He said a word to Mr. Carleton one day about it, as they walked in the garden.
"Father," he said, "I am puzzled. What has come to my wife? Have you not noticed how she has not spoken for three days. Do you think she dislikes Mistress Atherton. If I thought that—"
"No, sir," said the priest. "I do not think it is that. I think it is the other way about. She did dislike her—but not now."
"You do not think, Mistress Atherton is—is a little—discourteous and sharp sometimes. I have wondered whether that was so. Chris thinks not, however."
"Neither do I, sir. I think—I think it is all very well as it is. I hope Mistress Atherton is to stay yet a while."
"She speaks of going in a week or two," said the old man. "She has been here six weeks now."
"I hope not," said the priest, "since you have asked my opinion, sir."
Sir James sighed, looked at the other, and then left him, to search for his wife and see if she wanted him. He was feeling a little sorry for her.
* * * * *
A week later the truth began to come out, and Beatrice had the opportunity for which she was waiting.
They were all gathered before the hall-fire expecting supper; the painted windows had died with the daylight, and the deep tones of the woodwork in gallery and floor and walls had crept out from the gloom into the dancing flare of the fire and the steady glow of the sconces. The weather had broken a day or two before; all the afternoon sheets of rain had swept across the fields and gardens, and heavy cheerless clouds marched over the sky. The wind was shrilling now against the north side of the hall, and one window dripped a little inside on to the matting below it. The supper-table shone with silver and crockery, and the napkins by each place; and the door from the kitchen was set wide for the passage of the servants, one of whom waited discreetly in the opening for the coming of the lady of the house. They were all there but she; and the minutes went by and she did not come.
Sir James turned enquiringly as the door from the court opened, but it was only a wet shivering dog who had nosed it open, and now crept deprecatingly towards the blaze.
"You poor beast," said Beatrice, drawing her skirts aside. "Take my place," and she stepped away to allow him to come. He looked gratefully up, wagged his rat-tail, and lay down comfortably at the edge of the tiles.
"My wife is very late," said Sir James. "Chris—"
He stopped as footsteps sounded in the flagged passage leading from the living rooms; and the next moment the door was flung open, and a woman ran forward with outstretched hands.
"O! mon Dieu, mon Dieu!" she cried. "My lady is ill. Come, sir, come!"
THE ELDER SON
Ralph had prospered exceedingly since his return from the Sussex Visitation. He had been sent on mission after mission by Cromwell, who had learnt at last how wholly he could be trusted; and with each success his reputation increased. It seemed to Cromwell that his man was more whole-hearted than he had been at first; and when he was told abruptly by Ralph that his relations with Mistress Atherton had come to an end, the politician was not slow to connect cause and effect. He had always regretted the friendship; it seemed to him that his servant's character was sure to be weakened by his alliance with a friend of Master More; and though he had said nothing—for Ralph's manner did not encourage questions—he had secretly congratulated both himself and his agent for so happy a termination to an unfortunate incident.
For the meantime Ralph's fortunes rose with his master's; Lord Cromwell now reigned in England next after the King in both Church and State. He held a number of offices, each of which would have been sufficient for an ordinary man, but all of which did not overtax his amazing energy. He stood absolutely alone, with all the power in his hands; President of the Star Chamber, Foreign Minister, Home-Minister, and the Vicar-General of the Church; feared by Churchmen, distrusted by statesmen and nobles; and hated by all except his own few personal friends—an unique figure that had grown to gigantic stature through sheer effort and adroitness.
And beneath his formidable shadow Ralph was waxing great. He had failed to get Lewes for himself, for Cromwell designed it for Gregory his son; but he was offered his choice among several other great houses. For the present he hesitated to choose; uncertain of his future. If his father died there would be Overfield waiting for him, so he did not wish to tie himself to one of the far-away Yorkshire houses; if his father lived, he did not wish to be too near him. There was no hurry, said Cromwell; there would be houses and to spare for the King's faithful servants; and meantime it would be better for Mr. Torridon to remain in Westminster, and lay his foundations of prosperity deeper and wider yet before building. The title too that Cromwell dangled before him sometimes—that too could wait until he had chosen his place of abode.
Ralph felt that he was being magnificently treated by his master; and his gratitude and admiration grew side by side with his rising fortune. There was no niggardliness, now that Cromwell had learnt to trust in him; he could draw as much money as he wished for the payment of his under-agents, or for any other purpose; and no questions were asked.
The little house at Westminster grew rich in treasures; his bed-coverlet was the very cope he had taken from Rusper; his table was heavy with chalices beaten into secular shape; his fire-screen was a Spanish chasuble taken in the North. His servants were no longer three or four sleeping in the house; there was a brigade of them, some that attended for orders morning by morning, some that skirmished for him in the country and returned rich in documents and hearsay; and a dozen waited on his personal wants.
He dealt too with great folks. Half a dozen abbots had been to see him in the last year or two, stately prelates that treated him as an equal and pleaded for his intercession; the great nobles, enemies of his master and himself, eyed him with respectful suspicion as he walked with Cromwell in Westminster Hall. The King had pulled his ears and praised him; Ralph had stayed at Greenwich a week at a time when the execution of the Benedictine abbots was under discussion; he had ridden down Cheapside with Henry on his right and Cromwell beyond, between the shouting crowds and beneath the wild tossing of gold-cloth and tapestry and the windy pealing of a hundred brazen bells. He had gone up with Norfolk to Doncaster, a mouth through which the King might promise and threaten, and had strode up the steps beside the Duke to make an end of the insurgent-leaders of the northern rebellion.
He did not lack a goad, beside that of his own ambition, to drive him through this desperate stir; he found a sufficient one in his memory. He did not think much of his own family, except with sharp contempt. He did not even trouble to make any special report about Chris or Margaret; but it was impossible to remember Beatrice with contempt. When she had left him kneeling at his table, she had left something besides—the sting of her words, and the bitter coldness of her eyes.
As he looked back he did not know whether he loathed her or loved her; he only knew that she affected him profoundly. Again and again as he dealt brutally with some timid culprit, or stood with his hand on his hip to direct the destruction of a shrine, the memory whipped him on his raw soul. He would show her whether he were a man or no; whether he depended on her or no; whether her woman's tongue could turn him or no.
* * * * *
He was exercised now with very different matters. Religious affairs for the present had fallen into a secondary place, and home and foreign politics absorbed most of Cromwell's energies and time. Forces were gathering once more against England, and the Catholic powers were coming to an understanding with one another against the country that had thrown off allegiance to the Pope and the Empire. There was an opportunity, however, for Henry's propensity to marriage once more to play a part in politics; he had been three years without a wife; and Cromwell had hastened for the third time to avail himself of the King's passions as an instrument in politics. He had understood that a union between England and the Lutheran princes would cause a formidable obstacle to Catholic machinations; and with this in view had excited Henry by a description and a picture of the Lady Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves and sister-in-law of the Elector of Saxony. He had been perfectly successful in the first stages; the stout duchess had landed at Deal at the end of December; and the marriage had been solemnised a few days later. But unpleasant rumour had been busy ever since; it was whispered far and wide that the King loathed his wife, and complained that he had been deceived as to her charms; and Ralph, who was more behind the scenes than most men, knew that the rumour was only too true. He had been present at an abominable incident the day after the marriage had taken place, when the King had stormed and raved about the council-room, crying out that he had been deceived, and adding many gross details for the benefit of his friends.
Cromwell had been strangely moody ever since. Ralph had watched his heavy face day after day staring vacantly across the room, and his hand that held the pen dig and prick at the paper beneath it.
Even that was not all. The Anglo-German alliance had provoked opposition on the continent instead of quelling it; and Ralph saw more than one threatening piece of news from abroad that hinted at a probable invasion of England should Cromwell's schemes take effect. These too, however, had proved deceptive, and the Lutheran princes whom he had desired to conciliate were even already beginning to draw back from the consequences of their action.
Ralph was in Cromwell's room one day towards the end of January, when a courier arrived with despatches from an agent who had been following the Spanish Emperor's pacific progress through France, undertaken as a kind of demonstration against England.
Cromwell tore open the papers, and glanced at them, running his quick attentive eye over this page and that; and Ralph saw his face grow stern and white. He tossed the papers on to the table, and nodded to the courier to leave the room.
Then he took up a pen, examined it; dashed it point down against the table; gnawed his nails a moment, and then caught Ralph's eye.
"We are failing," he said abruptly. "Mr. Torridon, if you are a rat you had better run."
"I shall not run, sir," said Ralph.
"God's Body!" said his master, "we shall all run together, I think;—but not yet."
Then he took up the papers again, and began to read.
It was a few days later that Ralph received the news of his mother's illness.
She had written to him occasionally, telling him of his father's tiresome ways, his brother's arrogance, his sister's feeble piety, and finally she had told him of Beatrice's arrival.
