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   Chapter 33 THE ALARM

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 16025

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A very happy party sat down to supper that evening in Stanfield Place.

Anthony had taken Mr. Buxton aside privately when the first greetings were over, and told him all that happened: the alarm at Stanstead; his device, and the entire peace they had enjoyed ever since.

"Isabel," he ended, "certainly thought she saw a man behind us once; but we were among the deer, and it was dusky in the woods; and, for myself, I think it was but a stag. But, if you think there is danger anywhere, I will gladly ride on."

Mr. Buxton clapped him on the shoulder.

"My dear friend," he said, "take care you do not offend me. I am a slow fellow, as you know; but even my coarse hide is pricked sometimes. Do not suggest again that I could permit any priest-and much less my own dear friend-to leave me when there was danger. But there is none in this case-you have shaken the rogues off, I make no doubt; and you will just stay here for the rest of the summer at the very least."

Anthony said that he agreed with him as to the complete baffling of the pursuers, but added that Isabel was still a little shaken, and would Mr. Buxton say a word to her.

"Why, I will take her round the hiding-holes myself after supper, and show her how strong and safe we are. We will all go round."

In the withdrawing-room he said a word or two of reassurance to her before the others were down.

"Anthony has told me everything, Mistress Isabel; and I warrant that the knaves are cursing their stars still on Stanstead hills, twenty miles from here. You are as safe here as in Greenwich palace. But after supper, to satisfy you, we will look to our defences. But, believe me, there is nothing to fear."

He spoke with such confidence and cheerfulness that Isabel felt her fears melting, and before supper was over she was ashamed of them, and said so.

"Nay, nay," said Mr. Buxton, "you shall not escape. You shall see every one of them for yourself. Mistress Corbet, do you not think that just?"

"You need a little more honest worldliness, Isabel," said Mary. "I do not hesitate to say that I believe God saves the priests that have the best hiding-holes. Now that is not profane, so do not look at me like that."

"It is the plainest sense," said Anthony, smiling at them both.

They went the round of them all with candles, and Anthony refreshed his memory; they visited the little one in the chapel first, then the cupboard and portrait-door at the top of the corridor, the chamber over the fireplace in the hall, and lastly, in the wooden cellar-steps they lifted the edge of the fifth stair from the bottom, so that its front and the top of the stair below it turned on a hinge and dropped open, leaving a black space behind: this was the entrance to the passage that led beneath the garden to the garden-house on the far side of the avenue.

Mistress Corbet wrinkled her nose at the damp earthy smell that breathed out of the dark.

"I am glad I am not a priest," she said. "And I would sooner be buried dead than alive. And there is a rat there that sorely needs burying."

"My dear lady!" cried the contriver of the passage indignantly, "her Grace might sleep there herself and take no harm. There is not even the whisker of a rat."

"It is not the whisker that I mind," said Mary, "it is the rest of him."

Mr. Buxton immediately set his taper down and climbed in.

"You shall see," he said, "and I in my best satin too!"

He was inside the stairs now and lying on his back on the smooth board that backed them. He sidled himself slowly along towards the wall.

"Press the fourth brick of the fourth row," he said.

"You remember, Father Anthony?"

He had reached now what seemed to be the brick wall against which the ends of the stairs rested; and that closed that end of the cellars altogether. Anthony leaned in with a candle, and saw how that part of the wall against his friend's right side slowly turned into the dark as the fourth brick was pressed, and a little brick-lined passage appeared beyond. Mr. Buxton edged himself sideways into the passage, and then stood nearly upright. It was an excellent contrivance. Even if the searchers should find the chamber beneath the stairs, which was unlikely, they would never suspect that it was only a blind to a passage beyond. The door into the passage consisted of a strong oaken door disguised on the outside by a facing of brick-slabs; all the hinges were within.

"As sweet as a flower," said the architect, looking about him. His voice rang muffled and hollow.

"Then the friends have removed the corpse," said Mary, putting her head in, "while you were opening the door. There! come out; you will take cold. I believe you."

"Are you satisfied?" said Mr. Buxton to Isabel, as they went upstairs again.

"What are your outer defences?" asked Mary, before Isabel could answer.

"You shall see the plan in the hall," said Mr. Buxton.

