on her lap; and Mistress Margaret stood by her, waiting and watching too. Isabel still stood by the window listening. Had she been mistaken then? The roar had sunk into silence for a moment; and there came back the quick beat of a horse's hoofs outside on the short drive between the gatehouse and the Hall. They were right, then; and even as she thought it, and as the wife that waited for news of her husband drew a quick breath and half rose in her seat at the sound of that shod messenger that bore them, again the roar swelled up louder than ever; and Isabel sprang down from the low step of the window-seat into the dusky room where the two sisters waited.

"What is that? What is that?" she whispered sharply.

There was a sound of opening doors, and of feet that ran in the house below; and Lady Maxwell rose up and put out her hand, as a man-servant dashed in with a letter.

"My lady," he said panting, and giving it to her, "they are attacking the Rectory."

Lady Maxwell, who was half-way to the window now, for light to read her husband's letter, paused at that.

"The Rectory?" she said. "Why-Margaret--" then she stopped, and Isabel close beside her, saw her turn resolutely from the great sealed letter in her hand to the door, and back again.

"Jervis told us, my lady; none saw him as he rode through-they were breaking down the gate."

Then Lady Maxwell, with a quick movement, lifted the letter to her lips and kissed it, and thrust it down somewhere out of sight in the folds of her dress.

"Come, Margaret," she said.

Isabel followed them down the stairs and out through the hall-door; and there, as they came out on to the steps that savage snarling roar swelled up from the green. There was laughter and hooting mixed with that growl of anger; but even the laughter was fierce. The gatehouse stood up black against the glare of torches, and the towers threw great swinging shadows on the ground and the steps of the Hall.

Isabel followed the two grey glimmering figures, and was astonished at the speed with which she had to go. The hoofs of the courier's horse rang on the cobbles of the stable-yard as they came down towards the gatehouse, and the two wings of the door were wide-open through which he had passed just now; but the porter was gone.

Ah! there was the crowd; but not at the Rectory. On the right the Rectory gate lay wide open, and a flood of light poured out from the house-door at the end of the drive. Before them lay the dark turf, swarming with black figures towards the lower end; and a ceaseless roar came from them. There were half a dozen torches down there, tossing to and fro; Isabel saw that the crowd was still moving down towards the stocks and the pond.

Now the two ladies in front of her were just coming up with the skirts of the crowd; and there was an exclamation or two of astonishment as the women and children saw who it was that was coming. Then there came the furious scream of a man, and the crowd parted, as three men came reeling out together, two of them trying with all their power to restrain a fighting, kicking, plunging man in long black skirts, who tore and beat with his hands. The three ladies stopped for a moment, close together; and simultaneously the struggling man broke free and dashed back into the crowd, screaming with anger and misery.

"Marion, Marion-I am coming-O God!"

And Isabel saw with a shock of horror that sent her crouching and clinging close to Mistress Margaret, that it was the Rector. But the two men were after him and caught him by the shoulders as he disappeared; and as they turned they faced Lady Maxwell.

"My lady, my lady," stammered one, "we mean him no harm. We--" But his voice stopped, as there came a sudden silence, rent by a high terrible shriek and a splash; followed in a moment by a yell of laughter and shouting; and Lady Maxwell threw herself into the crowd in front.

There were a few moments of jostling in the dark, with the reek and press of the crowd about her; and Isabel found herself on the brink of the black pond, with Lady Maxwell on one side, and Piers on the other keeping the crowd back, and a dripping figure moaning and sobbing in the trampled mud at Lady Maxwell's feet. There was silence enough now, and the ring of faces opposite stared astonished and open-mouthed at the tall old lady with her grey veiled head upraised, as she stood there in the torchlight and rated them in her fearless indignant voice.

"I am ashamed, ashamed!" cried Lady Maxwell. "I thought you were men. I thought you loved my husband; and-and me." Her voice broke, and then once more she cried again. "I am ashamed, ashamed of my village."

And then she stooped to that heaving figure that had crawled up, and laid hold tenderly of the arms that were writhed about her feet.

"Come home, my dear," Isabel heard her whisper.

It was a strange procession homeward up the trampled turf. The crowd had broken into groups, and the people were awed and silent as they watched the four women go back together. Isabel walked a little behind with her father and Anthony, who had at last been able to come forward through the press and join them; and a couple of the torchbearers escorted them. In front went the three, on one side Lady Maxwell, her lace and silk splashed and spattered with mud, and her white hands black with it, and on the other the old nun, each with an arm thrown round the woman in the centre who staggered and sobbed and leaned against them as she went, with her long hair and her draggled clothes streaming with liquid mud every step she took. Once they stopped, at a group of three men. The Rector was sitting up, in his torn dusty cassock, and Isabel saw that one of his buckled shoes was gone, as he sat on the grass with his feet before him, but quiet now, with his hands before him, and a dazed stupid look in his little black eyes that blinked at the light of the torch that was held over him; he said nothing as he looked at his wife between the two ladies, but his lips moved, and his eyes wandered for a moment to Lady Maxwell's face, and then back to his wife.

"Take him home presently," she said to the men who were with him-and then passed on again.

As they got through the gatehouse, Isabel stepped forward to Mistress Margaret's side.

"Shall I come?" she whispered; and the nun shook her head; so she with her father and brother stood there to watch, with the crowd silent and ashamed behind. The two torchbearers went on and stood by the steps as the three ladies ascended, leaving black footmarks as they went. The door was open and faces of servants peeped out, and hands were thrust out to take the burden from their mistress, but she shook her head, and the three came in together, and the door closed.

As the Norrises went back silently, the Rector passed them, with a little group accompanying him too; he, too, could hardly walk alone, so exhausted was he with his furious struggles to rescue his wife.

"Take your sister home," said Mr. Norris to Anthony; and they saw him slip off and pass his arm through the Rector's, and bend down his handsome kindly face to the minister's staring eyes and moving lips as he too led him homewards.

Even Anthony was hushed and impressed, and hardly spoke a word until he and Isabel turned off down the little dark lane to the Dower House.

"We could do nothing," he said, "father and I-until Lady Maxwell came."

"No," said Isabel softly, "she only could have done it."

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