Mr. Morris said nothing till he had led his horse into the stable. Then he explained.
"One of the fellows told me, sir, that this was the King's house now; and that I had no business here."
Chris smiled again.
"I know we are watched," he said, "the servants are questioned each time they set foot outside."
Mr. Morris pursed his lips.
"How long shall you be here, sir?" he asked.
"Until we are turned out," said Chris.
* * * * *
It was true, as he had said, that the house was watched. Ever since the last monk had left there had been a man or two at the gate, another outside the church-door that opened towards the town; and another yet again beyond the stream to the south of the priory-buildings. Dom Anthony had told him what it meant. It was that the authorities had no objection to the two monks keeping the place until it could be dealt with, but were determined that nothing should pass out. It had not been worthwhile to send in a caretaker, for all the valuables had been removed either by the Visitors or by the Prior when he went at night. There were only two sets of second-best altar vessels left, and a few other comparatively worthless utensils for the use of the church and kitchen. The great relics and the jewelled treasures had gone long before. Chris had wondered a little at the house being disregarded for so long; but the other monk had reminded him that such things as lead and brass and bells were beyond the power of two men to move, and could keep very well until other more pressing business had been despatched elsewhere.
Mr. Morris gave him news of his father. It had not been the true fever after all, and he would soon be here; in at any rate a week or two. As regarded other news, there was no tidings of Mr. Ralph except that he was very busy. Mistress Margaret was at home; no notice seemed to have been taken of her when she had been turned out with the rest at the dissolution of her convent.
It was very pleasant to see that familiar face about the cloister and refectory; or now and again, when work was done, looking up from beyond the screen as the monks came in by the sacristy door. Once or twice on dark evenings when terror began to push through the rampart of the will that Chris had raised up, it was reassuring too to know that Morris was there, for he bore with him, as old servants do, an atmosphere of home and security, and he carried himself as well with a wonderful naturalness, as if the relief of beleaguered monks were as ordinary a duty as the cleaning of plate.
March was half over now; and still no sign had come from the world outside. There were no guests either to bring tidings, for the priory was a marked place and it was well not to show or receive kindliness in its regard.
Within, the tension of nerves grew acute. Chris was conscious of a deepening exaltation, but it was backed by horror. He found himself now smiling with an irrepressible internal joy, now twitching with apprehension, starting at sudden noises, and terrified at loneliness. Dom Anthony too grew graver still; and would take his arm sometimes and walk with him, and tell him tales, and watch him with tender eyes. But in him, as in the younger monk, the strain tightened every day.
* * * * *
They were singing Compline together one evening with tired, overstrained voices, for they had determined not to relax any of the chant until it was necessary. Mr. Morris was behind them at a chair set beyond the screen; and there were no others present in church.
The choir was perfectly dark (for they knew the office by heart) except for a glimmer from the sacristy door where a lamp burned within to light them to bed. Chris's thoughts had fled back to that summer evening long ago when he had knelt far down in the nave and watched the serried line of the black-hooded soldiers of God, and listened to the tramp of the psalmody, and longed to be of their company. Now the gallant regiment had dwindled to two, of which he was one, and the guest-master that had received him and encouraged him, the other.
Dom Anthony was the officiant this evening, and had just sung lustily out in the dark that God was about them with His shield, that they need fear no nightly terror.
The movement flagged for a moment, for Chris was not attending; Mr. Morris's voice began alone, A sagitta volante—and then stopped abruptly as he realised that he was singing by himself; and simultaneously came a sharp little crash from the dark altar that rose up in the gloom in front.
A sort of sobbing breath broke from Chris at the sudden noise, and he gripped his hands together.
In a moment Dom Anthony had taken up the verse.
A sagitta volante—"From the arrow that flieth by day, from the thing that walketh in darkness—" Chris recovered himself; and the office passed on.
As the two passed out together towards the door, Dom Anthony went forward up the steps; and Chris waited, and watched him stoop and pass his hands over the floor. Then he straightened himself, came down the steps and went before Chris into the sacristy.
Under the lamp he stopped, and lifted what he carried to the light. It was the little ivory crucifix that he had hung there a few weeks ago when the last cross of precious metal had disappeared with the Sub-Prior. It was cracked across the body of the figure now, and one of the arms was detached at the shoulder and swung free on the nail through the hand.
Dom Anthony looked at it, turned and looked at Chris; and without a word the two passed out into the cloister and turned up the dormitory stairs. To both of them it was a sign that the end was at hand.
* * * * *
On the following afternoon Mr. Morris ran in to Chris's carrel, and found him putting the antiphonary and his implements up into a parcel.
"Master Christopher," he said, "Sir James and Sir Nicholas are come."
As he hurried out of the cloister he saw the horses standing there, spent with fast travelling, and the two riders at their heads, with the dust on their boots, and their clothes disordered. They remained motionless as the monk came towards them; but he saw that his father's face was working and that his eyes were wide and anxious.
"Thank God," said the old man softly. "I am in time. They are coming to-night, Chris." But there was a questioning look on his face.
Chris looked at him.
"Will you take the horses?" said his father again. "Nick and I are safe."
Chris still stared bewildered. Then he understood; and with understanding came decision.
"No, father," he said.
The old man's face broke up into lines of emotion.
"Are you sure, my son?"
Chris nodded steadily.
"Then we will all be together," said Sir James; and he turned to lead his horse to the stable.
* * * * *
There was a little council held in the guest-house a few minutes later. Dom Anthony hurried to it, his habit splashed with whitewash, for he had been cleaning the dormitory, and the four sat down together.
It seemed that Nicholas had ridden over from Great Keynes to Overfield earlier in the afternoon, and had brought the news that a company of men had passed through the village an hour before, and that one of them had asked which turn to take to Lewes. Sir Nicholas had ridden after them and enquired their business, and had gathered that they were bound for the priory, and he then turned his horse and made off to Overfield. His horse was spent when he arrived there; but he had changed horses and came on immediately with Sir James, to warn the monks of the approach of the men, and to give them an opportunity of making their escape if they thought it necessary.
"Who were the leaders?" asked the elder monk.
Nicholas shook his head.
"They were in front; I dared not ride up."
But his sturdy face looked troubled as he answered, and Chris saw his father's lips tighten. Dom Anthony drummed softly on the table.
"There is nothing to be done," he said. "We wait till we are cast out."
"You cannot refuse admittance?" questioned Sir James.
"But we shall do so," said the other tranquilly; "at least we shall not open."
"But they will batter the door down."
"Certainly," said the monk.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose they will put us out."
There was absolutely nothing to be done. It was absurd to dream of more than formal resistance. Up in the North in more than one abbey the inmates had armed themselves, and faced the spoilers grimly on the village green; but that was where the whole country side was with them, and here it was otherwise.
They talked a few minutes longer, and decided that they would neither open nor resist. The monks two were determined to remain there until they were actually cast out; and then the responsibility would rest on other shoulders than theirs.
It was certain of course that by this time to-morrow at the latest they would have been expelled; and it was arranged that the two monks should ride back to Overfield, if they were personally unmolested, and remain there until further plans were decided upon.
The four knew of course that there was a grave risk in provoking the authorities any further, but it was a risk that the two Religious were determined to run.
They broke up presently; Mr. Morris came upstairs to tell them that food was ready in one of the parlours off the cloister; and the two laymen went off with him, while the monks went to sing vespers for the last time.
* * * * *
An hour or two later the two were in the refectory at supper. The evening was drawing in, and the light in the tall windows was fading. Opposite where Chris sat (for Dom Anthony was reading aloud from the pulpit), a row of coats burned in the glass, and he ran his eyes over them. They had been set there, he remembered, soon after his own coming to the place; the records had been searched, and the arms of every prior copied and emblazoned in the panes. There they all were; from Lanzo of five centuries ago, whose arms were conjectural, down to Robert Crowham, who had forsaken his trust; telling the long tale of prelates and monastic life, from the beginning to the close. He looked round beyond the circle of light cast by his own candle, and the place seemed full of ghosts and presences to his fancy. The pale oak panelling glimmered along the walls above the empty seats, from the Prior's to the left, over which the dusky fresco of the Majesty of Christ grew darker still as the light faded, down to the pulpit opposite where Dom Anthony's grave ruddy face with downcast eyes stood out vivid in the candlelight. Ah! surely there was a cloud of witnesses now, a host of faces looking down from the black rafters overhead, and through the glimmering panes,—the faces of those who had eaten here with the same sacramental dignity and graciousness that these two survivors used. It was impossible to feel lonely in this stately house, saturated with holy life; and with a thrill at his heart he remembered how Dom Anthony had once whispered to him at the beginning of the troubles, that if others held their peace the very stones should cry out; and that God was able of those stones to raise up children to His praise....
