The Book Lover

The King’s Achievement by Robert Hugh Benson

The King's Achievement by Robert Hugh Benson

CHAPTER I
A DECISION

Overfield Court lay basking in warm June sunshine. The western side of the great house with its new timber and plaster faced the evening sun across the square lawns and high terrace; and the woods a couple of hundred yards away cast long shadows over the gardens that lay beyond the moat. The lawns, in their broad plateaux on the eastern side descended by steps, in cool shadow to the lake that formed a quarter-circle below the south-eastern angle of the house; and the mirrored trees and reeds on the other side were broken, circle after circle, by the great trout that were rising for their evening meal. The tall front of the house on the north, formed by the hall in the centre with the kitchen at its eastern end and the master’s chamber on the western, was faced by a square-towered gatehouse through which the straight drive leading into the main road approached the house under a lime-avenue; and on the south side the ground fell away again rapidly below the chapel and the morning-room, in copse and garden and wild meadow bright with buttercups and ox-eye daisies, down to the lake again and the moat that ran out of it round the entire domain.

The cobbled courtyard in the centre of the house, where the tall leaded pump stood, was full of movement. Half a dozen trunks lay there that had just been carried in from the luggage-horses that were now being led away with patient hanging heads towards the stables that stood outside the gatehouse on the right, and three or four dusty men in livery were talking to the house-servants who had come out of their quarters on the left. From the kitchen corner came a clamour of tongues and dishes, and smoke was rising steadily from the huge outside chimney that rose beyond the roofs.

Presently there came clear and distinct from the direction of the village the throb of hoofs on the hard road; and the men shouldered the trunks, and disappeared, staggering, under the low archway on the right, beside which the lamp extinguisher hung, grimy with smoke and grease. The yard dog came out at the sound of the hoofs, dragging his chain after him, from his kennel beneath the little cloister outside the chapel, barked solemnly once or twice, and having done his duty lay down on the cool stones, head on paws, watching with bright eyes the door that led from the hall into the Court. A moment later the little door from the masters chamber opened; and Sir James Torridon came out and, giving a glance at the disappearing servants, said a word or two to the others, and turned again through the hall to meet his sons.

The coach was coming up the drive round toward the gatehouse, as he came out on the wide paved terrace; and he stood watching the glitter of brasswork through the dust, the four plumed cantering horses in front, and the bobbing heads of the men that rode behind; and there was a grave pleased expectancy on his bearded face and in his bright grey eyes as he looked. His two sons had met at Begham, and were coming home, Ralph from town sites a six months’ absence, and Christopher from Canterbury, where he had been spending a week or two in company with Mr. Carleton, the chaplain of the Court. He was the more pleased as the house had been rather lonely in their absence, since the two daughters were both from home, Mary with her husband, Sir Nicholas Maxwell, over at Great Keynes, and Margaret at her convent education at Rusper: and he himself had had for company his wife alone.

She came out presently as the carriage rolled through the archway, a tall dignified figure of a woman, finely dressed in purple and black, and stood by him, silently, a yard or two away, watching the carriage out of steady black eyes. A moment later the carriage drew up at the steps, and a couple of servants ran down to open the door.

Ralph stepped out first, a tall man like both his parents, with a face and slow gait extraordinarily like his mother’s, and dressed in the same kind of rich splendour, with a short silver-clasped travelling cloak, crimson hose, and plumed felt cap; and his face with its pointed black beard had something of the same steady impassivity in it; he was flicking the dust from his shoulder as he came up the steps on to the terrace.

Christopher followed him, not quite so tall as the other, and a good ten years younger, with the grey eyes of his father, and a little brown beard beginning to sprout on his cheeks and chin.

Ralph turned at the top of the steps

“The bag,” he said shortly; and then turned again to kiss his parents’ hands; as Christopher went back to the carriage, from which the priest was just stepping out. Sir James asked his son about the journey.

“Oh, yes,” he said; and then added, “Christopher was late at Begham.”

“And you are well, my son?” asked his mother, as they turned to walk up to the house.

“Oh, yes!” he said again.

Sir James waited for Christopher and Mr. Carleton, and the three followed the others a few yards behind.

“You saw her?” said his father.

Christopher nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “I must speak to you, sir, before I tell the others.”

“Come to me when you are dressed, then. Supper will be in an hour from now;” and he looked at his son with a kind of sharp expectancy.

