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   Chapter 22 A STATION OF THE CROSS

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 42149

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Philosophers tell us that the value of existence lies not in the objects perceived, but in the powers of perception. The tragedy of a child over a broken doll is not less poignant than the anguish of a worshipper over a broken idol, or of a king over a ruined realm. Thus the conflict of Isabel during those past autumn and winter months was no less august than the pain of the priest on the rack, or the struggle of his innocent betrayer to rescue him, or the misery of Lady Maxwell over the sorrows that came to her in such different ways through her two sons.

Isabel's soul was tender above most souls; and the powers of feeling pain and of sustaining it were also respectively both acute and strong. The sense of pressure, or rather of disruption, became intolerable. She was indeed a soul on the rack; if she had been less conscientious she would have silenced the voice of Divine Love that seemed to call to her from the Catholic Church; if she had been less natural and feminine she would have trampled out of her soul the appeal of the human love of Hubert. As it was, she was wrenched both ways. Now the cords at one end or the other would relax a little, and the corresponding relief was almost a shock; but when she tried to stir and taste the freedom of decision that now seemed in her reach, they would tighten again with a snap; and she would find herself back on the torture. To herself she seemed powerless; it appeared to her, when she reflected on it consciously, that it was merely a question as to which part of her soul would tear first, as to which ultimately retained her. She began to be terrified at solitude; the thought of the coming night, with its long hours of questioning and torment until the dawn, haunted her during the day. She would read in her room, or remain at her prayers, in the hopes of distracting herself from the struggle, until sleep seemed the supreme necessity: then, when she lay down, sleep would flap its wings in mockery and flit away, leaving her wide-awake staring at the darkness of the room or of her own eyelids, until the windows began to glimmer and the cocks to crow from farm buildings.

In spite of her first resolve to fight the battle alone, she soon found herself obliged to tell Mistress Margaret all that was possible; but she felt that to express her sheer need of Hubert, as she thought it, was beyond her altogether. How could a nun understand?

"My darling," said the old lady, "it would not be Calvary without the darkness; and you cannot have Christ without Calvary. Remember that the Light of the World makes darkness His secret place; and so you see that if you were able to feel that any human soul really understood, it would mean that the darkness was over. I have suffered that Night twice myself; the third time I think, will be in the valley of death."

Isabel only half understood her; but it was something to know that others had tasted the cup too; and that what was so bitter was not necessarily poisonous.

At another time as the two were walking together under the pines one evening, and the girl had again tried to show to the nun the burning desolation of her soul, Mistress Margaret had suddenly turned.

"Listen, dear child," she said, "I will tell you a secret. Over there," and she pointed out to where the sunset glowed behind the tree trunks and the slope beyond, "over there, in West Grinsted, rests our dear Lord in the blessed sacrament. His Body lies lonely, neglected and forgotten by all but half a dozen souls; while twenty years ago all England reverenced It. Behold and see if there be any sorrow-" and then the nun stopped, as she saw Isabel's amazed eyes staring at her.

But it haunted the girl and comforted her now and then. Yet in the fierceness of her pain she asked herself again and again, was it true-was it true? Was she sacrificing her life for a dream, a fairy-story? or was it true that there the body, that had hung on the cross fifteen hundred years ago, now rested alone, hidden in a silver pyx, within locked doors for fear of the Jews.-Oh! dear Lord, was it true?

Hubert had kept his word, and left the place almost immediately after his last interview; and was to return at Easter for his final answer. Christmas had come and gone; and it seemed to her as if even the tenderest mysteries of the Christian Religion had no touch with her now. She walked once more in the realm of grace, as in the realm of nature, an exile from its spirit. All her sensitive powers seemed so absorbed in interior pain that there was nothing in her to respond to or appreciate the most keen external impressions. As she awoke and looked up on Christmas morning early, and saw the frosted panes and the snow lying like wool on the cross-bars, and heard the Christmas bells peal out in the listening air; as she came downstairs and the old pleasant acrid smell of the evergreens met her, and she saw the red berries over each picture, and the red heart of the wood-fire; nay, as she knelt at the chancel rails, and tried in her heart to adore the rosy Child in the manger, and received the sacred symbols of His Flesh and Blood, and entreated Him to remember His loving-kindness that brought Him down from heaven-yet the whole was far less real, less intimate to her, than the sound of Hubert's voice as he had said good-bye two months ago; less real than one of those darting pangs of thought that fell on her heart all day like a shower of arrows.

