It was not until the next day, as he sat with the Prior and a stranger or two, and heard the tale once more, and the predictions about More and Fisher, that the significance of Ralph's position appeared to him clearly. He knew no more than before, but he suddenly understood what he knew.
A monk had said a word of Cromwell's share in the matters, and the Prior had glanced moodily at Chris for a moment, turning his eyes only as he sat with his chin in his hand; and in a moment Chris understood.
This was the work that his brother was doing. He sat now more distracted than ever: mental pictures moved before him of strange council-rooms with great men in silk on raised seats, and Ralph was among them. He seemed to hear his bitter questions that pierced to the root of the faith of the accused, and exposed it to the world, of their adherence to the Vicar of Christ, their uncompromising convictions.
He had sat through dinner with burning eyes, but the Prior noticed nothing, for he himself was in a passion of absorption, and gave Chris a hasty leave as he rose from table to go and see his brother if he wished.
Chris had walked up and down his room that afternoon, framing sentences of appeal and pity and terror, but it was useless: he could not fix his mind; and he had gone off at last to Westminster at once terrified for Ralph's soul, and blazing with indignation against him.
And now he was walking down to the river again, in the cool of the evening, knowing that he had ruined his own cause and his right to speak by his intemperate fury.
* * * * *
It was another strange evening that he passed in the Prior's chamber after supper. The same monk, Dom Odo, who had taken him to Tyburn the day before, was there again; and Chris sat in a corner, with the reaction of his fury on him, spent and feverish, now rehearsing the scene he had gone through with Ralph, and framing new sentences that he might have used, now listening to the talk, and vaguely gathering its meaning.
It seemed that the tale of blood was only begun.
Bedale, the Archdeacon of Cornwall, had gone that day to the Charterhouse; he had been seen driving there, and getting out at the door with a bundle of books under his arm, and he had passed in through the gate over which Prior Houghton's arm had been hung on the previous evening. It was expected that some more arrests would be made immediately.
"As for my Lord of Rochester," said the monk, who seemed to revel in the business of bearing bad news, "and Master More, I make no doubt they will be cast. They are utterly fixed in their opinions. I hear that my lord is very sick, and I pray that God may take him to Himself. He is made Cardinal in Rome, I hear; but his Grace has sworn that he shall have no head to wear the hat upon."
Then he went off into talk upon the bishop, describing his sufferings in the Tower, for he was over eighty years old, and had scarcely sufficient clothes to cover him.
Now and again Chris looked across at his Superior. The Prior sat there in his great chair, his head on his hand, silent and absorbed; it was only when Dom Odo stopped for a moment that he glanced up impatiently and nodded for him to go on. It seemed as if he could not hear enough, and yet Chris saw him wince, and heard him breathe sharply as each new detail came out.
The monk told them, too, of Prior Houghton's speech upon the cart.
"They asked him whether even then he would submit to the King's laws, and he called God to witness that it was not for obstinacy or perversity that he refused, but that the King and the Parliament had decreed otherwise than our Holy Mother enjoins; and that for himself he would sooner suffer every kind of pain than deny a doctrine of the Church. And when he had prayed from the thirtieth Psalm, he was turned off."
The Prior stared almost vacantly at the monk who told his story with a kind of terrified gusto, and once or twice his lips moved to speak; but he was silent, and dropped his chin upon his hand again when the other had done.
* * * * *
Chris scarcely knew how the days passed away that followed his arrival in London. He spent them for the most part within doors, writing for the Prior in the mornings, or keeping watch over the door as his Superior talked with prelates and churchmen within, for ecclesiastical London was as busy as a broken ant-hill, and men came and went continually—scared, furtive monks, who looked this way and that, an abbot or two up for the House of Lords, priors and procurators on business. There were continual communications going to and fro among the religious houses, for the prince of them, the contemplative Carthusian, had been struck at, and no one knew where the assault would end.
Meanwhile, Chris had heard no further news from Ralph.' He thought of writing to him, and even of visiting him again, but his heart sickened at the thought of it. It was impossible, he told himself, that any communication should pass between them until his brother had forsaken his horrible business; the first sign of regret must come from the one who had sinned. He wondered sometimes who the girl was, and, as a hot-headed monk, suspected the worst. A man who could live as Ralph was living could have no morals left. She had been so friendly with him, so ready to defend him, so impatient, Chris thought, of any possibility of wrong. No doubt she, too, was one of the corrupt band, one of the great ladies that buzzed round the Court, and sucked the blood of God's people.
His own interior life, however, so roughly broken by his new experiences, began to mend slowly as the days went on.
He had begun, like a cat in a new house, to make himself slowly at home in the hostel, and to set up that relation between outward objects and his own self that is so necessary to interior souls not yet living in detachment. He arranged his little room next the Prior's to be as much as possible like his cell, got rid of one or two pieces of furniture that distracted him, set his bed in another corner, and hung up his beads in the same position that they used to occupy at Lewes. Each morning he served the Prior's mass in the tiny chapel attached to the house, and did his best both then and at his meditation to draw in the torn fibres of his spirit. At moments of worship the supernatural world began to appear again, like points of living rock emerging through sand, detached and half stifled by external details, but real and abiding. Little by little his serenity came back, and the old atmosphere reasserted itself. After all, God was here as there; grace, penance, the guardianship of the angels and the sacrament of the altar was the same at Southwark as at Lewes. These things remained; while all else was accidental—the different height of his room, the unfamiliar angles in the passages, the new noises of London, the street cries, the clash of music, the disordered routine of dally life.
Half-way through June, after a long morning's conversation with a stranger, the Prior sent for him.
He was standing by the tall carved fire-place with his back to the door, his head and one hand leaning against the stone, and he turned round despondently as Chris came in. Chris could see he was deadly pale and that his lips twitched with nervousness.
"Brother," he said, "I have a perilous matter to go through, and you must come with me."
Chris felt his heart begin to labour with heavy sick beats.
"I am to see my Lord of Rochester. A friend hath obtained the order. We are to go at five o'clock. See that you be ready. We shall take boat at the stairs."
Chris waited, with his eyes deferentially cast down.
"He is to be tried again on Thursday," went on the Prior, "and my friends wish me to see him, God knows—"
He stopped abruptly, made a sign with his hand, and as Chris left the room he saw that he was leaning once more against the stone-work, and that his head was buried in his arms.
Three more Carthusians had been condemned in the previous week, but the Bishop's trial, though his name was in the first indictment, was postponed a few days.
He too, like Sir Thomas More, had been over a year in the Tower; he had been deprived of his see by an Act of Parliament, his palace had been broken into and spoiled, and he himself, it was reported, was being treated with the greatest rigour in the Tower.
Chris was overcome with excitement at the thought that he was to see this man. He had heard of his learning, his holiness, and his austerities on all hands since his coming to London. When the bishop had left Rochester at his summons to London a year before there had been a wonderful scene of farewell, of which the story was still told in town. The streets had been thronged with a vast crowd weeping and praying, as he rode among them bare-headed, giving his blessing as he went. He had checked his horse by the city-gate, and with a loud voice had bidden them all stand by the old religion, and let no man take it from them. And now here he lay himself in prison for the Faith, a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, with scarcely clothes to cover him or food to eat. At the sacking of his palace, too, as the men ran from room to room tearing down the tapestries, and piling the plate together, a monk had found a great iron box hidden in a corner. They cried to one another that it held gold "for the bloody Pope"; and burst it open to find a hair shirt, and a pair of disciplines.
* * * * *
It was a long row down to the Tower from Southwark against the in-flowing tide. As they passed beneath the bridge Chris stared up at the crowding houses, the great gates at either end, and the faces craning down; and he caught one glimpse as they shot through the narrow passage between the piers, of the tall wall above the gate, the poles rising from it, and the severed heads that crowned them. Somewhere among that forest of grim stems the Carthusian priors looked down.
As he turned in his seat he saw the boatman grinning to himself, and following his eyes observed the Prior beside him with a white fixed face looking steadily downwards towards his feet.
They found no difficulty when they landed at the stairs, and showed the order at the gate. The warder called to a man within the guard-room who came out and went before them along the walled way that led to the inner ward. They turned up to the left presently and found themselves in the great court that surrounded the White Tower.
The Prior walked heavily with his face downcast as if he wished to avoid notice, and Chris saw that he paid no attention to the men-at-arms and other persons here and there who saluted his prelate's insignia. There were plenty of people going about in the evening sunshine, soldiers and attendants, and here and there at the foot of a tower stood a halberdier in his buff jacket leaning on his weapon. There were many distinguished persons in the Tower now, both ecclesiastics and laymen who had refused to take one or both of the oaths, and Chris eyed the windows wonderingly, picturing to himself where each lay, and with what courage.
But more and more as he went he wondered why the Prior and he were here, and who had obtained the order of admittance, for he had not had a sight of it.
When they reached the foot of the prison-tower the warder said a word to the sentry, and took the two monks straight past, preceding them up the narrow stairs that wound into darkness. There were windows here and there, slits in the heavy masonry, through which Chris caught glimpses, now of the moat on the west, now of the inner ward with the White Tower huge and massive on the east.
The Prior, who went behind the warder and in front of Chris, stopped suddenly, and Chris could hear him whispering to himself; and at the same time there sounded the creaking of a key in front.
As the young monk stood there waiting, grasping the stone-work on his right, again the excitement surged up; and with it was mingled something of terror. It had been a formidable experience even to walk those few hundred yards from the outer gate, and the obvious apprehensiveness of the Prior who had spoken no audible word since they had landed, was far from reassuring.
Here he stood now for the first time in his life within those terrible walls; he had seen the low Traitor's Gate on his way that was for so many the gate of death. Even now as he gripped the stone he could see out to the left through the narrow slit a streak of open land beyond the moat and the wall, and somewhere there he knew lay the little rising ground, that reddened week after week in an ooze of blood and slime. And now he was at the door of one who without doubt would die there soon for the Faith that they both professed.
