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   Chapter 30 A DEPARTURE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 28289

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The months went by happily at Stanfield; and, however ill went the fortunes of the Church elsewhere, here at least were peace and prosperity. Most discouraging news indeed did reach them from time to time. The severe penalties now enacted against the practice of the Catholic Religion were being enforced with great vigour, and the weak members of the body began to fail. Two priests had apostatised at Chichester earlier in the year, one of them actually at the scaffold on Broyle Heath; and then in December there were two more recantations at Paul's Cross. Those Catholics too who threw up the Faith generally became the most aggressive among the persecutors, to testify to their own consciences, as well to the Protestants, of the sincerity of their conversion.

But in Stanfield the Church flourished, and Anthony had the great happiness of receiving his first convert in the person of Mr. Rowe, the young owner of a house called East Maskells, separated from Stanfield Place by a field-path of under a mile in length, though the road round was over two; and the comings and goings were frequent now between the two houses. Mr. Rowe was at present unmarried, and had his aunt to keep house for him, a tolerant old maiden lady who had conformed placidly to the Reformed Religion thirty years before, and was now grown content with it. Several "schismatics" too-as those Catholics were called who attended their parish church-had waxed bolder, and given up their conformity to the Establishment; so it was a happy and courageous flock that gathered Sunday by Sunday at Stanfield Place.

* * *

Just before Christmas, Anthony received a long and affectionate letter from James Maxwell, who was still at Douai.

"The Rector will still have me here," he wrote, "and shows me to the young men as if I were a kind of warrior; which is bad for pride; but then he humbles me again by telling me I am of more use here as an example, than I should be in England; and that humbles me again. So I am content to stay. It is a humbling thing, too, to find young men who can tell me the history of my arms and legs better than I know it myself. But the truth is, I can never walk well again-yet laudetur Jesus Christus."

Then James Maxwell wrote a little about his grief for Hubert; gave a little news of foreign movements among the Catholics; and finally ended as follows:

"At last I understand who your friend was behind Bow Church, who stuttered and played the Catholic so well. It was our old servant Lackington; who turned Protestant and entered Walsingham's service. I hear all this from one P. lately in the same affairs, but now turned to Christ his service instead; and who has entered here as a student. So beware of him; he has a pointed beard now, and a bald forehead. I hear, too, from the same source that he was on your track when you landed, but now thinks you to be in France. However, he knows of you; so I counsel you not to abide over long in one place. Perhaps you may go to Lancashire; that is like heaven itself for Catholics. Their zeal and piety there are beyond praise; but I hear they somewhat lack priests. God keep you always, my dear Brother; and may the Queen of Heaven intercede for you. Pray for me."

* * *

Soon after the New Year, Mary Corbet was able to get away from Court and come down again to her friends for a month or two at Stanfield.

During her stay they all had an adventure together at East Maskells. They had been out a long expedition into the woods one clear frosty day and rode in just at sunset for an early supper with Mr. Rowe and his aunt.

They had left their horses at the stable and come in round the back of the house; so that they missed the servant Miss Rowe had placed at the front door to warn them, and came straight into the winter-parlour, where they found Miss Rowe in conversation with an ecclesiastic. There was no time to retreat; and Anthony in a moment more found himself being introduced to a minister he had met at Lambeth more than once-the Reverend Robert Carr, who had held the odd title of "Archbishop's Curate" and the position of minister in charge of the once collegiate church of All Saints', Maidstone, ever since the year '59. He had ridden up from Maidstone for supper and lodging, and was on his way to town.

Anthony managed to interrupt Miss Rowe before she came to his assumed name Capell, and remarked rather loudly that he had met Mr. Carr before; who recognised him too, and greeted him by his real name.

It was an uncomfortable situation, as Mr. Carr was quite unaware of the religion of five out of six of those present, and very soon began to give voice to his views on Papistry. He was an oldish man by now, and of some importance in Maidstone, where he had been appointed Jurat by the Corporation, and was a very popular and influential man.

