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   Chapter 19 THE MASSING-HOUSE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 24663

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Newman's Court lay dark and silent under the stars on Sunday morning a little after four o'clock. The gloomy weather of the last three or four days had passed off in heavy battalions of sullen sunset clouds on the preceding evening, and the air was full of frost. By midnight thin ice was lying everywhere; pendants of it were beginning to form on the overhanging eaves; and streaks of it between the cobble-stones that paved the court. The great city lay in a frosty stillness as of death.

The patrol passed along Cheapside forty yards away from the entrance of the court, a little after three o'clock; and a watchman had cried out half an hour later, that it was a clear night; and then he too had gone his way. The court itself was a little rectangular enclosure with two entrances, one to the north beneath the arch of a stable that gave on to Newman's Passage, which in its turn opened on to St. Giles' Lane that led to Cheapside; the other, at the further end of the long right-hand side, led by a labyrinth of passages down in the direction of the wharfs to the west of London Bridge. There were three houses to the left of the entrance from Newman's Passage; the back of a ware-house faced them on the other long side with the door beyond; and the other two sides were respectively formed by the archway of the stable with a loft over it, and a blank high wall at the opposite end.

A few minutes after four o'clock the figure of a woman suddenly appeared soundlessly in the arch under the stables; and after standing there a moment advanced along the front of the houses till she reached the third door. She stood here a moment in silence, listening and looking towards the doorway opposite, and then rapped gently with her finger-nail eleven or twelve times. Almost immediately the door opened, showing only darkness within; she stepped in, and it closed silently behind her. Then the minutes slipped away again in undisturbed silence. At about twenty minutes to five the figure of a very tall man dressed as a layman slipped in through the door that led towards the river, and advanced to the door where he tapped in the same manner as the woman before him, and was admitted at once. After that people began to come more frequently, some hesitating and looking about them as they entered the court, some slipping straight through without a pause, and going to the door, which opened and shut noiselessly as each tapped and was admitted. Sometimes two or three would come together, sometimes singly; but by five o'clock about twenty or thirty persons had come and been engulfed by the blackness that showed each time the door opened; while no glimmer of light from any of the windows betrayed the presence of any living soul within. At five o'clock the stream stopped. The little court lay as silent under the stars again as an hour before. It was a night of breathless stillness; there was no dripping from the eaves; no sound of wheels or hoofs from the city; only once or twice came the long howl of a dog across the roofs.

Ten minutes passed away.

Then without a sound a face appeared like a pale floating patch in the dark door that opened on to the court. It remained hung like a mask in the darkness for at least a minute; and then a man stepped through on to the cobblestones. Something on his head glimmered sharply in the starlight; and there was the same sparkle at the end of a pole that he carried in his hand; he turned and nodded; and three or four men appeared behind him.

Then out of the darkness of the archway at the other end of the court appeared a similar group. Once a man slipped on the frozen stones and cursed under his breath, and the leader turned on him with a fierce indrawing of his breath; but no word was spoken.

Then through both entrances streamed dark figures, each with a steely glitter on head and breast, and with something that shone in their hands; till the little court seemed half full of armed men; but the silence was still formidable in its depth.

The two leaders came together to the door of the third house, and their heads were together; and a few sibilant consonants escaped them. The breath of the men that stood out under the starlight went up like smoke in the air. It was now a quarter-past five.

Three notes of a hand-bell sounded behind the house; and then, without any further attempt at silence, the man who had entered the court first advanced to the door and struck three or four thundering blows on it with a mace, and shouted in a resonant voice:

"Open in the Queen's Name."

The men relaxed their cautious attitudes, and some grounded their weapons; others began to talk in low voices; a small party advanced nearer their leaders with weapons, axes and halberds, uplifted.

By now the blows were thundering on the door; and the same shattering voice cried again and again:

"Open in the Queen's name; open in the Queen's name!"

