Father Garnet's Peace
The house rose up before me as I passed under three gateways. Red chimneys pierced the grey clouds. The rain was battering the landscape as it had, unceasing, for 48 hours now. I pulled my black hood further over my head, glad that the voluminous folds protected my face from weather as well as recognition.
I slipped into the chilly oak room, bright with carving and marquetry, the cockfighting chair looking as though someone had stabbed a fork into its green leather back. In one corner I quietly pushed aside a section of panelling and crept behind.
The other staircase, the beautiful carved wooden staircase with its busts of gracious 18th century ladies, was not for me, not even at the time in its life when candles flickered and small noises of rats and bats and birds disturbed and frightened the children of the house.
The stone steps I now trod were uneven. The secret hiding place was no longer complete. I closed the trapdoor over my head, feeling the terror of being trapped, hiding, fearful, in a hole, with the Pursuivants, the pursuers, clattering about above. There was a hair across my face - no, a cobweb, threaded across my lips like the kiss of a spectral presence.
Did Father Garnet love or hate this Gemini life, he who spent his time travelling, hiding, secretly celebrating his special relationship with God?
Ascending the winding staircase now, brick dust clung thickly to my black skirts. It was the most secret of ascents that I made, climbing through the interstices of the inner house, the living recreation of its secret life. I could feel between my fingers the wax of the sacred candles, the parchment pages of the ancient holy book, the rough wood of the chalice.
Daylight filtered through gaps in battered stonework, bright through a tiny window even on this miserable day. I stumbled, catching my forearm on the rough inner wall, nearly slipping on the narrow triangular steps, putting out a steadying hand to grasp a filthy wooden tread, feeling blood trickle down my wrist to mingle with black dust.
How many others had made this ascent before me - since Master Owen had crafted the hole itself? How many of them had survived more than a handful of years after their secret smuggling from seminarian study in France? How many had met a terrible death at the hands of fanatical Master Topcliffe, hanging in a dungeon from racking hooks, tormented and beleaguered - but never, ever, denying their God and faith.
In the room at the head of the stair, the crimson bedhangings quivered in the cold still air as I took out my stole, kissed its sacred folds and placed it around my neck. Carefully I lifted out of its velvet-lined case the crystal phial of holy water.
Little by little I sprinkled the holy water on all the contents of that haunted room, the great oak wardrobe that was thought to move, the desk and chairs that groaned in the night - the book of ghost stories on the bedside table - the door that creaked though no living being touched it, the great bed itself, dark carved wood, hung with patched red brocade and strange sewn flora, that never a cobweb nor a speck of dust came near. The bed I gave an extra sprinkling -- more for luck than for ceremonial necessity. I murmured words of blessing and benediction in the old tongue: Deo Gratias, Pax vobiscum.
No-one had authorised my liturgy - no recusants here now - but I had planned this secret return since my last visit, having perceived the need. I hoped that by this action I would dispel the ghosts and dreadful aura of superstition that hung over this room. Merely sacred it was, but bound up with a terrible history.
Tomorrow the specialist cleaners and wood-treatment firm would come in, to deal with dry rot, damp and smells, and then there would be an end forever to the terrible reputation of this room.
I kissed my stole again as I laid it reverently in its case, and by its side the phial, empty now. I turned to leave the red room -- stopped -- my hand on the door, and thought I heard a quavering voice ring out from the cupboard from whence descended the secret stair.
"I thank thee for this restoration of my little chapel to the true faith once again."
"You're welcome, Father Garnet!" I whispered, and left the room.
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Last amended on 16th June 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead