He drew the quill softly through his lips, and then fell to fingering it again, as the others stared at him.
"However," went on Mr. Herries, "that is not our affair now. There will be time for that. Our question is, when will he be charged, and how? My Lord Essex may be tried by a court, or attainted in Parliament. I should suppose the latter. Mr. Torridon will be treated in the same way. If it be the former, we can do nothing but wait and prepare our case. If it be the latter, we must do our utmost to keep his name out of the bill."
He went on to explain his reasons for thinking that a bill of attainder would be brought against Cromwell. It was the customary method, he said, for dealing with eminent culprits, and its range had been greatly extended by Cromwell himself. At this moment three Catholics lay in the Tower, attainted through the statesman's own efforts, for their supposed share in a conspiracy to deliver up Calais to the invaders who had threatened England in the previous year. Feeling, too, ran very high against Cromwell; the public would be impatient of a long trial; and a bill of attainder would give a readier outlet to the fury against him.
This then was the danger; but they could do nothing, said the lawyer, to avert it, until they could get information. He would charge himself with that business, and communicate with them as soon as he knew.
"And then?" asked Chris, looking at him desperately, for the cold deliberate air of Mr. Herries gave him a terrible sense of the passionless process of the law.
"I was about to speak of that," said the lawyer. "If it goes as I think it will, and Mr. Torridon's name is suggested for the bill, we must approach the most powerful friends we can lay hold on, to use their influence against his inclusion. Have you any such, sir?" he added, looking at Sir James sharply over the quill.
The old man shook his head.
"I know no one," he said.
The lawyer pursed his lips.
"Then we must do the best we can. We can set aside at once all of my Lord Essex's enemies—and—and he has many now. Two names come to my mind. Master Ralph Sadler—the comptroller; and my Lord of Canterbury."
"Ah!" cried Chris, dropping his hand, "my Lord of Canterbury! My brother has had dealings with him."
Sir James straightened himself in his chair.
"I will ask no favour of that fellow," he said sternly.
The lawyer looked at him with a cocked eyebrow.
"Well, sir," he said, "if you will not you will not. But I cannot suggest a better. He is in high favour with his Grace; they say he has already said a word for my Lord Essex—not much—much would be too much, I think; but still 'twas something. And what of Master Sadler?"
"I know nothing of him," faltered the old man.
There was silence a moment.
"Well, sir," said Mr. Herries, "you can think the matter over. I am for my Lord of Canterbury; for the reasons I have named to you. But we can wait a few days. We can do nothing until the method of procedure is known."
Then he went; promising to let them know as soon as he had information.
* * * * *
Rumours began to run swiftly through the City. It was said, though untruly at that time, that Cromwell had addressed a letter to the King at Henry's own request, explaining his conduct, utterly denying that he had said certain rash words attributed to him, and that His Majesty was greatly affected by it. There was immense excitement everywhere; a crowd assembled daily outside Westminster Hall; groups at every corner of the streets discussed the fallen minister's chances; and shouts were raised for those who were known to be his enemies, the Duke of Norfolk, Rich, and others—as they rode through to the Palace.
Meanwhile Ralph's friends could do little. Nicholas rode down once or twice to see the Lieutenant of The Tower, and managed to extract a promise that Ralph should hear of their presence in London; but he could not get to see him, or hear any news except that he was in good health and spirits, and was lodged in a private cell.
Then suddenly one afternoon a small piece of news arrived from Mr. Herries to the effect that Cromwell was to be attainted; and anxiety became intense as to whether Ralph would be included. Sir James could eat nothing at supper, but sat crumbling his bread, while Beatrice talked almost feverishly in an attempt to distract him. Finally he rose and went out, and the others sat on, eyeing one another, anxious and miserable.
In desperation Nicholas began to talk of his visit to the Tower, of the Lieutenant's timidity, and his own insistence; and they noticed nothing, till the door was flung open, and the old man stood there, his eyes bright and his lips trembling with hope. He held a scrap of paper in his hand.
"Listen," he cried as the others sprang to their feet.
"A fellow has just come from Mr. Herries with this"—he lifted the paper and read,—"Mr. Torridon's name is not in the bill. I will be with you to-morrow."
"Thank God!" said Chris.
* * * * *
There was another long discussion the following morning. Mr. Herries arrived about ten o'clock to certify his news; and the four sat till dinner once again, talking and planning. There was not the same desperate hurry now; the first danger was passed.
There was only one thing that the lawyer could do, and that was to repeat his advice to seek the intercession of the Archbishop. He observed again that while Cranmer had the friendship of the fallen minister, he had not in any sense been involved in his fall; he was still powerful with the King, and of considerable weight with the Council in consequence. He was likely therefore to be both able and willing to speak on behalf of Cromwell's agent.
"But I would advise nothing to be done until the bill of attainder has come before Parliament. We do not know yet how far Mr. Torridon's action has affected the evidence. From what you say, gentlemen, and from what I have heard elsewhere, I should think that the papers Mr. Torridon destroyed are not essential to a conviction. My Lord's papers at his own house are sufficient."
But they had some difficulty in persuading Sir James to consent to ask a favour of the Archbishop. In his eyes, Cranmer was beyond the pale of decency; he had lived with two women, said the old man, whom he called his wives, although as a priest he was incapable of marriage; he had violated his consecration oath; he had blessed and annulled the frequent marriages of the King with equal readiness; he was a heretic confessed and open on numberless points of the Catholic Faith.
Mr. Herries pointed out with laborious minuteness that this was beside the question altogether. He did not propose that Sir James Torridon should go to the Archbishop as to a spiritual superior, but as to one who chanced to have great influence;—if he were a murderer it would make no difference to his advice.
Chris broke in with troubled eyes.
"Indeed, sir," he said to his father, "you know how I am with you in all that you say; and yet I am with Mr. Herries too. I do not understand—"
"God help us," cried the old man. "I do not know what to do."
"Will you talk with Mistress Beatrice?" asked Chris.
Sir James nodded.
"I will do that," he said.
* * * * *
The next day the bill was passed; and the party in the house at Charing sat sick at heart within doors, hearing the crowds roaring down the street, singing and shouting in triumph. Every cry tore their hearts; for was it not against Ralph's master and friend that they rejoiced? As they sat at supper a great battering broke out at the door that looked on to the lane; and they sprang up to hear a drunken voice bellowing at them to come out and shout for liberty. Nicholas went crimson with anger; and he made a movement towards the hall, his hand on his hilt.
"Ah! sit down, Nick," said the monk. "The drunken fool is away again."
And they heard the steps reel on towards Westminster.
* * * * *
It was not until a fortnight later that they went at last to Lambeth.
Sir James had been hard to persuade; but Beatrice had succeeded at last. Nicholas had professed himself ready to ask a favour of the devil himself under the circumstances; and Chris himself continued to support the lawyer's opinion. He repeated his arguments again and again.
Then it was necessary to make an appointment with the Archbishop; and a day was fixed at last. My Lord would see them, wrote a secretary, at two o'clock on the afternoon of July the third.
Beatrice sat through that long hot afternoon in the window-seat of the upstairs parlour, looking out over the wide river below, conscious perhaps for the first time of the vast weight of responsibility that rested on her.
She had seen them go off in a wherry, the father and son with Nicholas in the stern, and the lawyer facing them on the cross-bench; they had been terribly silent as they walked down to the stairs; had stood waiting there without a word being spoken but by herself, as the wherry made ready; and she had talked hopelessly, desperately, to relieve the tension. Then they had gone off. Sir James had looked back at her over his shoulder as the boat put out; and she had seen his lips move. She had watched them grow smaller and smaller as they went, and then when a barge had come between her and them, she had gone home alone to wait for their return, and the tidings that they would bring.
And she, in a sense was responsible for it all. If it had not been for her visit to Ralph, he would have handed the papers over to the authorities; he would be at liberty now, no doubt, as were Cromwell's other agents; and, as she thought of it, her tortured heart asked again and again whether after all she had done right.
