It was a bad road, and his tired horse had to pick his way very slowly, so that it was nearly dark before he came to his destination, and the pointed roofs rose before him against the faintly luminous western sky. There were lights in one or two windows as he came up that looked warm and homely in the chill darkness; and as he sat on his horse listening to the jangle of the bell within, just a breath of doubtfulness touched his heart for a moment as he thought of the peaceful home-life that lay packed within those walls, and of the errand on which he had come.
But the memory of the tales he had heard, haunted him still; and he spoke in a harsh voice as the shutter slid back, and a little criss-crossed square of light appeared in the black doorway.
"I am one of the King's Visitors," he said. "Let my Lady Abbess know I am here. I must speak with her."
There was a stifled sound behind the grating; and Ralph caught a glimpse of a pair of eyes looking at him. Then the square grew dark again. It was a minute or two before anything further happened, and Ralph as he sat cold and hungry on his horse, began to grow impatient. His hand was on the twisted iron handle to ring again fiercely, when there was a step within, and a light once more shone out.
"Who is it?" said an old woman's voice, with a note of anxiety in it.
"I have sent word in," said Ralph peevishly, "that I am one of the King's Visitors. I should be obliged if I might not be kept here all night."
There was a moment's silence; the horse sighed sonorously.
"How am I to know, sir?" said the voice again.
"Because I tell you so," snapped Ralph. "And if more is wanted, my name is Torridon. You have a sister of mine in there."
There was an exclamation from within; and the sound of whispering; and then hasty footsteps went softly across the paved court inside.
The voice spoke again.
"I ask your pardon, sir; but have you any paper—or—"
Ralph snatched out a document of identification, and leaned forward from his horse to pass it through the opening. He felt trembling fingers take it from him; and a moment later heard returning footsteps.
There was a rustle of paper, and then a whisper within.
"Well, my dear?"
Something shifted in the bright square, and it grew gloomy as a face pressed up against the bars. Then again it shifted and the light shone out, and a flutter of whispers followed.
"Really, madam—" began Ralph; but there was the jingle of keys, and the sound of panting, and almost immediately a bolt shot back, followed by the noise of a key turning. A chorus of whispers broke out and a scurry of footsteps, and then the door opened inwards and a little old woman stood there in a black habit, her face swathed in white above and below. The others had vanished.
"I am very sorry, Mr. Torridon, to have kept you at the door; but we have to be very careful. Will you bring your horse in, sir?"
Ralph was a little abashed by the sudden development of the situation, and explained that he had only come to announce his arrival; he had supposed that there would not be room at the nunnery.
"But we have a little guest-house here," announced the old lady with a dignified air, "and room for your horse."
Ralph hesitated; but he was tired and hungry.
"Come in, Mr. Torridon. You had better dismount and lead your horse in. Sister Anne will see to it."
"Well, if you are sure—" began Ralph again, slipping a foot out of the stirrup.
"I am sure," said the Abbess; and stood aside for him and his beast to pass.
There was a little court, lighted by a single lamp burning within a window, with the nunnery itself on one side, and a small cottage on the other. Beyond the latter rose the roofs of an outhouse.
As Ralph came in, the door from the nunnery opened again, and a lay sister came out hastily; she moved straight across and took the horse by the bridle.
"Give him a good meal, sister," said the Abbess; and went past Ralph to the door of the guest-house.
"Come in, Mr. Torridon; there will be lights immediately."
* * * * *
In half an hour Ralph found himself at supper in the guest-parlour; a bright fire crackled on the hearth, a couple of candles burned on the table, and a pair of old darned green curtains hung across the low window.
The Abbess came in when he had finished, dismissed the lay-sister who had waited on him, and sat down herself.
"You shall see your sister to-morrow, Mr. Torridon," she said, "it is a little late now. I have sent the boy up to the village for your servant; he can sleep in this room if you wish. I fear we have no room for more."
Ralph watched her as she talked. She was very old, with hanging cheeks, and solemn little short-sighted eyes, for she peered at him now and again across the candles. Her upper lip was covered with a slight growth of dark hair. She seemed strangely harmless; and Ralph had another prick of compunction as he thought of the news he had to give her on the morrow. He wondered how much she knew.
"We are so glad it is you, Mr. Torridon, that have come to visit us. We feared it might be Dr. Layton; we have heard sad stories of him."
Ralph hardened his heart.
"He has only done his duty, Reverend Mother," he said.
"Oh! but you cannot have heard," exclaimed the old lady. "He has robbed several of our houses we hear—even the altar itself. And he has turned away some of our nuns."
Ralph was silent; he thought he would at least leave the old lady in peace for this last night. She seemed to want no answer; but went on expatiating on the horrors that were happening round them, the wicked accusations brought against the Religious, and the Divine vengeance that would surely fall on those who were responsible.
Finally she turned and questioned him, with a mingling of deference and dignity.
"What do you wish from us. Mr. Torridon? You must tell me, that I may see that everything is in order."
Ralph was secretly amused by her air of innocent assurance.
"That is my business, Reverend Mother. I must ask for all the books of the house, with the account of any sales you may have effected, properly recorded. I must have a list of the inmates of the house, with a statement of any corrodies attached; and the names and ages and dates of profession of all the Religious."
The Abbess blinked for a moment.
"Yes, Mr. Torridon. You will allow me of course to see all your papers to-morrow; it is necessary for me to be certified that all your part is in order."
Ralph smiled a little grimly.
"You shall see all that," he said. "And then there is more that I must ask; but that will do for a beginning. When I have shown you my papers you will see what it is that I want."
There was a peal at the bell outside; the Abbess turned her head and waited till there was a noise of bolts and unlocking.
"That will be your man, sir. Will you have him in now, Mr. Torridon?"
"And then he must look at the horses to see that all is as you wish."
Mr. Morris came in a moment later, and bowed with great deference to the little old lady, who enquired his name.
"When you have finished with your man, Mr. Torridon, perhaps you will allow him to ring for me at the door opposite. I will go with him to see the horses."
Mr. Morris had brought with him the mass of his master's papers, and when he had set these out and prepared the bedroom that opened out of the guest-parlour, he asked leave to go across and fetch the Abbess.
Ralph busied himself for half-an-hour or so in running over the Articles and Injunctions once more, and satisfying himself that he was perfect in his business; and he was just beginning to wonder why his servant had not reappeared when the door opened once more, and Mr. Morris slipped in.
"My horse is a little lame, sir," he said. "I have been putting on a poultice."
Ralph glanced up.
"He will be fit to travel, I suppose?"
"In a day or two, Mr. Ralph."
"Well; that will do. We shall be here till Monday at least."
* * * * *
Ralph could not sleep very well that night. The thought of his business troubled him a little. It would have been easier if the Abbess had been either more submissive or more defiant; but her air of mingled courtesy and dignity affected him. Her innocence too had something touching in it, and her apparent ignorance of what his visit meant. He had supped excellently at her expense, waited on by a cheerful sister, and well served from the kitchen and cellar; and the Reverend Mother herself had come in and talked sensibly and bravely. He pictured to himself what life must be like through the nunnery wall opposite—how brisk and punctual it must be, and at the same time homely and caressing.
And it was his hand that was to pull down the first prop. There would no doubt be three or four nuns below age who must be dismissed, and probably there would be a few treasures to be carried off, a processional crucifix perhaps, such as he had seen in Dr. Layton's collection, and a rich chalice or two, used on great days. His own sister too must be one of those who must go. How would the little old Abbess behave herself then? What would she say? Yet he comforted himself, as he lay there in the clean, low-ceilinged room, staring at the tiny crockery stoup gleaming against the door-post, by recollecting the principle on which he had come. Possibly a few innocents would have to suffer, a few old hearts be broken; but it was for a man to take such things in his day's work.
And then as he remembered Dr. Layton's tales, his heart grew hot and hard again.
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING
The enquiry was to be made in the guest-parlour on the next morning.
* * * * *
Ralph went to mass first at nine o'clock, which was said by a priest from the parish church who acted as chaplain to the convent; and had a chair set for him outside the nuns' choir from which he could see the altar and the tall pointed window; and then, after some refreshment in the guest-parlour, spread out his papers, and sat enthroned behind a couple of tables, as at a tribunal. Mr. Morris stood deferentially by his chair as the examination was conducted.
Ralph was a little taken aback by the bearing of the Abbess. In the course of the enquiry, when he was perplexed by one or two of the records, she rose from her chair before the table, and came round to his side, drawing up a seat as she did so; Ralph could hardly tell her to go back, but his magisterial air was a little affected by having one whom he almost considered as a culprit sitting judicially beside him.
"It is better for me to be here," she said. "I can explain more easily so."