"The voice of the people," he said in the midst of a conversation on the national feeling towards Spain, "that is what we must hearken to. Even sovereigns themselves must come to that some day. They must rule by obeying; as man does with God's laws in nature."

"Would you say that, sir, of her Grace?" asked Mary Corbet meekly.

"I should, madam; though I fear she has injured her power by her behaviour this year. It was her people who saved her.-Hawkins, who is now ruined as he says; my lord Howard, who has paid from his own purse for the meat and drink of her Grace's soldiers, and those who fought with them; and not her Grace, who saved them; or Leicester, now gone to his account, who sat at Tilbury and did the bowing and the prancing and the talking while Hawkins and the rest did the fighting. No, madam, it is the voice of the people to which we must hearken."

This was rather confused and dangerous talking too; but here was plainly a man to be humoured; he looked round him with a suffused face and the eye of a cock, and a little white plume on his forehead increased his appearance of pugnacity.

"It is the same in religion," he said, when all preserved a deferential silence; "it is that that lies at the root of papist errors. As you know very well," he went on, turning suddenly on Anthony, "our bishops do nothing to guide men's minds; they only seem to: they ride atop like the figure on a cock-horse, but it is the legs beneath that do the work and the guiding too: now that is right and good; and the Church of England will prosper so long as she goes like that. But if the bishops try to rule they will find their mistake. Now the Popish Church is not like that; she holds that power comes from above, that the Pope guides the bishops, the bishops the priests, and the priests the people."

"And the Holy Ghost the Pope; is it not so, sir?" asked Mr. Buxton.

Mr. Carr turned an eye on him.

"So they hold, sir," he said after a pause.

"They think then, sir, that the shepherds guide the sheep?" asked Anthony humbly.

Mary Corbet gave a yelp of laughter; but when Mr. Carr looked at her she was grave and deferential again. Miss Rowe looked entreatingly from face to face. The minister did not notice Anthony's remark; but swept on again on what was plainly his favourite theme,-the infallibility of the people. It was a doctrine that was hardly held yet by any; but the next century was to see its gradual rise until it reached its climax in the Puritanism of the Stuart times. It was true, as Mr. Carr said, that Elizabeth had ruled by obeying; and that the people of England, encouraged by success in resisting foreign domination, were about to pass on to the second position of resisting any domination at all.

Presently he pulled out of his pocket a small printed sheet, and was soon declaiming from it. It was not very much to the point, except as illustrating the national spirit which he believed so divine. It was a ballad describing the tortures which the Spaniards had intended to inflict upon the heretic English, and began:

"All you that list to look and see

What profit comes from Spain,

And what the Pope and Spaniards both

Prepared for our gain.

Then turn your eyes and lend your ears

And you shall hear and see

What courteous minds, what gentle hearts,

They bear to thee and me!

And it ended in the same spirit:

"Be these the men that are so mild

Whom some so holy call!

The Lord defend our noble Queen

And country from them all!"

"There!" the minister cried when he had done, "that is what the Papists are like! Trust me; I know them. I should know one in a moment if he ventured into this room, by his crafty face. But the Lord will defend His own Englishmen; nay! He has done so. 'God blew and they were scattered,'" he ended, quoting from the Armada medal.

* * *

As the four rode home by pairs across the field-path in the frosty moonlight Mr. Buxton lamented to Anthony the effect of the Armada.

"The national spirit is higher than ever," he said, "and it will be the death of Catholicism here for the present. Our country squires, I fear, faithful Catholics to this time, are beginning to wonder and question. When will our Catholic kings learn that Christ His Kingdom is not of this world? Philip has smitten the Faith in England with the weapon which he drew in its defence, as he thought."

"I was once of that national spirit myself," said Anthony.

"I remember you were," said Mr. Buxton, smiling; "and what grace has done to you it may do to others."

