Ralph listened with all his ears. Cromwell was not very communicative on the subject of the Religious houses, but Ralph had gathered from hints of this kind that something was preparing.
When supper was over and the servants were clearing away, Cromwell went to the window where the glass glowed overhead with his new arms and scrolls—a blue coat with Cornish choughs and a rose on a fess between three rampant lions—and stood there, a steady formidable figure, with his cropped head and great jowl, looking out on to the garden.
When the men had gone he turned again to Ralph.
"I have something for you," he said, "but it is greater than those other matters—a fool could not do it. Sit down."
He came across the room to the fireplace, as Ralph sat down, and himself took a chair by the table, lifting the baudkin cushion and settling it again comfortably behind him.
"It is this," he said abruptly. "You know that Master More has been in trouble. There was the matter of the gilt flagon which Powell said he had taken as a bribe, and the gloves lined with forty pound. Well, he disproved that, and I am glad of it, glad of it," he repeated steadily, looking down at his ring and turning it to catch the light. "But there is now another matter—I hear he has been practising with the Holy Maid and hearkening to her ravings, and that my Lord of Rochester is in it too. But I am not sure of it."
Cromwell stopped, glanced up at Ralph a moment, and then down again.
"I am not sure of it," he said again, "and I wish to be. And I think you can help me."
Ralph waited patiently, his heart beginning to quicken. This was a great matter.
"I wish you to go to him," said his master, "and to get him into talk. But I do not see how it can be managed."
"He knows I am in your service, sir," suggested Ralph.
"Yes, yes," said Cromwell a little impatiently, "that is it. He is no fool, and will not talk. This is what I thought of. That you should go to him from me, and feign that you are on his side in the matter. But will he believe that?" he ended gloomily, looking at the other curiously.
There was silence for a minute, while Cromwell drummed his fingers softly on the table. Then presently Ralph spoke.
"There is this, sir," he said. "I might speak to him about my brother Chris who, as I told you, has gone to Lewes at the Maid's advice, and then see what Master More has to say."
Cromwell still looked at him.
"Yes," he said, "that seems reasonable. And for the rest—well, I will leave that in your hands."
They talked a few minutes longer about Sir Thomas More, and Cromwell told the other what a quiet life the ex-Chancellor had led since his resignation of office, of his house at Chelsea, and the like, and of the decision that he had apparently come to not to mix any further in public affairs.
"There is thunder in the air," he said, "as you know very well, and Master More is no mean weather-prophet. He mis-liked the matter of the Lady Katharine, and Queen Anne is no friend of his. I think he is wise to be quiet."
Ralph knew perfectly well that this tolerant language did not represent Cromwell's true attitude towards the man of whom they were speaking, but he assented to all that was said, and added a word or two about Sir Thomas More's learning, and of the pleasant manner in which he himself had been received when he had once had had occasion to see him before.
"He was throwing Horace at me," said the other, with a touch of bitterness, "the last time that I was there. I do not know which he loves best, that or his prayers."
Again Ralph recognised an animus. Cromwell had suffered somewhat from lack of a classical education.
"But it is a good thing to love the classics and devotion," he went on presently with a sententious air, "they are solaces in time of trouble. I have found that myself."
He glanced up at the other and down again.
"I was caught saying our Lady matins one day," he said, "when the Cardinal was in trouble. I remember I was very devout that morning."
He went on to talk of Wolsey and of his relations with him, and Ralph watched that heavy smooth face become reminiscent and almost sentimental.
"If he had but been wiser;" he said. "I have noticed again and again the folly of wise men. There is always clay mixed with gold. I suppose nothing but the fire that Fryth denied can purge it out; and my lord's was ambition."
He wagged his head in solemn reprobation, and Ralph did not know whether to laugh or to look grave. Then there fell a long silence, and Cromwell again fell to fingering his signet-ring, taking it off his thumb and rolling it on the smooth oak, and at last stood up with a brisker air.
"Welt," he said, "I have a thousand affairs, and my son Gregory is coming here soon. Then you will see about that matter. Remember I wish to know what Master More thinks of her, that—that I may know what to think."
* * * * *
Ralph understood sufficiently clearly, as he walked home in the evening light, what it was that his master wanted. It was no less than to catch some handle against the ex-chancellor, though he had carefully abstained from saying so. Ralph recognised the adroitness, and saw that while the directions had been plain and easy to understand, yet that not one word had been spoken that could by any means be used as a handle against Cromwell. If anyone in England at that time knew how to wield speech it was his master; it was by that weapon that he had prevailed with the King, and still kept him in check; it was that weapon rashly used by his enemies that he was continually turning against them, and under his tutoring Ralph himself had begun to be practised in the same art.
Among other causes, too, of his admiration for Cromwell, was the latter's extraordinary business capacity. There was hardly an affair of any importance in which he did not have a finger at least, and most of them he held in the palm of his hand, and that, not only in the mass but in their minutest details. Ralph had marvelled more than once at the minutiae that he had seen dotted down on the backs of old letters lying on his master's table. Matters of Church and State, inextricably confused to other eyes, was simple to this man; he understood intuitively where the key of each situation lay, and dealt with them one after another briefly and effectively. And yet with all this no man wore an appearance of greater leisure; he would gossip harmlessly for an hour, and yet by the end had said all that he wished to say, and generally learnt, too, from his companion whoever he might be, all he wished to learn. Ralph had watched him more than once at this business; had seen delicate subjects introduced in a deft unsuspicious sentence that roused no alarm, and had marvelled at his power to play with men without their dreaming of what was going forward.
And now it was Master More that was threatened. Ralph knew well that there was far more behind the scenes than he could understand or even perceive, and recognised that the position of Sir Thomas was more significant than would appear, and that developments might be expected to follow soon.
For himself he had no shrinking from his task. He understood that government was carried on by such methods, and that More himself would be the first to acknowledge that in war many things were permissible that would be outrageous in times of peace, and that these were times of war. To call upon a friend, to eat his bread and salt, and talk familiarly with him, and to be on the watch all the while for a weak spot through which that friend might be wounded, seemed to Ralph, trained now and perfected in Cromwell's school, a perfectly legitimate policy, and he walked homewards this summer evening, pleased with this new mark of confidence, and anxious to acquit himself well in his task.
* * * * *
The house that Ralph occupied in Westminster was in a street to the west of the Abbey, and stood back a little between its neighbours. It was a very small one, of only two rooms in width and one in depth, and three stories high; but it had been well furnished, chiefly with things brought up from Overfield Court, to which Ralph had taken a fancy, and which his father had not denied him. He lived almost entirely in the first floor, his bedroom and sitting-room being divided by the narrow landing at the head of the stairs that led up to the storey above, which was occupied by Mr. Morris and a couple of other servants. The lower storey Ralph used chiefly for purposes of business, and for interviews which were sufficiently numerous for one engaged in so many affairs. Cromwell had learnt by now that he could be trusted to say little and to learn much, and the early acts of many little dramas that had ended in tragedy had been performed in the two gravely-furnished rooms on the ground floor. A good deal of the law-business, in its early stages, connected with the annulling of the King's marriage with Queen Katharine had been done there; a great canonist from a foreign university had explained there his views in broken English, helped out with Latin, to a couple of shrewd-faced men, while Ralph watched the case for his master; and Cromwell himself had found the little retired house a convenience for meeting with persons whom he did not wish to frighten over much, while Ralph and Mr. Morris sat alert and expectant on the other side of the hall, with the door open, listening for raised voices or other signs of a quarrel.
The rooms upstairs had been furnished with considerable care. The floors of both were matted, for the plan involved less trouble than the continual laying of clean rushes. The sitting-room was panelled up six feet from the floor, and the three feet of wall above were covered with really beautiful tapestry that Ralph had brought up from Overfield. There was a great table in the centre, along one side of which rested a set of drawers with brass handles, and in the centre of the table was a deep well, covered by a flap that lay level with the rest of the top. Another table stood against the wall, on which his meals were served, and the door of a cupboard in which his plate and knives were kept opened immediately above it, designed in the thickness of the wall. There were half-a-dozen chairs, two or three other pieces of furniture, a backed settle by the fire and a row of bookshelves opposite the windows; and over the mantelpiece, against the tapestry, hung a picture of Cromwell, painted by Holbein, and rejected by him before it was finished. Ralph had begged it from the artist who was on the point of destroying it. It represented the sitter's head and shoulders in three-quarter face, showing his short hair, his shrewd heavy face, with its double chin, and the furred gown below.