The Prior turned sharply round.
"You!" he said, "I had forgotten: you must wait here till I call you in."
There was a sounding of an opening door above; the Prior went up and forward, leaving him standing there; the door closed, but not before Chris had caught a glimpse of a vaulted roof; and then the warder stood by him again, waiting with his keys in his hand.
PRISONER AND PRINCE
The sun sank lower and had begun to throw long shadows before the door opened again and the Prior beckoned. As Chris had stood there staring out of the window at the green water of the moat and the shadowed wall beyond, with the warder standing a few steps below, now sighing at the delay, now humming a line or two, he had heard voices now and again from the room above, but it had been no more than a murmur that died once more into silence.
* * * * *
Chris was aware of a dusty room as he stepped over the threshold, bare walls, one or two solid pieces of furniture, and of the Prior's figure very upright in the light from the tiny window at one side; and then he forgot everything as he looked at the man that was standing smiling by the table.
It was a very tall slender figure, dressed in a ragged black gown turning green with age; a little bent now, but still dignified; the face was incredibly lean, with great brown eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and a little white hair, ragged, too, and long, hung down under the old flapped cap. The hand that Chris kissed seemed a bundle of reeds bound with parchment, and above the wrist bones the arm grew thinner still under the loose, torn sleeve.
Then the monk stood up and saw those kindly proud eyes looking into his own.
The Prior made a deferential movement and said a word or two, and the bishop answered him.
"Yes, yes, my Lord Prior; I understand—God bless you, my son."
The bishop moved across to the chair, and sat down, panting a little, for he was torn by sickness and deprivation, and laid his long hands together.
"Sit down, brother," he said, "and you too, my Lord Prior."
Chris saw the Prior move across to an old broken stool, but he himself remained standing, awed and almost terrified at that worn face in which the eyes alone seemed living; so thin that the cheekbones stood out hideously, and the line of the square jaw. But the voice was wonderfully sweet and penetrating.
"My Lord Prior and I have been talking of the times, and what is best to be done, and how we must all be faithful. You will be faithful, brother?"
Chris made an effort against the absorbing fascination of that face and voice.
"I will, my lord."
"That is good; you must follow your prior and be obedient to him. You will find him wise and courageous."
The bishop nodded gently towards the Prior, and Chris heard a sobbing indrawn breath from the corner where the broken stool stood.
"It is a time of great moment," went on the bishop; "much hangs on how we carry ourselves. His Grace has evil counsellors about him."
There was silence for a moment or two; Chris could not take his eyes from the bishop's face. The frightful framework of skin and bones seemed luminous from within, and there was an extraordinary sweetness on those tightly drawn lips, and in the large bright eyes.
"His Grace has been to the Tower lately, I hear, and once to the Marshalsea, to see Dom Sebastian Newdegate, who, as you know, was at Court for many years till he entered the Charterhouse; but I have had no visit from him, nor yet, I should think, Master More—you must not judge his Grace too hardly, my son; he was a good lad, as I knew very well—a very gallant and brave lad. A Frenchman said that he seemed to have come down from heaven. And he has always had a great faith and devotion, and a very strange and delicate conscience that has cost him much pain. But he has been counselled evilly."
Chris remembered as in a dream that the bishop had been the King's tutor years before.
"He is a good theologian too," went on the bishop, "and that is his misfortune now, though I never thought to say such a thing. Perhaps he will become a better one still, if God has mercy on him, and he will come back to his first faith. But we must be good Catholics ourselves, and be ready to die for our Religion, before we can teach him."
Again, after another silence, he went on.
"You are to be a priest, I hear, my son, and to take Christ's yoke more closely upon you. It is no easy one in these days, though love will make it so, as Himself said. I suppose it will be soon now?"
"We are to get a dispensation, my lord, for the interstices," said the Prior.
Chris had heard that this would be done, before he left Lewes, and he was astonished now, not at the news, but at the strange softness of the Prior's voice.
"That is very well," went on the bishop. "We want all the faithful priests possible. There is a great darkness in the land, and we need lights to lighten it. You have a brother in Master Cromwell's service, sir, I hear?"
Chris was silent.
"You must not grieve too much. God Almighty can set all right. It may be he thinks he is serving Him. We are not here to judge, but to give our own account."
The bishop went on presently to ask a few questions and to talk of Master More, saying that he had managed to correspond with him for a while, but that now all the means for doing so had been taken away from them both, as well as his own books.
"It is a great grief to me that I cannot say my office, nor say nor hear mass: I must trust now to the Holy Sacrifice offered by others."
He spoke so tenderly and tranquilly that Chris was hardly able to keep back his tears. It seemed that the soul still kept its serene poise in that wasted body, and was independent of it. There was no weakness nor peevishness anywhere. The very room with its rough walls, its cobwebbed roof, its uneven flooring, its dreadful chill and gloom, seemed alive with a warm, redolent, spiritual atmosphere generated by this keen, pure soul. Chris had never been near so real a sanctity before.
"You have seen nothing of my Rochester folk, I suppose?" went on the bishop to the Prior.
The Prior shook his head.
"I am very downcast about them sometimes; I saw many of them at the court the other day. I forget that the Good Shepherd can guard His own sheep. And they were so faithful to me that I know they will be faithful to Him."
* * * * *
There came a sound of a key being knocked upon the door outside, and the bishop stood up, slowly and painfully.
"That will be Mr. Giles," he said, "hungry for supper."
The two monks sank down on their knees, and as Chris closed his eyes he heard a soft murmur of blessing over his head.
Then each kissed his hand and Chris went to the door, half blind with tears.
He heard a whisper from the bishop to the Prior, who still lingered a moment, and a half sob—
"God helping me!"—said the Prior.
There was no more spoken, and the two went down the stairs together into the golden sunshine with the warder behind them.
Chris dared not look at the other. He had had a glimpse of his face as he stood aside on the stairs to let him pass, and what he saw there told him enough.
* * * * *
There were plenty of boats rocking on the tide at the foot of the river stairs outside the Tower, and they stepped into one, telling the man to row to Southwark.
It was a glorious summer evening now. The river lay bathed in the level sunshine that turned it to molten gold, and it was covered with boats plying in all directions. There were single wherries going to and from the stairs that led down on all sides into the water, and barges here and there, of the great merchants or nobles going home to supper, with a line of oars on each side, and a glow of colour gilding in the stem and prow, were moving up stream towards the City. London Bridge stood out before them presently, like a palace in a fairy-tale, blue and romantic against the western glow, and above it and beyond rose up the tall spire of the Cathedral. On the other side a fringe of houses began a little to the east of the bridge, and ran up to the spires of Southwark on the other side, and on them lay a glory of sunset with deep shadows barring them where the alleys ran down to the water's edge. Here and there behind rose up the heavy masses of the June foliage. A troop of swans, white patches on the splendour, were breasting up against the out-flowing tide.
The air was full of sound; the rattle and dash of oars, men's voices coming clear and minute across the water; and as they got out near mid-stream the bell of St. Paul's boomed far from away, indescribably solemn and melodious; another church took it up, and a chorus of mellow voices tolled out the Angelus.
Chris was half through saying it to himself, when across the soft murmur sounded the clash of brass far away beyond the bridge.
The boatman paused at his oars, turned round a moment, grasping them in one hand, and stared up-stream under the other. Chris could see a movement among the boats higher up, and there seemed to break out a commotion at the foot of the houses on London Bridge, and then far away came the sound of cheering.
"What is it?" asked the Prior sharply, lifting his head, as the boatman gave an exclamation and laid furiously to his oars again.
The man jerked his head backwards.
"The King's Grace," he said.
* * * * *
For a minute or two nothing more was to be seen. A boat or two near them was seen making off to the side from mid-stream, to leave a clear passage, and there were cries from the direction of the bridge where someone seemed to be in difficulties with the strong stream and the piers. A wherry that was directly between them and the bridge moved off, and the shining water-way was left for the King's Grace to come down.
Then, again, the brass horns sounded nearer.
Chris was conscious of an immense excitement. The dramatic contrast of the scene he had just left with that which he was witnessing overpowered him. He had seen one end of the chain of life, the dying bishop in the Tower, in his rags; now he was to see the other end, the Sovereign at whose will he was there, in all the magnificence of a pageant. The Prior was sitting bolt upright on the seat beside him; one hand lay on his knee, the knuckles white with clenching, the other gripped the side of the boat.
Then, again, the fierce music sounded, and the first boat appeared under one of the wider spans of the bridge, a couple of hundred yards away.
The stream was running out strongly by now, and the boatman tugged to get out of it into the quieter water at the side, and as he pulled an oar snapped. The Prior half started up as the man burst out into an exclamation, and began to paddle furiously with the other oar, but the boat revolved helplessly, and he was forced to change it to the opposite side.
Meanwhile the boats were beginning to stream under the bridge, and Chris, seeing that the boat in which he sat was sufficiently out of the way to allow a clear passage in mid-stream even if not far enough removed for proper deference, gave himself up to watching the splendid sight.
The sun had now dropped behind the high houses by the bridge, and a shadow lay across the water, but nearer at hand the way was clear, and in a moment more the leading boat had entered the sunlight.
There was no possibility of mistake as to whether this were the royal barge or no. It was a great craft, seventy feet from prow to stem at the very least, and magnificent with colour. As it burst out into the sun, it blazed blindingly with gold; the prow shone with blue and crimson; the stern, roofed in with a crimson canopy with flying tassels, trailed brilliant coarse tapestries on either side; and the Royal Standard streamed out behind.
Chris tried to count the oars, as they swept into the water with a rhythmical throb and out again, flashing a fringe of drops and showing a coat painted on each blade. There seemed to be eight or ten a side. A couple of trumpeters stood in the bows, behind the gilded carved figurehead, their trumpets held out symmetrically with the square hangings flapping as they came.