And then, when the sensitive strings of her soul were stretched to anguish, a hand dashed across them, striking a wailing discord, and they did not break. The news of Anthony's treachery, and still more his silence, performed the incredible, and doubled her pain without breaking her heart.

On the Tuesday morning early Lady Maxwell had sent her note by a courier; bidding him return at once with the answer. The evening had come, and he had not appeared. The night passed and the morning came; and it was not till noon that the man at last arrived, saying he had seen Mr. Norris on the previous evening, and that he had read the note through there and then, and had said there was no answer. Surely there could be but one explanation of that-that no answer was possible.

It could not be said that Isabel actively considered the question and chose to doubt Anthony rather than to trust him. She was so nearly passive now, with the struggle she had gone through, that this blow came on her with the overwhelming effect of an hypnotic suggestion. Her will did not really accept it, any more than her intellect really weighed it; but she succumbed to it; and did not even write again, nor question the man further. Had she done this she might perhaps have found out the truth, that the man, a stupid rustic with enough shrewdness to lie, but not enough to lie cleverly, had had his foolish head turned by the buzz of London town and the splendour of Lambeth stables and the friendliness of the grooms there, and had got heavily drunk on leaving Anthony; that the answer which he had put into his hat had very naturally fallen out and been lost; and that when at last he returned to the country already eight hours after his time, and found the note was missing, he had stalwartly lied, hoping that the note was unimportant and that things would adjust themselves or be forgotten before a day of reckoning should arrive.

And so Isabel's power of resistance collapsed under this last blow; and her soul lay still at last, almost too much tormented to feel. Her last hope was gone; Anthony had betrayed his friend.

The week crept by, and Saturday came. She went out soon after dinner to see a sick body or two in an outlying hamlet; for she had never forgotten Mrs. Dent's charge, and, with the present minister's approval, still visited the sick one or two days a week at least. Then towards sunset she came homewards over some high ground on the outskirts of Ashdown Forest. The snow that had fallen before Christmas, had melted a week or two ago; and the frost had broken up; it was a heavy leaden evening, with an angry glow shining, as through chinks of a wall, from the west towards which she was going. The village lay before her in the gloom; and lights were beginning to glimmer here and there. She contrasted in a lifeless way that pleasant group of warm houses with their suggestions of love and homeliness with her own desolate self. She passed up through the village towards the Hall, whither she was going to report on the invalids to Lady Maxwell; and in the appearance of the houses on either side she thought there was an unaccustomed air. Several doors stood wide open with the brightness shining out into the twilight, as if the inhabitants had suddenly deserted their homes. Others were still dark and cold, although the evening was drawing on. There was not a moving creature to be seen. She passed up, wondering a little, through the gatehouse, and turned into the gravel sweep; and there stopped short at the sight of a great crowd of men and women and children, assembled in dead silence. Some one was standing at the entrance-steps, with his head bent as if he were talking to those nearest him in a low voice.

As she came up there ran a whisper of her name; the people drew back to let her through, and she passed, sick with suspense, to the man on the steps, whom she now recognised as Mr. James' body-servant. His face looked odd and drawn, she thought.

"What is it?" she asked in a sharp whisper.

"Mr. James is here, madam; he is with Lady Maxwell in the cloister-wing. Will you please to go up?"

"Mr. James! It is no news about Mr. Anthony-or-or Mr. Hubert!"

"No, madam." The man hesitated. "Mr. James has been racked, madam."

The man's voice broke in a great sob as he ended.

"Ah!"

She reeled against the post; a man behind caught her and steadied her; and there was a quick breath of pity from the crowd.

"Ah, poor thing!" said a woman's voice behind her.

"I beg your pardon, madam," said the servant. "I should not have--"

"And-and he is upstairs?"

"He and my lady are together, madam."

She looked at him a moment, dazed with the horror of it; and then going past him, pushed open the door and went through into the inner hall. Here again she stopped suddenly: it was half full of people, silent and expectant-the men, the grooms, the maid-servants, and even two or three farm-men. She heard the rustle of her name from the white faces that looked at her from the gloom; but none moved; and she crossed the hall alone, and turned down the lower corridor that led to the cloister-wing.