He took down the frame that held the plan of the house, and showed them the outer doors. There was first the low oak front door on the north, opening on to the little court; this was immensely strong and would stand battering. Then on the same side farther east, within the stable-court, there was the servants' door, protected by chains, and an oak bolt that ran across. On the extreme east end of the house there was a door opening into the garden from the withdrawing-room, the least strong of all; there was another on the south side, opposite the front door-that gave on to the garden; and lastly there was an entrance into the priests' end of the house, at the extreme west, from the little walled garden where Anthony had meditated years ago. This walled garden had a very strong door of its own opening on to the lane between the church and the house.

"But there are only three ways out, really," said Mr. Buxton, "for the garden walls are high and strong. There is the way of the walled garden; the iron-gates across the drive; and through the stable-yard on to the field-path to East Maskells. All the other gates are kept barred; and indeed I scarcely know where the keys are."

"I am bewildered," said Mary.

"Shall we go round?" he asked.

"To-morrow," said Mary; "I am tired to-night, and so is this poor child. Come, we will go to bed."

Anthony soon went too. Both he and Isabel were tired with the journey and the strain of anxiety, and it was a keen joy to him to be back again in his own dear room, with the tapestry of St. Thomas of Aquin and St. Clare opposite the bed, and the wide curtained bow-window which looked out on the little walled garden.

* * *

Mr. Buxton was left alone in the great hall below with the two tapers burning, and the starlight with all the suffused glow of a summer night making the arms glimmer in the tall windows that looked south. Lower, the windows were open, and the mellow scents of the June roses, and of the sweet-satyrian and lavender poured in; the night was very still, but the faintest breath came from time to time across the meadows and rustled in the stiff leaves with the noise of a stealthy movement.

"I will look round," said Mr. Buxton to himself.

He stepped out immediately into the garden by the hall door, and turned to the east, passing along the lighted windows. His step sounded on the tiles, and a face looked out swiftly from Isabel's room overhead; but his figure was plain in the light from the windows as he came out round the corner; and the face drew back. He crossed the east end of the house, and went through a little door into the stable-yard, locking it after him. In the kennels in the corner came a movement, and a Danish hound came out silently into the cage before her house, and stood up, like a slender grey ghost, paws high up in the bars, and whimpered softly to her lord. He quieted her, and went to the door in the yard that opened on to the field-path to East Maskells, unbarred it and stepped through. There was a dry ditch on his left, where nettles quiver

ed in the stirring air; and a heavy clump of bushes rose beyond, dark and impenetrable. Mr. Buxton stared straight at these a moment or two, and then out towards East Maskells. There lay his own meadows, and the cattle and horses secure and sleeping. Then he stepped back again; barred the door and walked up through the stable-yard into the front court. There the great iron gates rose before him, diaphanous-looking and flimsy in the starlight. He went up to them and shook them; and a loose shield jangled fiercely overhead. Then he peered through, holding the bars, and saw the familiar patch of grass beyond the gravel sweep, and the dark cottages over the way. Then he made his way back to the front door, unlocked it with his private key, passed through the hall, through a parlour or two into the lower floor of the priests' quarters; unlocked softly the little door into the walled garden, and went out on tip-toe once more. Even as he went, Anthony's light overhead went out. Mr. Buxton went to the garden door, unfastened it, and stepped out into the road. Above him on his left rose up the chancel of the parish church, the roofs crowded behind; and immediately in front was the high-raised churchyard, with the tall irregular wall and the trees above all, blotting out the stars.

Then he came back the same way, fastening the doors as he passed, and reached the hall, where the tapers still burned. He blew out one and took the other.

"I suppose I am a fool," he said; "the lad is as safe as in his mother's arms." And he went upstairs to bed.

* * *

Mary Corbet rose late next morning, and when she came down at last found the others in the garden. She joined them as they walked in the little avenue.

"Have not the priest-hunters arrived?" she asked. "What are they about? And you, dear Isabel, how did you sleep?"

Isabel looked a little heavy-eyed. "I did not sleep well," she said.

"I fear I disturbed her," said Mr. Buxton. "She heard me as I went round the house."

"Why did you go round the house?" asked Anthony.

"I often do," he said shortly.

"And there was no one?" asked Mary.

"There was no one."

"And what would you have done if there had been?"

"Yes," said Anthony, "what would you have done to warn us all?"

Mr. Buxton considered.

"I should have rung the alarm, I think," he said.

"But I did not know you had one," said Mary.

Mr. Buxton pointed to a turret peeping between two high gables, above his own room.

"And what does it sound like?"

"It is deep, and has a dash of sourness or shrillness in it. I cannot describe it. Above all, it is marvellous loud."