She went over the whole question, as she sat there, looking out over the river towards Lambeth, fingering the shutter, glancing now and again at the bent old figure of her aunt in her tall chair, and listening to the rip of the needle through the silk. Could she have done otherwise? Was her interference and advice after all but a piece of mad chivalry, unnecessary and unpractical?
And yet she knew that she would do it again, if the same circumstances arose. It would be impossible to do otherwise. Reason was against it; Mr. Herries had hinted as much with a quick lifting of his bushy eyebrows as she had told him the story. It would have made no difference to Cromwell—ah! but she had not done it for that; it was for the sake of Ralph himself; that he might not lose the one opportunity that came to him of making a movement back towards the honour he had forfeited.
But it was no less torture to think of it all, as she sat here. She had faced the question before; but now the misery she had watched during these last three weeks had driven it home. Day by day she had seen the old father's face grow lined and haggard as the suspense gnawed at his heart; she had watched him at meals—had seen him sit in bewildered grief, striving for self-control and hope—had seen him, as the light faded in the parlour upstairs, sink deeper into himself; his eyes hidden by his hand, and his grey pointed beard twitching at the trembling of his mouth. Once or twice she had met his eyes fixed on hers, in a questioning stare, and had known what was in his heart—a simple, unreproachful wonder at the strange events that had made her so intimately responsible for his son's happiness.
She thought of Margaret too, as she sat there; of the poor girl who had so rested on her, believed in her, loved her. There she was now at Overfield, living in a nightmare of suspense, watching so eagerly for the scanty letters, disappointed every time of the good news for which she hoped....
* * * * *
The burden was an intolerable one. Beatrice was scarcely conscious of where she sat or for what she waited. She was living over again every detail of her relations with Ralph. She remembered how she had seen him at first at Chelsea; how he had come out with Master More from the door of the New Building and across the grass. She had been twisting a grass-ring then as she listened to the talk, and had tossed it on to the dog's back. Then, day by day she had met him; he had come at all hours; and she had watched him, for she thought she had found a man. She remembered how her interest had deepened; how suddenly her heart had leapt that evening when she came into the hall and found him sitting in the dark. Then, step by step, the friendship had grown till it had revealed its radiant face at the bitterness of Chris's words in the house at Westminster. Then her life had become magical; all the world cried "Ralph" to her; the trumpets she heard sounded to his praise; the sunsets had shone for him and her. Then came the news of the Visitors' work; and her heart had begun to question her insistently; the questions had become affirmation; and in one passionate hour she had gone to him, scourged him with her tongue, and left him. She had seen him again once or twice in the years that followed; had watched him from a window hung with tapestries in Cheapside, as he rode down beside the King; and had not dared to ask herself what her heart so longed to tell her. Then had come the mother's question; and the falling of the veils.
Then he had called her; she never doubted that; as she sat alone in her room one evening. It had come, thin and piteous;—"Beatrice, Beatrice." He needed her, and she had gone, and meddled with his life once more.
And he lay in the Tower....
* * * * *
"Beatrice, my child."
She turned from the window, her eyes blind with tears; and in a moment was kneeling at her aunt's side, her face buried in her lap, and felt those kindly old hands passing over her hair. She heard a murmur over her head, but scarcely caught a word. There was but one thing she needed, and that—
Then she knelt suddenly upright listening, and the caressing hand was still.
"Beatrice, my dear, Beatrice."
* * * * *
There were footsteps on the stairs outside, eager and urgent. The girl rose to her feet, and stood there, swaying a little with a restrained expectation.
Then the door was open, and Chris was there, flushed and radiant, with the level evening light full on his face.
"It is all well," he cried, "my Lord will take us to the King."
The river-front of Greenwich House was a magnificent sight as the four men came up to it one morning nearly three weeks later. The long two-storied row of brick buildings which Henry had named Placentia, with their lines of windows broken by the two clusters of slender towers, and porticos beneath, were fronted by broad platforms and a strip of turf with steps leading down to the water, and at each of these entrances there continually moved brilliant figures, sentries with the sunlight flashing on their steel caps and pike-points, servants in the royal livery, watermen in their blue and badges.
Here and there at the foot of the steps rocked gaudy barges, a mass of gilding and colour, with broad low canopies at the stern, and flags drooping at the prow; wherries moved to and fro, like water-beetles, shooting across from bank to bank with passengers, above and below the palace, or pausing with uplifted oars as the stream swept them down, for the visitors to stare and marvel at the great buildings. Behind rose up the green masses of trees against the sloping park. And over all lay the July sky, solemn flakes of cloud drifting across a field of intense blue.
There had been a delay in the fulfilment of the Archbishop's promise; at one time he himself was away in the country on affairs, at another time the King was too much pressed, Cranmer reported, to have such a matter brought before him; and then suddenly a messenger had come across from Lambeth with a letter, bidding them present themselves at Greenwich on the following morning; for the day following that had been fixed for Cromwell's execution, and the Archbishop hoped that the King would be ready to hear a word on behalf of the agent whose loyalty had failed to save his master.
* * * * *
The boatman suddenly backed water with his left-hand oar, took a stroke or two with his right, glancing over his shoulder; and the boat slid up to the foot of the steps.
A couple of watermen were already waiting there, in the Archbishop's livery, and steadied the boat for the four gentlemen to step out; and a moment later the four were standing on the platform, looking about them.
They were at one of the smaller entrances to the palace, up-stream. A hundred yards further down was the royal entrance, canopied and carpeted, with the King's barge rocking at the foot, a number of servants coming and going on the platform, and the great state windows overlooking all; but here they were in comparative quiet. A small doorway with its buff and steel-clad sentry before it opened on their right into the interior of the palace.
One of the watermen saluted the party.
"Master Torridon?" he said.
"My Lord bade me take you through to him, sir, as soon as you arrived."
He went before them to the door, said a word to the guard, and then the party passed on through the little entrance-hall into the interior. The corridor was plainly and severely furnished with matting under-foot, chairs here and there set along the wainscot, pieces of stuff with crossed pikes between hanging on the walls; through the bow windows they caught a glimpse now and again of a little court or two, a shrubbery and a piece of lawn, and once a vista of the park where Henry in his younger days used to hold his May-revels, a gallant and princely figure all in green from cap to shoes, breakfasting beneath the trees.
Continually, as they went, first in the corridor and then through the waiting rooms at the end, they passed others going to and fro, servants hurrying on messages, leisurely and magnificent persons with their hats on, pages standing outside closed doors; and twice they were asked their business.
"For my Lord of Canterbury," answered the waterman each time.
It seemed to Chris that they must have gone an immense distance before the waterman at last stopped, motioning them to go on, and a page in purple livery stepped forward from a door.
"For my Lord of Canterbury," said the waterman for the last time.
The page bowed, turned, and threw open the door.
They found themselves in a square parlour, carpeted and hung with tapestries from floor to ceiling. A second door opened beyond, in the window side, into another room. A round table stood in the centre, with brocaded chairs about it, and a long couch by the fireplace. Opposite rose up the tall windows through which shone the bright river with the trees and buildings on the north bank beyond.
They had hardly spoken a word to one another since they had left Charing, for all that was possible had been said during the weeks of waiting for the Archbishop's summons.
Cranmer had received them kindly, though he had not committed himself beyond promising to introduce them to the King, and had expressed no opinion on the case.
He had listened to them courteously, had nodded quietly as Chris explained what it was that Ralph had done, and then almost without comment had given his promise. It seemed as if the Archbishop could not even form an opinion, and still less express one, until he had heard what his Highness had to say.
* * * * *
Chris walked to the window and the lawyer followed him.
"Placentia!" said Mr. Herries, "I do not wonder at it. It is even more pleasing from within."
He stood, a prim, black figure, looking out at the glorious view, the shining waterway studded with spots of colour, the long bank of the river opposite, and the spires of London city lying in a blue heat-haze far away to the left.
