THE WINNING STORY
PUBLISHED: 13:02 29 December 2010 | UPDATED: 14:13 26 February 2013
Once again we had a tremendous response to our short story competition. This year many of the entries were tales of romance set in our beautiful county and which set the pulses racing!
A Vale of Tears
By Adele Clarkson
Not daring to breathe and cramped into the dark, confined space of the priest hole, Southwell waited for Topcliffe and his three accomplices to finish their search. For two hours he had hidden in silence and darkness, cleverly concealed under two false floors of the guard robe. Paralysed with fear, he recited the ritual of Mass in his mind to help ease the palpitations in his chest and calm the adrenalin in his body.
Acting on information that there was a secret gathering of priests in the area, Topcliffe had been like a man possessed, rampaging through the house with his fellow Pursuivants, brandishing swords ready to arrest their quarries for treason against the Queen. With the frustration of no evident hiding places, despite hammering on walls to detect hollow spaces, Topcliffe and his mob left the distressed family at Coughton Court and set out on horseback in the direction of Stratford-upon-Avon to continue their search.
Waiting for another two hours in case Topcliffe returned, the master of the house eventually called to Southwell that it was safe to come out of hiding. Dawn was only just beginning to break, revealing a dull, cold and blustery October day. It would be an unpleasant journey on foot to pass undetected through the Forest of Arden to reach the market town of Henley-in-Arden where Southwell had arranged to meet Father Gerard at the market cross that evening.
As Topcliffe and his men dismounted at the Garrick Inn in Stratford-upon-Avon, life in the town was beginning to stir as people started to go about their daily routines. The air began to fill with the foul mingled stench of body odour, animals and sewage as the dirt-lined street in the market place filled with livestock and the streets hummed with the hustle and chaos of people.
Tired from their fruitless search at Coughton and the two-day journey on horseback from London, they entered the dark panelled room, dimly lit by flickering candles. Ordering a plate of dark bread and what resembled hard mouldy cheese accompanied by a flagon of ale to satisfy their hunger and thirst, they settled themselves on the oak settle in front of the dying embers of the inglenook fireplace.
What are the plans now Richard? asked Wilson, a scrawny subservient figure of a man scraping the mould off the cheese with his filthy finger nails.
Tearing at his bread, Topcliffe grimaced to reveal his crooked, black and missing teeth, Why to continue and hunt them down of course. It will be my greatest pleasure to condemn them to the executioner to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason. The dying words of the priest on the rack a couple of days ago confessed to a secret gathering in Warwickshire. Well rest awhile then raid some safe houses around here to see what more information we
Despite his simple drab attire of brown breeches, jacket and cape, Southwell cut a fine figure; he was in his late twenties, medium height and slight build with a fine bone structure to his face accentuated by a neatly cut beard and short dark blond hair. As he pressed on along the wet and muddy forest track, being careful to avoid the main highways for fear of being detected, his soft blue eyes were fixated in a dreamy trance as he considered the torment of his love and duty to the Queen and how this conflicted with his lifes purpose to be a Jesuit Priest.
These were dangerous times, for it was illegal for a priest to remain in England for more than 40 days and it was a treasonable offence to convert Protestants and administer rites to Catholic families. Troubled by his adoration for his Queen and the conflict this resonated with his faith, he focused his mind on his love for writing poetry. Accomplished as a young published poet, he was a harsh critic of Shakespeare for being frivolous with words of love and not taking religion seriously. Pulling down his cap and fastening his cloak to keep out the chill winds, he bent downwards to lessen the impact of the blustery gales that were whipping around him as he mentally scribed a mournful verse for his poem to depict his ultimate spiritual union with God and his loyalty for Elizabeth. As he made his way northwards through the scrubland and woods, he saw no one on the tracks that day other than a forester chopping wood and a falconer on horseback heading in the opposite direction.
Arriving under the cover of darkness at Henley-in-Arden, Southwell furtively made his way down the main street to the prominent stone market cross to meet Father Gerard. Walking towards him was a gentleman a couple of years younger than Southwell and larger in stature. He looked highly respectable wearing fashionable and colourful breeches, doublet, ruff and cape and sporting a low woollen hat decorated with vibrant jay feathers. Striding confidently down the street with purpose, the gentleman stopped at the market cross to light his pipe. Ave Maria he whispered in a well spoken and commanding voice. He lit his pipe and drew on the tobacco. Suddenly Southwell turned white in fear; his identify had been revealed. His palms turned sweaty as the adrenalin surged through his body and his mind froze with terror. However, grabbing Southwell by the arm, the gentleman leant forward and quietly whispered, Its me Father Gerard, we need to talk. Not here. Its not safe. Ill meet you in the alley opposite.