* * * * *
There was a little orchard that the nuns had sold in the previous year; and Ralph asked for an explanation.
"It came from the Kingsford family," she said serenely; "it was useless to us."
"But—" began the inquisitor.
"We needed some new vestments," she went on. "You will understand, Mr. Torridon, that it was necessary for for us to sell it. We are not rich at all."
There was nothing else that called for comment; except the manner in which the books were kept. Ralph suggested some other method.
"Dame Agnes has her own ways," said the old lady. "We must not disturb her."
And Dame Agnes assumed a profound and financial air on the other side of the table.
Presently Ralph put a mark in the inventory against a "cope of gold bawdekin," and requested that it might be brought.
The sister-sacristan rose at a word from the Abbess and went out, returning presently with the vestment. She unfolded the coverings and spread it out on the table before Ralph.
It was a magnificent piece of work, of shimmering gold, with orphreys embroidered with arms; and she stroked out its folds with obvious pride.
"These are Warham's arms," observed the Abbess. "You know them, Mr. Torridon? We worked these the month before his death."
Ralph nodded briskly.
"Will you kindly leave it here, Reverend Mother," he said. "I wish to see it again presently."
The Abbess gave no hint of discomposure, but signed to the sacristan to place it over a chair at one side.
There were a couple of other things that Ralph presently caused to be fetched and laid aside—a precious mitre with a couple of cameos in front, and bordered with emeralds, and a censer with silver filigree work.
Then came a more difficult business.
"I wish to see the nuns one by one, Reverend Mother," he said. "I must ask you to withdraw."
The Abbess gave him a quick look, and then rose.
"Very well, sir, I will send them in." And she went out with Mr. Morris behind her.
They came in one by one, and sat down before the table, with downcast eyes, and hands hidden beneath their scapulars; and all told the same tale, except one. They had nothing to complain of; they were happy; the Rule was carefully observed; there were no scandals to be revealed; they asked nothing but to be left in peace. But there was one who came in nervously and anxiously towards the end, a woman with quick black eyes, who glanced up and down and at the door as she sat down. Ralph put the usual questions.
"I wish to be released, sir," she said. "I am weary of the life, and the—" she stopped and glanced swiftly up again at the commissioner.
"Well?" said Ralph.
"The papistical ways," she said.
Ralph felt a sudden distrust of the woman; but he hardened his heart. He set a mark opposite her name; she had been professed ten years, he saw by the list.
"Very well," he said; "I will tell my Lady Abbess." She still hesitated a moment.
"There will be a provision for me?" she asked
"There will be a provision," said Ralph a little grimly. He was authorised to offer in such cases a secular dress and a sum of five shillings.
Lastly came in Margaret herself.
Ralph hardly knew her. He had been unable to distinguish her at mass, and even now as she faced him in her black habit and white head-dress it was hard to be certain of her identity. But memory and sight were gradually reconciled; he remembered her delicate eyebrows and thin straight lips; and when she spoke he knew her voice.
They talked a minute or two about their home; but Ralph did not dare to say too much, considering what he had yet to say.
"I must ask you the questions," he said at last, smiling at her.
She looked up at him nervously, and dropped her eyes once more.
She nodded or shook her head in silence at each enquiry, until at last one bearing upon the morals of the house came up; then she looked swiftly up once more, and Ralph saw that her grey eyes were terrified.
"You must tell me," he said; and put the question again.
"I do not know what you mean," she answered, staring at him bewildered.
Ralph went on immediately to the next.
At last he reached the crisis.
"Margaret," he said, "I have something to tell you." He stopped and began to play with his pen. He had seldom felt so embarrassed as now in the presence of this shy sister of his of whom he knew so little. He could not look at her.
"Margaret, you know, you—you are under age. The King's Grace has ordered that all under twenty years of age are to leave their convents."
There was a dead silence.
Ralph was enraged with his own weakness. He had begun the morning's work with such determination; but the strange sweet atmosphere of the house, the file of women coming in one by one with their air of innocence and defencelessness had affected him. In spite of himself his religious side had asserted itself, and he found himself almost tremulous now.
He made a great effort at self-repression, and looked up with hard bright eyes at his sister.
"There must be no crying or rebellion," he said. "You must come with me to-morrow. I shall send you to Overfield."
Still Margaret said nothing. She was staring at him now, white-faced with parted lips.
"You are the last?" he said with a touch of harshness, standing up with his hands on the table. "Tell the Reverend Mother I have done."
Then she rose too.
"Ralph," she cried, "my brother! For Jesu's sake—"
"Tell the Reverend Mother," he said again, his eyes hard with decision.
She turned and went out without a word.
* * * * *
Ralph found the interview with the Abbess even more difficult than he had expected.
Once her face twitched with tears; but she drove them back bravely and faced him again.
"Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Torridon, that you intend to take your sister away?"
"And that Dame Martha has asked to be released?"
Again he bowed.
"Are you not afraid, sir, to do such work?"
Ralph smiled bitterly.
"I am not, Reverend Mother," he said. "I know too much."
"Oh! not from your nuns," he said sharply, "they of course know nothing, or at least will tell me nothing. It was from Dr. Layton."
"And what did Dr. Layton tell you?"
"I can hardly tell you that, Reverend Mother; it is not fit for your ears."
She looked at him steadily.
"And you believe it?"
"That makes no difference," he said. "I am acting by his Grace's orders."
There was silence for a moment.
"Then may our Lord have mercy on you!" she said.
She turned to where the gold cope gleamed over the chair, with the mitre and censer lying on its folds.
"And those too?" she asked.
"Those too," said Ralph.
She turned towards the door without a word.
"There are the fees as well," remarked Ralph. "We can arrange those this evening, Reverend Mother."
The little stiff figure turned and waited at the door. "And at what time will you dine, sir?"
"Immediately," said Ralph.
* * * * *
He was served at dinner with the same courtesy as before; but the lay sister's eyes were red, and her hands shook as she shifted the plates. Neither spoke a word till towards the end of the meal.
"Where is my man?" asked Ralph, who had not seen him since he had gone out with the Abbess a couple of hours before.
The sister shook her head.
"Where is the Reverend Mother?"
Again she shook her head.
Ralph enquired the hour of Vespers, and when he had learnt it, took his cap and went out to look for Mr. Morris. He went first to the little dark outhouse, and peered in over the bottom half of the door, but there was no sign of him there. He could see a horse standing in a stall opposite, and tried to make out the second horse that he knew was there; but it was too dark, and he turned away.
It was a warm October afternoon as he went out through the gatehouse, still and bright, with the mellow smell of dying leaves in the air; the fields stretched away beyond the road into the blue distance as he went along, and were backed by the thinning woods, still ruddy with the last flames of autumn. Overhead the blue sky, washed with recent rains, arched itself in a great transparent vault, and a stream of birds crossed it from east to west.
He went round the corner of the convent buildings and turned up into a meadow beside a thick privet hedge that divided it from the garden, and as he moved along he heard a low humming noise sounding from the other side.
There was a door in the hedge at the point, and at either side the growth was a little thin, and he could look through without being himself seen.
The grass was trim and smooth inside; there was a mass of autumn flowers, grown no doubt for the altar, running in a broad bed across the nearer side of the garden, and beyond it rose a grey dial, round which sat a circle of nuns.
Ralph pressed his face to the hedge and watched.
There they were, each with her wheel before her, spinning in silence. The Abbess sat in the centre, immediately below the dial, with a book in her hand, and was turning the pages.
He could see a nun's face steadily bent on her wheel—that was Dame Agnes who had fetched the cope for him in the morning. She seemed perfectly quiet and unaffected, watching her thread, and putting out a deft hand now and again to the machinery. Beside her sat another, whose face he remembered well; she had stammered a little as she gave her answers in the morning, and even as he looked the face twitched suddenly, and broke into tears. He saw the Abbess turn from her book and lay her hand, with a kind of tender decision on the nun's arm, and saw her lips move, but the hum and rattle of the spinning-wheels was too loud to let him hear what she said; he saw now the other nun lift her face again from her hands, and wink away her tears as she laid hold of the thread once more.
* * * * *
Ralph had a strange struggle with himself that afternoon as he walked on in the pleasant autumn weather through meadow and copse. The sight of the patient women had touched him profoundly. Surely it was almost too much to ask him to turn away his own sister from the place she loved! If he relented, it was certain that no other Visitor would come that way for the present; she might at least have another year or two of peace. Was it too late?
He reminded himself again how such things were bound to happen; how every change, however beneficial, must bring sorrow with it, and that to turn back on such work because a few women suffered was not worthy of a man. It was long before he could come to any decision, and the evening was drawing on, and the time for Vespers come and gone before he turned at last into the village to enquire for his servant.
