Then call them to our presence. Face to face, And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear The accuser and accused freely speak;-- High-stomach'd are they both, and full of ire, In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.--RICHARD II.
"I am ordered to attend court to-morrow," said Leicester, speaking to Varney, "to meet, as they surmise, my Lord of Sussex. The Queen intends to take up matters betwixt us. This comes of her visit to Sayes Court, of which you must needs speak so lightly."
"I maintain it was nothing," said Varney; "nay, I know from a sure intelligencer, who was within earshot of much that was said, that Sussex has lost rather than gained by that visit. The Queen said, when she stepped into the boat, that Sayes Court looked like a guard-house, and smelt like an hospital. 'Like a cook's shop in Ram's Alley, rather,' said the Countess of Rutland, who is ever your lordship's good friend. And then my Lord of Lincoln must needs put in his holy oar, and say that my Lord of Sussex must be excused for his rude and old-world housekeeping, since he had as yet no wife."
"And what said the Queen?" asked Leicester hastily.
"She took him up roundly," said Varney, "and asked what my Lord Sussex had to do with a wife, or my Lord Bishop to speak on such a subject. 'If marriage is permitted,' she said, 'I nowhere read that it is enjoined.'"
"She likes not marriages, or speech of marriage, among churchmen," said Leicester.
"Nor among courtiers neither," said Varney; but, observing that Leicester changed countenance, he instantly added, "that all the ladies who were present had joined in ridiculing Lord Sussex's housekeeping, and in contrasting it with the reception her Grace would have assuredly received at my Lord of Leicester's."
"You have gathered much tidings," said Leicester, "but you have forgotten or omitted the most important of all. She hath added another to those dangling satellites whom it is her pleasure to keep revolving around her."
"Your lordship meaneth that Raleigh, the Devonshire youth," said Varney--"the Knight of the Cloak, as they call him at court?"
"He may be Knight of the Garter one day, for aught I know," said Leicester, "for he advances rapidly--she hath capped verses with him, and such fooleries. I would gladly abandon, of my own free will, the part--I have in her fickle favour; but I will not be elbowed out of it by the clown Sussex, or this new upstart. I hear Tressilian is with Sussex also, and high in his favour. I would spare him for considerations, but he will thrust himself on his fate. Sussex, too, is almost as well as ever in his health."
"My lord," replied Varney, "there will be rubs in the smoothest road, specially when it leads uphill. Sussex's illness was to us a godsend, from which I hoped much. He has recovered, indeed, but he is not now more formidable than ere he fell ill, when he received more than one foil in wrestling with your lordship. Let not your heart fail you, my lord, and all shall be well."
"My heart never failed me, sir," replied Leicester.
"No, my lord," said Varney; "but it has betrayed you right often. He that would climb a tree, my lord, must grasp by the branches, not by the blossom."
"Well, well, well!" said Leicester impatiently; "I understand thy meaning--my heart shall neither fail me nor seduce me. Have my retinue in order--see that their array be so splendid as to put down, not only the rude companions of Ratcliffe, but the retainers of every other nobleman and courtier. Let them be well armed withal, but without any outward display of their weapons, wearing them as if more for fashion's sake than for use. Do thou thyself keep close to me, I may have business for you."
The preparations of Sussex and his party were not less anxious than those of Leicester.
"Thy Supplication, impeaching Varney of seduction," said the Earl to Tressilian, "is by this time in the Queen's hand--I have sent it through a sure channel. Methinks your suit should succeed, being, as it is, founded in justice and honour, and Elizabeth being the very muster of both. But--I wot not how--the gipsy" (so Sussex was wont to call his rival on account of his dark complexion) "hath much to say with her in these holyday times of peace. Were war at the gates, I should be one of her white boys; but soldiers, like their bucklers and Bilboa blades, get out of fashion in peace time, and satin sleeves and walking rapiers bear the bell. Well, we must be gay, since such is the fashion.--Blount, hast thou seen our household put into their new braveries? But thou knowest as little of these toys as I do; thou wouldst be ready enow at disposing a stand of pikes."
"My good lord," answered Blount, "Raleigh hath been here, and taken that charge upon him--your train will glitter like a May morning. Marry, the cost is another question. One might keep an hospital of old soldiers at the charge of ten modern lackeys."
"He must not count cost to-day, Nicholas," said the Earl in reply. "I am beholden to Raleigh for his care. I trust, though, he has remembered that I am an old soldier, and would have no more of these follies than needs must."