Chris stared at it too, but with unseeing eyes. It seemed as if all power of sensation had left him. The suspense of the last weeks had corroded the surfaces of his soul, and the intensity to which it was now rising seemed to have paralysed what was left. He found himself picturing the little house at Charing where Beatrice was waiting, and, he knew, praying; and he reminded himself that the next time he saw her he would know all, whether death or life was to be Ralph's sentence. The solemn quiet and the air of rich and comfortable tranquillity which the palace wore, and which had impressed itself on his mind even in the hundred yards he had walked in it, gave him an added sense of what it was that lay over his brother, the huge passionless forces with which he had become entangled.
Then he turned round. His father was sitting at the table, his head on his hand; and Nicholas was staring round the grave room with the solemnity of a child, looking strangely rustic and out of place in these surroundings.
It was very quiet as Chris leaned against the window-shutter, in his secular habit, with his hands clasped behind his back, and looked. Once a footstep passed in the corridor outside, and the floor vibrated slightly to the tread; once a horn blew somewhere far away; and from the river now and again came the cry of a waterman, or the throb of oars in rowlocks.
Sir James looked up once, opened his lips as if to speak; and then dropped his head on to his hand again.
The waiting seemed interminable.
Chris turned round to the window once more, slipped his breviary out of his pocket, and opened it. He made the sign of the cross and began—
"In nomine Patris et Filii...."
Then the second door opened; he turned back abruptly; there was a rustle of silk, and the Archbishop came through in his habit and gown.
Chris bowed slightly as the prelate went past him briskly towards the table where Sir James was now standing up, and searched his features eagerly for an omen. There was nothing to be read there; his smooth large-eyed face was smiling quietly as its manner was, and his wide lips were slightly parted.
"Good-day, Master Torridon; you are in good time. I am just come from His Highness, and will take you to him directly."
Chris saw his father's face blanch a little as he bowed in return. Nicholas merely stared.
"But we have a few minutes," went on the Archbishop. "Sir Thomas Wriothesly is with him. Tell me again sir, what you wish me to say."
Sir James looked hesitatingly to the lawyer.
"Mr. Herries," he said.
Cranmer turned round, and again made that little half-deprecating bow to the priest and the lawyer. Mr. Herries stepped forward as Cranmer sat down, clasping his hands so that the great amethyst showed on his slender finger.
"It is this, my Lord," he said, "it is as we told your Lordship at Lambeth. This gentleman desires the King's clemency towards Mr. Ralph Torridon, now in the Tower. Mr. Torridon has served—er—Mr. Cromwell very faithfully. We wish to make no secret of that. He destroyed certain private papers—though that cannot be proved against him, and you will remember that we were doubtful whether his Highness should be informed of that—"
Sir James broke in suddenly.
"I have been thinking of that, my Lord. I would sooner that the King's Grace knew everything. I have no wish that that should be kept from him."
The Archbishop who had been looking with smiling attention from one to the other, now himself broke in.
"I am glad you think that, sir. I think so myself. Though it cannot be proved as you say, it is far best that His Grace should know all. Indeed I think I should have told him in any case."
"Then, my Lord, if you think well," went on Mr. Herries, "you might lay before his Grace that this is a free and open confession. Mr. Torridon did burn papers, and important ones; but they would not have served anything. Master Cromwell was cast without them."
"But Mr. Torridon did not know that?" questioned the Archbishop blandly.
"Yes, my Lord," cried Sir James, "he must have known—that my Lord Cromwell—"
The Archbishop lifted his hand delicately.
"Master Cromwell," he corrected.
"Master Cromwell," went on the old man, "he must have known that Mr. Cromwell had others, more important, that would be certainly found and used against him."
"Then why did he burn them? You understand, sir, that I only wish to know what I have to say to his Grace."
"He burned them, my Lord, because he could not bear that his hand should be lifted against his master. Surely that is but loyal and good!"
The Archbishop nodded quietly three or four times.
"And you desire that his Grace will take order to have Mr. Torridon released?"
"That is it, my Lord," said the lawyer.
"Yes, I understand. And can you give any pledge for Mr. Torridon's good behaviour?"
"He has served Mr. Cromwell," answered the lawyer, "very well for many years. He has been with him in the matter of the Religious Houses; he was one of the King's Visitors, and assisted in the—the destruction of Lewes priory; and that, my Lord, is a sufficient—"
Sir James gave a sudden sob.
"Mr. Herries, Mr. Herries—"
Cranmer turned to him smiling.
"I know what you feel, sir," he said. "But if this is true—"
"Why, it is true! God help him," cried the old man.
"Then that is what we need, sir; as you said just now. Yes, Mr. Herries?"
The lawyer glanced at the old man again.
"That is sufficient guarantee, my Lord, that Mr. Ralph Torridon is no enemy of his Grace's projects."
"I cannot bear that!" cried Sir James.
Nicholas, who had been looking awed and open-mouthed from one to the other, took him by the arm.
"You must, father," he said. "It—it is devilish; but it is true. Chris, have you nothing?"
The monk came forward a step.
"It is true, my Lord," he said. "I was a monk of Lewes myself."
"And you have conformed," put in the Archbishop swiftly.
"I am living at home peaceably," said Chris; "it is true that my brother did all this, but—but my father wishes that it should not be used in his cause."
"If it is true," said the Archbishop, "it is best to say it. We want nothing but the bare truth."
"But I cannot bear it," cried the old man again.
Chris came round behind the Archbishop to his father.
"Will you leave it, father, to my Lord Archbishop? My Lord understands what we think."
Sir James looked at him, dazed and bewildered.
"God help us! Do you think so, Chris."
"I think so, father. My Lord, you understand all?"
The Archbishop's bowed again slightly.
"Then, my Lord, we will leave it all in your hands."
There was a tap at the door.
The Archbishop rose.
"That is our signal," he said. "Come, gentlemen, his Grace will be ready immediately."
Mr. Herries sprang to the door and opened it, bowing as the Archbishop went through, followed by Sir James and Nicholas. He and Chris followed after.
* * * * *
There was a kind of dull recklessness in the monk's heart as he went through. He knew that he was in more peril than any of the others, and yet he did not fear it. The faculty of fear had been blunted, not sharpened, by his experiences; and he passed on towards the King's presence, almost without a tremor.
The room was empty, except for a page by the further door, who opened it as the party advanced; and beyond was a wide lobby, with doors all round, and a staircase on the right as they came out. The Archbishop made a little motion to the others as he went up, gathering his skirts about him, and acknowledging with his disengaged hand the salute of the sentry that stood in the lobby.
At the top of the stairs was a broad landing; then a corridor through which they passed, and on. They turned to the left, and as they went it was apparent that they were near the royal apartments. There were thick leather rugs lying here and there; along the walls stood magnificent pieces of furniture, inlaid tables with tall dragon-jars upon them, suits of Venetian armour elaborately worked in silver, and at the door of every room that opened on the corridor there was standing a sentry or a servant, who straightened themselves at the sight of the Archbishop. He carefully acknowledged each salutation, and nodded kindly once or twice.
There was a heavy odour in the air, warm and fragrant, as of mingled stuffs and musk, which even the wide windows set open towards the garden on the right hand did not wholly obliterate.
For the first time since leaving Charing, Chris's heart quickened. The slow stages of approach to the formidable presence had begun to do their work; if he had seen the King at once he would not have been moved; if he had had an hour longer, he would have recovered from his emotion; but this swift ordered approach, the suggestiveness of the thick carpets and furniture, the sight of the silent figures waiting, the musky smell in the air, all combined now to work upon him; he began to fancy that he was drawing nearer the presence of some great carrion-beast that had made its den here, that was guarded by these discreet servitors, and to which this smooth prelate, in the role of the principal keeper, was guiding him. Any of these before him might mark the sanctuary of the labyrinth, where the creature lurked; one might open, and a savage face look out, dripping blood and slaver.