"I consented very gladly," she had written, "for I thought to teach my lady a lesson or two; but I find her very pert and obstinate. I do not understand, my dear son, how you could have wished to make her your wife; and yet I will grant that she has a taking way with her; she seems to fear nothing but her own superstitions and folly, but I am very happy to think that all is over between you. She never loved you, my Ralph; for she cares nothing when I speak your name, as I have done two or three times; nor yet Master More either. I think she has no heart."
Ralph had wondered a little as he read this, at his mother's curious interest in the girl; and he wondered too at the report of Beatrice's callousness. It was her damned pride, he assured himself.
Then, one evening as he arrived home from Hackney where he had slept the previous night; he found a messenger waiting for him. The letter had not been sent on to him, as he had not left word where he was going.
It contained a single line from his father.
"Your mother is ill. Come at once. She wishes for you."
* * * * *
It was in the stormy blackness of a February midnight that he rode up through the lighted gatehouse to his home. Above the terrace as he came up the road the tall hall-window glimmered faintly like a gigantic luminous door hung in space; and the lower window of his father's room shone and faded as the fire leapt within.
A figure rose up suddenly from before the hall-fire as he came in, bringing with him a fierce gust of wet wind through the opened door; and when he had slipped off his dripping cloak into his servant's hands, he saw that his father was there two yards away, very stern and white, with outstretched hands.
"My son," said the old man, "you are too late. She died two hours ago."
It was a fierce shock, and for a moment he stood dazed, blinking at the light, holding his father's warm slender hands in his own, and trying to assimilate the news. He had been driven inwards, and his obstinacy weakened, during that long ride from town through the stormy sunset into the black, howling night; memories had reasserted themselves on the strength of his anxiety; and the past year or two slipped from him, and left him again the eldest son of the house and of his two parents.
Then as he looked into the pale bearded face before him, and the eyes which had looked into his own a few months ago with such passionate anger, he remembered all that was between them, dropped the hands and went forward to the fire.
His father followed him and stood by him there as he spread his fingers to the blaze, and told him the details, in short detached sentences.
She had been seized with pain and vomiting on the previous night at supper time; the doctor had been sent for, and had declared the illness to be an internal inflammation. She had grown steadily worse on the following day, with periods of unconsciousness; she had asked for Ralph an hour after she had been taken ill; the pain had seemed to become fiercer as the hours went on; she had died at ten o'clock that night.
Ralph stood there and listened, his head pressed against the high mantelpiece, and his fingers stretching and closing mechanically to supple the stiffened joints.
"Mistress Atherton was with her all the while," said his father; "she asked for her."
Ralph shot a glance sideways, and down again.
"And—" he began.
"Yes; she was shriven and anointed, thank God; she could not receive Viaticum."
Ralph did not know whether he was glad or sorry at that news. It was a proper proceeding at any rate; as proper as the candles and the shroud and the funeral rites. As regards grief, he did not feel it yet; but he was aware of a profound sensation in his soul, as of a bruise.
There was silence for a moment or two; then the wind bellowed suddenly in the chimney, the tall window gave a crack of sound, and the smoke eddied out into the room. Ralph turned round.
"They are with her still," said Sir James; "we can go up presently."
The other shook his head abruptly.
"No," he said, "I will wait until to-morrow. Which is my room?"
"Your old room," said his father. "I have had a truckle-bed set there for your man. Will you find your way? I must stay here for Mistress Atherton."
Ralph nodded sharply, and went out, down the hill.
* * * * *
It was half an hour more before Beatrice appeared; and then Sir James looked up from his chair at the sound of a footstep and saw her coming up the matted floor. Her face was steady and resolute, but there were dark patches under her eyes, for she had not slept for two nights.
Sir James stood up, and held out his hands.
"Ralph has come," he said. "He is gone to his room. Where are the others?"
"The priests are at prayers and Meg too," she said, "It is all ready, sir. You may go up when you please."
"I must say a word first," said Sir James. "Sit down, Mistress Atherton."
He drew forward his chair for her; and himself stood up on the hearth, leaning his head on his hand and looking down into the fire.
"It is this," he said: "May our Lord reward you for what you have done for us."
Beatrice was silent.
"You know she asked my pardon," he said, "when we were left alone together. You do not know what that means. And she gave me her forgiveness for all my folly—"
Beatrice drew a sharp breath in spite of herself.
"We have both sinned," he went on; "we did not understand one another; and I feared we should part so. That we have not, we have to thank you—"
His old voice broke suddenly; and Beatrice heard him draw a long sobbing breath. She knew she ought to speak, but her brain was bewildered with the want of sleep and the long struggle; she could not think of a word to say; she felt herself on the verge of hysteria.
"You have done it all," he said again presently. "She took all that Mr. Carleton said patiently enough, he told me. It is all your work. Mistress Atherton—"
She looked up questioningly with her bright tired eyes.
"Mistress Atherton; may I know what you said to her?"
Beatrice made a great effort and recovered her self-control.
"I answered her questions," she said.
"Questions? Did she ask you of the Faith? Did she speak of me? Am I asking too much?"
Beatrice shook her head. For a moment again she could not speak.
"I am asking what I should not," said the old man.
"No, no," cried the girl, "you have a right to know. Wait, I will tell you—"
Again she broke off, and felt her own breath begin to sob in her throat. She buried her face in her hands a moment.
"God forgive me," said the other. "I—"
"It was about your son Ralph," said Beatrice bravely, though her lips shook.
"She—she asked whether I had ever loved him at all—and—"
"Mistress Beatrice, Mistress Beatrice, I entreat you not to say more."
"And I told her—yes; and, yes—still."
It was a strange meeting for Beatrice and Ralph the next morning. She saw him first from the gallery in chapel at mass, kneeling by his father, motionless and upright, and watched him go down the aisle when it was over. She waited a few minutes longer, quieting herself, marshalling her forces, running her attention over each movement or word that might prove unruly in his presence; and then she got up from her knees and went down.
It had been an intolerable pain to tell the dying woman that she loved her son; it tore open the wound again, for she had never yet spoken that secret aloud to any living soul, not even to her own. When the question came, as she knew it would, she had not hesitated an instant as to the answer, and yet the answer had materialised what had been impalpable before.
As she had looked down from the gallery this morning she knew that she hated, in theory, every detail of his outlook on life; he was brutal, insincere; he had lied to her; he was living on the fruits of sacrilege; he had outraged every human tie he possessed; and yet she loved every hair of his dark head, every movement of his strong hands. It was that that had broken down the mother's reserve; she had been beaten by the girl's insolence, as a dog is beaten into respect; she had only one thing that she had not been able to forgive, and that was that this girl had tossed aside her son's love; then the question had been asked and answered; and the work had been done. The dying woman had surrendered wholly to the superior personality; and had obeyed like a child.
* * * * *
She had a sense of terrible guilt as she went downstairs into the passage that opened on the court; the fact that she had put into words what had lain in her heart, made her fancy that the secret was written on her face. Then again she drove the imagination down by sheer will; she knew that she had won back her self-control, and could trust her own discretion.
Their greeting was that of two acquaintances. There was not the tremor of an eyelid of either, or a note in either voice, that betrayed that their relations had once been different. Ralph thanked her courteously for her attention to his mother; and she made a proper reply. Then they all sat down to breakfast.
Then Margaret had to be attended to, for she was half-wild with remorse; she declared to Beatrice when they went upstairs together that she had been a wicked daughter, that she had resented her mother's words again and again, had behaved insolently, and so forth. Beatrice took her in her arms.
"My dear," she said, "indeed you must leave all that now. Come and see her; she is at peace, and you must be."
The bedroom where Lady Torridon had died was arranged as a chapelle ardente; the great bed had been moved out into the centre of the room. Six tall candlesticks with escutcheons and yellow tapers formed a slender mystical wall of fire and light about it; the windows were draped a couple of kneeling desks were set at the foot of the bed. Chris was kneeling at one beside his father as they went in, and Mary Maxwell, who had arrived a few hours before death had taken place, was by herself in a corner.
Beatrice drew Margaret to the second desk, pushed the book to her, and knelt by her. There lay the body of the strange, fierce, lonely woman, with her beautiful hands crossed, pale as wax, with a crucifix between them; and those great black eyebrows beyond, below which lay the double reverse curve of the lashes. It seemed as if she was watching them both, as her manner had been in life, with a tranquil cynicism.
And was she at peace, thought Beatrice, as she had told her daughter just now? Was it possible to believe that that stormy, vicious spirit had been quieted so suddenly? And yet that would be no greater miracle than that which death had wrought to the body. If the one was so still, why not the other? At least she had asked pardon of her husband for those years of alienation; she had demanded the sacraments of the Church!
Beatrice bowed her head, and prayed for the departed soul.
* * * * *
She was disturbed by the soft opening of a door, and lifted her eyes to see Ralph stand a moment by the head of the bed, before he sank on his knees. She could watch every detail of his face in the candlelight; his thin tight lips, his heavy eyebrows so like his mother's, his curved nostrils, the clean sharp line of his jaw.
