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   Chapter 13 SOME NEW LESSONS

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 29830

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The six years that followed Sir Nicholas' return and Hubert's departure for the North had passed uneventfully at Great Keynes. The old knight had been profoundly shocked that any Catholic, especially an agent so valuable as Mr. Stewart, should have found his house a death-trap; and although he continued receiving his friends and succouring them, he did so with more real caution and less ostentation of it. His religious zeal and discretion were further increased by the secret return to the "Old Religion" of several of his villagers during the period; and a very fair congregation attended Mass so often as it was said in the cloister wing of the Hall. The new rector, like his predecessor, was content to let the squire alone; and unlike him had no wife to make trouble.

Then, suddenly, in the summer of '77, catastrophes began, headed by the unexpected return of Hubert, impatient of waiting, and with new plans in his mind.

Isabel had been out with Mistress Margaret walking in the dusk one August evening after supper, on the raised terrace beneath the yews. They had been listening to the loud snoring of the young owls in the ivy on the chimney-stack opposite, and had watched the fierce bird slide silently out of the gloom, white against the blackness, and disappear down among the meadows. Once Isabel had seen him pause, too, on one of his return journeys, suspicious of the dim figures beneath, silhouetted on a branch against the luminous green western sky, with the outline of a mouse with its hanging tail plain in his crooked claws, before he glided to his nest again. As Isabel waited she heard the bang of the garden-door, but gave it no thought, and a moment after Mistress Margaret asked her to fetch a couple of wraps from the house for them both, as the air had a touch of chill in it. She came down the lichened steps, crossed the lawn, and passed into the unlighted hall. As she entered, the door opposite opened, and for a moment she saw the silhouette of a man's figure against the bright passage beyond. Her heart suddenly leapt, and stood still.

"Anthony!" she whispered, in a hush of suspense.

There was a vibration and a step beside her.

"Isabel!" said Hubert's voice. And then his arms closed round her for the first time in her life. She struggled and panted a moment as she felt his breath on her face; and he released her. She recoiled to the door, and stood there silent and panting.

"Oh! Isabel!" he whispered; and again, "Isabel!"

She put out her hand and grasped the door-post behind her.

"Oh! Hubert! Why have you come?"

He came a step nearer and she could see the faint whiteness of his face in the western glimmer.

"I cannot wait," he said, "I have been nearly beside myself. I have left the north-and I cannot wait so long."

"Well?" she said; and he heard the note of entreaty and anxiety in her voice.

"I have my plans," he answered; "I will tell you to-morrow. Where is my aunt?"

Isabel heard a step on the gravel outside.

"She is coming," she said sharply. Hubert melted into the dark, and she saw the opposite door open and let him out.

The next day Hubert announced his plans to Sir Nicholas, and a conflict followed.

"I cannot go on, sir," he said, "I cannot wait for ever. I am treated like a servant, too; and you know how miserably I am paid, I have obeyed you for six years, sir; and now I have thrown up the post and told my lord to his face that I can bear with him no longer."

Sir Nicholas' face, as he sat in his upright chair opposite the boy, grew flushed with passion.

"It is your accursed temper, sir," he said violently. "I know you of old. Wait? For what? For the Protestant girl? I told you to put that from your mind, sir."

Hubert did not propose as yet to let his father into all his plans.

"I have not spoken her name, sir, I think. I say I cannot wait for my fortune; I may be impatient, sir-I do not deny it."

"Then how do you propose to better it?" sneered his father.

"In November," said Hubert steadily, looking his father in the eyes, "I sail with Mr. Drake."

Sir Nicholas' face grew terrific. He rose, and struck the table twice with his clenched fist.

"Then, by God, sir, Mr. Drake may have you now."

Hubert's face grew white with anger; but he had his temper under control.

"Then I wish you good-day, sir," and he left the room.

When the boy had left the house again for London, as he did the same afternoon, Lady Maxwell tried to soothe the old man. It was impossible, even for her, to approach him before.

"Sweetheart," she said tranquilly, as he sat and glowered at his plate when supper was over and the men had left the room, "sweetheart, we must have Hubert down here again. He must not sail with Mr. Drake."

