Now God be good to me in this wild pilgrimage! All hope in human aid I cast behind me. Oh, who would be a woman?--who that fool, A weeping, pining, faithful, loving woman? She hath hard measure still where she hopes kindest, And all her bounties only make ingrates. LOVE'S PILGRIMAGE.
The summer evening was closed, and Janet, just when her longer stay might have occasioned suspicion and inquiry in that zealous household, returned to Cumnor Place, and hastened to the apartment in which she had left her lady. She found her with her head resting on her arms, and these crossed upon a table which stood before her. As Janet came in, she neither looked up nor stirred.
Her faithful attendant ran to her mistress with the speed of lightning, and rousing her at the same time with her hand, conjured the Countess, in the most earnest manner, to look up and say what thus affected her. The unhappy lady raised her head accordingly, and looking on her attendant with a ghastly eye, and cheek as pale as clay--"Janet," she said, "I have drunk it."
"God be praised!" said Janet hastily--"I mean, God be praised that it is no worse; the potion will not harm you. Rise, shake this lethargy from your limbs, and this despair from your mind."
"Janet," repeated the Countess again, "disturb me not--leave me at peace--let life pass quietly. I am poisoned."
"You are not, my dearest lady," answered the maiden eagerly. "What you have swallowed cannot injure you, for the antidote has been taken before it, and I hastened hither to tell you that the means of escape are open to you."
"Escape!" exclaimed the lady, as she raised herself hastily in her chair, while light returned to her eye and life to her cheek; "but ah! Janet, it comes too late."
"Not so, dearest lady. Rise, take mine arm, walk through the apartment; let not fancy do the work of poison! So; feel you not now that you are possessed of the full use of your limbs?"
"The torpor seems to diminish," said the Countess, as, supported by Janet, she walked to and fro in the apartment; "but is it then so, and have I not swallowed a deadly draught? Varney was here since thou wert gone, and commanded me, with eyes in which I read my fate, to swallow yon horrible drug. O Janet! it must be fatal; never was harmless draught served by such a cup-bearer!"
"He did not deem it harmless, I fear," replied the maiden; "but God confounds the devices of the wicked. Believe me, as I swear by the dear Gospel in which we trust, your life is safe from his practice. Did you not debate with him?"
"The house was silent," answered the lady--"thou gone--no other but he in the chamber--and he capable of every crime. I did but stipulate he would remove his hateful presence, and I drank whatever he offered.--But you spoke of escape, Janet; can I be so happy?"
"Are you strong enough to bear the tidings, and make the effort?" said the maiden.
"Strong!" answered the Countess. "Ask the hind, when the fangs of the deerhound are stretched to gripe her, if she is strong enough to spring over a chasm. I am equal to every effort that may relieve me from this place."
"Hear me, then," said Janet. "One whom I deem an assured friend of yours has shown himself to me in various disguises, and sought speech of me, which--for my mind was not clear on the matter until this evening--I have ever declined. He was the pedlar who brought you goods--the itinerant hawker who sold me books; whenever I stirred abroad I was sure to see him. The event of this night determined me to speak with him. He awaits even now at the postern gate of the park with means for your flight.--But have you strength of body?--have you courage of mind?--can you undertake the enterprise?"
"She that flies from death," said the lady, "finds strength of body--she that would escape from shame lacks no strength of mind. The thoughts of leaving behind me the villain who menaces both my life and honour would give me strength to rise from my deathbed."
"In God's name, then, lady," said Janet, "I must bid you adieu, and to God's charge I must commit you!"
"Will you not fly with me, then, Janet?" said the Countess, anxiously. "Am I to lose thee? Is this thy faithful service?"
"Lady, I would fly with you as willingly as bird ever fled from cage, but my doing so would occasion instant discovery and pursuit. I must remain, and use means to disguise the truth for some time. May Heaven pardon the falsehood, because of the necessity!"
"And am I then to travel alone with this stranger?" said the lady. "Bethink thee, Janet, may not this prove some deeper and darker scheme to separate me perhaps from you, who are my only friend?"
"No, madam, do not suppose it," answered Janet readily; "the youth is an honest youth in his purpose to you, and a friend to Master Tressilian, under whose direction he is come hither."
"If he be a friend of Tressilian," said the Countess, "I will commit myself to his charge as to that of an angel sent from heaven; for than Tressilian never breathed mortal man more free of whatever was base, false, or selfish. He forgot himself whenever he could be of use to others. Alas! and how was he requited?"
With eager haste they collected the few necessaries which it was thought proper the Countess should take with her, and which Janet, with speed and dexterity, formed into a small bundle, not forgetting to add such ornaments of intrinsic value as came most readily in her way, and particularly a casket of jewels, which she wisely judged might prove of service in some future emergency. The Countess of Leicester next changed her dress for one which Janet usually wore upon any brief journey, for they judged it necessary to avoid every external distinction which might attract attention. Ere these preparations were fully made, the moon had arisen in the summer heaven, and all in the mansion had betaken themselves to rest, or at least to the silence and retirement of their chambers.