She found herself analysing his processes of thought. His mother had been the one member of his family with whom he had had sympathy; they understood one another, these two bitter souls, as no one else did, except perhaps Beatrice herself. How aloof they had stood from all ordinary affections; how keen must have been their dual loneliness! And what did this snapped thread mean to him now? To what, in his opinion, did the broken end lead that had passed out from the visible world to the invisible? Did he think that all was over, and that the one soul that had understood his own had passed like a candle flame into the dark? And she too—was she crying for her son, a thin soundless sobbing in the world beyond sight? Above all, did he understand how alone he was now—how utterly, eternally alone, unless he turned his course?
A great well of pity broke up and surged in her heart, flooding her eyes with tears, as she looked at the living son and the dead mother; and she dropped her head on her hands again, and prayed for his soul as well as for hers.
* * * * *
It was a very strange atmosphere in the house during the day or two that passed before the funeral. The household met at meals and in the parlour and chapel, but seldom at other times. Ralph was almost invisible; and silent when he appeared. There were no explanations on either side; he behaved with a kind of distant courtesy to the others, answered their questions, volunteered a word or two sometimes; made himself useful in small ways as regarded giving orders to the servants, inspecting the funeral standard and scutcheons, and making one or two arrangements which fell to him naturally; and went out by himself on horseback or on foot during the afternoon. His contempt seemed to have fallen from him; he was as courteous to Chris as to the others; but no word was spoken on either side as regarded either the past and the great gulf that separated him from the others, or the future relations between him and his home.
The funeral took place three days after death, on the Saturday morning; a requiem was sung in the presence of the body in the parish church; and Beatrice sat with the mourners in the Torridon chapel behind the black hearse set with lights, before the open vault in the centre of the pavement. Ralph sat two places beyond her, with Sir James between; and she was again vividly conscious of his presence, of his movements as he knelt and sat; and again she wondered what all the solemn ceremonies meant to him, the yellow candles, the black vestments, the mysterious hallowing of the body with incense and water—counteracting, as it were, with fragrance and brightness, the corruption and darkness of the grave.
She walked back with Margaret, who clung to her now, almost desperately, finding in her sane serenity an antidote to her own remorse; and as she walked through the garden and across the moat, with Nicholas and Mary coming behind, she watched the three men going in front, Sir James in the middle, the monk on his left, and the slow-stepping Ralph on his right, and marvelled at the grim acting.
There they went, the father and his two sons, side by side in courteous silence—she noticed Ralph step forward to lift the latch of the garden-gate for the others to pass through—and between them lay an impassable gulf; she found herself wondering whether the other gulf that they had looked into half an hour before were so deep or wide.
She was out again with Sir James alone in the evening before supper, and learnt from him then that Ralph was to stay till Monday.
"He has not spoken to me of returning again," said the old man, "Of course it is impossible. Do you not think so, Mistress Atherton."
"It is impossible," she said. "What good would be served?"
"What good?" repeated the other.
The evening was falling swiftly, layer on layer of twilight, as they turned to come back to the house. The steeple of the church rose up on their left, slender and ghostly against the yellow sky, out of the black yews and cypresses that lay banked below it. They stopped and looked at it a moment, as it aspired to heaven from the bones that lay about its base, like an eternal resurrection wrought in stone. There all about it were the mortal and the dead; the stones and iron slabs leaned, as they knew, in hundreds about the grass; and round them again stood the roofs, beginning now to kindle under the eaves, where the living slept and ate. There was a rumbling of heavy carts somewhere beyond the village, a crack or two of a whip, the barking of a dog.
Then they turned again and went up to the house.
* * * * *
It was the chaplain who was late this evening for supper. The others waited a few minutes by the fire, but there was no sign of him. A servant was sent up to his room and came back to report that he had changed his cassock and gone out; a boy had come from the parish-priest, said the man, ten minutes before, and Mr. Carleton had probably been sent for.
They waited yet five minutes, but the priest did not appear, and they sat down. Supper was nearly over before before he came. He came in by the side-door from the court, splashed with mud, and looking pale and concerned. He went straight up to Sir James.
"May I speak with you, sir?" he said.
The old man got up at once, and went down the hall with him.
The rest waited, expecting them to return, but there was no sign of them; and Ralph at last rose and led the way to the oak-parlour. As they passed the door of Sir James's room they heard the sound of voices within.
Conversation was a very difficult matter that evening. Ralph had behaved with considerable grace and tact, but Nicholas had not responded. Ever since his arrival on the day before the funeral he had eyed Ralph like a strange dog intruded into a house; Mary had hovered round her husband, watchful and anxious, stepping hastily into gaps in the conversation, sliding in a sentence or two as Nicholas licked his lips in preparation for a snarl; once even putting her hand swiftly on his and drowning a growl with a word of her own. Ralph had been wonderfully self-controlled; only once had Beatrice seen him show his teeth for a moment as his brother-in-law had scowled more plainly than usual.
The atmosphere was charged to-night, now that the master of the house was away; and as Ralph took his seat in his father's chair, Beatrice had caught her breath for a moment as she saw the look on Nicholas's face. It seemed as if the funeral had lifted a stone that had hitherto held the two angry spirits down; Nicholas, after all, was but a son-in-law, and Ralph, to his view at least, a bad son. She feared that both might think that a quarrel did not outrage decency; but she feared for Nicholas more than for Ralph.
Ralph appeared not to notice the other's scowl, and leaned easily back, his head against the carved heraldry, and rapped his fingers softly and rhythmically on the bosses of the arms.
Then she heard Nicholas draw a slow venomous breath; and the talk died on Mary's lips. Beatrice stood up abruptly, in desperation; she did not know what to say; but the movement checked Nicholas, and he glanced at her a moment. Then Mary recovered herself, put her hand sharply on her husband's, and slid out an indifferent sentence. Beatrice saw Ralph's eyes move swiftly and sideways and down again, and a tiny wrinkle of a smile show itself at the corners of his mouth. But that danger was passed; and a minute later they heard the door of Sir James's room opposite open, and the footsteps of the two men come out.
Ralph stood up at once as his father came in, followed by the priest, and stepped back to the window-seat; there was the faintest hint in the slight motion of his hands to the effect that he had held his post as the eldest son until the rightful owner came. But the consciousness of it in Beatrice's mind was swept away as she looked at the old man, standing with a white stern face and his hands clenched at his sides. She could see that something impended, and stood up quickly.
"Mr. Carleton has brought shocking news," he said abruptly; and his eyes wandered to his eldest son standing in the shadow of the curtain. "A company of mummers has arrived in the village—they—they are to give their piece to-morrow."
There was a dead silence for a moment, for all knew what this meant.
Nicholas sprang to his feet.
"By God, they shall not!" he said.
Sir James lifted his hand sharply.
"We cannot hinder it," he said. "The priests have done what they can. The fellow tells them—" he paused, and again his eyes wandered to Ralph—"the fellow tells them he is under the protection of my Lord Cromwell."
There was a swift rustle in the room. Nicholas faced sharply round to the window-seat, his hands clenched and his face quivering. Ralph did not move.
"Tell them, father," said Sir James.
The chaplain gave his account. He had been sent for by the parish priest just before supper, and had gone with him to the barn that had been hired for the performance. The carts had arrived that evening from Maidstone; and were being unpacked. He had seen the properties; they were of the usual kind—all the paraphernalia for the parody of the Mass that was usually given by such actors. He had seen the vestments, the friar's habit, the red-nosed mask, the woman's costume and wig—all the regular articles. The manager had tried to protest against the priests' entrance; had denied at first that any insult was intended to the Catholic Religion; and had finally taken refuge in defiance; he had flung out the properties before their eyes; had declared that no one could hinder him from doing as he pleased, since the Archbishop had not protested; and Lord Cromwell had given him his express sanction.
"We did all we were able," said the priest. "Master Rector said he would put all the parishioners who came, under the ban of the Church; the fellow snapped his fingers in his face. I told them of Sir James's wishes; the death of my Lady—it was of no avail. We can do nothing."
The priest's sallow face was flushed with fury as he spoke; and his lips trembled piteously with horror and pain. It was the first time that the mummers had been near Overfield; they had heard tales of them from other parts of the country, but had hoped that their own village would escape the corruption. And now it had come.
He stood shaking, as he ended his account.
"Mr. Carleton says it would be of no avail for me to go down myself. I wished to. We can do nothing."
Again he glanced at Ralph, who had sat down silently in the shadow while the priest talked.
Nicholas could be restrained no longer. He shook off his wife's hand and took a step across the room.
"And you—you sit there, you devil!" he shouted.
Sir James was with him in a moment, so swiftly that Beatrice did not see him move. Margaret was clinging to her now, whispering and sobbing.
"Nick," snapped out the old man, "hold your tongue, sir. Sit down."
"God's Blood!" bellowed the squire. "You bid me sit down."
Sir James gripped him so fiercely that he stepped back.
"I bid you sit down," he said. "Ralph, will you help us?"
Ralph stood up instantly. He had not stirred a muscle as Nick shouted at him.
"I waited for that, sir," he said. "What is it you would have me do?"