The middle house of the three was unoccupied; but the windows of the house next the stable, and the windows in the loft over the archway, where the stable-boys slept, suddenly were illuminated; latches were lifted, the windows thrust open and heads out of them.

Then one or two more pursuivants came up the dark passage bearing flaming torches with them. A figure appeared on the top of the blank wall at the end, and pointed and shouted. The stable-boys in a moment more appeared in their archway, and one or two persons came out of the house next the stable, queerly habited in cloaks and hats over their night-attire.

* * *

The din was now tremendous; the questions and answers shouted to and fro were scarcely audible under the thunder that pealed from the battered door; a party had advanced to it and were raining blows upon the lock and hinges. The court was full of a ruddy glare that blazed on the half-armour and pikes of the men, and the bellowing and the crashes and the smoke together went up into the night air as from the infernal pit. It was a hellish transformation from the deathly stillness of a few minutes-a massacre of the sweet night silence. And yet the house where the little silent stream of dark figures had been swallowed up rose up high above the smoky cauldron, black, dark, and irresponsive.

* * *

There rose a shrill howling from behind the house, and the figure on the top of the wall capered and gesticulated again. Then footsteps came running up the passage, and a pursuivant thrust his way through to the leaders; and, in a moment or two, above the din a sharp word was given, and three or four men hurried out through the doorway by which the man had come. Almost at the same moment the hinges of the door gave way, the whole crashed inwards, and the attacking party poured into the dark entrance hall beyond. By this time the noise had wakened many in the houses round, and lights were beginning to shine from the high windows invisible before, and a concourse of people to press in from all sides. The approaches had all been guarded, but at the crash of the door some of the sentries round the nearer corners hurried into the court, and the crowd poured after them; and by the time that the officers and men had disappeared into the house, their places had been filled by the spectators, and the little court was again full of a swaying, seething, shouting mass of men, with a few women with hoods and cloaks among them-inquiries and information were yelled to and fro.

"It was a nest of papists-a wasp's nest was being smoked out-what harm had they done?-It was a murder; two women had had their throats cut.-No, no; it was a papists' den-a massing-house.-Well, God save her Grace and rid her of her enemies. With these damned Spaniards everywhere, England was going to ruin.-They had escaped at the back. No; they tried that way, but it was guarded.-There were over fifty papists, some said, in that house.-It was a plot. Mary was mixed up in it. The Queen was to be blown up with powder, like poor Darnley. The barrels were all stored there.-No, no, no! it was nothing but a massing-house.-Who was the priest?-Well, they would see him at Tyburn on a hurdle; and serve him right with his treasonable mummery.-No, no! they had had enough of blood.-Campion had died like a man; and an Englishman too-praying for his Queen."-The incessant battle and roar went up.

* * *

Meanwhile lights were beginning to shine everywhere in the dark house. A man with a torch was standing in a smoky glare half way up the stairs seen through the door, and the interior of the plain hall was illuminated. Then the leaded panes overhead were beginning to shine out. Steel caps moved to and fro; gigantic shadows wavered; the shadow of a halberd head went across a curtain at one of the lower windows.

A crimson-faced man threw open a window and shouted instructions to the sentry left at the door, who in answer shook his head and pointed to the bellowing crowd; the man at the window made a furious gesture and disappeared. The illumination began to climb higher and higher as the searchers mounted from floor to floor; thin smoke began to go up from one or two of the chimneys in the frosty air;-they were lighting straw to bring down any fugitives concealed in the chimneys. Then the sound of heavy blows began to ring out; they were testing the walls everywhere for hiding-holes; there was a sound of rending wood as the flooring was torn up. Then over the parapet against the stairs looked a steel-crowned face of a pursuivant. The crowd below yelled and pointed at first, thinking he was a fugitive; but he grinned down at them and disappeared.

Then at last came an exultant shout; then a breathless silence; then the crowd began to question and answer again.