There was no difficulty anticipated in escaping, whether from the house or garden, provided only they could elude observation. Anthony Foster had accustomed himself to consider his daughter as a conscious sinner might regard a visible guardian angel, which, notwithstanding his guilt, continued to hover around him; and therefore his trust in her knew no bounds. Janet commanded her own motions during the daytime, and had a master-key which opened the postern door of the park, so that she could go to the village at pleasure, either upon the household affairs, which were entirely confided to her management, or to attend her devotions at the meeting-house of her sect. It is true the daughter of Foster was thus liberally entrusted under the solemn condition that she should not avail herself of these privileges to do anything inconsistent with the safe-keeping of the Countess; for so her residence at Cumnor Place had been termed, since she began of late to exhibit impatience of the restrictions to which she was subjected. Nor is there reason to suppose that anything short of the dreadful suspicions which the scene of that evening had excited could have induced Janet to violate her word or deceive her father's confidence. But from what she had witnessed, she now conceived herself not only justified, but imperatively called upon, to make her lady's safety the principal object of her care, setting all other considerations aside.
The fugitive Countess with her guide traversed with hasty steps the broken and interrupted path, which had once been an avenue, now totally darkened by the boughs of spreading trees which met above their head, and now receiving a doubtful and deceiving light from the beams of the moon, which penetrated where the axe had made openings in the wood. Their path was repeatedly interrupted by felled trees, or the large boughs which had been left on the ground till time served to make them into fagots and billets. The inconvenience and difficulty attending these interruptions, the breathless haste of the first part of their route, the exhausting sensations of hope and fear, so much affected the Countess's strength, that Janet was forced to propose that they should pause for a few minutes to recover breath and spirits. Both therefore stood still beneath the shadow of a huge old gnarled oak-tree, and both naturally looked back to the mansion which they had left behind them, whose long, dark front was seen in the gloomy distance, with its huge stacks of chimneys, turrets, and clock-house, rising above the line of the roof, and definedly visible against the pure azure blue of the summer sky. One light only twinkled from the extended and shadowy mass, and it was placed so low that it rather seemed to glimmer from the ground in front of the mansion than from one of the windows. The Countess's terror was awakened. "They follow us!" she said, pointing out to Janet the light which thus alarmed her.
Less agitated than her mistress, Janet perceived that the gleam was stationary, and informed the Countess, in a whisper, that the light proceeded from the solitary cell in which the alchemist pursued his occult experiments. "He is of those," she added, "who sit up and watch by night that they may commit iniquity. Evil was the chance which sent hither a man whose mixed speech of earthly wealth and unearthly or superhuman knowledge hath in it what does so especially captivate my poor father. Well spoke the good Master Holdforth--and, methought, not without meaning that those of our household should find therein a practical use. 'There be those,' he said, 'and their number is legion, who will rather, like the wicked Ahab, listen to the dreams of the false prophet Zedekiah, than to the words of him by whom the Lord has spoken.' And he further insisted--'Ah, my brethren, there be many Zedekiahs among you--men that promise you the light of their carnal knowledge, so you will surrender to them that of your heavenly understanding. What are they better than the tyrant Naas, who demanded the right eye of those who were subjected to him?' And further he insisted--"
It is uncertain how long the fair Puritan's memory might have supported her in the recapitulation of Master Holdforth's discourse; but the Countess now interrupted her, and assured her she was so much recovered that she could now reach the postern without the necessity of a second delay.
They set out accordingly, and performed the second part of their journey with more deliberation, and of course more easily, than the first hasty commencement. This gave them leisure for reflection; and Janet now, for the first time, ventured to ask her lady which way she proposed to direct her flight. Receiving no immediate answer--for, perhaps, in the confusion of her mind this very obvious subject of deliberation had not occurred to the Countess---Janet ventured to add, "Probably to your father's house, where you are sure of safety and protection?"
"No, Janet," said the lady mournfully; "I left Lidcote Hall while my heart was light and my name was honourable, and I will not return thither till my lord's permission and public acknowledgment of our marriage restore me to my native home with all the rank and honour which he has bestowed on me."
"And whither will you, then, madam?" said Janet.
"To Kenilworth, girl," said the Countess, boldly and freely. "I will see these revels--these princely revels--the preparation for which makes the land ring from side to side. Methinks, when the Queen of England feasts within my husband's halls, the Countess of Leicester should be no unbeseeming guest."
"I pray God you may be a welcome one!" said Janet hastily.
"You abuse my situation, Janet," said the Countess, angrily, "and you forget your own."