Beatrice saw that his face was quite quiet as he spoke; his eyelids drooped a little; and his mouth was tight and firm. He seemed not to be aware of Nicholas's presence.
"To hinder the play-acting," said his father.
There fell a dead silence again.
"I will do it, sir," said his son. "It—it is but decent."
And in the moment of profound astonishment that fell, he came straight across the room, passed by them all without turning his head, and went out.
Beatrice felt a fierce emotion grip her throat as she looked after him, and saw the door close. Then Margaret seized her again, and she turned to quiet her.
She was aware that Sir James had gone out after his son, after a moment of silence, and she heard his footsteps pass along the flags outside.
"Oh! God bless him!" sobbed Margaret.
Sir James came back immediately, shook his head, went across the room, and sat down in the seat that Ralph had left. A dreadful stillness fell. Margaret was quiet now. Mary was sitting with her husband on the other side of the hearth. Chris rose presently and sat down by his father, but no one spoke a word.
Then Nicholas got up uneasily, came across the room, and stood with his back to the hearth warming himself. Beatrice saw him glance now and again to the shadowed window-seat where the two men sat; he hummed a note or two to himself softly; then turned round and stared at the fire with outstretched hands.
The bell rang for prayers, and still without a word being spoken they all got up and went out.
In the same silence they came back. Ralph's servant was standing by the door as they entered.
"If you please, sir, Mr. Ralph is come in. He bade me tell you that all is arranged."
The old man looked at him, swallowed once in his throat; and at last spoke.
"It is arranged, you say? It will not take place?"
"It will not take place, sir."
"Where is Mr. Ralph?"
"He is gone to his room, sir. He bade me tell you he would be leaving early for London."
Ralph rode away early next morning, yet not so early as to escape an interview with his father. They met in the hall, Sir James in his loose morning gown and Ralph booted and spurred with his short cloak and tight cap. The old man took him by the sleeve, drawing him to the fire that burned day and night in winter.
"Ralph—Ralph, my son," he said, "I must thank you for last night."
"You have to thank yourself only, sir, and my mother. I could do no otherwise."
"It is you—" began his father.
"It is certainly not Nick, sir. The hot fool nearly provoked me."
"But you hate such mummery yourself, my son?"
"It is not seemly—" began his father again.
"It is certainly not seemly; but neither are the common folk seemly."
"Did you have much business with them, my son?" Ralph smiled in the firelight.
"Why, no, sir. I told them who I was. I charged myself with the burden."
"And you will not be in trouble with my Lord?"
"My Lord has other matters to think of than a parcel of mummers."
Then they separated; and Ralph rode down the drive with his servants behind him. Neither father nor son had said a word of any return. Neither had Ralph had one private word with Beatrice during his three days' stay. Once he had come into the parlour to find her going out at the other door; and he had wondered whether she had heard his step and gone out on purpose. But he knew very well that under the superficial courtesy between him and her there lay something deeper—some passionate emotion vibrated like a beam between them; but he did not know, even on his side and still less on hers, whether that emotion were one of love or loathing. It was partly from the discomfort of the charged atmosphere, partly from a shrinking from thanks and explanations that he had determined to go up to London a day earlier than he had intended; he had a hatred of personal elaborateness.
* * * * *
He found Cromwell, on his arrival in London, a little less moody than he had been in the previous week; for he was busy with preparations for the Parliament that was to meet in April; and to the occupation that this gave him there was added a good deal of business connected with Henry's negotiations with the Emperor. The dispute, that at present centred round the treatment of Englishmen in Spain, and other similar matters, in reality ran its roots far deeper; and there were a hundred details which occupied the minister. But there was still a hint of storm in the air; Cromwell spoke brusquely once or twice without cause, and Ralph refrained from saying anything about the affair at Overfield, but took up his own work again quietly.
A fortnight later, however, he heard of it once more.
He was sitting at a second table in Cromwell's own room in the Rolls House, when one of the secretaries came up with a bundle of reports, and laid them as usual before Ralph.
Ralph finished the letter he was engaged on—one to Dr. Barnes who had preached a Protestant sermon at Paul's Cross, and who now challenged Bishop Gardiner to a public disputation. Ralph was telling him to keep his pugnacity to himself; and when he had done took up the reports and ran his eyes over them.
They were of the usual nature—complaints, informations, protests, appeals from men of every rank of life; agents, farm-labourers, priests, ex-Religious, fanatics—and he read them quickly through, docketing their contents at the head of each that his master might be saved trouble.
At one, however, he stopped, glanced momentarily at Cromwell, and then read on.
It was an illiterate letter, ill-spelt and smudged, and consisted of a complaint from a man who signed himself Robert Benham, against "Mr. Ralph Torridon, as he named himself," for hindering the performance of a piece entitled "The Jolly Friar" in the parish of Overfield, on Sunday, February the first. Mr. Torridon, the writer stated, had used my Lord Cromwell's name and authority in stopping the play; expenses had been incurred in connection with it, for a barn had been hired, and the transport of the properties had cost money; and Mr. Benham desired to know whether these expenses would be made good to him, and if Mr. Torridon had acted in accordance with my Lord's wishes.
Ralph bit his pen in some perplexity, when he had finished making out the document. He wondered whether he had better show it to Cromwell; it might irritate him or not, according to his mood. If it was destroyed surely no harm would be done; and yet Ralph had a disinclination to destroy it. He sat a moment or two longer considering; once he took the paper by the corners to tear it; then laid it down again; glanced once more at the heavy intent face a couple of yards away, and then by a sudden impulse took up his pen and wrote a line on the corner explaining the purport of the paper, initialled it, and laid it with the rest.
Cromwell was so busy during the rest of the day that there was no opportunity to explain the circumstances to him; indeed he was hardly in the room again, so great was the crowd that waited on him continually for interviews, and Ralph went away, leaving the reports for his chief to examine at his leisure.
* * * * *
The next morning there was a storm.
Cromwell burst out on him as soon as he came in.
"Shut the door, Mr. Torridon," he snapped. "I must have a word with you."
Ralph closed the door and came across to Cromwell's table and stood there, apparently imperturbable, but with a certain quickening of his pulse.
"What is this, sir?" snarled the other, taking up the letter that was laid at his hand. "Is it true?"
Ralph looked at him coolly.
"What is it, my Lord? Mr. Robert Benham?"
"Yes, Mr. Robert Benham. Is it true? I wish an answer."
"Certainly, my Lord. It is true."
"You hindered this piece being played? And you used my name?"
"I told them who I was—yes."
Cromwell slapped the paper down.
"Well, that is to use my name, is it not, Mr. Torridon?"
"I suppose it is."
"You suppose it is! And tell me, if you please, why you hindered it."
"I hindered it because it was not decent. My mother had been buried that day. My father asked me to do so."
"Not decent! When the mummers have my authority!
"If your Lordship does not understand the indecency, I cannot explain it."
Ralph was growing angry now. It was not often that Cromwell treated him like a naughty boy; and he was beginning to resent it.
The other stared at him under black brows.
"You are insolent, sir."
"See here," said Cromwell, "my men must have no master but me. They must leave houses and brethren and sisters for my sake. You should understand that by now; and that I repay them a hundredfold. You have been long enough in my service to know it. I have said enough. You can sit down, Mr. Torridon."
Ralph went to his seat in a storm of fury. He felt he was supremely in the right—in the right in stopping the play, and still more so for not destroying the complaint when it was in his hands. He had been scolded like a school-child, insulted and shouted down. His hand shook as he took up his pen, and he kept his back resolutely turned to his master. Once he was obliged to ask him a question, and he did so with an icy aloofness. Cromwell answered him curtly, but not unkindly, and he went to his seat again still angry.
When dinner-time came near, he rose, bowed slightly to Cromwell and went towards the door. As his fingers touched the handle he heard his name called; and turned round to see the other looking at him oddly.
"Mr. Torridon—you will dine with me?"
"I regret I cannot, my Lord," said Ralph; and went out of the room.
* * * * *
There were no explanations or apologies on either side when they met again; but in a few days their behaviour to one another was as usual. Yet underneath the smooth surface Ralph's heart rankled and pricked with resentment.
* * * * *
At the meeting of Parliament in April, the business in Cromwell's hands grow more and more heavy and distracting.
Ralph went with him to Westminster, and heard him deliver his eloquent little speech on the discord that prevailed in England, and the King's determination to restore peace and concord.
"On the Word of God," cried the statesman, speaking with extraordinary fervour, his eyes kindling as he looked round the silent crowded benches, and his left hand playing with his chain, "On the Word of God His Highness' princely mind is fixed; on this Word he depends for his sole support; and with all his might his Majesty will labour that error shall be taken away, and true doctrines be taught to his people, modelled by the rule of the Gospel."
Three days later when Ralph came into his master's room, Cromwell looked up at him with a strange animation in his dark eyes.
"Good-day, sir," he said; "I have news that I hope will please you. His Grace intends to confer on me one more mark of his favour. I am to be Earl of Essex."
