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   Chapter 28 STANFIELD PLACE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 15828

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Life at Stanfield Place was wonderfully sweet to Anthony and Isabel after their exile abroad, for both of them had an intense love of England and of English ways. The very sight of fair-faced children, and the noise of their shrill familiar voices from the village street, the depths of the August woods round them, the English manners of living-all this was alive with a full deliberate joy to these two. Besides, there was the unfailing tenderness and gaiety of Mr. Buxton; and at first there was the pleasant company of Mary Corbet as well.

There was little or no anxiety resting on any of them. "God was served," as the celebration of mass was called, each morning in the little room where Anthony had made the exercises, and the three others were always present. It was seldom that the room was not filled to over-flowing on Sundays and holy-days with the household and the neighbouring Catholics.

Everything was, of course, perfection in the little chapel when it was furnished; as was all that Mr. Buxton possessed. There was a wonderful golden crucifix by an unknown artist, that he had picked up in his travels, that stood upon the altar, with the bird-types of the Saviour at each of the four ends; a pelican at the top, an eagle on the right supporting its young which were raising their wings for a flight, on the left a ph?nix amid flames, and at the foot a hen gathering her chickens under her wings-all the birds had tiny emerald eyes; the figure on the cross was beautifully wrought, and had rubies in hands and feet and side. There were also two silver altar-candlesticks designed by Marrina for the Piccolomini chapel in the church of St. Francis in Siena; and two more, plainer, for the Elevation. The vestments were exquisite; those for high festivals were cloth of gold; and the other white ones were beautifully worked with seed pearls, and jewelled crosses on the stole and maniple. The other colours, too, were well represented, and were the work of a famous convent in the south of France. All the other articles, too, were of silver: the lavabo basin, the bell, the thurible, the boat and spoon, and the cruets. It was a joy to all the Catholics who came to see the worship of God carried on with such splendour, when in so many places even necessaries were scarcely forthcoming.

There was a little hiding-hole between the chapel and the priest's room, just of a size to hold the altar furniture and the priests in case of a sudden alarm; and there were several others in the house too, which Mr. Buxton had showed to Anthony with a good deal of satisfaction, on the morning after his arrival.

"I dared not show them to you the last time you were here," he said, "and there was no need; but now there must be no delay. I have lately made some more, too. Now here is one," he said, stopping before the great carved mantelpiece in the hall.

He looked round to see that no servant was in the room, and then, standing on a settee before the fire, touched something above, and a circular hole large enough for a man to clamber through appeared in the midst of the tracery.

"There," he said, "and you will find some cured ham and a candle, with a few dates within, should you ever have need to step up there-which, pray God, you may not."

"What is the secret?" asked Anthony, as the tracery swung back into place, and his host stepped down.

"Pull the third roebuck's ears in the coat of arms, or rather push them. It closes with a spring, and is provided with a bolt. But I do not recommend that refuge unless it is necessary. In winter it is too hot, for the chimney passes behind it; and in summer it is too oppressive, for there is not too much air."

At the end of the corridor that led in the direction of the little old rooms where Anthony had slept in his visit, Mr. Buxton stopped before the portrait of a kindly-looking old gentleman that hung on the wall.

"Now there is an upright old man you would say; and indeed he was, for he was my own uncle, and made a godly end of it last year. But now see what a liar I have made of him!"

Mr. Buxton put his hand behind the frame, and the whole picture opened like a door showing a space within where three or four could stand. Anthony stepped inside and his friend followed him, and after showing him some clothes hanging against the wall closed the picture after them, leaving them in the dark.

"Now see what a sharp-eyed old fellow he is too," whispered his host. Anthony looked where he was guided, and perceived two pinholes through which he could see the whole length of the corridor.

"Through the centre of each eye," whispered his friend. "Is he not shrewd and secret? And now turn this way."

Anthony turned round and saw the opposite wall slowly opening; and in a moment more he stepped out and found himself in the lobby outside the little room where he had made the exercises six years ago. He heard a door close softly as he looked about him in astonishment, and on turning round saw only an innocent-looking set of shelves with a couple of books and a little pile of paper and packet of quills upon them.

"There," said Mr. Buxton, "who would suspect Tacitus his history and Juvenal his satires of guarding the passage of a Christian ecclesiastic fleeing for his life?"

Then he showed him the secret, how one shelf had to be drawn out steadily, and the nail in another pressed simultaneously, and how then the entire set of shelves swung open.