The other men had seen nothing of Mr. Morris that day; he had not been back to the village.
A group or two stared awefully at the fine gentleman with the strong face and steady intolerant eyes, as he strode down the tiny street in his rich dress, swinging his long silver-headed cane. They had learnt who he was now, but were so overcome by seeing the King's Commissioner that they forgot to salute him. As he turned the corner again he looked round once more, and there they were still watching him. A few women had come to the doors as well, and dropped their arched hands hastily and disappeared as he turned.
The convent seemed all as he had left it earlier in the afternoon, as he came in sight of it again. The high chapel roof rose clear against the reddening sky, with the bell framed in its turret distinct as if carved out of cardboard against the splendour.
He was admitted instantly when he rang on the bell, but the portress seemed to look at him with a strange air of expectancy, and stood looking after him as he went across the paved court to the door of the guest-house.
There was a murmur of voices in the parlour as he paused in the entry, and he wondered who was within, but as his foot rang out the sound ceased.
He opened the door and went in; and then stopped bewildered.
In the dim light that passed through the window stood his father and Mary Maxwell, his sister.
FATHER AND SON
None of the three spoke for a moment.
Then Mary drew her breath sharply as she saw Ralph's face, for it had hardened during that moment into a kind of blind obstinacy which she had only seen once or twice in her life before.
As he stood there he seemed to stiffen into resistance. His eyelids drooped, and little lines showed themselves suddenly at either side of his thin mouth. His father saw it too, for the hand that he had lifted entreatingly sank again, and his voice was tremulous as he spoke.
"Ralph—Ralph, my son!" he said.
Still the man said nothing; but stood frozen, his face half-turned to the windows.
"Ralph, my son," said the other again, "you know why we have come."
"You have come to hinder my business."
His voice was thin and metallic, as rigid as steel.
"We have come to hinder a great sin against God," said Sir James.
Ralph opened his eyes wide with a sort of fury, and thrust his chin out.
"She should pack a thousand times more now than before," he said.
The father's face too deepened into strength now, and he drew himself up.
"Do you know what you are doing?" he said.
"I do, sir."
There was an extraordinary insolence in his voice, and Mary took a step forward.
"Oh! Ralph," she said, "at least do it like a gentleman!"
Ralph turned on her sharply, and the obstinacy vanished in anger.
"I will not be pushed like this," he snarled. "What right is it of yours to come between me and my work?"
Sir James made a quick imperious gesture, and his air of entreaty fell from him like a cloak.
"Sit down, sir," he said, and his voice rang strongly. "We have a right in Margaret's affairs. We will say what we wish."
Mary glanced at him: she had never seen her father like this before as he stood in three quarter profile, rigid with decision. When she looked at Ralph again, his face had tightened once more into obstinacy. He answered Sir James with a kind of silky deference.
"Of course, I will sit down, sir, and you shall say what you will."
He went across the room and drew out a couple of chairs before the cold hearth where the white ashes and logs of last night's fire still rested. Sir James sat down with his back to the window so that Mary could not see his face, and Ralph stood by the other chair a moment, facing her.
"Sit down, Mary," he said. "Wait, I will have candles."
He stepped back to the door and called to the portress, and then returned, and seated himself deliberately, setting his cane in the corner beside him.
None of the three spoke again until the nun had come in with a couple of candles that she set in the stands and lighted; then she went out without glancing at anyone. Mary was sitting in the window seat, so the curtains remained undrawn, and there was a mystical compound of twilight and candle-light in the room.
She had a flash of metaphor, and saw in it the meeting of the old and new religions; the type of these two men, of whom the light of one was fading, and the other waxing. The candlelight fell full on Ralph's face that stood out against the whitewashed wall behind.
Then she listened and watched with an intent interest.
* * * * *
"It is this," said Sir James, "we heard you were here—"
Ralph smiled with one side of his mouth, so that his father could see it.
"I do not wish to do anything I should not," went on the old man, "or to meddle in his Grace's matters—"
"And you wish me not to meddle either, sir," put in Ralph.
"Yes," said his father. "I am very willing to receive you and your wife at home; to make any suitable provision; to give you half the house if you wish for it; if you will only give up this accursed work."
He was speaking with a tranquil deliberation; all the emotion and passion seemed to have left his voice; but Mary, from behind, could see his right hand clenched like a vice upon the knob of his chair-arm. It seemed to her as if the two men had suddenly frozen into self-repression. Their air was one of two acquaintances talking, not of father and son.
"And if not, sir?" asked Ralph with the same courtesy.
"Wait," said his father, and he lifted his hand a moment and dropped it again. He was speaking in short, sharp sentences. "I know that you have great things before you, and that I am asking much from you. I do not wish you to think that I am ignorant of that. If nothing else will do I am willing to give up the house altogether to you and your wife. I do not know about your mother."
Mary drew her breath hard. The words were like an explosion in her soul, and opened up unsuspected gulfs. Things must be desperate if her father could speak like that. He had not hinted a word of this during that silent strenuous ride they had had together when he had called for her suddenly at Great Keynes earlier in the afternoon. She saw Ralph give a quick stare at his father, and drop his eyes again.
"You are very generous, sir," he said almost immediately, "but I do not ask for a bribe."
"You—you are unlike your master in that, then," said Sir James by an irresistible impulse.
Ralph's face stiffened yet more.
"Then that is all, sir?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon for saying that," added his father courteously. "It should not have been said. It is not a bribe, however; it is an offer to compensate for any loss you may incur."
"Have you finished, sir?"
"That is all I have to say on that point," said Sir James, "except—"
"Except that I do not know how Mistress Atherton will take this story."
Ralph's face grew a shade paler yet. But his lips snapped together, though his eyes flinched.
"That is a threat, sir."
"That is as you please."
A little pulse beat sharply in Ralph's cheek. He was looking with a kind of steady fury at his father. But Mary thought she saw indecision too in his eye-lids, which were quivering almost imperceptibly.
"You have offered me a bribe and a threat, sir. Two insults. Have you a third ready?"
Mary heard a swift-drawn breath from her father, but he spoke quietly.
"I have no more to say on that point," he said.
"Then I must refuse," said Ralph instantly. "I see no reason to give up my work. I have very hearty sympathy with it."
The old man's hand twitched uncontrollably on his chair-arm for a moment; he half lifted his hand, but he dropped it again.
"Then as to Margaret," he went on in a moment. "I understand you had intended to dismiss her from the convent?"
"And where do you suggest that she should go?"
"She must go home," said Ralph.
"Then I will not receive her," said Sir James.
Mary started up.
"Nor will Mary receive her," he added, half turning towards her.
Mary Maxwell sat back at once. She thought she understood what he meant now.
Ralph stared at his father a moment before he too understood. Then he saw the point, and riposted deftly. He shrugged his shoulders ostentatiously as if to shake off responsibility.
"Well, then, that is not my business; I shall give her a gown and five shillings to-morrow, with the other one."
The extraordinary brutality of the words struck Mary like a whip, but Sir James met it.
"That is for you to settle then," he said. "Only you need not send her to Overfield or Great Keynes, for she will be sent back here at once."
Ralph smiled with an air of tolerant incredulity. Sir James rose briskly.
"Come, Mary," he said, and turned his back abruptly on Ralph, "we must find lodgings for to-night. The good nuns will not have room."
As Mary looked at his face in the candlelight she was astonished by its decision; there was not the smallest hint of yielding. It was very pale but absolutely determined, and for the fast time in her life she noticed how like it was to Ralph's. The line of the lips was identical, and his eyelids drooped now like his son's.
Ralph too rose and then on a sudden she saw the resolute obstinacy fade from his eyes and mouth. It was as if the spirit of one man had passed into the other.
"Father—" he said.
She expected a rush of emotion into the old man's face, but there was not a ripple. He paused a moment, but Ralph was silent.
"I have no more to say to you, sir. And I beg that you will not come home again."
As they passed out into the entrance passage she turned again and saw Ralph dazed and trembling at the table. Then they were out in the road through the open gate and a long moan broke from her father.
"Oh! God forgive me," he said, "have I failed?"
A NUN'S DEFIANCE
It was a very strange evening that Mary and her father passed in the little upstairs room looking on to the street at Rusper.
Sir James had hardly spoken, and after supper had sat near the window, with a curious alertness in his face. Mary knew that Chris was expected, and that Mr. Morris had ridden on to fetch him after he had called at Overfield, but from her short interview with Margaret she had seen that his presence would not be required. The young nun, though bewildered and stunned by the news that she must go, had not wavered for a moment as regards her intention to follow out her Religious vocation in some manner; and it was to confirm her in it, in case she hesitated, that Sir James had sent on the servant to fetch Chris.