"Nay, I understand nought about it," said Blount; "but here are your honourable lordship's brave kinsmen and friends coming in by scores to wait upon you to court, where, methinks, we shall bear as brave a front as Leicester, let him ruffle it as he will."
"Give them the strictest charges," said Sussex, "that they suffer no provocation short of actual violence to provoke them into quarrel. They have hot bloods, and I would not give Leicester the advantage over me by any imprudence of theirs."
The Earl of Sussex ran so hastily through these directions, that it was with difficulty Tressilian at length found opportunity to express his surprise that he should have proceeded so far in the affair of Sir Hugh Robsart as to lay his petition at once before the Queen. "It was the opinion of the young lady's friends," he said, "that Leicester's sense of justice should be first appealed to, as the offence had been committed by his officer, and so he had expressly told to Sussex."
"This could have been done without applying to me," said Sussex, somewhat haughtily. "I at least, ought not to have been a counsellor when the object was a humiliating reference to Leicester; and I am suprised that you, Tressilian, a man of honour, and my friend, would assume such a mean course. If you said so, I certainly understood you not in a matter which sounded so unlike yourself."
"My lord," said Tressilian, "the course I would prefer, for my own sake, is that you have adopted; but the friends of this most unhappy lady--"
"Oh, the friends--the friends," said Sussex, interrupting him; "they must let us manage this cause in the way which seems best. This is the time and the hour to accumulate every charge against Leicester and his household, and yours the Queen will hold a heavy one. But at all events she hath the complaint before her."
Tressilian could not help suspecting that, in his eagerness to strengthen himself against his rival, Sussex had purposely adopted the course most likely to throw odium on Leicester, without considering minutely whether it were the mode of proceeding most likely to be attended with success. But the step was irrevocable, and Sussex escaped from further discussing it by dismissing his company, with the command, "Let all be in order at eleven o'clock; I must be at court and in the presence by high noon precisely."
While the rival statesmen were thus anxiously preparing for their approaching meeting in the Queen's presence, even Elizabeth herself was not without apprehension of what might chance from the collision of two such fiery spirits, each backed by a strong and numerous body of followers, and dividing betwixt them, either openly or in secret, the hopes and wishes of most of her court. The band of Gentlemen Pensioners were all under arms, and a reinforcement of the yeomen of the guard was brought down the Thames from London. A royal proclamation was sent forth, strictly prohibiting nobles of whatever degree to approach the Palace with retainers or followers armed with shot or with long weapons; and it was even whispered that the High Sheriff of Kent had secret instructions to have a part of the array of the county ready on the shortest notice.
The eventful hour, thus anxiously prepared for on all sides, at length approached, and, each followed by his long and glittering train of friends and followers, the rival Earls entered the Palace Yard of Greenwich at noon precisely.
As if by previous arrangement, or perhaps by intimation that such was the Queen's pleasure, Sussex and his retinue came to the Palace from Deptford by water while Leicester arrived by land; and thus they entered the courtyard from opposite sides. This trifling circumstance gave Leicester a ascendency in the opinion of the vulgar, the appearance of his cavalcade of mounted followers showing more numerous and more imposing than those of Sussex's party, who were necessarily upon foot. No show or sign of greeting passed between the Earls, though each looked full at the other, both expecting perhaps an exchange of courtesies, which neither was willing to commence. Almost in the minute of their arrival the castle-bell tolled, the gates of the Palace were opened, and the Earls entered, each numerously attended by such gentlemen of their train whose rank gave them that privilege. The yeomen and inferior attendants remained in the courtyard, where the opposite parties eyed each other with looks of eager hatred and scorn, as if waiting with impatience for some cause of tumult, or some apology for mutual aggression. But they were restrained by the strict commands of their leaders, and overawed, perhaps, by the presence of an armed guard of unusual strength.