Mr. Morris was ready for his master and opened the door to him.
"There are some letters come, Mr. Ralph, sir," he said. "I have laid them on your table."
Ralph nodded, slipped off his thin cloak into his servant's hands without speaking, laid down his cane and went upstairs.
The letters were very much what he expected, and dealt with cases on which he was engaged. There was an entreaty from a country squire near Epping Forest, whose hounds had got into trouble with the King's foresters that he would intercede for him to Cromwell. A begging letter from a monk who had been ejected from his monastery for repeated misconduct, and who represented himself as starving; Ralph lifted this to his nostrils and it smelt powerfully of spirits, and he laid it down again, smiling to himself. A torrent of explanation from a schoolmaster who had been reported for speaking against the sacrament of the altar, calling the saints to witness that he was no follower of Fryth in such detestable heresy. A dignified protest from a Justice of the Peace in Kent who had been reproved by Cromwell, through Ralph's agency, for acquitting a sturdy beggar, and who begged that he might in future deal with a responsible person; and this Ralph laid aside, smiling again and promising himself that he would have the pleasure of granting the request. An offer, written in a clerkly hand, from a fellow who could not sign his name but had appended a cross, to submit some important evidence of a treasonable plot, on the consideration of secrecy and a suitable reward.
A year ago such a budget would have given Ralph considerable pleasure, and a sense of his own importance; but business had been growing on him rapidly of late, as his master perceived his competence, and it gave him no thrill to docket this one, write a refusal to that, a guarded answer to another, and finally to open the well of his table and drop the bundle in.
Then he turned round his chair, blew out one candle carefully, and set to thinking about Master Thomas More.
It was not until nearly a month later that Ralph made an opportunity to call upon Sir Thomas More. Cromwell had given him to understand that there was no immediate reason for haste; his own time was tolerably occupied, and he thought it as well not to make a show of over-great hurry. He wrote to Sir Thomas, explaining that he wished to see him on a matter connected with his brother Christopher, and received a courteous reply begging him to come to dinner on the following Thursday, the octave of the Assumption, as Sir Thomas thought it proper to add.
* * * * *
It was a wonderfully pleasant house, Ralph thought, as his wherry came up to the foot of the garden stairs that led down from the lawn to the river. It stood well back in its own grounds, divided from the river by a wall with a wicket gate in it. There was a little grove of trees on either side of it; a flock of pigeons were wheeling about the bell-turret that rose into the clear blue sky, and from which came a stroke or two, announcing the approach of dinner-time as he went up the steps.
There was a figure lying on its face in the shadow by the house, as Ralph came up the path, and a small dog, that seemed to be trying to dig the head out from the hands in which it was buried, ceased his excavations and set up a shrill barking. The figure rolled over, and sat up; the pleasant brown face was all creased with laughter; small pieces of grass were clinging to the long hair, and Ralph, to his amazement, recognised the ex-Lord Chancellor of England.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said More, rising and shaking himself. "I had no idea—you take me at a disadvantage; it is scarcely dignified"—and he stopped, smiling and holding out one hand, while he stretched the other deprecatingly, to quiet that insistent barking.
Ralph had a sensation of mingled contempt and sympathy as he took his hand.
"I had the honour of seeing you once before, Master More," he said.
"Why, yes," said More, "and I hope I cut a better figure last time, but Anubis would take no refusal. But I am ashamed, and beg you will not speak of it to Mrs. More. She is putting on a new coif in your honour."
"I will be discreet," said Ralph, smiling.
They went indoors almost immediately, when Sir Thomas had flicked the grass sufficiently off his gown to escape detection, and straight through to the hall where the table was laid, and three or four girls were waiting.
"Your mother is not here yet, I see," said Sir Thomas, when he had made Ralph known to his daughters, and the young man had kissed them deferentially, according to the proper etiquette—"I will tell you somewhat—hush—" and he broke off again sharply as the door from the stairs opened, and a stately lady, with a rather solemn and uninteresting face, sailed in, her silk skirts rustling behind her, and her fresh coif stiff and white on her head. A middle-aged man followed her in, looking a little dejected, and made straight across to where the ladies were standing with an eagerness that seemed to hint at a sense of escape.
"Mrs. Alice," said Sir Thomas, "this is Mr. Ralph Torridon, of whom you have heard me speak. I was fortunate enough to welcome him on the lawn just now."
"I saw you, Mr. More," said his wife with dignity, as she took Ralph's hand and said a word about the weather.
"Then I will confess," said Sir Thomas, smiling genially round, "I welcomed Mr. Torridon with the back of my head, and with Anubis biting my ears."
Ralph felt strangely drawn to this schoolboy kind of man, who romped with dogs and lay on his stomach, and was so charmingly afraid of his wife. His contempt began to melt as he looked at him and saw those wise twinkling eyes, and strong humorous mouth, and remembered once more who he was, and his reputation.
Sir Thomas said grace with great gravity and signed himself reverently before he sat down. There was a little reading first of the Scriptures and a commentary on it, and then as dinner went on Ralph began to attend less and less to his hostess, who, indeed appeared wholly absorbed in domestic details of the table and with whispering severely to the servants behind her hand, and to listen and look towards the further end where Sir Thomas sat in his tall chair, his flapped cap on his head, and talked to his daughters on either side. Mr. Roper, the man who had come in with Mrs. More, was sitting opposite Ralph, and seemed to be chiefly occupied in listening too. A bright-looking tall girl, whom her father had introduced by the name of Cecily, sat between Ralph and her father.
"Not at all," cried Sir Thomas, in answer to something that Ralph did not catch, "nothing of the kind! It was Juno that screamed. Argus would not condescend to it. He was occupied in dancing before the bantams."
Ralph lost one of the few remarks that Mrs. More addressed to him, in wondering what this meant, and the conversation at the other end swept round a corner while he was apologising. When he again caught the current Sir Thomas was speaking of wherries.
"I would love to row a wherry," he said. "The fellows do not know their fortune; they might lead such sweet meditative lives; they do not, I am well aware, for I have never heard such blasphemy as I have heard from wherrymen. But what opportunities are theirs! If I were not your father, my darling, I would be a wherryman. Si cognovisses et tu quae ad pacem tibi! Mr. Torridon, would you not be a wherryman if you were not Mr. Torridon?"
"I thought not this morning," said Ralph, "as I came here. It seemed hot rowing against the stream."
"It is part of the day's work," said More. "When I was Chancellor I loved nothing more than a hot summer's day in Court, for I thought of my cool garden where I should soon be walking. I must show you the New Building after dinner, Mr. Torridon."
Cecily and Margaret presently had a short encounter across the table on some subject that Ralph did not catch, but he saw Margaret on the other side flush up and bring her lips sharply together. Sir Thomas leapt into the breach.
"Unde leves animae tanto caluere furore?" he cried, and glanced up at Ralph to see if he understood the quotation, as the two girls dropped their eyes ashamed.
"Pugnavare pares, succubuere pares," said Ralph by a flash of inspiration, and looking at the girls.
Sir Thomas's eyes shone with pleasure.
"I did not know you were such a treasure, Mr. Torridon. Now, Master Cromwell could not have done that."
There fell a silence as that name was spoken, and all at the table eyed Ralph.
"He was saying as much to me the other day," went on Ralph, excited by his success. "He told me you knew Horace too well."
"And that my morals were corrupted by him," went on More. "I know he thinks that, but I had the honour of confuting him the other day with regard to the flagon and gloves. Now, there is a subject for Martial, Mr. Torridon. A corrupt statesman who has retired on his ill-gotten gains disproves an accusation of bribery. Let us call him Atticus 'Attice ... Attice' ...—We might say that he put on the gloves lest his forgers should be soiled while he drank from the flagon, or something of the kind."
Sir Thomas's eyes beamed with delight as he talked. To make an apt classical quotation was like wine to him, but to have it capped appropriately was like drunkenness. Ralph blessed his stars that he had been so lucky, for he was no great scholar, and he guessed he had won his host's confidence.
Dinner passed on quietly, and as they rose from table More came round and took his guest by the arm.
"You must come with me and see my New Building," he said, "you are worthy of it, Mr. Torridon."