A page threw back a door at last, and they passed through; but again there was a check. It was but one more waiting room. The dozen persons, folks of all sorts, a lawyer, a soldier, and others stood up and bowed to the prelate.
Then the party sat down near the further door in dead silence, and the minutes began to pass.
There were cries from the river once or twice as they waited; once a footstep vibrated through the door, and twice a murmur of voices sounded and died again.
Then suddenly a hand was laid on the handle from the other side, and the Archbishop rose, with Sir James beside him.
There was still a pause. Then a voice sounded loud and near, and there was a general movement in the room as all rose to their feet. The door swung open and the Garter King-at-Arms came through, bland and smiling, his puffed silk sleeves brushing against the doorpost as he passed. A face like a mask, smooth and expressionless, followed him, and nodded to the Archbishop.
Cranmer turned slightly to his party, again made that little movement, and went straight through.
Chris followed with Mr. Herries.
THE KING'S HIGHNESS
As Chris knelt with the others, and the door closed behind him, he was aware of a great room with a tall window looking on to the river on his left, tapestry-hung walls, a broad table heaped with papers in the centre, a high beamed ceiling, and the thick carpet under his knees.
For a moment he did not see the King. The page who had beckoned them in had passed across the room, and Chris's eyes followed him out through an inner door in the corner.
Then, still on his knees, he turned his eyes to see the Archbishop going towards the window, and up the step that led on to the dais that occupied the floor of the oriel.
Then he saw the King.
* * * * *
A great figure was seated opposite the side door at which they had entered on the broad seat that ran round the three sides of the window. The puffed sleeves made the shoulders look enormous; a gold chain lay across them, with which the gross fingers were playing. Beneath, the vast stomach swelled out into the slashed trunks, and the scarlet legs were crossed one over the other. On the head lay a broad plumed velvet cap, and beneath it was the wide square face, at once jovial and solemn, with the narrow slits of eyes above, and the little pursed mouth fringed by reddish hair below, that Chris remembered in the barge years before. The smell of musk lay heavy in the air.
Here was the monstrous carrion-beast then at last, sunning himself and waiting.
* * * * *
So the party rested a moment or two, while the Archbishop went across to the dais; he knelt again and then stood up and said a word or two rapidly that Chris could not hear.
Henry nodded, and turned his bright narrow eyes on to them; and then made a motion with his hand. The Archbishop turned round and repeated the gesture; and Chris rose in his place as did the others.
"Master Torridon, your Grace," explained the Archbishop, with a deferential stoop of his shoulders. "Your Grace will remember—"
The King nodded abruptly, and thrust his hand out.
Chris touched his father behind.
"Go forward," he whispered; "kiss hands."
The old man went forward a hesitating step or two. The Archbishop motioned sharply, and Sir James advanced again up to the dais, sank down, and lifted the hand to his lips, and fell back for the others.
When Chris's turn came, and he lifted the heavy fingers, he noticed for a moment a wonderful red stone on the thumb, and recognised it. It was the Regal of France that he had seen years before at his visit to St. Thomas's shrine at Canterbury. In a flash, too, he remembered Cromwell's crest as he had seen it on the papers at Lewes—the demi-lion holding up the red-gemmed ring.
Then he too had fallen back, and the Archbishop was speaking.
"Your Grace will remember that there is a Mr. Ralph Torridon in the Tower—an agent of Mr. Cromwell's—"
The King's face moved slightly, but he said nothing.
—"Who is awaiting trial for destroying evidence. It is that, at least, your Grace, that is asserted against him. But it has not been proved. Master Torridon here tells me, your Highness, that it cannot be proved, but that he wishes to acknowledge it freely on his son's behalf."
Henry's eyes shot back again at the old man, ran over the others, and settled again on Cranmer's face, who was standing beside him with his back to the window.
"He is here to plead for your Grace's clemency. He wishes to lay before your Grace that his son erred through over-faithfulness to Mr. Cromwell's cause; and above all that the evidence so destroyed has not affected the course of justice—"
"God's Body!" jarred in the harsh voice suddenly, "it has not. Nor shall it."
Cranmer waited a moment with downcast eyes; but the King was silent again.
"Master Torridon has persuaded me to come with him to your Grace to speak for him. He is not accustomed—"
"And who are these fellows?"
Chris felt those keen eyes running over him.
"This is Master Nicholas Maxwell," explained the Archbishop, indicating him. "Master Torridon's son-in-law; and this, Mr. Herries—"
"And the priest?" asked the King.
"The priest is Sir Christopher Torridon, living with his father at Overfield."
"Ha! has he always lived there then?"
"No, your Grace," said Cranmer smoothly, "he was a monk at Lewes until the dissolution of the house."
"I have heard somewhat of his name," mused Henry. "What is it, sir, that I have beard of you?"
"It was perhaps Mr. Ralph Torridon's name that your Grace—" began Cranmer.
"Nay, nay, it was not. What was it, sir?"
Chris's heart was beating in his ears like a drum now. It had come, then, that peril that had always been brooding on the horizon, and which he had begun to despise. He had thought that there could be no danger in his going to the King; it was so long since Lewes had fallen, and his own part had been so small. But his Grace's memory was good, it seemed! Danger was close to him, incarnate in that overwhelming presence. He said nothing, but stood awaiting detection.
"It is strange," said Henry. "I have forgot. Well, my Lord?"
"I have told your Grace all," explained the Archbishop. "Mr. Ralph Torridon has not yet been brought to trial, and his father hopes that your Grace will take into consideration these two things: that it was a mistake of over-faithfulness that his son committed; and that it has not hindered the course of justice."
"Well, well," said Henry, "and that sounds to be in reason. We have none too much of either faithfulness or justice in these days. And there is no other charge against the fellow?"
"There is no other charge, your Grace."
There fell a complete silence for a moment or two.
Chris glanced up at his father, his own heart uplifted by hope, and saw the old man's face trembling with it too. The wrinkled eyes were full of tears, and his lips quivered; and Chris could feel the short cloak that hung against him shaking at his hand. Nicholas's crimson face showed a mingling of such emotion and solemnity that Chris was seized with an internal hysterical spasm; but it suddenly died within him as he brought his eyes round, and saw that the King was staring at him moodily....
The Archbishop's voice broke in again.
"Are we to understand, your Grace, that your Grace's clemency is extended to Mr. Ralph Torridon?"
"Eh! then," said the King peevishly, "hold your tongue, my Lord. I am trying to remember. Where is Michael?"
"Shall I call him, your Grace?"
"Nay, then; let the lawyer ring the bell!"
Mr. Herries sprang to the table at the King's gesture, and struck the little hand-bell that stood there. The door where the page had disappeared five minutes before opened silently, and the servant stood there.
"Michael," said the King, and the page vanished.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Cranmer stood back a little with an air of patient deference, and his quick eyes glanced up now and again at the party before him. There was a certain uneasiness in his manner, as Chris could see; but the monk presently dropped his eyes again, as he saw that the King was once more looking at him keenly, with tight pursed lips, and a puzzled look on his forehead.
The thoughts began to race through Chris's brain. He found himself praying with desperate speed that Michael, whoever he was, might not know; and that the King might not remember; and meanwhile through another part of his being ran the thought of the irony of his situation. Here he was, come to plead for his brother's life, and on the brink of having to plead for his own. The quiet room increased his sense of the irony. It seemed so safe and strong and comfortable, up here in the rich room, with the tall window looking on to the sunlit river, in a palace girt about with guards; and yet the very security of it was his danger. He had penetrated into the stronghold of the great beast that ruled England: he was within striking distance of those red-stained claws and teeth.
Then suddenly the creature stirred and snarled.
"I know it now, sir. You were one of the knaves that would not sign the surrender of Lewes."
Chris lifted his eyes and dropped them again.
"God's Body," said the King, "and you come here!"
Again there was silence.
Chris saw his father half turn towards him with a piteous face, and perceived that the lawyer had drawn a little away.
The King turned abruptly to Cranmer.