In the meanwhile, the more distinguished persons of each train followed their patrons into the lofty halls and ante-chambers of the royal Palace, flowing on in the same current, like two streams which are compelled into the same channel, yet shun to mix their waters. The parties arranged themselves, as it were instinctively, on the different sides of the lofty apartments, and seemed eager to escape from the transient union which the narrowness of the crowded entrance had for an instant compelled them to submit to. The folding doors at the upper end of the long gallery were immediately afterwards opened, and it was announced in a whisper that the Queen was in her presence-chamber, to which these gave access. Both Earls moved slowly and stately towards the entrance--Sussex followed by Tressilian, Blount, and Raleigh, and Leicester by Varney. The pride of Leicester was obliged to give way to court-forms, and with a grave and formal inclination of the head, he paused until his rival, a peer of older creation than his own, passed before him. Sussex returned the reverence with the same formal civility, and entered the presence-room. Tressilian and Blount offered to follow him, but were not permitted, the Usher of the Black Rod alleging in excuse that he had precise orders to look to all admissions that day. To Raleigh, who stood back on the repulse of his companions, he said, "You, sir, may enter," and he entered accordingly.
"Follow me close, Varney," said the Earl of Leicester, who had stood aloof for a moment to mark the reception of Sussex; and advancing to the entrance, he was about to pass on, when Varney, who was close behind him, dressed out in the utmost bravery of the day, was stopped by the usher, as Tressilian and Blount had been before him, "How is this, Master Bowyer?" said the Earl of Leicester. "Know you who I am, and that this is my friend and follower?"
"Your lordship will pardon me," replied Bowyer stoutly; "my orders are precise, and limit me to a strict discharge of my duty."
"Thou art a partial knave," said Leicester, the blood mounting to his face, "to do me this dishonour, when you but now admitted a follower of my Lord of Sussex."
"My lord," said Bowyer, "Master Raleigh is newly admitted a sworn servant of her Grace, and to him my orders did not apply."
"Thou art a knave--an ungrateful knave," said Leicester; "but he that hath done can undo--thou shalt not prank thee in thy authority long!"
This threat he uttered aloud, with less than his usual policy and discretion; and having done so, he entered the presence-chamber, and made his reverence to the Queen, who, attired with even more than her usual splendour, and surrounded by those nobles and statesmen whose courage and wisdom have rendered her reign immortal, stood ready to receive the hommage of her subjects. She graciously returned the obeisance of the favourite Earl, and looked alternately at him and at Sussex, as if about to speak, when Bowyer, a man whose spirit could not brook the insult he had so openly received from Leicester, in the discharge of his office, advanced with his black rad in his hand, and knelt down before her.
"Why, how now, Bowyer?" said Elizabeth, "thy courtesy seems strangely timed!"
"My Liege Sovereign," he said, while every courtier around trembled at his audacity, "I come but to ask whether, in the discharge of mine office, I am to obey your Highness's commands, or those of the Earl of Leicester, who has publicly menaced me with his displeasure, and treated me with disparaging terms, because I denied entry to one of his followers, in obedience to your Grace's precise orders?"
The spirit of Henry VIII. was instantly aroused in the bosom of his daughter, and she turned on Leicester with a severity which appalled him, as well as all his followers.
"God's death! my lord." such was her emphatic phrase, "what means this? We have thought well of you, and brought you near to our person; but it was not that you might hide the sun from our other faithful subjects. Who gave you license to contradict our orders, or control our officers? I will have in this court, ay, and in this realm, but one mistress, and no master. Look to it that Master Bowyer sustains no harm for his duty to me faithfully discharged; for, as I am Christian woman and crowned Queen, I will hold you dearly answerable.--Go, Bowyer, you have done the part of an honest man and a true subject. We will brook no mayor of the palace here."
Bowyer kissed the hand which she extended towards him, and withdrew to his post! astonished at the success of his own audacity. A smile of triumph pervaded the faction of Sussex; that of Leicester seemed proportionally dismayed, and the favourite himself, assuming an aspect of the deepest humility, did not even attempt a word in his own esculpation.
He acted wisely; for it was the policy of Elizabeth to humble, not to disgrace him, and it was prudent to suffer her, without opposition or reply, to glory in the exertion of her authority. The dignity of the Queen was gratified, and the woman began soon to feel for the mortification which she had imposed on her favourite. Her keen eye also observed the secret looks of congratulation exchanged amongst those who favoured Sussex, and it was no part of her policy to give either party a decisive triumph.
"What I say to my Lord of Leicester," she said, after a moment's pause, "I say also to you, my Lord of Sussex. You also must needs ruffle in the court of England, at the head of a faction of your own?"