He could see now the heads of the watermen who rowed, with the caps of the royal livery moving together like clockwork at the swing of the oars.
Behind followed the other boats, some half dozen in all; and as each pair burst out into the level sunlight with a splendour of gold and colour, and the roar from London Bridge swelled louder and louder, for a moment the young monk forgot the bitter underlying tragedy of all that he had seen and knew—forgot oozy Tower-hill and trampled Tyburn and the loaded gallows—forgot even the grim heads that stared out with dead tortured eyes from the sheaves of pikes rising high above him at this moment against the rosy sky—forgot the monks of the Charterhouse and their mourning hearts; the insulted queen, repudiated and declared a concubine—forgot all that made life so hard to live and understand at this time—as this splendid vision of the lust of the eyes broke out in pulsating sound and colour before him.
But it was only for a moment.
There was a group of half-a-dozen persons under the canopy of the seat-of-state of the leading boat; the splendid centre of the splendid show, brilliant in crimson and gold and jewels.
On the further side sat two men. Chris did not know their faces, but as his eyes rested on them a moment he noticed that one was burly and clean-shaven, and wore some insignia across his shoulders. At the near side were the backs of two ladies, silken clad and slashed with crimson, their white jewelled necks visible under their coiled hair and tight square cut caps. And in the centre sat a pair, a man and a woman; and on these he fixed his eyes as the boat swept up not twenty yards away, for he knew who they must be.
The man was leaning back, looking gigantic in his puffed sleeves and wide mantle; one great arm was flung along the back of the tapestried seat, and his large head, capped with purple and feathers, was bending towards the woman who sat beyond. Chris could make out a fringe of reddish hair beneath his ear and at the back of the flat head between the high collar and the cap. He caught a glimpse, too, of a sedate face beyond, set on a slender neck, with downcast eyes and red lips. And then as the boat came opposite, and the trumpeters sent out a brazen crash from the trumpets at their lips, the man turned his head and stared straight at the boat.
It was an immensely wide face, fringed with reddish hair, scanty about the lips and more full below; and it looked the wider from the narrow drooping eyes set near together and the small pursed mouth. Below, his chin swelled down fold after fold into his collar, and the cheeks were wide and heavy on either side.
It was the most powerful face that Chris had ever seen or dreamed of—the animal brooded in every line and curve of it—it would have been brutish but for the steady pale stare of the eyes and the tight little lips. It fascinated and terrified him.
The flourish ended, the roar of the rowlocks sounded out again like the beating of a furious heart; the King turned his head again and said something, and the boat swept past.
Chris found that he had started to his feet, and sat down again, breathing quickly and heavily, with a kind of indignant loathing that was new to him.
This then was the master of England, the heart of all their troubles—that gorgeous fat man with the broad pulpy face, in his crimson and jewels; and that was his concubine who sat demure beside him, with her white folded ringed hands on her lap, her beautiful eyes cast down, and her lord's hot breath in her ear! It was these that were purifying the Church of God of such men as the Cardinal-bishop in the Tower, and the witty holy lawyer! It was by the will of such as these that the heads of the Carthusian Fathers, bound brow and chin with linen, stared up and down with dead eyes from the pikes overhead.
He sat panting and unseeing as the other boats swept past, full of the King's friends all going down to Greenwich.
There broke out a roar from the Tower behind, and he started and turned round to see the white smoke eddying up from the edge of the wall beside the Traitor's gate; a shrill cheer or two, far away and thin, sounded from the figures on the wharf and the boatmen about the stairs.
The wherryman sat down again and put on his cap.
"Body of God!" he said, "there was but just time."
And he began to pull again with his single oar towards the shore.
Chris looked at the Prior a moment and down again. He was sitting with tight lips, and hands clasped in his lap, and his eyes were wild and piteous.
They borrowed an oar presently from another boat, and went on up towards Southwark. The wherryman pawed once to spit on his hands as they neared the rush of the current below the bridge.
"That was Master Cromwell with His Grace," he said.
Chris looked at him questioningly.
"Him with the gold collar," he added, "and that was Audley by him."
The Prior had glanced at Chris as Cromwell's name was mentioned; but said nothing for the present. And Chris himself was lost again in musing. That was Ralph's master then, the King's right-hand man, feared next in England after the King himself—and Chancellor Audley, too, and Anne, all in one wooden boat. How easy for God to put out His hand and finish them! And then he was ashamed at his own thought, so faithless and timid; and he remembered Fisher once more and his gallant spirit in that broken body.
A minute or two later they had landed at the stairs, and were making their way up to the hostel.
The Prior put out his hand and checked him as he stepped ahead to knock.
"Wait," he said. "Do you know who signed the order we used at the Tower?"
Chris shook his head.
"Master Cromwell," said the Prior. "And do you know by whose hand it came?"
Chris stared in astonishment.
"It was by your brother," he said.
THE SACRED PURPLE
It was a bright morning a few days later when the Bishop of Rochester suffered on Tower Hill.
Chris was there early, and took up his position at the outskirts of the little crowd, facing towards the Tower itself; and for a couple of hours watched the shadows creep round the piles of masonry, and the light deepen and mellow between him and the great mass of the White Tower a few hundred yards away. There was a large crowd there a good while before nine o'clock, and Chris found himself at the hour no longer on the outskirts but in the centre of the people.
He had served the Prior's mass at six o'clock, and had obtained leave from him the night before to be present at the execution; but the Prior himself had given no suggestion of coming. Chris had begun to see that his superior was going through a conflict, and that he wished to spare himself any further motives of terror; he began too to understand that the visit to the bishop had had the effect of strengthening the Prior's courage, whatever had been the intention on the part of the authorities in allowing him to go. He was still wondering why Ralph had lent himself to the scheme; but had not dared to press his superior further.
* * * * *
The bishop had made a magnificent speech at his trial, and had protested with an extraordinary pathos, that called out a demonstration from the crowd in court, against Master Rich's betrayal of his confidence. Under promise of the King that nothing that he said to his friend should be used against him, the bishop had shown his mind in a private conversation on the subject of the Supremacy Act, and now this had been brought against him by Rich himself at the trial.
"Seeing it pleased the King's Highness," said the bishop, "to send to me thus secretly to know my poor advice and opinion, which I most gladly was, and ever will be, ready to offer to him when so commanded, methinks it very hard to allow the same as sufficient testimony against me, to prove me guilty of high treason."
Rich excused himself by affirming that he said or did nothing more than what the King commanded him to do; and the trial ended by the bishop's condemnation.
* * * * *
As Chris waited by the scaffold he prayed almost incessantly. There was sufficient spur for prayer in the menacing fortress before him with its hundred tiny windows, and the new scaffold, some five or six feet high, that stood in the foreground. He wondered how the bishop was passing his time and thought he knew. The long grey wall beyond the moat, and the towers that rose above it, were suggestive in their silent strength. From where he stood too he could catch a glimpse of the shining reaches of the river with the green slopes on the further side; and the freedom and beauty of the sight, the delicate haze that hung over the water, the birds winging their way across, the boats plying to and fro, struck a vivid contrast to the grim fatality of the prison and the scaffold.
A bell sounded out somewhere from the Tower, and a ripple ran through the crowd. There was an immensely tall man a few yards from Chris, and Chris could see his face turn suddenly towards the lower ground by the river where the gateway rose up dark against the bright water. The man's face suddenly lighted with interest, and Chris saw his lips move and his eyes become intent. Then a surging movement began, and the monk was swept away to the left by the packed crowd round him. There were faces lining the wall and opposite, and all were turned one way. A great murmur began to swell up, and a woman beside him turned white and began to sob quietly.
His eyes caught a bright point of light that died again, flashed out, and resolved itself into a gleaming line of halberds, moving on towards the right above the heads, up the slope to the scaffold. He saw a horse toss his head; and then a feathered cap or two swaying behind.
Then for one instant between the shifting heads in front he caught sight of a lean face framed in a flapped cap swaying rhythmically as if borne on a chair. It vanished again.
The flashing line of halberds elongated itself, divided, and came between the scaffold and him; and the murmur of the crowd died to a heart-shaking silence. A solemn bell clanged out again from the interior of the prison, and Chris, his wet hands knit together, began to count the strokes mechanically, staring at the narrow rail of the scaffold, and waiting for the sight that he knew would come. Then again he was swept along a yard or two to the right, and when he had recovered his feet a man was on the scaffold, bending forwards and gesticulating. Another head rose into the line of vision, and this man too turned towards the steps up which he had come, and stood, one hand outstretched.
Again a murmur and movement began; Chris had to look to his foothold, and when he raised his head again a solemn low roar was rising up and swelling, of pity and excitement, for, silhouetted against the sunlit Tower behind, stood the man for whose sake all were there.
He was in a black gown and tippet, and carried his two hands clasped to his breast; and in them was a book and a crucifix. His cap was on his head, and the white face, incredibly thin, looked out over the heads of the crowd.
Chris hardly noticed that the scaffold was filling with people, until a figure came forward, in black, with a masked face, and bowed deferentially to the bishop; and in an instant silence fell again.
He saw the bishop turn and bow slightly in return, and in the stillness that wonderful voice sounded out, with the clear minuteness of words spoken in the open air, clear and penetrating over the whole ground.
"I forgive you very heartily; and I hope you will see me overcome this storm lustily."
The black figure fell back, and the bishop stood hesitating, looking this way and that as if for direction.
The Lieutenant of the Tower came forward; but Chris could only see his lips move, as a murmur had broken out again at the bishop's answer; but he signed with his hand and stepped behind the prisoner.
