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A CHAPTER OF FOOLS.
The same afternoon, as it happened, a little company of rustics, who had just issued from the low hatch-door of the village inn, stood for a moment under the sign of the Crown and Mitre, which swung huskily creaking from the bough of an ancient thorn tree, then passed on to the road, and took their way together.
'Hope you then,' said one of them, as continuing their previous conversation, 'that we shall escape unhurt? It is a parlous business. Not as one of us is afeard as I knows on. But the old earl, he do have a most unregenerate temper, and you had better look to't, my masters.'
'I tell thee, master Upstill, it's not the old earl as I'm afeard on, but the young lord. For thou knows as well as ere a one it be not without cause that men do call him a wizard, for a wizard he be, and that of the worst sort.'
'We shall be out again afore sundown, shannot we?' said another. 'That I trust.'
'Up to the which hour the High Court of Parliament assembled will have power to protect its own--eh, John Croning?'
'Nay, that I cannot tell. It be a parlous job, and for mine own part, whether for the love I bear to the truth, or the hatred I cherish toward the scarlet Antichrist, with her seven tails--'
'Tush, tush, John! Seven heads, man, and ten horns. Those are the numbers master Flowerdew read.'
'Nay, I know not for your horns; but for the rest I say seven tails. Did not honest master Flowerdew set forth unto us last meeting that the scarlet woman sat upon seven hills--eh? Have with you there, master Sycamore!'
'Well, for the sake of sound argument, I grant you. But we ha'got to do with no heads nor no tails, neither--save and except as you may say the sting is in the tail; and then, or I greatly mistake, it's not seven times seven as will serve to count the stings, come of the tails what may.'
'Very true,' said another; 'it be the stings and not the tails we want news of. But think you his lordship will yield them up without gainsaying to us the messengers of the High Parliament now assembled?'
'For mine own part,' said John Croning, 'though I fear it come of the old Adam yet left in me, I do count it a sorrowful thing that the earl should be such a vile recusant. He never fails with a friendly word, or it may be a jest--a foolish jest--but honest, for any one gentle or simple he may meet. More than once has he boarded me in that fashion. What do you think he said to me, now, one day as I was a mowin' of the grass in the court, close by the white horse that spout up the water high as a house from his nose-drills? Says he to me--for he come down the grand staircase, and steps out and spies me at the work with my old scythe, and come across to me, and says he, "Why, Thomas," says he, not knowin' of my name, "Why, Thomas," says he, "you look like old Time himself a mowing of us all down," says he. "For sure, my lord," says I, "your lordship reads it aright, for all flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is as the flower of the field." He look humble at that, for, great man as he be, his earthly tabernacle, though more than sizeable, is but a frail one, and that he do know. And says he, "Where did you read that, Thomas?" "I am not a larned man, please your lordship," says I, "and I cannot honestly say I read it nowheres, but I heerd the words from a book your lordship have had news of: they do call it the Holy Bible. But they tell me that they of your lordship's persuasion like it not." "You are very much mistaken there, Thomas," says he. "I read my Bible most days, only not the English Bible, which is full of errors, but the Latin, which is all as God gave it," says he. And thereby I had not where to answer withal.'
'I fear you proved a poor champion of the truth, master Croning.'
'Confess now, Cast-down Upstill, had he not both sun and wind of me--standing, so to say, on his own hearth-stone? Had it not been so, I could have called hard names with the best of you, though that is by rights the gift of the preachers of the truth. See how the good master Flowerdew excelleth therein, sprinkling them abroad from the watering-pot of the gospel. Verily, when my mind is too feeble to grasp his argument, my memory lays fast hold upon the hard names, and while I hold by them, I have it all in a nutshell.'
Fortified occasionally by a pottle of ale, and keeping their spirits constantly stirred by much talking, they had been all day occupied in searching the Catholic houses of the neighbourhood for arms. What authority they had for it never came to be clearly understood. Plainly they believed themselves possessed of all that was needful, or such men would never have dared it. As it was, they prosecuted it with such a bold front, that not until they were gone did it occur to some, who had yielded what arms they possessed, to question whether they had done wisely in acknowledging such fellows as parliamentary officials without demanding their warrant. Their day's gleanings up to this point--of swords and pikes, guns and pistols, they had left in charge of the host of the inn whence they had just issued, and were now bent on crowning their day's triumph with a supreme act of daring--the renown of which they enlarged in their own imaginations, while undermining the courage needful for its performance, by enhancing its terrors as they went.
