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   Chapter 29 JOSEPH LACKINGTON

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 19249

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was a bitter ride back to Great Keynes for Hubert. He had just returned from watching the fifty vessels, which were all that were left of the Great Armada, pass the Blaskets, still under the nominal command of Medina Sidonia, on their miserable return to Spain; and he had come back as fast as sails could carry him, round the stormy Land's-End up along the south coast to Rye, where on his arrival he had been almost worshipped by the rejoicing townsfolk. Yet all through his voyage and adventures, at any rate since his interview with her at Rye, it had been the face of Isabel there, and not of Grace, that had glimmered to him in the dark, and led him from peril to peril. Then, at last, on his arrival at home, he had heard of the disaster to the Dower House, and his own unintended share in it; and of Isabel's generous visit to his wife; and at that he had ordered his horse abruptly over-night and ridden off without a word of explanation to Grace on the following morning. And he had been met by a sneering man who would not sit at table with him, and who was the protector and friend of Isabel.

* * *

He rode up through the village just after dark and in through the gatehouse up to the steps. A man ran to open the door, and as Hubert came through told him that a stranger had ridden down from London and had arrived at mid-day, and that he had been waiting ever since.

"I gave the gentleman dinner in the cloister parlour, sir; and he is at supper now," added the man.

Hubert nodded and pushed through the hall. He heard his name called timidly from upstairs, and looking up saw his wife's golden head over the banisters.

"Well!" he said.

"Ah, it is you. I am so glad."

"Who else should it be?" said Hubert, and passed through towards the cloister wing, and opened the door of the little parlour where Isabel and Mistress Margaret had sat together years before, the night of Mr. James' return, and of the girl's decision.

A stranger rose up hastily as he came in, and bowed with great deference. Hubert knew his face, but could not remember his name.

"I ask your pardon, Mr. Maxwell; but your man would take no denial," and he indicated the supper-table with a steaming dish and a glass jug of wine ruddy in the candlelight. Hubert looked at him curiously.

"I know you, sir," he said, "but I cannot put a name to your face."

"Lackington," said the man with a half smile; "Joseph Lackington."

Hubert still stared; and then suddenly burst into a short laugh.

"Why, yes," he said; "I know now. My father's servant."

The man bowed.

"Formerly, sir; and now agent to Sir Francis Walsingham," he said, with something of dignity in his manner.

Hubert saw the hint, but could not resist a small sneer.

"Why, I am pleased to see you," he said. "You have come to see your old-home?" and he threw himself into a chair and stretched his legs to the blaze, for he was stiff with riding. Lackington instantly sat down too, for his pride was touched.

"It was not for that, Mr. Maxwell," he said almost in the tone of an equal, "but on a mission for Sir Francis."

Hubert looked at him a moment as he sat there in the candlelight, with his arm resting easily on the table. He was plainly prosperous, and was even dressed with some distinction; his reddish beard was trimmed to a point; his high forehead was respectably white and bald; and his seals hung from his belt beside his dagger with an air of ease and solidity. Perhaps he was of some importance; at any rate, Sir Francis Walsingham was. Hubert sat up a little.

"A mission to me?" he said.

Lackington nodded.

"A few questions on a matter of state."

He drew from his pouch a paper signed by Sir Francis authorising him as an agent, for one month, and dated three days back; and handed it to Hubert.

"I obtained that from Sir Francis on Monday, as you will see. You can trust me implicitly."

"Will the business take long?" asked Hubert, handing the paper back.

"No, Mr. Maxwell; and I must be gone in an hour in any case. I have to be at Rye at noon to-morrow; and I must sleep at Mayfield to-night."

"At Rye," said Hubert, "why I came from there yesterday."

Lackington bowed again, as if he were quite aware of this; but said nothing.

"Then I will sup here," went on Hubert, "and we will talk meantime."

When a place had been laid for him, he drew his chair round to the table and began to eat.

"May I begin at once?" asked Lackington, who had finished.

Hubert nodded.

"Then first I believe it to be a fact that you spoke with Mistress Isabel Morris on board the Elizabeth at Rye on the tenth of August last."

