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Oddsfish! by Robert Hugh Benson

Sheriff How spoke to them again


followed after that a very long silence, of half an hour, I should think. The five men stood in the cart together, with their eyes cast down; and each, I think, absolved his neighbour. The crowd about kept pretty quiet, only murmuring together; and cried no more insults at them. I, too, did my best to pray with them and for them; but my horse was restless, and I had some ado to keep him quiet. After a good while, Mr. Sheriff How spoke to them again.

"Pray aloud, gentlemen, that we may join with you. We shall do you no hurt if we do you no good."

They said nothing to that; and he spoke again, with some sharpness.

"Are you ashamed of your prayers?"

Still they did not speak; and he turned on Father Gavan.

"Why, Mr. Gavan," he said, "it is reported that you did preach in the Quakers' meeting-house."

The priest opened his eyes.

"No, sir," he said, "I never did preach there in all my life."

It was very solemn and dreadful to wait there while they prayed; for they were at it again for twenty minutes, I should judge, and no more interruptions from Mr. How, who, I think, was a shade uneasy. It was a clear June day, beginning to be hot; and the birds were chirping in the trees about the place--for at times the silence

was so great that one could hear a pin fall, as they say. Now I felt on the brink of hell--at the thought of the pains that were waiting for my friends, at the memory of that great effusion of blood that had been poured out and of the more that was to follow. There was something shocking in the quietness and the glory of the day--such a day as many that I had spent in the meadows of Hare Street, or in the high woods--faced as it was with this dreadful thing against the blue sky, and the five figures beneath it, like figures in a frieze, and the smoke of the cauldron that drifted up continually or brought a reek of tar to my nostrils. And, again, all this would pass; and I would feel that it was not hell but heaven that waited; and that all was but as a thin veil, a little shadow of death, that hung between me and the unimaginable glories; and that at a word all would dissolve away and Christ come and this world be ended. So, then, the minutes passed for me: I said my _Paternoster_ and _Ave_ and _Credo_ and _De Profundis_, over and over again; praying that the passage of those men might be easy, and that their deaths might be as sacrifices both for themselves and for the country. I was beyond fearing for myself now; I was in a kind of madness of pity and longing. And, at the last I saw Mr. Whitbread raise his head and look at the Sheriff.

There rose then, as he made a sign, a great murmur from all the crowd. I had thought that they would have been impatient, but they were not; and had kept silence very well; and I think that this spectacle of the five men praying had touched many hearts there. Now, however, when the end approached, they seemed to awaken again, and to look for it; and they began to move their heads about to see what was done, so that the crowd was like a field of wheat when the wind goes over it.

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