Ralph had a moment, ten minutes after Beatrice had left, when he was inclined to snatch up his hat and go after Cromwell to tell him to do his own dirty work; but his training had told, and he had laughed at the folly of the thought. Why, of course, the work had to be done! England was rotten with dreams and superstition. Ecclesiasticism had corrupted genuine human life, and national sanity could not be restored except by a violent process. Innocent persons would no doubt suffer—innocent according to conscience, but guilty against the commonwealth. Every great movement towards good was bound to be attended by individual catastrophes; but it was the part of a strong man to carry out principles and despise details.
The work had to be done; it was better then that there should be at least one respectable workman. Of course such a work needed coarse men to carry it out; it was bound to be accompanied by some brutality; and his own presence there might do something to keep the brutality within limits.
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And as for Beatrice—well, Beatrice did not yet understand. If she understood all as he did, she would sympathise, for she was strong too. Besides—he had held her in his arms just now, and he knew that love was king.
But he sat for ten minutes more in silence, staring with unseeing eyes at the huddled roofs opposite and the clear sky over them; and the point of the quill in his fingers was split and cracked when Mr. Morris looked in to see if his master wanted anything.
THE BEGINNING OF THE VISITATION
It was on a wet foggy morning in October that Ralph set out with Mr. Morris and a couple more servants to join Dr. Layton in the Sussex visitation. He rode alone in front; and considered as he went.
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The Visitation itself, Cromwell had told him almost explicitly, was in pursuance of the King’s policy to get the Religious Houses, which were considered to be the strongholds of the papal power in England, under the authority of the Crown; and also to obtain from them reinforcements of the royal funds which were running sorely low. The crops were most disappointing this year, and the King’s tenants were wholly unable to pay their rents; and it had been thought wiser to make up the deficit from ecclesiastical wealth rather than to exasperate the Commons by a direct call upon their resources.
So far, he knew very well, the attempt to get the Religious Houses into the King’s power had only partially succeeded. Bishop Fisher’s influence had availed to stave off the fulfilment of the royal intentions up to the present; and the oath of supremacy, in which to a large extent the key of the situation lay, had been by no means universally accepted. Now, however, the scheme was to be pushed forward; and as a preparation for it, it was proposed to visit every monastery and convent in the kingdom, and to render account first of the temporal wealth of each, and then of the submissiveness of its inmates; and, as Cromwell had hinted to Ralph, anything that could damage the character of the Religious would not be unacceptable evidence.