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   Chapter 38 AN OPEN DOOR

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 22539

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When the carriage reached the palace they were told that the Queen was not yet come from Greenwich; and they were shown into a little ante-room next the gallery where the interview was to take place. The Queen, the Lieutenant told Anthony, was to come up that afternoon passing through London, and that she had desired to see him on her way through to Nonsuch; he could not tell him why he was sent for, though he conjectured it was because of Mistress Corbet's death, and that her Grace wished to know the details.

"However," said the Lieutenant, "you now have your opportunity to speak for yourself, and I think you a very fortunate man, Mr. Norris. Few have had such a privilege, though I remember that Mr. Campion had it too, though he made poor use of it."

Anthony said nothing. His mind was throbbing with memories and associations. The air of state and luxury in the corridors through which he had just come, the discreet guarded doors, the servants in the royal liveries standing here and there, the sense of expectancy that mingled with the solemn hush of the palace-all served to bring up the figure of Mary Corbet, whom he had seen so often in these circumstances; and the thought of her made the peril in which he stood and the hope of escape from it seem very secondary matters. He walked to the window presently and looked out upon the little court below, one of the innumerable yards of that vast palace, and stood staring down on the hound that was chained there near one of the entrances, and that yawned and blinked in the autumn sunshine.

Even as he looked the dog paused in the middle of his stretch and stood expectant with his ears cocked, a servant dashed bareheaded down a couple of steps and out through the low archway; and simultaneously Anthony heard once more the sweet shrill trumpets that told of the Queen's approach; then there came the roll of drums and the thunder of horses' feet and the noise of wheels; the trumpets sang out again nearer, and the rumbling waxed louder as the Queen's cavalcade, out of sight, passed the entrance of the archway down upon which Anthony looked; and then stilled, and the palace itself began to hum and stir; a door or two banged in the distance, feet ran past the door of the ante-room, and the strain of the trumpets sounded once in the house itself. Then all grew quiet once more, and Anthony turned from the window and sat down again by the Lieutenant.

There was silence for a few minutes. The Lieutenant stroked his beard gently and said a word or two under his breath now and again to Anthony; once or twice there came the swift rustle of a dress outside as a lady hurried past; then the sound of a door opening and shutting; then more silence; then the sound of low talking, and at last the sound of footsteps going slowly up and down the gallery which adjoined the ante-room.

Still the minutes passed, but no summons came. Anthony rose and went to the window again, for, in spite of himself, this waiting told upon him. The dog had gone back to his kennel and was lying with his nose just outside the opening. Anthony wondered vacantly to himself what door it was that he was guarding, and who lived in the rooms that looked out beside it. Then suddenly the door from the gallery opened and a page appeared.

"The Queen's Grace will see Mr. Norris alone."

Anthony went towards him, and the page opened the door wide for him to go through, and then closed it noiselessly behind him, and Anthony was in the presence.

* * *

It was with a sudden bewilderment that he recognised he was in the same gallery as that in which he had talked and sat with Mary Corbet. There were the long tapestries hanging opposite him, with the tall three windows dividing them, and the suits of steel armour that he remembered. He even recalled the pattern of the carpet across which Mary Corbet had come forward to meet him, and that still lay before the tall window at the end that looked on to the Tilt-yard. The sun was passing round to the west now, and shone again across the golden haze of the yard through this great window, with the fragments of stained glass at the top. The memory leapt into life even as he stepped out and stood for a moment, dazed in the sunshine, at the door that opened from the ante-room.

But the figure that turned from the window and faced him was not like Mary's. It was the figure of an old woman, who looked tall with her towering head-dress and nodding plume; she was dressed in a great dark red mantle thrown back on her shoulders, and beneath it was a pale yellow dress sown all over with queer devices; on the puffed sleeve of the arm that held the stick was embroidered a great curling snake that shone with gold thread and jewels in the sunlight, and powdered over the skirt were representations of human eyes and other devices, embroidered with dark thread that showed up plainly on the pale ground. So much he saw down one side of the figure on which the light shone; the rest was to his dazzled eyes in dark shadow. He went down on his knees at once before this tremendous figure, seeing the buckled feet that twinkled below the skirt cut short in front, and remained there.

There was complete silence for a moment, while he felt the Queen looking at him, and then the voice he remembered, only older and harsher, now said:

"What is all this, Mr. Norris?"

Anthony looked for a moment and saw the Queen's eyes fixed on him; but he said nothing, and looked down again.

"Stand up," said the Queen, not unkindly, "and walk with me."

Anthony stood up at once, and heard the stiff rustle of her dress and the tap of her heels and stick on the polished boards as she came towards him. Then he turned with her down the long gallery.