The bishop nodded, lifted his hand and took off his cap; and his white hair appeared; then he fumbled at his throat, holding the book and crucifix in his other hand; and, with the Lieutenant's help, slipped off his tippet and loose gown; and as he freed himself, and stood in his doublet and hose, a great sobbing cry of horror and compassion rose from the straining faces, for he seemed scarcely to be a living man, so dreadful was his emaciation. Above that lean figure of death looked out the worn old face, serene and confident. He was again holding the book and crucifix clasped to his breast, as he stepped to the edge of the scaffold.
The cry died to a murmur and ceased abruptly as he began his speech, every word of which was audible.
"Christian people," he began, "I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's holy Catholic Church." He raised his voice a little, and it rang out confidently. "And I thank God that hitherto my stomach hath served me very well thereunto, so that yet I have not feared death. Wherefore I desire you all to help and assist with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of death's stroke I may in that very moment stand steadfast, without fainting in any one point of the Catholic Faith, free from any fear."
He paused again; his hands closed one on the other. He glanced up.
"And I beseech the Almighty God of His infinite goodness and mercy, to save the King and this realm; and that it may please Him to hold His hand over it, and send the King's Highness good counsel."
He ceased abruptly; and dropped his head.
A gentle groan ran through the crowd.
Chris felt his throat contract, and a mist blinded his eyes for a moment.
Then he saw the bishop slip the crucifix into his other hand, and open the book, apparently at random. His lean finger dropped upon the page; and he read aloud softly, as if to himself.
"This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. I have glorified Thee on the earth; I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do."
Again there was silence, for it seemed as if he was going to make a sermon, but he looked down at the book a moment or two. Then he closed it gently.
"Here is learning enough for me," he said, "to my life's end."
There was a movement among the silent figures at the back of the scaffold; and the Lieutenant stepped forward once more. The bishop turned to meet him and nodded; handing him the book; and then with the crucifix still in his hands, and with the officers help, sank on to his knees.
* * * * *
It seemed to Chris as if he waited an eternity; but he could not take his eyes off him. Round about was the breathing mass of the crowd, overhead the clear summer sky; up from the river came the sounds of cries and the pulse of oars, and from the Tower now and again the call of a horn and the stroke of a bell; but all this was external, and seemed to have no effect upon the intense silence of the heart that radiated from the scaffold, and in which the monk felt himself enveloped. The space between himself and the bishop seemed annihilated; and Chris found himself in company with a thousand others close beside the man's soul that was to leave the world so soon. He could not pray; but he had the sensation of gripping that imploring spirit, pulsating with it, furthering with his own strained will that stream of effort that he knew was going forth.
Meanwhile his eyes stared at him; and saw without seeing how the old man now leaned back with closed eyes and moving lips; now he bent forward, and looked at the crucified figure that he held between his hands, now lifted it and lingeringly kissed the pierced feet. Behind stood the stiff line of officers, and in front below the rail rose the glitter of the halberds.
The minutes went by and there was no change. The world seemed to have grown rigid with expectancy; it was as if time stood still. There fell upon the monk's soul, not suddenly but imperceptibly, something of that sense of the unseen that he had experienced at Tyburn. For a certain space all sorrow and terror left him; he knew tangibly now that to which at other times his mere faith assented; he knew that the world of spirit was the real one; that the Tower, the axe, the imminent shadow of death, were little more than illusions; they were part of the staging, significant and necessary, but with no substance of reality. The eternal world in which God was all, alone was a fact. He felt no longer pity or regret. Nothing but the sheer existence of a Being of which all persons there were sharers, poised in an eternal instant, remained with him.
This strange sensation was scarcely disturbed by the rising of the lean black figure from its knees; Chris watched him as he might have watched the inevitable movement of an actor performing his pre-arranged part. The bishop turned eastward, to where the sun was now high above the Tower gate, and spoke once more.
"Accedite ad eum, et illuminamini; et facies vestrae non confundentur."
Then once more in the deathly stillness he turned round; and his eyes ran over the countless faces turned up to his own. But there was a certain tranquil severity in his face—the severity of one who has taken a bitter cup firmly into his hand; his lips were tightly compressed, and his eyes were deep and steady.
Then very slowly he lifted his right hand, touched his forehead, and enveloped himself in a great sign of the cross, still looking out unwaveringly over the faces; and immediately, without any hesitation, sank down on his knees, put his hands before him on to the scaffold, and stretched himself flat.
He was now invisible to Chris; for the low block on which he had laid his neck was only a few inches high.
There was again a surge and a murmur as the headsman stepped forward with the huge-headed axe over his shoulder, and stood waiting.
Then again the moments began to pass.
* * * * *
Chris lost all consciousness of his own being; he was aware of nothing but the objective presence of the scaffold, of an overpowering expectancy. It seemed as if something were stretched taut in his brain, at breaking point; as if some vast thing were on the point of revelation. All else had vanished,—the scene round him, the sense of the invisible; there was but the point of space left, waiting for an explosion.
There was a sense of wrenching torture as the headsman lifted the axe, bringing it high round behind him; the motion seemed shockingly slow, and to wring the strained nerves to agony....
* * * * *
Then in a blinding climax the axe fell.
THE KING'S FRIEND
Overfield Court was mildly stirred at the news that Master Christopher would stay there a few days on his way back from London to Lewes. It was not so exciting as when Master Ralph was to come, as the latter made more demands than a mere monk; for the one the horses must be in the pink of condition, the game neither too wild nor too tame, his rooms must be speckless, neither too full nor too empty of furniture; for the other it did not matter so much, for he was now not only a younger brother, but a monk, and therefore accustomed to contradiction and desirous to acquiesce in arrangements.
Lady Torridon indeed took no steps at all when she heard that Chris was coming, beyond expressing a desire that she might not be called upon to discuss the ecclesiastical situation at every meal; and when Chris finally arrived a week after Bishop Fisher's execution, having parted with the Prior at Cuckfield, she was walking in her private garden beyond the moat.
Sir James was in a very different state. He had caused two rooms to be prepared, that his son might take his choice, one next to Mr. Carleton's and therefore close to the chapel, and the other the old chamber that Chris had occupied before he went to Lewes; and when the monk at last rode up on alone on his tired mule with his little bag strapped to the crupper, an hour before sunset, his father was out at the gatehouse to meet him, and walked up beside him to the house, with his hand laid on his son's knee.
They hardly spoke a word as they went; Sir James had looked up at Chris's white strained face, and had put one question; and the other had nodded; and the hearts of both were full as they went together to the house.
The father and son supped together alone that night in the private parlour, for no one had dared to ask Lady Torridon to postpone her usual supper hour; and as soon as that was over and Chris had told what he had seen, with many silences, they went into the oak-room where Lady Torridon and Mr. Carleton were awaiting them by the hearth with the Flemish tiles.
The mother was sitting as usual in her tall chair, with her beautiful hands on her lap, and smiled with a genial contempt as she ran her eyes up and down her son's figure.
"The habit suits you very well, my son—in every way," she added, looking at him curiously.
Chris had greeted her an hour before at his arrival, so there was no ceremony of salute to be gone through now. He sat down by his father.
"You have seen Ralph, I hear," observed Lady Torridon.
Chris did not know how much she knew, and simply assented. He had told his father everything.
"I have some news," she went on in an unusually talkative mood, "for you both. Ralph is to marry Beatrice Atherton—the girl you saw in his rooms, Christopher."
Sir James gave an exclamation and leant forward; and Chris tightened his lips.
"She is a friend of Mr. More's," went on Lady Torridon, apparently unconscious of the sensation she was making, "but that is Ralph's business, I suppose."
"Why did Ralph not write to me?" asked his father, with a touch of sternness.
Lady Torridon answered him by a short pregnant silence, and then went on—
"I suppose he wished me to break it to you. It will not be for two or three years. She says she cannot leave Mrs. More for the present."
Chris's brain was confused by the news, and yet it all seemed external to him. As he had ridden up to the house in the evening he had recognised for the first time how he no longer belonged to the place; his two years at Lewes had done their work, and he came to his home now not as a son but as a guest. He had even begun to perceive the difference after his quarrel with Ralph, for he had not been conscious of the same personal sting at his brother's sins that he would have felt five years ago. And now this news, while it affected him, did not penetrate to the still sanctuary that he had hewn out of his heart during those months of discipline.
But his father was roused.
"He should have written to me," he said sternly. "And, my wife, I will beg you to remember that I have a right to my son's business."
Lady Torridon did not move or answer. He leaned back again, and passed his hand tenderly through Chris's arm.
* * * * *
It was very strange to the younger son to find himself a few minutes later up again in the west gallery of the chapel, where he had knelt two years before; and for a few moments he almost felt himself at home. But the mechanical shifting of his scapular aside as he sat down for the psalms, recalled facts. Then he had been in his silk suit, his hands had been rough with his cross-bow, his beard had been soft on his chin, and the blood hot in his cheeks. Now he was in his habit, smooth-faced and shaven, tired and oppressed, still weak from the pangs of soul-birth. He was further from human love, but nearer the Divine, he thought.
He sat with his father a few minutes after compline; and Sir James spoke more frankly of the news that they had heard.
"If she is really a friend of Mr. More's," he said, "she may be his salvation. I am sorely disappointed in him. I did not know Master Cromwell when I sent him to him, as I do now. Is it my fault, Chris?"
* * * * *
Chris told his father presently of what the Prior had said as to Ralph's assistance in the matter of the visit that the two monks had paid to the Tower; and asked an interpretation.
Sir James sat quiet a minute or two, stroking his pointed grey beard softly, and looking into the hearth.
"God forgive me if I am wrong, my son," he said at last, "but I wonder whether they let the my Lord Prior go to the Tower in order to shake the confidence of both. Do you think so, Chris?"
Chris too was silent a moment; he knew he must not speak evil of dignities.
"It may be so. I know that my Lord Prior—"
"Well, my son?"
"My Lord Prior has been very anxious—"
Sir James patted his son on the knee, and reassured him.