Hubert had started violently at her name; but did his utmost to gain outward command of himself again immediately.

"Well?" he said.

-"And with Master Anthony Norris, lately made a priest beyond the seas."

"That is a lie," said Hubert.

Lackington politely lifted his eyebrows.

"Indeed?" he said. "That he was made a priest, or that you spoke with him?"

"That I know aught of him," said Hubert. His heart was beating furiously.

Lackington made a note rather ostentatiously; he could see that Hubert was frightened, and thought that it was because of a possible accusation of having dealings with a traitor.

"And as regards Mistress Norris," he said judicially, with his pencil raised, "you deny having spoken with her?"

Hubert was thinking furiously. Then he saw that Lackington knew too much for its being worth his own while to deny it.

"No, I never denied that," he said, lifting his fork to his mouth; and he went on eating with a deliberate ease as Lackington again made a note.

The next question was a home-thrust.

"Where are they both now?" asked Lackington, looking at him. Hubert's mind laboured like a mill.

"I do not know," he said.

"You swear it?"

"I swear it."

"Then Mistress Norris has changed her plans?" said Lackington swiftly.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Why she told you where they were going when you met?" said the other in a remonstrating tone.

Hubert suddenly saw the game. If the authorities really knew that, it would have been a useless question. He stared at Lackington with an admirable vacancy.

"Indeed she did not," he said. "For aught I know, they-she is in France again."

"They?" said Lackington shrewdly. "Then you do know somewhat of the priest?"

But Hubert was again too sharp.

"Only what you told me just now, when you said he was at Rye. I supposed you were telling the truth."

Lackington passed his hand smoothly over his mouth and beard, and smiled. Either Hubert was very sharp or else he had told everything; and he did not believe him sharp.

"Thank you, Mr. Maxwell," he said, with a complete dropping of his judicial manner. "I will not pretend not to be disappointed; but I believe what you say about France is true; and that it is no use looking for him further."

Hubert experienced an extraordinary relief. He had saved Isabel. He drank off a glass of claret. "Tell me everything," he said.

"Well," said Lackington, "Mr. Thomas Hamon is my informant. He sent up to Sir Francis the message that a lady of the name of Norris had been introduced to him at Rye; because he thought he remembered some stir in the county several years ago about some reconciliations to Rome connected with that name. Of course we knew everything about that: and we have our agents at the seminaries too; so we concluded that she was one of our birds; the rest, of course, was guesswork. Mr. Norris has certainly left Douai for England; and he may possibly even now be in England; but from your information and others', I now believe that Mistress Isabel came across first, and that she found the country too hot, what with the Spaniards and all; and that she returned to France at once. Of course during that dreadful week, Mr. Maxwell, we could not be certain of all vessels that came and went; so I think she just slipped across again; and that they are both waiting in France. We shall keep good watch now at the ports, I can promise you."

Hubert's emotions were varied during this speech. First shame at having entirely forgotten the mayor of Rye and his own introduction of Isabel to him; then astonishment at the methods of Walsingham's agents; and lastly intense triumph and relief at having put them off Isabel's track. For Anthony, too, he had nothing but kindly feelings; so, on the whole, he thought he had done well for his friends.

The two talked a little longer; Lackington was a stimulating companion from both his personality and his position; and Hubert found himself almost sorry when his companion said he must be riding on to Mayfield. As he walked out with him to the front door, he suddenly thought of Mr. Buxton again and his reception in the afternoon. They had wandered in their conversation so far from the Norrises by now that he felt sure he could speak of him without doing them any harm. So, as they stood on the steps together, waiting for Lackington's horse to come round, he suddenly said:

"Do you know aught of one Buxton, who lives somewhere near Tonbridge, I think?"

"Buxton, Buxton?" said the other.

"I met him in town once," went on Hubert smoothly; "a little man, dark, with large eyes, and looks somewhat like a Frenchman."

"Buxton, Buxton?" said the other again. "A Papist, is he not?"

"Yes," said Hubert, hoping to get some information against him.