The old man's face flared up again in anger.

"He may follow his own devices," he cried. "I care not what he does. He has given up the post that I asked for him; and he comes striding and ruffling home with his hat cocked and-and--"; his voice became inarticulate.

"He is only a boy, sweetheart; with a boy's hot blood-you would sooner have him like that than a milk-sop. Besides-he is our boy."

The old man growled. His wife went on:

"And now that James cannot have the estate, he must have it, as you know, and carry on the old name."

"He has disgraced it," burst out the angry old man, "and he is going now with that damned Protestant to harry Catholics. By the grace of God I love my country, and would serve her Grace with my heart's blood-but that my boy should go with Drake--!" and again his voice failed.

It was a couple of days before she could obtain her husband's leave to write a conciliatory letter, giving leave to Hubert to go with Drake, if he had made any positive engagement (because, as she represented to Sir Nicholas, there was nothing actually wrong or disloyal to the Faith in it)-but entreating him with much pathos not to leave his old parents so bitterly.

* * *

"Oh, my dear son," the end of the letter ran, "your father is old; and God, in whose hand are our days, alone knows how long he will live; and I, too, my son, am old. So come back to us and be our dear child again. You must not think too hardly of your father's words to you; he is quick and hot, as you are, too-but indeed we love you dearly. Your room here is ready for you; and Piers wants a firm hand now over him, as your father is so old. So come back, my darling, and make our old hearts glad again."

But the weeks passed by, and no answer came, and the old people's hearts grew sick with suspense; and then, at last, in September the courier brought a letter, written from Plymouth, which told the mother that it was too late; that he had in fact engaged himself to Mr. Drake in August before he had come to Great Keynes at all; and that in honour he must keep his engagement. He asked pardon of his father for his hastiness; but it seemed a cold and half-hearted sorrow; and the letter ended by announcing that the little fleet would sail in November; and that at present they were busy fitting the ships and engaging the men; and that there would be no opportunity for him to return to wish them good-bye before he sailed. It was plain that the lad was angry still.

Sir Nicholas did not say much; but a silence fell on the house. Lady Maxwell sent for Isabel, and they had a long interview. The old lady was astonished at the girl's quietness and resignation.

Yes, she said, she loved Hubert with all her heart. She had loved him for a long while. No, she was not angry, only startled. What would she do about the difference in religion? Could she marry him while one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant? No, they would never be happy like that; and she did not know what she would do. She supposed she would wait and see. Yes, she would wait and see; that was all that could be done.-And then had come a silent burst of tears, and the girl had sunk down on her knees and hidden her face in the old lady's lap, and the wrinkled jewelled old hand passed quietly over the girl's black hair; but no more had been said, and Isabel presently got up and went home to the Dower House.

The autumn went by, and November came, and there was no further word from Hubert. Then towards the end of November a report reached them from Anthony at Lambeth that the fleet had sailed; but had put back into Falmouth after a terrible storm in the Channel. And hope just raised its head.

Then one evening after supper Sir Nicholas complained of fever and restlessness, and went early to bed. In the night he was delirious. Mistress Margaret hastened up at midnight from the Dower House, and a groom galloped off to Lindfield before morning to fetch the doctor, and another to fetch Mr. Barnes, the priest, from Cuckfield. Sir Nicholas was bled to reduce the fever of the pneumonia that had attacked him. All day long he was sinking. About eleven o'clock that night he fell asleep, apparently, and Lady Maxwell, who had watched incessantly, was persuaded to lie down; but at three o'clock in the morning, on the first of December, Mistress Margaret awakened her, and together they knelt by the bedside of the old man. The priest, who had anointed him on the previous evening, knelt behind, repeating the prayers for the dying.

Sir Nicholas lay on his back, supported by pillows, under the gloom of the black old four-posted bed. A wood-fire glowed on the hearth, and the air was fragrant with the scent of the burning cedar-logs. A crucifix was in the old man's hands; but his eyes were bright with fever, and his fingers every now and then relaxed, and then tightened their hold again on the cool silver of the figure of the crucified Saviour. His lips were moving tremulously, and his ruddy old face was pale now.