"Prior Crowham is a very holy man, I think; but—but somewhat delicate. However their designs have come to nothing. The bishop is in glory; and the other more courageous than he was."
Chris also had a few words with Mr. Carleton before he went to bed, sitting where he had sat in the moonlight two years before.
"If they have done so much," said the priest, "they will do more. When a man has slipped over a precipice he cannot save his fall. Master More will be the next to go; I make no doubt of that. You are to be a priest soon, Chris?"
"They have applied for leave," said the monk shortly. "In two years I shall be a priest, no doubt, if God wills."
"You are happy?" asked the other.
Chris made a little gesture.
"I do not know what that means," he said, "but I know I have done right. I feel nothing. God's ways and His world are too strange."
The priest looked at him oddly, without speaking.
"Well, father?" asked Chris, smiling.
"You are right," said the chaplain brusquely. "You have done well. You have crossed the border."
Chris felt the blood surge in his temples.
"The border?" he asked.
"The border of dreams. They surround the Religious Life; and you have passed through them."
Chris still looked at him with parted lips. This praise was sweet, after the bitterness of his failure with Ralph. The priest seemed to know what was passing in his mind.
"Oh! you will fail sometimes," he said, "but not finally. You are a monk, my son, and a man."
* * * * *
Lady Torridon retired into her impregnable silence again after her sallies of speech on the previous evening; but as the few days went on that Chris had been allowed to spend with his parents he was none the less aware that her attitude towards him was one of contempt. She showed it in a hundred ways—by not appearing to see him, by refusing to modify her habits in the smallest particular for his convenience, by a rigid silence on the subject that was in the hearts of both him and his father. She performed her duties as punctually and efficiently as ever, dealt dispassionately and justly with an old servant who had been troublesome, and with regard to whom her husband was both afraid and tender; but never asked for confidences or manifested the minutest detail of her own accord.
* * * * *
On the fourth day after Chris's arrival news came that Sir Thomas More had been condemned, but it roused no more excitement than the fall of a threatening rod. It had been known to be inevitable. And then on Chris's last evening at home came the last details.
* * * * *
Sir James and Chris had been out for a long ride up the estate, talking but little, for each knew what was in the heart of the other; and they were just dismounting at the terrace-steps when there was a sound of furious galloping; and a couple of riders burst through the gateway a hundred yards away.
Chris felt his heart leap and hammer in his throat, but stood passively awaiting what he knew was coming; and a few seconds later, Nicholas Maxwell checked his horse passionately at the steps.
"God damn them!" he cried, with a crimson quivering face.
Sir James stepped up at once and took him by the arm.
"Nick," he said, and glanced at the staring grooms.
Nicholas showed his teeth like a dog.
"God damn them!" he said again.
The other rider had come up by now; he was dusty and seemed spent. He was a stranger to the father and son who waited on the steps; but he looked like a groom, and slipped off his horse deftly and took Sir Nicholas's bridle.
"Come in Nick," said Sir James. "We can talk in the house."
As the three went up together, with the strange rider at a respectful distance behind, Nicholas broke out again in one sentence.
"They have done it," he said, "he is dead. Mother of God!"
His whip twitched in his clenching hand. He turned and jerked his head beckoningly to the man who followed; and the four went on together, through the hall and into Sir James's parlour. Sir James shut the door.
"Tell us, Nick."
Nicholas stood at the hearth, glaring and shifting.
"This fellow knows—he saw it; tell them, Dick."
The man gave his account. He was one of the servants of Sir Nicholas' younger brother, who lived in town, and had been sent down to Great Keynes immediately after the execution that had taken place that morning. He was a man of tolerable education, and told his story well.
Sir James sat as he listened, with his hand shading his eyes; Nicholas was fidgetting at the hearth, interrupting the servant now and again with questions and reminders; and Chris leaned in the dark corner by the window. There floated vividly before his mind as he listened the setting of the scene that he had looked upon a few days ago, though there were new actors in it now.
"It was this morning, sir, on Tower Hill. There was a great company there long before the time. He came out bravely enough, walking with the Lieutenant that was his friend, and with a red cross in his hand."
"You were close by," put in Nicholas
"Yes, sir; I was beside the stairs. They shook as he went up; they were crazy steps, and he told the Lieutenant to have a care to him."
"The words, man, the words!"
"I am not sure, sir; but they were after this fashion: 'See me safe up, Master Lieutenant; I will shift for myself at the coming down.' So he got up safe, and stamped once or twice merrily to see if all were firm. Then he made a speech, sir, and begged all there to pray for him. He told them that he was to die for the faith of the Catholic Church, as my Lord of Rochester did."
"Have you heard of my lord's head being taken to Nan Boleyn?" put in Nicholas fiercely.
Sir James looked up.
"Presently, Nick," he said.
The man went on.
"Master More kneeled down presently at his prayers; and all the folk kept very quiet. There was not one that cried against him. Then he stood up again, put off his gown, so that his neck was bare; and passed his hand over it smiling. Then he told the headsman that it was but a short one, and bade him be brave and strike straight, lest his good name should suffer. Then he laid himself down to the block, and put his neck on it; but he moved again before he gave the sign, and put his beard out in front—for he had grown one in prison"—
"Give us the words," snarled Nicholas.
"He said, sir, that his beard had done no treason, and need not therefore suffer as he had to do. And then he thrust out his hand for a sign—and 'twas done at a stroke."
"God damn them!" hissed Nicholas again as a kind of Amen, turning swiftly to the fire-place so that his face could not be seen.
There was complete silence for a few seconds. The groom had his eyes cast down, and stood there—then again he spoke.
"As to my Lord of Rochester's head, that was taken off to the—the Queen, they say, in a white bag, and she struck it on the mouth."
Nicholas dropped his head against his hand that rested on the wood-work.
"And the body rested naked all day on the scaffold, with the halberd-men drinking round about; and 'twas tumbled into a hole in Barking Churchyard that night."
"At whose orders?"
"At Master Cromwell's, sir."
Again there was silence; and again the groom broke it.
"There was more said, sir—" and hesitated.
The old man signed to him to go on.
"They say that my lord's head shone with light each night on the bridge," said the man reverently; "there was a great press there, I know, all day, so that the streets were blocked, and none could come or go. And so they tumbled that into the river at last; at least 'tis supposed so—for 'twas gone when I looked."
Nicholas turned round; and his eyes were bright and his face fiery and discoloured.
Sir James stood up, and his voice was broken as he spoke.
"Thank you, my man. You have told your story well."
* * * * *
As the groom turned to go out, Sir Nicholas wheeled round swiftly to the hearth, and buried his face on his arm; and Chris saw a great heaving begin to shake his broad shoulders.
THE KING'S TRIUMPH—BOOK II
PART I—THE SMALLER HOUSES
AN ACT OF FAITH
Towards the end of August Beatrice Atherton was walking up the north bank of the river from Charing to Westminster to announce to Ralph her arrival in town on the previous night.
* * * * *
She had gone through horrors since the June day on which she had seen the two brothers together. With Margaret beside her she had watched Master More in court, in his frieze gown, leaning on his stick, bent and grey with imprisonment, had heard his clear answers, his searching questions, and his merry conclusion after sentence had been pronounced; she had stayed at home with the stricken family on the morning of the sixth of July, kneeling with them at her prayers in the chapel of the New Building, during the hours until Mr. Roper looked in grey-faced and trembling, and they knew that all was over. She went with them to the burial in St. Peter's Chapel in the Tower; and last, which was the most dreadful ordeal of all, she had stood in the summer darkness by the wicket-gate, had heard the cautious stroke of oars, and the footsteps coming up the path, and had let Margaret in bearing her precious burden robbed from the spike on London Bridge.
Then for a while she had gone down to the country with Mrs. More and her daughters; and now she was back once more, in a kind of psychical convalescence, at her aunt's new house on the river-bank at Charing.
* * * * *
Her face was a little paler than it used to be, but there was a quickening brightness in her eyes as she swept along in her blue mantle, with her maid beside her, in the rear of the liveried servant, who carried a silver-headed wand a few yards in front.
She was rehearsing to herself the scene in which Ralph had asked her to be his wife.
Where Chris had left the room the two had remained perfectly still until the street-door had closed; and then Ralph had turned to her with a question in his steady eyes.
She had told him then that she did not believe one word of what the monk had insinuated; but she had been conscious even at the time that she was making what theologians call an act of faith. It was not that there were not difficulties to her in Ralph's position—there were plenty—but she had determined by a final and swift decision to disregard them and believe in him. It was a last step in a process that continued ever since she had become interested by this strong brusque man; and it had been precipitated by the fanatical attack to which she had just been a witness. The discord, as she thought it, of Ralph's character and actions had not been resolved; yet she had decided in that moment that it need not be; that her data as concerned those actions were insufficient; and that if she could not explain, at least she could trust.
Ralph had been very honest, she told herself now. He had reminded her that he was a servant of Cromwell's whom many believed to be an enemy of Church and State. She had nodded back to him steadily and silently, knowing what would follow from the paleness of his face, and his bright eyes beneath their wide lids. She had felt her own breast rise and fall and a pulse begin to hammer at the spring of her throat. Even now as she thought of it her heart quickened, and her hands clenched themselves.
And then in one swift moment it had come. She had found her hands caught fiercely, and her eyes imprisoned by his; and then all was over, and she had given him an answer in a word.
It had not been easy even after that. Cecily had questioned her more than once. Mrs. More had said a few indiscreet things that had been hard to bear; her own aunt had received the news in silence.
But that was over now. The necessary consent on both sides had been given; and here she was once more walking up the road to Westminster with Ralph's image before her eyes, and Ralph himself a hundred yards away.
* * * * *
She turned the last corner from the alley, passed up the little street, and turned again across the little cobbled yard that lay before the house.
Mr. Morris was at the door as she came up, and he now stood aside. He seemed doubtful.