Until this moment, ever since he had heard that he was to see the Queen, he had felt nervous and miserable; but now this had left him, and he felt at his ease. To be received in this way, in privacy, and to accompany her up and down the gallery as she took her afternoon exercise was less embarrassing than the formal interview he had expected. The two walked the whole length of the gallery without a word, and it was not until they turned and faced the end that looked on to the Tilt-yard that the Queen spoke; and her voice was almost tender.

"I understand that you were with Minnie Corbet when she died," she said.

"She died for me, your Grace," said Anthony.

The Queen looked at him sharply.

"Tell me the tale," she said.

And Anthony told her the whole story of the escape and the ride; speaking too for his friend, Mr. Buxton, and of Mary's affection for him.

"Your Grace," he ended, "it sounds a poor tale of a man that a woman should die for him so; but I can say with truth that with God's grace I would have died a hundred deaths to save her."

The Queen was silent for a good while when the story was over, and Anthony thought that perhaps she could not speak; but he dared not look at her.

Then she spoke very harshly:

"And you, Mr. Norris, why did you not escape?"

"Your Grace would not have done so."

"When I saw that she was dying, I would."

"Not if you had been a priest, your Grace."

"What is that?" asked the Queen, suddenly facing him.

"I am a priest, madam, and she was a Catholic, and my duty was beside her."

"Eh?"

"I shrived her, your Grace, before she died."

"Why! they did not tell me that."

Anthony was silent.

They walked on a few steps, and the Queen stood silent too, looking down upon the Tilt-yard. Then she turned abruptly, and Anthony turned with her, and they began to go up and down again.

"It was gallant of you both," she said shortly. "I love that my people should be of that sort." Then she paused. "Tell me," she went on, "did Mary love me?"

Anthony was silent for a moment.

"The truth, Mr. Norris," she said.

"Mistress Corbet was loyalty itself," he answered.

"Nay, nay, nay, not loyalty but love I asked you of. How did she speak of me?"

"Well, your Grace, Mistress Corbet had a shrewd wit, and she used it freely on friend and foe, but her very sharpness on your Grace, sometimes, showed her love; for she hated to think you otherwise than what she deemed the best."

The Queen stopped full in her walk.

"That is very pleasantly put," she said; "I told Minnie you were a courtier."

Again the two walked on.

"Then she used her tongue on me?"

"Your Grace, I have never met one on whom she did not: but her heart was true."

"I know that, I know that, Mr. Norris. Tell me something she said."

Anthony racked his brains for something not too severe.

"Mistress Corbet once said that the Queen's most disobedient subject was herself."

"Eh?" said Elizabeth, stopping in her walk.

"'Because,' said Mistress Corbet, 'she can never command herself,'" finished Anthony.

The Queen looked at Anthony, puzzled a moment; and then chuckled loudly in her throat.

"The impertinent minx!" she said, "that was when I had clouted her, no doubt."

Again they walked up and down in silence a little while. Anthony began to wonder whether this was all for which the Queen had sent for him. He was astonished at his own self-possession; all the trembling awe with which he had faced the Queen at Greenwich was gone; he had forgotten for the moment even his own peril; and he felt instead even something of pity for this passionate old woman, who had aged so quickly, whose favourites one by one were dropping off, or at the best giving her only an exaggerated and ridiculous devotion, at the absurdity of which all the world laughed. Here was this old creature at his side, surrounded by flatterers and adventurers, advancing through the world in splendid and jewelled raiment, with trumpets blowing before her, and poets singing her praises, and crowds applauding in the streets, and sneering in their own houses at the withered old virgin-Queen who still thought herself a Diana-and all the while this triumphal progress was at the expense of God's Church, her car rolled over the bodies of His servants, and her shrunken, gemmed fingers were red in their blood;-so she advanced, thought Anthony, day by day towards the black truth and the eternal loneliness of the darkness that lies outside the realm where Christ only is King.

Elizabeth broke in suddenly on his thoughts.

"Now," she said, "and what of you, Mr. Norris?"

"I am your Grace's servant," he said.

"I am not so sure of that," said Elizabeth. "If you are my servant, why are you a priest, contrary to my laws?"

"Because I am Christ's servant too, your Grace."

"But Christ's apostle said, 'Obey them that have the rule over you.'"

"In indifferent matters, madam."

The Queen frowned and made a little angry sound.

"I cannot understand you Papists," said the Queen. "What a-God's name do you want? You have liberty of thought and faith; I desire to inquire into no man's private opinions. You may worship Ashtaroth if it please you, in your own hearts; and God looks to the heart, and not to the outer man. There is a Church with bishops like your own, and ministers; there are the old churches to worship in-nay, you may find the old ornaments still in use. We have sacraments as yo

u have; you may seek shrift if you will; nay, in some manner we have the mass-though we do not call it so-but we follow Christ's ordinance in the matter, and you can do no more. We have the Word of God as you have, and we use the same creeds. What more can the rankest Papist ask? Tell me that, Mr. Norris; for I am a-weary of your folk."