It was all like a dreadful dream to Mary.
She had gone out from dinner at her own house into the pleasant October sunshine with her cheerful husband beside her, when her father had come out through the house with his riding-whip in his hand; and in a few seconds she had found herself plunged into new and passionate relations, first with him, for she had never seen him so stirred, and then with her brothers and sister. Ralph, that dignified man of affairs, suddenly stepped into her mind as a formidable enemy of God and man; Chris appeared as a spiritual power, and the quiet Margaret as the very centre of the sudden storm.
She sat here now by the fire, shading her face with her hand and watching that familiar face set in hard and undreamed lines of passion and resolution and expectancy.
Once as footsteps came up the street he had started up and sat down trembling.
She waited till the steps went past, and then spoke.
"Chris will be riding, father."
He nodded abruptly, and she saw by his manner that it was not Chris he was expecting. She understood then that he still had hopes of his other son, but they sat on into the night in the deep stillness, till the fire burned low and red, and the stars she had seen at the horizon wheeled up and out of sight above the window-frame.
Then he suddenly turned to her.
"You must go to bed, Mary," he said. "I will wait for Chris."
She lay long awake in the tiny cupboard-room that the labourer and his wife had given up to her, hearing the horses stamp in the cold shed at the back of the house, and the faces moved and turned like the colours of a kaleidoscope. Now her father's eyes and mouth hung like a mask before her, with that terrible look that had been on them as he faced Ralph at the end; now Ralph's own face, defiant, icy, melting in turns; now Margaret's with wide terrified eyes, as she had seen it in the parlour that afternoon; now her own husband's. And the sweet autumn woods and meadows lay before her as she had seen them during that silent ride; the convent, the village, her own home with its square windows and yew hedge—a hundred images.
* * * * *
There was a talking when she awoke for the last time and through the crazy door glimmered a crack of grey dawn, and as she listened she knew that Chris was come.
It was a strange meeting when she came out a few minutes later. There was the monk, unshaven and pale under the eyes, with his thinned face that gave no smile as she came in; her father desperately white and resolved; Mr. Morris, spruce and grave as usual sitting with his hat between his knees behind the others;—he rose deferentially as she came in and remained standing.
Her father began abruptly as she appeared.
"He can do nothing," he said, "he can but turn her on to the road. And I do not think he will dare."
"Ah! Beatrice Atherton?" questioned Mary, who had a clearer view of the situation now.
"Yes—Beatrice Atherton. He fears that we shall tell her. He cannot send Margaret to Overfield or Great Keynes now."
"And if he turns her out after all?"
Sir James looked at her keenly.
"We must leave the rest to God," he said.
The village was well awake by the time that they had finished their talk and had had something to eat. The drama at the convent had leaked out through the boy who served the altar there, and a little group was assembled opposite the windows of the cottage to which the monk had been seen to ride up an hour or two before. It seemed strange that no priest had been near them, but it was fairly evident that the terror was too great.
As the four came out on to the road, a clerical cap peeped for a moment from the churchyard wall and disappeared again.
They went down towards the convent along the grey road, in the pale autumn morning air. Mary still seemed to herself to walk in a dream, with her father and brother on either side masquerading in strange character; the familiar atmosphere had been swept from them, the background of association was gone, and they moved now in a new scene with new parts to play that were bringing out powers which she had never suspected in them. It seemed as if their essential souls had been laid bare by a catastrophe, and that she had never known them before.
For herself, she felt helpless and dazed; her own independence seemed gone, and she was aware that her soul was leaning on those of the two who walked beside her, and who were masculine and capable beyond all her previous knowledge of them.
Behind she heard a murmur of voices and footsteps of three or four villagers who followed to see what would happen.
She had no idea of what her father meant to do; it was incredible that he should leave Margaret in the road with her gown and five shillings; but it was yet more incredible that all his threats should be idle. Only one thing emerged clearly, that he had thrown a heavier responsibility upon Ralph than the latter had foreseen. Perhaps the rest must indeed be left to God. She did not even know what he meant to do now, whether to make one last effort with Ralph, or to leave him to himself; and she had not dared to ask.
They passed straight down together in silence to the convent-gate; and were admitted immediately by the portress whose face was convulsed and swollen.
"They are to go," she sobbed.
Sir James made a gesture, and passed in to the tiny lodge on the left where the portress usually sat; Chris and Mary followed him in, and Mr. Morris went across to the guest-house.
The bell sounded out overhead for mass as they sat there in the dim morning light, twenty or thirty strokes, and ceased; but there was no movement from the little door of the guest-house across the court. The portress had disappeared through the second door that led from the tiny room in which they sat, into the precincts of the convent itself.
Mary looked distractedly round her; at the little hatch that gave on to the entrance gate, and the chain hanging by it that communicated with one of the bolts, at the little crucifix that hung beside it, the devotional book that lay on the shelf, the door into the convent with the title "Clausura" inscribed above it. She glanced at her father and brother.
Sir James was sitting with his grey head in his hands, motionless and soundless; Chris was standing upright and rigid, staring steadily out through the window into the court.
Then through the window she too saw Mr. Morris come out from the guest-house and pass along to the stable.
Again there was silence.
The minutes went by, and the Saunce bell sounded three strokes from the turret. Chris sank on to his knees, and a moment later Mary and her father followed his example, and so the three remained in the dark silent lodge, with no sound but their breathing, and once a sharp whispered word of prayer from the old man.
As the sacring bell sounded there was a sudden noise in the court, and Mary lifted her head.
From where she knelt she could see the two doors across the court, those of the guest-house and the stable beyond, and simultaneously, out of the one came Ralph, gloved and booted, with his cap on his head, and Mr. Morris leading his horse out of the other.
The servant lifted his cap at the sound of the bell, and dropped on to his knees, still holding the bridle; his master stood as he was, and looked at him. Mary could only see the latter's profile, but even that was scornful and hard.
Again the bell sounded; the mystery was done; and the servant stood up.
As her father and Chris rose, Mary rose with them; and the three remained in complete silence, watching the little scene in the court.
Ralph made a sign; and the servant attached the bridle of the horse to a ring beside the stable-door, and went past his master into the guest-house with a deferential stoop of the shoulders. Ralph stood a moment longer, and then followed him in.
Then again the minutes went by.
There was a sound of horse-hoofs on the road presently, and of talking that grew louder. The hoofs ceased; there was a sharp peal on the bell; and the talking began again.
Chris glanced across at his father; but the old man shook his head; and the three remained as they were, watching and listening. As the bell rang out again impatiently, the door behind opened, and the portress came swiftly through, followed by the Abbess.
"Come quickly," the old lady whispered. "Sister Susan is going to let them in."
She stood aside, and made a motion to them to come through, and a moment late the four were in the convent, and the door was shut behind them.
"They are Mr. Torridon's men," whispered the Abbess, her eyes round with excitement; "they are come to pack the things."
She led them on through the narrow passage, up a stone flight of stairs to the corridor that ran over the little cloister, and pushed open the door of a cell.
"Wait here," she said. "You can do no more. I will go down to them. You are in the enclosure, but I cannot help it."
And she had whisked out again, with an air of extraordinary composure, shutting the door behind her.
The three went across to the window, still speaking no word, and looked down.
The tiny court seemed half full of people now. There were three horses there, besides Ralph's own marked by its rich saddle, and still attached to the ring by the stable door, and a couple of men were busy loading one of them with bundles. From one of these, which was badly packed, a shimmering corner of gold cloth projected.
Ralph was standing by the door of the guest-house watching, and making a sign now and again with his whip. They could not see his face as he stood so directly below them, only his rich cap and feather, and his strong figure beneath. Mr. Morris was waiting now by his master's horse; the portress was by her door.
As they looked the little black and white figure of the Abbess came out beneath them, and stood by the portress.
The packing went on in silence. It was terrible to Mary to stand there and watch the dumb-show tragedy, the wrecking and robbing of this peaceful house; and yet there was nothing to be done. She knew that the issues were in stronger hands than hers; she glanced piteously at her father and brother on either side, but their faces were set and white, and they did not turn at her movement.
There was the sound of an opening door, and two women came out from the convent at one side and stood waiting. One was in secular dress; the other was still in her habit, but carried a long dark mantle across her arm, and Mary caught her breath and bit her lip fiercely as she recognised the second to be her sister.
She felt she must cry out, and denounce the sacrilege, and made an instinctive movement nearer the window, but in a moment her father's hand was on her arm.
"Be still, Mary: it is all well."
