Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Life Of Fr John Gerard S.J. (A Hunted Priest) Part 17.

" On learning the seizure of our house in London," Father Gerard continues, "and my host's imprisonment, I went to his country house to settle with his wife and friends what was to be done, and put all our effects in safe keeping. As we wanted the altar furniture for the approaching Easter, we sent very little of it to our friends. Of course I could not stay away from my entertainers at so holy a time, especially as they were in sorrow and trouble. In Holy Week the treacherous servant came from London with a letter from his master, wherein the latter set forth all that had befallen him, the questions that had been put to him, and his answers. This letter, though seen, had been let pass for the credit of the bearer, to give him a chance of seeing whether I was in the house at this solemn season. He brought me another letter from my servant, whose capture I spoke of above. When by the traitor's information they knew him to be my servant, hoping to wrest from him the disclosure of his friends and abettors, they kept him in solitary confinement in the loathsome prison of Bridewell. The purport of the letter 1 was how he had denied everything, what threats had been held out to him, and what his sufferings were in prison. He had, he said, hardly enough black bread to keep him from starving; his abode was a narrow strongly built cell, in which there was no bed, so that he had to sleep sitting on the window-sill without taking off his clothes. There was a little straw in the place, but it was so trodden down and covered with vermin that he could not lie on it. But what was most intolerable to him was their leaving all that came from him in an open vessel in that narrow den, so that he was continually distressed and almost stifled by the smell. Besides all this he was daily awaiting an examination by torture.

"While reading the letter to my hostess in the presence of the traitor, I chanced to say at this last part, ' I wish I could bear some of his tortures so that there might be less for him/ It was these words of mine that let us know later on who was the traitor, and author of all our woes. For when I was taken and questioned, and declared that I was quite unacquainted with the family, those who were examining me forgot their secret, and cried out, 'What lies you tell!—did you not say so and so before such a lady, as you read your servant's letter ?' But I still denied it, giving them good reasons however why, even if it had been true, I could and ought to have denied it." 2

The paragraph in Frank's examination, to which Father Gerard refers, runs thus: "Item, he saith that the said Gerard lay one night at the Lady Mary's in Black-friars (as he thinketh) a little before Easter last 3 and Ralph Willis, his servant, lay that night at this examinate's house, and that Richard Fulwood, since his imprisonment in Bridewell at Easter last, wrote a letter and sent it from Bridewell to the Lady Mary's, and there this examinate received it and went down with it to Mr. Gerard, who was at Mr. William Wiseman's house at Braddocks all the Easter last, and hidden in the house while the pursuivants were there, which letters aforesaid this examinate did deliver to Ralph Willis, who carried them immediately to Mr. Gerard. And this examinate saw the letters in Mr. Gerard's hands, and heard him read them. Wherein Fulwood wrote that he expected torture every day, and Mr. Gerard wished that he might bear some of Fulwood's punishment."

"Scarcely had I done so," Father Gerard resumes, "when the searchers broke down the door and forcing their way in, spread through the house with great noise and racket. Their first step was to lock up the mistress of the house in her own room with her two daughters; 4 and the Catholic servants they kept locked up in divers places in the same part of the house. They then took to themselves the whole house, which was of a good size, and made a thorough search in every part, not forgetting even to look under the tiles of the roof. The darkest corners they examined with the help of candles. Finding nothing whatever, they began to break down certain places that they suspected. They measured the walls with long rods, so that if they did not tally, they might pierce the part not accounted for. Thus they sounded the walls and all the floors, to find out and break into any hollow places that there might be.