* * *

The spring went by, and in the week after Easter, James' news about Lancashire was verified by a letter from a friend of Mr. Buxton's, a Mr. Norreys, the owner of one of the staunch Catholic houses, Speke Hall, on the bank of the Mersey.

"Here," he wrote, "by the mercy of God there is no lack of priests, though there be none to spare; my own chaplain says mass by dispensation thrice on Sunday; but on the moors the sheep look up and are not fed; and such patient sheep! I heard but last week of a church where the folk resort, priest or no, each Sunday to the number of two hundred, and are led by a lector in devotion, ending with an act of spiritual communion made all together. These damnable heresies of which the apostle wrote have not poisoned the springs of sound doctrine; some of us here know naught yet of Elizabeth and her supremacy, or even of seven-wived Harry his reformation. Send us then, dear friend, a priest, or at least the promise of one; lest we perish quite."

Mr. Buxton had a sore struggle with himself over this letter; but at last he carried it to Anthony.

"Read that," he said; and stood waiting.

Anthony looked up when he had done.

"I am your chaplain," he said, "but I am God's priest first."

"Yes, dear lad," said his friend, "I feared you would say so; and I will say so to Norreys"; and he left the room at once.

And so at last it came to be arranged that Anthony should leave for Lancashire at the end of July; and that after his departure Stanfield should be served occasionally by the priest who lived on the outskirts of Tonbridge; but the daily mass would have to cease, and that was a sore trouble to Mr. Buxton. No definite decision could be made as to when Anthony could return; that must wait until he saw the needs of Lancashire; but he hoped to be able at least to pay a visit to Stanfield again in the spring of the following year.

It was arranged also, of course, that Isabel should accompany her brother. They were both of large independent means, and could travel in some dignity; and her presence would be under these circumstances a protection as well as a comfort to Anthony. It would need very great sharpness to detect the seminary priest under Anthony's disguise, and amid the surroundings of his cavalcade of four or five armed servants, a French maid, and a distinguished-looking lady.

Yet, in spite of this, Mr. Buxton resolved to do his utmost to prevent Isabel from going to Lancashire; partly, of course, he disliked the thought of the dangers and hardships that she was certain to encounter; but the real motive was that he had fallen very deeply in love with her. It was her exceptional serenity that seemed to him her greatest charm; her movements, her face, her grey eyes, the very folds of her dress seemed to breathe with it; and to one of Mr. Buxton's temperament such a presence was cool and sweet and strangely fascinating.

It was now April, and he resolved to devote the next month or two to preparing her for his proposal; and he wrote frankly to Mary Corbet telling her how matters stood, entreating her to come down for July and counsel him. Mary wrote back at once, rather briefly, promising to come; but not encouraging him greatly.

"I would I could cheer you more," she wrote; "of course I have not seen Isabel since January; but, unless she has changed, I do not think she will marry you. I am writing plainly you see, as you ask in your letter. But I can still say, God prosper you."

* * *

As the spring went by and the summer came on, Isabel grew yet more silent. As the evenings began to lengthen out she used to spend much time before and after supper in walking up and down the clipped lime avenue between the east end of the church and the great gates that looked over the meadows across which the stream and the field-path ran towards East Maskells. Mr. Buxton would watch her sometimes from an upstairs window, himself unseen, and occasionally would go out and talk with her; but he found it harder than he used to get on to intimate relations; and he began to suspect that he had displeased her in some way, and that Mary Corbet was right. In the afternoon she and Anthony would generally ride out together, once or twice going round by Penshurst, and their host would torture himself by his own indecision as regards accompanying them; sometimes doing so, sometimes refraining, and regretting whichever he did. More and more he began to look forward to Mary's coming and the benefit of her advice; and at last, at the end of June, she came.

Their first evening together was delightful for them all. She was happy at her escape from Court; her host was happy

at the prospect of her counsel; and all four were happy at being together again.