The courtyard was empty as they passed through, but half a dozen servants stood crowded in the little flagged passage that led from it into the kitchen, and watched Ralph and his mother with an awed interest as they came out from the hall. Mr. Ralph had come down from the heart of life, as they knew; had been present at the crowning of Anne Boleyn a week before, had mixed with great folks; and what secrets of State might there not be in that little strapped bag that his brother carried behind him?

When the two first had disappeared, the servants broke into talk, and went back to the kitchen.

* * * * *

Lady Torridon, with her elder son and the chaplain, had to wait a few minutes on the dais in the hall an hour later, before the door under the musicians’ gallery opened, and the other two came in from the master’s chamber. Sir James looked a little anxious as he came across the clean strewed rushes, past the table at the lower end where the household sat, but Christopher’s face was bright with excitement. After a word or two of apology they moved to their places. Mr. Carleton said grace, and as they sat down the door behind from the kitchen opened, and the servants came through with the pewter dishes.

Ralph was very silent at first; his mother sat by him almost as silent as himself; the servants sprang about noiseless and eager to wait on him; and Sir James and the chaplain did most of the conversation, pleasant harmless talk about the estate and the tenants; but as supper went on, and the weariness of the hot journey faded, and the talk from the lower tables grew louder, Ralph began to talk a little more freely.

“Yes,” he said, “the crowning went well enough. The people were quiet enough. She looked very pretty in her robes; she was in purple velvet, and her gentlemen in scarlet. We shall have news of her soon.”

Sir James looked up sharply at his son. They were all listening intently; and even a servant behind Ralph’s chair paused with a silver jug.

“Yes,” said Ralph again with a tranquil air, setting down his Venetian glass; “God has blessed the union already.”

“And the King?” asked his father, from his black velvet chair in the centre.

There fell a deeper silence yet as that name was mentioned. Henry dominated the imagination of his subjects to an extraordinary degree, no less in his heavy middle-age than in the magnificent strength and capacity of his youth.

But Ralph answered carelessly enough. He had seen the King too often.

“The King looked pleased enough; he was in his throne. He is stouter than when I saw him last. My Lord of Canterbury did the crowning; Te Deum was sung after, and then solemn mass. There was a dozen abbots, I should think, and my Lords of York and London and Winchester with two or three more. My Lord of Suffolk bore the crown.”

“And the procession?” asked his father again.

“That, too, was well enough. There came four chariots after the Queen, full of ancient old ladies, at which some of the folks laughed. And then the rest of them.”

They talked a few minutes about the coronation, Sir James asking most of the questions and Ralph answering shortly; and presently Christopher broke in—

“And the Lady Katharine—” he began.

“Hush, my son,” said his father, glancing at Ralph, who sat perfectly still a moment before answering.

“Chris is always eager about the wrong thing,” he said evenly; “he is late at Begham, and then asks me about the Princess Dowager. She is still alive, if you mean that.”

Lady Torridon looked from one to the other.

“And Master Cromwell?” she asked.

“Master Cromwell is well enough. He asked me to give you both his respects. I left him at Hackney.”

* * * * *

The tall southern windows of the hall, above the pargetted plaster, had faded through glowing ruby and blue to dusk before they rose from the table and went down and through the passage into the little parlour next the master’s chamber, where they usually took their dessert. This part of the house had been lately re-built, but the old woodwork had been re-used, and the pale oak panels, each crowned by an elaborate foliated head, gave back the pleasant flicker of the fire that burned between the polished sheets of Flemish tiles on either side of the hearth. A great globe stood in the corner furthest from the door, with a map of England hanging above it. A piece of tapestry hung over the mantelpiece, representing Diana bending over Endymion, and two tall candles in brass stands burned beneath. The floor was covered with rushes.

Mr. Carleton, who had come with them as far as the door, according to custom, was on the point of saying-good-night, when Sir James called him back.

“Come in, father,” he said, “we want you to-night. Chris has something to tell us.”

The priest came in and sat down with the others, his face in shadow, at the corner of the hearth.

Sir James looked across at his younger son and nodded; and Chris, his chin on his hand, and sitting very upright on the long-backed settle beside the chaplain, began rather nervously and abruptly.