One of the horses was being led away by now through the open door; and the two others followed almost immediately; but the principal actors were still in their places; the Abbess and the portress together on this side; Ralph on that; and the two other women, a little apart from one another, at the further end of the court.
Then Ralph beckoned abruptly with his whip, and Mary saw her sister move out towards the gate; she caught a glance of her face, and saw that her lips were white and trembling, and her eyes full of agony. The other woman followed briskly, and the two disappeared through to the road outside.
Again Ralph beckoned, and Mr. Morris brought up the horse that he had now detached from the ring, and stood by its head, holding the off-stirrup for his master to mount. Ralph gathered the reins into his left hand, and for a moment they saw his face across the back of the horse fierce and white; then he was up, and settling his right foot into the stirrup.
Mr. Morris let go, and stood back; and simultaneously Ralph struck him with his riding-whip across the face, a furious back-handed slash.
Mary cried out uncontrollably and shrank back; and a moment later her father was leaning from the window, and she beside him.
"You damned coward!" he shouted. "Morris, you are my servant now."
Ralph did not turn his head an inch, and a moment later disappeared on horse-back through the gate, and the portress had closed it behind him.
The little court was silent now, and empty except for the Abbess' motionless figure behind, with Mr. Morris beside her, and the lay sister by the gate, her hand still on the key that she had turned, and her eyes intent and expectant fixed on her superior. Mr. Morris lifted a handkerchief now and again gently to his face, and Mary as she leaned half sobbing from above saw that there were spots of crimson on the white.
"Oh! Morris!" she whispered.
The servant looked up, with a great weal across one cheek, and bowed a little, but he could not speak yet. Outside they could hear the jingle of bridle-chains; and then a voice begin; but they could not distinguish the words.
It was Ralph speaking; but they could only guess what it was that he was saying. Overhead the autumn sky was a vault of pale blue; and a bird or two chirped briskly from the roof opposite.
The voice outside grew louder, and ceased, and the noise of horse hoofs broke out.
Still there was no movement from any within. The Abbess was standing now with one hand uplifted as if for silence, and Mary heard the hoofs sound fainter up the road; they grew louder again as they reached higher ground; and then ceased altogether.
The old man touched Mary on the arm, and the three went out along the little corridor, and down the stone stairs.
As they passed through the lodge and came into the court Mary saw that the Abbess had moved from her place, and was standing with the portress close by the gate; her face was towards them, a little on one side, and she seemed to be listening intently, her ear against the door, her lower lip sucked in, and her eyes bright and vacant; she still held one hand up for silence.
Then there came a tiny tapping on the wood-work, and she instantly turned and snatched at the key, and a moment later the door was wide.
"Come in, my poor child," she said.
ST PANCRAS PRIORY
It was a little more than a month later that Ralph met his fellow-Visitor at Lewes Priory.
He had left Rusper in a storm of angry obstinacy, compelled by sheer pride to do what he had not intended. The arrival of his father and Mary there had had exactly the opposite effect to that which they hoped, and Ralph had turned Margaret out of the convent simply because he could not bear that they should think that he could be frightened from his purpose.
As he had ridden off on that October morning, leaving Margaret standing outside with her cloak over her arm he had had a very sharp suspicion that she would be received back again; but he had not felt himself strong enough to take any further steps; so he contented himself with sending in his report to Dr. Layton, knowing well that heavy punishment would fall on the convent if it was discovered that the Abbess had disobeyed the Visitors' injunctions.
Then for a month or so he had ridden about the county, carrying off spoils, appointing new officials, and doing the other duties assigned to him; he was offered bribes again and again by superiors of Religious Houses, but unlike his fellow-Visitors always refused them, and fell the more hardly on those that offered them; he turned out numbers of young Religious and released elder ones who desired it, and by the time that he reached Lewes was fairly practised in the duties of his position.
But the thought of the consequences of his action with regard to his future seldom left him. He had alienated his family, and perhaps Beatrice. As he rode once through Cuckfield, and caught a glimpse of the woods above Overfield, glorious in their autumn livery, he wondered whether he would ever find himself at home there again. It was a good deal to give up; but he comforted himself with the thought of his own career, and with the pleasant prospect of possessing some such house in his own right when the work that he now understood had been accomplished, and the monastic buildings were empty of occupants.
He had received one letter, to his surprise, from his mother; that was brought to him by a messenger in one of the houses where he stayed. It informed him that he had the writer's approval, and that she was thankful to have one son at least who was a man, and described further how his father and Mary had come back, and without Margaret, and that she supposed that the Abbess of Rusper had taken her back.
"Go on, my son," she ended, "it will be all well. You cannot come home, I know, while your father is in his present mind; but it is a dull place and you lose nothing. When you are married it will be different. Mr. Carleton is very tiresome, but it does not matter."
Ralph smiled to himself as he thought of the life that must now be proceeding at his home.
He had written once to Beatrice, in a rather tentative tone, assuring her that he was doing his best to be just and merciful, and professing to take it for granted that she knew how to discount any exaggerated stories of the Visitors' doings that might come to her ears. But he had received no answer, and indeed had told her that he did not expect one, for he was continually on the move and could give no fixed address.
As he came up over the downs above Lewes he was conscious of a keen excitement; this would be the biggest work he had undertaken, and it had the additional zest of being a means of annoying his brother who had provoked him so often. Since his quarrel with Chris in his own rooms in the summer he had retained an angry contempt towards him. Chris had been insolent and theatrical, he told himself, and had thrown off all claims to tenderness, and Ralph's feelings towards him were not improved by the information given him by one of his men that his brother had been present at the scene at Rusper, no doubt summoned there by Morris, who had proved such a desperate traitor to his master by slipping off to Overfield on the morning of the Sunday.
Ralph was very much puzzled at first by Morris's behaviour; the man had always been respectful and obedient, but it was now evident to him that he had been half-hearted all along, and still retained a superstitious reverence for ecclesiastical things and persons; and although it was very inconvenient and tiresome to lose him, yet it was better to be inadequately than treacherously served.
* * * * *
Lewes Priory was a magnificent sight as Ralph came up on to the top of the last shoulder below Mount Harry. The town lay below him in the deep, cup-like hollow, piled house above house along the sides. Beyond it in the evening light, against the rich autumn fields and the gleam of water, towered up the tall church with the monastic buildings nestling behind.
The thought crossed his mind that it would do very well for himself; the town was conveniently placed between London and the sea, within a day's ride from either; there would be shops and company there, and the priory itself would be a dignified and suitable house, when it had been properly re-arranged. The only drawback would be Beatrice's scrupulousness; but he had little doubt that ultimately that could be overcome. It would be ridiculous for a single girl to set herself up against the conviction of a country, and refuse to avail herself of the advantages of a reform that was so sorely needed. She trusted him already; and it would not need much persuasion he thought to convince her mind as well as her heart.
Of course Lewes Priory would be a great prize, and there would be many applicants for it, and he realized that more than ever as he came up to its splendid gateway and saw the high tower overhead, and the long tiled roofs to the right; but his own relations with Cromwell were of the best, and he decided that at least no harm could result from asking.
It was with considerable excitement that he dismounted in the court, and saw the throng of Dr. Layton's men going to and fro. As at Durford, so here, his superior had arrived before him, and the place was already astir. The riding-horses had been bestowed in the stables, and the baggage-beasts were being now unloaded before the door of the guest-house; there were servants going to and fro in Dr. Layton's livery, with an anxious-faced monk or two here and there among them, and a buzz and clatter rose on all sides. One of Dr. Layton's secretaries who had been at Durford, recognised Ralph and came up immediately, saluting him deferentially.
"The doctor is with the Sub-Prior, sir," he said. "He gave orders that you were to be brought to him as soon as you arrived, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph followed him into the guest-house, and up the stairs up which Chris had come at his first arrival, and was shown into the parlour. There was a sound of voices as they approached the door, and as Ralph entered he saw at once that Dr. Layton was busy at his work.
"Come in, sir," he cried cheerfully from behind the table at which he sat. "Here is desperate work for you and me. No less than rank treason, Mr. Torridon."
A monk was standing before the table, who turned nervously as Ralph came in; he was a middle-aged man, grey-haired and brown-faced like a foreigner, but his eyes were full of terror now, and his lips trembling piteously.
Ralph greeted Dr. Layton shortly, and sat down beside him.
"Now, sir," went on the other, "your only hope is to submit yourself to the King's clemency. You have confessed yourself to treason in your preaching, and even if you did not, it would not signify, for I have the accusation from the young man at Farley in my bag. You tell me you did not know it was treason; but are you ready, sir, to tell the King's Grace that?"
The monk's eyes glanced from one to the other anxiously. Ralph could see that he was desperately afraid.