"They had caught the priest!-No, the priest had escaped,-damn him!-It was half a dozen women. No, no! they had had the women ten minutes ago in a room at the back.-What fools these pursuivants were!-They had found the chapel and the altar.-What a show it would all make at the trial!-Ah! ah! it was the priest after all."

* * *

Those nearest the door saw the man with the torch on the stairs stand back a little; and then a dismal little procession began to appear round the turn.

First came a couple of armed men, looking behind them every now and then; then a group of half a dozen women, whom they had found almost immediately, but had been keeping for the last few minutes in a room upstairs; then a couple more men. Then there was a little space; and then more constables and more prisoners. Each male prisoner was guarded by two men; the women were in groups. All these came out to the court. The crowd began to sway back against the walls, pointing and crying out; and a lane with living walls was formed towards the archway that opened into Newman's Passage.

When the last pursuivants who brought up the rear had reached the door, an officer, who had been leaning from a first-floor window with the pale face of Lackington peering over his shoulder, gave a sharp order; and the procession halted. The women, numbering fourteen or fifteen, were placed in a group with some eight men in hollow square round them; then came a dozen men, each with a pursuivant on either side. But plainly they were not all come; they were still waiting for something; the officer and Lackington disappeared from the window; and for a moment too, the crowd was quiet.

A murmur of excitement began to rise again, as another group was seen descending the stairs within. The officer came first, looking back and talking as he came; then followed two pursuivants with halberds, and immediately behind them, followed by yet two men, walked James Maxwell in crimson vestments all disordered, with his hands behind him, and his comely head towering above the heads of the guard. The crowd surged forward, yelling; and the men at the door grounded their halberds sharply on the feet of the front row of spectators. As the priest reached the door, a shrill cry either from a boy or a woman pierced the roaring of the mob. "God bless you, father," and as he heard it he turned and smiled serenely. His face was white, and there was a little trickle of blood run down across it from some wound in his head. The rest of the prisoners turned towards him as he came out; and again he smil

ed and nodded at them. And so the Catholics with their priest stood a moment in that deafening tumult of revilings, before the officer gave the word to advance.

Then the procession set forward through the archway; the crowd pressing back before them, like the recoil of a wave, and surging after them again in the wake. High over the heads of all moved the steel halberds, shining like grim emblems of power; the torches tossed up and down and threw monstrous stalking shadows on the walls as they passed; the steel caps edged the procession like an impenetrable hedge; and last moved the crimson-clad priest, as if in some church function, but with a bristling barrier about him; then came the mob, pouring along the narrow passages, jostling, cursing, reviling, swelled every moment by new arrivals dashing down the alleys and courts that gave on the thoroughfare; and so with tramp and ring of steel the pageant went forward on its way of sorrows.

* * *

Before six o'clock Newman's Court was empty again, except for one armed figure that stood before the shattered door of No. 3 to guard it. Inside the house was dark again except in one room high up where the altar had stood. Here the thick curtains against the glass had been torn down, and the window was illuminated; every now and again the shadows on the ceiling stirred a little as if the candle was being moved; and once the window opened and a pale smooth face looked out for a moment, and then withdrew again. Then the light disappeared altogether; and presently shone out in another room on the same floor; then again after an half an hour or so it was darkened; and again reappeared on the floor below. And so it went on from room to room; until the noises of the waking city began, and the stars paled and expired. Over the smokeless town the sky began to glow clear and brilliant. The crowing of cocks awoke here and there; a church bell or two began to sound far away over the roofs. The pale blue overhead grew more and more luminous; the candle went out on the first floor; the steel-clad man stretched himself and looked at the growing dawn.

A step was heard on the stairs, and Lackington came down, carrying a small valise apparently full to bursting. He looked paler than usual; and a little hollow-eyed for want of sleep. He came out and stood by the soldier, and looked about him. Everywhere the court showed signs of the night's tumult. Crumbled ice from broken icicles and trampled frozen pools lay powdered on the stones. Here and there on the walls were great smears of black from the torches, and even one or two torn bits of stuff and a crushed hat marked where the pressure had been fiercest. Most eloquent of all was the splintered door behind him, still held fast by one stout bolt, but leaning crookedly against the dinted wall of the interior.

