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   Chapter 34 THE PASSAGE TO THE GARDEN-HOUSE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 26624

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The two looked at one another with parted lips, but without a word. Then both rose simultaneously. Then the bell jangled and ceased; and a crowd of other noises began; there were shouts, tramplings of hoofs in the court; shrill voices came over the wall; then a scream or two. Mary sprang to the door and opened it, and stood there listening.

Then from the interior of the house came an indescribable din, tramplings of feet and shouts of anger; then violent blows on woodwork. It came nearer in a moment of time, as a tide comes in over flat sands, remorselessly swift. Then Mary with one movement was inside again, and had locked the door and drawn the bolt.

"Up there," she said, "it is the only way-they are outside," and she pointed to the chimney.

Anthony began to remonstrate. It was intolerable, he felt, to climb up the chimney like a hunted cat, and he began a word or two. But Mary seized his arm.

"You must not be caught," she said, "there are others"; and there came a confused battering and trampling outside. She pushed him towards the chimney. Then decision came to him, and he bent his head and stepped upon the logs laid upon the ashes, crushing them down.

"Ah! go," said Mary's voice behind him, as the door began to bulge and creak. There was plainly a tremendous struggle in the little passage outside.

Anthony threw his hands up and felt a high ledge in the darkness, gripped it with his hands and made a huge effort combined of a tug and a spring; his feet rapped sharply for a moment or two on the iron fire-plate; and then his knee reached the ledge and he was up. He straightened himself on the ledge, stood upright and looked down; two white hands with rings on them were lifting the logs and drawing them out from the ashes, shaking them and replacing them by others from the wood-basket; and all deliberately, as if laying a fire. Then her voice came up to him, hushed but distinct.

"Go up quickly. I will feign to be burning papers; there will be smoke, but no sparks. It is green wood."

Anthony again felt above him, and found two iron half-rings in the chimney, one above the other; he was in semi-darkness here, but far above there was a patch of pale smoky light; and all the chimney seemed full of a murmurous sound. He tugged at the rings and found them secure, and drew himself up steadily by the higher one, until his knee struck the lower; then with a great effort he got his knee upon it, then his left foot, and again straightened himself. Then, as he felt in the darkness once more, he found a system of rings, one above the other, up the side of the chimney, by which it was not hard to climb. As he went up he began to perceive a sharp acrid smell, his eyes smarted and he closed them, but his throat burned; he climbed fiercely; and then suddenly saw immediately below him another hearth; he was looking over the fireplate of some other room. In a moment more he thrust his head over, and drew a long breath of clear air; then he listened intently. From below still came a murmur of confusion; but in this room all was quiet. He began to think frantically. He could not remain in the chimney, it was hopeless; they would soon light fires, he knew, in all the chimneys, and bring him down. What room was this? He was bewildered and could not remember. But at least he would climb into it and try to escape. In a moment more he had lifted himself over the fireplate and dropped safely on to the hearth of his own bedroom.

The fresh air and the familiarity of the room, as he looked round, swept the confusion out of his brain like a breeze. The thundering and shouting continued below. Then he went on tip-toe to the door and opened it. Round to the right was the head of the stairs which led straight into the little passage where the struggle was going on. He could hear Robert's voice in the din; plainly there was no way down the stairs. To the left was the passage that ended in a window, with the chapel door at the left and the false shelves on the right. He hesitated a moment between the two hiding-places, and then decided for the cupboard; there was a clean doublet there; his own was one black smear of soot, and as he thought of it, he drew off his sooty shoes. His hose were fortunately dark. He stepped straight out of the door, leaving it just ajar. Even as he left it there was a thunder of footsteps on the stairs, and he was at the shelves in a moment, catching a glimpse through the window on his left of the front court crowded with men and horses. He had opened and shut the secret door three or four times the evening before, and his hands closed almost instinctively on the two springs that must be worked simultaneously. He made the necessary movement, and the shelves with the wall behind it softly slid open and he sprang in. But as he closed it he heard one of the two books drop, and an exclamation from the passage he had just left; then quick steps from the head of the stairs; the steps clattered past the door and into the chapel opposite and stopped.