He still held his arm affectionately as they walked out into the garden behind the house, and as he discoursed on the joys of a country life.
"What more can I ask of God?" he said. "He has given me means and tastes to correspond, and what man can say more. I see visions, and am able to make them realities. I dream of a dovecote with a tiled roof, and straightway build it; I picture a gallery and a chapel and a library away from the clack of tongues, and behold there it is. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of thee.' To see and dream without the power of performance is heart-breaking. To perform without the gift of imagination is soul-slaying. The man is blessed that hath both eye and hand, tastes and means alike."
It was a very pleasant retreat that Sir Thomas More had built for himself at the end of his garden, where he might retire when he wanted solitude. There was a little entrance hall with a door at one corner into the chapel, and a long low gallery running out from it, lined with bookshelves on one side, and with an open space on the other lighted by square windows looking into the garden. The polished boards were bare, and there was a path marked on them by footsteps going from end to end.
"Here I walk," said More, "and my friends look at me from those shelves, ready to converse but never to interrupt. Shall we walk here, Mr. Torridon, while you tell me your business?"
Ralph had, indeed, a touch of scrupulousness as he thought of his host's confidence, but he had learnt the habit of silencing impulses and of only acting on plans deliberately formed; so he was soon laying bare his anxiety about Chris, and his fear that he had been misled by the Holy Maid.
"I am very willing, Mr. More," he said, "that my brother should be a monk if it is right, but I could not bear he should be so against God's leading. How am I to know whether the maid's words are of God or no?"
Sir Thomas was silent a moment.
"But he had thoughts of it before, I suppose," he said, "or he would not have gone to her. In fact, you said so."
Ralph acknowledged that this was so.
"—And for several years," went on the other.
Again Ralph assented.
"And his tastes and habits are those of a monk, I suppose. He is long at his prayers, given to silence, and of a tranquil spirit?"
"He is not always tranquil," said Ralph. "He is impertinent sometimes."
"Yes, yes; we all are that. I was very impertinent to you at dinner in trying to catch you with Martial his epigram, though I shall not offend again. But his humour may be generally tranquil in spite of it. Well, if that is so, I do not see why you need trouble about the Holy Maid. He would likely have been a monk without that. She only confirmed him."
"But," went on Ralph, fighting to get back to the point, "if I thought she was trustworthy I should be the more happy."
"There must always be doubtfulness," said More, "in such matters. That is why the novitiate is so severe; it is to show the young men the worst at once. I do not think you need be unhappy about your brother."
"And what is your view about the Holy Maid?" asked Ralph, suddenly delivering his point.
More stopped in his walk, cocked his head a little on one side like a clever dog, and looked at his companion with twinkling eyes.
"It is a delicate subject," he said, and went on again.
"That is what puzzles me," said Ralph. "Will you not tell me your opinion, Mr. More?"
There was again a silence, and they reached the further end of the gallery and turned again before Sir Thomas answered.
"If you had not answered me so briskly at dinner, Mr. Torridon, do you know that I should have suspected you of coming to search me out. But such a good head, I think, cannot be allied with a bad heart, and I will tell you."
Ralph felt a prick of triumph but none of remorse.
"I will tell you," went on More, "and I am sure you will keep it private. I think the Holy Maid is a good woman who has a maggot."
Ralph's spirits sank again. This was a very non-committing answer.
"I do not think her a knave as some do, but I think, to refer to what we said just now, that she has a large and luminous eye, and no hand worth mentioning. She sees many visions, but few facts. That tale about the Host being borne by angels from Calais to my mind is nonsense. Almighty God does not work miracles without reason, and there is none for that. The blessed sacrament is the same at Dover as at Calais. And a woman who can dream that can dream anything, for I am sure she did not invent it. On other matters, therefore, she may be dreaming too, and that is why once more I tell you that to my mind you can leave her out of your thoughts with regard to your brother. She is neither prophetess nor pythoness."
This was very unsatisfactory, and Ralph strove to remedy it.
"And in the matter of the King's death, Mr. More?" he said.
Again Sir Thomas stopped in his walk.
"Do you know, Mr. Torridon, I think we may leave that alone," he said a little abruptly. And Ralph sucked in his lip and bit it sharply at the consciousness of his own folly.
"I hope your brother will be very happy," went on the other after a moment, "and I am sure he will be, if his call is from God, as I think likely. I was with the Carthusians myself, you know, for four years, and sometimes I think I should have stayed there. It is a blessed life. I do not envy many folks, but I do those. To live in the daily companionship of our blessed Lord and of his saints as those do, and to know His secrets—secreta Domini—even the secrets of His Passion and its ineffable joys of pain—that is a very fortunate lot, Mr. Torridon. I sometimes think that as it was with Christ's natural body so it is with His mystical body: there be some members, His hands and feet and side, through which the nails are thrust, though indeed there is not one whole spot in His body—inglorious erit inter viros aspectus ejus—nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum—but those parts of His body that are especially pained are at once more honourable and more happy than those that are not. And the monks are those happy members."
He was speaking very solemnly, his voice a little tremulous, and his kindly eyes were cast down, and Ralph watched him sidelong with a little awe and pity mingled. He seemed so natural too, that Ralph thought that he must have over-rated his own indiscretion.
A shadow fell across the door into the garden as they came near it, and one of the girls appeared in the opening.
"Why, Meg," cried her father, "what is it, my darling?"
"Beatrice has come, sir," said the girl. "I thought you would wish to know."
More put out his arm and laid it round his daughter's waist as she turned with him.
"Come, Mr. Torridon," he said, "if you have no more to say, let us go and see Beatrice."
There was a group on the lawn under one of the lime trees, two or three girls and Mr. Roper, who all rose to their feet as the three came up. More immediately sat down on the grass, putting his feet delicately together before him.
"Will, fetch this gentleman a chair. It is not fit for Master Cromwell's friend to sit on the grass like you and me."
Ralph threw himself down on the lawn instantly, entreating Mr. Roper not to move.
"Well, well," said Sir Thomas, "let be. Sit down too, Will, et cubito remanete presso. Mr. Torridon understands that, I know, even if Master Cromwell's friend does not. Why, tillie-vallie, as Mrs. More says, I have not said a word to Beatrice. Beatrice, this is Mr. Ralph Torridon, and this, Mr. Torridon, is Beatrice. Her other name is Atherton, but to me she is a feminine benediction, and nought else."
Ralph rose swiftly and looked across at a tall slender girl that was sitting contentedly on an outlying root of the lime tree, beside of Sir Thomas, and who rose with him.
"Mr. More cannot let my name alone, Mr. Torridon," she said tranquilly, as she drew back after the salute. "He made a play upon it the other day."
"And have been ashamed of it ever since," said More; "it was sacrilege with such a name. Now, I am plain Thomas, and more besides. Why did you send for me, Beatrice?"
"I have no defence," said the girl, "save that I wanted to see you."
"And that is the prettiest defence you could have made—if it does not amount to corruption. Mr. Torridon, what is the repartee to that?"
"I need no advocate," said the girl; "I can plead well enough."
Ralph looked up at her again with a certain interest. She seemed on marvellously good terms with the whole family, and had an air of being entirely at her ease. She had her black eyes bent down on to a piece of grass that she was twisting into a ring between her slender jewelled fingers, and her white teeth wore closed firmly on her lower lip as she worked. Her long silk skirts lay out unregarded on the grass, and her buckles gleamed beneath. Her voice was pleasant and rather deep, and Ralph found himself wondering who she was, and why he had not seen her before, for she evidently belonged to his class, and London was a small place.
"I see you are making one more chain to bind me to you," said More presently, watching her.
She held it up.
"A ring only," she said.
"Then it is not for me," said More, "for I do not hold with Dr. Melanchthon, nor yet Solomon in the matter of wives. Now, Mr. Torridon, tell us all some secrets. Betray your master. We are all agog. Leave off that ring, Beatrice, and attend."
"I am listening," said the girl as serenely as before, still intent on her weaving.
"The King breakfasted this morning at eight of the clock," said Ralph gravely. "It is an undoubted fact, I had it on the highest authority."
"This is excellent," said Sir Thomas. "Let us all talk treason. I can add to that. His Grace had a fall last night and lay senseless for several hours."
He spoke with such gravity that Ralph glanced up. At the same moment Beatrice looked up from her work and their eyes met.