"A good night's work, friend," said Lackington to the man. "Another hive taken, and here"-and he tapped his valise-"here I bear the best of the honey."

The soldier looked heavily at the bag. He was tired too; and he did not care for this kind of work.

"Well," said Lackington again, "I must be getting home safe. Keep the door; you shall be relieved in one hour."

The soldier nodded at him; but still said nothing; and Lackington lifted the valise and went off too under the archway.

* * *

That same morning Lady Maxwell in her room in the Hall at Great Keynes awoke early before dawn with a start. She had had a dream but could not remember what it was, except that her son James was in it, and seemed to be in trouble. He was calling on her to save him, she thought, and awoke at the sound of his voice. She often dreamt of him at this time; for the life of a seminary priest was laid with snares and dangers. But this dream seemed worse than all.

She struck a light, and looked timidly round the room; it seemed still ringing with his voice. A great tapestry in a frame hung over the mantelpiece, Act?on followed by his hounds; the hunter panted as he ran, and was looking back over his shoulder; and the long-jawed dogs streamed behind him down a little hill.

So strong was the dream upon the old lady that she felt restless, and presently got up and went to the window and opened a shutter to look out. A white statue or two beyond the terrace glimmered in the dusk, and the stars were bright in the clear frosty night overhead. She closed the shutter and went back again to bed; but could not sleep. Again and again as she was dozing off, something would startle her wide awake again: sometimes it was a glimpse of James' face; sometimes he seemed to be hurrying away from her down an endless passage with closed doors; he was dressed in something crimson. She tried to cry out, her voice would not rise above a whisper. Sometimes it was the dream of his voice; and once she started up crying out, "I am coming, my son." Then at last she awoke again at the sound of footsteps coming along the corridor outside; and stared fearfully at the door to see what would enter. But it was only the maid come to call her mistress. Lady Maxwell watched her as she opened the shutters that now glimmered through their cracks, and let a great flood of light into the room from the clear shining morning outside.

"It is a frosty morning, my lady," said the maid.

"Send one of the men down to Mistress Torridon," said Lady Maxwell, "and ask her to come here as soon as it is convenient. Say I am well; but would like to see her when she can come."

There was no priest in the house that Sunday, so there could be no mass; and on these occasions Mistress Margaret usually stayed at the Dower House until after dinner; but this morning she came up within half an hour of receiving the message.

She did not pretend to despise her sister's terror, or call it superstitious.

"Mary," she said, taking her sister's jewelled old fingers into her own two hands, "we must leave all this to the good God. It may mean much, or little, or nothing. He only knows; but at least we may pray. Let me tell Isabel; a child's prayers are mighty with Him; and she has the soul of a little child still."

So Isabel was told; and after church she came up to dine at the Hall and spend the day there; for Lady Maxwell was thoroughly nervous and upset: she trembled at the sound of footsteps, and cried out when one of the men came into the room suddenly.

Isabel went again to evening prayer at three o'clock; but could not keep her thoughts off the strange nervous horror at the Hall, though it seemed to rest on no better foundation than the waking dreams of an old lady-and her mind strayed away continually from the darkening chapel in which she sat, so near where Sir Nicholas himself lay, to the upstairs parlour where the widow sat shaken and trembling at her own curious fancies about her dear son.

Mr. Bodder's sermon came to an end at last; and Isabel was able to get away, and hurry back to the Hall. She found the old ladies as she had left them in the little drawing-room, Lady Maxwell sitting on the window-seat near the harp, preoccupied and apparently listening for something she knew not what. Mistress Margaret was sitting in a tall padded porter's chair reading aloud from an old English mystic, but her sister was paying no attention, and looked strangely at the girl as she came in. Isabel sat down near the fire and listened; and as she listened the memory of that other day, years ago, came to her when she sat once before with these two ladies in the same room, and Mistress Margaret read to them, and the letter came from Sir Nicholas; and then the sudden clamour from the village. So now she sat with terror darkening over her, glancing now and again at that white expectant face, and herself listening for the first far-away rumour of the dreadful interruption that she now knew must come.