Anthony felt about him in the darkness, found the doublet and lifted it off the nail; slipped off his own, tearing his ruff as he did so; and then quickly put on the other. He had no shoes; but that would not be so noticeable. He had not seriously thought of the possibility of escaping through the portrait-door, as he felt sure the house would be overrun by now; but he put his eyes to the pinholes and looked out; and to his astonishment saw that the gallery was empty. There it lay, with its Flemish furniture on the right and its row of windows on the left, and all as tranquil as if there were no fierce tragedy of terror and wrath raging below. Again decision came to him; by a process of thought so swift that it was an intuition, he remembered that the fall of the book outside would concentrate attention on that corner; it could not be long before the shelves were broken in, and if he did not escape now there would be no possibility later. Then he unslid the inside bolt, and the portrait swung open; he closed it behind, and sped on silent shoeless feet down the polished floor of the gallery.

Of course the great staircase was hopeless. The hall would be seething with men. But there was just a chance through the servants' quarters. He dashed past the head of the stairs, catching a glimpse of heads and sparkles of steel over the banisters, and through the half-opened door at the end, finding himself in the men's corridor that was a continuation of the gallery he had left. On his left rose the head of the back-stairs, that led first with a double flight to the offices, the pantry, the buttery and the kitchen, and than, lower still, a single third flight down to the cellar.

He looked down the stairs; at the bottom of the first double flight were a couple of maids, screaming and white-faced, leaning and pressing against the door, immediately below the one he had just come through himself. The door was plainly barred as well, for it was now thudding and cracking with blows that were being showered upon it from the other side. The maids, it seemed to him, in a panic had locked the door; but that panic might be his salvation. He dashed down the stairs; the maids screamed louder than ever when they saw this man, whom they did not recognise, with blackened face and hands come in noiseless leaps down towards them; but Anthony put his finger on his lips as he flew past them; then he dashed open the little door that shut off the cellar-flight, closed it behind him, and was immediately in the dark.

Then he groped his way down, feeling the rough brick wall as he went, till he reached the floor of the cellar. The air was cool and damp here, and it refreshed him, for he was pouring with sweat. The noise, too, and confusion which, during his flight, had been reverberating through the house with a formidable din, now only reached him as a far-away murmur.

As he counted the four steps up, and then lifted the overhanging edge, there came upon him irresistibly the contrast between the serene party here last night, with their tapers and their delicate dresses and Mary's cool clear-clipped voice-and his own soot-stained person, his desperate energy and his quick panting and heart-beating. Then the steps dropped and he slid in; lifted them again as he lay on his back, and heard the spring catch as they closed. Then he was in silence, too, and comparative safety. But he dared not rest yet, and edged himself along as he had seen Mr. Buxton do last night. Which brick was it? "The fourth of the fourth," he murmured, and counted, and pressed it. Again the door pushed back, and with a little struggle he was first on his knees, and then on his feet. Then he swung the door to again behind him.

Then for the first time he rested; he leaned against the brick-lined side of the tunnel and passed his blackened hands over his face. Five minutes ago-yes-certainly not five minutes ago he was lounging in the west parlour, at the other end of the house, while Mary played the prelude to an Italian love-song.-What was she doing now? God bless her for her quick courage!-And Isabel and Buxton-where were they all? How deadly sick and tired he felt!-Again he passed his hands over his face in the pitch darkness.-Well, he must push on.

He turned and began to grope patiently through the blackness-step by step-feeling the roughness of the bricks beneath with his shoeless feet before he set them down; once or twice he stepped into a little icy pool, which had collected through some crack in the vaulting overhead; once, too, he slipped on a lump of something wet and shapeless; and thought even then of Mary's suspicions the night before. He pushed on, shivering now with cold and excitement, through what seemed the interminable tunnel, until at last his outstretched hands touched wood before him. He had not seen this end of the passage for nearly two years, and he wondered if he could remember the method of opening, and gave a gulp of horror at the thought that he might not. But there had been no reason to make a secret of the inside of the door, and he presently found a button and drew it; it creaked rustily, but gave, and the door with another pull opened inwards, and there was a faint glimmer of light. Then he remembered that the entrances to the tunnel at either end were exactly on the same system; and putting out his hands felt the slope of the underside of the staircase, cutting diagonally across the opening of the passage. He slid himself on to the boarding sideways, and drew the brickwork towards him till the spring snapped, and lay there to consider before he went farther.

First he ran over in his mind the construction of the garden-house.