They did not meet till supper, and even that was put off an hour, because Mary had not come, and when she did arrive she was full of excitement.

"I will tell you all at supper," she said to her host, whom she met in the hall. "Oh! how late I am!" and she whirled past him and upstairs without another word.

* * *

"I will first give you the news in brief," she said, when Anthony had said grace and they were seated, all four of them as before; and the trumpet-flourish was silent that had announced the approach of the venison.

"Mutton's new chaplain, Dr. Bancroft, will be in trouble soon; he hath been saying favourable things for some of us poor papists, and hath rated the Precisians soundly. Sir Francis Knollys is wroth with him; but that is no matter.-Her Grace played at cards till two of the clock this morning, and that is why I am so desperate sleepy to-night, for I had to sit up too; and that is a great matter.-Drake and Norris, 'tis said, have whipped the dons again at Corunna; and the Queen has sworn to pull my lord Essex his ears for going with them and adventuring his precious self; and that is no matter at all, but will do him good.-George Luttrell hath put up a coat of arms in his hall at Dunster, which is a great matter to him, but to none else;-and I have robbed a highwayman this day in the beech woods this side of Groombridge."

"Dear lady," said Mr. Buxton resignedly, as the others looked up startled, "you are too swift for our dull rustic ears; we will begin at the end, if you please. Is it true you have robbed an highwayman?"

"It is perfectly true," she said, and unlatched a ruby brooch, made heart-shape, from her dress. "There is the plunder," and she held it out for inspection.

"Then tell us the tale," said Anthony.

"It would be five of the clock," said Mary, "as we came through Groombridge, and then into the woods beyond. I had bidden my knaves ride on before with my woman; I came down into a dingle where there was a stream; and, to tell the truth, I had my head down and was a-nodding, when my horse stopped; and I looked up of a sudden and there was a man on a bay mare, with a mask to his mouth, a gay green suit, a brown beard turning grey, and this ruby brooch at his throat; and he had caught my bridle. I saw him start when I lifted my head, as if he were taken aback. I said nothing, but he led my horse off the road down among the trees with a deep little thicket where none could see us. As we went I was thinking like a windmill; for I knew I had seen the little red brooch before.

"When we reached the little open space, I asked him what he wished with me.

"'Your purse, madam,' said he.

"'My woman hath it,' said I.

"'Your jewels then, madam,' said he.

"'My woman hath them,' said I, 'save this paste buckle in my hat, to which you are welcome.' It was diamonds, you know; but I knew he would not know that.

"'What a mistake,' I said, 'to stop the mistress and let the maid go free!'

"'Nay,' he said, 'I am glad of it; for at least I will have a dance with the mistress; and I could not with the maid.'

"'You are welcome to that,' I said, and I slipped off my horse, to humour him, and even as I slipped off I knew who he was, for although many have red brooches, and many brown beards turning grey, few have both together; but I said nothing. And there-will you believe it?-we danced under the beech-trees like Phyllis and Corydon, or whoever they are that Sidney is always prating of; or like two fools, I would sooner say. Then when we had done, I made him a curtsey.

"'Now you must help me up,' said I, and he mounted me without a word, for he was a stoutish gallant and somewhat out of breath. And then what did the fool do but try to kiss me, and as he lifted his arm I snatched the brooch and put spur to my horse, and as we went up the bank I screamed at him, 'Claude, you fool, go home to your wife and take shame to yourself.' And when I was near the road I looked back, and he still stood there all agape."

"And what was his name?" asked Anthony.

"Nay, nay, I have mocked him enough. And I know four Claudes, so you need not try to guess."

* * *

When supper was over, Mr. Buxton and Mary walked up and down the south path of the garden between the yews, while the other two sat just outside the hall window on a seat placed on the tiled terrace that ran round the house.

"How I have longed for you to come, Mistress Mary," he said, "and counsel me of the matter we wrote about. Tell me what to do."