There was a sound of brisk, hurrying footsteps in the cloister outside, Dom Anthony ceased his reading with his finger on the place, and the eyes of the two monks met.
The door was opened abruptly, and Morris stood there.
"My master has sent me, sir," he said. "They are coming."
THE LAST STAND
The court outside had deepened into shadows as they came out; but overhead the sky still glowed faintly luminous in a tender translucent green. The evening star shone out clear and tranquil opposite them in the west.
There were three figures standing at the foot of the steps that led down from the cloister; one of the servants with the two gentlemen; and as Chris pushed forward quickly his father turned and lifted his finger for silence.
The town lay away to the right; and over the wall that joined the west end of the church to the gatehouse, there were a few lights visible—windows here and there just illuminated.
For the first moment Chris thought there had been a mistake; he had expected a clamour at the gate, a jangling of the bell. Then as he listened he knew that it was no false alarm.
Across the wall, from the direction of the hills that showed dimly against the evening sky, there came a murmur, growing as he listened. The roads were hard from lack of rain, and he could distinguish the sound of horses, a great company; but rising above this was a dull roar of voices. Every moment it waxed, died once or twice, then sounded out nearer and louder. There was a barking of dogs, the cries of children, and now and again the snatch of a song or a shouted word or two.
Of the group on the steps within not one stirred, except when Sir James slowly lowered his upraised hand; and so they waited.
The company was drawing nearer now; and Chris calculated that they must be coming down the steep road that led from the town; and even as he thought it he heard the sound of hoofs on the bridge that crossed the Winterbourne.
Dom Anthony pushed by him.
"To the gate," he said, and went down the step and across the court followed by the others. As they went the clamour grew loud and near in the road outside; and a ruddy light shone on the projecting turret of the gateway.
Chris was conscious of extraordinary coolness now that the peril was on him; and he stared up at the studded oak doors, at the wicket cut in one of the leaves, and the sliding panel that covered the grill, with little thought but that of conjecture as to how long the destruction of the gate would take. The others, too, though he was scarcely aware of their presence, were silent and rigid at his side, as Dom Anthony stepped up to the closed grill and waited there for the summons.
It came almost immediately.
There was a great crescendo of sound as the party turned the corner, and a flare of light shone under the gate; then the sound of loud talking, a silence of the hoofs; and a sudden jangle on the bell overhead.
The monk turned from the grill and lifted his hand.
Then again the talking grew loud, as the mob swept round the corner after the horses.
Still all was silent within. Chris felt his father's hand seek his own a moment, and grip it; and then above the gabbling clamour a voice spoke distinctly outside.
"Have the rats run, then?"
The bell danced again over their heads; and there was a clatter of raps on the huge door.
Dom Anthony slid back the shutter.
* * * * *
For a moment it was not noticed outside, for the entry was dark. Chris could catch a glimpse on either side of the monk's head of a flare of light, but no more.
Then the same voice spoke again, and with something of a foreign accent.
"You are there, then; make haste and open."
Another voice shouted authoritatively for silence; and the clamour of tongues died.
Dom Anthony waited until all was quiet, and then answered steadily.
"Who are you?"
There was an oath; the tumult began again, but hushed immediately, as the same voice that had called for admittance shouted aloud—
"Open, I tell you, you bloody monk! We come from the King."
"Why do you come?"
A gabble of fierce tongues broke out; Chris pressed up to Dom Anthony's back, and looked out. The space was very narrow, and he could not see much more than a man's leg across a saddle, the brown shoulder of a horse in front, and a smoky haze beyond and over the horse's back. The leg shifted a little as he watched, as if the rider turned; and then again the voice pealed out above the tumult.
"Will you open, sir, for the last time?"
"I will not," shouted the monk through the grill. "You are nothing but—" then he dashed the shutter into its place as a stick struck fiercely at the bars.
"Back to the cloister," he said.
The roar outside was tremendous as the six went back across the empty court; but it fell to a sinister silence as an order or two was shouted outside; and then again swelled with an excited note in it, as the first crash sounded on the panels.
Chris looked at his father as they stood again on the steps fifty yards away. The old man was standing rigid, his hands at his sides, staring out towards the arch of the gateway that now thundered like a drum; and his lips were moving. Once he caught his breath as a voice shouted above the din outside, and half turned to his son, his hand uplifted as if for silence. Then again the voice pealed, and Sir James faced round and stared into Chris's eyes. But neither spoke a word.
Dom Anthony, who was standing a yard or two in front, turned presently as the sound of splintering began to be mingled with the reverberations, and came towards them. His square, full face was steady and alert, and he spoke with a sharp decision.
"You and Sir Nicholas, sir, had best be within. My place will be here; they will be in immediately."
His words were perfectly distinct here in the open air in spite of the uproar from the gate.
There was an indignant burst from the young squire.
"No, no, father; I shall not stir from here."
The monk looked at him; but said no more and turned round.
A sedate voice spoke from the dark doorway behind.
"John and I have fetched out a table or two, father; we can brace this door—"
Dom Anthony turned again.
"We shall not resist further," he said.
Then they were silent, for they were helpless. There was nothing to be done but to stand there and listen to the din, to the crash that splintered more every moment in the cracked woodwork, and to watch the high wall and turret solemn and strong against the stars, and bright here and there at the edges with the light from the torches beneath. The guest-house opposite them was dark, except for one window in the upper floor that glowed and faded with the light of the fire that had been kindled within an hour or two before.
Sir James took his son suddenly by the arm.
"And you, Chris—" he said.
"I shall stay here, father."
There was a rending thunder from the gate; the wicket reeled in and fell, and in a moment through the flimsy opening had sprung the figure of a man. They could see him plainly as he stood there in the light of the torches, a tall upright figure, a feathered hat on his head, and a riding cane in his hand.
The noise was indescribable outside as men fought to get through; there was one scream of pain, the plunging of a horse, and then a loud steady roar drowning all else.
The oblong patch of light was darkened immediately, as another man sprang through, and then another and another; then a pause—then the bright flare of a torch shone in the opening; and a moment later a fellow carrying a flambeau had made his way through.
The whole space under the arch was now illuminated. Overhead the plain mouldings shone out and faded as the torch swayed; every brick of the walls was visible, and the studs and bars of the huge doors.
Chris had sprung forward by an uncontrollable impulse as the wicket fell in; and the two monks were now standing motionless on the floor of the court, side by side, in their black habits and scapulars, hooded and girded, with the two gentlemen and the servants on the steps behind.
Chris saw the leaders come together under the arch, as the whole gate began to groan and bulge under the pressure of the crowd; and a moment later he caught the flash of steel as the long rapiers whisked out.
Then above the baying he heard a fierce authoritative voice scream out an order, and saw that one of the gentlemen in front was at the door, his rapier protruded before him; and understood the man[oe]uvre. It was necessary that the mad crowd should be kept back.
The tumult died and became a murmur; and then one by one a file of figures came through. In the hand of each was an instrument of some kind, a pick or a bludgeon; and it was evident that it was these who had broken in the gate.
Chris counted them mechanically as they streamed through. There seemed to be a dozen or so.
Then again the man who had guarded the door as they came through slipped back through the opening; and they heard his voice beginning to harangue the mob.
But a moment later they had ceased to regard him; for from the archway, with the torch-bearer beside him, advanced the tall man with the riding-cane who had been the first to enter; and as he emerged into the court Chris recognised his brother.
* * * * *
He was in a plain rich riding-suit with great boots and plumed hat. He walked with an easy air as if certain of himself, and neither quickened nor decreased his pace as he saw the monks and the gentlemen standing there.
He halted a couple of yards from them, and Chris saw that his face was as assured as his gait. His thin lips were tight and firm, and his eyes with a kind of insolent irony looked up and down the figures of the monks. There was not the faintest sign of recognition in them.
"You have given us a great deal of labour," he said, "and to no purpose. We shall have to report it all to my Lord Cromwell. I understand that you were the two who refused to sign the surrender. It was the act of fools, like this last. I have no authority to take you, so you had best be gone."
