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By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 32156

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

On the first day of June, Anthony and Isabel, with their three armed servants and the French maid behind them, were riding down through Thurrock to the north bank of the Thames opposite Greenhithe. As they went Anthony pulled out and studied the letter and the little map that Mrs. Kirke had sent to guide them.

"On the right-hand side," she wrote, "when you come to the ferry, stands a little inn, the 'Sloop,' among trees, with a yard behind it. Mr. Bender, the host, is one of us; and he will get your horses on board, and do all things to forward you without attracting attention. Give him some sign that he may know you for a Catholic, and when you are alone with him tell him where you are bound."

There were one or two houses standing near the bank, as they rode down the lane that led to the river, but they had little difficulty in identifying the "Sloop," and presently they rode into the yard, and, leaving their horses with the servants, stepped round into the little smoky front room of the inn.

A man, dressed somewhat like a sailor, was sitting behind a table, who looked up with a dull kind of expectancy and whom Anthony took as the host; and, in order to identify him and show who he himself was, he took up a little cake of bread that was lying on a platter on the table, and broke it as if he would eat. This was one of Father Persons' devices, and was used among Catholics to signify their religion when they were with strangers, since it was an action that could rouse no suspicion among others. The man looked in an unintelligent way at Anthony, who turned away and rapped upon the door, and as a large heavily-built man came out, broke it again, and put a piece into his mouth. The man lifted his eyebrows slightly, and just smiled, and Anthony knew he had found his friend.

"Come this way, sir," he said, "and your good lady, too."

They followed him into the inner room of the house, a kind of little kitchen, with a fire burning and a pot over it, and one or two barrels of drink against the wall. A woman was stirring the pot, for it was near dinner-time, and turned round as the strangers came in. It was plainly an inn that was of the poorest kind, and that was used almost entirely by watermen or by travellers who were on their way to cross the ferry.

"The less said the better," said the man, when he had shut the door. "How can I serve you, sir?"

"We wish to take our horses and ourselves across to Greenhithe," said Anthony, "and Mrs. Kirke, to whom we are going, bade us make ourselves known to you."

The man nodded and smiled.

"Yes, sir, that can be managed directly. The ferry is at the other bank now, sir; and I will call it across. Shall we say in half an hour, sir; and, meanwhile, will you and your lady take something?"

Anthony accepted gladly, as the time was getting on, and ordered dinner for the servants too, in the outer room. As the landlord was going to the door, he stopped him.

"Who is that man in the other room?" he asked.

The landlord gave a glance at the door, and came back towards Anthony.

"To tell the truth, sir, I do not know. He is a sailor by appearance, and he knows the talk; but none of the watermen know him; and he seems to do nothing. However, sir, there's no harm in him that I can see."

Anthony told him that he had broken the bread before him, thinking he was the landlord. The real landlord smiled broadly.

"Thank God, I am somewhat more of a man than that," for the sailor was lean and sun-dried. Then once more Mr. Bender went to the door to call the servants in.

"Why, the man's gone," he said, and disappeared. Then they heard his voice again. "But he's left his groat behind him for his drink, so all's well"; and presently his voice was heard singing as he got the table ready for the servants.

In a little more than half an hour the party and the horses were safely on the broad bargelike ferry, and Mr. Bender was bowing on the bank and wishing them a prosperous journey, as they began to move out on to the wide river towards the chalk cliffs and red roofs of Greenhithe that nestled among the mass of trees on the opposite bank. In less than ten minutes they were at the pier, and after a little struggle to get the horses to land, they were mounted and riding up the straight little street that led up to the higher ground. Just before they turned the corner they heard far away across the river the horn blown to summon the ferry-boat once more.

* * *

There were two routes from Greenhithe to Stanstead, the one to the right through Longfield and Ash, the other to the left through Southfleet and Nursted. There was very little to choose between them as regards distance, and Mrs. Kirke had drawn a careful sketch-map with a few notes as to the characteristics of each route. There were besides, particularly through the thick woods about Stanstead itself, innumerable cross-paths intersecting one another in all directions. The travellers had decided at the inn to take the road through Longfield; since, in spite of other disadvantages, it was the less frequented of the two, and they were anxious above all things to avoid attention. Their horses were tired; and as they had plenty of time before them they proposed to go at a foot's-pace all the way, and to take between two and three hours to cover the nine or ten miles between Greenhithe and Stanstead.