"Then, if we hear it, we shall know the priest-hunters are on us?" asked Mary. Mr. Buxton bowed.

"Or that the house is afire," he said, "or that the French or Spanish are landed."

To tell the truth, he was just slightly uneasy. Isabel had been far more silent than he had ever known her, and her nerves were plainly at an acute tension; she started violently even now, when a servant came out between two yew-hedges to call Mr. Buxton in. Her alarm had affected him, and besides, he knew something of the extraordinary skill and patience of Walsingham's agents, and even the story of the ferry had startled him. Could it really be, he had wondered as he tossed to and fro in the hot night, that this innocent priest had thrown off his pursuers so completely as had appeared? In the morning he had sent down a servant to the inn to inquire whether anything had been seen or heard of a disquieting nature; now the servant had come to tell him, as he had ordered, privately. He went with the man in through the hall-door, leaving the others to walk in the avenue, and then faced him.

"Well?" he said sharply.

"No, sir, there is nothing. There is a party there travelling on to Brighthelmstone this afternoon, and four drovers who came in last night, sir; and two gentlemen travelling across country; but they left early this morning."

"They left, you say?"

"They left at eight o'clock, sir."

Mr. Buxton's attention was attracted to these two gentlemen.

"Go and find out where they came from," he said, "and let me know after dinner."

The man bowed and left the room, and almost immediately the dinner-bell rang.

Mary was frankly happy; she loved to be down here in this superb weather with her friends; she enjoyed this beautiful house with its furniture and pictures, and even took a certain pleasure in the hiding-holes themselves; although in this case she was satisfied they would not be needed. She had heard the tale of the Stanstead woods, and had no shadow of doubt but that the searchers, if, indeed, they were searchers at all, were baffled. So at dinner she talked exactly as usual; and the cloud of slight discomfort that still hung over Isabel grew lighter and lighter as she listened. The windows of the hall were flung wide, and the warm summer air poured from the garden into the cool room with its polished floor, and table decked with roses in silver bowls, with its grave tapestries stirring on the walls behind the grim visors and pikes that hung against them.

The talk turned on music.

"Ah! I would I had my lute," sighed Mary, "but my woman forgot to bring it. What a garden to sing in, in the shade of the yews, with the garden-house behind to make the voice sound better than it is!"

Mr. Buxton made a complimentary murmur.

"Thank you," she said, "Master Anthony, you are wool-gathering."

"Indeed not," he said, "but I was thinking where I had seen a lute. Ah! it is in the little west parlour."

"A lute!" cried Mary. "Ah! but I have no music; and I have not the courage to sing the only song I know, over and over again."

"But there is music too," said Anthony.

Mary clapped her hands.

"When dinner is over," she said, "you and I will go to find it."

Dinner was over at last, and the four rose.

"Come," said Mary; while Isabel turned into the garden and Mr. Buxton went to his room. "We will be with you presently," she cried after Isabel.

Then the two went together to the little west parlour, oak-panelled, with a wide fireplace with the logs in their places, and the latticed windows with their bottle-end glass, looking upon the walled garden. Anthony stood on a chair and opened the top window, letting a flood of summer noises into the room.

They found the lute music, written over its six lines with the queer F's and double F's and numerals-all Hebrew to Anthony, but bursting and blossoming with delicate melodies to Mary's eyes. Then she took up the lute, and tuned it on her knee, still sitting in a deep lounging-chair, with her buckled feet before her; while Anthony sat opposite and watched her supple flashing fingers busy among the strings, and her grave abstracted look as she listened critically. Then she sounded the strings in little rippling chords.

"Ah! it is a sweet old lute," she said. "Put the music before me."

Anthony propped it on a chair.

"Is that the right side up?" he asked.

Mary smiled and nodded, still looking at the music.

"Now then," she said, and began the prelude.

* * *

Anthony threw himself back in his chair as the delicate tinkling began to pour out and overscore the soft cooing of a pigeon on the roofs somewhere and the murmur of bees through the open window. It was an old precise little love-song from Italy, with a long prelude, suggesting by its tender minor chords true and restrained love, not passionate but tender, not despairing but melancholy; it was a love that had for its symbols not the rose and the lily, but the lavender and thyme-acrid in its sweetness. The prelude had climbed up by melodious steps to the keynote, and was now rippling down again after its aspirations.

Mary stirred herself.

Ah! now the voice would come in the last chord--when all the music was first drowned and then ceased, as with crash after crash a great bell, sonorous and piercing, began to sound from overhead.

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