" They spent two days in this work without finding anything. Thinking therefore that I had gone on Easter Sunday, the two magistrates went away on the second day, leaving the pursuivants to take the mistress of the house, and all her Catholic servants of both sexes, to London, to be examined and imprisoned. They meant to leave some who were not Catholics to keep the house, the traitor being one of them. The good lady was pleased at this, for she hoped that he would be the means of freeing me, and rescuing me from death: for she knew that I had made up my mind to suffer and die of starvation between two walls, rather than come forth and save my own life at the expense of others. In fact during those four days that I lay hid, I had nothing to eat but a biscuit or two and a little quince jelly, which my hostess had at hand and gave me as I was going in. She did not look for any more, as she supposed that the search would not last beyond a day. But now that two days were gone, and she was to be carried off on the third with all her trusty servants, she began to be afraid of my dying of sheer hunger. She bethought herself then of the traitor, who she heard was to be left behind. He had made a great fuss and show of eagerness in withstanding the searchers, when they first forced their way in. For all that, she would not have let him know of the hiding-places, had she not been in such straits. Thinking it better however to rescue me from certain death, even at some risk to herself, she charged him, when she was taken away, and every one had gone, to go into a certain room, call me by my wonted name, and tell me that the others had been taken to prison, but that he was left to deliver me. I would then answer, she said, from behind the lath and plaster where I lay concealed.

" The traitor promised to obey faithfully, but he was faithful only to the faithless, 5 for he unfolded the whole matter to the ruffians who had remained behind. No sooner had they heard it, than they called back the magistrates who had departed. These returned early in the morning, and renewed the search. They measured and sounded everywhere, much more carefully than before, especially in the chamber above mentioned, in order to find out some hollow place. But finding nothing whatever during the whole of the third day, they purposed on the morrow to strip off all the wainscot of that room. Meanwhile they set guards in all the rooms about, to watch all night lest I should escape. I heard from my hiding-place the pass-word which the captain of the band gave to his soldiers, and I might have got off by using it, were it not that they would have seen me issuing from my retreat: for there were two on guard in the chapel where I got into my hiding-place, and several also in the large wainscotted room which had been pointed out to them.
Braddocks Fireplace

"But mark the wonderful providence of God. Here was I in my hiding-place. The way I got into it was by taking up the floor, made of wood and bricks, under the fire-place. The place was so constructed that a fire could not be lit in it without damaging the house ; though we made a point of keeping wood there, as if it were meant for a fire. Well, the men on the night-watch lit a fire in this very grate, and began chatting together close to it. Soon the bricks, which had not bricks but wood underneath them, got loose and nearly fell out of their places, as the wood gave way. On noticing this and probing the place with a stick, they found that the bottom was made of wood ; whereupon they remarked that this was something curious. I thought that they were going there and then to break open the place and enter, but they made up their minds at last to put off further examination till next day. Meanwhile, though nothing was further from my thoughts than any chance of escaping, I besought the Lord earnestly, that if it were for the glory of His Name, I might not be taken in that house, and so endanger my entertainers ; nor in any other house, where others would share my disaster. My prayer was heard. I was preserved in that house in a wonderful manner; and when, a few days after, I was taken, it was without prejudice to any one, as shall be presently seen.

" Next morning therefore they renewed the search most carefully, everywhere except in the top chamber which served as a chapel, and in which the two watchmen had made a fire over my head and had noticed the strange make of the grate. God had blotted out of their memory all remembrance of the thing. Nay, none of the searchers entered the place the whole day, though it was the one that was most open to suspicion, and if they had entered, they would have found me without any search; rather, I should say, they would have seen me, for the fire had burnt a great hole in my hiding-place, and had I not got a little out of the way, the hot embers would have fallen on me. The searchers, forgetting or not caring about this room, busied themselves in ransacking the rooms below, in one of which I was said to be. In fact they found the other hiding-place which I thought of going into, as I mentioned before. It was not far off, so I could hear their shouts of joy when they first found it. But after joy comes grief: and so it was with them. The only thing that they found, was a goodly store of provision laid up. Hence they may have thought that this was the place that the mistress of the house meant; in fact an answer might have been given from it to the call of a person in the room mentioned by her.