"He fell asleep," added Sir Thomas.
* * * * *
It was very pleasant to lie there in the shadow of the lime that afternoon, and listen to the mild fooling, and Ralph forgot his manners, and almost his errand too, and never offered to move. The grass began to turn golden as the sun slanted to the West, and the birds began to stir after the heat of the day, and to chirp from tree to tree. A hundred yards away the river twinkled in the sun, seen beyond the trees and the house, and the voices of the boatmen came, softened by distance and water, as they plied up and down the flowing highway. Once a barge went past under the Battersea bank, with music playing in the stern, and Ralph raised himself on his elbow to watch it as it went down the stream with flags flying behind, and the rhythmical throb of the row-locks sounding time to the dancing melody.
Ralph did his best to fall in with the humour of the day, and told a good story or two in his slow voice—among them one of his mother exercising her gift of impressive silence towards a tiresome chatterbox of a man, with such effect that the conversationalist's words died on his lips, after the third or fourth pause made for applause and comment. He told the story well, and Lady Torridon seemed to move among them, her skirts dragging majestically on the grass, and her steady, sombre face looking down on them all beneath half-closed languid eye-lids.
"He has never been near us again," said Ralph, "but he never fails to ask after my mother's distressing illness when I meet him in town."
He was a little astonished at himself as he talked, for he was not accustomed to take such pains to please, but he was conscious that though he looked round at the faces, and addressed himself to More, he was really watching for the effect on the girl who sat behind. He was aware of every movement that she made; he knew when she tossed the ring on the little sleeping brown body of the dog that had barked at him earlier in the day, and set to work upon another. She slipped that on her finger when she had done, and turned her hand this way and that, her fingers bent back, a ruby catching the light as she did so, looking at the effect of the green circle against the whiteness. But he never looked at her again, except once when she asked him some question, and then he looked her straight in her black eyes as he answered.
A bell sounded out at last again from the tower, and startled him. He got up quickly.
"I am ashamed," he said smiling, "how dare I stay so long? It is your kindness, Mr. More."
"Nay, nay," said Sir Thomas, rising too and stretching himself. "You have helped us to lose another day in the pleasantest manner possible—you must come again, Mr. Torridon."
He walked down with Ralph to the garden steps, and stood by him talking, while the wherry that had been hailed from the other side made its way across.
"Beatrice is like one of my own daughters," he said, "and I cannot give her better praise than that. She is always here, and always as you saw her today. I think she is one of the strongest spirits I know. What did you think of her, Mr. Torridon?"
"She did not talk much," said Ralph.
"She talks when she has aught to say," went on More, "and otherwise is silent. It is a good rule, sir; I would I observed it myself."
"Who is she?" asked Ralph.
"She is the daughter of a friend I had, and she lives just now with my wife's sisters, Nan and Fan. She is often in town with one of them. I am astonished you have not met her before."
The wherry slid up to the steps and the man in his great boots slipped over the side to steady it.
"Now is the time to begin your philosophy," said More as Ralph stepped in, "and a Socrates is ready. Talk it over, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph was astonished to find how the thought of the tall girl he had met at Sir Thomas More's house remained with him. He had reported the result of his interview with More himself to his master; and Cromwell had received it rather coldly. He had sniffed once or twice.
"That was not very well done, Mr. Torridon. I fear that you have frightened him, and gained nothing by it."
Ralph stood silent.
"But I see you make no excuses," went on Cromwell, "so I will make them for you. I daresay he was frightened already; and knew all about what had passed between her and the Archbishop. You must try again, sir."
Ralph felt his heart stir with pleasure.
"I may say I have made friends with Mr. More, sir," he said. "I had good fortune in the matter of a quotation, and he received me kindly. I can go there again without excusing my presence, as often as you will."
Cromwell looked at him.
"There is not much to be gained now," he said, "but you can go if you will; and you may perhaps pick up something here and there. The more friends you make the better."
Ralph went away delighted; he had not wholly failed then in his master's business, and he seemed to have set on foot a business of his own; and he contemplated with some excitement his future visits to Chelsea.
* * * * *
He had his first word with the King a couple of months later. He had often, of course, seen him before, once or twice in the House of Lords, formidable and frowning on his throne, his gross chin on his hand, barking out a word or two to his subjects, or instructing them in theology, for which indeed he was very competent; and several times in processions, riding among his gentlemen on his great horse, splendid in velvet and gems; and he had always wondered what it was that gave him his power. It could not be mere despotism, he thought, or his burly English nature; and it was not until he had seen him near at hand, and come within range of his personality that he understood why it was that men bore such things from him.
He was sent for one afternoon by Cromwell to bring a paper and was taken up at once by a servant into the gallery where the minister and the King were walking together. They were at the further end from that at which he entered, and he stood, a little nervous at his heart, but with his usual appearance of self-possession, watching the two great backs turned to him, and waiting to be called.
They turned again in a moment, and Cromwell saw him and beckoned, himself coming a few steps to meet him. The King waited, and Ralph was aware of, rather than saw, that wide, coarse, strong face, and the long narrow eyes, with the feathered cap atop, and the rich jewelled dress beneath. The King stood with his hands behind his back and his legs well apart.
Cromwell took the paper from Ralph, who stepped back, hesitating what to do.
"This is it, your Grace," said the minister going back again. "Your Grace will see that it is as I said."
Ralph perceived a new tone of deference in his master's voice that he had never noticed before, except once when Cromwell was ironically bullying a culprit who was giving trouble.
The King said nothing, took the paper and glanced over it, standing a little aside to let the light fall on it.
"Your Grace will understand—" began Cromwell again.
"Yes, yes, yes," said the harsh voice impatiently. "Let the fellow take it back," and he thrust the paper into Cromwell's hand, who turned once more to Ralph.
"Who is he?" said the King. "I have seen his face. Who are you?"
"This is Mr. Ralph Torridon," said Cromwell; "a very useful friend to me, your Grace."
"The Torridons of Overfield?" questioned Henry once more, who never forgot a face or a name.
"Yes, your Grace," said Cromwell.
"You are tall enough, sir," said the King, running his narrow eyes up and down Ralph's figure;—"a strong friend."
"I hope so, your Grace," said Ralph.
The King again looked at him, and Ralph dropped his eyes in the glare of that mighty personality. Then Henry abruptly thrust out his hand to be kissed, and as Ralph bent over it he was aware of the thick straight fingers, the creased wrist, and the growth of hair on the back of the hand.
* * * * *
Ralph was astonished, and a little ashamed at his own excitement as he passed down the stairs again. It was so little that had happened; his own part had been so insignificant; and yet he was tingling from head to foot. He felt he knew now a little better how it was that the King's will, however outrageous in its purposes, was done so quickly. It was the sheer natural genius of authority and royalty that forced it through; he had felt himself dominated and subdued in those few moments, so that he was not his own master. As he went home through the street or two that separated the Palace gate from his own house, he found himself analysing the effect of that presence, and, in spite of its repellence, its suggestion of coarseness, and its almost irritating imperiousness, he was conscious that there was a very strong element of attractiveness in it too. It seemed to him the kind of attractiveness that there is for a beaten dog in the chastising hand: the personality was so overwhelming that it compelled allegiance, and that not wholly one of fear. He found himself thinking of Queen Katharine and understanding a little better how it was that the refined, delicately nurtured and devout woman, so constant in her prayers, so full of the peculiar fineness of character that gentle birth and religion alone confer, could so cling to this fierce lord of hers, throw herself at his feet with tears before all the company, and entreat not to be separated from him, calling him her "dear lord," her "love," and her most "merciful and gracious prince."
* * * * *
The transition from this train of thought to that bearing on Beatrice was not a difficult one; for the memory of the girl was continually in his mind. He had seen her half a dozen times now since their first meeting; for he had availed himself to the full of Cromwell's encouragement to make himself at home at Chelsea; and he found that his interest in her deepened every time. With a touch of amusement he found himself studying Horace and Terence again, not only for Sir Thomas More's benefit, but in order to win his approval and his good report to his household, among whom Beatrice was practically to be reckoned.
He was pleased too by More's account of Beatrice.
"She is nearly as good a scholar as my dear Meg," he had said one day. "Try her, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph had carefully prepared an apt quotation that day, and fired it off presently, not at Beatrice, but, as it were, across her; but there was not the faintest response or the quiver of an eyelid.