"Mr. Torridon has gentlemen with him, madam."
"Then I will wait," said Beatrice serenely, and made a motion to come in. The servant still half-hesitating opened the door wider; and Beatrice and her maid went through into the little parlour on the right.
As she passed in she heard voices from the other door. Mr. Morris's footsteps went down the passage.
She had not very long to wait. There was the sound of a carriage driving up to the door presently, and her maid who sat in view of the window glanced out. Her face grew solemn.
"It is Master Cromwell's carriage," she said.
Beatrice was conscious of a vague discomfort; Master Cromwell, in spite of her efforts, was the shadowed side of Ralph's life.
"Is he coming in?" she said.
The maid peeped again.
The door of the room they were in was not quite shut, and there was still a faint murmur of voices from across the hall; but almost immediately there was the sound of a lifted latch, and then Ralph's voice clear and distinct.
"I will see to it, my lord."
Beatrice stood up, feeling a little uneasy. She fancied that perhaps she ought not to be here; she remembered now the servant's slight air of unwillingness to let her in. There was a footfall in the hall, and the sound of talking; and as Mr. Morris's hasty step came up the passage, the door was pushed abruptly open, and Ralph was looking into the room, with one or two others beyond him.
"I did not know," he began, and flushed a little, smiling and making as if to close the door. But Cromwell's face, with its long upper lip and close-set grey eyes, appeared over his shoulder, and Ralph turned round, almost deprecatingly.
"I beg your pardon, sir; this is Mistress Atherton, and her woman."
Cromwell came forward into the room, with a kind of keen smile, in his rich dress and chain.
"Mistress Beatrice Atherton?" he said with a questioning deference; and Ralph introduced them to one another. Beatrice was conscious of a good deal of awkwardness. It was uncomfortable to be caught here, as if she had come to spy out something. She felt herself flushing as she explained that she had had no idea who was there.
Cromwell looked at her very pleasantly.
"There is nothing to ask pardon for, Mistress," he said. "I knew you were a friend of Mr. Torridon. He has told me everything."
Ralph seemed strangely ill-at-case, Beatrice thought, as Cromwell congratulated them both with a very kindly air, and then turned towards the hall again.
"My lord," he called, "my lord—"
Then Beatrice saw a tall ecclesiastic, clean-shaven, with a strangely insignificant but kindly face, with square drooping lip and narrow hazel eyes, come forward in his prelate's dress; and at the sight of him her eyes grew hard and her lips tight.
"My lord," said Cromwell, "this is Mistress Beatrice Torridon."
The prelate put out his hand, smiling faintly, with the ring uppermost to be kissed. Beatrice stood perfectly still. She could see Ralph at an angle looking at her imploringly.
"You know my Lord of Canterbury," said Cromwell, in an explanatory voice.
"I know my Lord of Canterbury," said Beatrice.
There was a dead silence for a moment, and then a faint whimper from the maid.
Cranmer dropped his hand, but still smiled, turning to Ralph.
"We must be gone, Mr. Torridon. Master Cromwell has very kindly—"
Cromwell who had stood amazed for a moment, turned round at his name.
"Yes," he said to Ralph, "my lord is to come with me. And you will be at my house to-morrow."
He said good-day to the girl, looking at her with an amused interest that made her flush; and as Dr. Cranmer passed out of the street-door to the carriage with Ralph bare-headed beside him, he spoke very softly.
"You are like the others, mistress," he said; and shook his heavy head at her like an indulgent father. Then he too turned and went out.
* * * * *
Beatrice went across at once to the other room, leaving her maid behind, and stood by the hearth as Ralph came in. She heard the door close and his footstep come across the floor beside her.
"Beatrice," said Ralph.
She turned round and looked at him.
"You must not scold me," she said with great serenity. "You must leave me my conscience." Ralph's face cleared instantly.
"No, no," he said. "I feared it would be the other way."
"A married priest, they say!" remarked the girl, but without bitterness.
"I daresay, my darling,—but—but I have more tenderness for marriage than I had."
Beatrice's black eyes just flickered with amusement.
"Yes; but priests!" she said.
"Yes—even priests—" said Ralph, smiling back.
Beatrice turned to a chair and sat down.
"I suppose I must not ask any questions," she said, glancing up for a moment at Ralph's steady eyes. She thought he looked a little uneasy still.
"Oh! I scarcely know," said Ralph; and he took a turn across the room and came back. She waited, knowing that she had already put her question, and secretly pleased that he knew it, and was perplexed by it.
"I scarcely know," he said again, standing opposite her. "Well,—yes—all will know it soon."
"Oh! I can wait till then," said Beatrice quickly, not sure whether she were annoyed or not by being told a secret of such a common nature. Ralph glanced at her, not sure either.
"I am afraid—" he began.
"No—no," she said, ashamed of her doubt. "I do not wish to know; I can wait."
"I will tell you," said Ralph. He went and sat down in the chair opposite, crossing his legs.
"It is about the Visitation of the Religious Houses. I am to go with the Visitors in September."
Beatrice felt a sudden and rather distressed interest; but she showed no sign of it.
"Ah, yes!" she said softly, "and what will be your work?"
Ralph was reassured by her tone.
"We are to go to the southern province. I am with Dr. Layton's party. We shall make enquiries of the state of Religion, how it is observed and so forth; and report to Master Cromwell."
Beatrice looked down in a slightly side-long way.
"I know what you are thinking," said Ralph, his tone a mixture of amusement and pride. She looked up silently.
"Yes I knew it was so," he went on, smiling straight at her. "You are wondering what in the world I know about Religious Houses. But I have a brother—"
A shadow went over her face; Ralph saw she did not like the allusion.
"Besides," he went on again, "they need intelligent men, not ecclesiastics, for this business."
"But Dr. Layton?" questioned Beatrice.
"Well, you might call him an ecclesiastic; but you would scarcely guess it from himself. And no man could call him a partisan on that side."
"He would do better in one of his rectories, I should think," said Beatrice.
"Well, that is not my business," observed Ralph.
"And what is your business?"
"Well, to ride round the country; examine the Religious, and make enquiries of the country folk."
Beatrice began to tap her foot very softly. Ralph glanced down at the bright buckle and smiled in spite of himself.
The girl went on.
"And by whose authority?"
"By his Grace's authority."
"And Dr. Cranmer's?"
"Well, yes; so far as he has any."
"I see," said Beatrice; and cast her eyes down again.
There was silence for a moment or two.
"You see too that I cannot withdraw," explained Ralph, a little distressed at her air. "It is part of my duty."
"Oh! I understand that," said Beatrice.
"And so long as I act justly, there is no harm done."
The girl was silent.
"You understand that?" he asked.
"I suppose I do," said Beatrice slowly.
Ralph made a slight impatient movement.
"No—wait," said the girl, "I do understand. If I cannot trust you, I had better never have known you. I do understand that I can trust you; though I cannot understand how you can do such work."
She raised her eyes slowly to his; and Ralph as he looked into them saw that she was perfectly sincere, and speaking without bitterness.
"Sweetheart," he said. "I could not have taken that from any but you; but I know that you are true, and mean no more nor less than your words. You do trust me?"
"Why, yes," said the girl; and smiled at him as he took her in his arms.
* * * * *
When she had gone again Ralph had a difficult quarter of an hour.
He knew that she trusted him, but was it not simply because she did not know? He sat and pondered the talk he had had with Cromwell and the Archbishop. Neither had expressly said that what was wanted was adverse testimony against the Religious Houses; but that, Ralph knew very well, was what was asked of him. They had talked a great deal about the corruptions that the Visitors would no doubt find, and Cranmer had told a story or two, with an appearance of great distress, of scandalous cases that had come under his own notice. Cromwell too had pointed out that such corruptions did incalculable evil; and that an immoral monk did far more harm in a countryside than his holy brethren could do of good. Both had said a word too about the luxury and riches to be found in the houses of those who professed poverty, and of the injury done to Christ's holy religion by such insincere pretences.
Ralph knew too, from previous meetings with the other Visitors, the kind of work for which such men would be likely to be selected.
There was Dr. Richard Layton first, whom Ralph was to join in Sussex at the end of September, a priest who had two or three preferments and notoriously neglected them; Ralph had taken a serious dislike to him. He was a coarse man who knew how to cringe effectively; and Ralph had listened to him talking to Cromwell, with some dismay. But he would be to a large extent independent of him, and only in his company at some of the larger houses that needed more than one Visitor. Thomas Legh, too, a young doctor of civil law, was scarcely more attractive. He was a man of an extraordinary arrogance, carrying his head high, and looking about him with insolently drooping eyes. Ralph had been at once amused and angry to see him go out into the street after his interview with Cromwell, where his horse and half-a-dozen footmen awaited him, and to watch him ride off with the airs of a vulgar prince. The Welshman Ap Rice too, and the red-faced bully, Dr. London, were hardly persons whom he desired as associates, and the others were not much better; and Ralph found himself feeling a little thankful that none of these men had been in his house just now, when Cromwell and the Archbishop had called in the former's carriage, and when Beatrice had met them there.
* * * * *
Ralph had a moment, ten minutes after Beatrice had left, when he was inclined to snatch up his hat and go after Cromwell to tell him to do his own dirty work; but his training had told, and he had laughed at the folly of the thought. Why, of course, the work had to be done! England was rotten with dreams and superstition. Ecclesiasticism had corrupted genuine human life, and national sanity could not be restored except by a violent process. Innocent persons would no doubt suffer—innocent according to conscience, but guilty against the commonwealth. Every great movement towards good was bound to be attended by individual catastrophes; but it was the part of a strong man to carry out principles and despise details.
The work had to be done; it was better then that there should be at least one respectable workman. Of course such a work needed coarse men to carry it out; it was bound to be accompanied by some brutality; and his own presence there might do something to keep the brutality within limits.