At length two lofty hexagonal towers appeared, and the consciousness that the final test of their resolution drew nigh took immediate form in a fluttering at the heart, which, however, gave no outward sign but that of silence; and indeed they were still too full of the importance of unaccustomed authority to fear any contempt for it on the part of others.
It happened that at this moment Raglan Castle was full of merry-making upon occasion of the marriage of one of lady Herbert's waiting-gentlewomen to an officer of the household; and in these festivities the earl of Worcester and all his guests were taking a part.
Among the numerous members of the household was one who, from being a turnspit, had risen, chiefly in virtue of an immovably lugubrious expression of countenance, to be the earl's fool. From this peculiarity his fellow-servants had given him the nickname of The Hangman; but the man himself had chosen the role of a puritan parson, as affording the best ground-work for the display of a humour suitable to the expression of countenance with which his mother had endowed him. That mother was Goody Rees, concerning whom, as already hinted, strange things were whispered. In the earlier part of his career the fool had not unfrequently found his mother's reputation a sufficient shelter from persecution; and indeed there might have been reason to suppose that it was for her son's sake she encouraged her own evil repute, a distinction involving considerable risk, seeing the time had not yet arrived when the disbelief in such powers was sufficiently advanced for the safety of those reported to possess them. In her turn, however, she ran a risk somewhat less than ordinary from the fact that her boy was a domestic in the family of one whose eldest son, the heir to the earldom, lay under a similar suspicion; for not a few of the household were far from satisfied that lord Herbert's known occupations in the Yellow Tower were not principally ostensible, and that he and his man had nothing to do with the black art, or some other of the many regions of occult science in which the ambition after unlawful power may hopefully exercise itself.
Upon occasion of a family fete, merriment was in those days carried further, on the part of both masters and servants, than in the greatly altered relations and conditions of the present day would be desirable, or, indeed, possible. In this instance, the fun broke out in the arranging of a mock marriage between Thomas Rees, commonly called Tom Fool, and a young girl who served under the cook. Half the jest lay in the contrast between the long face of the bridegroom, both congenitally and wilfully miserable, and that of the bride, broad as a harvest moon, and rosy almost to purple. The bridegroom never smiled, and spoke with his jaws rather than his lips; while the bride seldom uttered a syllable without grinning from ear to ear, and displaying a marvellous appointment of huge and brilliant teeth. Entering solemnly into the joke, Tom expressed himself willing to marry the girl, but represented, as an insurmountable difficulty, that he had no clothes for the occasion. Thereupon the earl, drawing from his pocket his bunch of keys, directed him to go and take what he liked from his wardrobe. Now the earl was a man of large circumference, and the fool as lank in person as in countenance.
Tom took the keys and was some time gone, during which many conjectures were hazarded as to the style in which he would choose to appear. When he re-entered the great hall, where the company was assembled, the roar of laughter which followed his appearance made the glass of its great cupola ring again. For not merely was he dressed in the earl's beaver hat and satin cloak, splendid with plush and gold and silver lace, but he had indued a corresponding suit of his clothes as well, even to his silk stockings, garters, and roses, and with the help of many pillows and other such farcing, so filled the garments which otherwise had hung upon him like a shawl from a peg, and made of himself such a 'sweet creature of bombast' that, with ludicrous unlikeness of countenance, he bore in figure no distant resemblance to the earl himself.
Meantime lady Elizabeth had been busy with the scullery-maid, whom she had attired in a splendid brocade of her grandmother's, with all suitable belongings of ruff, high collar, and lace wings, such as Queen Elizabeth is represented with in Oliver's portrait. Upon her appearance, a few minutes after Tom's, the laughter broke out afresh, in redoubled peals, and the merriment was at its height, when the warder of one of the gates entered and whispered in his master's ear the arrival of the bumpkins, and their mission announced, he informed his lordship, with all the importance and dignity they knew how to assume. The earl burst into a fresh laugh. But presently it quavered a little and ceased, while over the amusement still beaming on his countenance gathered a slight shade of anxiety, for who could tell what tempest such a mere whirling of straws might not forerun?
A few words of the warder's had reached Tom where he stood a little aside, his solemn countenance radiating disapproval of the tumultuous folly around him. He took three strides towards the earl.
'Wherein lieth the new jest?' he asked, with dignity.
'A set of country louts, my lord,' answered the earl, 'are at the gate, affirming the right of search in this your lordship's house of Raglan.'
'Arms, my lord.'