"Did you know this, my Lord?"
"Before God, I did not!"—but his voice shook as he answered.
Chris was gripping his courage, and at last spoke.
"We were told it was a free-will act, your Grace."
Henry said nothing to this. His eyes were rolling up and down the monk's figure, with tight, thoughtful lips. Cranmer looked desperately at Sir James.
"I did not know that, your Grace," he said again. "I only knew that this priest's brother had been very active in your Grace's business."
Henry turned sharply.
"Eh?" he said.
Sir James's hands rose and clasped themselves instinctively. Cranmer again looked at him almost fiercely.
"Mr. Ralph Torridon was one of the Visitors," explained the Archbishop nervously.
"And this fellow a monk!" cried the King.
"They must have met at Lewes, your Grace."
"Ah! my Lord," cried Sir James suddenly. "I entreated you—"
Henry turned on him suddenly.
"Tell us the tale, sir. What is all this?"
Sir James took a faltering step forward, and then suddenly threw out his hands.
"Ah! your Grace, it is a bitter tale for a father to tell. It is true, all of it. My son here was a monk at Lewes. He would not sign the surrender. I—I approved him for it. I—I was there when my son Ralph cast him out—"
"God's blood!" cried the King with a beaming face. "The one brother cast the other out!"
Chris saw the Archbishop's face suddenly lighten as he watched the King sideways.
"But I cannot bear that he should be saved for that!" went on the old man piteously. "He was a good servant to your Grace, but a bad one to our Lord—"
The Archbishop drew a swift breath of horror, and his hands jerked. But Henry seemed not to hear; his little mouth had opened in a round hole of amazed laughter, and he was staring at the old man without hearing him.
"And you were there?" he said. "And your wife? And your aunts and sisters?"
"My wife is dead," cried the old man. "Your Grace—"
"And on which side was she?"
"She was—was on your Grace's side."
Henry threw himself back in his chair.
* * * * *
For one moment Chris did not know whether it was wrath or laughter that shook him. His face grew crimson, and his narrow eyes disappeared into shining slits; his fat hands were on his knees, and his great body shook. From his round open mouth came silent gusts of quick breath, and he began to sway a little from side to side.
Across the Archbishop's face came a deferential and sympathetic smile, and he looked quickly and nervously from the King to the group and back again. Sir James had fallen back a pace at the King's laughter, and stood rigid and staring. Chris took a step close to him and gripped his hand firmly.
There was a footstep behind, and the King leaned forward again, wiping the tears away with his sleeve.
"Oh, Michael, Michael!" he sobbed, "here is a fine tale."
A dark-dressed man stepped forward from behind, and stood expectant.
"God! What a happy family!" said the King. "And this fellow here?"
He motioned towards Nicholas, with a feeble gesture. He was still weak with laughter.
The young squire moved forward a step, rigid and indignant.
"I am against your Grace," he said sharply.
Henry grew suddenly grave.
"Eh! that is no way to speak," he said.
"It is the only way I can speak," said Nicholas, "if your Grace desires the truth."
The King looked at him a moment; but the humour still shone in his eyes.
"Well, well. It is the truth I want. Michael, I sent for you to know about the priest here; but I know now. And is it true that his brother in the Tower—Ralph Torridon—was one of the Visitors?"
The man pursed his lips a moment. He was standing close to Chris, a little in front of him.
"Yes, your Majesty."
"Oh! well. We must let him out, I suppose—if there is nothing more against him. You shall tell me presently, Michael."
The Archbishop looked swiftly across at the party.
"Then your Grace extends—"
"Well, Michael, what is it?" interrupted the King.
"It is a matter your Majesty might wish to hear in private," said the stranger.
"Oh, step aside, my Lord. And you, gentlemen."
The King motioned down to the further end of the room, as Michael came forward.
The Archbishop stepped off the low platform, and led the way down the floor; and the others followed.
* * * * *
Chris was in a whirl of bewilderment. He could see the King's great face interested and attentive as the secretary said something in his ear, and then suddenly light up with amusement again.
"Not a word, not a word," whispered Henry harshly. "Very good, Michael."
The secretary then whispered once more. Chris could hear the sharp sibilants, but no word. The King nodded once more, and the man stepped down off the dais.
"Prepare the admission, then," said the King after him.
The secretary bowed as he turned and went out of the room once more.
He watched them with a solemn joviality as they came up, the Archbishop in front, the father and son together, and the two others behind.
"You are a sad crew," began the King, eyeing them pleasantly, and sitting forward with a hand on either knee, "and I am astonished, my Lord of Canterbury, at your companying with them. But we will have mercy, and remember your son's services, Master Torridon, in the past. That alone will excuse him. Remember that. That alone. He is the stronger man, if he turned out the priest there. And I remember your son very well, too; and will forgive him. But I shall not employ him again. And his forgiveness shall cover yours, Master Priest; but you must be off—you must be off, sir," he barked suddenly, "out of these realms in a week. We will have no more treason from you."
The fierce overpowering personality flared out as he spoke, and Chris felt his heart beat sick at the force of it.
"And you two gentlemen," went on the King, still smouldering, "you two had best hold your tongues. We will not hear such talk in our presence or out of it. But we will excuse it now. There, sir, have I said enough?"
Sir James dropped abruptly on his knees.
"Oh! God bless your Grace!" he began, with the tears running down.
Henry made an abrupt gesture.
"You shall go to your son," he said, "and see how he fares, and tell him this. And she shall have the order of release presently, from me or another."
Again the little mouth creased and twitched with amusement.
"And I hope he will be happy with his mother. You may tell him that from me."
The Archbishop looked up.
"Mistress Torridon is dead, your Grace," he said softly and questioningly.
"Oh, well," said the King; and thrust out his hand to be kissed.
* * * * *
Chris did not know how they got out of the room. They kissed hands again; the old man muttered out his thanks; but he seemed bewildered by the rush of events, and the supreme surprise. Chris, as he backed away from the presence, saw for the last time those narrow royal eyes fixed on him, still bright with amusement and expectancy, and the great red-fringed cheeks creased about the tiny mouth with an effort to keep back laughter. Why was the King laughing, he wondered?
They waited a few minutes in the ante-room for the order that the Archbishop had whispered to them should be sent out immediately. They said nothing to one another—but the three sat close, looking into one another's eyes now and again in astonishment and joy, while Mr. Herries stood a little apart solemn and happy at the importance of the role he had played in the whole affair, and disdaining even to look at the rest of the company who sat on chairs and watched the party.
The secretary came to them in a few minutes, and handed them the order.
"My Lord of Canterbury is detained," he said; "he bade me tell you gentlemen that he could not see you again."
Sir James was standing up and examining the order.
"For four?" he said.
"Why, yes," said the secretary, and glanced at the four men.
Chris put his hand on his father's arm.
"It is all well," he whispered, "say nothing more. It will do for Beatrice."
THE TIDINGS AT THE TOWER
They debated as they stood on the steps in the sunlight five minutes later, as to whether they should go straight to the Tower, or back to Charing and take Beatrice with them. They spoke softly to one another, as men that have come out from darkness to light, bewildered by the sense of freedom and freshness that lay round them. Instead of the musk-scented rooms, the formidable dominating presence, the suspense and the terror, the river laughed before them, the fresh summer breeze blew up it, and above all Ralph was free, and that, not only of his prison, but of his hateful work. It had all been done in those few sentences; but as yet they could not realise it; and they regarded it, as they regarded the ripples at their feet, the lapping wherry, and far-off London city, as a kind of dazzling picture which would by and bye be found to move and live.
The lawyer congratulated them, and they smiled back and thanked him.
"If you will put me to shore at London Bridge," said Mr. Herries—"I have a little business I might do there—that is, if you will be going so far."
Chris looked at his father, whose arm he was holding.
"We must take her with us," he said. "She has earned it."
Sir James nodded, dreamily, and turned to the boat.
"To the London Bridge Stairs first," he said.
