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   Chapter 18 A MESSAGE FROM THE CITY

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 30114

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Sir Francis Walsingham sat in his private room a month after Father Campion's death.

He had settled down again now to his work which had been so grievously interrupted by his mission to France in connection with a new treaty between that country and England in the previous year. The secret detective service that he had inaugurated in England chiefly for the protection of the Queen's person was a vast and complicated business, and the superintendence of this, in addition to the other affairs of his office, made him an exceedingly busy man. England was honeycombed with mines and countermines both in the political and the religious world, and it needed all this man's brilliant and trained faculties to keep abreast with them. His spies and agents were everywhere; and not only in England: they circled round Mary of Scotland like flies round a wounded creature, seeking to settle and penetrate wherever an opening showed itself. These Scottish troubles would have been enough for any ordinary man; but Walsingham was indefatigable, and his agents were in every prison, lurking round corridors in private houses, found alike in thieves' kitchens and at gentlemen's tables.

Just at present Walsingham was anxious to give all the attention he could to Scottish affairs; and on this wet dreary Thursday morning in January as he sat before his bureau, he was meditating how to deal with an affair that had come to him from the heart of London, and how if possible to shift the conduct of it on to other shoulders.

He sat and drummed his fingers on the desk, and stared meditatively at the pigeon-holes before him. His was an interesting face, with large, melancholy, and almost fanatical eyes, and a poet's mouth and forehead; but it was probably exactly his imaginative faculties that enabled him to picture public affairs from the points of view of the very various persons concerned in them; and thereby to cope with the complications arising out of these conflicting interests.

He stroked his pointed beard once or twice, and then struck a hand-bell at his side; and a servant entered.

"If Mr. Lackington is below," he said, "show him here immediately," and the servant went out.

Lackington, sometime servant to Sir Nicholas Maxwell, had entered Sir Francis' service instead, at the same time that he had exchanged the Catholic for the Protestant religion; and he was now one of his most trusted agents. But he had been in so many matters connected with recusancy, that a large number of the papists in London were beginning to know him by sight; and the affairs were becoming more and more scarce in which he could be employed among Catholics with any hope of success. It was his custom to call morning by morning at Sir Francis' office and receive his instructions; and just now he had returned from business in the country. Presently he entered, closing the door behind him, and bowed profoundly to his master.

"I have a matter on hand, Lackington," said Sir Francis, without looking at him, and without any salutation beyond a glance and a nod as he entered,-"a matter which I have not leisure to look into, as it is not, I think, anything more than mere religion; but which might, I think, repay you for your trouble, if you can manage it in any way. But it is a troublesome business. These are the facts.

"No. 3 Newman's Court, in the City, has been a suspected house for some while. I have had it watched, and there is no doubt that the papists use it. I thought at first that the Scots were mixed up with it; but that is not so. Yesterday, a boy of twelve years old, left the house in the afternoon, and was followed to a number of houses, of which I will give you the list presently; and was finally arrested in Paul's Churchyard and brought here. I frightened him with talk of the rack; and I think I have the truth out of him now; I have tested him in the usual ways-and all that I can find is that the house is used for mass now and then; and that he was going to the papists' houses yesterday to bid them come for next Sunday morning. But he was stopped too soon: he had not yet told the priest to come. Now unless the priest is told to-night by one whom he trusts, there will be no mass on Sunday, and the nest of papists will escape us. It is of no use to send the boy; as he will betray all by his behaviour, even if we frighten him into saying what we wish to the priest. I suppose it is of no use your going to the priest and feigning to be a Catholic messenger; and I cannot at this moment see what is to be done. If there were anything beyond mere religion in this, I would spare no pains to hunt them out; but it is not worth my while. Yet there is the reward; and if you think that you can do anything, you can have it for your pains. I can spare you till Monday, and of course you shall have what men you will to surround the house and take them at mass, if you can but get the priest there."

"Thank you, sir," said Lackington deferentially. "Have I your honour's leave to see the boy in your presence?"

Walsingham struck the bell again.

"Bring the lad that is locked in the steward's parlour," he said, when the servant appeared.-"Sit down, Lackington, and examine him when he comes."