"My followers, gracious Princess," said Sussex, "have indeed ruffled in your cause in Ireland, in Scotland, and against yonder rebellious Earls in the north. I am ignorant that--"
"Do you bandy looks and words with me, my lord?" said the Queen, interrupting him; "methinks you might learn of my Lord of Leicester the modesty to be silent, at least, under our censure. I say, my lord, that my grandfather and my father, in their wisdom, debarred the nobles of this civilized land from travelling with such disorderly retinues; and think you, that because I wear a coif, their sceptre has in my hand been changed into a distaff? I tell you, no king in Christendom will less brook his court to be cumbered, his people oppressed, and his kingdom's peace disturbed, by the arrogance of overgrown power, than she who now speaks with you.--My Lord of Leicester, and you, my Lord of Sussex, I command you both to be friends with each other; or by the crown I wear, you shall find an enemy who will be too strong for both of you!"
"Madam," said the Earl of Leicester, "you who are yourself the fountain of honour know best what is due to mine. I place it at your disposal, and only say that the terms on which I have stood with my Lord of Sussex have not been of my seeking; nor had he cause to think me his enemy, until he had done me gross wrong."
"For me, madam," said the Earl of Sussex, "I cannot appeal from your sovereign pleasure; but I were well content my Lord of Leicester should say in what I have, as he terms it, wronged him, since my tongue never spoke the word that I would not willingly justify either on foot or horseback.
"And for me," said Leicester, "always under my gracious Sovereign's pleasure, my hand shall be as ready to make good my words as that of any man who ever wrote himself Ratcliffe."
"My lords," said the Queen, "these are no terms for this presence; and if you cannot keep your temper, we will find means to keep both that and you close enough. Let me see you join hands, my lords, and forget your idle animosities."
The two rivals looked at each other with reluctant eyes, each unwilling to make the first advance to execute the Queen's will.
"Sussex," said Elizabeth, "I entreat--Leicester, I command you."
Yet, so were her words accented, that the entreaty sounded like command, and the command like entreaty. They remained still and stubborn, until she raised her voice to a height which argued at once impatience and absolute command.
"Sir Henry Lee," she said, to an officer in attendance, "have a guard in present readiness, and man a barge instantly.--My Lords of Sussex and Leicester, I bid you once more to join hands; and, God's death! he that refuses shall taste of our Tower fare ere he sees our face again. I will lower your proud hearts ere we part, and that I promise, on the word of a Queen!"
"The prison?" said Leicester, "might be borne, but to lose your Grace's presence were to lose light and life at once.--Here, Sussex, is my hand."
"And here," said Sussex, "is mine in truth and honesty; but--"
"Nay, under favour, you shall add no more," said the Queen. "Why, this is as it should be," she added, looking on them more favourably; "and when you the shepherds of the people, unite to protect them, it shall be well with the flock we rule over. For, my lords, I tell you plainly, your follies and your brawls lead to strange disorders among your servants.--My Lord of Leicester, you have a gentleman in your household called Varney?"
"Yes, gracious madam," replied Leicester; "I presented him to kiss your royal hand when you were last at Nonsuch."
"His outside was well enough," said the Queen, "but scarce so fair, I should have thought, as to have caused a maiden of honourable birth and hopes to barter her fame for his good looks, and become his paramour. Yet so it is; this fellow of yours hath seduced the daughter of a good old Devonshire knight, Sir Hugh Robsart of Lidcote Hall, and she hath fled with him from her father's house like a castaway.--My Lord of Leicester, are you ill, that you look so deadly pale?"
"No, gracious madam," said Leicester; and it required every effort he could make to bring forth these few words.
"You are surely ill, my lord?" said Elizabeth, going towards him with hasty speech and hurried step, which indicated the deepest concern. "Call Masters--call our surgeon in ordinary.--Where be these loitering fools?--we lose the pride of our court through their negligence.--Or is it possible, Leicester," she continued, looking on him with a very gentle aspect, "can fear of my displeasure have wrought so deeply on thee? Doubt not for a moment, noble Dudley, that we could blame THEE for the folly of thy retainer--thee, whose thoughts we know to be far otherwise employed. He that would climb the eagle's nest, my lord, cares not who are catching linnets at the foot of the precipice."
"Mark you that?" said Sussex aside to Raleigh. "The devil aids him surely; for all that would sink another ten fathom deep seems but to make him float the more easily. Had a follower of mine acted thus--"
"Peace, my good lord," said Raleigh, "for God's sake, peace! Wait the change of the tide; it is even now on the turn."