At the foot of the staircase she stopped again; her heart drummed in her ears, as she listened intently with parted lips. There was a profound silence; the lamp on the stairs had not been lighted, and the terrace window only let in a pale glimmer.

It was horrible to her! this secret presence of incarnate pain that brooded somewhere in the house, this silence of living anguish, worse than death a thousand times!

Where was he? What would it look like? Even a scream somewhere would have relieved her, and snapped the tension of the listening stillness that lay on her like a shocking nightmare. This lobby with its well-known doors-the banister on which her fingers rested-the well of the staircase up which she stared with dilated eyes-all was familiar; and yet, somewhere in the shadows overhead lurked this formidable Presence of pain, mute, anguished, terrifying....

She longed to run back, to shriek for help; but she dared not: and stood panting. She went up a couple of steps-stopped, listened to the sick thumping of her heart-took another step and stopped again; and so, listening, peering, hesitating, came to the head of the stairs.

Ah! there was the door, with a line of light beneath it. It was there that the horror dwelt. She stared at the thin bright line; waited and listened again for even a moan or a sigh from within, but none came.

Then with a great effort she stepped forward and tapped.

There was no answer; but as she listened she heard from within the gentle tinkle of some liquid running into a bowl, rhythmically, and with pauses. Then again she tapped, nervously and rapidly, and there was a murmur from the room; she opened the door softly, pushed it, and took a step into the room, half closing it behind her.

There were two candles burning on a table in the middle of the room, and on the near side of it was a group of three persons....

Isabel had seen in one of Mistress Margaret's prayer-books an engraving of an old Flemish Pietà-a group of the Blessed Mother holding in her arms the body of her Crucified Son, with the Magdalen on one side, supporting one of the dead Saviour's hands. Isabel now caught her breath in a sudden gasp; for here was the scene reproduced before her.

Lady Maxwell was on a low seat bending forwards; the white cap and ruff seemed like a veil thrown all about her head and beneath her chin; she was holding in her arms the body of her son, who seemed to have fainted as he sat beside her; his head had fallen back against her breast, and his pointed beard and dark hair and her black dress beyond emphasised the deathly whiteness of his face on which the candlelight fell; his mouth was open, like a dead man's. Mistress Margaret was kneeling by his left hand, holding it over a basin and delicately sponging it; and the whole air was fragrant and aromatic with some ointment in the water; a long bandage or two lay on the ground beside the basin. The evening light over the opposite roofs through the window beyond mingled with the light of the tapers, throwing a strange radiance over the group. The table on which the tapers stood looked to Isabel like a stripped altar.

She stood by the door, her lips parted, motionless; looking with great eyes from face to face. It was as if the door had given access to another world where the passion of Christ was being re-enacted.

Then she sank on her knees, still watching. There was no sound but the faint ripple of the water into the basin and the quiet breathing of the three. Lady Maxwell now and then lifted a handkerchief in silence and passed it across her son's face. Isabel, still staring with great wide eyes, began to sigh gently to herself.

"Anthony, Anthony, Anthony!" she whispered.

"Oh, no, no, no!" she whispered again under her breath. "No, Anthony! you could not, you could not!"

Then from the man there came one or two long sighs, ending in a moan that quavered into silence; he stirred slightly in his mother's arms; and then in a piteous high voice came the words "Jesu ... Jesu ... esto mihi ... Jesus."

Consciousness was coming back. He fancied himself still on the rack.

Lady Maxwell said nothing, but gathered him a little closer, and bent her face lower over him.

Then again came a long sobbing indrawn breath; James struggled for a moment; then opened his eyes and saw his mother's face.

Mistress Margaret had finished with the water; and was now swiftly manipulating a long strip of white linen. Isabel still sunk on her knees watched the bandage winding in and out round his wrist, and between his thumb and forefinger.

Then he turned his head sharply towards her with a gasp as if in pain; and his eyes fell on Isabel.

"Mistress Isabel," he said; and his voice was broken and untuneful.

Mistress Margaret turned; and smiled at her; and at the sight the intolerable compression on the girl's heart relaxed.

"Come, child," she said, "come and help me with his hand. No, no, lie still," she added; for James was making a movement as if to rise.