Mary looked meditatively out to the strip of moon that was rising out to the east in the June sky. Then she looked tenderly at her friend.

"I hate to pain you," she said, "but cannot you see that it is impossible? I may be wrong; but I think her heart is so given to our Saviour that there is no love of that sort left."

"Ah, how can you say that?" he cried; "the love of the Saviour does not hinder earthly love; it purifies and transfigures it."

"Yes," said Mary gravely, "it is often so-but the love of the true spouse of Christ is different. That leaves no room for an earthly bridegroom."

Mr. Buxton was silent a moment or two.

"You mean it is the love of the consecrated soul?"

Mary bowed her head. "But I cannot be sure," she added.

"Then what shall I do?" he said again, almost piteously; and Mary could see even in the faint moonlight that his pleasant face was all broken up and quivering. She laid her hand gently on his arm, and her rings flashed.

"You must be very patient," she said, "very full of deference-and grave. You must not be ardent nor impetuous, but speak slowly and reverently to her, but at no great length; be plain with her; do not look in her face, and do not show anxiety or despair or hope. You need not fear that your love will not be plain to her. Indeed, I think she knows it already."

"Why, I have not--" he began.

"I know you have not spoken to her; but I saw that she only looked at you once during supper, and that was when your face was turned from her; she does not wish to look you in the eyes."

"Ah, she hates me," he sighed.

"Do not be foolish," said Mary, "she honours you, and loves you, and is grieved for your grief; but I do not think she will marry you."

"And when shall I speak?" he asked.

"You must wait; God will make the opportunity-in any case. You must not attempt to make it. That would terrify her."

"And you will speak for me."

Mary smiled at him.

"Dear friend," she said, "sometimes I think you do not know us at all. Do you not see that Isabel is greater than all that? What she knows, she knows. I could tell her nothing."

* * *

The days passed on; the days of the last month of the Norrises' stay at Stanfield. Half-way through the month came the news of the Oxford executions.

"Ah! listen to this," cried Mr. Buxton, coming out to them one evening in the garden with a letter in his hand. "'Humphrey Prichard,'" he read, "'made a good end. He protested he was condemned for the Catholic Faith; that he willingly died for it; that he was a Catholic. One of their ministers laughed at him, saying he was a poor ignorant fellow who knew not what it was to be a Catholic. 'I know very well;' said Humphrey, 'though I cannot say it in proper divinity language.' There is the Religion for you!" went on Mr. Buxton; "all meet there, wise and simple alike. There is no difference; no scholarship is needed for faith. 'I know what it is,' cried Humphrey, 'though I cannot explain it!'"

The news came to Anthony just when he needed it; he felt he had done so little to teach his flock now he was to leave them; but if he had only done something to keep alive the fire of faith, he had not lost his time; and so he went about his spiritual affairs with new heart, encouraging the wavering, whom he was to leave, warning the over-confident, urging the hesitating, and saying good-bye to them all. Isabel went with him sometimes; or sometimes walked or rode with Mary, and was silent for the most part in public. The master of the house himself did his affairs, and carried a heavier heart each day. And at last the opportunity came which Mary had predicted.

He had come in one evening after a hot ride alone over to Tonbridge on some business with the priest there; and had dressed for supper immediately on coming in.

As there was still nearly an hour before supper, he went out to walk up and down the same yew-alley near the garden-house where he had walked with Mary. Anthony and Isabel had returned a little later from East Maskells, and they too had dressed early. Isabel threw a lace shawl over her head, and betook herself too to the alley; and there she turned a corner and almost ran into her host.