The acute observation of Raleigh, perhaps, did not deceive him; for Leicester's confusion was so great, and, indeed, for the moment, so irresistibly overwhelming, that Elizabeth, after looking at him with a wondering eye, and receiving no intelligible answer to the unusual expressions of grace and affection which had escaped from her, shot her quick glance around the circle of courtiers, and reading, perhaps, in their faces something that accorded with her own awakened suspicions, she said suddenly, "Or is there more in this than we see--or than you, my lord, wish that we should see? Where is this Varney? Who saw him?"
"An it please your Grace," said Bowyer, "it is the same against whom I this instant closed the door of the presence-room."
"An it please me?" repeated Elizabeth sharply, not at that moment in the humour of being pleased with anything.--"It does NOT please me that he should pass saucily into my presence, or that you should exclude from it one who came to justify himself from an accusation."
"May it please you," answered the perplexed usher, "if I knew, in such case, how to bear myself, I would take heed--"
"You should have reported the fellow's desire to us, Master Usher, and taken our directions. You think yourself a great man, because but now we chid a nobleman on your account; yet, after all, we hold you but as the lead-weight that keeps the door fast. Call this Varney hither instantly. There is one Tressilian also mentioned in this petition. Let them both come before us."
She was obeyed, and Tressilian and Varney appeared accordingly. Varney's first glance was at Leicester, his second at the Queen. In the looks of the latter there appeared an approaching storm, and in the downcast countenance of his patron he could read no directions in what way he was to trim his vessel for the encounter. He then saw Tressilian, and at once perceived the peril of the situation in which he was placed. But Varney was as bold-faced and ready-witted as he was cunning and unscrupulous--a skilful pilot in extremity, and fully conscious of the advantages which he would obtain could he extricate Leicester from his present peril, and of the ruin that yawned for himself should he fail in doing so.
"Is it true, sirrah," said the Queen, with one of those searching looks which few had the audacity to resist, "that you have seduced to infamy a young lady of birth and breeding, the daughter of Sir Hugh Robsart of Lidcote Hall?"
Varney kneeled down, and replied, with a look of the most profound contrition, "There had been some love passages betwixt him and Mistress Amy Robsart."
Leicester's flesh quivered with indignation as he heard his dependant make this avowal, and for one moment he manned himself to step forward, and, bidding farewell to the court and the royal favour, confess the whole mystery of the secret marriage. But he looked at Sussex, and the idea of the triumphant smile which would clothe his cheek upon hearing the avowal sealed his lips. "Not now, at least," he thought, "or in this presence, will I afford him so rich a triumph." And pressing his lips close together, he stood firm and collected, attentive to each word which Varney uttered, and determined to hide to the last the secret on which his court-favour seemed to depend. Meanwhile, the Queen proceeded in her examination of Varney.
"Love passages!" said she, echoing his last words; "what passages, thou knave? and why not ask the wench's hand from her father, if thou hadst any honesty in thy love for her?"
"An it please your Grace," said Varney, still on his knees, "I dared not do so, for her father had promised her hand to a gentleman of birth and honour--I will do him justice, though I know he bears me ill-will--one Master Edmund Tressilian, whom I now see in the presence."
"Soh!" replied the Queen. "And what was your right to make the simple fool break her worthy father's contract, through your love PASSAGES, as your conceit and assurance terms them?"
"Madam," replied Varney, "it is in vain to plead the cause of human frailty before a judge to whom it is unknown, or that of love to one who never yields to the passion"--he paused an instant, and then added, in a very low and timid tone--"which she inflicts upon all others."
Elizabeth tried to frown, but smiled in her own despite, as she answered, "Thou art a marvellously impudent knave. Art thou married to the girl?"
Leicester's feelings became so complicated and so painfully intense, that it seemed to him as if his life was to depend on the answer made by Varney, who, after a moment's real hesitation, answered, "Yes."
"Thou false villain!" said Leicester, bursting forth into rage, yet unable to add another word to the sentence which he had begun with such emphatic passion.
"Nay, my lord," said the Queen, "we will, by your leave, stand between this fellow and your anger. We have not yet done with him.--Knew your master, my Lord of Leicester, of this fair work of yours? Speak truth, I command thee, and I will be thy warrant from danger on every quarter."
"Gracious madam," said Varney, "to speak Heaven's truth, my lord was the cause of the whole matter."
"Thou villain, wouldst thou betray me?" said Leicester.
"Speak on," said the Queen hastily, her cheek colouring, and her eyes sparkling, as she addressed Varney--"speak on. Here no commands are heard but mine."