* * * * *
And as for Beatrice—well, Beatrice did not yet understand. If she understood all as he did, she would sympathise, for she was strong too. Besides—he had held her in his arms just now, and he knew that love was king.
But he sat for ten minutes more in silence, staring with unseeing eyes at the huddled roofs opposite and the clear sky over them; and the point of the quill in his fingers was split and cracked when Mr. Morris looked in to see if his master wanted anything.
THE BEGINNING OF THE VISITATION
It was on a wet foggy morning in October that Ralph set out with Mr. Morris and a couple more servants to join Dr. Layton in the Sussex visitation. He rode alone in front; and considered as he went.
* * * * *
The Visitation itself, Cromwell had told him almost explicitly, was in pursuance of the King's policy to get the Religious Houses, which were considered to be the strongholds of the papal power in England, under the authority of the Crown; and also to obtain from them reinforcements of the royal funds which were running sorely low. The crops were most disappointing this year, and the King's tenants were wholly unable to pay their rents; and it had been thought wiser to make up the deficit from ecclesiastical wealth rather than to exasperate the Commons by a direct call upon their resources.
So far, he knew very well, the attempt to get the Religious Houses into the King's power had only partially succeeded. Bishop Fisher's influence had availed to stave off the fulfilment of the royal intentions up to the present; and the oath of supremacy, in which to a large extent the key of the situation lay, had been by no means universally accepted. Now, however, the scheme was to be pushed forward; and as a preparation for it, it was proposed to visit every monastery and convent in the kingdom, and to render account first of the temporal wealth of each, and then of the submissiveness of its inmates; and, as Cromwell had hinted to Ralph, anything that could damage the character of the Religious would not be unacceptable evidence.
Ralph was aware that the scheme in which he was engaged was supported in two ways; first, by the suspension of episcopal authority during the course of the visitation, and secondly by the vast powers committed to the visitors. In one of the saddle-bags strapped on to Mr. Morris's horse was a sheaf of papers, containing eighty-six articles of enquiry, and twenty-five injunctions, as well as certificates from the King endowing Ralph with what was practically papal jurisdiction. He was authorised to release from their vows all Religious who desired it, and ordered to dismiss all who had been professed under twenty years of age, or who were at the present date under twenty-four years old. Besides this he was commissioned to enforce the enclosure with the utmost rigour, to set porters at the doors to see that it was observed, and to encourage all who had any grievance against their superiors to forward complaints through himself to Cromwell.
Ralph understood well enough the first object of these regulations, namely to make monastic life impossible. It was pretty evident that a rigorous confinement would breed discontent; which in its turn would be bound to escape through the vent-hole which the power of appeal provided; thus bringing about a state of anarchy within the house, and the tightening of the hold of the civil authority upon the Religious.
Lastly the Visitors were authorised to seize any church furniture or jewels that they might judge would be better in secular custody.
Once more, he had learned both from Cromwell, and from his own experience at Paul's Cross, how the laity itself was being carefully prepared for the blow that was impending, by an army of selected preachers who could be trusted to say what they were told. Only a few days before Ralph had halted his horse at the outskirts of a huge crowd gathered round Paul's Cross, and had listened to a torrent of vituperation poured out by a famous orator against the mendicant friars; and from the faces and exclamations of the people round him he had learned once more that greed was awake in England.
* * * * *
It was a somewhat dismal ride that he had this day. The sky was heavy and overcast, it rained constantly, and the roads were in a more dreary condition even than usual. He splashed along through the mud with his servants behind him, wrapped in his cloak; and his own thoughts were not of a sufficient cheerfulness to compensate for the external discomforts. His political plane of thought was shot by a personal idea. He guessed that he would have to commit himself in a manner that he had never done before; and was not wholly confident that he would be able to explain matters satisfactorily to Beatrice. Besides, the particular district to which he was appointed included first Lewes, where Chris would have an eye on his doings, and secondly the little Benedictine house of Rusper, where his sister Margaret had been lately professed; and he wondered what exactly would be his relation with his own family when his work was done.
But for the main object of his visitation he had little but sympathy. It was good, he thought, that a scouring should be made of these idle houses, and their inmates made more profitable to the commonwealth. And lastly, whether or no he sympathised, it would be fatal to his career to refuse the work offered to him.
As he did not feel very confident at first, he had arranged to meet with Dr. Layton's party at the Premonstratension Abbey of Durford, situated at the borders of Sussex and Hampshire, and there learn the exact methods to be employed in the visitation; but it was a long ride, and he took two days over it, sleeping on the way at Waverly in the Cistercian House. This had not yet been visited, as Dr. Layton was riding up gradually from the west country, but the rumour of his intentions had already reached there, and Ralph was received with a pathetic deference as one of the representatives of the Royal Commission.
The Abbot was a kindly nervous man, and welcomed Ralph with every sign of respect at the gate of the abbey, giving contradictory orders about the horses and the entertainment of the guests to his servants who seemed in very little awe of him.
After mass and breakfast on the following morning the Abbot came into the guest-house and begged for a short interview.
* * * * *
He apologised first for the poorness of the entertainment, saying that he had done his best. Ralph answered courteously; and the other went on immediately, standing deferentially before the chair where Ralph was seated, and fingering his cross.
"I hope, Mr. Torridon, that it will be you who will visit us; you have found us all unprepared, and you know that we are doing our best to keep our Rule. I hope you found nothing that was not to your liking."
Ralph bowed and smiled.
"I would sooner that it were you," went on the Abbot, "and not another that visited us. Dr. Layton—"
He stopped abruptly, embarrassed.
"You have heard something of him?" questioned Ralph.
"I know nothing against him," said the other hastily, "except that they say that he is sharp with us poor monks. I fear he would find a great deal here not to his taste. My authority has been so much weakened of late; I have some discontented brethren—not more than one or two, Mr. Torridon—and they have learned that they will be able to appeal now to the King's Grace, and get themselves set free; and they have ruined the discipline of the house. I do not wish to hide anything, sir, you see; but I am terribly afraid that Dr. Layton may be displeased."
"I am very sorry, my lord," said Ralph, "but I fear I shall not be coming here again."
The Abbot's face fell.
"But you will speak for us, sir, to Dr. Layton? I heard you say you would be seeing him to-night."
Ralph promised to do his best, and was overwhelmed with thanks.
He could not help realising some of the pathos of the situation as he rode on through the rain to Durford. It was plain that a wave of terror and apprehensiveness was running through the Religious Houses, and that it brought with it inevitable disorder. Lives that would have been serene and contented under other circumstances were thrown off their balance by the rumours of disturbance, and authority was weakened. If the Rule was hard of observance in tranquil times, it was infinitely harder when doors of escape presented themselves on all sides.
And yet he was impatient too. Passive or wavering characters irritated his own strong temperament, and he felt a kind of anger against the Abbot and his feeble appeal. Surely men who had nothing else to do might manage to keep their own subjects in order, and a weak crying for pity was in itself an argument against their competence. And meanwhile, if he had known it, he would have been still more incensed, for as he rode on down towards the south west, the Abbot and his monks in the house he had left were prostrate before the high altar in the dark church, each in his stall, praying for mercy.
"O God, the heathens are come into thine inheritance," they murmured, "they have defiled thy holy temple."
* * * * *
It was not until the sun was going down in the stormy west that Ralph rode up to Durford abbey. The rain had ceased an hour before sunset, and the wet roofs shone in the evening light.
There were certain signs of stir as he came up. One or two idlers were standing outside the gate-house; the door was wide open, and a couple of horses were being led away round the corner.
Inside the court as he rode through he saw further signs of confusion. Half a dozen packhorses were waiting with hanging heads outside the stable door, and an agitated lay brother was explaining to a canon in his white habit, rochet and cap, that there was no more room. He threw out his hands with a gesture of despair towards Ralph as he came in.
"Mother of God!" he said, "here is another of them."
The priest frowned at him, and hurried up to Ralph.
"Yes, father," said Ralph, "I am another of them."
The canon explained that the stable was full, that they were exceedingly sorry, but that they were but a poor house; and that he was glad to say there was an outhouse round the corner outside where the beasts could be lodged.
"But as for yourself, sir," he said, "I know not what to do. We have every room full. You are a friend of Dr. Layton's, sir?"
"I am one of the Visitors," said Ralph. "You must make room."
The priest sucked his lips in.
"I see nothing for it," he said, "Dr. Layton and you, sir, must share a room."
Ralph threw a leg over the saddle and slipped to the ground.
"Where is he?" he asked.
"He is with my Lord Abbot, sir," he said. "Will you come with me?"
The canon led the way across the court, his white fur tails swinging as he went, and took Ralph through the cloister into one of the parlours. There was a sound of a high scolding voice as he threw open the door.
"What in God's name are ye for then, if ye have not hospitality?"
Dr. Layton turned round as Ralph came in. He was flushed with passion; his mouth worked, and his eyes were brutal.
"See this, Mr. Torridon," he said. "There is neither room for man or beast in this damned abbey. The guest house has no more than half a dozen rooms, and the stable—why, it is not fit for pigs, let alone the horses of the King's Visitors."
The Abbot, a young man with a delicate face, very pale now and trembling, broke in deprecatingly.
"I am very sorry, gentlemen," he said, looking from one to the other, "but it is not my fault. It is in better repair than when I came to it. I have done my best with my Lord Abbot of Welbeck; but we are very poor, and he can give me no more."
Layton growled at him.
"I don't say it's you, man; we shall know better when we have looked into your accounts; but I'll have a word to say at Welbeck."
"We are to share a room, Dr. Layton," put in Ralph "At least—"
The doctor turned round again at that, and stormed once more.
"I cannot help it, gentlemen," retorted the Abbot desperately. "I have given up my own chamber already. I can but do my best."
Ralph hastened to interpose. His mind revolted at this coarse bullying, in spite of his contempt at this patient tolerance on the part of the Abbot.