" They stuck to their purpose however, of stripping off all the wainscot of the other large room. So they set a man to work near the ceiling, close to the place where I was: for the lower part of the walls was covered with tapestry, not with wainscot. So they stripped off the wainscot all round, till they came again to the very place where I lay, and there they lost heart and gave up the search. My hiding-place was in a thick wall of the chimney, behind a finely inlaid and carved mantelpiece. They could not well take the carving down without risk of breaking it. Broken however it would have been, and that into a thousand pieces, had they any conception that I could be concealed behind it. But knowing that there were two flues, they did not think that there could be room enough there for a man. Nay, before this, on the second day of the search they had gone into the room above, and tried the fireplace through which I had got into my hole. They then got into the chimney by a ladder to sound with their hammers. One said to another in my hearing, 'Might there not be a place here for a person to get down into the wall of the chimney below, by lifting up this hearth ?' < No,' answered one of the pursuivants, whose voice I knew, 'you could not get down that way into the chimney underneath, but there might easily be an entrance at the back of this chimney.' So saying, he gave the place a kick. I was afraid that he would hear the hollow sound of the hole where I was. But God, who set bounds to the sea, said also to their dogged obstinacy, 'Thus far shalt thou go and no further;' and He spared His sorely-stricken children, and gave them not up into their persecutors' hands, nor allowed utter ruin to light upon them for their great charity towards me.

"Seeing that their toil availed them nought, they thought that I had escaped somehow, and so they went away at the end of four days, leaving the mistress and her servants free. The yet unbetrayed traitor stayed after the searchers were gone. As soon as the doors of the house were made fast, the mistress came to call me, another four-days-buried Lazarus, from what would have been my tomb had the search continued a little longer. For I was all wasted and weakened, as well with hunger as with want of sleep, and with having to sit so long in such a narrow space. The mistress of the house too had eaten nothing whatever during the whole time, not only to share my distress, and to try on herself how long I could live without food, but chiefly to draw down the mercy of God on me, herself, and her family, by this fasting and prayer. Indeed her face was so changed when I came out, that she seemed quite another woman, and I should not have known her but for her voice and her dress. After coming out I was seen by the traitor, whose treachery was still unknown to us. He did nothing then, not even send after the searchers, as he knew that I meant to be off, before they could be recalled.

It was of the last importance for the friends of a prisoner to know, if possible, what replies he had really given, not only that they might take measures, if necessary, for their own safety, but also that they might know how far to go in their own answers when summoned. The persecutors were constantly in the habit of publishing all sorts of pretended replies which they said had been given by prisoners in their secret examinations, so that prisoners seized every possible opportunity of communicating the truth to their friends; often, as we shall see, in the most ingenious way.

2 It will be noticed both from this passage and many others, that the persecuted Catholics followed that common doctrine of Theologians, maintained also by many Protestant moralists, that an unjust oppressor has ho right to exact or expect true answers from his victims, if such true answers would help his unjust designs, except where the question is of the faith of the prisoner. It is quite likely that many will be startled now-a-days at such direct denials, owing to our present freedom from those extreme circumstances in which such denials were made. The English law, with a tenderness then unknown, now protects a man from all efforts to make him criminate himself, and it encourages every one who is on his trial to plead "Not guilty." The persecutors themselves, who showed such indignation at their victims' falsehoods, told lies systematically in order to ensnare the Catholics ; a thing which no code of morality ever countenanced, whether Catholic or Protestant, This subject will be more fully discussed in the sequel.

3 The Lady Mary Percy, of whom mention has been previously made She "was a devout Catholic, and had come to London a little before my imprisonment, to get my help in passing over to Belgium, there to consecrate herself to God. She was staying at the house of her sister," who had lost the faith, Jane, the wife of Lord Henry Seymour, with whose Protestant servants Father Gerard was confronted later on. "I dined with them on the day the witnesses mentioned. It was Lent; and they told how their mistress ate meat, while the Lady Mary and I ate nothing but fish " (infr. p. 195).

4 Dorothy and Winifred Wiseman; the youngest of whom was ten years old.

5 Fidelis tantum erat infidelibus.— MS.