And Sir Francis took down some papers from a pigeon-hole, sorted out one or two, and saying, "Here are his statements," handed them to the agent; who began to glance through them at once. Walsingham then turned to his table again and began to go on with his letters.

In a moment or two the door opened, and a little lad of twelve years old, came in, followed by the servant.

"That will do," said Walsingham, without looking up; "You can leave him here," and the servant went out. The boy stood back against the wall by the door, his face was white and his eyes full of horror, and he looked in a dazed way at the two men.

"What is your name, boy?" began Lackington in a sharp, judicial tone.

"John Belton," said the lad in a tremulous voice.

"And you are a little papist?" asked the agent.

"No sir; a Protestant."

"Then how is it that you go on errands for papists?"

"I am a servant, sir," said the boy imploringly.

Lackington turned the papers over for a moment or two.

"Now you know," he began again in a threatening voice, "that this gentleman has power to put you on the rack; you know what that is?"

The boy nodded in mute white-faced terror.

"Well, now, he will hear all you say; and will know whether you say the truth or not. Now tell me if you still hold to what you said yesterday."

And then Lackington with the aid of the papers ran quickly over the story that Sir Francis had related. "Now do you mean to tell me, John Belton," he added, "that you, a Protestant, and a lad of twelve, are employed on this work by papists, to gather them for mass?"

The boy looked at him with the same earnest horror.

"Yes, sir, yes, sir," he said, and there was a piteous sob in his voice. "Indeed it is all true: but I do not often go on these messages for my master. Mr. Roger generally goes: but he is sick."

"Oho!" said Lackington, "you did not say that yesterday."

The boy was terrified.

"No, sir," he cried out miserably, "the gentleman did not ask me."

"Well, who is Mr. Roger? What is he like?"

"He is my master's servant, sir; and he wears a patch over his eye; and stutters a little in his speech."

These kinds of details were plainly beyond a frightened lad's power of invention, and Lackington was more satisfied.

"And what was the message that you were to give to the folk and the priest?"

"Please, sir, 'Come, for all things are now ready.'"

This was such a queer answer that Lackington gave an incredulous exclamation.

"It is probably true," said Sir Francis, without looking up from his letters; "I have come across the same kind of cypher, at least once before."

"Thank you, sir," said the agent. "And now, my boy, tell me this. How did you know what it meant?"

"Please, sir," said the lad, a little encouraged by the kinder tone, "I have noticed that twice before when Mr. Roger could not go, and I was sent with the same message, all the folks and the priest came on the next Sunday; and I think that it means that all is safe, and that they can come."

"You are a sharp lad," said the spy approvingly. "I am satisfied with you."

"Then, sir, may I go home?" asked the boy with hopeful entreaty in his voice.

"Nay, nay," said the other, "I have not done with you yet. Answer me some more questions. Why did you not go to the priest first?"

"Because I was bidden to go to him last," said the boy. "If I had been to all the other houses by five o'clock last night, then I was to meet the priest at Papists' Corner in Paul's Church. But if I had not done them-as I had not,-then I was to see the priest to-night at the same place."

Lackington mused a moment.

"What is the priest's name?" he asked.

"Please, sir, Mr. Arthur Oldham."

The agent gave a sudden start and a keen glance at the boy, and then smiled to himself; then he meditated, and bit his nails once or twice.

"And when was Mr. Roger taken ill?"

"He slipped down at the door of his lodging and hurt his foot, at dinner-time yesterday; and he could not walk."

"His lodging? Then he does not sleep in the house?"

"No sir; he sleeps in Stafford Alley, round the corner."

"And where do you live?"

"Please, sir, I go home to my mother nearly every night; but not always."

"And where does your mother live?"

"Please, sir, at 4 Bell's Lane."

Lackington remained deep in thought, and looked at the boy steadily for a minute or two.

"Now, sir; may I go?" he asked eagerly.

Lackington paid no attention, and he repeated his question. The agent still did not seem to hear him, but turned to Sir Francis, who was still at his letters.

"That is all, sir, for the present," he said. "May the boy be kept here till Monday?"