"I do neither, dearest madam," said the sorrowful maiden; "but have you forgotten that the noble Earl has given such strict charges to keep your marriage secret, that he may preserve his court-favour? and can you think that your sudden appearance at his castle, at such a juncture, and in such a presence, will be acceptable to him?"
"Thou thinkest I would disgrace him," said the Countess; "nay, let go my arm, I can walk without aid and work without counsel."
"Be not angry with me, lady," said Janet meekly, "and let me still support you; the road is rough, and you are little accustomed to walk in darkness."
"If you deem me not so mean as may disgrace my husband," said the Countess, in the same resentful tone, "you suppose my Lord of Leicester capable of abetting, perhaps of giving aim and authority to, the base proceedings of your father and Varney, whose errand I will do to the good Earl."
"For God's sake, madam, spare my father in your report," said Janet; "let my services, however poor, be some atonement for his errors!"
"I were most unjust, dearest Janet, were it otherwise," said the Countess, resuming at once the fondness and confidence of her manner towards her faithful attendant, "No, Janet, not a word of mine shall do your father prejudice. But thou seest, my love, I have no desire but to throw my self on my husband's protection. I have left the abode he assigned for me, because of the villainy of the persons by whom I was surrounded; but I will disobey his commands in no other particular. I will appeal to him alone--I will be protected by him alone; to no other, than at his pleasure, have I or will I communicate the secret union which combines our hearts and our destinies. I will see him, and receive from his own lips the directions for my future conduct. Do not argue against my resolution, Janet; you will only confirm me in it. And to own the truth, I am resolved to know my fate at once, and from my husband's own mouth; and to seek him at Kenilworth is the surest way to attain my purpose."
While Janet hastily revolved in her mind the difficulties and uncertainties attendant on the unfortunate lady's situation, she was inclined to alter her first opinion, and to think, upon the whole, that since the Countess had withdrawn herself from the retreat in which she had been placed by her husband, it was her first duty to repair to his presence, and possess him with the reasons for such conduct. She knew what importance the Earl attached to the concealment of their marriage, and could not but own, that by taking any step to make it public without his permission, the Countess would incur, in a high degree, the indignation of her husband. If she retired to her father's house without an explicit avowal of her rank, her situation was likely greatly to prejudice her character; and if she made such an avowal, it might occasion an irreconcilable breach with her husband. At Kenilworth, again, she might plead her cause with her husband himself, whom Janet, though distrusting him more than the Countess did, believed incapable of being accessory to the base and desperate means which his dependants, from whose power the lady was now escaping, might resort to, in order to stifle her complaints of the treatment she had received at their hands. But at the worst, and were the Earl himself to deny her justice and protection, still at Kenilworth, if she chose to make her wrongs public, the Countess might have Tressilian for her advocate, and the Queen for her judge; for so much Janet had learned in her short conference with Wayland. She was, therefore, on the whole, reconciled to her lady's proposal of going towards Kenilworth, and so expressed herself; recommending, however, to the Countess the utmost caution in making her arrival known to her husband.
"Hast thou thyself been cautious, Janet?" said the Countess; "this guide, in whom I must put my confidence, hast thou not entrusted to him the secret of my condition?"
"From me he has learned nothing," said Janet; "nor do I think that he knows more than what the public in general believe of your situation."
"And what is that?" said the lady.
"That you left your father's house--but I shall offend you again if I go on," said Janet, interrupting herself.
"Nay, go on," said the Countess; "I must learn to endure the evil report which my folly has brought upon me. They think, I suppose, that I have left my father's house to follow lawless pleasure. It is an error which will soon be removed--indeed it shall, for I will live with spotless fame, or I shall cease to live.--I am accounted, then, the paramour of my Leicester?"
"Most men say of Varney," said Janet; "yet some call him only the convenient cloak of his master's pleasures; for reports of the profuse expense in garnishing yonder apartments have secretly gone abroad, and such doings far surpass the means of Varney. But this latter opinion is little prevalent; for men dare hardly even hint suspicion when so high a name is concerned, lest the Star Chamber should punish them for scandal of the nobility."
"They do well to speak low," said the Countess, "who would mention the illustrious Dudley as the accomplice of such a wretch as Varney.--We have reached the postern. Ah! Janet, I must bid thee farewell! Weep not, my good girl," said she, endeavouring to cover her own reluctance to part with her faithful attendant under an attempt at playfulness; "and against we meet again, reform me, Janet, that precise ruff of thine for an open rabatine of lace and cut work, that will let men see thou hast a fair neck; and that kirtle of Philippine chency, with that bugle lace which befits only a chambermaid, into three-piled velvet and cloth of gold--thou wilt find plenty of stuffs in my chamber, and I freely bestow them on you. Thou must be brave, Janet; for though thou art now but the attendant of a distressed and errant lady, who is both nameless and fameless, yet, when we meet again, thou must be dressed as becomes the gentlewoman nearest in love and in service to the first Countess in England."