The basement in which he was lying corresponded to the cellar under the house from which he had come, and ran the whole length of the building, about forty feet by twenty. It was a large empty chamber, where nothing of any value was kept. He remembered last time he was here seeing a heap of tiles in one corner, with a pile of disused poles; pieces of rope, and old iron in another. The stairs led up through an ordinary trap-door into what was the ground-floor of the house. This, too, was one immense room, with four latticed windows looking on to the garden, and one with opaque glass on to the lane at the back; and a great door, generally kept locked, for rather more valuable things were kept here, such as the garden-roller, flower-pots, and the targets for archery. Then a light staircase led straight up from this room to the next floor, which was divided into two, both of which, so far as Anthony remembered, were empty. Mr. Buxton had thought of letting his gardeners sleep there when he had at first built this immense useless summer-house; but he had ultimately built a little gardener's cottage adjoining it. The two fantastic towers that flanked the building held nothing but staircases, which could be entered by either of the two floors, and which ascended to tiny rooms with windows on all four sides.

When Anthony had run over these details as he lay on his back, he pushed up the stair over his face and let the front of it with the step of the next swing inwards; the light was stronger now, and poured in, though still dim, through three half-moon windows, glazed and wired, that just rose above the level of the ground outside. Then he extricated himself, closed the steps behind him, and went up the stairs.

The trap-door at the top was a little stiff, but he soon raised it, and in a moment more was standing in the ground-floor room of the garden-house. All round him was much as he remembered it; he first went to the door and found it securely fastened, as it often was for days together; he glanced at the windows to assure himself that they were bottle-glass too, and then went to them to look out. He was fortunate enough to find the corner of one pane broken away; he put his eye to this, and there lay a little lawn, with a yew-hedge beyond blotting out all of the great house opposite except the chimneys,-the house which even across the whole space of garden hummed like a hive. On the lawn was a chair, and an orange-bound book lay face down on the grass beside it. Anthony stared at it; i

t was the book that he had seen in Isabel's hand not half an hour ago, as she had gone out into the garden from the hall to wait until he and Mary joined her with the lute.

And at that the priest knelt down before the window, covered his face with his hands, and began to stammer and cry to God: "O God! God! God!" he said.

* * *

When Mary Corbet had seen Anthony's feet disappear, she already had the outline of a plan in her mind. To light a fire and pretend to be burning important papers would serve as an excuse for keeping the door fast; it would also suggest at least that no one was in the chimney. The ordinary wood, however, sent up sparks; but she had noticed before a little green wood in the basket, and knew that this did not do so to the same extent; so she pulled out the dry wood that Anthony had trodden into the ashes and substituted the other. Then she had looked round for paper;-the lute music, that was all. Meantime the door was giving; the noise outside was terrible; and it was evident that one or two of the servants were obstructing the passage of the pursuivants.

When at last the door flew in, there was a fire cracking furiously on the hearth, and a magnificently dressed lady kneeling before it, crushing paper into the flames. Half a dozen men now streamed in and more began to follow, and stood irresolute for a moment, staring at her. From the resistance they had met with they had been certain that the priest was here, and this sight perplexed them. A big ruddy man, however, who led them, sprang across the room, seized Mary Corbet by the shoulders and whisked her away against the wall, and then dashed the half-burnt paper out of the grate and began to beat out the flames.

Mary struggled violently for a moment; but the others were upon her and held her, and she presently stood quiet. Then she began upon them.

"You insolent hounds!" she cried, "do you know who I am?" Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes blazing; she seemed in a superb fury.

"Burning treasonable papers," growled the big man from his knees on the hearth, "that is enough for me."

"Who are you, sir, that dare to speak to me like that?"

The man got up; the flames were out now, and he slipped the papers into a pocket. Mary went on immediately.

"If I may not burn my own lute music, or keep my door locked, without a riotous mob of knaves breaking upon me-- Ah! how dare you?" and she stamped furiously.

The pursuivant came up close to her, insolently.

"See here, my lady--" he began.

The men had fallen back from her a little now that the papers were safe, and she lifted her ringed hand and struck his ruddy face with all her might. There was a moment of confusion and laughter as he recoiled.

"Now will you remember that her Grace's ladies are not to be trifled with?"

There was a murmur from the crowded room, and a voice near the door cried:

"She says truth, Mr. Nichol. It is Mistress Corbet."