It was startling news. Ralph had supposed that the minister was not standing so high with the King as formerly, since the unfortunate incident of the Cleves marriage. He congratulated him warmly.
"It is a happy omen," said the other. "Let us pray that it be a constellation and not a single star. There are others of my friends, Mr. Torridon, who have claim to His Highness' gratitude."
He looked at him smiling; and Ralph felt his heart quicken once more, as it always did, at the hint of an honour for himself.
The business of Parliament went on; and several important bills became law. A land-act was followed by one that withdrew from most of the towns of England the protection of a sanctuary in the case of certain specified crimes; the navy was dealt with; and then in spite of the promises of the previous years a heavy money-bill was passed. Finally five more Catholics, four priests and a woman, were attainted for high treason on various charges.
* * * * *
Ralph was not altogether happy as May drew on. There began to be signs that his master's policy with regard to the Cleves alliance was losing ground in the councils of the State; but Cromwell himself seemed to acquiesce, so it appeared as if his own mind was beginning to change. There was a letter to Pate, the ambassador to the Emperor, that Ralph had to copy one day, and he gathered from it that conciliation was to be used towards Charles in place of the old defiance.
But he did not see much of Parliament affairs this month.
Cromwell had told him to sort a large quantity of private papers that had gradually accumulated in Ralph's own house at Westminster; for that he desired the removal of most of them to his own keeping.
They were an enormous mass of documents, dealing with every sort and kind of the huge affairs that had passed through Cromwell's hands for the last five years. They concerned hundreds of persons, living and dead—statesmen, nobles, the foreign Courts, priests, Religious, farmers, tradesmen—there was scarcely a class that was not represented there.
Ralph sat hour after hour in his chair with locked doors, sorting, docketting, and destroying; and amazed by this startling object-lesson of the vast work in which he had had a hand. There were secrets there that would burst like a bomb if they were made public—intrigues, bribes, threats, revelations; and little by little a bundle of the most important documents accumulated on the table before him. The rest lay in heaps on the floor.
Those that he had set aside beneath his own eye were a miscellaneous set as regarded their contents; the only unity between them lay in the fact that they were especially perilous to Cromwell. Ralph felt as if he were handling gunpowder as he took them up one by one or added to the heap.
The new coronet that my Lord of Essex had lately put upon his head would not be there another day, if these were made public. There would not be left even a head to put it upon. Ralph knew that a great minister like his master was bound to have a finger in very curious affairs; but he had not recognised how exceptional these were, nor how many, until he had the bundle of papers before him. There were cases in which persons accused and even convicted of high treason had been set at liberty on Cromwell's sole authority without reference to the King; there were commissions issued in his name under similar conditions; there were papers containing drafts, in Cromwell's own hand of statements of doctrine declared heretical by the Six Articles, and of which copies had been distributed through the country at his express order; there were copies of letters to country-sheriffs ordering the release of convicted heretics and the imprisonment of their accusers; there were evidences of enormous bribes received by him for the perversion of justice.
Ralph finished his task one June evening, and sat dazed with work and excitement, his fingers soiled with ink, his tired eyes staring at the neat bundle before him.
The Privy Council, he knew, was sitting that afternoon. Even at this moment, probably, my Lord of Essex was laying down the law, speaking in the King's name, silencing his opponents by sheer force of will, but with the Royal power behind him. And here lay the papers.
He imagined to himself with a fanciful recklessness what would happen if he made his way into the Council-room, and laid them on the table. It would be just the end of all things for his master. There would be no more bullying and denouncing then on that side; it would be a matter of a fight for life.
The memory of his own grudge, only five months old, rose before his mind; and his tired brain grew hot and cloudy with resentment. He took up the bundle in his hand and wielded it a moment, as a man might test a sword. Here was a headsman's axe, ground and sharp.
Then he was ashamed; set the bundle down again, leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms, yawning.
What a glorious evening it was! He must go out and take the air for a little by the river; he would walk down towards Chelsea.
He rose up from his chair and went to the window, threw it open and leaned out. His house stood back a little from the street; and there was a space of cobbled ground between his front-door and the uneven stones of the thorough fare. Opposite rose up one of the tall Westminster houses, pushing forward in its upper stories, with a hundred diamond panes bright in the slanting sunshine that poured down the street from the west. Overhead rose up the fantastic stately chimneys, against the brilliant evening sky, and to right and left the street passed out of sight in a haze of sunlight.
It was a very quiet evening; the men had not yet begun to stream homewards from their occupations; and the women were busy within. A chorus of birds sounded somewhere overhead; but there was not a living creature to be seen except a dog asleep in the sunshine at the corner of the gravel.
It was delicious to lean out here, away from the fire that burned hot and red in the grate under its black mass of papers that had been destroyed,—out in the light and air. Ralph determined that he would let the fire die now; it would not be needed again.
He must go out, he told himself, and not linger here. He could lock up the papers for the present in readiness for their transport next day; and he wondered vaguely whether his hat and cane were in the entrance-hall below.
He straightened himself, and turned away from the window, noticing as he did so the dog at the corner of the street sit up with cocked ears. He hesitated and turned back.
There was a sound of furious running coming up the street. He would just see who the madman was who ran like this on a hot evening, and then go out himself.
As he leaned again the pulsating steps came nearer; they were coming from the left, the direction of the Palace.
A moment later a figure burst into sight, crimson-faced and hatless, with arms gathered to the sides and head thrown back; it appeared to be a gentleman by the dress—but why should he run like that? He dashed across the opening and disappeared.
Ralph was interested. He waited a minute longer; but the footsteps had ceased; and he was just turning once more from the window, when another sound made him stand and listen again.
It came from the same direction as before; and at first he could not make out what it was. There was a murmur and a pattering.
It came nearer and louder; and he could distinguish once more running footsteps. Were they after a thief? he wondered. The murmur and clatter grew louder yet; and a second or two later two men burst into sight; one, an apprentice with his leather apron flapping as he ran, the other a stoutish man like a merchant. They talked and gesticulated as they went.
The murmur behind swelled up. There were the voices of many people, men and women, talking, screaming, questioning. The dog was on his feet by now, looking intently down the street.
Then the first group appeared; half a dozen men walking fast or trotting, talking eagerly. Ralph could not hear what they said.
Then a number surged into sight all at once, jostling round a centre, and a clamour went up to heaven. The dog trotted up suspiciously as if to enquire.
Ralph grew excited; he scarcely knew why. He had seen hundreds of such crowds; it might mean anything, from a rise in butter to a declaration of war. But there was something fiercely earnest about this mob. Was the King ill?
He leaned further from the window and shouted; but no one paid him the slightest attention. The crowd shifted up the street, the din growing as they went; there was a sound of slammed doors; windows opened opposite and heads craned out. Something was shouted up and the heads disappeared.
Ralph sprang back from the window, as more and more surged into sight; he went to his door, glancing at his papers as he ran across; unlocked the door; listened a moment; went on to the landing and shouted for a servant.
There was a sound of footsteps and voices below; the men were already alert, but no answer came to his call. He shouted again.
"Who is there? Find out what the disturbance means."
There was an answer from one of his men; and the street door opened and closed. Again he ran to the window, and saw his man run out without his doublet across the court, and seize a woman by the arm.
He waited in passionate expectancy; saw him drop the woman's arm and turn to another; and then run swiftly back to the house.
There was something sinister in the man's very movements across that little space; he ran desperately, with his head craning forward; once he stumbled; once he glanced up at his master; and Ralph caught a sight of his face.
Ralph was on the landing as the steps thundered upstairs, and met him at the head of the flight.
"Speak man; what is it?"
The servant lifted a face stamped with terror, a couple of feet below Ralph's.
"What is it?"
"They say that the King's archers are about my Lord Essex's house."
Ralph drew a swift breath.
"And that my Lord was arrested at the Council to-day."
Ralph turned, and in three steps was in his room again. The key clacked in the lock.
A QUESTION OF LOYALTY
He did not know how long he stood there, with the bundle of papers gripped in his two hands; and the thoughts racing through his brain.
The noises in the street outside waned and waxed again, as the news swept down the lanes, and recoiled with a wave of excited crowds following it. Then again they died to a steady far-off murmur as the mob surged and clamoured round the Palace and Abbey a couple of hundred yards away.
At last Ralph sat down; still holding the papers. He must clear his brain; and how was that possible with the images flashing through it in endless and vivid succession? For a while he could not steady himself; the shock was bewildering; he could think of nothing but the appalling drama. Essex was fallen!
Then little by little the muddy current of thought began to run clear. He began to understand what lay before him; and the question that still awaited decision.
His first instinct had been to dash the papers on to the fire and grind them into the red heart of the wood; but something had checked him. Very slowly he began to analyse that instinct.
First, was it not useless? He knew he did not possess one hundredth part of the incriminating evidence that was in existence. Of what service would it be to his master to destroy that one small bundle?
Next, what would be the result to himself if he did? It was known that he was a trusted agent of the minister's; his house would be searched; papers would be found; it would be certainly known that he had made away with evidence. There would be records of what he had, in the other houses. And what then?