Dom Anthony answered him in an equally steady voice.
"We are ready to go now," he said. "You understand we have yielded to nothing but force."
Ralph's lips writhed in a smile.
"Oh! if that pleases you," he said. "Well, then—"
He took a little step aside, and made a movement towards the gate where there sounded out still an angry hum beneath the shouting voice that was addressing them.
Chris turned to his father behind, and the voice died in his throat, so dreadful was that face that was looking at Ralph. He was standing as before, rigid it seemed with grief or anger; and his grey eyes were bright with a tense emotion; his lips too were as firm as his son's. But he spoke no word. Sir Nicholas was at his side, with one foot advanced, and in attitude as if to spring; and Morris's face looked like a mask over his shoulder.
"Well, then—" said Ralph once more.
"Ah! you damned hound!" roared the young squire's voice; and his hand went up with the whip in it.
Ralph did not move a muscle. He seemed cut in steel.
"Let us go," said Dom Anthony again, to Chris, almost tenderly; "it is enough that we are turned out by force."
"You can go by the church, if you will," said Ralph composedly. "In fact—" He stopped as the murmur howled up again from the gate—"In fact you had better go that way. They do not seem to be your friends out there."
"We will go whichever way you wish," remarked the elder monk.
"Then the church," said Ralph, "or some other private door. I suppose you have one. Most of your houses have one, I believe."
The sneer snapped the tension.
Dom Anthony turned his back on him instantly.
"Come, brother," he said.
Chris took his father by the arm as he went up the steps.
"Come, sir," he said, "we are to go this way."
There was a moment's pause. The old man still stared down at his elder son, who was standing below in the same position. Chris heard a deep breath, and thought he was on the point of speaking; but there was silence. Then the two turned and followed the others into the cloister.
AXES AND HAMMERS
Chris sat next morning at a high window of a house near Saint Michael's looking down towards the south of the town.
They had escaped without difficulty the night before through the church-entrance, with a man whom Ralph sent after them to see that they carried nothing away, leaving the crowd roaring round the corner of the gate, and though people looked curiously at the monks, the five laymen with them protected them from assault. Mr. Morris had found a lodging a couple of days before, unknown to Chris, in the house of a woman who was favourable to the Religious, and had guided the party straight there on the previous evening.
The two monks had said mass in Saint Michael's that morning before the town was awake; and were now keeping within doors at Sir James's earnest request, while the two gentlemen with one of the servants had gone to see what was being done at the priory.
* * * * *
From where Chris sat in his black habit at the leaded window he could see straight down the opening of the steep street, across the lower roofs below, to where the great pile of the Priory church less than half-a-mile away soared up in the sunlight against the water-meadows where the Ouse ran to the south of the town.
The street was very empty below him, for every human being that could do so had gone down to the sacking of the priory. There might be pickings, scraps gathered from the hoards that the monks were supposed to have gathered; there would probably be an auction; and there would certainly be plenty of excitement and pleasure.
Chris was himself almost numb to sensation. The coolness that had condensed round his soul last night had hardened into ice; he scarcely realised what was going on, or how great was the catastrophe into which his life was plunged. There lay the roofs before him—he ran his eye from the west tower past the high lantern to the delicate tracery of the eastern apse and chapels—in the hands of the spoilers; and here he sat dry-eyed and steady-mouthed looking down on it, as a man looks at a wound not yet begun to smart.
It was piteously clear and still. Smoke was rising from a fire somewhere behind the church, a noise as of metal on stone chinked steadily, and the voices of men calling one to another sounded continually from the enclosure. Now and again the tiny figure of a workman showed clear on the roof, pick in hand; or leaning to call directions down to his fellows beneath.
Dom Anthony looked in presently, breviary in hand, and knelt by Chris on the window-step, watching too; but he spoke no word, glanced at the white face and sunken eyes of the other, sighed once or twice, and went out again.
The morning passed on and still Chris watched. By eleven o'clock the men were gone from the roof; half an hour had passed, and no further figure had appeared.
There were footsteps on the stairs; and Sir James came in.
He came straight across to his son and sat down by him. Chris looked at him. The old man nodded.
"Yes, my son," he said, "they are at it. Nothing is to be left, but the cloister and guest-house. The church is to be down in a week they say."
Chris looked at him dully.
"All?" he said.
"All the church, my son."
Sir James gave an account of what he had seen. He had made his way in with Nicholas and a few other persons, into the court; but had not been allowed to enter the cloister. There was a furnace being made ready in the calefactorium for the melting of the lead, he had been told by one of the men; and the church, as he had seen for himself, was full of workmen.
"And the Blessed Sacrament?" asked Chris.
"A priest was sent for this morning to carry It away to a church; I know not which."
Sir James described the method of destruction.
They were beginning with the apse and the chapels behind the high altar. The ornaments had been removed, the images piled in a great heap in the outer court, and the brasses had been torn up. There were half a dozen masons busy at undercutting the pillars and walls; and as they excavated the carpenters made wooden insertions to prop up the weight. The men had been brought down from London, as the commissioners were not certain of the temper of the Lewes people. Two of the four great pillars behind the high altar were already cut half through.
The old man's face grew tense and bitter.
"I saw him in the roof," he said; "he made as if he did not see me."
They were half-through dinner before Nicholas joined them. He was flushed and dusty and furious.
"Ah! the hounds!" he said, as he stood at the door, trembling. "They say they will have the chapels down before night. They have stripped the lead."
Sir James looked up and motioned him to sit down.
"We will go down again presently," he said.
"But we have saved our luggage," went on Nicholas, taking his seat; "and there was a parcel of yours, Chris, that I put with it. It is all to be sent up with the horses to-night."
"Did you speak with Mr. Ralph?" asked Dom Anthony.
"Ah! I did; the dog! and I told him what I thought. But he dared not refuse me the luggage. John is to go for it all to-night."
He told them during dinner another fact that he had learned.
"You know who is to have it all?" he said fiercely, his fingers twitching with emotion.
"It is Master Gregory Cromwell, and his wife, and his baby. A fine nursery!"
* * * * *
As the evening drew on, Chris was again at the window alone. He had said his office earlier in the afternoon, and sat here again now, with his hands before him, staring down at the church.
One of the servants had come up with a message from Sir James an hour before telling him not to expect them before dusk; and that they would send up news of any further developments. The whole town was there, said the man: it had been found impossible to keep them out. Dom Anthony presently came again and sat with Chris; and Mr. Morris, who had been left as a safeguard to the monks, slipped in soon after and stood behind the two; and so the three waited.
The sky was beginning to glow again as it had done last night with the clear radiance of a cloudless sunset; and the tall west tower stood up bright in the glory. How infinitely far away last night seemed now, little and yet distinct as a landscape seen through a reversed telescope! How far away that silent waiting at the cloister door, the clamour at the gate, the forced entrance, the slipping away through the church!
The smoke was rising faster than ever now from the great chimney, and hung in a cloud above the buildings. Perhaps even now the lead was being cast.
There was a clatter at the corner of the cobbled street below, and Dom Anthony leaned from the window. He drew back.
"It is the horses," he said.
The servant presently came up to announce that the two gentlemen were following immediately, and that he had had orders to procure horses and saddle them at once. He had understood Sir James to say that they must leave that night.
Mr. Morris hurried out to see to the packing.
In five minutes the gentlemen themselves appeared.
Sir James came quickly across to the two monks.
"We must go to-night, Chris," he said. "We had words with Portinari. You must not remain longer in the town."
Chris looked at him.
"Yes?" he said.
"And the chapels will be down immediately. Oh! dear God!"
Dom Anthony made room for the old man to sit down in the window-seat; and himself stood behind the two with Nicholas; and so again they watched.
The light was fading fast now, and in the windows below lights were beginning to shine. The square western tower that dominated the whole priory had lost its splendour, and stood up strong and pale against the meadows. There was a red flare of light somewhere over the wall of the court, and the inner side of the gate-turret was illuminated by it.
A tense excitement lay on the watchers; and no sound came from them but that of quick breathing as they waited for what they knew was imminent.
