“Open in the name of the Queen.”
The smashing of the oak door is thunderous. Stunned, I close my fingers around my crucifix and turn to Nicholas. He’s already moving; sweeping up the altar furniture.
“Quick Father, follow me.”
Nicholas kicks open a panel that looks to me like all the others and tosses the chalice inside. An admonishment for such disrespectful treatment trembles on my lips, but instead of speaking I clutch the Eucharist to my chest and allow him to hustle me into the staircase behind the table.
Below us Margaret’s indignant tones rise above those of the intruders and I hear the sharp sound of a slap.
Nicholas tenses, but does not release me. “In here.”
We’ve entered a small attic room with nothing in it but a bed and bare fireplace. I look around, confused.
“Behind the fireplace!” Nicholas moves a brick and a section of the mantel swings outwards to reveal a hole just large enough for me to curl into.
Nicholas tucks my trailing cassock after me as I crouch around the bowl of Communion wafers. “Maybe I should just go with them,” I quaver.
Nicholas shakes his fringe out of his eyes and I flinch at his expression. “Don’t even think of it,” he growls. “If they find you we’ll forfeit our property. Mother and Father will be labeled recusants and you’ll be hung. Stay very still, make no sound. I will come and get you once it’s safe.” He hesitates. “God be with you.”
He’s right. I open my mouth to reply, but Nicholas swings the stone closed.
There is barely enough room in the hole to shift position. I tuck my knees beneath me as best I can and sit on my heels, my head bent over the bread.
The hole smells of coal dust. It is almost pitch black, but the tiniest crack lets in a sliver of grey light and a wisp of air. I fix my eye to this reminder of the world outside and start to pray.
Oddly I am reminded of my time in the seminary. The darkness provides a good opportunity for quiet contemplation. …
Maybe the Queen’s men will only give the house a cursory search.
After a full fifteen decades of the rosary the stairs beneath the room start to shake.
Maybe Nicholas is coming to let me out. …
“What’s in here?”
“Just an old guest room. We haven’t used it since Uncle died.”
The door slams open.
“You men, come here, I think this might be it.”
“We’ve told you, there’s no cleric in this house.”
“And I told you what would happen if you got in my way again, boy. We know you’re a bunch of Papists.”
I hear the crack of a fist against a face and cringe. Nicholas grunts, but makes no other sound. Would I have been as brave? The floor shakes as boots pound the floorboards.
I close my eyes, imposing more darkness on myself, as if I can make my hiding place less visible.
The hunters pound on the walls and floor. Then I feel a presence on the other side of the mantel.
I hold my breath and will the devil to move, but he remains, as if he can see me through the wall.
I can hold my breath no longer. Instead I fight to achieve silent, shallow inhalations. Puffs of dust tickle my nose. I’m going to sneeze. I have to think of something else. Quickly I start to pray. “Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae, vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.”
Outside an order is snapped out. “Silence.” … and the small noises that had been masking my own fell away.
I dig my fingers into the bowl and bruise my fingertips as my mind continues to race through the familiar words of the Salve Regina.
As I finish the prayer my neck and legs cramp and I bite down on a moan. The taste of blood floods my mouth as restlessness builds in my muscles, but I force myself into statue-like immobility, imagining myself carved from marble.
The silence grows and my senses prickle.
“He’s here somewhere, I can feel him.” The voice is a sibilant whisper.
A pang in my bladder reminds me I had been looking forward to relieving myself after Mass. Tears squeeze from my tightly closed eyes. It isn’t that I mind soiling my vestments, but the devil in the room will surely scent the tang of fresh urine.
A scraping sound is as loud in my ears as a smith’s forge. The man is dragging a blade over the mantelpiece, seeking a flaw in the stone.
My only defence is prayer. I have to remember Christ’s own sacrifice. What I am going through is nothing in comparison to the torture he endured.
“I intend to remain in this room.” I hear the man moving away from the hole. “Have some food brought up to me … and a table.”
The bed creaks and I imagine him stretching out. My tears come more freely. How long will I have to stay in here? How long before I’ll give myself away just to relieve hunger and cramped muscles? A few hours? A day? A week?
Nicholas speaks, desperation in his voice. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in one of the better appointed guest rooms, sir?”
“No. I would not.”
I stop praying and tears soak into my cassock.