Still too shocked and astounded by the encounter to utter a word, Southwell crossed over the street to the alley, dumbfounded that the fine looking gentleman was a fellow Jesuit priest.
In the cramped passageway between a blacksmiths and a candlemakers, the two men exchanged blessings in hushed tones. However, it was not long before the conversation was diverted to more pressing matters; Gerard stooped and whispered in Southwells ear: Topcliffe and his men have just arrived at the Bluebell Inn where I am staying; I think they are staying the night. Its not safe for you to be here, you must go on through the night to Baddesley Clinton where Ill meet up with you later and well be joined by the others.
But what about you Father Gerard? I cannot believe that you are even staying the night in the same town as Topcliffe, let alone the same inn, Southwell retorted anxiously.
Dont worry about me, its not the first time Ive rubbed shoulders with Topcliffe unwittingly. Ill pass myself off as a wool merchant on the way to Coventry. I know enough about hunting, sports and falconry to pass a pleasant evening. If necessary Ill play my hand at cards and gamble a sporting mans bet.
How will you get to Baddesley? implored Southwell, worried for Gerards safety.
One of the safe houses in Charlecote loaned me a horse to help me in my disguise and aid my safety, so Ill be fine dont worry. Set off now through the night and youll be safe. Here youll need this. He pressed a small neat bundle in the hands of Southwell and winked, a little something to give you comfort.
Do you know how to get there? asked Southwell.
Yes, Ive been given good directions from the family I stayed with, how about you?
Lady Thockmorton penned me a map with clear directions so Ill be fine as long as I dont lose sight of the North Star. God bless you Father Gerard, said Southwell as he turned away.
God bless you too Father Southwell, may you reach Baddesley in safety, Gerard replied as he retreated into the shadows watching Southwell slowly disappear in the street.
The blustery gales of the evening had now abated and the fine drizzle had turned to heavy rain. Now in the silent countryside, he was surrounded by darkness with only the moonlight and the stars studded against the inky blackness of the night sky to guide his way through the map of isolated farms and forests, sprawling out before him as he gazed out from the high position of the hill. Fatigued, wet and cold, he desperately needed to rest. Seeking shelter from the rain under an old oak tree at the side of the track, Southwell huddled into the rocks and bracken and reached into the bundle. To his relief, his fingers clasped around the remainders of a loaf of bread. Chewing the dry and dusty crusts with ravenous hunger, his thoughts turn to France.
He recalled the happier days of his youth in Paris where he had been sent as a young boy to the care of Father Thomas Darbyshire to join the Society of Jesus. He remembered the disciplined routine of religious studies, rising early for the preparation of Mass and other ritualistic rites. As the memories filled his mind, Southwell drifted into an exhausted slumber.
The sudden screech of a barn owl overhead abruptly woke Southwell with a start. Cramped and numb with cold, Southwell stood, wiping the mud from his clothes. Wearily he picked up his bundle and began his long journey along the dark, muddy track leading to the woods beyond.
Having walked all through the night, resting only for short bouts, Southwell could see in the distance the imposing fortress of Baddesley Clinton, rising out of the grey cold light of the approaching dawn. Despite looking foreboding with its moat and drawbridge, Southwell knew a warm welcome awaited him from the Vaux sisters. Ever since the Reformation of England, the benevolent sisters had made it their mission in life to give safe harbour to priests and keep Catholicism alive. As he approached the drawbridge, he glimpsed the large stew ponds teaming with fish and the apple and pear orchards still laden with a bountiful harvest of fruit. He knocked gently at the heavy oak door. A servant ushered him in, quickly bolting and locking the door behind him.
He was taken through the inner courtyard to the main house where the two sisters of the house greeted him with blessings for his safe arrival. There was a strong smell of incense and sounds of prayers being said could be heard faintly from upstairs. Taken to greet the other priests, he vainly searched their faces to see if Father Gerard was amongst them but he was dismayed to not recognise any of them.
With the opportunity to warm through with a drink of hot caudle and a bowl of porridge, Southwell rested for a couple of hours in one of the chambers specially prepared. Drifting in and out of fitful sleep, he dreamt vividly of the events that had preceded him earlier at Coughton and Henley-in-Arden. Suddenly he was woken abruptly to his senses with a loud knock to his chamber door; it was Father Gerard who had arrived on horseback later that morning.
Thanks to God you have arrived safely Father Southwell.
And you too, Father Gerard. I was worried that you may be caught by the priest hunters.
