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took their seats on each side of it. After conversing a few minutes in a low voice, the Prelate rose from his seat, and surveying the assembly with an air of great dignity, which had the effect of hushing every sound into silence, he said,
"It behoves us, my reverend brethren, to examine with all attention the case which will be brought before us this morning. It is a painful duty to which I exhort ye, but we have to deal with an evil that is daily increasing, and one that is likely to bring the whole Church to the brink of ruin, if it be not timely checked. Nevertheless, I would fain hope that this unhappy man may be brought to a sense of his errors, if not by the illumination of his beclouded understanding, at least from a salutary dread of the punishment which it is ours to inflict on obstinate heretics."
Here a Priest, whose habit denoted some difference of rank between him and the others, exclaimed, in a voice at once musical and melancholy, "I would fain hope, reverend father, it will be found that this unfortunate man hath not been led so far astray as some would have you to believe!"
"How say you, my son," replied the Bishop, "do we not know full well that he hath constantly read the Scriptures which Tindal hath put into English?"
Being a Priest, it may be thought he had liberty to use them," returned the Prior; for it was no other than our old acquaintance, the mild superior of the Bons-hommes.
"He had," rejoined the Prelate, "but it was a dangerous liberty, and one which he used at his own proper peril. The Holy Scripture is a light indeed; but under its powerful rays, weak understandings exhale rank mists and noxious vapours, among which men grope in darkness, till, mistaking the marshfires of their disordered imaginations for the light of truth, they follow them even to destruction."
The Prior was silent, though unconvinced. It was not a time or place to enter on a discussion of the question, least of all with his spiritual superior. He was buried in deep thought during the remainder of the proceedings.
The doors at the bottom of the chamber were thrown open as the Bishop finished speaking, and Harding was conducted into the room between two of the Abbot's men-at-arms. He was not accommodated with a seat, but remained standing during the hour and a half that his examination occupied. Messenger entered at the same time, and took his place near the bottom of the long table, and on the right hand of the prisoner. He was grave, as was his wont, but a more than usually stern resolution seemed legible in each of his strongly-marked features. His entrance roused the Prior for a moment from his meditations;
he regarded him with an air of sadness, and sighed, as if the contrast between himself and Messenger pained him.
The trial, if we may so call it, began in a manner more calculated to re-assure than to alarm the accused. A few simple questions were asked, such as his name, age, occupation, and dwelling-place, to which such satisfactory replies could be given, as enabled those immediately interested in behalf of Harding to breathe more freely, and feel almost as if the worst were over. Their breathing space was, however, but a short one, for the next minute all their anxiety was re-awakened by the Bishop's next question.
"Thou art accused," said he, in his most sonorous tones," of professing and setting forth opinions at variance with the doc trines of the Holy Catholic Church. What sayest thou to this charge ?"
"I deny it, reverend father," replied the prisoner, calmly and firmly; "I totally deny that I did ever profess or maintain any opinion contrary to the doctrine of the Church.”
The Bishop and Messenger exchanged glances. "How sayest thou!" exclaimed the Prelate. "Didst thou not contumaciously refuse to deliver up the copy of the Gospels which was discovered in thy possession, and to pray for the soul of thy father, denying that there is any such place as purgatory, and averring that the dead stand not in need of our prayers!"
"And are these the accusations brought against me, my Lord Bishop?" replied the prisoner, who now stepped a few paces before his guards to the foot of the table. "Say ye that to deny these dogmas is to hold opinions adverse to the Catholic doctrine? If ye judge me after living men's judgments, I doubt not it will go hard with me; but and if ye judge me according to the whole sense of the Church Catholic, I shall have good hope: and to that standard I appeal with full trust and confidence, even as S. Paul at Festus' judgment-seat appealed unto Cæsar. You, my lord, know full well, and you, my brethren, also know, that those doctrines which I am accused of contemning are each of such modern date, that if ye take the authority of the Church upon them, the weight of antiquity is on my side. The Ephesian fire, the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, and of the saints, are each and every one novelties and errors which—”
"Silence, blasphemer!" exclaimed the stentorian voice of Roland Messenger, as with kindling eye and excited gesture he rose from his seat; and extending his arm, with almost a menacing air, towards the prisoner, he poured forth his indignation in a strain of passionate vehemence, which allowed of no interruption for defence, and seemed to admit of no reply. It was a speech too much in accordance with their feelings and habits
of thought to be lost upon his audience. Its effect was soon plainly visible in the breathless attention and eager countenances of his hearers, as his deep tones vibrated on their ears. The words with which he concluded roused even the Prior from his abstraction.
"This unhappy man," said he, after a pause, during which he seemed to be gathering resolution to utter something painful, "this unfortunate, deluded of the Evil One, whom nought but fire can purify, was-can ye believe it, my brethren ?—once the dearest friend of my bosom; unlike as, by our Lady's grace, we now are, we were each, in bygone days, the other's chosen companion. We were right loving friends in boyhood, through the season of early youth. Alas! that we ever ceased to be so!"
Messenger's deep voice trembled; its stern tones had changed to almost womanly softness at these gentle recollections, and the prisoner's countenance relaxed from its former firm expression, when Messenger suddenly addressed him in a tone of strong emotion.