Outside the evening was wonderfully still; they could hear two men talking somewhere in the street below; but from the priory came no sound. The chink of the picks was still, and the cries of the workmen. Far away beyond the castle on their left came an insistent barking of a dog; and once, when a horseman rode by below Chris bit his lip with vexation, for it seemed to him like the disturbing of a death bed. A star or two looked out, vanished, and peeped again from the luminous sky, to the south, and the downs beneath were grey and hazy.
All the watchers now had their eyes on the eastern end of the church that lay in dim shadow; they could see the roof of the vault behind where the high altar lay beneath; the flying buttress of a chapel below; and, nearer, the low roof of the Lady-chapel.
Chris kept his eyes strained on the upper vault, for there, he knew the first movement would show itself.
The time seemed interminable. He moistened his dry lips from time to time, shifted his position a little, and moved his elbow from the sharp moulding of the window-frame.
Then he caught his breath.
From where he sat, in the direct line of his eyes, the top of a patch of evergreen copse was visible just beyond the roof of the vault; and as he looked he saw that a patch of paler green had appeared below it. All in a moment he saw too the flying buttress crook itself like an elbow and disappear. Then the vault was gone and the roof beyond; the walls sank with incredible slowness and vanished.
A cloud of white dust puffed up like smoke.
Then through the open window came the roar of the tumbling masonry; and shrill above it the clamour of a great crowd.
THE KING'S GRATITUDE
The period that followed the destruction of Lewes Priory held very strange months for Chris. He had slipped out of the stream into a back-water, from which he could watch the swift movements of the time, while himself undisturbed by them; for no further notice was taken of his refusal to sign the surrender or of his resistance to the Commissioners. The hands of the authorities were so full of business that apparently it was not worth their while to trouble about an inoffensive monk of no particular notoriety, who after all had done little except in a negative way, and who appeared now to acquiesce in silence and seclusion.
The household at Overfield was of a very mixed nature. Dom Anthony after a month or two had left for the Continent to take up his vocation in a Benedictine house; and Sir James and his wife, Chris, Margaret, and Mr. Carleton remained together. For the present Chris and Margaret were determined to wait, for a hundred things might intervene—Henry's death, a changing of his mind, a foreign invasion on the part of the Catholic powers, an internal revolt in England, and such things—and set the clock back again, and, unlike Dom Anthony, they had a home where they could follow their Rules in tolerable comfort.
The country was indeed very deeply stirred by the events that were taking place; but for the present, partly from terror and partly from the great forces that were brought to bear upon English convictions, it gave no expression to its emotion. The methods that Cromwell had employed with such skill in the past were still active. On the worldly side there was held out to the people the hope of relieved taxation, of the distribution of monastic wealth and lands; on the spiritual side the bishops under Cranmer were zealous in controverting the old principles and throwing doubt upon the authority of the Pope. It was impossible for the unlearned to know what to believe; new manifestoes were issued continually by the King and clergy, full of learned arguments and persuasive appeals; and the professors of the old religion were continually discredited by accusations of fraud, avarice, immorality, hypocrisy and the like. They were silenced, too; while active and eloquent preachers like Latimer raged from pulpit to pulpit, denouncing, expounding, convincing.
Meanwhile the work went on rapidly. The summer and autumn of '38 saw again destruction after destruction of Religious Houses and objects of veneration; and the intimidation of the most influential personages on the Catholic side.
In February, for example, the rood of Boxley was brought up to London with every indignity, and after being exhibited with shouts of laughter at Whitehall, and preached against at Paul's Cross, it was tossed down among the zealous citizens and smashed to pieces. In the summer, among others, the shrine of St. Swithun at Winchester was defaced and robbed; and in the autumn that followed the friaries which had stood out so long began to fall right and left. In October the Holy Blood of Hayles, a relic brought from the East in the thirteenth century and preserved with great love and honour ever since, was taken from its resting place and exposed to ridicule in London. Finally in the same month, after St. Thomas of Canterbury had been solemnly declared a traitor to his prince, his name, images and pictures ordered to be erased and destroyed out of every book, window and wall, and he himself summoned with grotesque solemnity to answer the charges brought against him, his relics were seized and burned, and—which was more to the point in the King's view, his shrine was stripped of its gold and jewels and vestments, which were conveyed in a string of twenty-six carts to the King's treasury. The following year events were yet more terrible. The few great houses that survived were one by one brought within reach of the King's hand; and those that did not voluntarily surrender fell under the heavier penalties of attainder. Abbot Whiting of Glastonbury was sent up to London in September, and two months later suffered on Tor hill within sight of the monastery he had ruled so long and so justly; and on the same day the Abbot of Reading suffered too outside his own gateway. Six weeks afterwards Abbot Marshall, of Colchester, was also put to death.
* * * * *
It was a piteous life that devout persons led at this time; and few were more unhappy than the household at Overfield. It was the more miserable because Lady Torridon herself was so entirely out of sympathy with the others. While she was not often the actual bearer of ill news—for she had neither sufficient strenuousness nor opportunity for it—it was impossible to doubt that she enjoyed its arrival.
They were all together at supper one warm summer evening when a servant came in to announce that a monk of St. Swithun's was asking hospitality. Sir James glanced at his wife who sat with passive downcast face; and then ordered the priest to be brought in.
He was a timid, tactless man who failed to grasp the situation, and when the wine and food had warmed his heart he began to talk a great deal too freely, taking it for granted that all there were in sympathy with him. He addressed himself chiefly to Chris, who answered courteously; and described the sacking of the shrine at some length.
"He had already set aside our cross called Hierusalem," cried the monk, his weak face looking infinitely pathetic with its mingled sorrow and anger, "and two of our gold chalices, to take them with him when he went; and then with his knives and hammers, as the psalmist tells us, he hacked off the silver plates from the shrine. There was a fellow I knew very well—he had been to me to confession two days before—who held a candle and laughed. And then when all was done; and that was not till three o'clock in the morning, one of the smiths tested the metal and cried out that there was not one piece of true gold in it all. And Mr. Pollard raged at us for it, and told us that our gold was as counterfeit as the rotten bones that we worshipped. But indeed there was plenty of gold; and the man lied; for it was a very rich shrine. God's vengeance will fall on them for their lies and their robbery. Is it not so, mistress?"
Lady Torridon lifted her eyes and looked at him. Her husband hastened to interpose.
"Have you finished your wine, father?"
The monk seemed not to hear him; and his talk flowed on about the destruction of the high altar and the spoiling of the reredos, which had taken place on the following days; and as he talked he filled his Venetian glass more than once and drank it off; and his lantern face grew flushed and his eyes animated. Chris saw that his mother was watching the monk shrewdly and narrowly, and feared what might come. But it was unavoidable.
"We poor monks," the priest cried presently, "shall soon be cast out to beg our bread. The King's Grace—"
"Is not poverty one of the monastic vows?" put in Lady Torridon suddenly, still looking steadily at his half-drunk glass.
"Why, yes, mistress; and the King's Grace is determined to make us keep it, it seems."
He lifted his glass and finished it; and put out his hand again to the bottle.
"But that is a good work, surely," smiled the other. "It will be surely a safeguard against surfeiting and drunkenness."
Sir James rose instantly.
"Come, father," he said to the staring monk, "you will be tired out, and will want your bed."
A slow smile shone and laded on his wife's face as she rose and rustled down the long hall.
* * * * *
Such incidents as this made life at Overfield very difficult for them all; it was hard for these sore hearts to be continually on the watch for dangerous subjects, and only to be able to comfort one another when the mistress of the house was absent; but above all it was difficult for Margaret. She was nearly as silent as her mother, but infinitely more tender; and since the two were naturally together for the most part, except when the nun was at her long prayers, there were often very difficult and painful incidents.
For the first eighteen months after her return her mother let her alone; but as time went on and the girl's resolution persevered, she began to be subjected to a distressing form of slight persecution.
For example: Chris and his father came in one day in the autumn from a walk through the priory garden that lay beyond the western moat. As they passed in the level sunshine along the prim box-lined paths, and had reached the centre where the dial stood, they heard voices in the summer-house that stood on the right behind a yew hedge.
Sir James hesitated a moment; and as he waited heard Margaret's voice with a thrill of passion in it.
"I cannot listen to that, mother. It is wicked to say such things."
The two turned instantly, passed along the path and came round the corner.
Margaret was standing with one hand on the little table, half-turned to go. Her eyes were alight with indignation, and her lips trembled. Her mother sat on the other side, her silver-handled stick beside her, and her hands folded serenely together.