The lad broke out into wailing; but Lackington turned on him a face so savage that his whimpers died away into horror-stricken silence.

"As you will," said Sir Francis, pausing for a moment in his writing, and striking the bell again; and, on the servant's appearance, gave orders that John Belton should be taken again to the steward's parlour until further directions were received. The boy went sobbing out and down the passage again under the servant's charge, and the door closed.

"And the mother?" asked Walsingham abruptly, pausing with pen upraised.

"With your permission, sir, I will tell her that her boy is in trouble, and that if his master sends to inquire for him, she is to say he is sick upstairs."

"And you will report to me on Monday?"

"Yes, sir; by then I shall hope to have taken the crew."

Sir Francis nodded his head sharply, and the pen began to fly over the paper again; as Lackington slipped out.

* * *

Anthony Norris was passing through the court of Lambeth House in the afternoon of the same day, when the porter came to him and said there was a child waiting in the Lodge with a note for him; and would Master Norris kindly come to see her. He found a little girl on the bench by the gate, who stood up and curtseyed as the grand gentleman came striding in; and handed him a note which he opened at once and read.

"For the love of God," the note ran, "come and aid one who can be of service to a friend: follow the little maid Master Norris, and she will bring you to me. If you have any friends at Great Keynes, for the love you bear to them, come quickly."

Anthony turned the note over; it was unsigned, and undated. On his inquiry further from the little girl, she said she knew nothing about the writer; but that a gentleman had given her the note and told her to bring it to Master Anthony Norris at Lambeth House; and that she was to take him to a house that she knew in the city; she did not know the name of the house, she said.

It was all very strange, thought Anthony, but evidently here was some one who knew about him; the reference to Great Keynes made him think uneasily of Isabel and wonder whether any harm had happened to her, or whether any danger threatened. He stood musing with the note between his fingers, and then told the child to go straight down to Paul's Cross and await him there, and he would follow immediately. The child ran off, and Anthony went round to the stables to get his horse. He rode straight down to the city and put up his horse in the Bishop's stables, and then went round with his riding-whip in his hand to Paul's Cross.

It was a dull miserable afternoon, beginning to close in with a fine rain falling, and very few people were about; and he found the child crouched up against the pulpit in an attempt to keep dry.

"Come," he said kindly, "I am ready; show me the way."

The child led him along by the Cathedral through the churchyard, and then by winding passages, where Anthony kept a good look-out at the corners; for a stab in the back was no uncommon thing for a well-dressed gentleman off his guard. The houses overhead leaned so nearly together that the darkening sky disappeared altogether now and then; at one spot Anthony caught a glimpse high up of Bow Church spire; and after a corner or two the child stopped before a doorway in a little flagged court.

"It is here," she said; and before Anthony could stop her she had slipped away and disappeared through a passage. He looked at the house. It was a tumble-down place; the door was heavily studded with nails, and gave a most respectable air to the house: the leaded windows were just over his head, and tightly closed. There was an air of mute discretion and silence about the place that roused a vague discomfort in Anthony's mind; he slipped his right hand into his belt and satisfied himself that the hilt of his knife was within reach. Overhead the hanging windows and eaves bulged out on all sides; but there was no one to be seen; it seemed a place that had slipped into a backwater of the humming stream of the city. The fine rain still falling added to the dismal aspect of the little court. He looked round once more; and then rapped sharply at the door to which the child had pointed.

There was silence for at least a minute; then as he was about to knock again there was a faint sound overhead, and he looked up in time to see a face swiftly withdrawn from one of the windows. Evidently an occupant of the house had been examining the visitor. Then shuffling footsteps came along a passage within, and a light shone under the door. There was a noise of bolts being withdrawn, and the rattle of a chain; and then the handle turned and the door opened slowly inwards, and an old woman stood there holding an oil lamp over her head. This was not very formidable at any rate.

"I have been bidden to come here," he said, "by a letter delivered to me an hour ago."

"Ah," said the old woman, and looked at him peeringly, "then you are for Mr. Roger?"

"I daresay," said Anthony, a li

ttle sharply. He was not accustomed to be treated like this. The old woman still looked at him suspiciously; and then, as Anthony made a movement of impatience, she stepped back.