"The Goodness of God," read the old nun, "is the highest prayer, and it cometh down to the lowest part of our need. It quickeneth our soul and bringeth it on life, and maketh it for to waxen in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature; and readiest in grace: for it is the same grace that the soul seeketh, and ever shall seek till we know verily that He hath us all in Himself enclosed. For he hath no despite of that He hath made, nor hath He any disdain to serve us at the simplest office that to our body belongeth in nature, for love of the soul that He hath made to His own likeness. For as the body is clad in the clothes, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed. Yea, and more homely; for all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us without any likeness; for truly our Lover desireth that our soul cleave to Him with all its might, and that we be evermore cleaving to His goodness. For of all things that heart may think, this most pleaseth God, and soonest speedeth us. For our soul is so specially loved of Him that is highest, that it overpasseth the knowing of all creatures--"

"Hush," said Lady Maxwell suddenly, on her feet, with a lifted hand.

There was a breathless silence in the room; Isabel's heart beat thick and heavy and her eyes grew large with expectancy; it was a windless frosty night again, and the ivy outside on the wall, and the laurels in the garden seemed to be silently listening too.

"Mary, Mary," began her sister, "you--;" but the old lady lifted her hand a little higher; and silence fell again.

Then far away in the direction of the London road came the clear beat of the hoofs of a galloping horse.

Lady Maxwell bowed her head, and her hand slowly sank to her side. The other two stood up and remained still while the beat of the hoofs grew and grew in intensity on the frozen road.

"The front door," said Lady Maxwell.

Mistress Margaret slipped from the room and went downstairs; Isabel took a step or two forward, but was checked by the old lady's uplifted hand again. And again there was a breathless silence, save for the beat of the hoofs now close and imminent.

A moment later the front door was opened, and a great flood of cold air swept up the passages; the portrait of Sir Nicholas in the hall downstairs, lifted and rattled against the wall. Then came the clatter on the paved court; and the sound of a horse suddenly checked with the slipping up of hoofs and the jingle and rattle of chains and stirrups. There were voices in the hall below, and a man's deep tones; then came steps ascending.

Lady Maxwell still stood perfectly rigid by the window, waiting, and Isabel stared with white face and great open eyes at the door; outside, the flame of a lamp on the wall was blowing about furiously in the draught.

Then a stranger stepped into the room; evidently a gentleman; he bowed to the two ladies, and stood, with the rime on his boots and a whip in his hand, a little exhausted and disordered by hard riding.

"Lady Maxwell?" he said.

Lady Maxwell bowed a little.

"I come with news of your son, madam, the priest; he is alive and well; but he is in trouble. He was taken this morning in his mass-vestments; and is in the Marshalsea."

Lady Maxwell's lips moved a little; but no sound came.

"He was betrayed, madam, by a friend. He and thirty other Catholics were taken all together at mass."

Then Lady Maxwell spoke; and her voice was dead and hard.

"The friend, sir! What was his name?"

"The traitor's name, madam, is Anthony Norris."

The room turned suddenly dark to Isabel's eyes; and she put up her hand and tore at the collar round her throat.

"Oh no, no, no, no!" she cried, and tottered a step or two forward and stood swaying.

Lady Maxwell looked from one to another with eyes that seemed to see nothing; and her lips stirred again.

Mistress Margaret who had followed the stranger up, and who stood now behind him at the door, came forward to Isabel with a little cry, with her hands trembling before her. But before she could reach her, Lady Maxwell herself came swiftly forward, her head thrown back, and her arms stretched out towards the girl, who still stood dazed and swaying more and more.

"My poor, poor child!" said Lady Maxwell; and caught her as she fell.

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