'And wherefore? On what ground?'
'On the ground that your lordship is a vile recusant--a papist, and therefore a traitor, no doubt, although they use not the word,' said the earl.
'I shall be round with them,' said Tom, embracing the assumed proportions in front of him, and turning to the door.
Ere the earl had time to conceive his intent, he had hurried from the hall, followed by fresh shouts of laughter. For he had forgotten to stuff himself behind, and, when the company caught sight of his back as he strode out, the tenuity of the foundation for such a 'huge hill of flesh' was absurd as Falstaff's ha'p'orth of bread to the 'intolerable deal of sack.'
But the next moment the earl had caught the intended joke, and although a trifle concerned about the affair, was of too mirth-loving a nature to interfere with Tom's project, the result of which would doubtless be highly satisfactory--at least to those not primarily concerned. He instantly called for silence, and explained to the assembly what he believed to be Tom Fool's intent, and as there was nothing to be seen from the hall, the windows of which were at a great height from the floor, and Tom's scheme would be fatally imperilled by the visible presence of spectators, from some at least of whom gravity of demeanour could not be expected, gave hasty instructions to several of his sons and daughters to disperse the company to upper windows having a view of one or the other court, for no one could tell where the fool's humour might find its principal arena. The next moment, in the plain dress of rough brownish cloth, which he always wore except upon state occasions, he followed the fool to the gate, where he found him talking through the wicket-grating to the rustics, who, having passed drawbridge and portcullises, of which neither the former had been raised nor the latter lowered for many years, now stood on the other side of the gate demanding admittance. In the parley, Tom Fool was imitating his master's voice and every one of the peculiarities of his speech to perfection, addressing them with extreme courtesy, as if he took them for gentlemen of no ordinary consideration,--a point in his conception of his part which he never forgot throughout the whole business. To the dismay of his master he was even more than admitting, almost boasting, that there was an enormous quantity of weapons in the castle--sufficient at least to arm ten thousand horsemen!--a prodigious statement, for, at the uttermost, there was not more than the tenth part of that amount--still a somewhat larger provision no doubt than the intruders had expected to find! The pseudo-earl went on to say that the armoury consisted of one strong room only, the door of which was so cunningly concealed and secured that no one but himself knew where it was, or if found could open it. But such he said was his respect to the will of the most august parliament, that he would himself conduct them to the said armoury, and deliver over upon the spot into their safe custody the whole mass of weapons to carry away with them. And thereupon he proceeded to open the gate.
By this time the door of the neighbouring guard-room was crowded with the heads of eager listeners, but the presence of the earl kept them quiet, and at a sign from him they drew back ere the men entered. The earl himself took a position where he would be covered by the opening wicket.
Tom received them into bodily presence with the notification that, having suspected their object, he had sent all his people out of the way, in order to avoid the least danger of a broil. Bowing to them with the utmost politeness as they entered, he requested them to step forward into the court while he closed the wicket behind them, but took the opportunity of whispering to one of the men just inside the door of the guardhouse, who, the moment Tom had led the rustics away, approached the earl, and told him what he had said.
'What can the rascal mean?' said the earl to himself; but he told the man to carry the fool's message exactly as he had received it, and quietly followed Tom and his companions, some of whom, conceiving fresh importance from the overstrained politeness with which they had been received, were now attempting a transformation of their usual loundering gait into a martial stride, with the result of a foolish strut, very unlike the dignified progress of the sham earl, whose weak back roused in them no suspicion, and who had taken care they should not see his face. Across the paved court, and through the hall to the inner court, Tom led them, and the earl followed.
The twilight was falling. The hall was empty of life, and filled with a sombre dusk, echoing to every step as they passed through it. They did not see the flash of eyes and glimmer of smiles from the minstrel's gallery, and the solitude, size, and gloom had, even on their dull natures, a palpable influence. The whole castle seemed deserted as they followed the false earl across the second court--with the true one stealing after them like a knave--little imagining that bright eyes were watching them from the curtains of every window like stars from the clear spaces and cloudy edges of heaven. To the north-west corner of the court he led them, and through a sculptured doorway up the straight wide ascent of stone called the grand staircase. At the top he turned to the right, along a dim corridor, from which he entered a suite of bedrooms and dressing-rooms, over whose black floors he led the trampling hob-nailed shoes without pity either for their polish or the labour of the housemaids in restoring it.