The priest's voice went on steadily; the struggle was beginning.

"Proficiscere, anima christiana, de hoc mundo.-Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Ghost, who was shed forth upon thee; In the name of Angels and Archangels; in the name of Thrones and Dominions; in the name of Principalities and Powers--"

Suddenly the old man, whose head had been slowly turning from side to side, ceased his movement, and his open mouth closed; he was looking steadily at his wife, and a look of recognition came back to his eyes.

"Sweetheart," he said; and smiled, and died.

* * *

Isabel did not see much of Mistress Margaret for the next few days; she was constantly with her sister, and when she came to the Dower House now and then, said little to the girl. There were curious rumours in the village; strangers came and went continually, and there was a vast congregation at the funeral, when the body of the old knight was laid to rest in the Maxwell chapel. The following day the air of mystery deepened; and young Mrs. Melton whispered to Isabel, with many glances and becks, that she and her man had seen lights through the chapel windows at three o'clock that morning. Isabel went into the chapel presently to visit the grave, and there was a new smear of black on the east wall as if a taper had been set too near.

The courier who had been despatched to announce to Hubert that his father had died and left him master of the Hall and estate, with certain conditions, returned at the end of the month with the news that the fleet had sailed again on the thirteenth, and that Hubert was gone with it; so Lady Maxwell, now more silent and retired than ever, for the present retained her old position and Mr. Piers took charge of the estate.

Although Isabel outwardly was very little changed in the last six years, great movements had been taking place in her soul, and if Hubert had only known the state of the case, possibly he would not have gone so hastily with Mr. Drake.

The close companionship of such an one as Mistress Margaret was doing its almost inevitable work; and the girl had been learning that behind the brilliant and even crude surface of the Catholic practice, there lay still and beautiful depths of devotion which she had scarcely dreamed of. The old nun's life was a revelation to Isabel; she heard from her bed in the black winter mornings her footsteps in the next room, and soon learnt that Mistress Margaret spent at least two hours in prayer before she appeared at all. Two or three times in the day she knew that she retired again for the same purpose, and again an hour after she was in bed, there were the same gentle movements next door. She began to discover, too, that for the Catholic, as well as for the Puritan, the Person of the Saviour was the very heart of religion; that her own devotion to Christ was a very languid flame by the side of the ardent inarticulate passion of this soul who believed herself His wedded spouse; and that the worship of the saints and the Blessed Mother instead of distracting the love of the Christian soul rather seemed to augment it. The King of Love stood, as she fancied sometimes, to Catholic eyes, in a glow of ineffable splendour; and the faces of His adoring Court reflected the ruddy glory on all sides; thus refracting the light of their central Sun, instead of, as she had thought, obscuring it.

Other difficulties, too, began to seem oddly unreal and intangible, when she had looked at them in the light of Mistress Margaret's clear old eyes and candid face. It was a real event in her inner life when she first began to understand what the rosary meant to Catholics. Mistress Corbet had told her what was the actual use of the beads; and how the mysteries of Christ's life and death were to be pondered over as the various prayers were said; but it had hitherto seemed to Isabel as if this method were an elaborate and superstitious substitute for reading the inspired record of the New Testament.

She had been sitting out in the little walled garden in front of the Dower House one morning on an early summer day after her father's death, and Mistress Margaret had come out in her black dress and stood for a moment looking at her irresolutely, framed in the dark doorway. Then she had come slowly across the grass, and Isabel had seen for the first time in her fingers a string of ivory beads. Mistress Margaret sat down on a garden chair a little way from her, and let her hands sink into her lap, still holding the beads. Isabel said nothing, but went on reading. Presently she looked up again, and the old lady's eyes were half-closed, and her lips just moving; and the beads passing slowly through her fingers. She looked almost like a child dreaming, in spite of her wrinkles and her snowy hair; the pale light of a serene soul lay on her face. This did not look like the mechanical performance that Isabel had always as

sociated with the idea of beads. So the minutes passed away; every time that Isabel looked up there was the little white face with the long lashes lying on the cheek, and the crown of snowy hair and lace, and the luminous look of a soul in conscious communion with the unseen.

