Set in Derbyshire, England, at the time when "Queen Elizabeth I" was persecuting Catholics, when being or harboring a priest was considered treason, and was punishable with death, it tells the story of two young lovers who give up their chance of happiness together, choosing instead to face imprisonment and martyrdom, so that "God's will" may be done. It is perhaps the best known of Benson's novels.
The book was written nearly nine years after Benson's reception into the Catholic Church. The inspiration for the story comes from Dom Bede Camm's account of the recusant Fitzherbert family in Forgotten Shrines (1910), and from Benson's own visit in 1911 to Padley, home of the Fitzherberts, a scene for part of the novel, in order to preach at the annual pilgrimage there. The title of the book is taken from a letter of Saint Edmund Campion, in which, after torture, he assured Catholics that he had revealed "no things of secret, nor would he, come rack, come rope." Most of the characters in the book are historical people; only the hero and heroine, their parents, and some minor characters are fictional.
Robin Audrey and Marjorie Manners, both aged seventeen, are secretly engaged. They both come from recusant Catholic families in Derbyshire, but she is the more devout of the two. Robin's mother died when he was about seven, and his father has continued to practice the Catholic faith, despite having to pay heavy fines for refusing to attend services in the established Church of England. The two families meet several times a year, when Mass is being secretly offered by a priest.
The story begins when Robin visits his fiancée and tells her that his father has announced that he can no longer tolerate the persecution and fines, that he will take the bread and wine in the Anglican church at Easter, and that Robin must do the same. Marjorie advises her lover to leave the area for Easter, so that his father will have time to accept that his son will not follow him. She gives him a rosary which belonged to the recently-executed priest Cuthbert Mayne, kisses him for the first time, and urges him to trust in God.
When he arrives home, Robin finds his friend Anthony Babinton waiting for him. Anthony is also a Catholic, fanatically devoted to the imprisoned, Catholic Queen of Scots. Robin tells Anthony of his troubles. Later, the two men are out riding, and pass three other men. One of them, Mr. Garlick, recognizes Anthony, having heard Mass in his house, and on being assured that Robin is also a Catholic, introduces the newly-ordained Mr. Simpson and his traveling companion Mr. Ludlam to the two friends, telling them that Mr. Simpson will say Mass the following Sunday. Robin realizes, as he goes home, that he must not mention this to his father.
Robin's troubles at home increase, as he has to cope with his father's anger and sneers. Meanwhile, Marjorie is tormented by unexpected but persistent ideas that perhaps God is calling Robin to the priesthood, to atone for his father's sin. She feels that if a love higher than hers is calling, she must not stand in the way, but is unsure whether such thoughts come from God or from her own imagination. She talks to Mr. Simpson, but he is unable to advise her. She is afraid to mention it to Robin, in case she has merely imagined this to be God's will, yet feels she should at least sow a seed in his mind. She prays for guidance, thinking that "a broken heart and God's will done would be better than that God's will should be avoided and her own satisfied."
On Easter Sunday, after the two lovers have met secretly for Mass with other Catholics at Padley, home to the FitzHerbert family, Marjorie tells Robin her thoughts, promising that she will marry him if he wishes, but saying that if it is God's will that Robin should be a priest, she will not hold him for a day. Horrified, Robin accuses Marjorie of wanting to be rid of him. On seeing how hurt she is, he kisses her and begs her forgiveness, but tells her that he cannot make that sacrifice.
Later that day, Mr. Simpson, looking pale and speaking with a trembling voice, reads out to the group of Catholics a letter he has received, telling of the execution of a priest Mr. Nelson, and of a layman Mr. Sherwood, and how bravely they both faced martyrdom. Both were hanged, drawn and quartered for their faith; Mr. Sherwood had also been racked several times. The host, Mr. FitzHerbert, announces that the letter is from Mr. Ludlam, who has decided to go to Douai and study for the priesthood. There have also been rumors that Mr. Garlick will go too.
The following week, Robin returns home, full of doubts and fears, and worried about his financial situation, as he has no money of his own, and his father has made it clear that he will not pay fines for Robin's refusal to attend church. On his way home, he meets Anthony, who hints at some enterprise to restore the ...