* * * * *
Chris was aware of a dusty room as he stepped over the threshold, bare walls, one or two solid pieces of furniture, and of the Prior’s figure very upright in the light from the tiny window at one side; and then he forgot everything as he looked at the man that was standing smiling by the table.
It was a very tall slender figure, dressed in a ragged black gown turning green with age; a little bent now, but still dignified; the face was incredibly lean, with great brown eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and a little white hair, ragged, too, and long, hung down under the old flapped cap. The hand that Chris kissed seemed a bundle of reeds bound with parchment, and above the wrist bones the arm grew thinner still under the loose, torn sleeve.
Then the monk stood up and saw those kindly proud eyes looking into his own.
The Prior made a deferential movement and said a word or two, and the bishop answered him.
“Yes, yes, my Lord Prior; I understand—God bless you, my son.”
The bishop moved across to the chair, and sat down, panting a little, for he was torn by sickness and deprivation, and laid his long hands together.
“Sit down, brother,” he said, “and you too, my Lord Prior.”
Chris saw the Prior move across to an old broken stool, but he himself remained standing, awed and almost terrified at that worn face in which the eyes alone seemed living; so thin that the cheekbones stood out hideously, and the line of the square jaw. But the voice was wonderfully sweet and penetrating.
“My Lord Prior and I have been talking of the times, and what is best to be done, and how we must all be faithful. You will be faithful, brother?”
Chris made an effort against the absorbing fascination of that face and voice.
“I will, my lord.”
“That is good; you must follow your prior and be obedient to him. You will find him wise and courageous.”
The bishop nodded gently towards the Prior, and Chris heard a sobbing indrawn breath from the corner where the broken stool stood.
“It is a time of great moment,” went on the bishop; “much hangs on how we carry ourselves. His Grace has evil counsellors about him.”
There was silence for a moment or two; Chris could not take his eyes from the bishop’s face. The frightful framework of skin and bones seemed luminous from within, and there was an extraordinary sweetness on those tightly drawn lips, and in the large bright eyes.
“His Grace has been to the Tower lately, I hear, and once to the Marshalsea, to see Dom Sebastian Newdegate, who, as you know, was at Court for many years till he entered the Charterhouse; but I have had no visit from him, nor yet, I should think, Master More—you must not judge his Grace too hardly, my son; he was a good lad, as I knew very well—a very gallant and brave lad. A Frenchman said that he seemed to have come down from heaven. And he has always had a great faith and devotion, and a very strange and delicate conscience that has cost him much pain. But he has been counselled evilly.”