When the old lady had finished, she twisted the beads about her fingers and opened her eyes. Isabel had an impulse to speak.

"Mistress Margaret," she said, "may I ask you something?"

"Of course, my darling," the old lady said.

"I have never seen you use those before-I cannot understand them."

"What is it," asked the old lady, "that you don't understand?"

"How can prayers said over and over again like that be any good?"

Mistress Margaret was silent for a moment.

"I saw young Mrs. Martin last week," she said, "with her little girl in her lap. Amy had her arms round her mother's neck, and was being rocked to and fro; and every time she rocked she said 'Oh, mother.'"

"But then," said Isabel, after a moment's silence, "she was only a child."

"'Except ye become like little children-'" quoted Mistress Margaret softly-"you see, my Isabel, we are nothing more than children with God and His Blessed Mother. To say 'Hail Mary, Hail Mary,' is the best way of telling her how much we love her. And then this string of beads is like Our Lady's girdle, and her children love to finger it, and whisper to her. And then we say our paternosters, too; and all the while we are talking she is shewing us pictures of her dear Child, and we look at all the great things He did for us, one by one; and then we turn the page and begin again."

"I see," said Isabel; and after a moment or two's silence Mistress Margaret got up and went into the house.

The girl sat still with her hands clasped round her knee. How strange and different this religion was to the fiery gospel she had heard last year at Northampton from the harsh stern preacher, at whose voice a veil seemed to rend and show a red-hot heaven behind! How tender and simple this was-like a blue summer's sky with drifting clouds! If only it was true! If only there were a great Mother whose girdle was of beads strung together, which dangled into every Christian's hands; whose face bent down over every Christian's bed; and whose mighty and tender arms that had held her Son and God were still stretched out beneath her other children. And Isabel, whose soul yearned for a mother, sighed as she reminded herself that there was but "one Mediator between God and man-the man, Christ Jesus."

And so the time went by, like an outgoing tide, silent and steady. The old nun did not talk much to the girl about dogmatic religion, for she was in a difficult position. She was timid certainly of betraying her faith by silence, but she was also timid of betraying her trust by speech. Sometimes she felt she had gone too far, sometimes not far enough; but on the whole her practice was never to suggest questions, but only to answer them when Isabel asked; and to occupy herself with affirmative rather than with destructive criticism. More than this she hesitated to do out of honour for the dead; less than this she dared not do out of love for God and Isabel. But there were three or four conversations that she felt were worth waiting for; and the look on Isabel's face afterwards, and the sudden questions she would ask sometimes after a fit of silence, made her friend's heart quicken towards her, and her prayers more fervent.

The two were sitting together one December day in Isabel's upstairs room and the girl, who had just come in from a solitary walk, was half kneeling on the window-seat and drumming her fingers softly on the panes as she looked out at the red western sky.

"I used to think," she said, "that Catholics had no spiritual life; but now it seems to me that in comparison we Puritans have none. You know so much about the soul, as to what is from God and what from the Evil One; and we have to grope for ourselves. And yet our Saviour said that His sheep should know His voice. I do not understand it." And she turned towards Mistress Margaret who had laid down her work and was listening.

"Dear child," she said, "if you mean our priests and spiritual writers, it is because they study it. We believe in the science of the soul; and we consult our spiritual guides for our soul's health, as the leech for our body's health."

"But why must you ask the priest, if the Lord speaks to all alike?"

"He speaks through the priest, my dear, as He does through the physician."

"But why should the priest know better than the people?" pursued Isabel, intent on her point.

"Because he tells us what the Church says," said the other smiling, "it is his business. He need not be any better or cleverer in other respects. The baker may be a thief or a foolish fellow; but his bread is good."

"But how do you know," went on Isabel, who thought Mistress Margaret a little slow to see her point-"how do you know that the Church is right?"