“I—I have told Ralph,” he said, “on the way here and you, sir; but I will tell you again. You know I was questioning whether I had a vocation to the religious life; and I went, with that in my mind, to see the Holy Maid. We saw her, Mr. Carleton and I; and—and I have made up my mind I must go.”

He stopped, hesitating a little, Ralph and his mother sat perfectly still, without a word or sign of either sympathy or disapproval. His father leaned forward a little, and smiled encouragingly.

“Go on, my son.”

Chris drew a breath and leaned back more easily.

“Well, we went to St. Sepulchre’s; and she could not see us for a day or two. There were several others staying with us at the monastery; there was a Carthusian from Sheen—I forget his name.”

“Henry Man,” put in the chaplain.

“—And some others,” went on Chris, “all waiting to see her. Dr. Bocking promised to tell us when we could see her; and he came to us one morning after mass, and told us that she was in ecstasy, and that we were to come at once. So we all went to the nuns’ chapel, and there she was on her knees, with her arms across her breast.”

He stopped again. Ralph cleared his throat, crossed his legs, and drank a little wine.

“Yes?” said the knight questioningly.

“Well—she said a great deal,” went on Chris hurriedly.

“About the King?” put in his mother who was looking at the fire.

“A little about the King,” said Chris, “and about holy things as well. She spoke about heaven; it was wonderful to hear her; with her eyes burning, and such a voice; and then she spoke low and deep and told us about hell, and the devil and his torments; and I could hardly bear to listen; and she told us about shrift, and what it did for the soul; and the blessed sacrament. The Carthusian put a question or two to her, and she answered them: and all the while she was speaking her voice seemed to come from her body, and not from her mouth; and it was terrible to see her when she spoke of hell; her tongue lay out on her cheek, and her eyes grew little and afraid.”

“Her tongue in her cheek, did you say?” asked Ralph politely, without moving.

Chris flushed, and sat back silent. His father glanced quickly from one to the other.

“Tell us more, Chris,” he said. “What did she say to you?”

The young man leaned forward again.

“I wish, Ralph—” he began.

“I was asking—” began the other.

“There, there,” said Sir James. “Go on, Chris.”

“Well, after a while Dr. Bocking brought me forward; and told her to look at me; and her eyes seemed to see something beyond me; and I was afraid. But he told me to ask her, and I did. She said nothing for a while; and then she began to speak of a great church, as if she saw it; and she saw there was a tower in the middle, and chapels on either side, and tombs beside the high altar; and an image, and then she stopped, and cried out aloud ‘Saint Pancras pray for us’—and then I knew.”

Chris was trembling violently with excitement as he turned to the priest for corroboration. Mr. Carleton nodded once or twice without speaking.

“Then I knew,” went on Chris. “You know it was what I had in my mind; and I had not spoken a word of Lewes, or of my thought of going there.”

“Had you told any?” asked his father.

“Only Dr. Bocking. Then I asked her, was I to go there; but she said nothing for a while; and her eyes wandered about; and she began to speak of black monks going this way and that; and she spoke of a prior, and of his ring; it was of gold, she said, with figures engraved on it. You know the ring the Prior wears?” he added, looking eagerly at his father.

Sir James nodded.

“I know it,” he said. “Well?”

“Well, I asked her again, was I to go there; and then she looked at me up and down; I was in my travelling suit; but she said she saw my cowl and its hanging sleeves, and an antiphoner in my hands; and then her face grew dreadful and afraid again, and she cried out and fell forward; and Dr. Bocking led us out from the chapel.”

There was a long silence as Chris ended and leaned back again, taking up a bunch of raisins. Ralph sighed once as if wearied out, and his mother put her hand on his sleeve. Then at last Sir James spoke.

“You have heard the story,” he said, and then paused; but there was no answer. At last the chaplain spoke from his place.

“It is all as Chris said,” he began, “I was there and heard it. If the woman is not from God, she is one of Satan’s own; and it is hard to think that Satan would tell us of the sacraments and bid us use them greedily, and if she is from God—” he stopped again.

The knight nodded at him.

“And you, sweetheart?” he said to his wife.

She turned to him slowly.

“You know what I think,” she said. “If Chris believes it, he must go, I suppose.”

“And you, Ralph?”

Ralph raised himself in his chair.

“Do you wish me to say what I think?” he asked deliberately, “or what
Chris wishes me to say? I will do either.”