* * * * *
There was a kind of piquant joy in their hearts as they crept up past the Tower, and saw its mighty walls and guns across the water. He was there, but it was not for long. They would see him that day, and to-morrow—to-morrow at the latest, they would all leave it together.
There were a hundred plans in the old man's mind, as he leaned gently forward and back to the motion of the boat and stared at the bright water. Ralph and he should live at Overfield again; his son would surely be changed by all that had come to him, and above all by his own response to the demands of loyalty. They should learn to understand one another better now—better than ever before. The hateful life lay behind them of distrust and contempt; Ralph would come back to his old self, and be again as he had been ten years back before he had been dazzled and drugged by the man who was to die next day. Then he thought of that man, and half-pitied him even then; those strong walls held nothing but terror for him—terror and despair; the scaffold was already going up on Tower Hill—and as the old man thought of it he leaned forward and tried to see over the wharf and under the trees where the rising ground lay; but there was nothing to be seen—the foliage hid it.
Chris, also silent beside him, was full of thoughts. He would go abroad now, he knew, with Margaret, as they had intended. The King's order was the last sign of God's intention for him. He would place Margaret with her own sisters at Bruges, and then himself go on to Dom Anthony and take up the life again. He knew he would meet some of his old brethren in Religion—Dom Anthony had written to say that three or four had already joined him at Cluny; the Prior—he knew—had turned his back for ever on the monastic life, and had been put into a prebendal stall at Lincoln.
And meanwhile he would have the joy of knowing that Ralph was free of his hateful business; the King would not employ him again; he would live at home now, and rule Overfield well: he and his father together. Ah! and what if Beatrice consented to rule it with him! Surely now—He turned and looked at his father as he thought of it, and their eyes met.
Chris leaned a little closer.
"Beatrice!" he said. "What if she—?"
The old man nodded tenderly, and his drawn eyes shone in his face.
"Oh! Chris—I was thinking that—"
Then Nicholas came out of his maze.
Ever since his entrance into the palace, except when he had flared out at the King, he had moved and stood and sat in a solemn bewilderment. The effect of the changed atmosphere had been to paralyse his simple and sturdy faculties; and his face had grown unintelligent during the process. More than once Chris had been seized with internal laughter, in spite of the tragedy; the rustic squire was so strangely incongruous with the situation. But he awoke now.
"God bless me!" he said wonderingly. "It is all over and done. God—"
Chris gave a short yelp of laughter.
"Dear Nick," he said, "yes. God bless you indeed! You spoke up well!"
"Did I do right, sir," said the other to Sir James, "I could not help it. I—"
"Oh! Nick," said the old man, and leaned forward and put his hand on his knee.
Nicholas preened himself as he sat there; he would tell Mary how he had bearded his Majesty, and what a diplomatist was her husband.
"You did very well, sir," put in Mr. Herries ironically. "You terrified his Grace, I think."
Chris glanced at the lawyer; but Nicholas took it all with the greatest complacency; tilted his hilt a little forward, smoothed his doublet, and sat smiling and well-pleased.
They reached the Stairs presently and put Mr. Herries ashore.
"I will be at your house to-morrow, sir," he said, "when you go to take Mr. Ralph out of prison. The order will be there by the morning, I make no doubt."
He bowed and smiled and moved off, a stiff figure deliberately picking its way up the oozy steps to the crowded street overhead.
* * * * *
Beatrice's face was at the window as they came up the tide half-an-hour later. Chris stood up in the wherry, when he saw it, and waved his cap furiously, and the face disappeared.
She was at the landing stage before they reached it, a slender brilliant figure in her hood and mantle, with her aunt beside her. Chris stood up again and cried between his hands across the narrowing space that all was well; and her face was radiant as the boat slipped up to the side, and balanced there with the boatman's hand on the stone edging.
"It is all well," said Chris again as he stood by her a moment later. "He is to go free, and we are to tell him."
He dared not look at her; but he was aware that she stood very still and rigid, and that her eyes were on his father's.
"Oh! Mistress Beatrice—"
Chris began to understand it all a little better, a few minutes later, as the boat was once again on its way downstream. He and Nicholas had moved to the bows of the wherry, and the girl and the old man sat alone in the stern.
They were all very silent at first; Chris leaned on his elbow and stared out at the sliding banks, the trees on this side and that, the great houses with their high roofs and towers behind, and their stone steps in front, the brilliant glare on the water, the hundreds of boats—great barges flashing jewels from their dozen blades, spidery wherries making this way and that; and his mind was busy weaving pictures. He saw it all now; there had been that in Beatrice's face during the moment he had looked at her, that was more than sympathy. In the shock of that great joy the veils had fallen, and her soul had looked out through her black tearful eyes.
There was little doubt now as to what would happen. It was not for their sake alone, or for Ralph's, that she had looked like that; she had not said one word, but he knew what was unspoken.
As they passed under London Bridge he turned a little and looked across the boatmen's shoulder at the two as they sat there in the stern, and what he saw confirmed him. The old man had flung an arm along the back of the seat, and was leaning a little forward, talking in a low voice, his face showing indeed the lines and wrinkles that had deepened more than ever during these last weeks, but irradiated with an extraordinary joy. And the girl was beside him, smiling with downcast eyes, turning a quick look now and again as she sat there. Chris could see her scarlet lips trembling, and her hands clasped on her knee, shifting a little now and again as she listened. It was a strange wooing; the father courting for the son, and the woman answering the son through the father; and Chris understood what was the answer that she was giving.
Nicholas was watching it too; and presently the two in the stern looked up suddenly; first Beatrice and then Sir James, and their eyes flashed joy across and across as the four souls met.
* * * * *
Five minutes later again they were at the Tower Stairs.
Mr. Morris, who had been sent on by Mistress Jane Atherton when she had heard the news, was there holding his horse by the bridle; and behind him had collected a little crowd of idlers. He gave the bridle to one of them, and came down the steps to help them out of the boat.
"You have heard?" said Chris as he stepped out last.
"Yes, father," said the servant.
Chris looked at him; and his mask-like face too seemed strangely lighted up. There was still across his cheek the shadow of a mark as of an old whip-cut.
As they passed up the steps they became aware that the little crowd that had waited at the top was only the detached fringe of a multitude that had assembled further up the slope. It stretched under the trees as far as they could see to right and left, from the outer wall of the Tower on the one side, to where the rising ground on the left was hidden under the thick foliage in the foreground. There was a murmur of talking and laughter, the ringing of hand-bells, the cracking of whips and the cries of children. The backs of the crowd were turned to the steps: there was plainly something going on higher up the slope, and it seemed somewhat away to the left.
For a moment Chris did not understand, and he turned to Morris.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The scaffold," said the servant tersely.
At the same moment high above the murmur of the crowd came the sound of heavy resounding blows, as of wood on wood.
Then Chris remembered; and for one moment he sickened as he walked. His father turned and looked over his shoulder as he went with Beatrice in front, and his eyes were eloquent.
"I had forgotten," said Chris softly. "God help him!"
* * * * *
They turned in towards the right almost immediately to the low outer gate of the fortress; and those for the first time remembered that the order they carried was for four only.
Nicholas instantly offered to wait outside and let Morris go in. Morris flatly refused. There was a short consultation, and then Nicholas went up to the sentry on guard with the order in his hand.
The man looked at it, glanced at the party, and then turned and knocked with his halberd on the great door behind, and in a minute or two an officer came out in his buff and feathers. He took the order and ran his eyes over it.
The officer looked at him a moment without answering.
"And the lady too?" he said.
"Why, yes," said Nicholas.
"The lady wishes—" then he broke off. "You will have to see the Lieutenant," he went on. "I can let you all through to his lodgings."
They passed in with a yeoman to conduct them under the low heavy vaulting and through to the open way beyond. On their right was the wall between them and the river, and on their left the enormous towers and battlements of the inner court.
Chris walked with Morris behind, remembering the last time he was here with the Prior all those years before. They had walked silently then, too, but for another reason.