It was a hot afternoon as they passed through Fawkham, and it was delightful to pass from the white road in under the thick arching trees just beyond the village. There everything was cool shadow, the insects sang in the air about them, an early rabbit or two cantered across the road and disappeared into the thick undergrowth; once the song of the birds about them suddenly ceased, and through an opening in the green rustling vault overhead they saw a cruel shape with motionless wings glide steadily across.

They did not talk much, but let the reins lie loose; and enjoyed the cool shadow and the green lights and the fragrant mellow scents of the woods about them; while their horses slouched along on the turf, switching their tails and even stopping sometimes for a second in a kind of desperate greediness to snatch a green juicy mouthful at the side.

Isabel was thinking of Stanfield, and wondering how the situation would adjust itself; Mary Corbet would be there, she knew, to meet them; and it was a comfort to think she could consult her; but what, she asked herself, would be her relations with the master of the house?

Suddenly Anthony's horse stepped off the turf on the opposite side of the road and began to come towards her, and she moved her beast a little to let him come on the turf beside her.

"Isabel," said Anthony, "tell me if you hear anything."

She looked at him, suddenly startled.

"No, no," he said, "there is nothing to fear; it is probably my fancy; but listen and tell me."

She listened intently. There was the creaking of her own saddle, the soft footfalls of the horses, the hum of the summer woods, and the sound of the servants' horses behind.

"No," she said, "there is nothing beyond--"

"There!" he said suddenly; "now do you hear it?"

Then she heard plainly the sound either of a man running, or of a horse walking, somewhere behind them.

"Yes," she said, "I hear something; but what of it?"

"It is the third time I have heard it," he said: "once in the woods behind Longfield, and once just before the little village with the steepled church."

The sound had ceased again.

"It is some one who has come nearly all the way from Greenhithe behind us. Perhaps they are not following-but again--"

"They?" she said; "there is only one."

"There are three," he answered; "at least; the other two are on the turf at the side-but just before the village I heard all three of them-or rather certainly more than two-when they were between those two walls where there was no turf."

Isabel was staring at him with great frightened eyes. He smiled back at her tranquilly.

"Ah, Isabel!" he said, "there is nothing really to fear, in any case."

"What shall you do?" she asked, making a great effort to control herself.

"I think we must find out first of all whether they are after us. We must certainly not ride straight to the Manor Lodge if it is so."

Then he explained his plan.

"See here," he said, holding the map before her as he rode, "we shall come to Fawkham Green in five minutes. Then our proper road leads straight on to Ash, but we will take the right instead, towards Eynsford. Meanwhile, I will leave Robert here, hidden by the side of the road, to see who these men are, and what they look like; and we will ride on slowly. When they have passed, he will come out and take the road we should have taken, and he then will turn off to the right too before he reaches Ash; and by trotting he will easily come up with us at this corner," and he pointed to it on the map-"and so he will tell us what kind of men they are; and they will never know that they have been spied upon; for, by this plan, he will not have to pass them. Is that a good plot?" and he smiled at her.

Isabel assented, feeling dazed and overwhelmed. She could hardly bring her thoughts to a focus, for the fears that had hovered about her ever since they had left Lancashire and come down to the treacherous south, had now darted upon her, tearing her heart with terror and blinding her eyes, and bewildering her with the beating of their wings.

Anthony quietly called up Robert, and explained the plan. He was a lad of a Catholic family at Great Keynes, perfectly fearless and perfectly devoted to the Church and to the priest he served. He nodded his head briskly with approval as the plan was explained.

"Of course it may all be nothing," ended Anthony, "and then you will think me a poor fool?"

The lad grinned cheerfully.

"No, sir," he said.

All this while they had been riding slowly on together, and now the wood showed signs of coming to an end; so Anthony told the groom to ride fifty yards into the undergrowth at once, to bandage his horse's eyes, and to tie him to a tree; and then to creep back himself near the road, so as to see without being seen. The men who seemed to be following were at least half a mile behind, so he would have plenty of time.

Then they all rode on together again, leaving Robert to find his way into the wood. As they went, Isabel began to question her brother, and Anthony gave her his views.