Chris made a quick movement of his head; but his father answered for him.

“We wish you to say what you think,” he said quietly.

“Well, then,” said Ralph, “it is this. I cannot agree with the father. I think the woman is neither of God nor Satan; but that she speaks of her own heart, and of Dr. Bocking’s. I believe they are a couple of knaves—clever knaves, I will grant, though perhaps the woman is something of a fool too; for she deceives persons as wise even as Mr. Carleton here by speaking of shrift and the like; and so she does the priests’ will, and hopes to get gain for them and herself. I am not alone in thinking this—there are many in town who think with me, and holy persons too.”

“Is Master Cromwell one of them?” put in Chris bitterly.

Ralph raised his eyebrows a little.

“There is no use in sneering,” he said, “but Master Cromwell is one of them. I suppose I ought not to speak of this; but I know you will not speak of it again; and I can tell you of my own knowledge that the Holy Maid will not be at St. Sepulchre’s much longer.”

His father leaned forward.

“Do you mean—” he began.

“I mean that His Grace is weary of her prophesyings. It was all very well till she began to meddle with matters of State; but His Grace will have none of that. I can tell you no more. On the other hand if Chris thinks he must be a monk, well and good; I do not think so myself; but that is not my affair; but I hope he will not be a monk only because a knavish woman has put out her tongue at him, and repeated what a knavish priest has put into her mouth. But I suppose he had made up his mind before he asked me.”

“He has made up his mind,” said his father, “and will hold to it unless reason is shown to the contrary; and for myself I think he is right.”

“Very well, then,” said Ralph; and leaned back once more.

The minutes passed away in silence for a while; and then Ralph asked a question or two about his sisters.

“Mary is coming over to hunt to-morrow with her husband,” said Sir James. “I have told Forrest to be here by nine o’clock. Shall you come with us?”

Ralph yawned, and sipped his Bordeaux.

“I do not know,” he said, “I suppose so.”

“And Margaret is at Rusper still,” went on the other. “She will not be here until August.”

“She, too, is thinking of Religion,” put in Lady Torridon impassively.

Ralph looked up lazily.

“Indeed,” he said, “then Mary and I will be the only worldlings.”

“She is very happy with the nuns,” said his father, smiling, “and a worldling can be no more than that; and perhaps not always as much.”

Ralph smiled with one corner of his mouth.

“You are quite right, sir,” he said.

The bell for evening prayers sounded out presently from the turret in the chapel-corner, and the chaplain rose and went out.

“Will you forgive me, sir,” said Ralph, “if I do not come this evening?
I am worn out with travelling. The stay at Begham was very troublesome.”

“Good-night, then, my son. I will send Morris to you immediately.”

“Oh, after prayers,” said Ralph. “I need not deprive God of his prayers too.”

* * * * *

Lady Torridon had gone out silently after the chaplain, and Sir James and Chris walked across the Court together. Overhead the summer night sky was clear and luminous with stars, and the air still and fragrant. There were a few lights here and there round the Court, and the tall chapel windows shone dimly above the little cloister. A link flared steadily on its iron bracket by the door into the hall, and threw waves of flickering ruddy light across the cobble-stones, and the shadow of the tall pump wavered on the further side.

Sir James put his hand tenderly on Chris’ shoulder.

“You must not be angry at Ralph, my son,” he said. “Remember he does not understand.”

“He should not speak like that,” said Chris fiercely. “How dare he do so?”

“Of course he should not; but he does not know that. He thinks he is advising you well. You must let him alone, Chris. You must remember he is almost mad with business. Master Cromwell works him hard.”