"They are omnipotent, gracious madam," replied Varney; "and to you there can be no secrets.--Yet I would not," he added, looking around him, "speak of my master's concerns to other ears."
"Fall back, my lords," said the Queen to those who surrounded her, "and do you speak on. What hath the Earl to do with this guilty intrigue of thine? See, fellow, that thou beliest him not!"
"Far be it from me to traduce my noble patron," replied Varney; "yet I am compelled to own that some deep, overwhelming, yet secret feeling hath of late dwelt in my lord's mind, hath abstracted him from the cares of the household which he was wont to govern with such religious strictness, and hath left us opportunities to do follies, of which the shame, as in this case, partly falls upon our patron. Without this, I had not had means or leisure to commit the folly which has drawn on me his displeasure--the heaviest to endure by me which I could by any means incur, saving always the yet more dreaded resentment of your Grace."
"And in this sense, and no other, hath he been accessory to thy fault?" said Elizabeth.
"Surely, madam, in no other," replied Varney; "but since somewhat hath chanced to him, he can scarce be called his own man. Look at him, madam, how pale and trembling he stands! how unlike his usual majesty of manner!--yet what has he to fear from aught I can say to your Highness? Ah! madam, since he received that fatal packet!"
"What packet, and from whence?" said the Queen eagerly.
"From whence, madam, I cannot guess; but I am so near to his person that I know he has ever since worn, suspended around his neck and next to his heart, that lock of hair which sustains a small golden jewel shaped like a heart. He speaks to it when alone--he parts not from it when he sleeps--no heathen ever worshipped an idol with such devotion."
"Thou art a prying knave to watch thy master so closely," said Elizabeth, blushing, but not with anger; "and a tattling knave to tell over again his fooleries.--What colour might the braid of hair be that thou pratest of?"
Varney replied, "A poet, madam, might call it a thread from the golden web wrought by Minerva; but to my thinking it was paler than even the purest gold--more like the last parting sunbeam of the softest day of spring."
"Why, you are a poet yourself, Master Varney," said the Queen, smiling. "But I have not genius quick enough to follow your rare metaphors. Look round these ladies--is there"--(she hesitated, and endeavoured to assume an air of great indifference)--"is there here, in this presence, any lady, the colour of whose hair reminds thee of that braid? Methinks, without prying into my Lord of Leicester's amorous secrets, I would fain know what kind of locks are like the thread of Minerva's web, or the--what was it?--the last rays of the May-day sun."
Varney looked round the presence-chamber, his eye travelling from one lady to another, until at length it rested upon the Queen herself, but with an aspect of the deepest veneration. "I see no tresses," he said, "in this presence, worthy of such similies, unless where I dare not look on them."
"How, sir knave?" said the Queen; "dare you intimate--"
"Nay, madam," replied Varney, shading his eyes with his hand, "it was the beams of the May-day sun that dazzled my weak eyes."
"Go to--go to," said the Queen; "thou art a foolish fellow"--and turning quickly from him she walked up to Leicester.
Intense curiosity, mingled with all the various hopes, fears, and passions which influence court faction, had occupied the presence-chamber during the Queen's conference with Varney, as if with the strength of an Eastern talisman. Men suspended every, even the slightest external motion, and would have ceased to breathe, had Nature permitted such an intermission of her functions. The atmosphere was contagious, and Leicester, who saw all around wishing or fearing his advancement or his fall forgot all that love had previously dictated, and saw nothing for the instant but the favour or disgrace which depended on the nod of Elizabeth and the fidelity of Varney. He summoned himself hastily, and prepared to play his part in the scene which was like to ensue, when, as he judged from the glances which the Queen threw towards him, Varney's communications, be they what they might, were operating in his favour. Elizabeth did not long leave him in doubt; for the more than favour with which she accosted him decided his triumph in the eyes of his rival, and of the assembled court of England. "Thou hast a prating servant of this same Varney, my lord," she said; "it is lucky you trust him with nothing that can hurt you in our opinion, for believe me, he would keep no counsel."
"From your Highness," said Leicester, dropping gracefully on one knee, "it were treason he should. I would that my heart itself lay before you, barer than the tongue of any servant could strip it."
"What, my lord," said Elizabeth, looking kindly upon him, "is there no one little corner over which you would wish to spread a veil? Ah! I see you are confused at the question, and your Queen knows she should not look too deeply into her servants' motives for their faithful duty, lest she see what might, or at least ought to, displease her."