It was an eventful evening but I managed to allay their suspicions by talking about falcons and my hunting exploits. After I bored them with the finer details of animal husbandry, they pretty much left me alone.
Did you overhear anything? Do they know that we are here? Southwell enquired nervously like a frightened child.
No, I dont think so, they joked about terrorising a family in Hampton Lucy but they didnt say if they had any more information.
The only thing they extracted from the family was a sum of money and food. Come lets go and meet with the others as we have a meeting to attend to.
The priests gathered together in the Great Hall to exchange further prayers and discuss the issues of secularism and theology. The day of discussion was briefly interrupted by a late lunch, an extravagant affair of sweet meats and boiled rabbit with spices and fruits. For dessert there was quince pie and a creamy syllabub much to the appreciation of the priests. Outside the weather had calmed to a dull day with a grey leaden sky and all seemed peaceful and quiet in the household. The exhausting day closed with Mass when the priests finally tired to their chambers. Southwell was thankful to rest with his head buzzing from the thoughts of the day, churning over his new ideas of verse and thymes for his latest poem called A Vale of Tears.
In the dead of night, all was quiet except for the loud piercing cry of a vixen and the shriek of an owl. Slowly the household began to stir as the priests rose early to dress in their vestments and set out the chalices and bowls at the makeshift alter in preparation for morning Mass. All of a sudden, a faint rumbling noise could be heard in the distance. The spell of the peaceful ritual was broken when the priests recognised the thundering hooves galloping up the driveway. The chalices and bowls crashed to the floor as the priests cleared away the altar in blind panic.
Dismounting with swords at the ready, Topcliffe and his angry mob hammered at the fortified door shouting and swearing for the delay of it being opened. With frustration and force they battered the door to gain entry. With the alarm now raised in the household, a stable hand was sent to the affray to delay Topcliffe and allow just enough time for the priests to hide.
In sheer fright and terror, the priests shook with fear as they picked up the chalices and bowls, hiding them under false floor boards together with the vestments they had torn from themselves. With precious little time before Topcliffe and his men could enter the house, they ran to the bed chambers to turn over the mattresses to feel cold to the touch. The terrified Vaux sisters and servants hastily opened up the three tiny purpose built holes to hide the priests; one in the sewer system and two above a bedroom closet. Southwell, Gerard and four others lowered themselves as quickly as they could down the rope to the cramped and confined space leading to the drains outside.
Ankle deep in the freezing and foul stinking effluent, they were squeezed together like sardines, unable to stand. In pitch black, the boards overhead were closed like oubliette. Unable to breathe because of the foul smell and the fear that possessed them, they gasped in short breathy bursts trembling with trepidation they might be caught.
The stable hand could delay Topcliffe no further and unbolted the door. Angered by their delay, they rampaged through the house in frenzy, tearing and pushing at everything in their way. Every item in the kitchen that could be broken was smashed to smithereens, curtains were ripped from the rails and wood panelling was smashed to try and detect false doorways. The noise and commotion of the raid was unbearable for the petrified priests lying low in the holes, not daring to breathe, sneeze or cough. After four vengeful hours of ransacking each room, Topcliffe was satisfied the priests were not there. With the frustration of yet another failed hunt, the Pursuivants demanded money for their troubles and left in a rage.
The house being virtually destroyed after the ordeal was once more restored to silence and peace. With the confidence that Topcliffe and his men would not be returning imminently, the servants opened up the holes to liberate the incarcerated priests. Relieved by their faith in God to evade capture, the gratified priests fell to their knees in prayer. With no time to recover from their ordeal, it was agreed they should leave Baddesley Clinton immediately and go their separate ways; Southwell heading north on foot and Gerard south to London on horseback.
Four years later on a dull dreary day in September 1595, Queen Elizabeth sat looking out of her window when a courtier arrived with a book.
Opening it with curiosity, she silently read the poem called A Vale of Tears. Visibly moved with emotion from reading it, she asked what had become of the author. Your Majesty, by your direct orders, Robert Southwell was hanged, drawn and quartered this morning for being a Jesuit Priest. After two and a half years in the Tower subjected to torture, he would only confess his love and loyalty to you.
Elizabeth turned away to the window, her tears slowly staining her white powdered face.
A word from Adele Clarkson
Working at Warwickshire County Council as a Marketing Manager I enjoy writing copy for brochures but have only recently become interested in creative writing. When I read February's edition of Warwickshire Life I thought it might be worth having a go and this is my first short story. I love visiting National Trust properties, especially Baddesley Clinton and thought it would be interesting to base a short story on a true historical event to try to bring history to life.