"Come in, sir," she said.

He stepped in, and she closed and fastened the door again behind him; and then, holding the oil-lamp high over her head, she advanced in her slippers towards the staircase, and Anthony followed. On the stairs she turned once to see if he was coming, and beckoned him on with a movement of her head. Anthony looked about him as he went up: there was nothing remarkable or suspicious about the house in any way. It was cleaner than he had been led to expect by its outside aspect; wainscoted to the ceiling with oak; and the stairs were strong and well made. It was plainly a very tolerably respectable place; and Anthony began to think from its appearance that he had been admitted at the back door of some well-to-do house off Cheapside. The banisters were carved with some distinction; and there were the rudimentary elements of linen-pattern design on the panels that lined the opposite walls up to the height of the banisters. The woman went up and up, slowly, panting a little; at each landing she turned and glanced back to see that her companion was following: all the doors that they passed were discreetly shut; and the house was perfectly dark except for the flickering light of the woman's lamp, and silent except for the noise of the footsteps and the rush of a mouse now and then behind the woodwork.

At the third landing she stopped, and came close up to Anthony.

"That is the door," she whispered hoarsely; and pointed with her thumb towards a doorway that was opposite the staircase. "Ask for Master Roger."

And then without saying any more, she set the lamp down on the flat head of the top banister and herself began to shuffle downstairs again into the dark house.

Anthony stood still a moment, his heart beating a little. What was this strange errand? and Isabel! what had she to do with this house buried away in the courts of the great city? As he waited he heard a door close somewhere behind him, and the shuffling footsteps had ceased. He touched the hilt of his knife once again to give himself courage; and then walked slowly across and rapped on the door. Instantly a voice full of trembling expectancy, cried to him to come in; he turned the handle and stepped into the fire-lit room.

It was extremely poorly furnished; a rickety table stood in the centre with a book or two and a basin with a plate, a saucepan hissed and bubbled on the fire; in the corner near the window stood a poor bed; and to this Anthony's attention was immediately directed by a voice that called out hoarsely:

"Thank God, sir, thank God, sir, you have come! I feared you would not."

Anthony stepped towards it wondering and expectant, but reassured. Lying in the bed, with clothes drawn up to the chin was the figure of a man. There was no light in the room, save that given by the leaping flames on the hearth; and Anthony could only make out the face of a man with a patch over one eye; the man stretched a hand over the bed clothes as he came near, and Anthony took it, a little astonished, and received a strong trembling grip of apparent excitement and relief: "Thank God, sir!" the man said again, "but there is not too much time."

"How can I serve you?" said Anthony, sitting on a chair near the bedside. "Your letter spoke of friends at Great Keynes. What did you mean by that?"

"Is the d-door closed, sir?" asked the man anxiously; stuttering a little as he spoke.

Anthony stepped up and closed it firmly; and then came back and sat down again.

"Well then, sir; I believe you are a friend of the priest Mr. M-Maxwell's."

Anthony shook his head.

"There is no priest of that name that I know."

"Ah," cried the man, and his voice shook, "have I said too much? You are Mr. Anthony Norris of the Dower House, and of the Archbishop's household?"...

"I am," said Anthony, "but yet--"

"Well, well," said the man, "I must go forward now. He whom you know as Mr. James Maxwell is a Catholic p-priest, known to many under the name of Mr. Arthur Oldham. He is in sore d-danger."

Anthony was silent through sheer astonishment. This then was the secret of the mystery that had hung round Mr. James so long. The few times he had met him in town since his return, it had been on the tip of his tongue to ask what he did there, and why Hubert was to be master of the Hall; but there was something in Mr. James' manner that made the asking of such a question appear an impossible liberty; and it had remained unasked.

"Well," said the man in bed, in anxious terror, "there is no mistake, is there?"

"I said nothing," said Anthony, "for astonishment; I had no idea that he was a priest. And how can I serve him?"