Nichol had recovered himself, but was furiously angry.

"Very good, madam, but I have these papers now," he said, "they can still be read."

"You blind idiot," hissed Mary, "do you not know lute music when you see it?"

"I know that ladies do not burn lute music with locked doors," observed Nichol bitterly.

"The more fool you!" screamed Mary, "when you have caught one at it."

"That will be seen," sneered Mr. Nichol.

"Not by a damned blind scarlet-faced porpoise!" screamed Mary, apparently more in a passion than ever, and a burst of laughter came from the men.

This was too much for Mr. Nichol. This coarse abuse stung him cruelly.

"God's blood," he bellowed at the room; "take this vixen out and search the place." And a torrent of oaths drove the crowd about the door out into the passage again.

A couple of men took Mary by the fierce ringed hands of hers that still twitched and clenched, and led her out; she spat insults over her shoulders as she went. But she had held him in talk as she intended.

"Now then," roared Nichol again, "search, you dogs!"

He himself went outside too, and seeing the stairs stamped up them. He was just in time to see the Tacitus settle down with crumpled pages; stopped for a moment, bewildered, for it lay in the middle of the passage; and then rushed at the open door on the left, dashed it open, and found a little empty room, with a chair or two, and a table-but no sign of the priest. It was like magic.

Then out he came once more, and went into Anthony's own room. The great bed was on his right, the window opposite, the fireplace to the left, and in the middle lay two sooty shoes. Instinctively he bent and touched them, and found them warm; then he sprang to the door, still keeping his face to the room, and shouted for help.

"He is here, he is here!" he cried. And a thunder of footsteps on the stairs answered him.

* * *

Meanwhile the men that held Mary followed the others along the passage, but while the leaders went on and round into the lower corridor, the two men-at-arms with their prisoner turned aside into the parlour that served as an ante-chamber to the hall beyond, where they released her. Here, though it was empty of people, all was in confusion; the table had been overturned in the struggle that had raged along here between Lackington's men, who had entered from the front door, and the servants of the house, who had rushed in from their quarters at the first alarm and intercepted them. One chair lay on its side, with its splintered carved arm beside it. As Mary stood a moment looking about her, the door from the hall that had been closed, again opened, and Isabel came through; and a man's voice said:

"You must wait here, madam"; then the door closed behind her.

"Isabel," said Mary.

The two looked at one another a moment, but before either spoke again the door again half-opened, and a voice began to speak, as if its owner still held the handle.

"Very well, Lackington, keep him in his room. I will go through here to Nichol."

Isabel had drawn a sharp breath as the voice began, and as the door opened wider she turned and faced it. Then Hubert came in, and recoiled on the threshold. There fell a complete silence in the room.

"Hubert," said Isabel after a moment, "what are you doing here?"

Hubert shut the door abruptly and leaned against it, staring at her; his face had gone white under the tan. Isabel still looked at him steadily, and her eyes were eloquent. Then she spoke again, and something in her voice quickened the beating of Mary's heart as she listened.

"Hubert, have you forgotten us?"

Still Hubert stared; then he stood upright. The two men-at-arms were watching in astonishment.

"I will see to the ladies," he said abruptly, and waved his hand. They still hesitated a moment.

"Go," he said again sharply, and pointed to the door. He was a magistrate, and responsible; and they turned and went.

Then Hubert looked at Isabel again.

"Isabel," he said, "if I had known--"

"Stay," she interrupted, "there is no time for explanations except mine. Anthony is in the house; I do not know where. You must save him."

There was no entreaty or anxiety in her voice; nothing but a supreme dignity and an assurance that she would be obeyed.

"But--" he began. The door was opened from the hall, and a little party of searchers appeared, but halted when the magistrate turned round.

"Come with me," he said to the two women, "you must have a room kept for you upstairs," and he held back the door for them to pass.

Isabel put out her hand to Mary, and the two went out together into the hall past the men, who stood back to let them through, and Hubert followed. They turned to the left to the stairs, looking as they went upon the wild confusion. Above them rose the carved ceiling, and in the centre of the floor, untouched, by a strange chance, stood the dinner-table, still laid with silver and fruit and flowers. But all else was in disarray. The leather screen that had stood by the door into the entrance hall had been overthrown, and had carried with it a tall flowering plant that now lay trampled and broken before the hearth. A couple of chairs lay on their backs between the windows; the rug under the window was huddled in a heap, and all over the polished boards were scratches and dents; a broken sword-hilt lay on the floor with a feathered cap beside it. There were half a dozen men guarding the four doors; but the rest were gone; and from overhead came tramplings and shouts as the hunt swept to and fro in the upper floors.