There was silence a moment; and then Sir Thomas burst out—
"You need not look so demure, my child; we all know that you understand."
Beatrice had given him a look of tranquil amusement in return.
"I will not be made a show of," she said.
Ralph went away that day more engrossed than ever. He began to ask himself where his interest in her would end; and wondered at its intensity.
As he questioned himself about it, it seemed that to him it was to a great extent her appearance of detached self-possession that attracted him. It was the quality that he most desired for himself, and one which he had in measure attained; but he was aware that in the presence of Cromwell at least it deserted him. He knew well that he had found his master there, and that he himself was nothing more than a hero-worshipper before a shrine; but it provoked him to feel that there was no one who seemed to occupy the place of a similar divinity with regard to this girl. Obviously she admired and loved Sir Thomas More—Ralph soon found out how deeply in the course of his visits—but she was not in the least afraid of her friend. She serenely contradicted him when she disagreed with what he said, would fail to keep her appointments at his house with the same equanimity, and in spite of Sir Thomas's personality never appeared to give him more than a friendly and affectionate homage. With regard to Ralph himself, it was the same. She was not in the least awed by him, or apparently impressed by his reputation which at this time was growing rapidly as that of a capable and daring agent of Cromwell's; and even once or twice when he condescended to hint at the vastness of the affairs on which he was engaged, in a desperate endeavour to rouse her admiration, she only looked at him steadily a moment with very penetrating eyes, and began to speak of something else. He began to feel discouraged.
* * * * *
The first hint that Ralph had that he had been making a mistake in his estimate of her, came from Margaret Roper, who was still living at Chelsea with her husband Will.
Ralph had walked up to the house one bleak afternoon in early spring along the river-bank from Westminster, and had found Margaret alone in the dining-hall, seated by the window with her embroidery in her hand, and a Terence propped open on the sill to catch the last gleams of light from the darkening afternoon. She greeted Ralph warmly, for he was a very familiar figure to them all by now, and soon began to talk, when he had taken a seat by the wide open fireplace whence the flames flickered out, casting shadows and lights round the high room, across the high-hung tapestries and in the gloomy corners.
"Beatrice is here," she said presently, "upstairs with father. I think she is doing some copying for him."
"She is a great deal with him," observed Ralph.
"Why, yes; father thinks so much of her. He says that none can write so well as she, or has such a quick brain. And then she does not talk, he says, nor ask foolish woman-questions like the rest of us." And Margaret glanced up a moment, smiling.
"I suppose I must not go up," said Ralph, a little peevishly; for he was tired with his long day.
"Why, no, you must not," said Margaret, "but she will be down soon, Mr. Torridon."
There was silence for a moment or two; and then Margaret spoke again.
"Mr. Torridon," she said, "may I say something?" Ralph made a little sound of assent. The warmth of the fire was making him sleepy.
"Well, it is this," said Margaret slowly, "I think you believe that Beatrice does not like you. That is not true. She is very fond of you; she thinks a great deal of you," she added, rather hastily.
Ralph sat up; his drowsiness was gone.
"How do you know that, Mrs. Roper?" he asked. His voice sounded perfectly natural, and Margaret was reassured at the tone of it. She could not see Ralph well; it was getting dark now.
"I know it well," she said. "Of course we talk of you when you are gone."
"And does Mrs. Beatrice talk of me?"
"Not so much," said Margaret, "but she listens very closely; and asks us questions sometimes." The girl's heart was beating with excitement as she spoke; but she had made up her mind to seek this opportunity. It seemed a pity, she thought, that two friends of hers should so misunderstood one another.
"And what kind of questions?" asked Ralph again.
"She wonders—what you really think—" went on Margaret slowly, bending down over her embroidery, and punctuating her words with stitches—"about—about affairs—and—and she said one day that—"
"Well?" said Ralph in the same tone.
"That she thought you were not so severe as you seemed," ended Margaret, her voice a little tremulous with amusement.
Ralph sat perfectly still, staring at the great fire-plate on which a smoky Phoebus in relief drove the chariot of the sun behind the tall wavering flames that rose from the burning logs. He knew very well why Margaret had spoken, and that she would not speak without reason; but the fact revealed was so bewilderingly new to him that he could not take it in. Margaret looked at him once or twice a little uneasily; and at last sighed.
"It is too dark," she said, "I must fetch candles."
She slipped out of the side-door that led to the servants' quarters, and Ralph was left alone. All his weariness was gone now; the whirl of images and schemes with which his brain had been seething as he walked up the river-bank half-an-hour before, had receded into obscurity; and one dominating thought filled their place: What if Margaret were right? And what did he mean to do himself? Surely he was not—
The door from the entrance passage opened, and a tall slender figure stood there, now in light, now in shadow, as the flames rose and fell.
"Meg," said a voice.
Ralph sat still a moment longer.
"Meg," said Beatrice again, "how dark you are."
Ralph stood up.
"Mrs Roper has just gone," he said, "you must put up with me, Mrs. Beatrice."
"Who is it?" said the girl advancing. "Mr. Torridon?"
She had a paper in her hand as she came across the floor, and Ralph drew out a chair for her on the other side of the hearth.
"Yes," he said. "Mrs. Roper has gone for lights. She will be back immediately."
Beatrice sat down.
"It is a troublesome word," she said. "Master More cannot read it himself, and has sent me to ask Meg. He says that every dutiful daughter should be able to read her father's hand."
And Ralph could see a faint amused smile in her black eyes, as the firelight shone on them.
"Master More always has an escape ready," he said, as he too sat down.
The girl's hand holding the paper suddenly dropped on to her knee, and the man saw she was looking at him oddly.
"Yes?" he said interrogatively; and then—
"Why do you look at me like that, Mrs. Beatrice?"
"It is what you said. Do you really think that, Mr. Torridon?"
Ralph was bewildered for a moment.
"I do not understand," he said.
"Do you truly think he always has an escape ready?" repeated the girl.
Then Ralph understood.
"You mean he is in danger," he said steadily. "Well, of course he is. There is no great man that is not. But I do not see why he should not escape as he has always done."
"You think that, Mr. Torridon?"
"Why, yes;" went on Ralph, a little hastily. "You remember the matter of the bribe. See how he cleared himself. Surely, Mrs. Beatrice—"
"And you really think so," said the girl. "I know that you know what we do not; and I shall believe what you say."
"How can I tell?" remonstrated Ralph. "I can only tell you that in this matter I know nothing that you do not. Master More is under no suspicion."
Beatrice drew a breath of relief.
"I am glad I spoke to you, sir," she said. "It has been on my mind. And something that he said a few minutes ago frightened me."
"What did he say?" asked Ralph curiously.
"Ah! it was not much. It was that no man knew what might come next; that matters were very strange and dismaying—and—and that he wanted this paper copied quickly, for fear—"
The girl stopped again, abruptly.
"I know what you feel, Mrs. Beatrice," said Ralph gently. "I know how you love Master More, and how terrified we may become for our friends."
"What do you think yourself, Mr. Torridon," she said suddenly, almost interrupting him.
He looked at her doubtfully a moment, and half wished that Margaret would come back.
"That is a wide question," he said.
"Well, you know what I mean," she said coolly, completely herself again. She was sitting back in her chair now, drawing the paper serenely to and fro between her fingers; and he could see the firelight on her chin and brows, and those steady eyes watching him. He had an impulse of confidence.
"I do think changes are coming," he said. "I suppose we all do."
"And you approve?"
"Oh! how can I say off-hand?—But I think changes are needed."
She was looking down at the fire again now, and did not speak for a moment.
"Master More said you were of the new school," she said meditatively.
Ralph felt a curious thrill of exultation. Margaret was right then; this girl had been thinking about him.
"There is certainly a stirring," he said; and his voice was a little restrained.
"Oh, I am not blind or deaf," said the girl. "Of course, there is a stirring—but I wondered—"
Then Margaret came in with the candles.
Ralph went away that evening more excited than he liked. It seemed as if Mistress Roper's words had set light to a fire ready laid, and he could perceive the warmth beginning to move about his heart and odd wavering lights flickering on his circumstances and business that had not been there before.
* * * * *
He received his first letter from Beatrice a few weeks later, and it threw him into a strait between his personal and official claims.
