A QUESTION OF LOYALTY
He did not know how long he stood there, with the bundle of papers gripped in his two hands; and the thoughts racing through his brain.
The noises in the street outside waned and waxed again, as the news swept down the lanes, and recoiled with a wave of excited crowds following it. Then again they died to a steady far-off murmur as the mob surged and clamoured round the Palace and Abbey a couple of hundred yards away.
At last Ralph sat down; still holding the papers. He must clear his brain; and how was that possible with the images flashing through it in endless and vivid succession? For a while he could not steady himself; the shock was bewildering; he could think of nothing but the appalling drama. Essex was fallen!
Then little by little the muddy current of thought began to run clear. He began to understand what lay before him; and the question that still awaited decision.
His first instinct had been to dash the papers on to the fire and grind them into the red heart of the wood; but something had checked him. Very slowly he began to analyse that instinct.
First, was it not useless? He knew he did not possess one hundredth part of the incriminating evidence that was in existence. Of what service would it be to his master to destroy that one small bundle?
Next, what would be the result to himself if he did? It was known that he was a trusted agent of the minister’s; his house would be searched; papers would be found; it would be certainly known that he had made away with evidence. There would be records of what he had, in the other houses. And what then?
On the other hand if he willingly gave up all that was in his possession, it would go far to free him from complicity.
Lastly, like a venomous snake lifting its head, his own private resentment looked him in the eyes, and there was a new sting added to it now. He had lost all, he knew well enough; wealth, honour and position had in a moment shrunk to cinders with Cromwell’s fall, and for these cinders he had lost Beatrice too. He had sacrificed her to his master; and his master had failed him. A kind of fury succeeded to his dismay.
Oh, would it not be sweet to add even one more stone to the mass that was tottering over the head of that mighty bully, that had promised and not performed?
He blinked his eyes, shocked by the horror of the thought, and gripped the bundle yet more firmly. The memories of a thousand kindnesses received from his master cried at the door of his heart. The sweat dropped from his forehead; he lifted a stiff hand to wipe it away, and dropped it again into its grip on the papers.
Then he slowly recapitulated to himself the reasons for not destroying them. They were overwhelming, convincing! What was there to set against them? One slender instinct only, that cried shrill and thin that in honour he must burn that damning evidence—burn it—burn it—whether or no it would help or hinder, it must be burnt!