The old nun considered a moment, and then lifted her embroidery again.

"Why do you think," she asked, beginning to sew, "that each single soul that asks God's guidance is right?"

"Because the Holy Ghost is promised to such," said Isabel wondering.

"Then is it not likely," went on the other still stitching, "that the millions of souls who form Holy Church are right, when they all agree together?" Isabel moved a little impatiently.

"You see," went on Mistress Margaret, "that is what we Catholics believe our Saviour meant when He said that the gates of hell should not prevail against His Church."

But Isabel was not content. She broke in:

"But why are not the Scriptures sufficient? They are God's Word."

The other put down her embroidery again, and smiled up into the girl's puzzled eyes.

"Well, my child," she said, "do they seem sufficient, when you look at Christendom now? If they are so clear, how is it that you have the Lutherans, and the Anabaptists, and the Family of Love, and the Calvinists, and the Church of England, all saying they hold to the Scriptures alone. Nay, nay; the Scriptures are the grammar, and the Church is the dame that teaches out of it, and she knows so well much that is not in the grammar, and we name that tradition. But where there is no dame to teach, the children soon fall a-fighting about the book and the meaning of it."

Isabel looked at Mistress Margaret a moment, and then turned back again to the window in silence.

At another time they had a word or two about Peter's prerogatives.

"Surely," said Isabel suddenly, as they walked together in the garden, "Christ is the one Foundation of the Church, St. Paul tells us so expressly."

"Yes, my dear," said the nun, "but then Christ our Lord said: 'Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.' So he who is the only Good Shepherd, said to Peter, 'Feed My sheep'; and He that is Clavis David and that openeth and none shutteth said to him, 'I will give thee the keys, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.' That is why we call Peter the Vicar of Christ."

Isabel raised her eyebrows.

"Surely, surely--" she began.

"Yes, my child," said Mistress Margaret, "I know it is new and strange to you; but it was not to your grandfather or his forbears: to them, as to me, it is the plain meaning of the words. We Catholics are a simple folk. We hold that what our Saviour said simply He meant simply: as we do in the sacred mystery of His Body and Blood. To us, you know," she went on, smiling, with a hand on the girl's arm, "it seems as if you Protestants twisted the Word of God against all justice."

Isabel smiled back at her; but she was puzzled. The point of view was new to her. And yet again in the garden, a few months later, as they sat out together on the lawn, the girl opened the same subject.

"Mistress Margaret," she said, "I have been thinking a great deal; and it seems very plain when you talk. But you know our great divines could answer you, though I cannot. My father was no Papist; and Dr. Grindal and the Bishops are all wise men. How do you answer that?"

The nun looked silently down at the grass a moment or two.

"It is the old tale," she said at last, looking up; "we cannot believe that the babes and sucklings are as likely to be right in such matters as the wise and prudent-even more likely, if our Saviour's words are to be believed. Dear child, do you not see that our Lord came to save all men, and call all men into His Church; and that therefore He must have marked His Church in such a manner that the most ignorant may perceive it as easily as the most learned? Learning is very well, and it is the gift of God; but salvation and grace cannot depend upon it. It needs an architect to understand why Paul's Church is strong and beautiful, and what makes it so; but any child or foolish fellow can see that it is so."

"I do not understand," said Isabel, wrinkling her forehead.

"Why this-that you are as likely to know the Catholic Church when you see it, as Dr. Grindal or Dr. Freake, or your dear father himself. Only a divine can explain about it and understand it, but you and I are as fit to see it and walk into it, as any of them."

"But then why are they not all Catholics?" asked Isabel, still bewildered.

"Ah!" said the nun, softly, "God alone knows, who reads hearts and calls whom He will. But learning, at least, has nought to do with it."