Cromwell at this time was exceedingly occupied with quelling the ardour of the House of Lords, who were requesting that the Holy Maid of Kent and her companions might have an opportunity of defending themselves before the Act of Attainder ordered by the King was passed against them; but he found time to tell his agent that trouble was impending over More and Fisher; and to request him to hand in any evidence that he might have against the former.
"I suppose we shall have to let the Bishop off with a fine," said the minister, "in regard to the Maid's affair; but we shall catch him presently over the Act; and Mr. More is clear of it. But we shall have him too in a few days. Put down what you have to say, Mr. Torridon, and let me have it this evening."
And then he rustled off down the staircase to where his carriage was waiting to take him to Westminster, where he proposed to tell the scrupulous peers that the King was not accustomed to command twice, and that to suspect his Grace of wishing them to do an injustice was a piece of insolence that neither himself nor his royal master had expected of them.
Ralph was actually engaged in putting down his very scanty accusations against Sir Thomas More when the letter from Beatrice was brought up to him. He read it through twice in silence; and then ordered the courier to wait below. When the servant had left the room, he read it through a third time.
It was not long; but it was pregnant.
"I entreat you, sir," wrote the girl, "for the love of Jesu, to let us know if anything is designed against our friend. Three weeks ago you told me it was not so; I pray God that may be true still. I know that you would not lift a finger against him yourself—" (Ralph glanced at his own neat little list at these words, and bit his pen)—"but I wish you to do what you can for him and for us all." Then followed an erasure.
Ralph carried the paper to the window, flattened it against the panes and read clearly the words, "If my" under the scratching lines, and smiled to himself as he guessed what the sentence was that she was beginning.
Then the letter continued.
"I hear on good authority that there is something against him. He will not escape; and will do nothing on such hearsay, but only tells us to trust God, and laughs at us all. Good Mr. Torridon, do what you can. Your loving friend, B.A."
Ralph went back from the window where he was still standing, and sat down again, bending his head into his hands. He had no sort of scruples against lying as such or betraying Mr. More's private conversation; his whole training was directed against such foolishness, and he had learnt at last from Cromwell's incessant precept and example that the good of the State over-rode all private interests. But he had a disinclination to lie to Beatrice; and he felt simply unable to lose her friendship by telling her the truth.
As he sat there perfectly still, the servant peeped in once softly to see if the answer was ready, and noiselessly withdrew. Ralph did not stir; but still sat on, pressing his eyeballs till they ached and fiery rings twisted before him in the darkness. Then he abruptly sat up, blinked a moment or two, took up a pen, bit it again, and laid it down and sat eyeing the two papers that lay side by side on his desk.
He took up his own list, and read it through. After all, it was very insignificant, and contained no more than minute scraps of conversation that Sir Thomas More had let drop. He had called Queen Katharine "poor woman" three or four times; had expressed a reverence for the Pope of Rome half a dozen times, and had once called him the Vicar of Christ. He had been silent when someone had mentioned Anne Boleyn's name; he had praised the Carthusians and the Religious Life generally, at some length.
They were the kind of remarks that might mean nothing or a great deal; they were consistent with loyalty; they were not inconsistent with treason; in fact they were exactly the kind of material out of which serious accusations might be manufactured by a skilled hand, though as they stood they proved nothing.
A further consideration to Ralph was his duty to Cromwell; he scarcely felt it seemly to lie whole-heartedly to him; and on the other hand he felt now simply unable to lie to Beatrice. There was only one way out of it,—to prevaricate to them both.
He took up his own paper, glanced at it once more; and then with a slightly dramatic gesture tore it across and across, and threw it on the ground. Then he took up his pen and wrote to Beatrice.
"I have only had access to one paper against our friend—that I have destroyed, though I do not know what Master Cromwell will say. But I tell you this to show at what a price I value your friendship.
"Of course our friend is threatened. Who is not in these days? But I swear to you that I do not know what is the design."
He added a word or two more for politeness' sake, prayed that "God might have her in His keeping," and signed himself as she had done, her "loving friend."
Then he dried the ink with his pounce box, sealed the letter with great care, and took it down to the courier himself.
* * * * *
He faced Cromwell in the evening with a good deal of terror, but with great adroitness; swore positively that More had said nothing actually treasonable, and had found, on putting pen to paper, that the accusations were flimsier than he thought.
"But it is your business to see that they be not so," stormed his master. Ralph paused a moment respectfully.
"I cannot make a purse out of a sow's ear, sir. I must have at least some sort of silk."
When Cromwell had ceased to walk up and down, Ralph pointed out with considerable shrewdness that he did not suppose that his evidence was going to form the main ground of the attack on More; and that it would merely weaken the position to bring such feeble arguments to bear.
"Why he would tear them to shreds, sir, in five minutes; he would make out that they were our principal grounds—he is a skilled lawyer. If I may dare to say so, Master Cromwell, let your words against Mr. More be few and choice."
This was bolder speaking than he had ever ventured on before; but Cromwell was in a good humour. The peers had proved tractable and had agreed to pass the attainder against Elizabeth Barton without any more talk of justice and the accused's right of defence; and he looked now at Ralph with a grim approval.
"I believe you are right, Mr. Torridon. I will think, over it."
A week later the blow fell.
* * * * *
Cromwell looked up at him one Sunday evening as he came into the room, with his papers, and without any greeting spoke at once.
"I wish you to go to Lambeth House to-morrow morning early, Mr. Torridon. Master More is to be there to have the Oath of Succession tendered to him with the others. Do your best to persuade him to take it; be his true friend."
A little grim amusement shone in his eyes as he spoke. Ralph looked at him a moment.
"I mean it, Mr. Torridon: do your best. I wish him to think you his friend."
* * * * *
As Ralph went across the Thames in a wherry the following morning, he was still thinking out the situation. Apparently Cromwell wished to keep in friendly touch with More; and this now, of course, was only possible through Ralph, and would have been impossible if the latter's evidence had been used, or were going to be used. It was a relief to him to know that the consummation of his treachery was postponed at least for the present; (but he would not have called it treachery).
As Lambeth towers began to loom ahead, Ralph took out Beatrice's letter that had come in answer to his own a few days before, and ran his eyes over it. It was a line of passionate thanks and blessing. Surely he had reached her hidden heart at last. He put the letter back in his inner pocket, just before he stepped ashore. It no doubt would be a useful evidence of his own sincerity in his interview with More.
There was a great crowd in the court as he passed through, for many were being called to take the oath, which, however, was not made strictly legal until the following Second Act in the autumn. Several carriages were drawn up near the house door, and among them Ralph recognised the liveries of his master and of Lord Chancellor Audley. A number of horses and mules too were tethered to rings in the wall on the other side with grooms beside them, and ecclesiastics and secretaries were coming and going, disputing in groups, calling to one another, in the pleasant April sunshine.
On enquiry he found that the Commissioners were sitting in one of the downstair parlours; but one of Cromwell's servants at the door told him that he was not to go in there, but that Mr. More was upstairs by himself, and that if he pleased he would show him the way.
It was an old room looking on to the garden, scantily furnished, with a patch of carpet by the window and a table and chair set upon it. More turned round from the window-seat on which he was kneeling to look out, and smiled genially as Ralph heard the servant close the door.
"Why, Mr. Torridon, are you in trouble too? This is the detention-room whither I am sent to consider myself."
He led Ralph, still holding his hand, to the window-seat, where he leaned again looking eagerly into the garden.
"There go the good boys," he said, "to and fro in the playground; and here sit I. I suppose I have nothing but the rod to look for."
Ralph felt a little awkward in the presence of this gaiety; and for a minute or two leaned out beside More, staring mechanically at the figures that passed up and down. He had expected almost to find him at his prayers, or at least thoughtfully considering himself.
More commented agreeably on the passers-by.
"Dr. Wilson was here a moment ago; but he is off now, with a man on either side. He too is a naughty fellow like myself, and will not listen to reason. There is the Vicar of Croydon, good man, coming out of the buttery wiping his mouth."
Ralph looked down at the priest's flushed excited face; he was talking with a kind of reckless gaiety to a friend who walked beside him.
"He was sad enough just now," went on the other, "while he was still obstinate; but his master hath patted him on the head now and given him cake and wine. He was calling out for a drink just now (which he hath got, I see) either for gladness or for dryness, or else that we might know quod ille notus erat pontifici."