At the top of the stairs was Mary's room; the two ladies, who had gone silently upstairs with Hubert behind them, stopped at the door of it.

"Here, if you please," said Mary.

Before Hubert could answer, Lackington came down the passage, hurrying with a drawn sword, and his hat on his head. Isabel did not recognise him as he stopped and tapped Hubert on the arm familiarly.

"The prisoners must not be together," he said.

Hubert drew back his arm and looked the man in the face.

"They are not prisoners; and they shall be together. Take off your hat, sir."

Then, as Lackington drew back astonished, he opened the door.

"You shall not be disturbed here," he said, and the two went in, and the door closed behind them. There was a murmur of voices outside the door, and they heard a name called once or twice, and the sound of footsteps. Then came a tap, and Hubert stepped in quietly and closed the door.

"I have placed my own man outside," he said, "and none shall trouble you-and-Mistress Isabel-I will do my best." Then he bowed and went out.

* * *

The long miserable afternoon began. They watched through the windows the sentries going up and down the broad paths between the glowing flower-beds; and out, over the high iron fence that separated the garden from the meadows, the crowd of villagers and children watching.

But the real terror for them both lay in the sounds that came from the interior of the house. There was a continual tramp of the sentries placed in every corridor and lobby, and of the messengers that went to and fro. Then from room after room came the sounds of blows, the rending of woodwork, and once or twice the crash of glass, as the searchers went about their work; and at every shout the women shuddered or drew their breath sharply, for any one of the noises might be the sign of Anthony's arrest.

The two had soon talked out every theory in low voices, but they both agreed that he was still in the house somewhere, and on the upper floor. It was impossible, they thought, for him to have made his way down. There were four possibilities, therefore: either he might still be in the chimney-in that case it was no use hoping; or he was in the chapel-hole; or in that behind the portrait; or in one last one, in the room next to their own. The searchers had been there early in the afternoon, but perhaps had not found it; its entrance was behind the window shutter, and was contrived in the thickness of the wall. So they talked, these two, and conjectured and prayed, as the evening drew on; and the sun began to sink behind the church, and the garden to lie in cool shadow.

About eight there was a tap at the door, and Hubert came in with a tray of food in his hands, which he set down.

"All is in confusion," he said, "but this is the best I can do."-He broke off.

"Mistress Isabel," he said, coming nearer to the two as they sat together in the window-seat, "I can do little; they have found three hiding-holes; but so far he has escaped. I do what I can to draw them off, but they are too clever and zealous. If you can tell me more, perhaps I can do more."

The two were looking at him with startled eyes.

"Three?" Mary said.

"Yes, three-and indeed--" He stopped as Isabel got up and came towards him.

"Hubert," she said resolutely, "I must tell you. He must be still in the chimney of the little west parlour. Do what you can."

"The west parlour!" he said. "That was where Mistress Corbet was burning the papers?"

"Yes," said Mary.

"He is not there," said Hubert; "we have sent a boy up and down it already."

"Ah! dear God!" said Mary from the window-seat, "then he has escaped."

Isabel looked from one to the other and shook her head.

"It cannot be," she said. "The guards were all round the house before the alarm rang."

Hubert nodded, and Mary's face fell.

"Then is there no way out?" he asked.

Mary sprang up with shining eyes.

"He has done it," she said, and threw her arms round Isabel and kissed her.

"Well," said Hubert, "what can I do?"

"You must leave us," said Isabel; "come back later."

"Then when we have searched the garden-house-why, what is it?"

A look of such anguish had come into their faces that he stopped amazed.

"The garden-house!" cried Mary; "no, no, no!"

"No, no, Hubert, Hubert!" cried Isabel, "you must not go there."

"Why," he said, "it was I that proposed it; to draw them from the house."

There came from beneath the windows a sudden tramp of footsteps, and then Nichol's voice, distinctly heard through the open panes.

"We cannot wait for him. Come, men."

"They are going without me," said Hubert; and turned and ran through the door.

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