On the other hand if he willingly gave up all that was in his possession, it would go far to free him from complicity.
Lastly, like a venomous snake lifting its head, his own private resentment looked him in the eyes, and there was a new sting added to it now. He had lost all, he knew well enough; wealth, honour and position had in a moment shrunk to cinders with Cromwell's fall, and for these cinders he had lost Beatrice too. He had sacrificed her to his master; and his master had failed him. A kind of fury succeeded to his dismay.
Oh, would it not be sweet to add even one more stone to the mass that was tottering over the head of that mighty bully, that had promised and not performed?
He blinked his eyes, shocked by the horror of the thought, and gripped the bundle yet more firmly. The memories of a thousand kindnesses received from his master cried at the door of his heart. The sweat dropped from his forehead; he lifted a stiff hand to wipe it away, and dropped it again into its grip on the papers.
Then he slowly recapitulated to himself the reasons for not destroying them. They were overwhelming, convincing! What was there to set against them? One slender instinct only, that cried shrill and thin that in honour he must burn that damning evidence—burn it—burn it—whether or no it would help or hinder, it must be burnt!
Then again he recurred to the other side; told himself that his instinct was no more than a ludicrous sentimentality; he must be guided by reason, not impulse. Then he glanced at the impulse again. Then the two sides rushed together, locked in conflict. He moaned a little, and lay back in his chair.
* * * * *
The bright sunlight outside had faded to a mellow evening atmosphere before he moved again; and the fire had died to one dull core of incandescence.
As he stirred, he became aware that bells were pealing outside; a melodious roar filled the air. Somewhere behind the house five brazen voices, shouting all together, bellowed the exultation of the city over the great minister's fall.
He was weary and stiff as he stood up; but the fever had left his brain; and the decision had been made. He relaxed his fingers and laid the bundle softly down on the table from which he had snatched it a couple of hours before.
They would be here soon, he knew; he wondered they had not come already.
Leaving his papers there, he went out, taking the key with him, and locking the door after him. He called up one of his men, telling him he would be ready for supper immediately in the parlour downstairs, and that any visitors who came for him were to be admitted at once.
Then he passed into his bedroom to wash and change his clothes.
* * * * *
Half an hour later he came upstairs again.
He had supped alone, listening and watching the window as he ate; but no sign had come of any arrival. He had dressed with particular care, intending to be found at his ease when the searchers did arrive; there must be no sign of panic or anxiety. He had told his man as he rose from table, to say to any that came for him that they were expected, and to bring them immediately upstairs.
He unlocked the door of his private room, and went in. All was as he had left it; the floor between the window and table was white with ordered heaps of papers; the bundle on the table itself glimmered where he had laid it.
The fire had sunk to a spark. He tenderly lifted off the masses of black sheets that crackled as he touched them; it had not occurred to him before that these evidences of even a harmless destruction had better be removed; and he slid them carefully on to a broad sheet of paper, folded it, shaking the ashes together as he did so, and stood a moment, wondering where he should hide it.
The room was growing dark now; he put the package down; went to the fire and blew it up a little, added some wood, and presently the flames were dancing on the broad hearth.
As he stood up again he heard the knocker rap on his street-door. For a moment he had an instinct to run to the window and see who was there; but he put it aside; there was scarcely time to hide the ashes; and it was best too to give no hint of anxiety. He lifted the package of burnt papers once more, and stood hesitating; a press would be worse than useless as a hiding-place; all such would of course be searched. Then a thought struck him; he stood up noiselessly on his chair. The Holbein portrait of Cromwell in his furred gown and chain leaned forward from the tapestry over the mantelpiece. Ralph set one hand against the wall at the side; and then tenderly let the package fall behind the portrait. As he did so the painted and living eyes were on a level; it seemed strange to him that the faces were so near together at that moment; and it struck him with a grim irony that the master should be so protecting the servant under these circumstances.
Then he dropped lightly to the ground, and sat quickly in the chair, snatching up the bundle of papers from the table as he did so.
The steps were on the landing now; he heard the crack of the balustrade; but it seemed they were coming very quietly.
There was a moment's silence; the muscles of his throat contracted sharply, then there came the servant's tap; the handle was turned.
Ralph stood up quickly, still holding the papers, as the door opened, and Beatrice stepped forward into the room. The door shut noiselessly behind her.
* * * * *
She stood there, with the firelight playing on her dark loose-sleeved mantle, the hood that surrounded her head, her pale face a little flushed, and her black steady eyes. Her breath came quickly between her parted lips.
Ralph stared at her, dazed by the shock, still gripping the bundle of papers. She moved forward a step; and the spell snapped.
"Mistress Beatrice," he said.
"I have come," she said; "what is it? You want me?"
She came round the table, with an air of eager expectancy.
"I—I did not know," said Ralph.
"But you wanted me. What is the matter? I heard you call."
Ralph stared again, bewildered.
"Call?" he said.
"Yes, I heard you. I was in my room at my aunt's house—ah! a couple of hours ago. You called me twice. 'Beatrice! Beatrice!' Then—then they told me what had happened about my Lord Essex."
"I called you?" repeated Ralph.
"Yes—you called me. Your voice was quite close to me, at my ear; I thought you were in the room. Tell me what it is."
She loosened her hold of her mantle as she stood there by the table; and it dropped open, showing a sparkle of jewels at her throat. She threw back her hood, and it dropped on to her shoulders, leaving visible the coiled masses of her black hair set with knots of ribbon.
"I did not call," said Ralph dully. "I do not know what you mean, Mistress Atherton."
She made a little impatient gesture.
"Ah! yes," she said, "it is something. Tell me quickly. I suppose it has to do with my Lord. What is it?"
"It is nothing," said Ralph again.
They stood looking at one another in silence. Beatrice's eyes ran a moment up and down his rich dress, the papers in his hands, then wandered to the heaped floor, the table, and returned to the papers in his hands.
"You must tell me," she said. "What is that you are holding?"
An angry terror seized Ralph.
"That is my affair, Mistress Atherton. What is your business with me?"
She came a step nearer, and leant her left hand on his table. He could see those steady eyes on his face; she looked terribly strong and controlled.
"Indeed you must tell me, Mr. Torridon. I am come here to do something. I do not know what. What are those papers?"
He turned and dropped them on to the chair behind him.
"I tell you again, I do not know what you mean."
"It is useless," she said. "Have they been to you yet? What do you mean to do about my Lord? You know he is in the Tower?"
"I suppose so," said Ralph, "but my counsel is my own."
"Mr. Torridon, let us have an end of this. I know well that you must have many secrets against my lord—"
"I tell you that what I know is nothing. I have not a hundredth part of his papers."
He felt himself desperate and bewildered, like a man being pushed to the edge of a precipice, step by step. But those black eyes held and compelled him on. He scarcely knew what he was saying.
"And are these papers all his? What have you been doing with them?"
"My Lord told me to sort them."
The words were drawn out against his own will.
"And those in your hand—on the chair. What are they?"
Ralph made one more violent effort to regain the mastery.
"If you were not a woman, Mistress Atherton, I should tell you you were insolent."
Not a ripple troubled those strong eyes.
"Tell me, Mr. Torridon, what are they?"
He stood silent and furious.
"I will tell you what they are," she said; "they are my Lord's secrets. Is it not so? And you were about to burn them. Oh! Ralph, is it not so?"
Her voice had a tone of entreaty in it. He dropped his eyes, overcome by the passion that streamed from her.
"Is it not so?" she cried again.
"Do you wish me to do so?" he said amazed. His voice seemed not his own; it was as if another spoke for him. He had the same sensation of powerlessness as once before when she had lashed him with her tongue in the room downstairs.
"Wish you?" she cried. "Why, yes; what else?"
He lifted his eyes to hers; the room seemed to have grown darker yet in those few minutes. He could only see now a shadowed face looking at him; but her bright passionate eyes shone out from it and dominated him.
Again he spoke, in spite of himself.
"I shall not burn them," he said.
"Shall not? shall not?"
"I shall not," he said again.
There was silence. Ralph's soul was struggling desperately within him. He put out his hand mechanically and took up the papers once more, as if to guard them from this fierce, imperious woman. Beatrice's eyes followed the movement; and then rested once more on his face. Then she spoke again, with a tense deliberateness that drove every word home, piercing and sharp to the very centre of his spirit.
"Listen," she said, "for this is what I came to say. I know what you are thinking—I know every thought as if it were my own. You tell yourself that it is useless to burn those secrets; that there are ten thousand more—enough to cast my lord. I make no answer to that."
"You tell yourself that you can only save yourself by giving them up to his enemies. I make no answer to that."
"You tell yourself that it will be known if you destroy them—that you will be counted as one of His Highness's enemies. I make no answer to that. And I tell you to burn them."
She came a step nearer. There was not a yard between them now; and the fire of her words caught and scorched him with their bitterness.