Sir James looked from one to the other; and there fell a silence.
"Are you coming with us, Margaret?" he said.
The girl still hesitated a moment, glancing at her mother, and then stepped out of the summer-house. Chris saw that bitter smile writhe and die on the elder woman's face, but she said nothing.
Margaret burst out presently when they had crossed the moat and were coming up to the long grey-towered house.
"I cannot bear such talk, father," she said, with her eyes bright with angry tears, "she was saying such things about Rusper, and how idle we all were there, and how foolish."
"You must not mind it, my darling. Your mother does not—does not understand."
"There was never any one like Mother Abbess," went on the girl. "I never saw her idle or out of humour; and—and we were all so busy and happy."
Her eyes overflowed a moment; her father put his arm tenderly round her shoulders, and they went in together.
It was a terrible thing for Margaret to be thrown like this out of the one life that was a reality to her. As she looked back now it seemed as if the convent shone glorified and beautiful in a haze of grace. The discipline of the house had ordered and inspired the associations on which memories afterwards depend, and had excluded the discordant notes that spoil the harmonies of secular life. The chapel, with its delicate windows, its oak rails, its scent of flowers and incense, its tiled floor, its single row of carved woodwork and the crosier by the Abbess's seat, was a place of silence instinct with a Divine Presence that radiated from the hanging pyx; it was these particular things, and not others like them, that had been the scene of her romance with God, her aspirations, tendernesses, tears and joys. She had walked in the tiny cloister with her Lover in her heart, and the glazed laurel-leaves that rattled in the garth had been musical with His voice; it was in her little white cell that she had learned to sleep in His arms and to wake to the brightness of His Face. And now all this was dissipated. There were other associations with her home, of childish sorrows and passions before she had known God, of hunting-parties and genial ruddy men who smelt of fur and blood, of her mother's chilly steady presence— associations that jarred with the inner life; whereas in the convent there had been nothing that was not redolent with efforts and rewards of the soul. Even without her mother life would have been hard enough now at Overfield; with her it was nearly intolerable.
Chris, however, was able to do a good deal for the girl; for he had suffered in the same way; and had the advantage of a man's strength. She could talk to him as to no one else of the knowledge of the interior vocation in both of them that persevered in spite of their ejection from the cloister; and he was able to remind her that the essence of the enclosure, under these circumstances, lay in the spirit and not in material stones.
It was an advantage for Chris too to have her under his protection. The fact that he had to teach her and remind her of facts that they both knew, made them more real to himself; and to him as to her there came gradually a kind of sorrow-shot contentment that deepened month by month in spite of their strange and distracting surroundings.
But he was not wholly happy about her; she was silent and lonely sometimes; he began to see what an immense advantage it would be to her in the peculiarly difficult circumstances of the time, to have some one of her own sex and sympathies at hand. But he did not see how it could be arranged. For the present it was impossible for her to enter the Religious Life, except by going abroad; and so long as there was the faintest hope of the convents being restored in England, both she and her father and brother shrank from the step. And the hope was increased by the issue of the Six Articles in the following May, by which Transubstantiation was declared to be a revealed dogma, to be held on penalty of death by burning; and communion in one kind, the celibacy of the clergy, the perpetuity of the vow of chastity, private masses, and auricular confession were alike ratified as parts of the Faith held by the Church of which Henry had made himself head.
Yet as time went on, and there were no signs of the restoration of the Religious Houses, Chris began to wonder again as to what was best for Margaret. Perhaps until matters developed it would be well for her to have some friend in whom she could confide, even if only to relax the strain for a few weeks. He went to his father one day in the autumn and laid his views before him.
Sir James nodded and seemed to understand.
"Do you think Mary would be of any service?"
"Yes, sir, I think so—but—"
His father looked at him.
"It is a stranger I think that would help her more. Perhaps another nun—?"
"My dear lad, I dare not ask another nun. Your mother—"
"I know," said Chris.
"Well, I will think of it," said the other.
A couple of days later Sir James took him aside after supper into his own private room.
"Chris," he said, "I have been thinking of what you said. And Mary shall certainly come here for Christmas, with Nick; but—but there is someone else too I would like to ask."
He looked at his son with an odd expression.
Chris could not imagine what this meant.
"It is Mistress Atherton," went on the other. "You see you know her a little—at least you have seen her; and there is Ralph. And from all that I have heard of her—her friendship with Master More and the rest, I think she might be the very friend for poor Meg. Do you think she would come, Chris?"
Chris was silent. He could not yet fully dissociate the thought of Beatrice from the memory of the time when she had taken Ralph's part. Besides, was it possible to ask her under the circumstances?
"Then there was one more thing that I never told you;" went on his father, "there was no use in it. But I went to see Mistress Atherton when she was betrothed to Ralph. I saw her in London; and I think I may say we made friends. And she has very few now; she keeps herself aloof. Folks are afraid of her too. I think it would be a kindness to her. I could not understand how she could marry Ralph; and now that is explained."
Chris was startled by this news. His father had not breathed a word of it before.
"She made me promise," went on Sir James, "to tell her if Ralph did anything unworthy. It was after the first news had reached her of what the Visitors were doing. And I told her, of course, about Rusper. I think we owe her something. And I think too from what I saw of her that she might make her way with your mother."
"It might succeed," said Chris doubtfully, "but it is surely difficult for her to come—"
"I know—yes—with Ralph and her betrothal. But if we can ask her, surely she can come. I can tell her how much we need her. I would send Meg to Great Keynes, if I dared, but I dare not. It is not so safe there as here; she had best keep quiet."
They talked about it a few minutes more, and Chris became more inclined to it. From what he remembered of Beatrice and the impression that she had made on him in those few fierce minutes in Ralph's house he began to see that she would probably be able to hold her own; and if only Margaret would take to her, the elder girl might be of great service in establishing the younger. It was an odd and rather piquant idea, and gradually took hold of his imagination. It was a very extreme step to take, considering that she had broken off her betrothal to the eldest son of the house; but against that was set the fact that she would not meet him there; and that her presence would be really valued by at least four-fifths of the household.
It was decided that Lady Torridon should be told immediately; and a day or two later Sir James came to Chris in the garden to tell him that she had consented.
"I do not understand it at all," said the old man, "but your mother seemed very willing. I wonder—"
And then he stopped abruptly.
The letter was sent. Chris saw it and the strong appeal it contained that Beatrice should come to the aid of a nun who was pining for want of companionship. A day or two later brought down the answer that Mistress Atherton would have great pleasure in coming a week before Christmas.
* * * * *
Margaret had a fit of shyness when the day came for her arrival. It was a clear frosty afternoon, with a keen turquoise sky overhead, and she wandered out in her habit down the slope to the moat, crossed the bridge, glancing at the thin ice and the sedge that pierced it, and came up into the private garden. She knew she could hear the sounds of wheels from there, and had an instinctive shrinking from being at the house when the stranger arrived.
The grass walks were crisp to the foot; the plants in the deep beds rested in a rigid stillness with a black blossom or two drooping here and there; and the hollies beyond the yew hedge lifted masses of green lit by scarlet against the pale sky. Her breath went up like smoke as she walked softly up and down.
There was no sound to disturb her. Once she heard the clink of the blacksmith's forge half a mile away in the village; once a blackbird dashed chattering from a hedge, scudded in a long dip, and rose again over it; a robin followed her in brisk hops, with a kind of pathetic impertinence in his round eye, as he wondered whether this human creature's footsteps would not break the iron armour of the ground and give him a chance to live.
She wondered a thousand things as she went; what kind of a woman this was that was coming, how she would look, why she had not married Ralph, and above all, whether she understood—whether she understood!
A kind of frost had fallen on her own soul; she could find no sustenance there; it was all there, she knew, all the mysterious life that had rioted within her like spring, in the convent, breathing its fragrances, bewildering in its wealth of shape and colour. But an icy breath had petrified it all; it had sunk down out of sight; it needed a soul like her own, feminine and sympathetic, a soul that had experienced the same things as her own, that knew the tenderness and love of the Saviour, to melt that frigid covering and draw out the essences and sweetness again, that lay there paralysed by this icy environment....
There were wheels at last.
She gathered up her black skirt, and ran to the edge of the low yews that bounded the garden on the north; and as she caught a glimpse of the nodding heads of the postilions, the plumes of their mounts, and the great carriage-roof swaying in the iron ruts, she shrank back again, in an agony of shyness, terrified of being seen.