James smiled at her as she came forward; and she saw that his face had a strange look as if after a long illness.

"You see, Mistress Isabel," he said, in the same cracked voice, and with an infinitely pathetic courtesy, "I may not rise."

Isabel's eyes filled with sudden tears, his attempt at his old manner was more touching than all else; and she came and knelt beside the old nun.

"Hold the fingers," she said; and the familiar old voice brought the girl a stage nearer her normal consciousness again.

Isabel took the priest's fingers and saw that they were limp and swollen. The sleeve fell back a little as Mistress Margaret manipulated the bandage; and the girl saw that the forearm looked shapeless and discoloured.

She glanced up in swift terror at his face, but he was looking at his mother, whose eyes were bent on his; Isabel looked quickly down again.

"There," said Mistress Margaret, tying the last knot, "it is done."

Mr. James looked his thanks over his shoulder at her, as she nodded and smiled before turning to leave the room.

Isabel sat slowly down and watched them.

"This is but a flying visit, Mistress Isabel," said James. "I must leave to-morrow again."

He had sat up now, and settled himself in his seat, though his mother's arm was still round him. The voice and the pitiful attempt were terrible to Isabel. Slowly the consciousness was filtering into her mind of what all this implied; what it must have been that had turned this tall self-contained man into this weak creature who lay in his mother's arms, and fainted at a touch and sobbed. She could say nothing; but could only look, and breathe, and look.

Then it suddenly came to her mind that Lady Maxwell had not spoken a word. She looked at her; that old wrinkled face with its white crown of hair and lace had a new and tremendous dignity. There was no anxiety in it; scarcely even grief; but only a still and awful anguish, towering above ordinary griefs like a mountain above the world; and there was the supreme peace too that can only accompany a supreme emotion-she seemed conscious of nothing but her son.

Isabel could not answer James; and he seemed not to expect it; he had turned back to his mother again, and they were looking at one another. Then in a moment Mistress Margaret came back with a glass that she put to James' lips; and he drank it without a word. She stood looking at the group an instant or two, and then turned to Isabel.

"Come downstairs with me, my darling; there is nothing more that we can do."

They went out of the room together; the mother and son had not stirred again; and Mistress Margaret slipped her arm quickly round the girl's waist, as they went downstairs.

* * *

In the cloister beneath was a pleasant little oak parlour looking out on to the garden and the long south side of the house. Mistress Margaret took the little hand-lamp that burned in the cloister itself as they passed along silently together, and guided the girl through into the parlour on the left-hand side. There was a tall chair standing before the hearth, and as Mistress Margaret sat down, drawing the girl with her, Isabel sank down on the footstool at her feet, and hid her face on the old nun's knees.

There was silence for a minute or two. Mistress Margaret set down the lamp on the table beside her, and passed her hands caressingly over the girl's hands and hair; but said nothing, until Isabel's whole body heaved up convulsively once or twice, before she burst into a torrent of weeping.

"My darling," said the old lady in a quiet steady voice, "we should thank God instead of grieving. To think that this house should have given two confessors to the Church, father and son! Yes, yes, dear child, I know what you are thinking of, the two dear lads we both love; well, well, we do not know, we must trust them both to God. It may not be true of Anthony; and even if it be true-well, he must have thought he was serving his Queen. And for Hubert--"

Isabel lifted her face and looked with a dreadful questioning stare.

"Dear child," said the nun, "do not look like that. Nothing is so bad as not trusting God."

"Anthony, Anthony!"... whispered the girl.

"James told us the same story as the gentleman on Sunday," went on the nun. "But he said no hard word, and he does not condemn. I know his heart. He does not know why he is released, nor by whose order: but an order came to let him go, and his papers with it: and he must be out of England by Monday morning: so he leaves here to-morrow in the litter in which he came. He is to say mass to-morrow, if he is able."

"Mass? Here?" said the girl, in the same sharp whisper; and her sobbing ceased abruptly.

"Yes, dear; if he is able to stand and use his hands enough. They have settled it upstairs."

Isabel continued to look up in her face wildly.

"Ah!" said the old nun again. "You must not look like that. Remember that he thinks those wounds the most precious things in the world-yes-and his mother too!"

"I must be at mass," said Isabel; "God means it."