In this way he reached the stair in the bell-tower, ascending which he brought them into a narrow dark passage ending again in a downward stair, at the foot of which they found themselves in the long picture-gallery, having entered it in the recess of one of its large windows. At the other end of the gallery he crossed into the dining-room, then through an ante-chamber entered the drawing-room, where the ladies, apprised of their approach, kept still behind curtains and high chairs, until they had passed through, on their way to cross the archway of the main entrance, and through the library gain the region of household economy and cookery. Thither I will not drag my reader after them. Indeed the earl, who had been dogging them like a Fate, ever emerging on their track but never beheld, had already began to pay his part of the penalty of the joke in fatigue, for he was not only unwieldy in person, but far from robust, being very subject to gout. He owed his good spirits to a noble nature, and not to animal well-being. When they crossed from the picture-gallery to the dining-room, he went down the stair between, and into the oak-parlour adjoining the great hall. There he threw himself into an easy chair which always stood for him in the great bay window, looking over the moat to the huge keep of the castle, and commanding through its western light the stone bridge which crossed it. There he lay back at his ease, and, instructed by the message Tom had committed to the serjeant of the guard, waited the result.
As for his double, he went stalking on in front of his victims, never turning to show his face; he knew they would follow, were it but for the fear of being left alone. Close behind him they kept, scarce daring to whisper from growing awe of the vast place. The fumes of the beer had by this time evaporated, and the heavy obscurity which pervaded the whole building enhanced their growing apprehensions. On and on the fool led them, up and down, going and returning, but ever in new tracks, for the marvellous old place was interminably burrowed with connecting passages and communications of every sort--some of them the merest ducts which had to be all but crept through, and which would have certainly arrested the progress of the earl had he followed so far: no one about the place understood its "crenkles" so well as Tom. For the greater part of an hour he led them thus, until, having been on their legs the whole day, they were thoroughly wearied as well as awe-struck. At length, in a gloomy chamber, where one could not see the face of another, the pseudo-earl turned full upon them, and said in his most solemn tones:--
'Arrived thus far, my masters, it is borne in upon me with rebuke, that before undertaking to guide you to the armoury, I should have acquainted you with the strange fact that at times I am myself unable to find the place of which we are in search; and I begin to fear it is so now, and that we are at this moment the sport of a certain member of my family of whom it may be your worships have heard things not more strange than true. Against his machinations I am powerless. All that is left us is to go to him and entreat him to unsay his spells.'
A confused murmur of objections arose.
'Then your worships will remain here while I go to the Yellow Tower, and come to you again?' said the mock earl, making as if he would leave them.
But they crowded round him with earnest refusals to be abandoned; for in their very souls they felt the fact that they were upon enchanted ground--and in the dark.
'Then follow me,' he said, and conducted them into the open air of the inner court, almost opposite the archway in its buildings leading to the stone bridge, whose gothic structure bestrid the moat of the keep.
For Raglan Castle had this peculiarity, that its keep was surrounded by a moat of its own, separating it from the rest of the castle, so that, save by bridge, no one within any more than without the walls could reach it. On to the bridge Tom led the way, followed by his dupes--now full in the view of the earl where he sat in his parlour window. When they had reached the centre of it, however, and glancing up at the awful bulk of stone towering above them, its walls strangely dented and furrowed, so as to such as they, might well suggest frightful means to wicked ends, they stood stock-still, refusing to go a step further; while their chief speaker, Upstill, emboldened by anger, fear, and the meek behaviour of the supposed earl, broke out in a torrent of arrogance, wherein his intention was to brandish the terrors of the High Parliament over the heads of his lordship of Worcester and all recusants. He had not got far, however, before a shrill whistle pierced the air, and the next instant arose a chaos of horrible, appalling, and harrowing noises, 'such a roaring,' in the words of their own report of the matter to the reverend master Flowerdew, 'as if the mouth of hell had been wide open, and all the devils conjured up'--doubtless they meant by the arts of the wizard whose dwelling was that same tower of fearful fame before which they now stood. The skin-contracting chill of terror uplifted their hair. The mystery that enveloped the origin of the sounds gave them an unearthliness which froze the very fountains of their life, and rendered them incapable even of motion. They stared at each other with a ghastly observance, which descried no comfort, only like images of horror. 'Man's hand is not able to taste' how long they might have thus stood, nor 'his tongue to conceive' what the consequences might have been, had not a more healthy terror presently supervened. Across the tumult of sounds, like a fiercer flash through the flames of a furnace, shot a hideous, long-drawn yell, and the same instant came a man running at full speed through the archway from the court, casting terror-stricken glances behind him, and shouting with a voice half-choked to a shriek--
'Look to yourselves, my masters; the lions are got loose!'