The Queen turned and faced him again a moment, and her eyes were peevish and resentful.

Presently she went on again.

"Mr. Campion told me it was the oath that troubled him. He could not take it, he said. I told the fool that I was not Head of the Church as Christ was, but only the supreme governor, as the Act declares, in all spiritual and ecclesiastical things:-I forget how it runs,-but I showed it him, and asked him whether it were not true; and I asked him too how it was that Margaret Roper could take the oath, and so many thousands of persons as full Christian as himself-and he could not answer me."

The Queen was silent again. Then once more she went on indignantly:

"It is yourselves that have brought all this trouble on your heads. See what the Papists have done against me; they have excommunicated me, deposed me-though in spite of it I still sit on the throne; they have sent an Armada against me; they have plotted against me, I know not how many times; and then, when I defend myself and hang a few of the wolves, lo! they are Christ's flock at once for whom he shed His precious blood, and His persecuted lambs, and I am Jezebel straightway and Athaliah and Beelzebub's wife-and I know not what."

The Queen stopped, out of breath, and looked fiercely at Anthony, who said nothing.

"Tell me how you answer that, Mr. Norris?" said the Queen.

"I dare not deal with such great matters," said Anthony, "for your Grace knows well that I am but a poor priest that knows nought of state-craft; but I would like to ask your Highness two questions only. The first is: whether your Grace had aught to complain of in the conduct of your Catholic subjects when the Armada was here; and the second, whether there hath been one actual attempt upon your Grace's life by private persons?"

"That is not to the purpose," said the Queen peevishly.

"It was Catholics who fought against me in the Armada, and it was Catholics who plotted against me at Court."

"Then there is a difference in Catholics, your Grace," said Anthony.

"Ah! I see what you would be at."

"Yes, your Highness; I would rather say, Although they be Catholics they do these things."

There was silence again, which Anthony did not dare to break; and the two walked up the whole length of the gallery without speaking.

"Well, well," said Elizabeth at last, "but this was not why I sent for you. We will speak of yourself now, Mr. Norris. I hope you are not an obstinate fellow. Eh?"

Anthony said nothing, and the Queen went on.

"Now, as I have told you, I judge no man's private opinions. You may believe what you will. Remember that. You may believe what you will; nay, you may practise your religion so long as it is private and unknown to me."

Anthony began to wonder what was coming; but he still said nothing as the Queen paused. She stood a moment looking down into the empty Tilt-yard again, and then turned and sat suddenly in a chair that stood beside the window, and put up a jewelled hand to shield her face, with her elbow on the arm, while Anthony stood before her.

"I remember you, Mr. Norris, very well at Greenwich; you spoke up sharply enough, and you looked me in the eyes now and then as I like a man to do; and then Minnie loved you, too. I wish to show you kindness for her sake."

Anthony's heart began to fail him, for he guessed now what was coming and the bitter struggle that lay before him.

"Now, I know well that the Commissioners have had you before them; they are tiresome busybodies. Walsingham started all that and set them a-spying and a-defending of my person and the rest of it; but they are loyal folk, and I suppose they asked you where you had been and with whom you had stayed, and so on?"

"They did, your Grace."

"And you would not tell them, I suppose?"

"I could not, madam; it would have been against justice and charity to do so."

"Well, well, there is no need now, for I mean to take you out of their hands."

A great leap of hope made itself felt in Anthony's heart; he did not know how heavy the apprehension lay on him till this light shone through.

"They will be wrath with me, I know, and will tell me that they cannot defend me if I will not help them; but, when all is said, I am Queen. Now I do not ask you to be a minister of my Church, for that, I think, you would never be; but I think you would like to be near me-is it not so? And I wish you to have some post about the Court; I must see what it is to be."

Anthony's heart began to sink again as he watched the Queen's face as she sat tapping a foot softly and looking on the floor as she talked. Those lines of self-will about the eyes and mouth surely meant something.

Then she looked up, still with her cheek on her right hand.

"You do not thank me, Mr. Norris."

Anthony made a great effort; but he heard his own voice quiver a little.

"I thank your Grace for your kindly intentions toward me, with all my heart."

The Queen seemed satisfied, and looked down again.

"As to the oath, I will not ask you to take it formally, if you will give me an assurance of your loyalty."

"That, your Grace, I give most gladly."

His heart was beating again in great irregular thumps in his throat; he had the sensation of swaying to and fro on the edge of a precipice, now towards safety and now towards death; it was the cruellest pain he had suffered yet. But how was it possible to have some post at Court without relinquishing the exercise of his priesthood? He must think it out; what did the Queen mean?