"He is in sore danger," said the man, and again and again there came the stutter. "Now I am a Catholic: you see how much I t-trust you sir. I am the only one in this house. I was entrusted with a m-message to Mr. Maxwell to put him on his guard against a danger that threatens him. I was to meet him this very evening at five of the clock; and this afternoon as I left my room, I slipped and so hurt my foot that I cannot put it to the ground. I dared not send a l-letter to Mr. Maxwell, for fear the child should be followed; I dared not send to another Catholic; nor indeed did I know where to find one whom Mr. M-Maxwell would know and trust, as he is new to us here; but I had heard him speak of his friend Mr. Anthony Norris, who was at Lambeth House; and I determined, sir, to send the child to you; and ask you to do this service for your friend; for an officer of the Archbishop's household is beyond suspicion. N-now, sir, will you do this service? If you do it not, I know not where to turn for help."

Anthony was silent. He felt a little uneasy. Supposing that there was sedition mixed up in this! How could he trust the man's story? How could he be certain in fact that he was a Catholic at all? He looked at him keenly in the fire-light. The man's one eye shone in deep anxiety, and his forehead was wrinkled; and he passed his hand nervously over his mouth again and again.

"How can I tell," said Anthony, "that all this is true?"

The man with an impatient movement unfastened his shirt at the neck and drew up on a string that was round his neck a little leather case.

"Th-there, sir," he stammered, drawing the string over his head. "T-take that to the fire and see what it is."

Anthony took it curiously, and holding it close to the fire drew off the little case; there was the wax medal stamped with the lamb, called Agnus Dei.

"Th-there," cried the man from the bed, "now I have p-put myself in your hands-and if more is w-wanted--" and as Anthony came back holding the medal, the man fumbled beneath the pillow and drew out a rosary.

"N-now, sir, do you believe me?"

It was felony to possess these things and Anthony had no more doubts.

"Yes," he said, "and I ask your pardon." And he gave back the Agnus Dei. "But there is no sedition in this?"

"N-none, sir, I give you my word," said the man, apparently greatly relieved, and sinking back on his pillow. "I will tell you all, and you can judge for yourself; but you will promise to be secret." And when Anthony had given his word, he went on.

"M-Mass was to have been said in Newman's Court on Sunday, at number 3, but that c-cursed spy Walsingham, hath had wind of it. His men have been lurking round there; and it is not safe. However, there is no need to say that to Mr. Maxwell; he will understand enough if you will give him a message of half a dozen words from me,-Mr. Roger. You can tell him that you saw me, if you wish to. But ah! sir, you give me your word to say no more to any one, not even to Mr. Maxwell himself, for it is in a public place. And then I will tell you the p-place and the m-message; but we must be swift, because the time is near; it is at five of the clock that he will look for a messenger."

"I give you my word," said Anthony.

"Well, sir, the place is Papists' Corner in the Cathedral, and the words are these, 'Come, for all things are now ready.' You know sir, that we Catholics go in fear of our lives, and like the poor hares have to double and turn if we would escape. If any overhears that message, he will never know it to be a warning. And it was for that that I asked your word to say no more than your message, with just the word that you had seen me yourself. You may tell him, of course sir, that Mr. Roger had a patch over his eye and st-stuttered a little in his speech; and he will know it is from me then. Now, sir, will you tell me what the message is, and the place, to be sure that you know them; and then, sir, it will be time to go; and God bless you, sir. God bless you for your kindness to us poor papists!"

The man seized Anthony's gloved hand and kissed it fervently once or twice.

Anthony repeated his instructions carefully. He was more touched than he cared to show by the evident gratitude and relief of this poor terrified Catholic.

"Th-that is right, sir; that is right; and now, sir, if you please, be gone at once; or the Father will have left the Cathedral. The child will be in the court below to show you the way out to the churchyard. God bless you, sir; and reward you for your kindness!"

And as Anthony went out of the room he heard benedictions mingled with sobs following him. The woman was nowhere to be seen; so he took the oil-lamp from the landing, and found his way downstairs again, unfastened the front door, and went out, leaving the lamp on the floor. The child was leaning against the wall opposite; he could just see the glimmer of her face in the heavy dusk.

"Come, my child," he said, "show me the way to the churchyard."