"Now, now," said Mistress Margaret soothingly, "you do not know what you are saying."

"I mean it," said Isabel, with sharp emphasis; "God means it."

Mistress Margaret took the girl's face between her hands, and looked steadily down into her wet eyes. Isabel returned the look as stea

dily.

"Yes, yes," she said, "as God sees us."

Then she broke into talk, at first broken and incoherent in language, but definite and orderly in ideas, and in her interpretations of these last months.

Kneeling beside her with her hands clasped on the nun's knee, Isabel told her all her struggles; disentangling at last in a way that she had never been able to do before, all the complicated strands of self-will and guidance and blindness that had so knotted and twisted themselves into her life. The nun was amazed at the spiritual instinct of this Puritan child, who ranged her motives so unerringly; dismissing this as of self, marking this as of God's inspiration, accepting this and rejecting that element of the circumstances of her life; steering confidently between the shoals of scrupulous judgment and conscience on the one side, and the hidden rocks of presumption and despair on the other-these very dangers that had baffled and perplexed her so long-and tracing out through them all the clear deep safe channel of God's intention, who had allowed her to emerge at last from the tortuous and baffling intricacies of character and circumstance into the wide open sea of His own sovereign Will.

It seemed to the nun, as Isabel talked, as if it needed just a final touch of supreme tragedy to loosen and resolve all the complications; and that this had been supplied by the vision upstairs. There she had seen a triumphant trophy of another's sorrow and conquest. There was hardly an element in her own troubles that was not present in that human Pietà upstairs-treachery-loneliness-sympathy-bereavement-and above all the supreme sacrificial act of human love subordinated to divine-human love, purified and transfigured and rendered invincible and immortal by the very immolation of it at the feet of God-all this that the son and mother in their welcome of pain had accomplished in the crucifixion of one and the heart-piercing of the other-this was light opened to the perplexed, tormented soul of the girl-a radiance poured out of the darkness of their sorrow and made her way plain before her face.

"My Isabel," said the old nun, when the girl had finished and was hiding her face again, "this is of God. Glory to His Name! I must ask James' leave; and then you must sleep here to-night, for the mass to-morrow."

* * *

The chapel at Maxwell Hall was in the cloister wing; but a stranger visiting the house would never have suspected it. Opening out of Lady Maxwell's new sitting-room was a little lobby or landing, about four yards square, lighted from above; at the further end of it was the door into her bedroom. This lobby was scarcely more than a broad passage; and would attract no attention from any passing through it. The only piece of furniture in it was a great tall old chest as high as a table, that stood against the inner wall beyond which was the long gallery that looked down upon the cloister garden. The lobby appeared to be practically as broad as the two rooms on either side of it; but this was effected by the outer wall being made to bulge a little; and the inner wall being thinner than inside the two living-rooms. The deception was further increased by the two living-rooms being first wainscoted and then hung with thick tapestry; while the lobby was bare. A curious person who should look in the chest would find there only an old dress and a few pieces of stuff. This lobby, however, was the chapel; and through the chest was the entrance to one of the priest's hiding holes, where also the altar-stone and the ornaments and the vestments were kept. The bottom of the chest was in reality hinged in such a way that it would fall, on the proper pressure being applied in two places at once, sufficiently to allow the side of the chest against the wall to be pushed aside, which in turn gave entrance to a little space some two yards long by a yard wide; and here were kept all the necessaries for divine worship; with room besides for a couple of men at least to be hidden away. There was also a way from this hole on to the roof, but it was a difficult and dangerous way; and was only to be used in case of extreme necessity.

It was in this lobby that Isabel found herself the next morning kneeling and waiting for mass. She had been awakened by Mistress Margaret shortly before four o'clock and told in a whisper to dress herself in the dark; for it was impossible under the circumstances to tell whether the house was not watched; and a light seen from outside might conceivably cause trouble and disturbance. So she had dressed herself and come down from her room along the passages, so familiar during the day, so sombre and suggestive now in the black morning with but one shaded light placed at the angles. Other figures were stealing along too; but she could not tell who they were in the gloom. Then she had come through the little sitting-room where the scene of last night had taken place and into the lobby beyond.

But the whole place was transformed.