It was, as Mary had said, a God-made opportunity. Neither time nor place could have been improved. If externals were of any value to this courtship, all that could have helped was there. The setting of the picture was perfect; a tall yew-hedge ran down the northern side of the walk, cut, as Bacon recommended, not fantastically but "with some pretty pyramids"; a strip of turf separated it from the walk, giving a sense both of privacy and space; on the south side ran flower-beds in the turf, with yews and cypresses planted here and there, and an oak paling beyond; to the east lay the "fair mount," again recommended by the same authority, but not so high, and with but one ascent; to the west the path darkened under trees, and over all rose up against the sunset sky the tall grotesque towers and vanes of the garden-house. The flowers burned with that ember-like glow which may be seen on summer evenings, and poured out their scent; the air was sweet and cool, and white moths were beginning to poise and stir among the blossoms. The two actors on this scene too were not unworthy of it; his dark velvet and lace with the glimmer of diamonds here and there, and his delicate bearded clean-cut face, a little tanned, thrown into relief by the spotless crisp ruff beneath, and above all his air of strength and refinement and self-possession-all combined to make him a formidable stormer of a girl's heart. And as he looked on her-on her clear almost luminous face and great eyes, shrined in the drooping lace shawl, through which a jewel or two in her black hair glimmered, her upright slender figure in its dark sheath, and the hand, white and cool, that held her shawl together over her breast-he had a pang of hope and despair at once, at the sudden sense of need of this splendid creature of God to be one with him, and reign with him over these fair possessions; and of hopelessness at the thought that anything so perfect could be accomplished in this imperfect world.

He turned immediately and walked beside her, and they both knew, in the silence that followed, that the crisis had come.

"Mistress Isabel," he said, still looking down as he spoke, and his voice sounded odd to her ears, "I wonder if you know what I would say to you."

There came no sound from her, but the rustle of her dress.

"But I must say it," he went on, "follow what may. It is this. I love you dearly."

Her walk faltered beside him, and it seemed as if she would stand still.

"A moment," he said, and he lifted his white restrained face. "I ask you to be patient with me. Perhaps I need not say that I have never said this to any woman before; but more, I have never even thought it. I do not know how to speak, nor what I should say; beyond this, that since I first met you at the door across there, a year ago, you have taught me ever since what love means; and now I am come to you, as to my dear mistress, with my lesson learnt."

They were standing together now; he was still turned a little away from her, and dared not lift his eyes to her face again. Then of a sudden he felt her hand on his arm for a moment, and he looked up, and saw her eyes all swimming with sorrow.

"Dear friend," she said quite simply, "it is impossible-Ah! what can I say?"

"Give me a moment more," he said; and they walked on slowly. "I know what presumption this is; but I will not spin phrases about that. Nor do I ask what is impossible; but I will only ask leave to teach you in my turn what love means."

"Oh! that is the hardest of all to say," she said, "but I know already."

He did not quite understand, and glanced at her a moment.

"I once loved too," she whispered. He drew a sharp breath.

"Forgive me," he said, "I forced that from you."

"You are never anything but courteous and kind," she said, "and that makes this harder than all."

They walked in silence half a dozen steps.

"Have I distressed you?" he asked, glancing at her again.

Then she looked full in his face, and her eyes were overflowing.

"I am grieved for your sorrow," she said, "and at my own unworthiness, you know that?"

"I know that you are now and always will be my dear mistress and queen."

His voice broke altogether as he ended, and he bent and took her hand delicately in his own, as if it were royal, and kissed it. Then she gave a great sob and slipped away through the opening in the clipped hedge; and he was left alone with the dusk and his sorrow.

* * *

A week later Anthony and Isabel were saying good-bye to him in the early summer morning: the pack-horses had started on before, and there were just the two saddle-horses at the low oak door, with the servants' behind. When Mr. Buxton had put Isabel into the saddle, he held her hand for a moment; Anthony was mounting behind.

"Mistress Isabel," he whispered; "forgive me; but I find I cannot take your answer; you will remember that."

She shook her head without speaking, but dared not even look into his eyes; though she turned her head as she rode out of the gates for a last look at the peaked gables and low windows of the house where she had been so happy. There was still the dark figure motionless against the pale oak door.

"Oh, Anthony!" she whispered brokenly, "our Lord asks very much."

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