The sky had deepened to flaming orange in the west, barred by the tall pines, before she unlatched the garden-gate to go back to the house.
The windows shone out bright and inviting from the parlour on the ground-floor and from beneath the high gable of the hall as she came up the slope. Mistress Atherton, she knew, would be in one of these rooms if she had not already gone up stairs; and with an instinct of shyness still strong within her the girl slipped round to the back, and passed in through the chapel.
The court was lighted by a link that flared beside one of the doorways on the left, and a couple of great trunks lay below it. A servant came out as she stood there hesitating, and she called to him softly to know where was Mistress Atherton.
"She is in the parlour, Mistress Margaret," said the man.
The girl went slowly across to the corner doorway, glancing at the parlour windows as she passed; but the curtains were drawn on this side, and she could catch no glimpse of the party within.
The little entrance passage was dark; but she could hear a murmur of voices as she stood there, still hesitating. Then she opened the door suddenly, and went into the room.
Her mother was speaking; and the girl heard those icy detached tones as she looked round the group.
"It must be very difficult for you, Mistress Atherton, in these days."
Margaret saw her father standing at the window-seat, and Chris beside him; and in a moment saw that the faces of both were troubled and uneasy.
A tall girl was in the chair opposite, her hands lying easily on the arms and her head thrown back almost negligently. She was well dressed, with furs about her throat; her buckled feet were crossed before the blaze, and her fingers shone with jewels. Her face was pale; her scarlet lips were smiling, and there was a certain keen and genial amusement in her black eyes.
She looked magnificent, thought Margaret, still standing with her hand on the door—too magnificent.
Her father made a movement, it seemed of relief, as his daughter came in; but Lady Torridon, very upright in her chair on this side, went on immediately.
—"With your opinions, Mistress Atherton, I mean. I suppose all that you consider sacred is being insulted, in your eyes."
The tall girl glanced at Margaret with the amusement still in her face, and then answered with a deliberate incisiveness that equalled Lady Torridon's own.
"Not so difficult," she said, "as for those who have no opinions."
There was a momentary pause; and then she added, as she stood up and Sir James came forward.
"I am very sorry for them, Mistress Torridon."
Before Lady Torridon could answer, Sir James had broken in.
"This is my daughter Margaret, Mistress Atherton."
The two ladies saluted one another.
Margaret watched Beatrice with growing excitement that evening, in which was mingled something of awe and some thing of attraction. She had never seen anyone so serenely self-possessed.
It became evident during supper, beyond the possibility of mistake, that Lady Torridon had planned war against the guest, who was a representative in her eyes of all that was narrow-minded and contemptible. Here was a girl, she seemed to tell herself, who had had every opportunity of emancipation, who had been singularly favoured in being noticed by Ralph, and who had audaciously thrown him over for the sake of some ridiculous scruples worthy only of idiots and nuns. Indeed to Chris it was fairly plain that his mother had consented so willingly to Beatrice's visit with the express purpose of punishing her.
But Beatrice held her own triumphantly.
* * * * *
They had not sat down three minutes before Lady Torridon opened the assault, with grave downcast face and in her silkiest manner. She went abruptly back to the point where the conversation had been interrupted in the parlour by Margaret's entrance.
"Mistress Atherton," she observed, playing delicately with her spoon, "I think you said that to your mind the times were difficult for those who had no opinions."
Beatrice looked at her pleasantly.
"Yes, Mistress Torridon; at least more difficult for those, than for the others who know their own mind."
The other waited a moment, expecting the girl to justify herself, but she was forced to go on.
"Abbot Marshall knew his mind, but it was not easy for him."
(The news had just arrived of the Abbot's execution).
"Do you think not, mistress? I fear I still hold my opinion."
"And what do you mean by that?"
"I mean that unless we have something to hold to, in these troublesome times, we shall drift. That is all."
"Ah! and drift whither?"
Beatrice smiled so genially as she answered, that the other had no excuse for taking offence.
"Well, it might be better not to answer that."
Lady Torridon looked at her with an impassive face.
"To hell, then?" she said.
"Well, yes: to hell," said Beatrice.
There was a profound silence; broken by the stifled merriment of a servant behind the chairs, who transformed it hastily into a cough. Sir James glanced across in great distress at his son; but Chris' eyes twinkled at him.
Lady Torridon was silent a moment, completely taken aback by the suddenness with which the battle had broken, and amazed by the girl's audacity. She herself was accustomed to use brutality, but not to meet it. She laid her spoon carefully down.
"Ah!" she said, "and you believe that? And for those who hold wrong opinions, I suppose you would believe the same?"
"If they were wrong enough," said Beatrice, "and through their fault. Surely we are taught to believe that, Mistress Torridon?"
The elder woman said nothing at all, and went on with her soup. Her silence was almost more formidable than her speech, and she knew that, and contrived to make it offensive. Beatrice paid no sort of attention to it, however; and without looking at her again began to talk cheerfully to Sir James about her journey from town. Margaret watched her, fascinated; her sedate beautiful face, her lace and jewels, her white fingers, long and straight, that seemed to endorse the impression of strength that her carriage and manner of speaking suggested; as one might watch a swordsman between the rounds of a duel and calculate his chances. She knew very well that her mother would not take her first repulse easily; and waited in anxiety for the next clash of swords.
Beatrice seemed perfectly fearless, and was talking about the King with complete freedom, and yet with a certain discretion too.
"He will have his way," she said. "Who can doubt that?"
Lady Torridon saw an opening for a wound, and leapt at it.
"As he had with Master More," she put in.
Beatrice turned her head a little, but made no answer; and there was not the shadow of wincing on her steady face.
"As he had with Master More," said Lady Torridon a little louder.
"We must remember that he has my Lord Cromwell to help him," observed Beatrice tranquilly.
Lady Torridon looked at her again. Even now she could scarcely believe that this stranger could treat her with such a supreme indifference. And there was a further sting, too, in the girl's answer, for all there understood the reference to Ralph; and yet again it was impossible to take offence.
Margaret looked at her father, half-frightened, and saw again a look of anxiety in his eyes; he was crumbling his bread nervously as he answered Beatrice.
"My Lord Cromwell—" he began.
"My Lord Cromwell has my son Ralph under him," interrupted his wife. "Perhaps you did not know that, Mistress Atherton."
Margaret again looked quickly up; but there was still no sign of wincing on those scarlet lips, or beneath the black eyebrows.
"Why, of course, I knew it," said Beatrice, looking straight at her with large, innocent eyes, "that was why—"
She stopped; and Lady Torridon really roused now, made a false step.
"Yes?" she said. "You did not end your sentence?"
Beatrice cast an ironically despairing look behind her at the servants.
"Well," she said, "if you will have it: that was why I would not marry him. Did you not know that, Mistress?"
It was so daring that Margaret caught her breath suddenly; and looked hopelessly round. Her father and brother had their eyes steadily bent on the table; and the priest was looking oddly at the quiet angry woman opposite him.
Then Sir James slid deftly in, after a sufficient pause to let the lesson sink home; and began to talk of indifferent things; and Beatrice answered him with the same ease.
Lady Torridon made one more attempt just before the end of supper, when the servants had left the room.
"You are living on—" she corrected herself ostentatiously—"you are living with any other family now, Mistress Atherton? I remember my son Ralph telling me you were almost one of Master More's household."
Beatrice met her eyes with a delightful smile.
"I am living on—with your family at this time, Mistress Torridon."
There was no more to be said just then. The girl had not only turned her hostess' point, but had pricked her shrewdly in riposte, three times; and the last was the sharpest of all.
Lady Torridon led the way to the oak parlour in silence.
* * * * *
She made no more assaults that night; but sat in dignified aloofness, her hands on her lap, with an air of being unconscious of the presence of the others. Beatrice sat with Margaret on the long oak settle; and talked genially to the company at large.
When compline had been said, Sir James drew Chris aside into the star-lit court as the others went on in front.
"Dear lad," he said, "what are we to do? This cannot go on. Your mother—"
Chris smiled at him, and took his arm a moment.
"Why, father," he said, "what more do we want? Mistress Atherton can hold her own."
"But your mother will insult her."
"She will not be able," said Chris. "Mistress Atherton will not have it. Did you not see how she enjoyed it?"