Over the old chest now hung a picture, that usually was in Lady Maxwell's room, of the Blessed Mother and her holy Child, in a great carved frame of some black wood. The chest had become an altar: Isabel could see the slight elevation in the middle of the long white linen cloth where the altar-stone lay, and upon that again, at the left corner, a pile of linen and silk. Upon the altar at the back stood two slender silver candlesticks with burning tapers in them; and a silver crucifix between them. The carved wooden panels, representing the sacrifice of Isaac on the one half and the offering of Melchisedech on the other, served instead of an embroidered altar-frontal. Against the side wall stood a little white-covered folding table with the cruets and other necessaries upon it.

There were two or three benches across the rest of the lobby; and at these were kneeling a dozen or more persons, motionless, their faces downcast. There was a little wind such as blows before the dawn moaning gently outside; and within was a slight draught that made the taper flames lean over now and then.

Isabel took her place beside Mistress Margaret at the front bench; and as she knelt forward she noticed a space left beyond her for Lady Maxwell. A moment later there came slow and painful steps through the sitting-room, and Lady Maxwell came in very slowly with her son leaning on her arm and on a stick. There was a silence so profound that it seemed to Isabel as if all had stopped breathing. She could only hear the slow plunging pulse of her own heart.

James took his mother across the altar to her place, and left her there, bowing to her; and then went up to the altar to vest. As he reached it and paused, a servant slipped out and received the stick from him. The priest made the sign of the cross, and took up the amice from the vestments that lay folded on the altar. He was already in his cassock.

Isabel watched each movement with a deep agonising interest; he was so frail and broken, so bent in his figure, so slow and feeble in his movements. He made an attempt to raise the amice but could not, and turned slightly; and the man from behind stepped up again and lifted it for him. Then he helped him with each of the vestments, lifted the alb over his head and tenderly drew the bandaged hands through the sleeves; knit the girdle round him; gave him the stole to kiss and then placed it over his neck and crossed the ends beneath the girdle and adjusted the amice; then he placed the maniple on his left arm, but so tenderly! and lastly, lifted the great red chasuble and dropped it over his head and straightened it-and there stood the priest as he had stood last Sunday, in crimson vestments again; but bowed and thin-faced now.

Then he began the preparation with the servant who knelt beside him in his ordinary livery, as server; and Isabel heard the murmur of the Latin words for the first time. Then he stepped up to the altar, bent slowly and kissed it and the mass began.

Isabel had a missal, lent to her by Mistress Margaret; but she hardly looked at it; so intent was she on that crimson figure and his strange movements and his low broken voice. It was unlike anything that she had ever imagined worship to be. Public worship to her had meant hitherto one of two things-either sitting under a minister and having the word applied to her soul in the sacrament of the pulpit; or else the saying of prayers by the minister aloud and distinctly and with expression, so that the intellect could follow the words, and assent with a hearty Amen. The minister was a minister to man of the Word of God, an interpreter of His gospel to man.

But here was a worship unlike all this in almost every detail. The priest was addressing God, not man; therefore he did so in a low voice, and in a tongue as Campion had said on the scaffold "that they both understood." It was comparatively unimportant whether man followed it word for word, for (and here the second radical difference lay) the point of the worship for the people lay, not in an intellectual apprehension of the words, but in a voluntary assent to and participation in the supreme act to which the words were indeed necessary but subordinate. It was the thing that was done; not the words that were said, that was mighty with God. Here, as these Catholics round Isabel at any rate understood it, and as she too began to perceive it too, though dimly and obscurely, was the sublime mystery of the Cross presented to God. As He looked down well pleased into the silence and darkness of Calvary, and saw there the act accomplished by which the world was redeemed, so here (this handful of disciples believed), He looked down into the silence and twilight of this little lobby, and saw that same mystery accomplished at the hands of one who in virtue of his participation in the priesthood of the Son of God was empowered to pronounce these heart-shaking words by which the Body that hung on Calvary, and the Blood that dripped from it there, were again spread before His eyes, under the forms of bread and wine.