Then they went back and he showed him the spring behind the frame of the picture.

"You see the advantage of this," he went on: "on the one side you may flee upstairs, a treasonable skulking cassocked jack-priest with the lords and the commons and the Queen's Majesty barking at your heels; and on the other side you may saunter down the gallery without your beard and in a murrey doublet, a friend of Mr. Buxton's, taking the air and wondering what the devil all the clamouring be about."

Then he took him downstairs again and showed him finally the escape of which he was most proud-the entrance, designed in the cellar-staircase, to an underground passage from the cellars, which led, he told him, across to the garden-house beyond the lime-avenue.

"That is the pride of my heart," he said, "and maybe will be useful some day; though I pray not. Ah! her Grace and her honest Council are right. We Papists are a crafty and deceitful folk, Father Anthony."

* * *

The four grew very intimate during those few weeks; they had many memories and associations in common on which to build up friendship, and the aid of a common faith and a common peril with which to cement it. The gracious beauty of the house and the life at Stanfield, too, gilded it all with a very charming romance. They were all astonished at the easy intimacy with which they behaved, one to another.

Mary Corbet was obliged to return to her duties at Court at the beginning of September; and she had something of an ache at her heart as the time drew on; for she had fallen once more seriously in love with Isabel. She said a word of it to Mr. Buxton. They were walking in the lime-avenue together after dinner on the last day of Mary's visit.

"You have a good chaplain," she said; "what an honest lad he is! and how serious and recollected! Please God he at least may escape their claws!"

"It is often so," said Mr. Buxton, "with those wholesome out-of-door boys; they grow up into such simple men of God."

"And Isabel!" said Mary, rustling round upon him as she walked. "What a great dame she is become! I used to lie on her bed and kick my heels and laugh at her; but now I would like to say my prayers to her. She is somewhat like our Lady herself, so grave and serious, and yet so warm and tender."

Mr. Buxton nodded sharply.

"I felt sure you would feel it," he said.

"Ah! but I knew her when she was just a child; so simple th

at I loved to startle her. But now-but now-those two ladies have done wonders with her. She has all the splendour of Mary Maxwell, and all the softness of Margaret."

"Yes," said the other meditatively; "the two ladies have done it-or, the grace of God."

Mary looked at him sideways and her lips twitched a little.

"Yes-or the grace of God, as you say."

The two laughed into each other's eyes, for they understood one another well. Presently Mary went on:

"When you and I fence together at table, she does not turn frigid like so many holy folk-or peevish and bewildered like stupid folk-but she just looks at us, and laughs far down in those deep grey eyes of hers. Oh! I love her!" ended Mary.

They walked in silence a minute or two.

"And I think I do," said Mr. Buxton softly.

"Eh?" exclaimed Mary, "you do what?" She had quite forgotten her last sentence.

"It is no matter," he said yet more softly; and would say no more.

Presently the talk fell on the Maxwells; and came round to Hubert.

"They say he would be a favourite at Court," said Mary, "had he not a wife. But her Grace likes not married men. She looked kindly upon him at Deptford, I know; and I have seen him at Greenwich. You know, of course, about Isabel?"

Mr. Buxton shook his head.

"Why, it was common talk that they would have been man and wife years ago, had not the fool apostatised."

Her companion questioned her further, and soon had the whole story out of her. "But I am thankful," ended Mary, "that it has so ended."

The next day she went back to Court; and it was with real grief that the three watched her wonderful plumed riding-hat trot along behind the top of the churchyard wall, with her woman beside her, and her little liveried troop of men following at a distance.

The days passed by, bringing strange tidings to Stanfield. News continued to reach the Catholics of the good confessions witnessed here and there in England by priests and laity. At the end of July, three priests, Garlick, Ludlam and Sympson, had been executed at Derby, and at the end of August the defeat of the Armada seemed to encourage Elizabeth yet further, and Mr. Leigh, a priest, with four laymen and Mistress Margaret Ward, died for their religion at Tyburn.