"Now, may God grant it, dear lady!" said Janet--"not that I may go with gayer apparel, but that we may both wear our kirtles over lighter hearts."
By this time the lock of the postern door had, after some hard wrenching, yielded to the master-key; and the Countess, not without internal shuddering, saw herself beyond the walls which her husband's strict commands had assigned to her as the boundary of her walks. Waiting with much anxiety for their appearance, Wayland Smith stood at some distance, shrouding himself behind a hedge which bordered the high-road.
"Is all safe?" said Janet to him anxiously, as he approached them with caution.
"All," he replied; "but I have been unable to procure a horse for the lady. Giles Gosling, the cowardly hilding, refused me one on any terms whatever, lest, forsooth, he should suffer. But no matter; she must ride on my palfrey, and I must walk by her side until I come by another horse. There will be no pursuit, if you, pretty Mistress Janet, forget not thy lesson."
"No more than the wise widow of Tekoa forgot the words which Joab put into her mouth," answered Janet. "Tomorrow, I say that my lady is unable to rise."
"Ay; and that she hath aching and heaviness of the head a throbbing at the heart, and lists not to be disturbed. Fear not; they will take the hint, and trouble thee with few questions--they understand the disease."
"But," said the lady, "My absence must be soon discovered, and they will murder her in revenge. I will rather return than expose her to such danger."
"Be at ease on my account, madam," said Janet; "I would you were as sure of receiving the favour you desire from those to whom you must make appeal, as I am that my father, however angry, will suffer no harm to befall me."
The Countess was now placed by Wayland upon his horse, around the saddle of which he had placed his cloak, so folded as to make her a commodious seat.
"Adieu, and may the blessing of God wend with you!" said Janet, again kissing her mistress's hand, who returned her benediction with a mute caress. They then tore themselves asunder, and Janet, addressing Wayland, exclaimed, "May Heaven deal with you at your need, as you are true or false to this most injured and most helpless lady!"
"Amen! dearest Janet," replied Wayland; "and believe me, I will so acquit myself of my trust as may tempt even your pretty eyes, saintlike as they are, to look less scornfully on me when we next meet."
The latter part of this adieu was whispered into Janet's ear and although she made no reply to it directly, yet her manner, influenced, no doubt, by her desire to leave every motive in force which could operate towards her mistress's safety, did not discourage the hope which Wayland's words expressed. She re-entered the postern door, and locked it behind her; while, Wayland taking the horse's bridle in his hand, and walking close by its head, they began in silence their dubious and moonlight journey.
Although Wayland Smith used the utmost dispatch which he could make, yet this mode of travelling was so slow, that when morning began to dawn through the eastern mist, he found himself no farther than about ten miles distant from Cumnor. "Now, a plague upon all smooth-spoken hosts!" said Wayland, unable longer to suppress his mortification and uneasiness. "Had the false loon, Giles Gosling, but told me plainly two days since that I was to reckon nought upon him, I had shifted better for myself. But your hosts have such a custom of promising whatever is called for that it is not till the steed is to be shod you find they are out of iron. Had I but known, I could have made twenty shifts; nay, for that matter, and in so good a cause, I would have thought little to have prigged a prancer from the next common--it had but been sending back the brute to the headborough. The farcy and the founders confound every horse in the stables of the Black Bear!"
The lady endeavoured to comfort her guide, observing that the dawn would enable him to make more speed.
"True, madam," he replied; "but then it will enable other folk to take note of us, and that may prove an ill beginning of our journey. I had not cared a spark from anvil about the matter had we been further advanced on our way. But this Berkshire has been notoriously haunted, ever since I knew the country, with that sort of malicious elves who sit up late and rise early for no other purpose than to pry into other folk's affairs. I have been endangered by them ere now. But do not fear," he added, "good madam; for wit, meeting with opportunity, will not miss to find a salve for every sore."
The alarms of her guide made more impression on the Countess's mind than the comfort which he judged fit to administer along with it. She looked anxiously around her, and as the shadows withdrew from the landscape, and the heightening glow of the eastern sky promised the speedy rise of the sun, expected at every turn that the increasing light would expose them to the view of the vengeful pursuers, or present some dangerous and insurmountable obstacle to the prosecution of their journey. Wayland Smith perceived her uneasiness, and, displeased with himself for having given her cause of alarm, strode on with affected alacrity, now talking to the horse as one expert in the language of the stable, now whistling to himself low and interrupted snatches of tunes, and now assuring the lady there was no danger, while at the same time he looked sharply around to see that there was nothing in sight which might give the lie to his words while they were issuing from his mouth. Thus did they journey on, until an unexpected incident gave them the means of continuing their pilgrimage with more speed and convenience.
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