Relieved by these last words, Leicester broke out into a torrent of expressions of deep and passionate attachment, which perhaps, at that moment, were not altogether fictitious. The mingled emotions which had at first overcome him had now given way to the energetic vigour with which he had determined to support his place in the Queen's favour; and never did he seem to Elizabeth more eloquent, more handsome, more interesting, than while, kneeling at her feet, he conjured her to strip him of all his dower, but to leave him the name of her servant.--"Take from the poor Dudley," he exclaimed, "all that your bounty has made him, and bid him be the poor gentleman he was when your Grace first shone on him; leave him no more than his cloak and his sword, but let him still boast he has--what in word or deed he never forfeited--the regard of his adored Queen and mistress!"
"No, Dudley!" said Elizabeth, raising him with one hand, while she extended the other that he might kiss it. "Elizabeth hath not forgotten that, whilst you were a poor gentleman, despoiled of your hereditary rank, she was as poor a princess, and that in her cause you then ventured all that oppression had left you--your life and honour. Rise, my lord, and let my hand go--rise, and be what you have ever been, the grace of our court and the support of our throne! Your mistress may be forced to chide your misdemeanours, but never without owning your merits.--And so help me God," she added, turning to the audience, who, with various feelings, witnessed this interesting scene--"so help me God, gentlemen, as I think never sovereign had a truer servant than I have in this noble Earl!"
A murmur of assent rose from the Leicestrian faction, which the friends of Sussex dared not oppose. They remained with their eyes fixed on the ground, dismayed as well as mortified by the public and absolute triumph of their opponents. Leicester's first use of the familiarity to which the Queen had so publicly restored him was to ask her commands concerning Varney's offence, "although," he said, "the fellow deserves nothing from me but displeasure, yet, might I presume to intercede--"
"In truth, we had forgotten his matter," said the Queen; "and it was ill done of us, who owe justice to our meanest as well as to our highest subject. We are pleased, my lord, that you were the first to recall the matter to our memory.--Where is Tressilian, the accuser?--let him come before us."
Tressilian appeared, and made a low and beseeming reference. His person, as we have elsewhere observed, had an air of grace and even of nobleness, which did not escape Queen Elizabeth's critical observation. She looked at him with, attention as he stood before her unabashed, but with an air of the deepest dejection.
"I cannot but grieve for this gentleman," she said to Leicester. "I have inquired concerning him, and his presence confirms what I heard, that he is a scholar and a soldier, well accomplished both in arts and arms. We women, my lord, are fanciful in our choice--I had said now, to judge by the eye, there was no comparison to be held betwixt your follower and this gentleman. But Varney is a well-spoken fellow, and, to say truth, that goes far with us of the weaker sex.--look you, Master Tressilian, a bolt lost is not a bow broken. Your true affection, as I will hold it to be, hath been, it seems, but ill requited; but you have scholarship, and you know there have been false Cressidas to be found, from the Trojan war downwards. Forget, good sir, this Lady Light o' Love--teach your affection to see with a wiser eye. This we say to you, more from the writings of learned men than our own knowledge, being, as we are, far removed by station and will from the enlargement of experience in such idle toys of humorous passion. For this dame's father, we can make his grief the less by advancing his son-in-law to such station as may enable him to give an honourable support to his bride. Thou shalt not be forgotten thyself, Tressilian--follow our court, and thou shalt see that a true Troilus hath some claim on our grace. Think of what that arch-knave Shakespeare says--a plague on him, his toys come into my head when I should think of other matters. Stay, how goes it?
'Cressid was yours, tied with the bonds of heaven; These bonds of heaven are slipt, dissolved, and loosed, And with another knot five fingers tied, The fragments of her faith are bound to Diomed.'You smile, my Lord of Southampton--perchance I make your player's verse halt through my bad memory. But let it suffice let there be no more of this mad matter."
And as Tressilian kept the posture of one who would willingly be heard, though, at the same time, expressive of the deepest reverence, the Queen added with some impatience, "What would the man have? The wench cannot wed both of you? She has made her election--not a wise one perchance--but she is Varney's wedded wife."
"My suit should sleep there, most gracious Sovereign," said Tressilian, "and with my suit my revenge. But I hold this Varney's word no good warrant for the truth."