"They have not come up with us, because they know we are four men to three-if, as I think, they are not more than three-that is one reason; and another is that they love to track us home before they take us; and thus take our hosts too as priests' harbourers. Now plainly these men do not know where we are bound, or they would not follow us so closely. Best of all, too, they love to catch us at mass for then they have no trouble in proving their case. I think then that they will not try to take us till we reach the Manor Lodge; and we must do our best to shake them off before that. Now the plot I have thought of is this, that-should it prove as I think it will-we should ride slower than ever, as if our horses were weary, down the road along which Robert will have come after he has joined us, and turn down as if to go to Kingsdown, and when we have gone half a mile, and are well round that sharp corner, double back to it, and hide all in the wood at the side. They will follow our tracks, and there are no houses at which they can ask, and there seem no travellers either on these by-roads, and when they have passed us we double back at the gallop, and down the next turning, which will bring us in a couple of miles to Stanstead. There is a maze of roads thereabouts, and it will be hard if we do not shake them off; for there is not a house, marked upon the map, at which they can ask after us."

Isabel did her utmost to understand, but the horror of the pursuit had overwhelmed her. The quiet woods into which they had passed again after leaving Fawkham Green now seemed full of menace; the rough road, with the deep powdery ruts and the grass and fir-needles at the side, no longer seemed a pleasant path leading home, but a treacherous device to lead them deeper into danger. The creatures round them, the rabbits, the pigeons that flapped suddenly out of all the tall trees, the tits that fluttered on and chirped and fluttered again, all seemed united against Anthony in some dreadful league. Anthony himself felt all his powers of observation and device quickened and established. He had lived so long in the expectation of a time like this, and had rehearsed and mastered the emotions of terror and suspense so often, that he was ready to meet them; and gradually his entire self-control and the unmoved tones of his voice and his serene alert face prevailed upon Isabel; and by the time that they slowly turned the last curve and saw Robert on his black horse waiting for them at the corner, her sense of terror and bewilderment had passed, her heart had ceased that sick thumping, and she, too, was tranquil and capable.

Robert wheeled his horse and rode beside Anthony round the sharp corner to the left up the road along which he had trotted just now.

"There are three of them, sir," he said in an even, businesslike voice; "one of them, sir, on a brown mare, but I couldn't see aught of him, sir; he was on the far side of the track; the second is like a groom on a grey horse, and the third is dressed like a sailor, sir, on a brown horse."

"A sailor?" said Anthony; "a lean man, and sunburnt, with a whistle?"

"I did not see the whistle, sir; but he is as you say."

This made it certain that it was the man they had seen in the inn opposite Greenhithe; and also practically certain that he was a spy; for nothing that Anthony had done could have roused his suspicions except the breaking of the bread; and that would only be known to one who was deep in the counsels of the Catholics. All this made the pursuit the more formidable.

So Anthony meditated; and presently, calling up the servants behind, explained the situation and his plan. The French maid showed signs of hysteria and Isabel had to take her aside and quiet her, while the men consulted. Then it was arranged, and the servants presently dropped behind again a few yards, though the maid still rode with Isabel. Then they came to the road on the right that would have led them to Kingsdown, and down this they turned. As they went, Anthony kept a good look-out for a place to turn aside; and a hundred yards from the turning saw what he wanted. On the left-hand side a little path led into the wood; it was overgrown with brambles, and looked as if it were now disused. Anthony gave the word and turned his horse down the entrance, and was followed in single file by the others. There were thick trees about them on every side, and, what was far more important, the road they had left at this point ran higher than usual, and was hard and dry; so the horses' hoofs as they turned off left no mark that would be noticed.

After riding thirty or forty yards, Anthony stopped, turned his horse again, and forced him through the hazels with some difficulty, and the others again followed in silence through the passage he had made. Presently Anthony stopped; the branches that had swished their faces as they rode through now seemed a little higher; and it was possible to sit here on horseback without any great discomfort.

"I must see them myself," he whispered to Isabel; and slipped off his horse, giving the bridle to Robert.

"Oh! mon Dieu!" moaned the maid; "mon Dieu! Ne partez pas!"

Anthony looked at her severely.

"You must be quiet and brave," he said sternly. "You are a Catholic too; pray, instead of crying."

Then Isabel saw him slip noiselessly towards the road, which was some fifty yards away, through the thick growth.