"I shall do very well, my Lord Abbot," he said. "I shall give no trouble. You may put me where you please."
The young prelate looked at him gratefully.
"We will do our best, sir," he said. "Will you come, gentlemen, and see your chambers?"
Layton explained to Ralph as they went along the poor little cloister that he himself had only arrived an hour before.
"I had a rare time among the monks," he whispered, "and have some tales to make you laugh."
* * * * *
He grew impatient again presently at the poor furnishing of the rooms, and kicked over a broken chair.
"I will have something better than that," he said. "Get me one from the church."
The young Abbot faced him.
"What do you want of us, Dr. Layton? Is it riches or poverty? Which think you that Religious ought to have?"
The priest gave a bark of laughter.
"You have me there, my lord," he said; and nudged Ralph.
They sat down to supper presently in the parlour downstairs, a couple of dishes of meat, and a bottle of Spanish wine. Dr. Layton grew voluble.
"I have a deal to tell you, Mr. Torridon," he said, "and not a few things to show you,—silver crosses and such like; but those we will look at to-morrow. I doubt whether we shall add much to it here, though there is a relic-case that would look well on Master Cromwell's table; it is all set with agates. But the tales you shall have now. My servant will be here directly with the papers."
A man came in presently with a bag of documents, and Layton seized them eagerly.
"See here, Mr. Torridon," he said, shaking the papers on to the table, "here is a story-box for the ladies. Draw your chair to the fire."
Ralph felt an increasing repugnance for the man; but he said nothing; and brought up his seat to the wide hearth on which the logs burned pleasantly in the cold little room.
The priest lifted the bundle on to his lap, crossed his legs comfortably, with a glass of wine at his elbow, and began to read.
* * * * *
For a while Ralph wondered how the man could have the effrontery to call his notes by the name of evidence. They consisted of a string of obscene guesses, founded upon circumstances that were certainly compatible with guilt, but no less compatible with innocence. There was a quantity of gossip gathered from country-people and coloured by the most flagrant animus, and even so the witnesses did not agree. Such sentences as "It is reported in the country round that the prior is a lewd man" were frequent in the course of the reading, and were often the chief evidence offered in a case.
In one of the most categorical stories, Ralph leaned forward and interrupted.
"Forgive me, Master Layton," he said, "but who is Master What's-his-name who says all this?"
The priest waved the paper in the air.
"A monk himself," he said, "a monk himself! That is the cream of it."
"A monk!" exclaimed Ralph.
"He was one till last year," explained the priest.
"And then?" said the other.
"He was expelled the monastery. He knew too much, you see."
Ralph leaned back.
* * * * *
Half an hour later there was a change in his attitude: his doubts were almost gone; the flood of detail was too vast to be dismissed as wholly irrelevant; his imagination was affected by the evidence from without and his will from within, and he listened without hostility, telling himself that he desired only truth and justice.
There were at least half a dozen stories in the mass of filthy suspicion that the priest exultingly poured out which appeared convincing; particularly one about which Ralph put a number of questions.
In this there was first a quantity of vague evidence gathered from the country-folk, who were, unless Layton lied quite unrestrainedly, convinced of the immoral life of a certain monk. The report of his sin had penetrated ten miles from the house where he lived. There was besides definite testimony from one of his fellows, precise and detailed; and there was lastly a half admission from the culprit himself. All this was worked up with great skill—suggestive epithets were plastered over the weak spots in the evidence; clever theories put forward to account for certain incompatibilities; and to Ralph at least it was convincing.
He found himself growing hot with anger at the thought of the hypocrisy of this monk's life. Here the fellow had been living in gross sin month after month, and all the while standing at the altar morning by morning, and going about in the habit of a professed servant of Jesus Christ!
"But I have kept the cream till the last," put in Dr. Layton. And he read out a few more hideous sentences, that set Ralph's heart heaving with disgust.
He began now to feel the beginnings of that fury against white-washed vice with which worldly souls are so quick to burn. He would have said that he himself professed no holiness beyond the average, and would have acknowledged privately at least that he was at any rate uncertain of the whole dogmatic scheme of religion; but that he could not tolerate a man whose whole life was on the outside confessedly devoted to both sides of religion, faith and morals, and who claimed the world's reverence for himself on the score of it. He knit his forehead in a righteous fury, and his fingers began to drum softly on his chair-arms.
Dr. Layton now began to recur to some of the first stories he had told, and to build up their weak places; and now that Ralph was roused his critical faculty subsided. They appeared more convincing than before in the light of this later evidence. Ex pede Herculem—from the fellow who had confessed he interpreted the guilt of those who had not. The seed of suspicion sprang quickly in the soil that hungered for it.
This then was the fair religious system that was dispersed over England; and this the interior life of those holy looking roofs and buildings surmounted by the sign of the Crucified, visible in every town to point men to God. When he saw a serene monk's face again he would know what kind of soul it covered; he would understand as never before how vice could wear a mask of virtue.
The whole of that flimsy evidence that he had heard before took a new colour; those hints and suspicions and guesses grew from shadow to substance. Those dark spots were not casual filth dropped from above, they were the symptoms of a deep internal infection.
As Dr. Layton went on with his tales, gathered and garnered with devilish adroitness, and presented as convincingly as a clever brain could do it, the black certainty fell deeper and deeper on Ralph's soul, and by the time that the priest chuckled for the last time that evening, and gathered up his papers from the boards where they had fallen one by one, he had done his work in another soul.
A HOUSE OF LADIES
They parted the next day, Dr. Layton to Waverly, where he proposed to sleep on Saturday night, and Ralph to the convent at Rusper.
He had learnt now how the work was to be done; and he had been equipped for it in a way that not even Dr. Layton himself suspected; for he had been set aflame with that filth-fed fire with which so many hearts were burning at this time. He had all the saint's passion for purity, without the charity of his holiness.
He had learnt too the technical details of his work—those rough methods by which men might be coerced, and the high-sounding phrases with which to gild the coercion. All that morning he had sat side by side with Dr. Layton in the chapter-house, inspecting the books, comparing the possessions of the monastery with the inventories of them, examining witnesses as to the credibility of the lists offered, and making searching enquiries as to whether any land or plate had been sold. After that, when a silver relic-case had been added to Dr. Layton's collection, the Religious and servants and all else who cared to offer evidence on other matters, were questioned one by one and their answers entered in a book. Lastly, when the fees for the Visitation had been collected, arrangements had been made, which in the Visitors' opinion, would be most serviceable to the carrying out of the injunctions; fresh officials were appointed to various posts, and the Abbot himself ordered to go up to London and present himself to Master Cromwell; but he was furnished with a letter commending his zeal and discretion, for the Visitors had found that he had done his duty to the buildings and lands; and stated that they had nothing to complain of except the poverty of the house.
"And so much for Durford," said Layton genially, as he closed the last book just before dinner-time, "though it had been better called Dirtyford." And he chuckled at his humour.
After dinner he had gone out with Ralph to see him mount; had thanked him for his assistance, and had reminded him that they would meet again at Lewes in the course of a month or so.
"God speed you!" he cried as the party rode off.
* * * * *
Ralph's fury had died to a glow, but it was red within him; the reading last night had done its work well, driven home by the shrewd conviction of a man of the world, experienced in the ways of vice. It had not died with the dark. He could not say that he was attracted to Dr. Layton; the priest's shocking familiarity with the more revolting forms of sin, as well as his under-breeding and brutality, made him a disagreeable character; but Ralph had very little doubt now that his judgment on the religious houses was a right one. Even the nunneries, it seemed, were not free from taint; there had been one or two terrible tales on the previous evening; and Ralph was determined to spare them nothing, and at any rate to remove his sister from their power. He remembered with satisfaction that she was below the age specified, and that he would have authority to dismiss her from the home.
He knew very little of Margaret; and had scarcely seen her once in two years. He had been already out in the world before she had ceased to be a child, and from what little he had seen of her he had thought of her but as little more than a milk-and-water creature, very delicate and shy, always at her prayers, or trailing about after nuns with a pale radiant face. She had been sent to Rusper for her education, and he never saw her except now and then when they chanced to be at home together for a few days. She used to look at him, he remembered, with awe-stricken eyes and parted lips, hardly daring to speak when he was in the room, continually to be met with going from or to the tall quiet chapel.
He had always supposed that she would be a nun, and had acquiesced in it in a cynical sort of way; but he was going to acquiesce no longer now. Of course she would sob, but equally of course she would not dare to resist.
He called Morris up to him presently as they emerged from one of the bridle paths on to a kind of lane where two could ride abreast. The servant had seemed oddly silent that morning.
"We are going to Rusper," said Ralph.
"Mistress Margaret is there."
"She will come away with us. I may have to send you on to Overfield with her. You must find a horse for her somehow."
There was silence between the two for a minute or two. Mr. Morris had answered with as much composure as if he had been told to brush a coat. Ralph began to wonder what he really felt.
"What do you think of all this, Morris?" he asked in a moment or two.
The servant was silent, till Ralph glanced at him impatiently.
"It is not for me to have an opinion, sir," said Mr Morris.
Ralph gave a very short laugh.
"You haven't heard what I have," he said, "or you would soon have an opinion."
"Yes, sir," said Morris as impassively as before.
"I tell you—" and then Ralph broke off, and rode on silent and moody. Mr. Morris gradually let his horse fall back behind his master.
* * * * *
They began to come towards Rusper as the evening drew in, by a bridle path that led from the west, and on arriving at the village found that they had overshot their mark, and ought to have turned sooner. The nunnery, a man told them, was a mile away to the south-west. Ralph made a few enquiries, and learnt that it was a smallish house, and that it was scarcely likely that room could be found for his party of four; so he left Morris to make enquiries for lodgings in the village, and himself rode on alone to the nunnery, past the church and the timberhouses.