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   Chapter 39 THE ROLLING OF THE STONE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 10976

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was a week later, and a little before dawn, that Isabel was kneeling by Anthony's bed in his room in the Tower. The Lieutenant had sent for her to his lodging the evening before, and she had spent the whole night with her brother. He had been racked four times in one week, and was dying.

* * *

The city and the prison were very quiet now; the carts had not yet begun to roll over the cobble-stones and the last night-wanderers had gone home. He lay, on the mattress that she had sent in to him, in the corner of his cell under the window, on his back and very still, covered from chin to feet with her own fur-lined cloak that she had thrown over him; his head was on a low pillow, for he could not bear to lie high; his feet made a little mound under the coverlet, and his arms lay straight at his side; but all that could be seen of him was his face, pinched and white now with hollows in his cheeks and dark patches and lines beneath his closed eyes, and his soft pointed brown beard that just rested on the fur edging of Isabel's cloak; his lips were drawn tight, but slightly parted, showing the rim of his white teeth, as if he snarled with pain.

The only furniture in the room was a single table and chair; the table was drawn up not far from the bed, and a book or two, with a flask of cordial and some fragments of food on a plate lay upon it; his cloak and doublet and ruff lay across the chair and his shoes below it, and a little linen lay in a pile in another corner; but the clothes in which he had been tortured the evening before, his shirt and hose, could not be taken off him and he lay in them still. They had been so soaked with sweat, that Isabel had found him shivering, and laid her cloak over him, and now he lay quiet and warm.

Earlier in the night she had been reading to him, and a taper still burned in a candlestick on the table; but for the last two hours he had lain either in a sleep or a swoon, and she had laid the book down and was watching him.

He was so motionless that he would have seemed dead except for the steady rise and fall of a fold in the mantle, and for a sudden muscular twitch every few minutes. Isabel herself was scarcely less motionless; her face was clear and pale as it always was, but perfectly serene, and even her lips did not quiver. She was kneeling and leaning back now, and her hands were clasped in her lap. There was a proud content in her face; her dear brother had not uttered one name on the rack except those of the Saviour and of the Blessed Mother. So the Lieutenant had told her.

Suddenly his eyes opened and there was nothing but peace in them; and his lips moved. Isabel leaned forward on her hands and bent her ear to his mouth till his breath was warm on it, and she could hear the whisper....

Then she opened the book that lay face down on the table and began to read on, from the point at which she had laid it down two hours before.

"'Erat autem hora tertia: et crucifixerunt eum. And it was the third hour and they crucified him ... And with him they crucify two thieves, the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.'"

Her voice was slow and steady as she read the unfamiliar Latin, still kneeling, with the book a little raised to catch the candlelight, and her grave tranquil eyes bent upon it. Only once did her voice falter, and then she commanded it again immediately; and that, as she read "Erant autem et mulieres de longe aspicientes." "There were also women looking on afar off."

And so the tale crept on, minute by minute, and the priest lay with closed eyes to hear it; until the mocking was complete, and the darkness of the sixth hour had come and gone, and the Saviour had cried aloud on His Father, and given up the ghost; and the centurion that stood by had borne witness. And the great Criminal slept in the garden, in the sepulchre "wherein was never man yet laid."

There was a listening silence as the voice ceased without another falter. Isabel laid the book down and looked at him again; and his eyes opened languidly.

He had not yet said more than single words, and even now his voice was so faint that she had to put her ear close to his mouth. It seemed to her that his soul had gone into some inner secret chamber of profound peace, so deep that it was a long and difficult task to send a thought to the surface through his lips.

She could just hear him, and she answered clearly and slowly as to a dazed child, pausing between every word.

"I cannot get a priest; it is not allowed."

Still his eyes bent on her; what was it he said? what was it?...

Then she heard, and began to repeat short acts of contrition clearly and distinctly, pausing between the phrases, in English, and his eyes closed as she began:

"O my Jesus-I am heartily sorry-that I have-crucified thee-by my sins-Wash my soul-in Thy Precious Blood. O my God-I am sorry-that I have-displeased Thee-because thou art All-good. I hate all the sins-that I have done-against Thy Divine Majesty."

And so phrase after phrase she went on, giving him time to hear and to make an inner assent of the will; and repeating also other short vocal prayers that she knew by heart. And so the delicate skein of prayer rose from the altar where this morning sacrifice lay before God, waiting the consummation of His acceptance.