"Why, yes; her eyes shone."
"Well, I must speak to her," said Sir James, still perplexed. "Come with me, Chris."
Mr. Carleton was just leaving the parlour as they came up to its outside door. Sir James drew him into the yard. There were no secrets between these two.
"Father," he said, "did you notice? Do you think Mistress Atherton will be able to stay here?"
He saw to his astonishment that the priest's melancholy face, as the starlight fell on it, was smiling.
"Why, yes, Sir James. She is happy enough."
"But my wife—"
"Sir James, I think Mistress Atherton may do her good. She—" he hesitated.
"Well?" said the old man.
"She—Lady Torridon has met her match," said the chaplain, still smiling.
Sir James made a little gesture of bewilderment.
"Well, come in, Chris. I do not understand; but if you both think so—"
He broke off and opened the door.
Lady Torridon was gone to her room; and the two girls were alone. Beatrice was standing before the hearth with her hands behind her back—a gallant upright figure; as they came in, she turned a cheerful face to them.
"Your daughter has been apologising, Sir James," she said; and there was a ripple of amusement in her voice. "She thinks I have been hardly treated."
She glanced at the bewildered Margaret, who was staring at her under her delicate eyebrows with wide eyes of amazement and admiration.
Sir James looked confused.
"The truth is, Mistress Atherton, that I too—and my son—"
"Well, not your son," said Chris smiling.
"You too!" cried Beatrice. "And how have I been hardly treated?"
"Well, I thought perhaps, that what was said at supper—" began the old man, beginning to smile too.
"Lady Torridon, and every one, has been all that is hospitable," said Beatrice. "It is like old days at Chelsea. I love word-fencing; and there are so few who practise it."
Sir James was still a little perplexed.
"You assure me, Mistress, that you are not distressed by—by anything that has passed?"
"Distressed!" she cried. "Why, it is a real happiness!"
But he was not yet satisfied.
"You will engage to tell me then, if you think you are improperly treated by—by anyone—?"
"Why, yes," said the girl, smiling into his eyes. "But there is no need to promise that. I am really happy; and I am sure your daughter and I will be good friends."
She turned a little towards Margaret; and Chris saw a curious emotion of awe and astonishment and affection in his sister's eyes.
"Come, my dear," said Beatrice. "You said you would take me to my room."
Sir James hastened to push open the further door that led to the stairs; and the two girls passed out together.
Then he shut the door, and turned to his son. Chris had begun to laugh.
It was a very strange household that Christmas at Overfield. Mary and her husband came over with their child, and the entire party, with the exception of the duellists themselves, settled down to watch the conflict between Lady Torridon and Beatrice Atherton. Its prolongation was possible because for days together the hostess retired into a fortress of silence, whence she looked out cynically, shrugged her shoulders, smiled almost imperceptibly, and only sallied when she found she could not provoke an attack. Beatrice never made an assault; was always ready for the least hint of peace; but guarded deftly and struck hard when she was directly threatened. Neither would she ever take an insult; the bitterest dart fell innocuous on her bright shield before she struck back smiling; but there were some sharp moments of anxiety now and again as she hesitated how to guard.
A silence would fall suddenly in the midst of the talk and clatter at table; there would be a momentary kindling of glances, as from the tall chair opposite the chaplain a psychological atmosphere of peril made itself felt; then the blow would be delivered; the weapons clashed; and once more the talk rose high and genial over the battlefield.
* * * * *
The moment when Beatrice's position in the house came nearest to being untenable, was one morning in January, when the whole party were assembled on the steps to see the sportsmen off for the day.
Sir James was down with the foresters and hounds at the further end of the terrace, arranging the details of the day; Margaret had not yet come out of chapel, and Lady Torridon, who had had a long fit of silence, was standing with Mary and Nicholas at the head of the central stairs that led down from the terrace to the gravel.
Christopher and Beatrice came out of the house behind, talking cheerfully; for the two had become great friends since they had learnt to understand one another, and Beatrice had confessed to him frankly that she had been wrong and he right in the matter of Ralph. She had told him this a couple of days after her arrival; but there had been a certain constraint in her manner that forbade his saying much in answer. Here they came then, now, in the frosty sunshine; he in his habit and she in her morning house-dress of silk and lace, talking briskly.
"I was sure you would understand, father," she said, as they came up behind the group.
Then Lady Torridon turned and delivered her point, suddenly and brutally.
"Of course he will," she said. "I suppose then you are not going out, Mistress Atherton." And she glanced with an offensive contempt at the girl and the monk. Beatrice's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, and opened again.
"Why, no, Lady Torridon."
"I thought not," said the other; and again she glanced at the two—"for I see the priest is not."
There was a moment's silence. Nick was looking at his wife with a face of dismay. Then Beatrice answered smiling.
"Neither are you, dear Lady Torridon. Is not that enough to keep me?"
A short yelp of laughter broke from Nicholas; and he stooped to examine his boot.
Lady Torridon opened her lips, closed them again, and turned her back on the girl.
"But you are cruel," said Beatrice's voice from behind, "and—"
The woman turned once more venomously.
"You do not want me," she said. "You have taken one son of mine, and now you would take the other. Is not my daughter enough?"
Beatrice instantly stepped up, and put her hand on the other's arm.
"Dear Mistress," she said; and her voice broke into tenderness; "she is not enough—"
Lady Torridon jerked her arm away.
"Come, Mary," she said.
* * * * *
Matters were a little better after that. Sir James was not told of the incident; because his son knew very well that he would not allow Beatrice to stay another day after the insult; but Chris felt himself bound to consult those who had heard what had passed as to whether indeed it was possible for her to remain. Nicholas grew crimson with indignation and vowed it was impossible. Mary hesitated; and Chris himself was doubtful. He went at last to Beatrice that same evening; and found her alone in the oak parlour, before supper. The sportsmen had not yet come back; and the other ladies were upstairs.
Beatrice affected to treat it as nothing; and it was not till Chris threatened to tell his father, that she told him all she thought.
"I must seem a vain fool to say so;" she said, leaning back in her chair, and looking up at him, "and perhaps insolent too; yet I must say it. It is this: I believe that Lady Torridon—Ah! how can I say it?"
"Tell me," said Chris steadily, looking away from her.
Beatrice shifted a little in her seat; and then stood up.
"Well, it is this. I do not believe your mother is so—so—is what she sometimes seems. I think she is very sore and angry; there are a hundred reasons. I think no one has—has faced her before. She has been obeyed too much. And—and I think that if I stay I may be able—I may be some good," she ended lamely.
"I understand," he said softly.
"Give me another week or two," said Beatrice, "I will do my best."
"You have worked a miracle with Meg," said Chris. "I believe you can work another. I will not tell my father; and the others shall not either."
* * * * *
A wonderful change had indeed come to Margaret during the last month. Her whole soul, so cramped now by circumstances, had gone out in adoration towards this stranger. Chris found it almost piteous to watch her—her shy looks, the shiver that went over her, when the brilliant figure rustled into the room, or the brisk sentences were delivered from those smiling lips. He would see too how their hands met as they sat together; how Margaret would sit distracted and hungering for attention, eyeing the ceiling, the carpet, her embroidery; and how her eyes would leap to meet a glance, and her face flush up, as Beatrice throw her a soft word or look.
And it was the right love, too, to the monk's eyes; not a rival flame, but fuel for divine ardour. Margaret spent longer, not shorter, time at her prayers; was more, not less, devout at mass and communion; and her whole sore soul became sensitive and alive again. The winter had passed for her; the time of the singing-birds was come.
* * * * *
She was fascinated by the other's gallant brilliance. Religion for the nun had up to the present appeared a delicate thing that grew in the shadow or in the warm shelter of the cloister; now it blossomed out in Beatrice as a hardy bright plant that tossed its leaves in the wind and exulted in sun and cold. Yet it had its evening tendernesses too, its subtle fragrance when the breeze fell, its sweet colours and outlines—Beatrice too could pray; and Margaret's spiritual instinct, as she knelt by her at the altar-rail or glanced at the other's face as she came down fresh with absolution from the chair in the sanctuary where the chaplain sat, detected a glow of faith at least as warm as her own.