"And, of course, you will not be able to say mass again; but I shall not hinder your hearing it at the Ambassador's whenever you please."

Ah! it had come; his heart gave a leap and seemed to cease.

"Your Grace must forgive me, but I cannot consent."

There was a dead silence; when Anthony looked up, she was staring at him with the frankest astonishment.

"Did you think, Mr. Norris, you could be at Court and say mass too whenever you wished?" Her voice rang harsh and shrill; her anger was rising.

"I was not sure what your Grace intended for me."

"The fellow is mad," she said, still staring at him. "Oh! take care, take care!"

"Your Grace knows I intend no insolence."

"You mean to say, Mr. Norris, that you will not take a pardon and a post at Court on those terms?"

Anthony bowed; he could not trust himself to speak, so bitter was the reaction.

"But, see man, you fool; if you die as a traitor you will never say mass again either."

"But that will not be with my consent, your Grace."

"And you refuse the pardon?"

"On those terms, your Grace, I must."

"Well--" and she was silent a moment, "you are a fool, sir."

Anthony bowed again.

"But I like courage.-Well, then, you will not be my servant?"

"I have ever been that, your Grace; and ever will be."

"Well, well,-but not at Court?"

"Ah! your Grace knows I cannot," cried Anthony, and his voice rang sorrowfully.

Again there was silence.

"You must have your way, sir, for poor Minnie's sake; but it passes my understanding what you mean by it. And let me tell you that not many have their way with me, rather than mine."

Again hope leapt up in his heart. The Queen then was not so ungracious.

He looked up and smiled-and down again.

"Why, the man's lips are all a-quiver. What ails him?"

"It is your Grace's kindness."

"I must say I marvel at it myself," observed Elizabeth. "You near angered me just now; take care you do not so quite."

"I would not willingly, as your Grace knows."

"Then we will end this matter. You give me your assurance of loyalty to my person."

"With all my heart, madam," said Anthony eagerly.

"Then you must get to France within the week. The other too-Buxton-he loses his estate, but has his life. I am doing much for Minnie's sake."

"How can I thank your Grace?"

"And I will cause Sir Richard to give it out that you have taken the oath. Call him in."

There was a quick gasp from the priest; and then he cried with agony in his voice:

"I cannot, your Grace, I cannot."

"Cannot call Sir Richard! Why, you are mad, sir!"

"Cannot consent; I have taken no oath."

"I know you have not. I do not ask it."

Elizabeth's voice came short and harsh; her patience was vanishing, and Anthony knew it and looked at her. She had dropped her hand, and it was clenching and unclenching on her knee. Her stick slipped on the polished boards and fell; but she paid it no attention. She was looking straight at the priest; her high eyebrows were coming down; her mouth was beginning to mumble a little; he could see in the clear sunlight that fell on her sideways through the tall window a thousand little wrinkles, and all seemed alive; the lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth deepened as he watched.

"What a-Christ's name do you want, sir?"

It was like the first mutter of a storm on the horizon; but Anthony knew it must break. He did not answer.

"Tell me, sir; what is it now?"

Anthony drew a long breath and braced his will, but even as he spoke he knew he was pronouncing his own sentence.

"I cannot consent to leave the country and let it be given out that I had taken the oath, your Grace. It would be an apostasy from my faith."

Elizabeth sprang to her feet without her stick, took one step forward, and gave Anthony a fierce blow on the cheek with her ringed hand. He recoiled a step at the shock of it, and stood waiting with his eyes on the ground. Then the Queen's anger poured out in words. Her eyes burned with passion out of an ivory-coloured face, and her voice rang high and harsh, and her hands continually clenched and unclenched as she screamed at him.

"God's Body! you are the ungratefullest hound that ever drew breath. I send for you to my presence, and talk and walk with you like a friend. I offer you a pardon and you fling it in my face. I offer you a post at Court and you mock it; you flaunt you in your treasonable livery in my very face, and laugh at my clemency. You think I am no Queen, but a weak woman whom you can turn and rule at your will. God's Son! I will show you which is sovereign. Call Sir Richard in, sir; I will have him in this instant. Sir Richard, Sir Richard!" she screamed, stamping with fury.

The door into the ante-room behind opened, and Sir Richard Barkley appeared, with a face full of apprehension. He knelt at once.

"Stand up, Sir Richard," she cried, "and look at this man. You know him, do you not? and I know him now, the insolent dog! But his own mother shall not in a week. Look at him shaking there, the knave; he will shake more before I have done with him. Take him back with you, Sir Richard, and let them have their will of him. His damned pride and insolence shall be broken. S' Body, I have never been so treated! Take him out, Sir Richard, take him out, I tell you!"

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