They passed the low Traitor's Gate on their right; Chris glanced at the green lapping water beneath it as he went—Ralph had landed there—and turned up the steep slope to the left under the gateway of the inner court; and in a minute or two more were at the door of the Lieutenant's lodgings.
There seemed a strange suggestiveness in the silence and order of the wide ward that lay before them. The great White Tower dominated the whole place on the further side, huge and menacing, pierced by its narrow windows set at wide intervals; on the left, the row of towers used as prisons diminished in perspective down to where the wall turned at right angles and ran in behind the keep; and the great space enclosed by the whole was almost empty. There were soldiers on guard here and there at the doorways; a servant hurried across the wide sunlit ground, and once, as they waited, a doctor in his short gown came out of one door and disappeared into another.
And here they waited for an answer to their summons, silent and happy in their knowledge. The place held no terrors for them.
The soldier knocked again impatiently, and again stood aside.
Chris saw Nicholas sidle up to the man with something of the same awe on his face that had been there an hour ago.
"My Lord—Master Cromwell?" he heard him whisper, correcting himself.
The man jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
"There," he said.
There were three soldiers, Chris noticed, standing at the foot of one of the Towers a little distance off. It was there, then, that Thomas Cromwell, wool-carder, waited for death, hearing, perhaps, from his window the murmur of the crowd beyond the moat, and the blows of mallet on wood as his scaffold went up.
Then the door opened, and after a word or two the soldier motioned them in.
* * * * *
Again they had to wait.
The Lieutenant, they were told, had been called away. He was expected back presently.
They sat down, still in silence, in the little ground-floor parlour. It was a pleasant little room, with a wide hearth, and two windows looking on to the court.
But the suspense was not like that of the morning. Now they knew how it must end. There would be a few minutes more, long perhaps to Ralph, as he sat in his cell somewhere not far from them, knowing nothing of the pardon that was on its way; and then the door would open, where day by day for the last six weeks the gaoler had come and gone; and the faces he knew would be there, and it would be from their lips that he would hear the message.
The old man and the girl still sat together in the window-seat, silent now like the others. They had had their explanations in the boat, and each knew what was in the other's heart. Chris and Nicholas stood by the hearth, Mr. Morris by the door; and there was not the tremor of a doubt in any of them as to what the future held.
Chris looked tranquilly round the room, at the little square table in the centre, the four chairs drawn close to it, with their brocade panels stained and well-worn showing at the back, the dark ceiling, the piece of tapestry that hung over the side-table between the doors—it was a martial scene, faded and discoloured, with ghostly bare-legged knights on fat prancing horses all in inextricable conflict, a great battleaxe stood out against the dusky foliage of an autumn tree; and a stag with his fore feet in the air, ramped in the foreground, looking over his shoulder. It was a ludicrously bad piece of work, picked up no doubt by some former Lieutenant who knew more of military than artistic matters, and had hung there—how long? Chris wondered.
He found himself criticising it detail by detail, comparing it with his own designs in the antiphonary; he had that antiphonary still at home; he had carried it off from Lewes, when Ralph—Ralph!—had turned him out. He had put it up into a parcel on the afternoon of the spoilers' arrival. He would show it to Ralph again now—in a day or two at Overfield; they would laugh over it together; and he would take it with him abroad, and perhaps finish it there. God's work is not so easily hindered after all.
But all the while, the wandering stream of his thought was lighted and penetrated by the radiant joy of his heart. It was all true, not a dream!
He glanced again at the two in the window-seat.
His father was looking out of the lattice; but Beatrice raised her eyes to his, and smiled at him.
Sir James stood up.
"The Lieutenant is coming," he said.
A moment later there were steps in the flagged passage; and a murmur of voices. The soldier who had brought them to the lodgings was waiting there with the order of admission, and was no doubt explaining the circumstances.
Then the door opened suddenly; and a tall soldierly-looking man, grey-haired and clean-shaven, in an officer's dress, stood there, with the order in his hand, as the two in the window-seat rose to meet him.
"Master Torridon," he said abruptly.
Sir James stepped forward.
"You have come to see Mr. Ralph Torridon whom we have here?"
"Yes, sir—my son."
Nicholas stepped forward, and the Lieutenant nodded at him.
"Yes, sir," said the officer to him, "I could not admit you before—" he stopped, as if embarrassed, and turned to Beatrice.
"And this lady too?"
"Yes, Master Lieutenant," said the old man.
"But—but—I do not understand—"
He looked at the radiant faces before him, and then dropped his eyes.
"I suppose—you have not heard then?"
Chris felt his heart leap, and then begin to throb furiously and insistently. What had happened? Why did the man look like that? Why did he not speak?
The Lieutenant came a step forward and put his hand on the table. He was looking strangely from face to face.
Outside the court was very still. The footstep that had passed on the flagstones a minute before had ceased; and there was no sound but the chirp of a bird under the eaves.
"You have not heard then?" said the Lieutenant again.
"Oh! for God's sake—" cried the old man suddenly.
"I have just come from your son," said the other steadily. "You are only just in time. He is at the point of death."
It was morning, and they still sat in Ralph's cell.
* * * * *
The attendant had brought in stools and a tall chair with a broken back, and these were grouped round the low wooden bed; the old man in the chair on one side, from where he could look down on his son's face, with Beatrice beside him, Chris and Nicholas on the other side. Mr. Morris was everywhere, sitting on a form by the door, in and out with food and medicine, at his old master's bedside, lifting his pillow, turning him in bed, holding his convulsive hands.
He had been ill six days, the Lieutenant told them. The doctor who had been called in from outside named the disease phrenitis. It was certain that he would not recover; and a message to that effect had been sent across on the morning before, with the usual reports to Greenwich.
They had supped as they sat—silently—on what the gaoler brought; and had slept by turns in the tall chair, wakening at a sound from the bed; at the movement of the light across the floor as Morris slipped to and fro noiselessly; at the chirp of the birds and the noises of the stirring City as the daylight broadened on the wall, and the narrow window grew bright and luminous.
And now the morning was high, and they were waiting for the end.
* * * * *
A little table stood by the door, white-covered, with two candles, guttering now in their sockets, and a tall crucifix, ivory and black, lifting its arms in the midst. Before it stood two veiled vessels.
"He will speak before he passes," the doctor had told them the evening before; "I do not know whether he will be able to receive Viaticum."
* * * * *
Chris raised himself a little in his chair—he was stiff with leaning elbows on knees; and he stretched out his feet softly; looking down still at the bed.
His brother lay with his back to him; the priest could see the black hair, longer than Court fashion allowed now, the brown sinewy neck beneath; and one arm outlined over his hip beneath the piled clothes. The fingers were moving a little, contracting and loosening, contracting and loosening; and he could hear the long slow breaths.
Beyond sat Beatrice, upright and quiet, one hand in her lap, and the other holding the father's. The old man was bowed with his head on his other hand, as he had been for the last hour, his back bent forward with the burden, and his feet crossed before him.
From outside the noises grew louder as the morning advanced. There had been the sound of continual coming and going since it was light. Wheels had groaned and rattled up out of the distance and ceased abruptly; and the noise of hoofs had been like an endless patter over the stone-paving. And now, as the hours passed a murmur had been increasing, a strange sound like the wind in dry trees, as the huge crowd gathered.
Beatrice raised her eyes suddenly.
The fortress itself which had been quiet till now seemed to awaken abruptly.
The sound seemed to come to them up the stairs, but they had learnt during those hours that all sounds from within came that way. There was a trumpet-note or two, short and brazen; a tramp of feet for a moment, the throb of drums; then silence again; then the noise of moving footsteps that came and went in an instant. And as the sound came, Ralph stirred.
He swayed slowly over on to his back; his breath came in little groans that died to silence again as he subsided, and his arm drew out and lay on the bedclothes. Chris could see his face now in sharp profile against Beatrice's dark skirt, white and sharp; the skin was tightly stretched over the nose and cheekbones, his long thin lips were slightly open, there was a painful frown on his forehead, and his eyes squinted terribly at the ceiling.