* * *

It was now a breathless afternoon. High overhead the sun blazed in a

cloudless sky, but down here all was cool, green shadow. There was not a sound to be heard from the woods, beyond the mellow hum of the flies; Anthony's faint rustlings had ceased; now and then a saddle creaked, or a horse blew out his nostrils or tossed his head. One of the men wound his handkerchief silently round a piece of his horse's head-harness that jingled a little. The maid drew a soft sobbing breath now and then, but she dared not speak after the priest's rebuke.

Then suddenly there came another sound to Isabel's ears; she could not distinguish at first what it was, but it grew nearer, and presently resolved itself into the fumbling noise of several horses' feet walking together, twice or three times a stirrup chinked, once she heard a muffled cough; but no word was spoken. Nearer and nearer it came, until she could not believe that it was not within five yards of her. Her heart began again that sick thumping; a fly that she had brushed away again and again now crawled unheeded over her face, and even on her white parted lips; but a sob of fear from the maid recalled her, and she turned a sharp look of warning on her. Then the fumbling noise began to die away: the men were passing. There was something in their silence that was more terrible than all else; it reminded her of hounds running on a hot scent.

Then at last there was silence; then gentle rustlings again over last year's leaves; and Anthony came back through the hazels. He nodded at her sharply.

"Now, quickly," he said, and took his horse by the bridle and began to lead him out again the way they had come. At the entrance he looked out first; the road was empty and silent. Then he led his horse clear, and mounted as the others came out one by one in single file.

"Now follow close; and watch my hand," he said; and he put his horse to a quick walk on the soft wayside turf. As the distance widened between them and the men who were now riding away from them, the walk became a trot, and then quickly a canter, as the danger of the sound being carried to their pursuers decreased.

It seemed to Isabel like some breathless dream as she followed Anthony's back, watching the motions of his hand as he signed in which direction he was going to turn next. What was happening, she half wondered to herself, that she should be riding like this on a spent horse, as if in some dreadful game, turning abruptly down lanes and rides, out across the high road, and down again another turn, with the breathing and creaking and jingling of others behind her? Years ago the two had played Follow-my-leader on horseback in the woods above Great Keynes. She remembered this now; and a flood of memories poured across her mind and diluted the bitterness of this shocking reality. Dear God, what a game!

Anthony steered with skill and decision. He had been studying the map with great attention, and even now carried it loose in his hand and glanced at it from time to time. Above all else he wished to avoid passing a house, for fear that the searchers might afterwards inquire at it; and he succeeded perfectly in this, though once or twice he was obliged to retrace his steps. There was little danger, he knew now, of the noise of the horses' feet being any guide to those who were searching, for the high table-land on which they rode was a labyrinth of lanes and rides, and the trees too served to echo and confuse the noise they could not altogether avoid making. Twice they passed travellers, one a farmer on an old grey horse, who stared at this strange hurrying party; and once a pedlar, laden with his pack, who trudged past, head down.

Isabel's horse was beginning to strain and pant, and she herself to grow giddy with heat and weariness, when she saw through the trees an old farmhouse with latticed windows and a great external chimney, standing in a square of cultivated ground; and in a moment more the path they were following turned a corner, and the party drew up at the back of the house.

At the noise of the horses' footsteps a door at the back had opened, and a woman's face looked out and drew back again; and presently from the front Mrs. Kirke came quickly round. She was tall and slender and middle-aged, with a somewhat anxious face; but a look of great relief came over it as she saw Anthony.

"Thank God you are come," she said; "I feared something had happened."

Anthony explained the circumstances in a few words.

"I will ride on gladly, madam, if you think right; but I will ask you in any case to take my sister in."

"Why, how can you say that?" she said; "I am a Catholic. Come in, father. But I fear there is but poor accommodation for the servants."

"And the horses?" asked Anthony.

"The barn at the back is got ready for them," she said; "perhaps it would be well to take them there at once." She called a woman, and sent her to show the men where to stable the horses, while Anthony and Isabel and the maid dismounted and came in with her to the house.

