“My Lord, my Strength!I beseech Thee save me from the malice of my Enemies.”Private Devotions of James Stanley.
Paul’s legs were starting to ache and his buttocks were numb.He shifted his position as best he could.His eyes were now adjusted to the darkness.He could see that he was not the first person to have hidden here; the etching of a five bar gate in the brickwork gave him the unwelcome feeling that he might be there for days.
He heard somebody enter the kitchen.There was a knock on the panel giving him his signal to be quiet.The soldiers must be close by.Paul tensed in the gloom, suddenly aware of the sound of his quickening breaths.He could hear Mary at work in the kitchen, no doubt wanting to make as much noise as possible.Paul had his arms drawn up to his chest, almost hugging himself, the thump of his heartbeat against his fingers.
A few moments later he was aware of other people in the kitchen.Their voices sounded as if he was under water, so he strained to understand them.
‘He must have come your way.’Paul could make out a well spoken man, probably an officer.
‘If he did, I’ve not seen ‘im,’ replied Mary, her voice calm and unhesitant.‘Escaping from Bolton, you say.Can’t see why he would come this way.It’s not as if we’re on the road to anywhere.’
‘No, but a good place to hide,’ interrupted the man.‘We know that this area is full of papists.You’ll have him hidden no doubt, in one of those stinking priest holes.’
‘We are faithful to the true religion,’ replied Mary.‘Ask the vicar.We attend his services.’
‘No doubt you do, but I’ll bet that you have your own services too,’ he answered.‘What’s that cooking on the fire?’
‘Some potage for lunch,’ said Mary.
‘Well, I’ll have it while my men search your house,’ he said in an affable tone.‘If they don’t find anything we’ll be on our way.If they find him, then you know the punishment for harbouring traitors.’
‘They can look all they like, they’ll find nowt,’ replied Mary.‘Now let me get you a bowl and some bread.’
Paul wondered at her nerve.She was about to serve lunch to this soldier who would burn her house if the hiding place was discovered.He saw the sense in having the priest hole in the kitchen.Being the focal point of the house meant that the room was likely to be overlooked in a search.The smell of the soup reminded Paul of his own hunger.Further away he could hear the soldiers banging on the wattle and daub walls and then the sound of their footsteps on the wooden stairs as they went up to the bedrooms.Soon they would enter the room he had been sleeping in and he tried to recall if there was anything there to betray his presence.He was glad that he had gathered up his sword and satchel.The signet ring with the emblem of the eagle was on his finger.He could not think of anything he had left in the room.Still he felt uneasy.Would they be able to tell that the bed had been slept in last night?
Through the air vent, Paul heard more sounds from upstairs; men moving about and pushing furniture out of the way.A loud crash signified that they had toppled something over, a bureau perhaps.Paul imagined them leaving it lying where it had fallen, clothes strewn out across the floor.He hoped they would not loot the house.Above all he prayed that they did not find him.For a few dreadful minutes everything went quiet.Then Paul heard the soldiers’ boots on the kitchen flags.
‘Come quickly sir, we’ve found a priest hole,’ said one of the men.Paul heard the men leave the room.Mary followed, her tread lighter on the stairs.Paul’s heart froze and he instinctively grabbed his sword.He strained to hear what was happening upstairs.
‘Let me see in there,’ said the officer.A few heartbeats later, ‘there’s nobody here,’ he continued.‘I knew you were a papist,’ he shouted.‘So where is he?’
‘Now, you’ve got it all wrong,’ replied Mary’s voice.‘We’re not papists.This hiding hole hasn’t been used for years.Look at the dust on your breeches.We used to let the children play in it.Look my daughter’s old doll is in there.She wasn’t quite ready to get rid of it, so she asked if she could put it in.That must have been five years ago.Married now she is, with a bairn of her own.’
The officer barked an order.‘Search the outbuildings.If we find him, then burn this house.’