By the end of September the news of the hopeless defeat and disappearance of the Armada had by now been certified over and over again. Terrible stories had come in during August of that northward flight of all that was left of the fleet over the plunging North Sea up into the stormy coast of Scotland; then rumours began of the miseries that were falling on the Spaniards off Ireland-Catholic Ireland from which they had hoped so much. There was scarcely a bay or a cape along the west coast where some ship had not put in, with piteous entreaties for water and aid-and scarcely a bay or a cape that was not blood-guilty. Along the straight coast from Sligo Bay westwards, down the west coast, Clew Bay, Connemara, and haunted Dingle itself, where the Catholic religion under arms had been so grievously chastened eight years ago-everywhere half-drowned or half-starved Spaniards, piteously entreating, were stripped and put to the sword either by the Irish savages or the English gentlemen. The church-bells were rung in Stanfield and in every English village, and the flame of national pride and loyalty burned fiercer and higher than ever.

* * *

On the last day of September Isabel, just before dinner in her room, heard the trot of a couple of horses coming up the short drive, and on going downstairs almost ran against Hubert as he came from the corridor into the hall, as the servant ushered him in.

The two stopped and looked at one another in silence.

Hubert was flushed with hard riding and looked excited; Isabel's face showed nothing but pleasure and surprise. The servant too stopped, hesitating.

Then Isabel put out her hand, smiling; and her voice was natural and controlled.

"Why, Mr. Hubert," she said, "it is you! Come through this way"; and she nodded to the servant, who went forward and opened the door of the little parlour and stood back, as Isabel swept by him.

When the door was closed, and the servant's footsteps had died away, Hubert, as he stood facing Isabel, spoke at last.

"Mistress Isabel," he said almost imploringly, "what can I say to you? Your home has been wrecked; and partly through those wild and foolish words of mine; and you repay it by that act of kindness to my wife! I am come to ask your pardon, and to thank you. I only reached home last night."

"Ah! that was nothing," said Isabel gently; "and as for the house--"

"As for the house," he said, "I was not master of myself when I said those words that Grace told you of; and I entreat you to let me repair the damage."

"No, no," she said, "Anthony has given orders; that will all be done."

"But what can I do then?" he cried passionately; "if you but knew my sorrow-and-and-more than that, my--"

Isabel had raised her grave eyes and was looking him full in the face now; and he stopped abashed.

"How is Grace, and Mercy?" she asked in perfectly even tones.

"Oh! Isabel--" he began; and again she looked at him, and then went to the door.

"I hear Mr. Buxton," she said; and steps came along through the hall; she opened the door as he came up. Mr. Buxton stopped abruptly, and the two men drew themselves up and seemed to stiffen, ever so slightly. A shade of aggressive contempt came on Hubert's keen brown face that towered up so near the low oak ceiling; while Mr. Buxton's eyelids just drooped, and his features seemed to sharpen. There was an unpleasant silence: Isabel broke it.

"You remember Master Hubert Maxwell?" she said almost entreatingly. He smiled kindly at her, but his face hardened again as he turned once more to Hubert.

"I remember the gentleman perfectly," he said, "and he no doubt knows me, and why I cannot ask him to remain and dine with us."

Hubert smiled brutally.

"It is the old story of course, the Faith! I must ask your pardon, sir, for intruding. The difficulty never came into my mind. The truth is that I have lived so long now among Protestants that I had quite forgotten what Catholic charity is like!"

He said this with such extreme bitterness and fury that Isabel put out her hand instinctively to Mr. Buxton, who smiled at her once more, and pressed it in his own. Hubert laughed again sharply; his face grew white under the tan, and his lips wrinkled back once or twice.

"So, if you can spare me room to pass," he went on in the same tone, "I will begone to the inn."

Mr. Buxton stepped aside from the door, and Hubert bowed to Isabel so low that it was almost an insult in itself, and strode out, his spurs ringing on the oak boards.

When he half turned outside the front door to beckon to his groom to bring up the horses, he became aware that Isabel was beside him.

"Hubert," she said, "Hubert, I cannot bear this."

There were tears in her voice, and he could not help turning and looking at her. Her face, more grave and transparent than ever, was raised to his; her red down-turned lips were trembling, and her eyes were full of a great emotion. He turned away again sharply.

"Hubert," she said again, "I was not born a Catholic, and I do not feel like Mr. Buxton. And-and I do thank you for coming; and for your desire to repair the house; and-and will you give my love to Grace?"

Then he suddenly turned to her with such passion in his eyes that she shrank back. At the same moment the groom brought up the horses; he turned and mounted without a word, but his eyes were dim with love and anger and jealousy. Then he drove his spurs into his great grey mare, and Isabel watched him dash between the iron gates, with his groom only half mounted holding back his own plunging horse. Then she went within doors again.

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