All the world knew that ever since King James had set the fashion by taking so much pleasure in the lions at the Tower, strange beasts had been kept in the castle of Raglan.
The new terror broke the spell of the old, and the parliamentary commissioners fled. But which was the way from the castle? Which the path to the lions' den? In an agony of horrible dread, they rushed hither and thither about the court, where now the white horse, as steady as marble, should be when first they crossed it, was, to their excited vision, prancing wildly about the great basin from whose charmed circle he could not break, foaming, at the mouth, and casting huge water-jets from his nostrils into the perturbed air; while from the surface of the moat a great column of water shot up nearly as high as the citadel, whose return into the moat was like a tempest, and with all the elemental tumult was mingled the howling of wild beasts. The doors of the hall and the gates to the bowling green being shut, the poor wretches could not find their way out of the court, but ran from door to door like madmen, only to find all closed against them. From every window around the court--from the apartments of the waiting gentlewomen, from the picture-gallery, from the officers' rooms, eager and merry eyes looked down on the spot, themselves unseen and unsuspected, for all voices were hushed, and for anything the bumpkins heard or saw they might have been in a place deserted of men, and possessed only by evil spirits, whose pranks were now tormenting them. At last Upstill, who had fallen on the bridge at his first start, and had ever since been rushing about with a limp and a leap alternated, managed to open the door of the hall, and its eastern door having been left open, shot across and into the outer court, where he made for the gate, followed at varied distance by the rest of the routed commissioners of search, as each had discovered the way his forerunner fled. With trembling hands Upstill raised the latch of the wicket, and to his delight found it unlocked. He darted through, passed the twin portcullises, and was presently thundering over the draw-bridge, which, trembling under his heavy steps, seemed on the point of rising to heave him back into the jaws of the lion, or, worse still, the clutches of the enchanter. Not one looked behind him, not even when, having passed through the white stone gate, also purposely left open for their escape, and rattled down the multitude of steps that told how deep was the moat they had just crossed, where the last of them nearly broke his neck by rolling almost from top to bottom, they reached the outermost, the brick gate, and so left the awful region of enchantment and feline fury commingled. Not until the castle was out of sight, and their leader had sunk senseless on the turf by the roadside, did they dare a backward look. The moment he came to himself they started again for home, at what poor speed they could make, and reached the Crown and Mitre in sad plight, where, however, they found some compensation in the pleasure of setting forth their adventures--with the heroic manner in which, although vanquished by the irresistible force of enchantment, they had yet brought off their forces without the loss of a single man. Their story spread over the country, enlarged and embellished at every fresh stage in its progress.
When the tale reached mother Rees, it filled her with fresh awe of the great magician, the renowned lord Herbert. She little thought the whole affair was a jest of her own son's. Firmly believing in all kinds of magic and witchcraft, but as innocent of conscious dealing with the powers of ill as the whitest-winged angel betwixt earth's garret and heaven's threshold, she owed her evil repute amongst her neighbours to a rare therapeutic faculty, accompanied by a keen sympathetic instinct, which greatly sharpened her powers of observation in the quest after what was amiss; while her touch was so delicate, so informed with present mind, and came therefore into such rapport with any living organism, the secret of whose suffering it sought to discover, that sprained muscles, dislocated joints, and broken bones seemed at its soft approach to re-arrange their disturbed parts, and yield to the power of her composing will as to a re-ordering harmony. Add to this, that she understood more of the virtues of some herbs than any doctor in the parish, which, in the condition of general practice at the time, is not perhaps to say much, and that she firmly believed in the might of certain charms, and occasionally used them--and I have given reason enough why, while regarded by all with disapprobation--she should be by many both courted and feared. For her own part she had a leaning to the puritans, chiefly from respect to the memory of a good-hearted, weak, but intellectually gifted, and, therefore, admired husband; but the ridicule of her yet more gifted son had a good deal shaken this predilection, so that she now spent what powers of discrimination and choice she possessed solely upon persons, heedless of principles in themselves, and regarding them only in their vital results. Hence, it was a matter of absolute indifference to her which of the parties now dividing the country was in the right, or which should lose, which win, provided no personal evil befel the men or women for whom she cherished a preference. Like many another, she was hardly aware of the jurisdiction of conscience, save in respect of immediate personal relations.
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