There, they talked over the situation and what was best to be done. Her husband had ridden over to Wrotham, and she expected him back for supper; nothing then could be finally settled till he came. In the meantime the Manor Lodge was probably the safest place in all the woods, Mrs. Kirke declared; the nearest house was half a mile away, and that was the Rectory; and the Rector himself was a personal friend and favourable to Catholics. The Manor Lodge, too, stood well off the road to Wrotham, and not five strangers appeared there in the year. Fifty men might hunt the woods for a month and not find it; in fact, Mr. Kirke had taken the house on account of its privacy, for he was weary, his wife said, of paying her fines for recusancy; and still more unwilling to pay his own, when that happy necessity should arrive; for he had now practically made up his mind to be a Catholic, and only needed a little instruction before being received.

"He is a good man, father," she said to Anthony, "and will make a good Catholic."

Then she explained about the accommodation. Isabel and the maid would have to sleep together in the spare room, and Anthony would have the little dressing-room opening out of it; and the men, she feared, would have to shake down as well as they could in the loft over the stable in the barn.

At seven o'clock Mr. Kirke arrived; and when the situation had been explained to him, he acquiesced in the plan. He seemed confident that there was but little danger; and he and Anthony were soon deep in theological talk.

Anthony found him excellently instructed already; he had, in fact, even prepared for his confession; his wife had taught him well; and it was the prospect of this one good opportunity of being reconciled to the Church that had precipitated matters and decided him to take the step. He was a delightful companion, too, intelligent, courageous, humorous and modest, and Anthony thought his own labour and danger well repaid when, a little after midnight, he heard his confession and received him into the Church. It was impossible for Mr. Kirke to receive communion, as he had wished, for there were wanting some of the necessaries for saying mass; so he promised to ride across to Stanfield in a week or so, stay the night and communicate in the morning.

Then early the next morning a council was held as to the best way for the party to leave for Stanfield. The men were called up, and their opinions asked; and gradually step by step a plan was evolved.

The first requirement was that, if possible, the party should not be recognisable; the second that they should keep together for mutual protection; for to separate would very possibly mean the apprehension of some one of them; the third was that they should avoid so far as was possible villages and houses and frequented roads.

Then the first practical suggestion was made by Isabel that the maid should be left behind, and that Mr. Kirke should bring her on with him to Stanfield when he came a week later. This he eagerly accepted, and further offered to keep all the luggage they could spare, take charge of the men's liveries, and lend them old garments and hats of his own-to one a cloak, and to another a doublet. In this way, he said, it would appear to be a pleasure party rather than one of travellers, and, should they be followed, this would serve to cover their traces. The travelling by unfrequented roads was more difficult; for that in itself might attract attention should they actually meet any one.

Anthony, who had been thinking in silence a moment or two, now broke in.

"Have you any hawks, Mr. Kirke?" he asked.

"Only one old peregrine," he said, "past sport."

"She will do," said Anthony; "and can you borrow another?"

"There is a merlin at the Rectory," said Mr. Kirke.

Then Anthony explained his plan, that they should pose as a hawking-party. Isabel and Robert should each carry a hawk, while he himself would carry on his wrist an empty leash and hood as if a hawk had escaped; that they should then all ride together over the open country, avoiding every road, and that, if they should see any one on the way, they should inquire whether he had seen an escaped falcon or heard the tinkle of the bells; and this would enable them to ask the way, should it be necessary, without arousing suspicion.

This plan was accepted, and the maid was informed to her great relief that she might remain behind for a week or so, and then return with Mr. Kirke after the searchers had left the woods.

It was a twenty-mile ride to Stanfield; and it was thought safer on the whole not to remain any longer where they were, as it was impossible to know whether a shrewd man might not, with the help of a little luck, stumble upon the house; so, when dinner was over, and the servants had changed into Mr. Kirke's old suits, and the merlin had been borrowed from the Rectory for a week's hawking, the horses were brought round and the party mounted.

Mr. Kirke and Anthony had spent a long morning together discussing the route, and it had been decided that it would be best to keep along the high ridge due west until they were a little beyond Kemsing, which they would be able to see below them in the valley; and then to strike across between that village and Otford, and keeping almost due south ride up through Knole Park; then straight down on the other side into the Weald, and so past Tonbridge home.

Mr. Kirke himself insisted on accompanying them on his cob until he had seen them clear of the woods on the high ground. Both he and his wife were full of gratitude to Anthony for the risk and trouble he had undergone, and did their utmost to provide them with all that was necessary for their disguise. At last, about two o'clock, the five men and Isabel rode out of the little yard at the back of the Manor Lodge and plunged into the woods again.