"You have been false to every high and noble thing. You have been false to your own conscience—to your father—your brother—your sister—your Church—your King and your God. You have been false to love and honour. You have been false to yourself. And now Almighty God of His courtesy gives you one more opportunity—an opportunity to be true to your master. I say nothing of him. God is his judge. You know what that verdict will be. And yet I bid you be true to him. He has a thousand claims on you. You have served him, though it be but Satan's service; yet it is the highest that you know—God help you! He is called friendless now. Shall that be wholly true of him? You will be called a traitor presently—shall that be wholly true of you? Or shall there be one tiny point in which you are not false and treacherous as you have been in all other points?"
She stopped again, looking him fiercely in the eyes.
* * * * *
From the street outside there came the sound of footsteps; the ring of steel on stone. Ralph heard it, and his eyes rolled round to the window; but he did not move.
Beatrice was almost touching him now. He felt the fragrance that hung about her envelop him for a moment. Then he felt a touch on the papers; and his fingers closed more tightly.
The steps outside grew louder and ceased; and the house suddenly reverberated with a thunder of knocking.
Beatrice sprang back.
"Nay, you shall give me them," she said; and stood waiting with outstretched hand.
Ralph lifted the papers slowly, stared at them, and at her.
Then he held them out.
* * * * *
In a moment she had snatched them; and was on her knees by the hearth. Ralph watched her, and listened to the steps coming up the stairs. The papers were alight now. The girl dashed her fingers among them, grinding, tearing, separating the heavy pages.
They were almost gone by now; the thick smoke poured up the chimney; and still Beatrice tore and dashed the ashes about.
There was a knocking at the door; and the handle turned. The girl rose from her knees and smiled at Ralph as the door opened, and the pursuivants stood there in the opening.
Chris had something very like remorse after Ralph had left Overfield, and no words of explanation or regret had been spoken on either side. He recognised that he had not been blameless at the beginning of their estrangement—if, indeed, there ever had been a beginning—for their inflamed relations had existed to some extent back into boyhood as far as he could remember; but he had been responsible for at least a share in the fierce words in Ralph's house after the death of the Carthusians. He had been hot-headed, insolent, theatrical; and he had not written to acknowledge it. He had missed another opportunity at Lewes—at least one—when pride had held him back from speaking, for fear that he should be thought to be currying favour. And now this last opportunity, the best of all—when Ralph had been accessible and courteous, affected, Chris imagined, by the death of his mother—this too had been missed; and he had allowed his brother to ride away without a word of regret or more than formal affection.
He was troubled at mass, an hour after Ralph had gone; the distraction came between him and the sweet solemnity upon which he was engaged. His soul was dry and moody. He showed it in his voice. As a younger brother in past years; as a monk and a priest now, he knew that the duty of the first step to a reconciliation had lain with him; and that he had not taken it.
It had been a troubled household altogether when Ralph had gone. There was first the shock of Lady Torridon's death, and the hundred regrets that it had left behind. Then Beatrice too, who had helped them all so much, had told them that she must go back to town—her aunt was alone in the little house at Charing, for the friend who had spent Christmas there was gone back to the country; and Margaret, consequently, had been almost in despair. Lastly Sir James himself had been troubled; wondering whether he might not have been warmer with Ralph, more outspoken in his gratitude for the affair of the mummers, more ready to welcome an explanation from his son. The shadow of Ralph then rested on the household, and there was something of pathos in it. He was so much detached now, so lonely, and it seemed that he was content it should be so.
* * * * *
There were pressing matters too to be arranged; and, weightiest of all, those relating to Margaret's future. She would now be the only woman besides the servants, in the house; and it was growing less and less likely that she would be ever able to take up the Religious Life again in England. There seemed little reason for her remaining in the country, unless indeed she threw aside the Religious habit altogether, and went to live at Great Keynes as Mary preferred. Beatrice made an offer to receive her in London for a while, but in this case again she would have to wear secular dress.
The evening before Beatrice left, the two sat and talked for a couple of hours. Margaret was miserable; she cried a little, clung to Beatrice, and then was ashamed of herself.
"My dear child," said the other. "It is in your hands. You can do as you please."
"But I cannot," sobbed the nun. "I cannot; I do not know. Let me come with you, Beatrice."
Beatrice then settled down and talked to her. She told her of her duty to her father for the present; she must remember that he was lonely now. In any case she must not think of leaving home for another six months. In the meantime she had to consider two points. First, did she consider herself in conscience bound to Religion? What did the priest tell her? If she did so consider herself, then there was no question; she must go to Bruges and join the others. Secondly, if not, did she think herself justified in leaving her father in the summer? If so, she might either go to Great Keynes, or come up for at least a long visit to Charing.
"And what do you think?" asked the girl piteously.
"Do you wish me to tell you!" said Beatrice.
"Then I think you should go to Bruges in July or August."
Margaret stared at her; the tears were very near her eyes again.
"My darling; I should love to have you in London," went on the other caressing her. "Of course I should. But I cannot see that King Henry his notions make any difference to your vows. They surely stand. Is it not so, my dear?"
And so after a little more talk Margaret consented. Her mind had told her that all along; it was her heart only that protested against this final separation from her friend.
Chris too agreed when she spoke to him a day or two later when Beatrice had gone back. He said he had been considering his own case too; and that unless something very marked intervened he proposed to follow Dom Anthony abroad. They could travel together, he said. Finally, when the matter was laid before their father he also consented.
"I shall do very well," he said. "Mary spoke to me of it; and Nicholas has asked me to make my home at Great Keynes; so if you go, my son, with Meg in the summer, I shall finish matters here, lease out the estate, and Mr. Carleton and I shall betake ourselves there. Unless"—he said—"unless Ralph should come to another mind."
* * * * *
As the spring and early summer drew on, the news, as has been seen, was not reassuring.
In spite of the Six Articles of the previous year by which all vows of chastity were declared binding before God, there was no hint of making it possible for the thousands of Religious in England still compelled by them to return to the Life in which such vows were tolerable. The Religious were indeed dispensed from obedience and poverty by the civil authority; it was possible for them to buy, inherit, and occupy property; but a recognition of their corporate life was as far as ever away. It was becoming plainer every day that those who wished to pursue their vocation must do so in voluntary exile; and letters were already being exchanged between the brother and sister at home and the representatives of their respective communities on the Continent.
Then suddenly on the eleventh of June there arrived the news of Cromwell's fall and of all that it involved to Ralph.
They were at dinner when it came.
There was a door suddenly thrust open at the lower end of the hall; and a courier, white with dust and stiff with riding, limped up the matting and delivered Beatrice's letter. It was very short.
"Come," she had written. "My Lord of Essex is arrested. He is in the Tower. Mr. Ralph, too, is there for refusing to inform against him. He has behaved gallantly."
There followed a line from Mistress Jane Atherton, her aunt, offering rooms in her own house.
* * * * *
A wild confusion fell upon the household. Men ran to and fro, women whispered and sobbed in corners under shadow of the King's displeasure that lay on the house, the road between the terrace and the stable buzzed with messengers, ordering and counter-ordering, for it was not certain at first that Margaret would not go. A mounted groom dashed up for instructions and was met by Sir James in his riding-cloak on the terrace who bade him ride to Great Keynes with the news, and entreat Sir Nicholas Maxwell to come up to London and his wife to Overfield; there was not time to write. Sir James's own room was in confusion; his clothes lay tumbled on the ground and a distraught servant tossed them this way and that; Chris was changing his habit upstairs, for it would mean disaster to go to town as a monk. Margaret was on her knees in chapel, silent and self-controlled, but staring piteously at the compassionate figure of the great Mother who looked down on her with Her Son in Her arms. The huge dog under the chapel-cloister lifted his head and bayed in answer, as frantic figures fled across the court before him. And over all lay the hot June sky, and round about the deep peaceful woods.
A start was made at three o'clock.
Sir James was already in his saddle, as Chris ran out; an unfamiliar figure in his plain priest's cloak and cap and great riding boots beneath. A couple of grooms waited behind, and another held the monk's horse. Margaret was on the steps, white and steadied by prayer; and the chaplain stood behind with a strong look in his eyes as they met those of his patron.
"Take care of her, father; take care of her. Her sister will be here to-night, please God. Oh! God bless you, my dear! Pray for us all. Jesu keep us all! Chris, are you mounted?"
Then they were off; and the white dust rose in clouds about them.
* * * * *
It was between eight and nine as they rode up the north bank of the river from London Bridge to Charing.
It had been a terrible ride, with but few words between the two, and long silences that were the worst of all; as, blotting out the rich country and the deep woods and the meadows and heathery hills on either side of the road through Surrey, visions moved and burned before them, such as the King's vengeance had made possible to the imagination. From far away across the Southwark fields Chris had seen the huddled buildings of the City, the princely spire that marked them, and had heard the sweet jangling of the thousand bells that told the Angelus; but he had thought of little but of that high gateway under which they must soon pass, where the pikes against the sky made palpable the horrors of his thought. He had given one swift glance up as he went beneath; and then his heart sickened as they went on, past the houses and St. Thomas's chapel with gleams of the river seen beneath. Then as he looked his breath came sharp; far down there eastwards, seen for a moment, rose up the sombre towers where Ralph lay, and the saints had suffered.