Much of this faith of course was still dark to Isabel; but yet she understood enough; and when the murmur of the priest died to a throbbing silence, and the worshippers sank in yet more profound adoration, and then with terrible effort and a quick gasp or two of pain, those wrenched bandaged hands rose trembling in the air with Something that glimmered white between them; the Puritan girl too drooped her head, and lifted up her heart, and entreated the Most High and most Merciful to look down on the Mystery of Redemption accomplished on earth; and for the sake of the Well-Beloved to send down His Grace on the Catholic Church; to strengthen and save the living; to give rest and peace to the dead; and especially to remember her dear brother Anthony, and Hubert whom she loved; and Mistress Margaret and Lady Maxwell, and this faithful household: and the poor battered man before her, who, not only as a priest was made like to the Eternal Priest, but as a victim too had hung upon a prostrate cross, fastened by hands and feet; thus bearing on his body for all to see the marks of the Lord Jesus.

* * *

Lady Maxwell and Mistress Margaret both rose and stepped forward after the Priest's Communion, and received from those wounded hands the Broken Body of the Lord.

And then the mass was presently over; and the server stepped forward again to assist the priest to unvest, himself lifting each vestment off, for Father Maxwell was terribly exhausted by now, and laying it on the altar. Then he helped him to a little footstool in front of him, for him to kneel and make his thanksgiving. Isabel looked with an odd wonder at the server; he was the man that she knew so well, who opened the door for her, and waited at table; but now a strange dignity rested on him as he moved confidently and reverently about the awful altar, and touched the vestments that even to her Puritan eyes shone with new sanctity. It startled her to think of the hidden Catholic life of this house-of these servants who loved and were familiar with mysteries that she had been taught to dread and distrust, but before which she too now was to bow her being in faith and adoration.

After a minute or two, Mistress Margaret touched Isabel on the arm and beckoned to her to come up to the altar, which she began immediately to strip of its ornaments and cloth, having first lit another candle on one of the benches. Isabel helped her in this with a trembling dread, as all the others except Lady Maxwell and her son were now gone out silently; and presently the picture was down, and leaning against the wall; the ornaments and sacred vessels packed away in their box, with the vestments and linen in another. Then together they lifted off the heavy altar stone. Mistress Margaret next laid back the lid of the chest; and put her hands within, and presently Isabel saw the back of the chest fall back, apparently into the wall. Mistress Margaret then beckoned to Isabel to climb into the chest and go through; she did so without much difficulty, and found herself in the little room behind. There was a stool or two and some shelves against the wall, with a plate or two upon them and one or two tools. She received the boxes handed through, and followed Mistress Margaret's instructions as to where to place them; and when all was done, she slipped back again through the chest into the lobby.

The priest and his mother were still in their places, motionless. Mistress Margaret closed the chest inside and out, beckoned Isabel into the sitting-room and closed the door behind them. Then she threw her arms round the girl and kissed her again and again.

"My own darling," said the nun, with tears in her eyes. "God bless you-your first mass. Oh! I have prayed for this. And you know all our secrets now. Now go to your room, and to bed again. It is only a little after five. You shall see him-James-before he goes. God bless you, my dear!"

She watched Isabel down the passage; and then turned back again to where the other two were still kneeling, to make her own thanksgiving.

Isabel went to her room as one in a dream. She was soon in bed again, but could not sleep; the vision of that strange worship she had assisted at; the pictorial details of it, the glow of the two candles on the shoulders of the crimson chasuble as the priest bent to kiss the altar or to adore; the bowed head of the server at his side; the picture overhead with the Mother and her downcast eyes, and the radiant Child stepping from her knees to bless the world-all this burned on the darkness. With the least effort of imagination too she could recall the steady murmur of the unfamiliar words; hear the rustle of the silken vestment; the stirrings and breathings of the worshippers in the little room.

Then in endless course the intellectual side of it all began to present itself. She had assisted at what the Government called a crime; it was for that-that collection of strange but surely at least innocent things-actions, words, material objects-that men and women of the same flesh and blood as herself were ready to die; and for which others equally of one nature with herself were ready to put them to death. It was the mass-the mass-she had seen-she repeated the word to herself, so sinister, so suggestive, so mighty. Then she began to think again-if indeed it is possible to say that she had ever ceased to think of him-of Anthony, who would be so much horrified if he knew; of Hubert, who had renounced this wonderful worship, and all, she feared, for love of her-and above all of her father, who had regarded it with such repugnance:-yes, thought Isabel, but he knows all now. Then she thought of Mistress Margaret again. After all, the nun had a spiritual life which in intensity and purity surpassed any she had ever experienced or even imagined; and yet the heart of it all was the mass. She thought of the old wrinkled quiet face when she came back to breakfast at the Dower House: she had soon learnt to read from that face whether mass had been said that morning or not at the Hall. And Mistress Margaret was only one of thousands to whom this little set of actions half seen and words half heard, wrought and said by a man in a curious dress, were more precious than all meditation and prayer put together. Could the vast superstructure of prayer and effort and aspiration rest upon a piece of empty folly such as children or savages might invent?