"Tell me that, sir," cried the doctor again, rapping the table with his open hand.
"I—I—what shall I do, sir?" stammered the monk.
"You must throw yourself on the King's mercy, reverend father. And as a beginning you must throw yourself on mine and Mr. Torridon's here. Now, listen to this."
Dr. Layton lifted one of the papers that lay before him and rend it aloud, looking severely at the monk over the top of it between the sentences. It was in the form of a confession, and declared that on such a date in the Priory Church of St Pancras at Lewes the undersigned had preached treason, although ignorant that it was so, in the presence of the Prior and community; and that the Prior, although he knew what was to be said, and had heard the sermon in question, had neither forbidden it beforehand nor denounced it afterwards, and that the undersigned entreated the King's clemency for the fault and submitted himself entirely to his Grace's judgment.
"I—I dare not accuse my superior," stammered the monk.
Dr. Layton glared at him, laying the paper down.
"The question is," he cried, "which would you sooner offend—your Prior, who will be prior no longer presently, or the King's Grace, who will remain the King's Grace for many years yet, by the favour of God, and who has moreover supreme rights of life and death. That is your choice, reverend father."—He lifted the paper by the corners.—"You have only to say the word, sir, and I tear up this paper, and write my own report of the matter."
The monk again glanced helplessly at the two men. Ralph had a touch of contentment at the thought that this was Christopher's superior, ranged like a naughty boy at the table, and looked at him coldly. Dr. Layton made a swift gesture as if to tear the paper, and the Sub-Prior threw out his hands.
"I will sign it, sir," he said, "I will sign it."
When the monk had left the room, leaving his signed confession behind him, Dr. Layton turned beaming to Ralph.
"Thank God!" he said piously. "I do not know what we should have done if he had refused; but now we hold him and his prior too. How have you fared, Mr. Torridon?"
Ralph told him a little of his experiences since his last report, of a nunnery where all but three had been either dismissed or released; of a monastery where he had actually caught a drunken cellarer unconscious by a barrel, and of another where he had reason to fear even worse crimes.
"Write it all down, Mr. Torridon," cried the priest, "and do not spare the adjectives. I have some fine tales for you myself. But we must despatch this place first. We shall have grand sport in the chapter-house to-morrow. This prior is a poor timid fellow, and we can do what we will with him. Concealed treason is a sharp sword to threaten him with."
Ralph remarked presently that he had a brother a monk here.
"But you can do what you like to him," he said. "I have no love for him. He is an insolent fellow."
Dr. Layton smiled pleasantly.
"We will see what can be done," he said.
* * * * *
Ralph slept that night in the guest-house, in the same room that Chris had occupied on his first coming. He awoke once at the sound of the great bell from the tower calling the monks to the night-office, and smiled at the fantastic folly of it all. His work during the last month had erased the last remnants of superstitious fear, and to him now more than ever the Religious Houses were but noisy rookeries, clamant with bells and chanting, and foul with the refuse of idleness. The sooner they were silenced and purged the better.
He did not trouble to go to mass in the morning, but lay awake in the white-washed room, hearing footsteps and voices below, and watching the morning light brighten on the wall. He found himself wondering once or twice what Chris was doing, and how he felt; he did not rise till one of his men looked in to tell him that Dr. Layton would be ready for him in half-an-hour, if he pleased.
The chapter-house was a strange sight as he entered it from the cloister. It was a high oblong chamber some fifty feet long, with arched roof like a chapel, and a paved floor. On a dozen stones or so were cut inscriptions recording the presence of bodies entombed below, among them those of Earl William de Warenne and Gundrada, his wife, founders of the priory five centuries ago. Ralph caught sight of the names as he strode through the silent monks at the door and entered the chamber, talking loudly with his fellow-Visitor. The tall vaulted room looked bare and severe; the seats ran round it, raised on a step, and before the Prior's chair beneath the crucifix stood a large table covered with papers. Beneath it, and emerging on to the floor lay a great heap of vestments and precious things which Dr. Layton had ordered to be piled there for his inspection, and on the table itself for greater dignity burned two tapers in massive silver candlesticks.
"Sit here, Mr. Torridon," said the priest, himself taking the Prior's chair, "we represent the supreme head of the Church of England now, you must remember."
And he smiled at the other with a solemn joy.
He glanced over his papers, settled himself judicially, and then signed to one of his men to call the monks in. His two secretaries seated themselves at either end of the table that stood before their master.
Then the two lines began to file in, in reverse order, as the doctor had commanded; black silent figures with bowed heads buried in their hoods, and their hands invisible in the great sleeves of their cowls.
Ralph ran his eyes over them; there were men of all ages there, old wrinkled faces, and smooth ones; but it was not until they were all standing in their places that he recognised Chris.
There stood the young man, at a stall near the door, his eyes bent down, and his face deadly pale, his figure thin and rigid against the pale oak panelling that rose up some eight feet from the floor. Ralph's heart quickened with triumph. Ah! it was good to be here as judge, with that brother of his as culprit!
The Prior and Sub-prior, whose places were occupied, stood together in the centre of the room, as the doctor had ordered. It was their case that was to come first.
There was an impressive silence; the two Visitors sat motionless, looking severely round them; the secretaries had their clean paper before them, and their pens, ready dipped, poised in their fingers.
Then Dr. Layton began.
* * * * *
It was an inexpressibly painful task, he said, that he had before him; the monks were not to think that he gloried in it, or loved to find fault and impose punishments; and, in fact, nothing but the knowledge that he was there as the representative of the supreme authority in Church and State could have supplied to him the fortitude necessary for the performance of so sad a task.
Ralph marvelled at him as he listened. There was a solemn sound in the man's face and voice, and dignity in his few and impressive gestures. It could hardly be believed that he was not in earnest; and yet Ralph remembered too the relish with which the man had dispersed his foul tales the evening before, and the cackling laughter with which their recital was accompanied. But it was all very wholesome for Chris, he thought.
"And now," said Dr. Layton, "I must lay before you this grievous matter. It is one of whose end I dare not think, if it should come before the King's Grace; and yet so it must come. It is no less a matter than treason."
His voice rang out with a melancholy triumph, and Ralph, looking at the two monks who stood in the centre of the room, saw that they were both as white as paper. The lips of the Prior were moving in a kind of agonised entreaty, and his eyes rolled round.
"You, sir," cried the doctor, glaring at the Sub-Prior, who dropped his beseeching eyes at the fierce look, "you, sir, have committed the crime—in ignorance, you tell me—but at least the crime of preaching in this priory-church in the presence of his Grace's faithful subjects a sermon attacking the King's most certain prerogatives. I can make perhaps allowances for this—though I do not know whether his Grace will do so—but I can make allowances for one so foolish as yourself carried away by the drunkenness of words; but I can make none—none—" he shouted, crashing his hand upon the table, "none for your superior who stands beside you, and who forebore either to protest at the treason at the time or to rebuke it afterwards."
The Prior's hands rose and clasped themselves convulsively, but he made no answer.
Dr. Layton proceeded to read out the confession that he had wrung from the monk the night before, down to the signature; then he called upon him to come up.
"Is this your name, sir?" he asked slowly.
The Sub-Prior took the paper in his trembling hands.
"It is sir," he said.
"You hear it," cried the doctor, staring fiercely round the faces, "he tells you he has subscribed it himself. Go back to your place, reverend father, and thank our Lord that you had courage to do so.
"And now, you, sir, Master Prior, what have you to say?"
Dr. Layton dropped his voice as he spoke, and laid his fat hands together on the table. The Prior looked up with the same dreadful entreaty as before; his lips moved, but no sound came from them. The monks round were deadly still; Ralph saw a swift glance or two exchanged beneath the shrouding hoods, but no one moved.
"I am waiting, my Lord Prior," cried Layton in a loud terrible voice.
Again the Prior writhed his lips to speak.
Dr. Layton rose abruptly and made a violent gesture.
"Down on your knees, Master Prior, if you need mercy."
There was a quick murmur and ripple along the two lines as the Prior dropped suddenly on to his knees and covered his face with his hands.
Dr. Layton threw out his hand with a passionate gesture and began to speak—.
"There, reverend fathers and brethren," he cried, "you see how low sin brings a man. This fellow who calls himself prior was bold enough, I daresay, in the church when treason was preached; and, I doubt not, has been bold enough in private too when he thought none heard him but his friends. But you see how treachery,—heinous treachery,—plucks the spirit from him, and how lowly he carries himself when he knows that true men are sitting in judgment over him. Take example from that, you who have served him in the past; you need never fear him more now."