The old Religious Houses, stretching in a splendid line upwards, from the Augustinian priory near the river-bank, along the stream that flowed down from Ludgate, caught the last rays of sunlight high against the rich sky as the riders went along towards Charing between the sedge-brinked tide and the slope of grass on their right; and the monk's sorrowful heart was overlaid again with sorrow as he looked at them, empty now and desolate where once the praises of God had sounded day and night.
They stopped beneath the swinging sign of an inn, with Westminister towers blue and magical before them, to ask for Mistress Atherton's house, and were directed a little further along and nearer to the water's edge.
It was a little old house when they came to it, built on a tiny private embankment that jutted out over the flats of the river-bank; of plaster and timber with overhanging storeys and windows beneath the roof. It stood by itself, east of the village, and almost before the jangle of the bell had died away, Beatrice herself was at the door, in her house-dress, bare-headed; with a face at once radiant and constrained.
She took them upstairs immediately, after directing the men to take the horses, when they had unloaded the luggage, back to the inn where they had enquired the way: for there was no stable, she said, attached to the house.
Chris came behind his father as if in a dream through the dark little hall and up the two flights on to the first landing. Beatrice stopped at a door.
"You can say what you will," she said, "before my aunt. She is of our mind in these matters."
Then they were in the room; a couple of candles burned on a table before the curtained window; and an old lady with a wrinkled kindly face hobbled over from her chair and greeted the two travellers.
"I welcome you, gentlemen," she said, "if a sore heart may say so to sore hearts."
There was no news of Nicholas, they were told; he had not been heard of.
* * * * *
They heard the story so far as Beatrice knew it; but it was softened for their ears. She had found Ralph, she said, hesitating what to do. He had been plainly bewildered by the sudden news; they had talked a while; and then he had handed her the papers to burn. The magistrate sent by the Council had arrived to find the ashes still smoking. He had questioned Ralph sharply, for he had come with authority behind him; and Ralph had refused to speak beyond telling him that the bundles lying on the floor were all the papers of my Lord Essex that were in his possession. They had laid hands on these, and then searched the room. A quantity of ashes, Beatrice said, had fallen from behind a portrait over the hearth when they had shifted it. Then the magistrate had questioned her too, enquired where she lived, and let her go. She had waited at the corner of the street, and watched the men come out. Ralph walked in the centre as a prisoner. She had followed them to the river; had mixed with the crowd that gathered there; and had heard the order given to the wherryman to pull to the Tower. That was all that she knew.
"Thank God for your son, sir. He bore himself gallantly."
There was a silence as she ended. The old man looked at her wondering and dazed. It was so sad, that the news scarcely yet conveyed its message.
"And my Lord Essex?" he said.
"My Lord is in the Tower too. He was arrested at the Council by the Duke of Norfolk."
The old lady intervened then, and insisted on their going down to supper. It would be ready by now, she said, in the parlour downstairs.
They supped, themselves silent, with Beatrice leaning her arms on the table, and talking to them in a low voice, telling them all that was said. She did not attempt to prophesy smoothly. The feeling against Cromwell, she said, passed all belief. The streets had been filled with a roaring crowd last night. She had heard them bellowing till long after dark. The bells were pealed in the City churches hour after hour, in triumph over the minister's fall.
"The dogs!" she said fiercely. "I never thought to say it, but my heart goes out to him."
Her spirit was infections. Chris felt a kind of half-joyful recklessness tingle in his veins, as he listened to her talk, and watched her black eyes hot with indignation and firm with purpose. What if Ralph were cast? At least it was for faithfulness—of a kind. Even the father's face grew steadier; that piteous trembling of the lower lip ceased, and the horror left his eyes. It was hard to remain in panic with that girl beside them.
They had scarcely done supper when the bell of the outer door rang again, and a moment later Nicholas was with them, flushed with hard riding. He strode into the room, blinking at the lights, and tossed his riding whip on to the table.
"I have been to the Lieutenant of the Tower," he said; "I know him of old. He promises nothing. He tells me that Ralph is well-lodged. Mary is gone to Overfield. God damn the King!"
He had no more news to give. He had sent off his wife at once on receiving the tidings, and had started half an hour later for London. He had been ahead of them all the way, it seemed; but had spent a couple of hours first in trying to get admittance to the Tower, and then in interviewing the Lieutenant; but there was no satisfaction to be gained there. The utmost he had wrung from him was a promise that he would see him again, and hear what he had to say.
Then Nicholas had to sup and hear the whole story from the beginning; and Chris left his father to tell it, and went up with Beatrice to arrange about rooms.
Matters were soon settled with the old lady; Nicholas and Chris were to sleep in one room, and Sir James in an another. Two servants only could be accommodated in the house; the rest were to put up at the inn. Beatrice went off to give the necessary orders.
Mistress Jane Atherton and Chris had a few moments together before the others came up.
"A sore heart," said the old lady again, "but a glad one too. Beatrice has told me everything."
"I am thankful too," said Chris softly. "I wonder if my father understands."
"He will, father, he will. But even if he does not—well, God knows all."
It was evident when Sir James came upstairs presently that he did not understand anything yet, except that Beatrice thought that Ralph had behaved well.
"But it is to my Lord Essex—who has been the worker of all the mischief—that my son is faithful. Is that a good thing then?"
"Why, yes," said Chris. "You would not have him faithless there too?"
"But would he not be on God's side at last, if he were against Cromwell?"
The old man was still too much bewildered to understand explanations, and his son was silent.
* * * * *
Chris could not sleep that night, and long after Nicholas lay deep in his pillow, with open mouth and tight eyes, the priest was at the window looking out over the river where the moon hung like a silver shield above Southwark. The meadows beyond the stream were dim and colourless; here and there a roof rose among trees; and straight across the broad water to his feet ran a path of heaving glory, where the strong ripple tossed the silver surface that streamed down upon it from the moon.
London lay round him as quiet as Overfield, and Chris remembered with a stir at his heart his moonlight bathe all those years ago in the lake at home, when he had come back hot from hunting and had slipped down with the chaplain after supper. Then the water had seemed like a cool restful gulf in the world of sensation; the moon had not been risen at first; only the stars pricked above and below in air and water. Then the moon had come up, and a path of splendour had smitten the surface into sight. He had swum up it, he remembered, the silver ripple washing over his shoulders as he went.
And now those years of monastic peace and storm had come and gone, sifting and penetrating his soul, washing out from it little by little the heats and passions with which he had plunged. As he looked back on himself he was astonished at his old complacent smallness. His figure appeared down that avenue of years, a tiny passionate thing, gesticulating, feverish, self-conscious. He remembered his serene certainty that he was right and Ralph wrong in every touch of friction between them, his own furious and theatrical outburst at the death of the Carthusians, his absurd dignity on later occasions. Even in those first beginnings of peace when the inner life had begun to well up and envelop him he had been narrow and self-centred; he had despised the common human life, not understanding that God's Will was as energetic in the bewildering rush of the current as in the quiet sheltered back-waters to which he himself had been called. He had been awakened from that dream by the fall of the Priory, and that to which he opened his eyes had been forced into his consciousness by the months at home, when he had had that astringent mingling of the world and the spirit, of the interpenetration of the inner by the outer. And now for the first time he stood as a balanced soul between the two, alight with a tranquil grace within, and not afraid to look at the darkness without. He was ready now for either life, to go back to the cloister and labour there for the world at the springs of energy, or to take his place in the new England and struggle at the tossing surface.
He stood here now by the hurrying turbulent stream, a wider and more perilous gulf than that that had lain before him as he looked at the moonlit lake at Overfield and yet over it brooded the same quiet shield of heaven, gilding the black swift flowing forces with the promise of a Presence greater than them all.
He stood there long, staring and thinking.
The days that followed were very anxious and troubled ones for Ralph's friends at Charing. They were dreadful too from their very uneventfulness.
On the morning following their arrival Chris went off to the Temple to consult a lawyer that the Lieutenant had recommended to Nicholas, and brought him back with him an hour later. The first need to be supplied was their lack of knowledge as to procedure; and the four men sat together until dinner, in the parlour on the first floor looking over the sunlit river; and discussed the entire situation.
The lawyer, Mr. Herries, a shrewd-faced Northerner, sat with his back to the window, fingering a quill horizontally in his lean brown fingers and talking in short sentences, glancing up between them, with patient silences as the others talked. He seemed the very incarnation of the slow inaction that was so infinitely trying to these anxious souls.
The three laymen did not even know the crime with which Ralph was charged, but they soon learnt that the technical phrase for it was misprision of treason.
"Mr. Torridon was arrested, I understand," said the lawyer, "by order of Council. He would have been arrested in any case. He was known to be privy to my Lord Essex's schemes. You inform me that he destroyed evidence. That will go against him if they can prove it."