A contraction seized the priest's throat as he watched; the face was at once so august and so pitiable.
The lips began to move again, as they had moved during the night; it seemed as if the dying man were talking and listening. The eyelids twitched a little; and once he made a movement as if to rise up. Chris was down on his knees in a moment, holding him tenderly down; he felt the thin hands come up and fumble with his own, and noticed lines deepen between the flickering eyelids. Then the hands lay quiet.
Chris lifted his eyes and saw his father's face and Beatrice's watching. Something of the augustness of the dying man seemed to rest on the grey bearded lips and solemn eyes that looked down. Beatrice's face was steady and tender, and as the priest's eyes met hers, she nodded.
"Yes, speak to him," she said.
Chris threw a hand across the bed and rested it on the wooden frame, and then lowered himself softly till his mouth was at the other's ear.
"Ralph," he said, "Ralph, do you hear me?"
Then he raised his face a little and watched.
The eyelids were rising slowly; but they dropped again; and there came a little faint babbling from the writhing lips; but no words were intelligible. Then they were silent.
"He hears," said Beatrice softly.
The priest bent low again; and as he did so, from outside came a strange sound, as of a long monstrous groan from a thousand throats. Again the dying man stirred; his hand sought his brother's arm and gripped it with a kind of feeble strength; then dropped again on to the coverlet.
Chris hesitated a moment, and again glanced up; and as he did so, there was a sound on the stairs. He threw himself back on his heels and looked round, as the doctor came in with Morris behind him.
He was a stout ruddy man, and moved heavily across the floor; but Ralph seemed not to hear it.
The doctor came to the end of the bed, and stood staring down at the dying man's face, frowning and pursing his lips; Chris watched him intently for some sign. Then he came round by Beatrice, leaned over the bed, and took Ralph's wrist softly into his fingers. He suddenly seemed to remember himself, and turned his face abruptly over his shoulder to Sir James.
"There is a man come from the palace," he whispered harshly. "I suppose it is the pardon." And Chris saw him arch his eyebrows and purse his lips again. Then he bent over Ralph once more.
Then again the doctor jerked his head towards the window behind and spoke across to Chris.
"They have him out there," he said; "Master Cromwell, I mean."
Then he rose abruptly.
"He cannot receive Viaticum; and he will not be able to make his confession. I should shrive him at once, sir, and anoint him."
"At once?" whispered Chris.
"The sooner the better," said the doctor; "there is no telling."
Chris rose swiftly from his knees, and made a sharp sign to Morris. Then he sank down once more, looking round, and lifted the purple stole from the floor where he had laid it the evening before; and even as he did so his soul revolted.
He looked up at Beatrice. Would not she understand the unchivalry of the act? But the will in her eyes compelled him.—Yes, yes! Who could set a limit to mercy?
He slipped the strip over his shoulders, and again bent down over his brother, with one arm across the motionless body. Beatrice and Sir James were on their knees by now. Nicholas was busy with Morris at the further end of the room. The doctor was gone.
There was a profound silence now outside as the priest bent lower and lower till his lips almost touched the ear of the dying man; and every word of the broken abrupt sentences was audible to all in the room.
"Ralph—Ralph—dear brother. You are at the point of death. I must shrive you. You have sinned very deeply against God and man. I shall anoint you afterwards. Make an act of sorrow in your heart for all your sins; it will stand for confession. Think of Jesu's love, and of His death on the bitter cross—the wounds that He bore for us in love. Give me a sign if you can that you repent."
Chris spoke rapidly, and leaned back a moment. Now he was terrified of waiting—he did not know how long it would be; but for an intent instant he stared down on the shadowed face.
Again the eyelids flickered; the lips formed words, and ceased again.
The priest glanced up, scarcely knowing why; and then again lowered himself that if it were possible Ralph might hear.
Then he spoke, with a tense internal effort as if to drive the grace home....
"Ego te absolvo ab omnibus censuris et peccatis, in nomine Patris—" He raised himself a little and lifted his hand, moving it sideways across and down as he ended—"et Filii et Spiritus Sancti."
* * * * *
The priest rose up once more, his duty driving his emotion down; he did not dare to look across at the two figures beyond the bed, or even to question himself again as to what he was doing.
The two men at the further end of the room were waiting now; they had lifted the candles and crucifix off the table, and set them on the bench by the side.
Chris went swiftly across the room, dropped on one knee, rose again, lifted the veiled vessel that stood in the centre, with the little linen cloth beneath, and set it all down on the bench. He knelt again, went a step aside back to the table, lifted the other vessel, and signed with his head.
The two men grasped the ends of the table, and carried it across the floor to the end of the bed. Chris followed and set down the sacred oils upon it.
"The cross and one candle," he whispered sharply.
A minute later he was standing by the bed once more.
"Oremus—" he began, reading rapidly off the book that Beatrice held steadily beneath his eyes.
"Almighty Everlasting God, who through blessed James Thy Apostle, hast spoken, saying, Is any sick among you, let him call the priests of the Church—" (The lips of the dying man were moving again at the sound of the words; was it in protest or in faith?)—" ... that is what is done without through our ministry, may be wrought within spiritually by Thy divine power, and invisibly by Thy healing; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen."
The lips were moving faster than ever on the pillow; the head was beginning to turn from side to side, and the mouth lay open.
"Usquequo, Domine" ... began Beatrice.
Chris dipped his thumb in the vessel, and sank swiftly on to his knees.
"Per istam sanctam Unctionem"—"through this holy unction...."
(The old man leaned suddenly forward on to his knees, and steadied that rolling head in his two hands; and Chris signed firmly on the eyelids, pressing them down and feeling the fluttering beneath his thumb as he did so.)
" ... And His most loving mercy, may the Lord forgive thee whatsoever thou hast sinned through sight."
Ah! that was done—dear God! those eyes that had drooped and sneered, that had looked so greedily on treasure—their lids shone now with the loving-kindness of God.
Chris snatched a morsel of wool that Morris put forward from behind, wiped the eyelids, and dropped the fragment into the earthen basin at his side.
"Per istam sanctam Unctionem...."
And the ears were anointed—the ears that had listened to Layton's filth, to Cromwell's plotting; and to the cries of the oppressed.
The nostrils; the lips that had lied and stormed and accused against God's people, compressed now in his father's fingers—they seemed to sneer even now, and to writhe under the soft oil; the hands that had been laid on God's portion, that had torn the vessels from the altar and the cloth of gold from the treasury—those too were signed now, and lay twitching on the coverlet.
The bed clothes at the foot of the wooden framework were lifted and laid back as Chris passed round to the end, and the long feet, icy cold, were lying exposed side by side.
Per Istam sanctam Unctionem, et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Domimus quidquid peccasti per incessum pedum. Amen.
Then they too were sealed with pardon, the feet that had been so swift and unwearied in the war with God, that had trodden the sanctuary in His despite, and trampled down the hearts of His saints—they too were signed now with the mark of Redemption and lay again under the folded coverlet at the end of their last journey.
A convulsion tore at the priest's heart.
* * * * *
Then suddenly in the profound silence outside there broke out an indescribable clamour, drowning in an instant the murmur of prayers within. It seemed as if the whole world of men were there, and roaring. The sound poured up through the window, across the moat; the boards of the flooring vibrated with the sound. There was the throb of drums pulsating through the long-drawn yell, the screams of women, the barking of dogs; and a moment later, like some devilish benediction, the bells of Barking Church pealed out, mellow and jangling, in an exultation of blood.
Ralph struggled in his bed; his hands rose clutching at his throat, tearing open his shirt before Beatrice's fingers could reach them. The breath came swift and hoarse through his open teeth, and his eyelids flickered furiously. Then they opened, and his face grew quiet, as he looked out across the room.
"My—my Lord!" he said.