Dr. Layton dropped his hand and sat down. For one moment Ralph saw the kneeling man lift that white face again, but the doctor was at him instantly.
"Do not dare to rise, sir, till I give you leave," he roared. "You had best be a penitent. Now tell me, sir, what you have to say. It shall not be said that we condemned a man unheard. Eh! Mr. Torridon?"
Ralph nodded sharply, and glanced at Chris; but his brother was staring at the Prior.
"Now then, sir," cried the doctor again.
"I entreat you, Master Layton—"
The Prior's voice was convulsed with terror as he cried this with outstretched hands.
"Yes, sir, I will hear you."
"I entreat you, sir, not to tell his Grace. Indeed I am innocent"—his voice rose thin and high in his panic—indeed, I did not know it was treason that was preached."
"Did not know?" sneered the doctor, leaning forward over the table. "Why, you know your Faith, man—"
"Master Layton, Master Layton; there be so many changes in these days—"
"Changes!" shouted the priest; "there be no changes, except of such knaves as you, Master-Prior; it is the old Faith now as ever. Do you dare to call his Grace a heretic? Must that too go down in the charges?"
"No, no, Master Layton," screamed the Prior, with his hands strained forward and twitching fingers. "I did not mean that—Christ is my witness!"
"Is it not the same Faith, sir?"
"Yes, Master Layton—yes—indeed, it is. But I did not know—how could I know?"
"Then why are you Prior," cried the doctor with a dramatic gesture, "if it is not to keep your subjects true and obedient? Do you mean to tell me—?"
"I entreat you, sir, for the love of Mary, not to tell his Grace—"
"Bah!" shouted Dr. Layton, "you may keep your breath till you tell his Grace that himself. There is enough of this." Again he rose, and swept his eyes round the white-faced monks. "I am weary of this work. The fellow has not a word to say—"
"Master Layton, Master Layton," cried the kneeling man once more, lifting his hands on one of which gleamed the prelatical ring.
"Silence, sir," roared the doctor. "It is I who am speaking now. We have had enough of this work. It seems that there be no true men left, except in the world; these houses are rotten with crime. Is it not so, Master Torridon?—rotten with crime! But of all the knaves that I did ever meet, and they are many and strong ones, I do believe Master Prior, that you are the worst. Here is my sentence, and see that it be carried out. You, Master Prior, and you Master Sub-Prior, are to appear before Master Cromwell in his court on All-Hallows' Eve, and tell your tales to him. You shall see if he be so soft as I; it may be that he will send you before the King's Grace—that I know not—but at least he will know how to get the truth out of you, if I cannot—"
Once more the Prior broke in, in an agony of terror; but the doctor silenced him in a moment.
"Have I not given my sentence, sir? How dare you speak?"
A murmur again ran round the room, and he lifted his hand furiously.
"Silence," he shouted, "not one word from a mother's son of you. I have had enough of sedition already. Clear the room, officer, and let not one shaveling monk put his nose within again, until I send for him. I am weary of them all—weary and broken-hearted."
The doctor dropped back into his seat, with a face of profound disgust, and passed his hand over his forehead.
The monks turned at the signal from the door, and Ralph watched the black lines once more file out.
"There, Mr. Torridon," whispered the doctor behind his hand. "Did I not tell you so? Master Cromwell will be able to do what he will with him."
The Visitation of Lewes Priory occupied a couple of days, as the estates were so vast, and the account-books so numerous.
In the afternoon following the scene in the chapter-house, Dr. Layton and Ralph rode out to inspect some of the farms that were at hand, leaving orders that the stock was to be driven up into the court the next day, and did not return till dusk. The excitement in the town was tremendous as they rode back through the ill-lighted streets, and as the rumour ran along who the great gentlemen were that went along so gaily with their servants behind them; and by the time that they reached the priory-gate there was a considerable mob following in their train, singing and shouting, in the highest spirits at the thought of the plunder that would probably fall into their hands.
Layton turned in his saddle at the door, and made them a little speech, telling them how he was there with the authority of the King's Grace, and would soon make a sweep of the place.
"And there will be pickings," he cried, "pickings for us all! The widow and the orphan have been robbed long enough; it is time to spoil the fathers."
There was a roar of amusement from the mob; and a shout or two was raised for the King's Grace.
"You must be patient," cried Dr. Layton, "and then no more taxes. You can trust us, gentlemen, to do the King's work as it should be done."
As he passed in through the lamp-lit entrance he turned to Ralph again.
"You see, Mr. Torridon, we have the country behind us."
* * * * *
It was that evening that Ralph for the first time since the quarrel met his brother face to face.
He was passing through the cloister on his way to Dr. Layton's room, and came past the refectory door just as the monks were gathering for supper. He glanced in as he went, and had a glimpse of the clean solemn hall, lighted with candles along the panelling, the long bare tables laid ready, the Prior's chair and table at the further end and the great fresco over it. A lay brother or two in aprons were going about their business silently, and three or four black figures, who had already entered, stood motionless along the raised dais on which the tables stood.
The monks had all stopped instantly as Ralph came among them, and had lowered their hoods with their accustomed courtly deference to a guest; and as he turned from his momentary pause at the refectory door in the full blaze of light that shone from it, he met Chris face to face.
The young monk had come up that instant, not noticing who was there, and his hood was still over his head. There was a second's pause, and then he lifted his hand and threw the hood back in salutation; and as Ralph bowed and passed on he had a moment's sight of that thin face and the large grey eyes in which there was not the faintest sign of recognition.
Ralph's heart was hot with mingled emotion as he went up the cloister. He was more disturbed by the sudden meeting, the act of courtesy, and the cold steady eyes of this young fool of a brother than he cared to recognise.
He saw no more of him, except in the distance among his fellows; and he left the house the next day when the business was done.
* * * * *
Matters in the rest of England were going forward with the same promptitude as in Sussex. Dr. Layton himself had visited the West earlier in the autumn, and the other Visitors were busy in other parts of the country. The report was current now that the resources of all the Religious Houses were to be certainly confiscated, and that those of the inmates who still persisted in their vocation would have to do so under the most rigorous conditions imaginable. The results were to be seen in the enormous increase of beggars, deprived now of the hospitality they were accustomed to receive; and the roads everywhere were thronged with those who had been holders of corrodies, or daily sustenance in the houses; as well as with the evicted Religious, some of whom, dismissed against their will, were on their way to the universities, where, in spite of the Visitation, it was thought that support was still to be had; and others, less reputable, who preferred freedom to monastic discipline. Yet others were to be met with, though not many in number, who were on their way to London to lay complaints of various kinds against their superiors.
From these and like events the whole country was astir. Men gathered in groups outside the village inns and discussed the situation, and feeling ran high on the movements of the day. What chiefly encouraged the malcontents was the fact that the benefits to be gained by the dissolution of the monasteries were evident and present, while the ill-results lay in the future. The great Religious Houses, their farms and stock, the jewels of the treasury, were visible objects; men actually laid eyes on them as they went to and from their work or knelt at mass on Sundays; it was all so much wealth that did not belong to them, and that might do so, while the corrodies, the daily hospitality, the employment of labour, and such things, lay either out of sight, or affected only certain individuals. Characters too that were chiefly stirred by such arguments, were those of the noisy and self-assertive faction; while those who saw a little deeper into things, and understood the enormous charities of the Religious Houses and the manner in which extreme poverty was kept in check by them,—even more, those who valued the spiritual benefits that flowed from the fact of their existence, and saw how life was kindled and inspired by these vast homes of prayer—such, then as always, were those who would not voluntarily put themselves forward in debate, or be able, when they did so, to use arguments that would appeal to the village gatherings. Their natural leaders too, the country clergy, who alone might have pointed out effectively the considerations that lay beneath the surface had been skilfully and peremptorily silenced by the episcopal withdrawing of all preaching licenses.
* * * * *
In the course of Ralph's travels he came across, more than once, a hot scene in the village inn, and was able to use his own personality and prestige as a King's Visitor in the direction that he wished.
He came for example one Saturday night to the little village of Maresfield, near Fletching, and after seeing his horses and servants bestowed, came into the parlour, where the magnates were assembled. There were half a dozen there, sitting round the fire, who rose respectfully as the great gentleman strode in, and eyed him with a sudden awe as they realised from the landlord's winks and whispers that he was of a very considerable importance.
From the nature of his training Ralph had learnt how to deal with all conditions of men; and by the time that he had finished supper, and drawn his chair to the fire, they were talking freely again, as indeed he had encouraged them to do, for they did not of course, any more than the landlord, guess at his identity or his business there.