Dr. Latimer passed presently, his arms on either side flung round a priest's neck; he too was talking volubly and laughing; and the skirts of his habit wagged behind him.
"He is in high feather," said More, "and I have no doubt that his conscience is as clear as his eyes. Come, Mr. Torridon; sit you down. What have you come for?"
Ralph sat back on the window-seat with his back to the light, and his hat between his knees.
"I came to see you, sir; I have not been to the Commissioners. I heard you were here."
"Why, yes," said More, "here I am."
"I came to see if I could be of any use to you, Master More; I know a friend's face is a good councillor sometimes, even though that friend be a fool."
More patted him softly on the knee.
"No fool," he said, "far from it."
He looked at him so oddly that Ralph feared that he suspected him; so he made haste to bring out Beatrice's letter.
"Mistress Atherton has written me this," he said. "I was able to do her a little service—at least I thought it so then."
More took the letter and glanced at it.
"A very pretty letter," he said, "and why do you show it me?"
Ralph looked at him steadily.
"Because I am Master Cromwell's servant; and you never forget it."
More burst into a fit of laughter; and then took Ralph kindly by the hand.
"You are either very innocent or very deep," he said. "And what have you come to ask me?"
"I have come to ask nothing, Master More," said Ralph indignantly, withdrawing his hand—"except to be of service to you."
"To talk about the oath," corrected the other placidly. "Very well then. Do you begin, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph made a great effort, for he was sorely perplexed by Sir Thomas' attitude, and began to talk, putting all the reasons forward that he could think of for the accepting of the oath. He pointed out that government and allegiance would be impossible things if every man had to examine for himself the claims of his rulers; when vexed and elaborate questions arose—and this certainly was one such—was it not safer to follow the decrees of the King and Parliament, rather than to take up a position of private judgment, and decide upon details of which a subject could have no knowledge? How, too, could More, under the circumstances, take upon himself to condemn those who had subscribed the oath?—he named a few eminent prelates, the Abbot of Westminster and others.
"I do not condemn them," put in More, who was looking interested.
"Then you are uncertain of the matter?" went on Ralph who had thought out his line of argument with some care.
"But your duty to the King's grace is certain; therefore it should outweigh a thing that is doubtful."
Sir Thomas sucked in his lower lip, and stared gravely on the young man.
"You are very shrewd, sir," he said. "I do not know how to answer that at this moment; but I have no reasonable doubt but that there is an answer."
Ralph was delighted with his advantage, and pursued it eagerly; and after a few minutes had won from More an acknowledgment that he might be willing to consider the taking of the oath itself; it was the other clauses that touched his conscience more. He could swear to be loyal to Anne's children; but he could not assent to the denunciation of the Pope contained in the preamble of the Act, and the oath would commit him to that.
"But you will tell that to the Commissioners, sir?" asked Ralph eagerly.
"I will tell them all that I have told you," said More smiling.
Ralph himself was somewhat doubtful as to whether the concession would be accepted; but he professed great confidence, and secretly congratulated himself with having made so much way. But presently a remark of More's showed that he appreciated the situation.
"I am very grateful to you, Mr. Torridon, for coming and talking to me; and I shall tell my wife and children so. But it is of no use. They are resolved to catch me. First there was the bribe; then the matter of the Maid; then this; and if I took a hundred oaths they would find one more that I could not, without losing my soul; and that indeed I do not propose to do. Quid enim proficit homo?"
There was a knock at the door a moment later, and a servant came in to beg Mr. More to come downstairs again; the Commissioners were ready for him.
"Then good-day, Mr. Torridon. You will come and see me sometimes, even if not at Chelsea. Wherever I may be it will be as nigh heaven as Chelsea."
Ralph went down with him, and parted from him at the door of the Commissioner's room; and half-an-hour later a message was sent out to him by Cromwell that he need wait no longer; Mr. More had refused the oath, and had been handed over to the custody of the Abbot of Westminster.
A MERRY PRISONER
The arrest of Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher and their committal to the Tower a few days later caused nothing less than consternation in England and of furious indignation on the Continent. It was evident that greatness would save no man; the best hope lay in obscurity, and men who had been loud in self-assertion now grew timorous and silent.
Ralph was now in the thick of events. Besides his connection with More, he had been present at one of the examinations of the Maid of Kent and her admirers; had formed one of the congregation at Paul's Cross when the confession drawn up for her had been read aloud in her name by Dr. Capon, who from the pulpit opposite the platform where the penitents were set, preached a vigorous sermon against credulity and superstition. Ralph had read the confession over a couple of days before in Cromwell's room, and had suggested a few verbal alterations; and he had been finally present, a few days after More's arrest, at the last scene of the drama, when Elizabeth Barton, with six priests, suffered, under the provisions of an act of attainder, on Tyburn gallows.
All these events were indications of the course that things were taking in regard to greater matters. Parliament had now advanced further than ever in the direction of a breach with Rome, and had transferred the power of nomination to bishoprics from the Holy See to the Crown, and, what was as least as significant, had dealt in a similar manner with the authority over Religious houses.
On the other side, Rome had declared definitely against the annulling of Queen Katharine's marriage, and to this the King had retorted by turning the pulpits against the Pope, and in the course of this had found himself compelled to deal sharply with the Franciscans, who were at the same time the most popular and the most papal of all preachers. In the following out of this policy, first several notable friars were imprisoned, and next a couple of subservient Religious, a Dominican and an Augustinian, were appointed grand visitors of the rebellious Order.
A cloud of terror now began to brood over the Religious houses in England, as the news of these proceedings became known, and Ralph had a piteous letter from his father, entreating him to give some explanation of the course of affairs so far as was compatible with loyalty to his master, and at least his advice as to Christopher's profession.
"We hear sad tales, dear son," wrote Sir James, "on all sides are fears, and no man knows what the end will be. Some even say that the Orders will be reduced in number. And who knows what may be toward now that the Bishop and Mr. More are in trouble. I know not what is all this that Parliament has been doing about the Holy Father his authority; but I am sure that it cannot be more than what other reigns have brought about in declaring that the Prince is temporal lord of his land. But, however that may be, what do you advise that your brother should do? He is to be professed in August, unless it is prevented, and I dare not put out my hand to hinder it, until I know more. I do not ask you, dear son, to tell me what you should not; I know my duty and yours too well for that. But I entreat you to tell me what you can, that I may not consent to your brother's profession if it is better that it should not take place until affairs are quieter. Your mother would send you her dear love, I know, if she knew I were writing, but she is in her chamber, and the messenger must go with this. Jesu have you in His blessed keeping!"
Ralph wrote back that he knew no reason against Christopher's profession, except what might arise from the exposure of the Holy Maid on whose advice he had gone to Lewes, and that if his father and brother were satisfied on that score, he hoped that Christopher would follow God's leading.
At the same time that he wrote this he was engaged, under Cromwell's directions, in sifting the evidence offered by the grand visitors to show that the friars refused to accept the new enactments on the subject of the papal jurisdiction.
* * * * *
On the other hand, the Carthusians in London had proved more submissive. There had been a struggle at first when the oath of the succession had been tendered to them, and Prior Houghton, with the Procurator, Humphrey Middlemore, had been committed to the Tower. The oath affirmed the nullity of Queen Katharine's marriage with the King on the alleged ground of her consummated marriage with Henry's elder brother, and involved, though the Carthusians did not clearly understand it so at the time, a rejection of the Pope's authority as connected with the dispensation for Katharine's union with Henry. In May their scruples were removed by the efforts of some who had influence with them, and the whole community took the oath as required of them, though with the pathetic addition of a clause that they only submitted "so far as it was lawful for them so to do." This actual submission, to Cromwell's mind and therefore to Ralph's, was at first of more significance than was the uneasy temper of the community, as reported to them, which followed their compliance; but as the autumn drew on this opinion was modified.
It was in connection with this that Ralph became aware for the first time of what was finally impending with regard to the King's supremacy over the Church.
He had been sitting in Cromwell's room in the Chancery all through one morning, working at the evidence that was flowing in from all sides of disaffection to Henry's policy, sifting out worthless and frivolous charges from serious ones. Every day a flood of such testimony poured in from the spies in all parts of the country, relating to the deepening dissatisfaction with the method of government; and Cromwell, as the King's adviser, came in for much abuse. Every kind of manifestation of this was reported, the talk in the ale-houses and at gentlemen's tables alike, words dropped in the hunting-field or over a game of cards; and the offenders were dealt with in various ways, some by a sharp rebuke or warning, others by a sudden visit of a pursuivant and his men.