The afternoon hush rested on the country as they followed Mr. Kirke along a narrow seldom-used path that led almost straight to the point where it was decided that they should strike south. In half a dozen places it cut across lanes, and once across the great high road from Farningham to Wrotham. As they drew near this, Mr. Kirke, who was riding in front, checked them.

"I will go first," he said, "and see if there is danger."

In a minute he returned.

"There is a man about a hundred yards up the road asleep on a bank; and there is a cart coming up from Wrotham: that is all I can see. Perhaps we had better wait till the cart is gone."

"And what is the man like?" asked Anthony.

"He is a beggar, I should say; but has his hat over his eyes."

They waited till the cart had passed. Anthony dismounted and went to the entrance of the path and peered out at the man; he was lying, as Mr. Kirke had said, with his hat over his eyes, perfectly still. Anthony examined him a minute or two; he was in tattered clothes, and a great stick and a bundle lay beside him.

"It is a vagabond," he said, "we can go on."

The whole party crossed the road, pushing on towards the edge of the high downs over Kemsing; and presently came to the Ightam road where it began to run steeply down hill; here, too, Mr. Kirke looked this way and that, but no one was in sight, and then the whole party crossed; they kept inside the edge of the wood all the way along the downs for another mile or so, with the rich sunlit valley seen in glimpses through the trees here and there, and the Pilgrim's Way lying like a white ribbon a couple of hundred feet below them, until at last Kemsing Church, with St. Edith's Chantry at the side, lay below and behind them, and they came out on to the edge of a great scoop in the hill, like a theatre, and the blue woods and hills of Surrey showed opposite beyond Otford and Brasted.

Here they stopped, a little back from the edge, and Mr. Kirke gave them their last instructions, pointing out Seal across the valley, which they must leave on their left, skirting the meadows to the west of the church, and passing up towards Knole beyond.

"Let the sun be a little on your right," he said, "all the way; and you will strike the country above Tonbridge."

Then they said good-bye to one another; Mr. Kirke kissed the priest's hand in gratitude for what he had done for him, and then turned back along the edge of the downs, riding this time outside the woods, while the party led their horses carefully down the steep slope, across the Pilgrim's Way, and then struck straight out over the meadows to Seal.

Their plan seemed supremely successful; they met a few countrymen and lads at their work, who looked a little astonished at first at this great party riding across country, but more satisfied when Anthony had inquired of them whether they had seen a falcon or heard his bells. No, they had not, they said; and went on with their curiosity satisfied. Once, as they were passing down through a wood on to the Weald, Isabel, who had turned in her saddle, and was looking back, gave a low cry of alarm.

"Ah! the man, the man!" she said.

The others turned quickly, but there was nothing to be seen but the long straight ride stretching up to against the sky-line three or four hundred yards behind them. Isabel said she thought she saw a rider pass across this little opening at the end, framed in leaves; but there were stags everywhere in the woods here, and it would have been easy to mistake one for the other at that distance, and with such a momentary glance.

Once again, nearer Tonbridge, they had a fright. They had followed up a grass ride into a copse, thinking it would bring them out somewhere, but it led only to the brink of a deep little stream, where the plank bridge had been removed, so they were obliged to retrace their steps. As they re-emerged into the field from the copse, a large heavily-built man on a brown mare almost rode into them. He was out of breath, and his horse seemed distressed. Anthony, as usual, immediately asked if he had seen or heard anything of a falcon.

"No, indeed, gentlemen," he said, "and have you seen aught of a bitch who bolted after a hare some half mile back. A greyhound I should be loath to lose."

They had not, and said so; and the man, still panting and mopping his head, thanked them, and asked whether he could be of any service in directing them, if they were strange to the country; but they thought it better not to give him any hint of where they were going, so he rode off presently up the slope across their route and disappeared, whistling for his dog.

And so at last, about four o'clock in the afternoon, they saw the church spire of Stanfield above them on the hill, and knew that they were near the end of their troubles. Another hundred yards, and there were the roofs of the old house, and the great iron gates, and the vanes of the garden-house seen over the clipped limes; and then Mary Corbet and Mr. Buxton hurrying in from the garden, as they came through the low oak door, into the dear tapestried hall.

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