"A friend?" asked Lackington.

"No," said Hubert with such vehemence that Lackington looked at him.

"I remember him," he said in a mom

ent; "he was imprisoned at Wisbeach six or seven years ago. But I do not think he has been in trouble since. You wish, you wish--?" he went on interrogatively.

"Nothing," said Hubert; but Lackington saw the hatred in his eyes.

The horses came round at this moment; and Lackington said good-bye to Hubert with a touch of the old deference again, and mounted. Hubert watched him out under the gatehouse-lamp into the night beyond, and then he went in again, pondering.

His wife was waiting for him in the hall now-a delicate golden-haired figure, with pathetic blue eyes turned up to him. She ran to him and took his arm timidly in her two hands.

"Oh! I am glad that man has gone, Hubert."

He looked down at her almost contemptuously.

"Why, you know nothing of him!" he said.

"Not much," she said, "but he asked me so many questions."

Hubert started and looked suddenly at her, in terror.

"Oh, Hubert!" she said, shrinking back frightened.

"Questions!" he said, seizing her hands. "Questions of whom?"

"Of-of-Mistress Isabel Norris," she said, almost crying.

"And-and-what did you say? Did you tell him?"

"Oh, Hubert!-I am so sorry-ah! do not look like that."

"What did you say? What did you say?" he said between his teeth.

"I-I-told a lie, Hubert; I said I had never seen her."

Hubert took his wife suddenly in his two arms and kissed her three or four times.

"You darling, you darling!" he said; and then stooped and picked her up, and carried her upstairs, with her head against his cheek, and her tears running down because he was pleased with her, instead of angry.

They went upstairs and he set her down softly outside the nursery door.

"Hush," she said, smiling up at him; and then softly opened the door and listened, her finger on her lip; there was no sound from within; then she pushed the door open gently, and the wife and husband went in.

There was a shaded taper still burning in a high bracket where an image of the Mother of God had stood in the Catholic days of the house. Hubert glanced up at it and remembered it, with just a touch at his heart. Beneath it was a little oak cot, where his four-year-old boy lay sleeping; the mother went across and bent over it, and Hubert leaned his brown sinewy hands on the end of the cot and watched him. There his son lay, with tangled curls on the pillow; his finger was on his lips as if he bade silence even to thought. Hubert looked up, and just above the bed, where the crucifix used to hang when he himself had slept in this nursery, probably on the very same nail, he thought to himself, was a rusty Spanish spur that he himself had found in a sea-chest of the San Juan. The boy had hung up with a tarry bit of string this emblem of his father's victory, as a protection while he slept.

The child stirred in his sleep and murmured as the two watched him.

"Father's home again," whispered the mother. "It is all well. Go to sleep again."

When she looked up again to her husband, he was gone.

* * *

It was not often that Hubert had regrets for the Faith he had lost; but to-night things had conspired to prick him. There was his rebuff from Mr. Buxton; there was the sight of Isabel in the dignified grace that he had noticed so plainly before; there had been the interview with the ex-Catholic servant, now a spy of the Government, and a remorseless enemy of all Catholics; and lastly there were the two little external reminders of the niche and the nail over his son's bed.

He sat long before the fire in Sir Nicholas' old room, now his own study. As he lay back and looked about him, how different this all was, too! The mantelpiece was almost unaltered; the Maxwell devices, two-headed eagles, hurcheons and saltires, on crowded shields, interlaced with the motto Reviresco, all newly gilded since his own accession to the estate, rose up in deep shadow and relief; but over it, instead of the little old picture of the Vernacle that he remembered as a child, hung his own sword. Was that a sign of progress? he wondered. The tapestry on the east wall was the same, a hawking scene with herons and ladies in immense headdresses that he had marvelled at as a boy. But then the books on the shelves to the right of the door, they were different; there had been old devotional books in his father's time, mingled strangely with small works on country life and sports; now the latter only remained, and the nearest to a devotional book was a volume of a mystical herbalist who identified plants with virtues, strangely and ingeniously. Then the prie-dieu, where the beads had hung and the little wooden shield with the Five Wounds painted upon it-that was gone; and in its place hung a cupboard where he kept a crossbow and a few tools for it; and old hawk-lures and jesses and the like.