Conversations of this kind that took place now and then between the two were sufficient to show Mistress Margaret, like tiny bubbles on the surface of a clear stream, the swift movement of this limpid soul that she loved so well. But on the other hand, all the girl's past life, and most sacred and dear associations, were in conflict with this movement; the memory of her quiet, wise father rose and reproached her sometimes; Anthony's enthusiastic talk, when he came down from Lambeth, on the glorious destinies of the Church of England, of her gallant protest against the corruptions of the West, and of her future unique position in Christendom as the National Church of the most progressive country-all this caused her to shrink back terrified from the bourne to which she was drifting, and from the breach that must follow with her brother. But above all else that caused her pain was the shocking suspicion that her love for Hubert perhaps was influencing her, and that she was living in gross self-deception as to the sincerity of her motives.

This culminated at last in a scene that seriously startled the old nun; it took place one summer night after Hubert's departure in Mr. Drake's expedition. Mistress Margaret had seen Isabel to her room, and an hour later had finished her night-office and was thinking of preparing herself to bed, when there was a hurried tap at the door, and Isabel came quickly in, her face pale and miserable, her great grey eyes full of trouble and distraction, and her hair on her shoulders.

"My dear child," said the nun, "what is it?"

Isabel closed the door and stood looking at her, with her lips parted.

"How can I know, Mistress Margaret," she said, in the voice of a sleep-walker, "whether this is the voice of God or of my own wicked self? No, no," she went on, as the other came towards her, frightened, "let me tell you. I must speak."

"Yes, my child, you shall; but come and sit down first," and she drew her to a chair and set her in it, and threw a wrap over her knees and feet; and sat down beside her, and took one of her hands, and held it between her own.

"Now then, Isabel, what is it?"

"I have been thinking over it all so long," began the girl, in the same tremulous voice, with her eyes fixed on the nun's face, "and to-night in bed I could not bear it any longer. You see, I love Hubert, and I used to think I loved our Saviour too; but now I do not know. It seems as if He was leading me to the Catholic Church; all is so much more plain and easy there-it seems-it seems-to make sense in the Catholic Church; and all the rest of us are wandering in the dark. But if I become a Catholic, you see, I can marry Hubert then; and I cannot help thinking of that; and wanting to marry him. But then perhaps that is the reason that I think I see it all so plainly; just because I want to see it plainly. And what am I to do? Why will not our Lord shew me my own heart and what is His Will?"

Mistress Margaret shook her head gently.

"Dear child," she said, "our Saviour loves you and wishes to make you happy. Do you not think that perhaps He is helping you and making it easy in this way, by drawing you to His Church through Hubert. Why should not both be His Will? that you should become a Catholic and marry Hubert as well?"

"Yes," said Isabel, "but how can I tell?"

"There is only one thing to be done," went on the old lady, "be quite simple and quiet. Whenever your soul begins to be disturbed and anxious, put yourself in His Hands, and refuse to decide for yourself. It is so easy, so easy."

"But why should I be so anxious and disturbed, if it were not our Lord speaking and warning me?"

"In the Catholic Church," said Mistress Margaret, "we know well about all those movements of the soul; and we call them scruples. You must resist them, dear child, like temptations. We are told that if a soul is in grace and desires to serve God, then whenever our Lord speaks it is to bring sweetness with Him; and when it is the evil one, he brings disturbance. And that is why I am sure that these questionings are not from God. You feel stifled, is it not so, when you try to pray? and all seems empty of God; the waves and storms are going over you. But lie still and be content; and refuse to be disturbed; and you will soon be at peace again and see the light clearly."

Mistress Margaret found herself speaking simply in short words and sentences as to a child. She had seen that for a long while past the clouds had been gathering over Isabel, and that her soul was at present completely overcast and unable to perceive or decide anything clearly; and so she gave her this simple advice, and did her utmost to soothe her, knowing that such a clean soul would not be kept long in the dark.

She knelt down with Isabel presently and prayed aloud with her, in a quiet even voice; a patch of moonlight lay on the floor, and something of its white serenity seemed to be in the old nun's tones as she entreated the merciful Lord to bid peace again to this anxious soul, and let her see light again through the dark.

And when she had taken Isabel back again to her own room at last, and had seen her safely into bed, and kissed her good-night, already the girl's face was quieter as it lay on the pillow, and the lines were smoothed out of her forehead.

"God bless you!" said Mistress Margaret.

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