Ralph soon brought the talk round again to the old subject, and asked the opinions of the company as to the King's policy in the visitation of the Religious Houses There was a general silence when he first opened the debate, for they were dangerous times; but the gentleman's own imperturbable air, his evident importance, and his friendliness, conspired with the strong beer to open their mouths, and in five minutes they were at it.
One, a little old man in the corner who sat with crossed legs, nursing his mug, declared that to his mind the whole thing was sacrilege; the houses, he said, had been endowed to God's glory and service, and that to turn them to other uses must bring a curse on the country. He went on to remark—for Ralph deftly silenced the chorus of protest—that his own people had been buried in the church of the Dominican friars at Arundel for three generations, and that he was sorry for the man who laid hands on the tomb of his grandfather—known as Uncle John—for the old man had been a desperate churchman in his day, and would undoubtedly revenge himself for any indignity offered to his bones.
Ralph pointed out, with a considerate self-repression, that the illustration was scarcely to the point, for the King's Grace had no intention, he believed, of disturbing any one's bones; the question at issue rather regarded flesh and blood. Then a chorus broke out, and the hunt was up.
One, the butcher, with many blessings invoked on King Harry's head, declared that the country was being sucked dry by these rapacious ecclesiastics; that the monks encroached every year on the common land, absorbed the little farms, paid inadequate wages, and—which appeared his principal grievance—killed their own meat.
Ralph, with praiseworthy tolerance, pushed this last argument aside, but appeared to reflect on the others as if they were new to him, though he had heard them a hundred times, and used them fifty; and while he weighed them, another took up the tale; told a scandalous story or two, and asked how men who lived such lives as these which he related, could be examples of chastity.
Once more the little old man burst into the fray, and waving his pot in an access of religious enthusiasm, rebuked the last speaker for his readiness to pick up dirt, and himself instanced five or six Religious known to him, whose lives were no less spotless than his own.
Again Ralph interposed in his slow voice, and told them that that too was not the point at issue. The question was not as to whether here and there monks lived good lives or bad, for no one was compelled to imitate either, but as to whether on the whole the existence of the Religious Houses was profitable in such practical matters as agriculture, trade, and the relief of the destitute.
And so it went on, and Ralph began to grow weary of the inconsequence of the debaters, and their entire inability to hold to the salient points; but he still kept his hand on the rudder of the discussion, avoided the fogs of the supernatural and religious on the one side towards which the little old man persisted in pushing, and, on the other, the blunt views of the butcher and the man who had told the foul stories; and contented himself with watching and learning the opinion of the company rather than contributing his own.
Towards the end of the evening he observed two of his men, who had slipped in and were sitting at the back of the little stifling room, hugely enjoying the irony of the situation, and determined on ending the discussion with an announcement of his own identity.
Presently an opportunity occurred. The little old man had shown a dangerous tendency to discourse on the suffering souls in purgatory, and on the miseries inflicted on them by the cessation of masses and suffrages for their welfare; and an uncomfortable awe-stricken silence had fallen on the others.
Ralph stood up abruptly, and began to speak, his bright tired eyes shining down on the solemn faces, and his mouth set and precise.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, "your talk has pleased me very much. I have learned a great deal, and I hope shall profit by it. Some of you have talked a quantity of nonsense; and you, Mr. Miggers, have talked the most, about your uncle John's soul and bones."
A deadly silence fell as these startling words were pronounced; for his manner up to now had been conciliatory and almost apologetic. But he went on imperturbably.
"I am quite sure that Almighty God knows His business better than you or I, Mr. Miggers; and if He cannot take care of Uncle John without the aid of masses or dirges sung by fat-bellied monks—"
He stopped abruptly, and a squirt of laughter burst from the butcher.
"Well, this is my opinion," went on Ralph, "if you wish to know it. I do not think, or suspect, as some of you do—but I know—as you will allow presently that I do, when I tell you who I am—I know that these houses of which we have been speaking, are nothing better than wasps'-nests. The fellows look holy enough in their liveries, they make a deal of buzz, they go to and fro as if on business; but they make no honey that is worth your while or mine to take. There is but one thing that they have in their holes that is worth anything: and that is their jewels and their gold, and the lead on their churches and the bells in their towers. And all that, by the Grace of God we will soon have out of them."
There was a faint murmur of mingled applause and dissent. Mr. Miggers stared vacant-faced at this preposterous stranger, and set his mug resolutely down as a preparation for addressing him, but he had no opportunity. Ralph was warmed now by his own eloquence, and swept on.
"You think I do not know of what I am speaking? Well, I have a brother a monk at Lewes, and a sister a nun at Rusper; and I have been brought up in this religion until I am weary of it. My sister—well, she is like other maidens of her kind—not a word to speak of any matter but our Lady and the Saints and how many candles Saint Christopher likes. And my brother!—Well, we can leave that.
"I know these houses as none of you know them; I know how much wine they drink, how much they charge for their masses, how much treasonable chatter they carry on in private—I know their lives as I know my own; and I know that they are rotten and useless altogether. They may give a plateful or two in charity and a mug of beer; they gorge ten dishes themselves, and swill a hogshead. They give a penny to the poor man, and keep twenty nobles for themselves. They take field after field, house after house; turn the farmer into the beggar, and the beggar into their bedesman. And, by God! I say that the sooner King Henry gets rid of the crew, the better for you and me!"
Ralph snapped out the last words, and stared insolently down on the gaping faces. Then he finished, standing by the door as he did so, with his hand on the latch.
"If you would know how I know all this, I will tell you. My name is Torridon, of Overfield; and I am one of the King's Visitors. Good-night, gentlemen."
There was the silence of the grave within, as Ralph went upstairs smiling to himself.
* * * * *
Ralph had intended returning home a week or two after the Lewes visitation, but there was a good deal to be done, and Layton had pointed out to him that even if some houses were visited twice over it would do no harm to the rich monks to pay double fees; so it was not till Christmas was a week away that he rode at last up to his house-door at Westminster.
His train had swelled to near a dozen men and horses by now, for he had accumulated a good deal of treasure beside that which he had left in Layton's hands, and it would not have been safe to travel with a smaller escort; so it was a gay and imposing cavalcade that clattered through the narrow streets. Ralph himself rode in front, in solitary dignity, his weapon jingling at his stirrup, his feather spruce and bright above his spare keen face; a couple of servants rode behind, fully armed and formidable looking, and then the train came behind—beasts piled with bundles that rustled and clinked suggestively, and the men who guarded them gay with scraps of embroidery and a cheap jewel or two here and there in their dress.
But Ralph did not feel so gallant as he looked. During these long country rides he had had too much time to think, and the thought of Beatrice and of what she would say seldom left him. The very harshness of his experiences, the rough faces round him, the dialect of the stable and the inn, the coarse conversation—all served to make her image the more gracious and alluring. It was a kind of worship, shot with passion, that he felt for her. Her grave silences coincided with his own, her tenderness yielded deliciously to his strength.
As he sat over his fire with his men whispering behind him, planning as they thought new assaults on the rich nests that they all hated and coveted together, again and again it was Beatrice's face, and not that of a shrewd or anxious monk, that burned in the red heart of the hearth. He had seen it with downcast eyes, with the long lashes lying on the cheek, and the curved red lips discreetly shut beneath; the masses of black hair shadowed the forehead and darkened the secret that he wished to read. Or he had watched her, like a jewel in a pig-sty, looking across the foul-littered farm where he had had to sleep more than once with his men about him; her black eyes looking into his own with tender gravity, and her mouth trembling with speech. Or best of all, as he rode along the bitter cold lanes at the fall of the day, the crowding yews above him had parted and let her stand there, with her long skirts rustling in the dry leaves, her slender figure blending with the darkness, and her sweet face trusting and loving him out of the gloom.
And then again, like the prick of a wound, the question had touched him, how would she receive him when he came back with the monastic spoils on his beasts' shoulders, and the wail of the nuns shrilling like the wind behind?
But by the time that he came back to London he had thought out his method of meeting her. Probably she had had news of the doings of the Visitors, perhaps of his own in particular; it was hardly possible that his father had not written; she would ask for an explanation, and she should have instead an appeal to her confidence. He would tell her that sad things had indeed happened, that he had been forced to be present at and even to carry out incidents which he deplored; but that he had done his utmost to be merciful. It was rough work, he would say; but it was work that had to be done; and since that was so—and this was Cromwell's teaching—it was better that honourable gentlemen should do it. He had not been able always to restrain the violence of his men—and for that he needed forgiveness from her dear lips; and it would be easy enough to tell stories against him that it would be hard to disprove; but if she loved and trusted him, and he knew that she did, let her take his word for it that no injustice had been deliberately done, that on the other hand he had been the means under God of restraining many such acts, and that his conscience was clear.