Presently she ended, and he lay again with closed

eyes and mute face. Then again they opened, and she bent down to listen....

"It will all be well with me," she answered, raising her head again. "Mistress Margaret has written from Brussels. I shall go there for a while.... Yes, Mr. Buxton will take me; next week: he goes to Normandy, to his estate."

Again his lips moved and she listened....

A faint flush came over her face. She shook her head.

"I do not know; I think not. I hope to enter Religion.... No, I have not yet determined.... The Dower House?... Yes, I will sell it.... Yes, to Hubert, if he wishes it."

Every word he whispered was such an effort that she had to pause again and again before he could make her understand; and often she judged more by the movement of his lips than by any sound that came from him. Now and then too she lifted her handkerchief, soaked in a strong violet scent, and passed it over his forehead and lips. She motioned with the flask of cordial once or twice, but his eyes closed for a negative.

As she knelt and watched him, her thoughts circled continually in little flights; to the walled garden of the Dower House in sunshine, and Anthony running across it in his brown suit, with the wallflowers behind him against the old red bricks and ivy, and the tall chestnut rising behind; to the wind-swept hills, with the thistles and the golden-rod, and the hazel thickets, and Anthony on his pony, sunburnt and voluble, hawk on wrist, with a light in his eyes; to the warm panelled hall in winter, with the tapers on the round table, and Anthony flat on his face, with his feet in the air before the hearth, that glowed and roared up the wide chimney behind, and his chin on his hands, and a book open before him; or, farther back even still, to Anthony's little room at the top of the house, his clothes on a chair, and the boy himself sitting up in bed with his arms round his knees as she came in to wish him good-night and talk to him a minute or two. And every time the circling thought came home and settled again on the sight of that still straight figure lying on the mattress, against the discoloured bricks, with the light of the taper glimmering on his thin face and brown hair and beard; and every time her heart consented that this was the best of all.

A bird chirped suddenly from some hole in the Tower, once, and then three or four times; she glanced up at the window and the light of dawn was beginning. Then, as the minutes went by, the city began to stir itself from sleep. There came a hollow whine from the Lion-gate fifty yards away; up from the river came the shout of a waterman; two or three times a late cock crew; and still the light crept on and broadened. But Anthony still lay with his eyes closed.

At last over the cobbles outside a cart rattled, turned a corner and was silent. Anthony had opened his eyes now and was looking at her again; and again she bent down to listen; ... and then opened and read again.

"'Et cum transisset sabbatum Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata, ut venientes ungerent Jesum.'

"'And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, had bought sweet spices that they might come and anoint him.'"

A slight sound made her look up. Anthony's eyes were kindling and his lips moved; she bent again and listened.... What was it he said?...

Yes, it was so, and she smiled and nodded at him: she was reading the Gospel for Easter Day, the Gospel of the first mass that they had heard together on that spring morning at Great Keynes, when their Lord had led them so far round by separate paths to meet one another at His altar. And now they were met again here. She read on:

"'Et valde mane una sabbatorum, veniunt ad monumentum, orto jam sole.'

"'Very early they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun; and they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away, for it was very great.'...

"'... magnus valde,'" read Isabel; and looked up again;-and then closed the book. There was no need to read more.

* * *

She walked across the court half an hour later, just as the sun came up; and passed out through the Lieutenant's lodging, and out by the narrow bridge on to the Tower wharf.

To the left and behind her, as she looked eastwards down the river, lay the heavy masses of the prison she had left, and the high walls and turrets were gilded with glory. The broad river itself was one rolling glory too; the tide was coming in swift and strong and a barge or two moved upwards, only half seen in the bewildering path of the sun. The air was cool and keen, and a breeze from the water stirred Isabel's hair as she stood looking, with the light on her face. It was a cloudless October morning overhead. Even as she stood a flock of pigeons streamed across from the south side, swift-flying and bathed in light; and her eyes followed them a moment or two.

As she stood there silent, a step came up the wharf from the direction of St. Katharine's street, and a man came walking quickly towards her. He did not see who she was until he was close, and then he started and took off his hat; it was Lackington on his way to some business at the Tower; but she did not seem to see him. She turned almost immediately and began to walk westwards, and the glory in her eyes was supreme. And as she went the day deepened above her.

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