* * * * *

The chapel was but dimly lighted as Chris made his way up to the high gallery at the west where he usually knelt. The altar glimmered in the dusk at the further end, and only a couple of candles burned on the priest’s kneeling stool on the south side. The rest was dark, for the house hold knew compline by heart; and even before Chris reached his seat he heard the blessing asked for a quiet night and a perfect end. It was very soothing to him as he leaned over the oak rail and looked down on the dim figures of his parents in their seat at the front, and the heads of the servants below, and listened to the quiet pulsation of those waves of prayer going to and fro in the dusk, beating, as a summer tide at the foot of a cliff against those white steps that rose up to the altar where a single spark winked against the leaded window beneath the silk-shrouded pyx. He had come home full of excitement and joy at his first sight of an ecstatic, and at the message that she had seemed to have for him, and across these heightened perceptions had jarred the impatience of his brother in the inn at Begham and in the carriage on their way home, and above all his sharp criticism and aloofness in the parlour just now. But he became quieter as he knelt now; the bitterness seemed to sink beneath him and to leave him alone in a world of peaceful glory—the world of mystic life to which his face was now set, illuminated by the words of the nun. He had seen one who could see further than he himself; he had looked upon eyes that were fixed on mysteries and realms in which he indeed passionately believed, but which were apt to be faint and formless sometimes to the weary eyes of faith alone; and as a proof that these were more than fancies she had told him too of what he could verify—of the priory at Lewes which she had never visited, and even the details of the ring on the Prior’s finger which he alone of the two had seen. And then lastly she had encouraged him in his desires, had seen him with those same wide eyes in the habit that he longed to wear, going about the psalmody—the great Opus Dei—to which he longed to consecrate his life. If such were not a message from God to him for what further revelation could he hope?

And as for Ralph’s news and interests, of what value were they? Of what importance was it to ask who sat on the Consort’s throne, or whether she wore purple velvet or red? These were little matters compared with those high affairs of the soul and the Eternal God, of which he was already beginning to catch glimpses, and even the whispers that ran about the country places and of which Ralph no doubt could tell him much if he chose, of the danger that threatened the religious houses, and of Henry’s intentions towards them—even these were but impotent cries of the people raging round the throne of the Anointed.

So he knelt here now, pacified and content again, and thought with something of pity of his brother dozing now no doubt before the parlour fire, cramped by his poor ideals and dismally happy in his limitations.

His father, too, was content down below in the chapel. He himself had at one time before his marriage looked towards the religious life; and now that it had turned out otherwise had desired nothing more than that he should be represented in that inner world of God’s favourites by at least one of his children. His daughter Margaret had written a week earlier to say that her mind was turning that way, and now Christopher’s decision had filled up the cup of his desires. To have a priest for a son, and above all one who was a monk as well was more than he had dared to hope, though not to pray for; if he could not be one himself, at least he had begotten one—one who would represent him before God, bring a blessing on the house, and pray and offer sacrifice for his soul until his time should be run out and he see God face to face. And Ralph would represent him before men and carry on the line, and hand on the house to a third generation—Ralph, at whom he had felt so sorely puzzled of late, for he seemed full of objects and ambitions for which the father had very little sympathy, and to have lost almost entirely that delicate relation with home that was at once so indefinable and so real. But he comforted himself by the thought that his elder son was not wholly wasting time as so many of the country squires were doing round about, absorbed in work that a brainless yeoman could do with better success. Ralph at least was occupied with grave matters, in Cromwell’s service and the King’s, and entrusted with high secrets the issue of which both temporal and eternal it was hard to predict. And, no doubt, the knight thought, in time he would come back and pick up the strands he had dropped; for when a man had wife and children of his own to care for, other businesses must seem secondary; and questions that could be ignored before must be faced then.

But he thought with a little anxiety of his wife, and wondered whether his elder son had not after all inherited that kind of dry rot of the soul, in which the sap and vigour disappear little by little, leaving the shape indeed intact but not the powers. When he had married her, thirty-five years before, she had seemed to him an incarnate mystery of whose key he was taking possession—her silence had seemed pregnant with knowledge, and her words precious pieces from an immeasurable treasury; and then little by little he had found that the wide treasury was empty, clean indeed and capacious, but no more, and above all with no promise of any riches as yet unperceived. Those great black eyes, that high forehead, those stately movements, meant nothing; it was a splendid figure with no soul within. She did her duty admirably, she said her prayers, she entertained her guests with the proper conversation, she could be trusted to behave well in any circumstances that called for tact or strength; and that was all. But Ralph would not be like that; he was intensely devoted to his work, and from all accounts able in its performance; and more than that, with all his impassivity he was capable of passion; for his employer Sir Thomas Cromwell was to Ralph’s eyes, his father had begun to see, something almost more than human. A word against that master of his would set his eyes blazing and his voice trembling; and this showed that at least the soul was not more than sleeping, or its powers more than misdirected.

And meanwhile there was Chris; and at the thought the father lifted his eyes to the gallery, and saw the faint outline of his son’s brown head against the whitewash.

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