She came forward, and he began to follow her out of the little flagged court. He turned round as he left the court and saw high up against the blackness overhead a square of window lighted with a glow from within; and simultaneously there came the sound of bolts being shut in the door that he had just left. Evidently the old woman had been on the watch, and was now barring the door behind him.

It wanted courage to do as Anthony was doing, but he was not lacking in that; it was not a small matter to go to Papists' Corner and give a warning to a Catholic priest: but firstly, James Maxwell was his friend, and in danger: secondly, Anthony had no sympathy with religious persecution; and thirdly, as has been seen, the last year had made a really deep impression upon him: he was more favourably inclined to the Catholic cause than he had ever imagined to be possible.

As he followed the child through the labyrinth of passages, passing every now and then the lighted front of a house, or a little group of idlers (for the rain had now ceased) who stared to see this gentleman in such company, his head was whirling with questions and conjectures. Was it not after all a dishonourable act to the Archbishop in whose service he was, thus to take the side of the Papists? But that it was too late to consider now.-How strange that James Maxwell was a priest! That of course accounted at once for his long absence, no doubt in the seminary abroad, and his ultimate return, and for Hubert's inheriting the estates. And then he passed on to reflect as he had done a hundred times before on this wonderful Religion that allured men from home and wealth and friends, and sent them rejoicing to penury, suspicion, hatred, peril, and death itself, for the kingdom of heaven's sake.

Suddenly he found himself in the open space opposite the Cathedral-the child had again disappeared.

It was less dark here; the leaden sky overhead still glimmered with a pale sunset light; and many house-windows shone out from within. He passed round the south side of the Cathedral, and entered the western door. The building was full of deep gloom only pricked here and there by an oil-lamp or two that would presently be extinguished when the Cathedral was closed. The air was full of a faint sound, made up from echoes of the outside world and the footsteps of a few people who still lingered in groups here and there in the aisles, and talked among themselves. The columns rose up in slender bundles and faded into the pale gloom overhead; as he crossed the nave on the way to Papists' Corner far away to the east rose the dark carving of the stalls against the glimmering stone beyond. It was like some vast hall of the dead; the noise of the footsteps seemed like an insolent intrusion on this temple of silence; and the religious stillness had an active and sombre character of its own more eloquent and impressive than all the tumult that man could make.

As Anthony came to Papists' Corner he saw a very tall solitary figure passing slowly from east to west; it was too dark to distinguish faces; so he went towards it, so that at the next turn they would meet face to face. When he was within two or three steps the man before him turned abruptly; and Anthony immediately put out his hand smiling.

"Mr. Arthur Oldham," he said.

The man started and peered curiously through the gloom at him.

"Why Anthony!" he exclaimed, and took his hand, "what is your business here?" And they began slowly to walk westwards together.

"I am come to meet Mr. Oldham," he said, "and to give him a message; and this is it, 'Come, for all things are now ready!'"

"My dear boy," said James, stopping short, "you must forgive me; but what in the world do you mean by that?"

"I come from Mr. Roger," said Anthony, "you need not be afraid. He has had an accident and sent for me."

"Mr. Roger?" said James interrogatively.

"Yes," said Anthony, "he hath a patch over one eye; and stutters somewhat."

James gave a sigh of relief.

"My dear boy," he said, "I cannot thank you enough. You know what it means then?"

"Why, yes," said Anthony.

"And you a Protestant, and in the Archbishop's household?"

"Why, yes," said Anthony, "and a Christian and your friend."

"God bless you, Anthony," said the priest; and took his hand and pressed it.

They were passing out now under the west door, and stood together for a moment looking at the lights down Ludgate Hill. The houses about Amen Court stood up against the sky to their right.

"I must not stay," said Anthony, "I must fetch my horse and be back at Lambeth for evening prayers at six. He is stabled at the Palace here."

"Well, well," said the priest, "I thank God that there are true hearts like yours. God bless you again my dear boy-and-and make you one of us some day!"

Anthony smiled at him a little tremulously, for the gratitude and the blessing of this man was dear to him; and after another hand grasp, he turned away to the right, leaving the priest still half under the shadow of the door looking after him.

He had done his errand promptly and discreetly.

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