Then he lay back again, and thought.

Had he then behaved unworthily? This old Faith that had been handed down from father and son for generations; that had been handed to him too as the most precious heirloom of all-for which his father had so gladly suffered fines and imprisonment, and risked death-he had thrown it over, and for what? For Isabel, he confessed to himself; and then the-the Power that stands behind the visible had cheated him and withdrawn that for which he had paid over that great price. Was that a reckless and brutal bargain on his side-to throw over this strange delicate thing called the Faith for which so many millions had lived and died, all for a woman's love? A curious kind of family pride in the Faith began to prick him. After all, was not honour in a manner bound up with it too; and most of all when such heavy penalties attached themselves to the profession of it? Was that the moment when he should be the first of his line to abandon it?

Reviresco-"I renew my springtide." But was not this a strange grafting-a spur for a crucifix, a crossbow for a place of prayer? Reviresco-There was sap indeed in the old tree; but from what soil did it draw its strength?

His heart began to burn with something like shame, as it had burned now and again at intervals during these past years. Here he lay back in his father's chair, in his father's room, the first Protestant of the Maxwells. Then he passed on to a memory.

As he closed his eyes, he could see even now the chapel upstairs, with the tapers alight and the stiff figure of the priest in the midst of the glow; he could smell the flowers on the altar, the June roses strewn on the floor in the old manner, and their fresh dewy scent mingled with the fragrance of the rich incense in an intoxicating chord; he could hear the rustle that emphasised the silence, as his mother rose from his side and went up for communion, and the breathing of the servants behind him.

Then for contrast he remembered the whitewashed church where he attended now with his wife, Sunday by Sunday, the pulpit occupied by the black figure of the virtuous Mr. Bodder pronouncing his discourse, the great texts that stood out in their new paint from the walls, the table that stood out unashamed and sideways in the midst of the chancel. And which of the two worships was most like God?...

Then he compared the worshippers in either mode. Well, Drake, his hero, was a convinced Protestant; the bravest man he had ever met or dreamed of-fiery, pertinacious, gloriously insolent. He thought of his sailors, on whom a portion of Drake's spirit fell, their gallantry, their fearlessness of death and of all that comes after; of Mr. Bodder, who was now growing middle-aged in the Vicarage-yes, indeed, they were all admirable in various ways, but were they like Christ?

On the other hand, his father, in spite of his quick temper, his mother, brother, aunt, the priests who came and went by night, Isabel-and at that he stopped: and like a deep voice in his ear rose up the last tremendous question, What if the Catholic Religion be true after all? And at that the supernatural began to assert itself. It seemed as if the empty air were full of this question, rising in intensity and emphasis. What if it is true? What if it is true? What if it is true?

He sat bolt upright and looked sharply round the room; the candles burned steadily in the sconce near the door. The tapestry lifted and dropped noiselessly in the draught; the dark corners beyond the press and in the window recesses suggested presences that waited; the wide chimney sighed suddenly once.

Was that a voice in his ear just now, or only in his heart? But in either case--

He made an effort to command himself, and looked again steadily round the room; but there seemed no one there. But what if the old tale be true? In that case he is not alone in this little oak room, for there is no such thing as loneliness. In that case he is sitting in full sight of Almighty God, whom he has insulted; and of the saints whose power he has repudiated; and of the angels good and bad who have-- Ah! what was that? There had seemed to come a long sigh somewhere behind him; on his left surely.-What was it? Some wandering soul? Was it, could it be the soul of one who had loved him and desired to warn him before it was too late? Could it have been--and then it came again; and the hair prickled on his head.

How deathly still it is, and how cold! Ah! was that a rustle outside; a tap?... In God's name, who can that be?...

And then Hubert licked his dry lips and brought them together and smiled at Grace, who had come down, opening the doors as she came, to see why he had not come to bed.

Bah! what a superstitious fool he was, after all!

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