Wherefore,” exclaimed he, passionately, “O, wherefore was the sweet intercourse of friendship broken between us? Alas for thee! was it not thyself that broke the tie? Dost thou ask wherefore Roland Messenger, who was like thine own brother, stands foremost among thine accusers? I tell thee, John Harding, it is because I have so much of my ancient love remaining, that I would save thy soul at every hazard, even by force, if that could be. I call all the holy saints to witness, that, if the burning of this wretched body at yonder stake could in any wise avail thy soul, I would right joyfully suffer in thy stead!"
Harding covered his face with his hands, and breathed a heartfelt prayer for his early friend, while Messenger regarded him with a look of mingled anger and sorrow.
Several witnesses were here brought forward, and were closely questioned by the Bishop and his colleagues, on the opinions which Harding had set forth in his sermons. These were of course the same as those he had always avowed; but that which weighed most heavily against him was the Bible which the Abbot of C laid on the table. It was Tindal's translation of the Gospels,-the interdicted volume which had been so carefully concealed by Margaret, and also a Psalter which was found in the bosom of his vest. The volumes were handed on for the Bishop's inspection, who after turning over the leaves for some minutes, leaned his brow on his hand in deep thought.
"Is this copy of the Holy Scriptures thy property, John Harding?" he at length inquired.
"It is, reverend father," was the prisoner's reply.
"How long hath it been in thy possession?" continued the Prelate.
"Ever since I occupied the curacy of when it came into my possession along with sundry homilies, and other writings of the holy fathers."
"Hast thou been wont to read it daily ever since that time ?" pursued the Bishop.
"Even so,” replied Harding. "I regard it as the food and refreshment of the soul, which wanting, it would languish and grow weak."
"Wherefore didst thou so carefully conceal it?" inquired the Bishop.
Because, my good Lord," replied the prisoner, our rulers have seen fit to forbid the reading it; and no man doth needlessly put his life in jeopardy."
"Hast thou anything to say in thy justification, young man ?" said the Prelate, with an accent of kindness. "We grant thee full liberty of speech."
My conscience accuses me of no wrong, reverend father," replied Harding; "and for the matter of having_transgressed the Bishop's commands, in reading an interdicted book, I have learnt that there is a higher law than theirs, one higher than any law of man's making, which I am bound to obey. It is not my fault if they do not tally one with the other."
The Bishop's brow was slightly overcast at these words. He glanced round the table at the countenances of his coadjutors, and then rising from his seat, led the way to an adjoining apartment, to deliberate with them in private on the course to be pursued.
The feelings of all present were in a state of painful excitement while this private deliberation was going on; time had not yet familiarized them to such scenes. This was one of the first of the kind which was enacted there, and, from Harding's character and position among them, was peculiarly interesting. Many a glance of compassion was directed to him, bold freethinker though he appeared; but none dared to speak to or approach him. He was seated on a bench that was placed near the spot where he had been standing, and showed no other sign of extraordinary emotion than looking pale and anxious. His eyes were bent towards the ground, as if he wished to avoid the sight of the numerous bystanders; and he only raised them occasionally, to give a quick glance towards the door of the inner apartment. As soon as that door was again opened, Harding rose from his seat, and with a calm and self-possessed air, stepped to his place at the bottom of the table.
When the slight confusion occasioned by the re-entrance of
the Bishop and his colleagues had subsided, a dead silence prevailed for some minutes, during which every breath seemed hushed in anxious expectation. The Bishop was the first to break it; he rose, and thus addressed the accused, who stood with his eyes intently fixed on his face.
"John Harding, I wish from my heart the duty we have done by thee this day had fallen on any other than myself. It is doubly painful to me, being revolting to my nature, to use severe measures with such misguided creatures as thou art; and still more bitter is it to see the disorders occasioned by them overspreading the land, and infecting the Church itself. We have this day examined your opinions, and, alas! we have too surely found them to be such as our holy Church doth not sanction. Unhappy man, doth not the careful gardener lop off the blighted branch, that it may not corrupt the tree? and, in like manner, doth not the skilful chirurgeon cut off the gangrened limb, that it bring not the whole body into a state of mortal disease? Thou hast left the rock on which alone we are safe, and hast built thine house on the shifting quicksands of thine own shortsighted judgment; an error which, alas! devolves the most ungrateful of all duties on zealous servants of the Church, that of chastising these erring children, of driving those who are deaf to all warnings, even with a scourge, from the precipices on whose brink they are wandering, to stand with a flaming sword between them and spiritual suicide.
"But thou, John Harding, hast made thyself amenable to the law, in breaking the commands of thy rulers; and although thou hast so blindly set the laws of GoD and man at variance with each other, thou breakest the higher, in that thou violatest the lower. For if thou hadst read that holy volume aright, thou wouldst have found that S. Paul teacheth us to obey our rulers in all things; and it nowhere tells us that we are to do evil that good may come.
"As thy offence hath been against the common law, I deliver thee with sorrow and grief unfeigned to its power; and we shall all pray to GoD and our Lady, and all the saints, that thine end may be that of a true penitent. Sir Richard Dayrel, we consign John Harding to thy keeping."
The prisoner had listened without any apparent change of countenance, and bowing his head when the Bishop concluded, he resigned himself readily to the custody of Sir Richard Dayrell, the High Sheriff, who had stepped forward on hearing himself named by the Bishop, saying, "You may dispense with all show of force, Sir Richard; the habits of my order constrain me to accompany you willingly." "this is a
"I assure you, Master Harding," said the Sheriff, most ungrateful duty."