She was astonished too at her friend's gaiety; for she had expected, so far as her knowledge of human souls led to expect anything, a quiet convalescent spirit, recovering but slowly from the tragedy through which Margaret knew she had passed. It seemed to her at first as if Beatrice must be almost heartless, so little did she flinch when Lady Torridon darted Ralph's name at her, or Master More's, or flicked her suddenly where the wound ought to be; and it was not until the guest had been a month in the house that the nun understood.
They were together one evening in Margaret's own white little room above the oak parlour. Beatrice was sitting before the fire with her arms clasped behind her head, waiting till the other had finished her office, and looking round pleased in her heart, at the walls that told their tale so plainly. It was almost exactly like a cell. A low oak bed, red-blanketted, stood under the sloping roof, a prie-dieu beside it, and a cheap little French image of St. Scholastica over it. There was a table, with a sheet of white paper, a little ink-horn and two quills primly side by side upon it; and at the back stood a couple of small bound volumes in which the nun was accumulating little by little private devotions that appealed to her. A pair of beads hung on a nail by the window over which was drawn an old red curtain; two brass candlesticks with a cross between them stood over the hearth, giving it a faint resemblance to an altar. The boards were bare except for a strip of matting by the bed; and the whole room, walls, floor, ceiling and furniture were speckless and precise.
Margaret made the sign of the cross, closed her book, and smiled at Beatrice.
"You dear child!" she answered.
Margaret's face shone with pleasure; and she put out her hand softly to the other's knee, and laid it there.
"Talk to me," said the nun.
"Well?" said Beatrice.
"Tell me about your life in London. You never have yet, you know."
An odd look passed over the others face, and she dropped her eyes and laid her hands together in her lap.
"Oh, Meg," she said, "I should love to tell you if I could. What would you like to hear?"
The nun looked at her wondering.
"Why—everything," she said.
"Shall I tell you of Chelsea and Master More?"
Margaret nodded, still looking at her; and Beatrice began.
It was an extraordinary experience for the nun to sit there and hear that wonderful tale poured out. Beatrice for the first time threw open her defences—those protections of the sensitive inner life that she had raised by sheer will—and showed her heart. She told her first of her life in the country before she had known anything of the world; of her father's friendship with More when she was still a child, and of his death when she was about sixteen. She had had money of her own, and had come up to live with Mrs. More's sisters; and so had gradually slipped into intimacy at Chelsea. Then she described the life there—the ordered beauty of it all—and the marvellous soul that was its centre and sun. She told her of More's humour, his unfailing gaiety, his sweet cynicism that shot through his talk, his tender affections, and above all—for she knew this would most interest the nun—his deep and resolute devotion to God. She described how he had at one time lived at the Charterhouse, and had seemed to regret, before the end of his life, that he had not become a Carthusian; she told her of the precious parcel that had been sent from the Tower to Chelsea the day before his death, and how she had helped Margaret Roper to unfasten it and disclose the hair-shirt that he had worn secretly for years, and which now he had sent back for fear that it should be seen by unfriendly eyes or praised by flattering tongues.
Her face grew inexpressibly soft and loving as she talked; more than once her black eyes filled with tears, and her voice faltered; and the nun sat almost terrified at the emotion she had called up. It was hardly possible that this tender feminine creature who talked so softly of divine and human things and of the strange ardent lawyer in whom both were so manifest, could be the same stately lady of downstairs who fenced so gallantly, who never winced at a wound and trod so bravely over sharp perilous ground.
"They killed him," said Beatrice. "King Henry killed him; for that he could not bear an honest, kindly, holy soul so near his own. And we are left to weep for him, of whom—of whom the world was not worthy."
Margaret felt her hand caught and caressed; and the two sat in silence a moment.
"But—but—" began the nun softly, bewildered by this revelation.
"Yes, my dear; you did not know—how should you?—what a wound I carry here—what a wound we all carry who knew him."
Again there was a short silence. Margaret was searching for some word of comfort.
"But you did what you could for him, did you not? And—and even Ralph, I think I heard—"
Beatrice turned and looked at her steadily. Margaret read in her face something she could not understand.
"Yes—Ralph?" said Beatrice questioningly.
"You told father so, did you not? He did what he could for Master More?"
Beatrice laid her other hand too over Margaret's.
"My dear; I do not know. I cannot speak of that."
"But you said—"
"Margaret, my pet; you would not hurt me, would you? I do not think I can bear to speak of that."
The nun gripped the other's two hands passionately, and laid her cheek against them.
"Beatrice, I did not know—I forgot."
Beatrice stooped and kissed her gently.
* * * * *
The nun loved her tenfold more after that. It had been before a kind of passionate admiration, such as a subject might feel for a splendid queen; but the queen had taken this timid soul in through the palace-gates now, into a little inner chamber intimate and apart, and had sat with her there and shown her everything, her broken toys, her failures; and more than all her own broken heart. And as, after that evening, Margaret watched Beatrice again in public, heard her retorts and marked her bearing, she knew that she knew something that the others did not; she had the joy of sharing a secret of pain. But there was one wound that Beatrice did not show her; that secret was reserved for one who had more claim to it, and could understand. The nun could not have interpreted it rightly.
* * * * *
Mary and Nicholas went back to Great Keynes at the end of January; and Beatrice was out on the terrace with the others to see them go. Jim, the little seven-year-old boy, had fallen in love with her, ever since he had found that she treated him like a man, with deference and courtesy, and did not talk about him in his presence and over his head. He was walking with her now, a little apart, as the horses came round, and explaining to her how it was that he only rode a pony at present, and not a horse.
"My legs would not reach, Mistress Atherton," he said, protruding a small leather boot. "It is not because I am afraid, or father either. I rode Jess, the other day, but not astride."
"I quite understand," said Beatrice respectfully, without the shadow of laughter in her face.
"You see—" began the boy.
Then his mother came up.
"Run, Jim, and hold my horse. Mistress Beatrice, may I have a word with you?"
The two turned and walked down to the end of the terrace again.
"It is this," said Mary, looking at the other from under her plumed hat, with her skirt gathered up with her whip in her gloved hand. "I wished to tell you about my mother. I have not dared till now. I have never seen her so stirred in my life, as she is now. I—I think she will do anything you wish in time. It is useless to feign that we do not understand one another—anything you wish—come back to her Faith perhaps; treat my father better. She—she loves you, I think; and yet dare not—"
"On Ralph's account," put in Beatrice serenely.
"Yes; how did you know? It is on Ralph's account. She cannot forgive that. Can you say anything to her, do you think? Anything to explain? You understand—"
"I do not know how I dare say all this," went on Mary blushing furiously, "but I must thank you too for what you have done for my sister. It is wonderful. I could have done nothing."
"My dear," said Beatrice. "I love your sister. There is no need for thanks."
A loud voice hailed them.
"Sweetheart," shouted Sir Nicholas, standing with his legs apart at the mounting steps. "The horses are fretted to death."
"You will remember," said Mary hurriedly, as they turned. "And—God bless you, Beatrice!"
Lady Torridon was indeed very quiet now. It was strange for the others to see the difference. It seemed as if she had been conquered by the one weapon that she could wield, which was brutality. As Mr. Carleton had said, she had never been faced before; she had been accustomed to regard devoutness as incompatible with strong character; she had never been resisted. Both her husband and children had thought to conquer by yielding; it was easier to do so, and appeared more Christian; and she herself, like Ralph, was only provoked further by passivity. And now she had met one of the old school, who was as ready in the use of worldly weapons as herself; she had been ignored and pricked alternately, and with astonishing grace too, by one who was certainly of that tone of mind that she had gradually learnt to despise and hate.
Chris saw this before his father; but he saw too that the conquest was not yet complete. His mother had been cowed with respect, as a dog that is broken in; she had not yet been melted with love. He had spoken to Mary the day before the Maxwells' departure, and tried to put this into words; and Mary had seen where the opening for love lay, through which the work could be done; and the result had been the interview with Beatrice, and the mention of Ralph's name. But Mary had not a notion how Beatrice could act; she only saw that Ralph was the one chink in her mother's armour, and she left it to this girl who had been so adroit up to the present, to find how to pierce it.
Sir James had given up trying to understand the situation. He had for so long regarded his wife as an irreconcilable that he hoped for nothing better than to be able to keep her pacified; anything in the nature of a conversion seemed an idle dream. But he had noticed the change in her manner, and wondered what it meant; he hoped that the pendulum had not swung too far, and that it was not she who was being bullied now by this imperious girl from town.