"Had that doubt been elsewhere urged," answered Varney, "my sword--"
"THY sword!" interrupted Tressilian scornfully; "with her Grace's leave, my sword shall show--"
"Peace, you knaves, both!" said the Queen; "know you where you are?--This comes of your feuds, my lords," she added, looking towards Leicester and Sussex; "your followers catch your own humour, and must bandy and brawl in my court and in my very presence, like so many Matamoros.--Look you, sirs, he that speaks of drawing swords in any other quarrel than mine or England's, by mine honour, I'll bracelet him with iron both on wrist and ankle!" She then paused a minute, and resumed in a milder tone, "I must do justice betwixt the bold and mutinous knaves notwithstanding.--My Lord of Leicester, will you warrant with your honour--that is, to the best of your belief--that your servant speaks truth in saying he hath married this Amy Robsart?"
This was a home-thrust, and had nearly staggered Leicester. But he had now gone too far to recede, and answered, after a moment's hesitation, "To the best of my belief--indeed on my certain knowledge--she is a wedded wife."
"Gracious madam," said Tressilian, "may I yet request to know, when and under what circumstances this alleged marriage--"
"Out, sirrah," answered the Queen; "ALLEGED marriage! Have you not the word of this illustrious Earl to warrant the truth of what his servant says? But thou art a loser--thinkest thyself such at least--and thou shalt have indulgence; we will look into the matter ourself more at leisure.--My Lord of Leicester, I trust you remember we mean to taste the good cheer of your Castle of Kenilworth on this week ensuing. We will pray you to bid our good and valued friend, the Earl of Sussex, to hold company with us there."
"If the noble Earl of Sussex," said Leicester, bowing to his rival with the easiest and with the most graceful courtesy, "will so far honour my poor house, I will hold it an additional proof of the amicable regard it is your Grace's desire we should entertain towards each other."
Sussex was more embarrassed. "I should," said he, "madam, be but a clog on your gayer hours, since my late severe illness."
"And have you been indeed so very ill?" said Elizabeth, looking on him with more attention than before; "you are, in faith, strangely altered, and deeply am I grieved to see it. But be of good cheer--we will ourselves look after the health of so valued a servant, and to whom we owe so much. Masters shall order your diet; and that we ourselves may see that he is obeyed, you must attend us in this progress to Kenilworth."
This was said so peremptorily, and at the same time with so much kindness, that Sussex, however unwilling to become the guest of his rival, had no resource but to bow low to the Queen in obedience to her commands, and to express to Leicester, with blunt courtesy, though mingled with embarrassment, his acceptance of his invitation. As the Earls exchanged compliments on the occasion, the Queen said to her High Treasurer, "Methinks, my lord, the countenances of these our two noble peers resemble those of the two famed classic streams, the one so dark and sad, the other so fair and noble. My old Master Ascham would have chid me for forgetting the author. It is Caesar, as I think. See what majestic calmness sits on the brow of the noble Leicester, while Sussex seems to greet him as if he did our will indeed, but not willingly."
"The doubt of your Majesty's favour," answered the Lord Treasurer, "may perchance occasion the difference, which does not--as what does?--escape your Grace's eye."
"Such doubt were injurious to us, my lord," replied the Queen. "We hold both to be near and dear to us, and will with impartiality employ both in honourable service for the weal of our kingdom. But we will break their further conference at present.--My Lords of Sussex and Leicester, we have a word more with you. 'Tressilian and Varney are near your persons--you will see that they attend you at Kenilworth. And as we shall then have both Paris and Menelaus within our call, so we will have the same fair Helen also, whose fickleness has caused this broil.--Varney, thy wife must be at Kenilworth, and forthcoming at my order.--My Lord of Leicester, we expect you will look to this."
The Earl and his follower bowed low and raised their heads, without daring to look at the Queen, or at each other, for both felt at the instant as if the nets and toils which their own falsehood had woven were in the act of closing around them. The Queen, however, observed not their confusion, but proceeded to say, "My Lords of Sussex and Leicester, we require your presence at the privy-council to be presently held, where matters of importance are to be debated. We will then take the water for our divertisement, and you, my lords, will attend us.--And that reminds us of a circumstance.--Do you, Sir Squire of the Soiled Cassock" (distinguishing Raleigh by a smile), "fail not to observe that you are to attend us on our progress. You shall be supplied with suitable means to reform your wardrobe."
And so terminated this celebrated audience, in which, as throughout her life, Elizabeth united the occasional caprice of her sex with that sense and sound policy in which neither man nor woman ever excelled her.
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