Then very naturally, as she began now to get quieter and less excited, she passed on to the spiritual side of it.

Had that indeed happened that Mistress Margaret believed-that the very Body and Blood of her own dear Saviour, Jesus Christ, had in virtue of His own clear promise-His own clear promise!-become present there under the hands of His priest? Was it, indeed,-this half-hour action,-the most august mystery of time, the Lamb eternally slain, presenting Himself and His Death before the Throne in a tremendous and bloodless Sacrifice-so august that the very angels can only worship it afar off and cannot perform it; or was it all a merely childish piece of blasphemous mummery, as she had been brought up to believe? And then this Puritan girl, who was beginning to taste the joys of release from her misery now that she had taken this step, and united a whole-hearted offering of herself to the perfect Offering of her Lord-now her soul made its first trembling movement towards a real external authority. "I believe," she rehearsed to herself, "not because my spiritual experience tells me that the Mass is true, for it does not; not because the Bible says so, because it is possible to interpret that in more than one way; but because that Society which I now propose to treat as Divine-the Representative of the Incarnate Word-nay, His very mystical Body-tells me so: and I rely upon that, and rest in her arms, which are the Arms of the Everlasting, and hang upon her lips, through which the Infallible Word speaks."

And so Isabel, in a timid peace at last, from her first act of Catholic faith, fell asleep.

She awoke to find the winter sun streaming into her room, and Mistress Margaret by her bedside.

"Dear child," said the old lady, "I would not wake you earlier; you have had such a short night; but James leaves in an hour's time; and it is just nine o'clock, and I know you wish to see him."

When she came down half an hour later she found Mistress Margaret waiting for her outside Lady Maxwell's room.

"He is in there," she said. "I will tell Mary"; and she slipped in. Isabel outside heard the murmur of voices, and in a moment more was beckoned in by the nun.

James Maxwell was sitting back in a great chair, looking exhausted and white. His mother, with something of the same look of supreme suffering and triumph, was standing behind his chair. She smiled gravely and sweetly at Isabel, as if to encourage her; and went out at the further door, followed by her sister.

"Mistress Isabel," said the priest, without any introductory words, in his broken voice, and motioning her to a seat, "I cannot tell you what joy it was to see you at mass. Is it too much to hope that you will seek admission presently to the Catholic Church?"

Isabel sat with downcast eyes. His tone was a little startling to her. It was as courteous as ever, but less courtly: there was just the faintest ring in it, in spite of its weakness, as of one who spoke with authority.

"I-I thank you, Mr. James," she said. "I wish to hear more at any rate."

"Yes, Mistress Isabel; and I thank God for it. Mr. Barnes will be the proper person. My mother will let him know; and I have no doubt that he will receive you by Easter, and that you can make your First Communion on that day."

She bowed her head, wondering a little at his assurance.

"You will forgive me, I know, if I seem discourteous," went on the priest, "but I trust you understand the terms on which you come. You come as a little child, to learn; is it not so? Simply that?"

She bowed her head again.

"Then I need not keep you. If you will kneel, I will give you my blessing."

She knelt down at once before him, and he blessed her, lifting his wrenched hand with difficulty and letting it sink quickly down again.

By an impulse she could not resist she leaned forward on her knees and took it gently into her two soft hands and kissed it.

"Oh! forgive him, Mr. Maxwell; I am sure he did not know." And then her tears poured down.

"My child," said his voice tenderly, "in any case I not only forgive him, but I thank him. How could I not? He has brought me love-tokens from my Lord."

She kissed his hand again, and stood up; her eyes were blinded with tears; but they were not all for grief.

Then Mistress Margaret came in from the inner room, and led the girl out; and the mother came in once more to her son for the ten minutes before he was to leave her.

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