Ralph made his report as usual at the end of the morning, and was on the point of leaving, when his master called him back from the door.
"A moment," he said, "I have something to say. Sit down."
When Ralph had taken the chair again that he had just left, Cromwell took up a pen, and began to play with it delicately as he talked.
"You will have noticed," he began, "how hot the feeling runs in the country, and I am sure you will also have understood why it is so. It is not so much what has happened,—I mean in the matter of the marriage and of the friars,—but what folk fear is going to happen. It seems to the people that security is disappearing; they do not understand that their best security lies in obedience. And, above all, they think that matters are dangerous with regard to the Church. They know now that the Pope has spoken, and that the King pays no heed, but, on the other hand, waxes more bold. And that because his conscience bids him. Remember that, sir, when you have to do with his Highness."
He glanced at Ralph again, but there was no mockery in his solemn eyes. Then he went on.
"I am going to tell you, Mr. Torridon, that these folks are partly right, and that his Grace has not yet done all that he intends. There is yet one more step to take—and that is to declare the King supreme over the Church of England."
Ralph felt those strong eyes bent upon him, and he nodded, making no sign of approval or otherwise.
"This is no new thing, Mr. Torridon," went on Cromwell, after a moment's silence. "The King of England has always been supreme, though I will acknowledge that this has become obscured of late. But it is time that it be re-affirmed. The Popes have waxed presumptuous, and have laid claim to titles that Christ never gave them, and it is time that they be reminded that England is free, and will not suffer their domination. As for the unity of the Catholic Church, that can be attended to later on, and on firmer ground; when the Pope has been taught not to wax so proud. There will be an Act passed by Parliament presently, perhaps next year, to do this business, and then we shall know better what to do. Until that, it is very necessary, as you have already seen, to keep the folks quiet, and not to suffer any contradiction of his Grace's rights. Do you understand me, Mr. Torridon?"
Cromwell laid the pen clown and leaned back in his chair, with his fingers together.
"I understand, sir," said Ralph, in a perfectly even tone.
"Well, that is all that I have to say," ended his master, still watching him. "I need not tell you how necessary secrecy is in the matter."
Ralph was considerably startled as he went home, and realized better what it was that he had heard. While prudent persons were already trembling at the King's effrontery and daring in the past, Henry was meditating a yet further step. He began to see now that the instinct of the country was, as always, sharper than that of the individual, and that these uneasy strivings everywhere rose from a very definite perception of danger. The idea of the King's supremacy, as represented by Cromwell, would not seem to be a very startling departure; similar protests of freedom had been made in previous reigns, but now, following as it did upon overt acts of disobedience to the Sovereign Pontiff, and of disregard of his authority in matters of church-law and even of the status of Religious houses, it seemed to have a significance that previous protests had lacked.
And behind it all was the King's conscience! This was a new thought to Ralph, but the more he considered it the more it convinced him. It was a curious conscience, but a mighty one, and it was backed by an indomitable will. For the first time there opened out to Ralph's mind a glimpse of the possibility that he had scarcely dreamed of hitherto—of a Nationalism in Church affairs that was a reality rather than a theory—in which the Bishop of Rome while yet the foremost bishop of Christendom and endowed with special prerogatives, yet should have no finger in national affairs, which should be settled by the home authorities without reference to him. No doubt, he told himself, a readjustment was needed—visions and fancies had encrusted themselves so quickly round the religion credible by a practical man that a scouring was called for. How if this should be the method by which not only such accretions should be done away, but yet more practical matters should be arranged, and steps taken to amend the unwarranted interferences and pecuniary demands of this foreign bishop?
He had had more than one interview with Sir Thomas More in the Tower, and once was able to take him news of his own household at Chelsea. For a month none of his own people, except his servant, was allowed to visit him, and Ralph, calling on him about three weeks after the beginning of his imprisonment, found him eager for news.
He was in a sufficiently pleasant cell in the Beauchamp Tower, furnished with straw mats underfoot, and straw hangings in place of a wainscot; his bed stood in one corner, with his crucifix and beads on a little table beside it, and his narrow window looked out through eleven feet of wall towards the Court and the White Tower. His books, too, which his servant, John Wood, had brought from Chelsea, and which had not yet been taken from him, stood about the room, and several lay on the table among his papers, at which he was writing when Ralph was admitted by the warder.
"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Torridon," he said, "I knew you would not forget an old friend, even though he could not take your counsel. I daresay you have come to give it me again, however."
"If I thought you would take it," began Ralph.
"But I will not," said More smiling, "no more than before. Sit down, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph had come at Cromwell's suggestion, and with a very great willingness of his own, too. He knew he could not please Beatrice more than by visiting her friend, and he himself was pleased and amused to think that he could serve his master's interests from one side and his own from another by one action.
He talked a little about the oath again, and mentioned how many had taken it during the last week or two.
"I am pleased that they can do it with a good conscience," observed More. "And now let us talk of other matters. If I would not do it for my daughter's sake, who begged me, I would not do it for the sake of both the Houses of Parliament, nor even, dear Mr. Torridon, for yours and Master Cromwell's."
Ralph saw that it was of no use, and began to speak of other things. He gave him news of Chelsea.
"They are not very merry there," he said, "and I hardly suppose you would wish them to be."
"Why not?" cried More, with a beaming face, "I am merry enough. I would not be a monk; so God hath compelled me to be one, and treats me as one of His own spoilt children. He setteth me on His lap and dandleth me. I have never been so happy."
He told Ralph presently that his chief sorrow was that he could not go to mass or receive the sacraments. The Lieutenant, Sir Edward Walsingham, who had been his friend, had told him that he would very gladly have given him liberties of this kind, but that he dared not, for fear of the King's displeasure.
"But I told him," said More, "not to trouble himself that I liked his cheer well enough as it was, and if ever I did not he was to put me out of his doors."
After a little more talk he showed Ralph what he was writing. It was a treatise called a "Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation."
"It is to persuade myself," he said, "that I am no more a prisoner than I was before; I know I am, but sometimes forget it. We are all God's prisoners."
Ralph glanced down the page just written and was astonished at its good humour.
"Some prisoner of another gaol," he read, "singeth, danceth in his two fetters, and feareth not his feet for stumbling at a stone; while God's prisoner, that hath but his one foot fettered by the gout, lieth groaning on a couch, and quaketh and crieth out if he fear there would fall on his foot no more than a cushion."
* * * * *
Ralph went straight up the river from the Tower to Chelsea to take them news of the prisoner, and was silent and moody as he went. He had been half touched and half enraged by More's bearing—touched by his simplicity and cheerfulness and enraged by his confidence in a bad cause.
Mrs. Alice More behaved as usual when he got there: she had a genius for the obvious; commented on the weariness of living in one room, the distress at the thought that one was fastened in at the will of another; deplored the plainness of the prison fare, and the folly of her husband in refusing an oath that she herself and her children and the vast majority of the prominent persons in England had found so simple in accepting. She left nothing unsaid.
Finally, she apologized for the plainness of her dress.
"You must think me a slattern, Mr. Torridon, but I cannot help it. I have not the heart nor the means, now that my man is in prison, to do better."
And her solemn eyes filled with tears.
When he had given the news to the family he went aside from the group in the garden to where Beatrice Atherton was sitting below the Jesu tree, with work on her lap.
He had noticed as he talked that she was sitting there, and had raised his voice for her benefit. He fancied, and with a pleasure at the delicate instinct, that she did not wish to appear as intimately interested in the news from the Tower as those who had a better right to be. He was always detecting now faint shades in her character, as he knew her better, that charmed and delighted him.
She was doing some mending, and only glanced up and down again without ceasing or moving, as Ralph stood by her.
"I thought you never used the needle," he began in a moment.
"It is never too late to mend," she said, without the faintest movement.
Ralph felt again an odd prick of happiness. It gave him a distinct thrill of delight that she would make such an answer and so swiftly; and at such a time, when tragedy was round her and in her heart, for he knew how much she loved the man from whom he had just come.
He sat down on the garden chair opposite, and watched her fingers and the movements of her wrist as she passed the needle in and out, and neither spoke again till the others had dispersed.